Ready to cut cues: a D’Angelico EX SS semi-hollowbody guitar and a vintage Fender amp. Capturing the sound with both dynamic and ribbon mics allows creative blending of the two signals during mixdown.
Providing music for television is a combination of creating, performing, recording, and mixing. It requires understanding the unique needs of the shows, then executing and delivering the highest quality tracks possible. It’s about learning to minimize and say a lot with a little, and, most importantly, about supporting stories with sound and emotion.
Many of the shows I write for are guitar-centric, and that means you must be as versatile as possible as a player. From ambient soundscapes played on a baritone, to swampy bluegrass featuring flattops and cigar-box guitars, to detuned 8-string hard rock—you have to be ready for anything. It is also important to know how to use every tool at your disposal, from soft synths and drum machines to orchestral sample libraries and live-player orchestration.
I started making music for TV because I was lucky enough to have a creative demo tape (a cassette!) I made with a friend get heard by people at Nickelodeon years back, and they brought me onboard for some cues. That led to a variety of doors opening and, as a result, I simply evolved further out of music production and more into music composition. I’ve been hitting this full time for about 10 years now, and although it is a highly competitive market, I feel that by retaining the utmost production quality and always seeking to become better, you’ll keep working if there’s a need for your skills.
Assignments come in a variety of ways: through an agent, a production company, or directly from show producers. Either way, there’s typically not much time to turn them around. Sometimes it’s just a matter of hours or a few days, so I’ve learned to work fast over the years.
There are only two ways to compose for television. Scoring to picture, or not. When scoring to picture, I’m sent QuickTime movies with timecode—either in the form of an entire show, or on a scene-by-scene basis. Scoring to picture has more complications: The timing and tempo has to be perfect based on the action onscreen, and there are, of course, more meetings and specific notes about the music from the producers.
More often, I don’t have to work to picture, and that’s what I prefer. It lets me push more boundaries and be far more creative. With that in mind, assignments come on a “global” show basis—meaning that the batch of tracks I deliver must fit the sonic needs of the show at hand. Lengths can vary, but will typically be under two minutes per cue—the term for each piece of music. The editors cut the tracks up as they need to for each scene.
The creative process will vary depending on the sonic and emotional needs of the show assignment. For something like Counting Cars, for example, a show about acquiring classic muscle cars that’s on the History Channel, it would involve a heavy electric-based sound with an edge. You have to think about the show, what they are trying to get across, and then create a sound that fits the attitude. So I would typically approach this type of show with classic drums, bass, and guitars—sometimes stretching the envelope into a bit of pulsing EDM, while retaining an overall hard and heavy sound.
For a show such as this, I like to cut tracks as live as possible. That means working with someone like drummer Ray LeVier, who has played on literally hundreds of cuts with me over the years. We’ll either set up at his well-equipped home studio or go up to a bigger room, like the Clubhouse studio in Rhinebeck, New York, and cut on a vintage Neve or through my Universal Audio Apollo mobile rig, right in the live room.
Projects get finished in Tozzoli’s home studio, which is based around a Pro Tools|HDX setup, a Grace Design 906 monitor controller, and a variety of good preamps from Manley, Grace Design, Universal Audio, and Millennia.
I’ll bring an arsenal of guitars and amps that fit the sound I’m after. Typically, for a show like Counting Cars, that would include my Les Pauls, a few custom Telecasters, a 7-string Ibanez, and even one of my 8-strings with a low octave E. I’ll also bring my 1970 Fender Precision bass and another custom Fender with a .95 gauge low B for detuned cuts.
Once we’re set up, we work fast. We write the cues live on the spot, rehearse them once, and cut the take. I like to call it “top of mind” writing, and it’s performing without thinking. If the take isn’t good, we often cut the whole thing again. Rarely do we need more than a few passes before moving on. Overall, I don’t go for perfection—just vibe, feel, and attitude. It is a creative way to work that doesn’t get bogged down in overthinking. We typically don’t work with click tracks in this type of session because we’re not locked to picture or a grid. However, when composing at home with loops for the same type of show, I will definitely work with a click and a grid. It all depends on what I’m going for.