Sonic options abound at the author’s go-to studio, the Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, New York, thanks in part to the many classic and contemporary amps available.
For the live sessions, I’ll usually record real amps, with some additional overdubs added later using my Line 6 Variax and any good guitar amp plug-in. I love using real amps for the harder-edged shows, because they each sound unique and that makes you play differently through them. The spongy feel, the ability to dynamically alter my distortion using touch, and the pure tone is endlessly inspiring.
For heavier tracks, I have a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV head that usually gets paired up with an Orange or Marshall 4x12. I’ll also turn to my 1962 Gibson Falcon, a 1947 Gibson BR-6, and a 1966 Magnatone M10A. One of the great things about using these distinctive vintage tube amps is that I can clearly hear them when I’m watching a show—even under the dialog—because they have their own character. I’ve also found the Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire distortion and a classic Ibanez Tube Screamer to be an important part of driving my amp sounds hard to maximize tone. Also, the Clubhouse has a huge selection of amps, and each one offers something special.
Since we’re in full-speed TV production mode, mic setup is usually nothing more than a good Shure SM57 and either a Beyerdynamic M 160, AEA N8, Sennheiser MD 421, or Royer R-121. This lets me mix and match tones afterwards as needed: The 57 covers the mid growl, and the other mics provide a smoother bottom and top.
But Wait, There’s More
Once I have the basic tracks done, I’ll take the hard drive back to my home studio for additional guitars, pads, production, and final mixing. My home studio is based around a Pro Tools|HDX rig, a Grace Design 906 monitor controller, and a variety of preamps from Manley, Grace Design, Universal Audio, and Millennia. I’ve got an 88-key Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol keyboard, as well as some small analog synths for edgy oscillations.
Once I open up the rhythm tracks, I’ll typically add more guitars to thicken up the production. That’s when I mostly use my Line 6 Helix, which has a huge variety of sounds. I’ve found that the real amps, such as the Mesa/Boogie, when used together with the Helix, make for some massive guitar sounds. When they pull out that classic Camaro or Mustang on Counting Cars, you need to hit viewers over the head with your track.
One other tool that I’ve found incredibly useful for adding depth to my Helix sound and television tracks is the Eventide H9. I actually run two of them into the FX send/returns of the Helix, and control them from the desktop, or even my iPhone via Bluetooth. I’ll turn to the Eventide for its massive reverbs, but also for great pitch shifting, choruses, and trem/vibrato effects. Combined with all the amps and effects inside the Helix, it lets me get deep into the guitar sounds and make them bigger and wider.
From Studio to Screen
Once I’ve got the tracks where I want them, I’ll create a variety of mixes. First is the full mix, with everything in. Then I’ll output a mix with no melody or solo. Then I’ll do a bass and drum mix, muting all the guitars and any additional pad elements. Finally, I’ll cut the full mix down to something like 10 to 15 seconds and deliver what is called a “sting.” Typically they will all be placed on the client’s File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server where they can download them, catalog them, and get them into the show.
These different mixes let the show’s editors use only the music they need for each scene. For example, they may not want a solo or melody, because it distracts from the dialog. Or if Counting Cars’ star Danny “the Count” Koker is driving around town checking out cars, they might want to use the melody mix. It all depends on the scene.
Even at the Clubhouse, Rich Tozzoli sometimes relies on his Universal Audio Apollo mobile rig, rather than the room’s Neve console. Note the keyboards, pedals, and omnipresent laptop—all ready to maximize the tonal options needed to compliment the action onscreen.
The exciting thing about composing for TV is that each assignment brings something different. The day after finishing music for Counting Cars, for example, I’ll have to start a totally different show. Something like Alaskan Bush People or Moonshiners on Discovery Channel involves a whole new approach, with a different set of guitars and orchestrations to evoke their rural settings.
For shows such as those, I create a more acoustic-based sound and add the elements as needed. Sometimes, it’s extremely sparse, and I might just record a single track on my Martin OM-28 or Guild F-512 with a set of Earthworks QTC-50 microphones into the Grace Design or Millennia preamp. I might deliver a mix with just some shakers and light percussion behind the guitar, to give the editors a little extra movement.
If they need more production, I’ll work with drum loops and add percussion and cymbals, keyboards, and strings—often with real players on fiddle/violin, viola, or cello. For bigger sounding tracks, I use my mandolin, a 4-string cigar box, a banjitar (aka 6-string banjo), a Paul Beard resonator, or even my James Tyler-designed Line 6 Variax, which lets me create unusual tunings and sounds that work great for television. For each cue, I will change up the instrumentation, tempo, and feel, all while retaining the overall sound of the show.
Composing for TV allows me to use my guitars, amps, and the studio to create something new every week. It’s fast-paced, challenging, and a lot of work. You need to know yourself, your gear and your own abilities, and, most importantly, continue to learn and grow. I like to think that with a guitar in hand and a show to score, the possibilities behind the screen are limitless.