Meet Tunewelders, the sonic wizards who create everything from sound effects to musical theater

The “Goat 4 Sale” Super Bowl ad opened many doors for this four-man firm
From left to right: Jason Shannon, Ben Holst, Vic Stafford, and Jeremy Gilbertson

Photograph by Mike Colletta

A goat chomping on nacho chips makes a highly distinctive sound.

That’s why Tunewelders, a boutique music creation and audio production company, recorded an actual goat—stage name Moose, of Decatur—chowing down on chips when putting together an entry in a competition to create a Doritos commercial that would air during the 2013 Super Bowl.

The Atlanta-based agency, working with local director Ben Callner and Decatur production company Pogo Pictures, won the coveted spot by crafting the wildly popular “Goat 4 Sale” ad. Tunewelders synchronized the crunching audio with the goat’s moving mouth, inserted the sound of chirping crickets to evoke nighttime, and used a ticking grandfather clock to suggest the passage of time. The overall effect—a witty, surreal portrayal of an aggressive ruminant gone crazy for nachos—earned the spot a number one ranking for advertising effectiveness from Nielsen. “Once you’ve done a Super Bowl ad, that’s a pretty big signifier,” says Ben Holst, the company’s co-founder. “It’s opening the door for other projects.”

This process of adding the fillips of background noise to a recording—a creaking stair, throat-clearing, the purring of an air conditioner—is called sound design, and it’s just one of the services offered by Tunewelders, a group of four sonic wizards who compose, produce, and play music for ad agencies, film, live theater, and television. Holst is a composer, while partner Jeremy Gilbertson acts as executive producer, overseeing the business side. Vic Stafford is an engineer and drummer, and Jason Shannon serves as the tech-savvy composer. Collegial guys in their 30s, they are multi-instrumentalists with collective expertise in just about every genre of music, and all play in several bands on the side.

“We’re all on equal footing in the company, but each of us has his own thing,” says Shannon, who also plays in ensembles for bluegrass, jazz, and baroque classical music.

Other businesses in Atlanta offer similar services, but most of them specialize in a niche, such as music for video games. “We can compose music for any project,” says Shannon. “Most companies subscribe to a library of canned music, but we customize original music we make ourselves.”

Working out of studios in the Old Fourth Ward and near Cheshire Bridge Road, Tunewelders has a client list that includes Ford, Southern Company, CNN, Krystal, Baskin-Robbins, HoneyBaked Ham, Full Throttle Energy Drinks, and the Atlanta Braves. They produced the music for 2012’s “This Is Why We Chop” television campaign, which won an Addy award and was nominated for a regional Emmy. They also did this year’s “Here’s to Braves Country,” which uses soaring, original arias written for Timothy Miller of the Atlanta Opera.

“We can take just about any concept from a nonmusical client, talk it through for a minute, and translate it into a piece of music,” says Gilbertson.

What typically happens, Shannon says, is an intensive in-studio collaboration to match music with visuals. “A client will have the project 95 percent complete and then come to us,” he says. “We set up whatever instruments are needed, from a guitar to a marimba, and start improvising ideas. We might write a string section or get together a bunch of drums for heavier percussion. Then we do a cut here and there before mixing the music and dialogue.”

Ultimately, Holst says, “there are three layers involved: the music, sound design, and voiceovers. We try to make the audio bouncier and sweeten it up, removing the sound of breath intakes, which can be tedious.”

Sometimes a sprawling project evolves from just a few catchy notes.

“All I did was hum a short melody into my iPhone,” says their client Mike Schatz of Blue Sky Agency. “The next thing I knew, Ben had what sounded like a 30-piece orchestra behind my humming.” That little riff evolved into King of Pops: The Post-Apocalyptic Musical, staged last year by Dad’s Garage, which serves as something of a quirky creative partner for Tunewelders.

“That was the first time we did an entire score for a project like that,” says Shannon. “We got paid for it, but with all the hours we put into it, it really was just a labor of love.”

Holst, who specializes in “inspirational Americana,” and Gilbertson used to play in a band together in Connecticut. They stayed in touch, and both settled in Georgia, where they studied marketing and advertising. They teamed up in 2008, just as the economy tanked, but found enough work to sustain their creative enterprise. Eventually they brought on Shannon and Stafford, who both attended Berklee College of Music.

“We all were buddies, and we had built this mutual trust with each other, which helped us transition into business partners,” Holst says. “I always wondered who did the music for car commercials. Now I am that dude.”

What’s next for Tunewelders? “We want to score more episodic TV and feature-length films,” Gilbertson says. “We want to build up an ecosystem with more filmmakers. The technology has evolved in a way that will enable us to collaborate with projects based in Los Angeles.”

And who knows? Moose may be ready for another close-up, in exchange for a bag of Doritos.

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.