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We need it yesterday. (Composing for TV.)

Most of what I compose is for TV - usually promos for cable networks.

Here's a recent example that aired on TLC:

TLC's Father's Day Promo Campaign

TLC called me up with an emergency. They had purchased the rights to use this song, but not the RECORDING (that's a separate right) and they needed it to fit the standard 30 second format. It's a country song by Keith Urban called Song for Dad, with banjos and fiddles and such. They had hired another music company to create a new version of it, but it just wasn't cutting it.

The original was too 'country' and the one by the other music company was too 'slow' (even though the tempo was identical.) They wanted it to be a tad more mainstream, to have the musical hook upfront, to have a real ending, and to fit their video.

And they needed it immediately, or as close to it as possible.

Lucky for me, my fav male vocalist was in a relatively close studio working on his album. So I called him up. I hired him and the studio he was in for the job and drove over there immediately. We had a version uploaded to my server by that evening and producer approval to finish shortly thereafter.

I would have loved to try something very fresh, a really cool and new arrangement, but in super short deadlines, you play it safe - you NEVER miss a deadline. My version was the same tempo and key, with no banjo or fiddle or mandolin, no country accent in vocals, with the music hook up front and a major chord ending. I kept it very simple musically because producing a full band of real instruments is time consuming.

We tracked real drums, guitars and bass, vocals and bgv's that nite and the next day using the studio's old mac and cubase. They are more of a recording studio than a music production facility and have some awesome outboard gear - mics, preamps, compressors, etc. - and always get great vocals.

While the singer napped in the morning, I used the studio's crappy version of Sampletank to record the piano and strings. We recorded the vocals and made a quick final mix to upload for TLC, finishing the main 30 second version by noon the day after they called me to give me the job.

Before I had packed my stuff to leave, the producer called to tell me everyone at TLC loved it. High fives were handed out.

I took stems (audio files of the parts we recorded) back to my studio to make the 'versions.' This means using what we recorded and making it work with the other TLC videos for a 20 second, 15 and 10 second version. For the 15 they wanted a totally different part of the song, so I had to create that from scratch and have the singer send me the files for some more vocals. I finished the versions in the next couple of days - over the weekend - and had them uploaded by Monday morning.

Even though we had recorded real drums, and they sounded great, I ended up recreating them in Sonar. I don't remember what I used, but it was probably ezdrummer, Superior Drummer 2, or BFD - each hit played in on the keyboard. I did that in order to make the versions easier, since I needed to create different drum fills and so on to fit the different timings. And, of course, those drum samples are great sounding. So that's what you hear on TLC.

As usual, there is very little time to get picky about it. I have to keep moving forward as quickly as possible - not much time spent tweaking drum sounds, compressors, limiters or eq. I have to know the hardware and software very well and be able to get the sound I want almost immediately. It's never perfect, and I accept that and move on!

In composing for TV, the most important part is knowing what the producers want - even if they tell you very little, can't tell you at all, or tell you the opposite.

Then you have to make it happen. And happen fast!

Chris Merritt
Merritt Music Productions LLC
(323) 306-3057 (Los Angeles)
(347) 767-2952 (New York)

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Comment by James Semple on July 7, 2009 at 6:04am
Excellent article Chris and hopefully this makes people aware of the kind of deadlines and pressure that media composers work to.

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