Leslie Schefman lives in Detroit. Which means, as a sound designer, he’s scored a lot of car ads.
You’ve probably seen them — the latest shiny model swinging around a mountainside, or a hefty truck barrelling through a muddy trail. You’ve probably heard them, too. The rumble of an engine, the rip of guitar, a motivating melody cruising atop a strong backbeat: that’s the work of Schefman, who, along with his creative partner John Garstecki, runs the music production outfit Artifact Detroit.
Even though Detroit is the motor city, an increasing amount of Schefman’s car commercial work comes from national companies. With clients in Los Angeles or New York, feedback sessions can be tricky. For the past five years, he’s been experimenting with remote work. He emails audio files back and forth, calls clients for feedback and then, emails them more files for approval. The process takes time, and when clients want a fast turnaround, it’s not ideal.
So began Schefman’s quest for a video collaboration platform that enabled live review. After plenty of research, he settled on Evercast for its high-caliber audio quality and price point. Without the excessive file transferring, Schefman’s been able to improve communication with his clients.
Jumping into his personal Evercast room, we caught up with Schefman to get the scoop on the world of commercial sound production. After all, he’s got 30 years in the game, crafting music and tinkering with post-production audio for various campaigns. He does most of it from his new home studio — a cozy, padded room with amps, pedals, speakers and a trusty keyboard. It’s the type of creative haven that makes it hard to leave.
The Schefman Treatment
“I’m the type of person who works around the clock, so a home studio works great,” Schefman said. “And it used to be, back in the day, that clients would come to the studio and sit during a mix or during a recording session and interrupt with suggestions and opinions. Now, that doesn’t happen.”
Just because they can’t meet in person, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have happy customers. Schefman still gets the same kind of over-the-shoulder feedback working virtually. With clients watching on Evercast, he can re-record on the spot, with their specific instructions.
“They can say, ‘Hey, can you play the guitar a little more firmly there, or play the keyboard first?’” Schefman said.
Ad work runs on a short timeline, Schefman says, so once an assignment comes in, the clock is ticking. He often receives a picture and a scratch voiceover, and he builds off that. With a deadline looming in two or three days, he works quickly to compose new music.
“You’re cranking,” Schefman said. “I’ll compose maybe two or three things, and it’s a process that goes pretty fast.”
Clients usually crave pop or rock for their commercials — “guitar-based, drums, keys, your typical stuff,” he says. Shefman’s a personal fan of Brit-pop, working in the style of Coldplay or U2 when possible. Even if their request is simple, Schefman sprinkles his own little spice into it.
“I don’t like submitting things that I don’t particularly feel proud of,” Schefman said. “Even if a client wants something very, very simple, I want to make it cool and simple.”
Case in point: “Somebody wanted an old Motown sound on a project, and I found actual Motown guys to do the backing vocals,” he said.
Beyond the Score
In a car ad, the music drives the story. What consumers don’t always realize is that there’s more to the sonic experience than just the score.
Schefman’s his own foley artist as well. The car door slam, the squeal of wheels, the giggle of a toddler in the backseat, the rain on the windshield — these are all sounds that play on consumers’ emotions. It’s his job to make sure they’re woven in seamlessly — whether he has to recreate a sound in his home studio or manipulate what he’s been given.
“We’ll get a finished location sound, but you know, it still has to be placed,” Schefman said. “They always want it augmented, it’s never big enough. They really like it when even the sound design is impactful, it brings you into that space.”
Nothing that a processor or two can’t handle. There’s always tricks to amp up a location sound to “add that sort of bigness, to make it larger than life,” he says.
Sound design is like recording a song, Schefman says, and that’s his trade secret. A mixer should treat the voice over just as they would a singer’s vocal track.
“You cut certain frequencies and you pan things a little wider to give the vocal some room,” Schefman said. “If you don’t do that, everything steps on everything.”
When he’s not writing commercial music, he’s composing orchestral music. Not only does it fulfill an untapped channel of his creativity, but it pushes him through writer’s block. Oftentimes, the melodies he concocts on his own time make it into an ad.
Plenty has changed since the early days of post-production for advertisements. For one, clients have mostly ditched jingles for more luxurious soundscapes. Two, producers hustle on shorter timelines. And, three, to be expected, all the technology has changed.
A Job Well Done
While Schefman’s original home studio once featured stacks of analogue equipment, now everything’s stored in “the box.” “‘The box’ being the computer,” he laughed. However, he’s still got plenty of amps and pedals to play with. Not everything’s digital.
Schefman uses production software Logic and LUNA, and their many plug-ins to achieve whatever effect he may need. He works off a WiFi connection — which surprised a client, who complimented his audio quality during a recent Evercast live session.
When you see the latest Mustang Mach E advertisement, Ford’s electric sports car may be the center of the show. But the sheen on the commercial would be nothing without the glossy finish of Schefman’s soundscapes.
“Done well, music and sound effects should bring a spot to life, create emotion and mood, add impact and drama,” Schefman said. “The idea is to help tell the story, whatever that story is.”
While seeing his work on TV was once a major milestone, it’s par for the course. These days, he gets his satisfaction from a job well done.
“I’ve been in the business a long time, but the thrill is still seeing how the clients respond to the completed work. Hopefully, we’ve surprised them and exceeded expectations. That’s my ‘moment.’”