New York Metro
Jan 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By David Weiss
If getting your picture in People magazine is a huge priority, then making music for TV probably isn't for you. On the other hand, if getting paid for your chops and having your sounds heard by millions on a daily basis is appealing, recording for the small screen may be your thing.
In New York City, there's a broadcast or cable network on every other block in Midtown, and sure as shootin' there must be 50 music houses that cater to their exacting, high-pressure needs. The competition is fierce, but finding the formula for a winning TV theme or two can be the foundation of a fruitful music production career.
Nowhere does that success story apply more than at OSI Music (www.osimusic.com), a facility on New York City's West Side hand-built by composers Phil Garrod and Reed Hays. The two became a writing team 10 years ago when a Fox network executive couldn't decide between their competing submissions for the NFL on Fox theme. Rather than go head-to-head any further, Garrod and Hays combined them into one song, and they've been joined at the eardrum ever since, making huge volumes of music for clients like Fox News, ABC, CBS, ESPN and more.
“Our style of working together,” explains Hays, “is that we sit at a keyboard and do stuff back and forth. The rest of our workday is whoever's near the mixer works it, whoever's near the synths works those, then we hit a crash and a timpani. It's one of those fluid things, and at the end of the day, we're not sure who did what.”
While individual credits may not be that important to OSI, fast workflow and a high-quality signal path unquestionably are. Their spacious control/creative room is built in a circular form, designed to allow the multi-instrumentalists to roll around quickly from their amazing collection of synths and vintage effects to their circa 1980, Dan Zellman-modified SSL 4000E. “To create a good piece of music, there has to be some kind of real-time element to keep the spark going,” Garrod says. “Having all the instruments within arm's reach really helps. Sometimes we'll start on an analog keyboard or a cello. It can be plucking out four notes on a piano to putting an instrument in a delay and getting a cool groove. Anything that strikes we have at our fingertips.”
With dozens of classic keyboards ranging from a Yamaha CPC70 electric piano and minimoog
Garrod and Hays aren't the only ones who have to work quickly; their stirring, often anthemic, compositions do, too. “The fundamental thing is, whatever you write, there has to be the ability to pull out three seconds, do that to a commercial and stick it in someone's head,” says Hays. “Generally, we'll write a piece of music that's a minute long, but we know at the end of the day, the first three seconds has to be memorable. One week you can write 18 pieces of music start to finish, and the next week it's one piece with revisions, and you're just as busy.”
Noticeably absent from the OSI studio is any sort of DAW. Garrod and Hays simply go through a mic pre to the SSL and direct to their recorder, a Tascam MX-2424 hard disk multitrack. “If something isn't right, we'll punch in rather than moving the blobs around on the screen. It's a better flow,” Garrod notes. “We really wanted to build a place that upped the level from just the MIDI studio and make it more like a real recording studio, which is why we went to a traditional mixing console.
“Composition is the main focus but we like to obsess on the sound quality, as well, and if it takes an extra second to patch in a Neve preamp, we'll do it. In an arrangement or production, it's a lot easier to do something with a few really good-quality sounds.”
Go uptown about 20 blocks, hang a right, and walk five avenues over and you'll arrive at Hothead (www.hothead.tv), where things couldn't be more different. The heavy emphasis on a network TV clientele remains, with clients that include Spike TV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, a hard-hitting VH1 “NFL Blitz” package and many more. The three principals here — Laki Fotopoulos, Jim Stauffer and John Terelle — operate in their own custom-tailored rooms to perform arresting sound design, mixing and editing functions geared toward the notoriously hard-to-please youth market.
While all three are fully networked to each other and ready to trade off duties at any time, they each have their specialties: Stauffer excels in using guitars, Foley and his mouth to create insane sound combinations; Terelle gets off on creating electronic loops; and Fotopoulos enjoys taking existing sounds and bending them to his own devious desires. What it all adds up to is audio that matches up extremely well with short-attention-span visuals.
“A lot of our clients come to us and they're visually based,” Terelle points out. “They know what colors and shots they'll use, but they're not sure what they want audio-wise. But I visualize sound; I can see the waveform in my head, and I know what I want to do. That's why they use us: They know we'll fill in the blanks.”
While each of their Pro Tools-equipped studios has outboard dynamics and effects on hand, the Hothead creators admit that for their specific purpose, their boxes are less and less useful, while their plug-ins are increasingly essential. “We're handing projects off a lot, and we need to be efficient, quick and maintain the quality,” Fotopoulos says. “I don't have time to figure out what setting Jim had on his Eventide. There are too many variables. If you're plug-in-based, you can automate the plug-ins and make them do much more than the outboard. Now I would say the most valuable pieces of outboard we have are the quality preamps, since it's the beginning of your audio chain.”
Capable of turning out sound designs that are at turns wild, electronica-injected, spooky, six-string trashy or otherwise stimulating, Hothead has a theory about making promos that appeal to youth, from preschool toddlers to college seniors. “The main thing for younger kids is you really don't want to talk down to them,” observes Stauffer. “I like to take it further and make it interesting for them, and I also try to make it fun. Kids are the first ones to say, ‘There's an adult behind this, and they're cramming it down my throat.’ If they think it's from their peers, they'll like it more.”
“I think organic, real sounds work for the young kids: ukulele plucks, even the classic slide whistles,” Fotopoulos adds. “Whereas the older kids in their teens and 20s, you go with more electronic, synthesized mystery noises. You wouldn't use an organic sound because it's not reflected in the music they listen to. Take a glass being smashed, pitch it upward and play it backward. A guitar is good, but you'll probably process the hell out of it and make it sound like a buzzsaw.”
For Terelle, the fun is in transforming thick sounds with a “fairy dust” sprinkling of imaginative processing or never-fail instruments like chimes. “Take a cymbal roll, pitch it way up, throw it through a reverb and you've got this shimmery wash,” he suggests. “Then take the attack off of it, start looping it around on itself and roll off the high end. Turn it into a sound you couldn't create naturally, but has an edge to it — something that doesn't happen in real life, but happens in your mind.”
Despite all of the pressure for TV houses to constantly scan the airwaves and stay current, Fotopoulos points out that relaxing your ears can be the best way to monitor the competition. “Sometimes, I have to be able to sit back and listen like the average person,” he says. “When I go home, I don't want to analyze; if something jumps out at me, if it's really good or bad, I'll notice. People say to me, ‘When you watch a film, don't you just tune into the sound design?’ No. I want to watch the film and enjoy it.”
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