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Picking and Placing Instrumental Cues in Reality TV
Left to right: Reality Show Editor David McIntosh, Music Supervisor Jonathan Weiss, and TAXI’s Michael Laskow on stage at TAXI’s Road Rally.

Panelists: Jonathan Weiss, David McIntosh

Moderated by Michael Laskow

Audience Member: I have a couple of questions about releasing music singles and cues. Does anyone ever write in for an episode asking, “Where do I get that song? How do I download it? Is it a single?”

Jon: Yeah, especially for the MTV shows, I would get an email every few episodes from somebody at MTV wanting to know what cue played under when they were climbing over the building ledge, like that scene we just showed. And I’d have to go back to the timeline and figure it out and get back to them. Sometimes in the forums [for the various shows], fans or viewers ask what that cue [in this context, Jonathan means a song] was. And secondarily, a lot of networks have a music blog, and they will tell you exactly what songs they played. They can also use Shazam. So there are ways for the audience members to find out specifically what cue that was, especially if it’s a lyric cue.

AM: And is it OK to [include a note or indicate], “Two minutes of a longer song,” or “Just the rise or the drop part,” just to really fill that need of a structured cue that you’re looking for, when it’s actually part of another track, or should you submit the whole track?

Jon: I would just take out the vocal and send in the instrumental version. Dave and all these editors are masters, and a lot of the network shows have music editors. These guys are not only the picture editors, they are the music editors, and he’s brilliant at what he does, as are most of the editors at Bunim-Murray. Maybe you can speak to him about…

Dave: Actually, if it has a vocal in it, I want the full cue, and then I want instrumental. I wouldn’t need stems; I wouldn’t need rises, but we get those, though. I want to hear the whole thing, and then I want to take the bits and pieces I have and edit it to make it the way I wanted it. Some cues are really easy, and some cues you just can’t do that at all, and that’s when I call Jonathan. “You gotta come over here.” If I’m having trouble re-editing or rearranging it, then he’ll come over and help me.

How many times a day do you guys have some sort of discussion? How often are you guys in touch as the editor and the music supervisor?
Dave: When I work with Jonathan, I always want to talk to him on music choices.

Do you prefer long intros or shorter intros on cues?
Dave: Yeah. It’s really hard to get into a cue where once it gets into the meat of the cue, if it’s like a 15-second intro, I’m usually trying to find a way to cut those down to five seconds.

So generally speaking—I underline and italicize the word generally—is it best to have a really short intro, or maybe no intro at all?
Dave: It’s weird, for a transition cue… Again, it depends on what episode you’re working on, but I’ve worked with post-producers and producers who are like, “We want the cue to start in this scene and transition, and end in this scene.” So you do kinda want some intro to build to the transition, and then sting-out into the next scene, and then that’s when you hear some lines. That actually happened with Kardashians a lot. A transition scene starts here, ends here; it bridges the two scenes with the ring-out.

OK, so that would be for instance: Khloe and one of the other sisters have a little cat fight in the driveway, and it ends with a door slam and pulling out of the driveway, boom, and there’s a ring-out. Then the thing we’re gonna see next is flying over the hills of Calabasas looking down at the backyard, and maybe a zoom in through the kitchen window and there are two people in the kitchen and boom. Once you’re in the kitchen is when the next scene starts, so you’ve got one cue ending at the door slam and the driveway and ringing-out, another cue for the fly over the hills of Calabasas—this is the transition—and then another cue that starts in the kitchen.
Dave: There will be a little bit of breath in between those three cues—the end of the one cue, the beginning of the transition, the end of that transition, and the next cue starting in the next scene.

I would actually say that I have been asked a little to have a little more intros in the cues lately. Not just to start them just like a boom. And those tend to be more in-scene. Before we get into an interview, we’ve started an emotional ride story-wise, then go into the interview to explain where we’re going to go with it.

AM: This might not be answerable, but it is related. We get TAXI listings that ask for at least two-minute cues, or pieces of music, and they want usually edit points too. How often and how much time between easy edit points would you prefer?

Dave: In between? Like edit points in the music itself?

AM: No, like the music’s playing along and you’ve got the edit point, and the music is playing along, then you have an edit point.

"Make it have sectional contrast, some dynamic, so it’s not all in one dynamic range, and have some building up and coming back down."-Jonathan Weiss

I want to jump in and clarify something. A lot of our members think that an edit point is an actual rest between sections. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. An edit point for me, personally, can be just a kick-drum beat. So in other words, a cello solo playing something very legato doesn’t have edit points, or at least hard to define and find edit points in that. Whereas, a piece of EDM, every downbeat is an edit point. So I just want to make sure. Are you talking about the kind of edit point that so many of our members kind of mistakenly think is an actual rest between sections? Sometimes those are OK, but I think people tend to think that every time we use the phrase edit point, that means take a beat or take a rest.

AM: What if a pad or something is playing through, do you want that to stop, or do you want it to stop at the edit point?

Jon: Yeah, I don’t like those long pads. I’m hearing a lot of those from some of the members that come in. You know, it depends on the genre. If it’s a minimal tension cue, you don’t even need the pads to go all the way through. But I think we are maybe overthinking the edit points and how long… If these songs—and I always tell writers this—even for production libraries, just make it a song. Make it have sectional contrast, some dynamic, so it’s not all in one dynamic range, and have some building up and coming back down. Like any great Pop song, that’s how they should be structured. It doesn’t matter if it’s two minutes. You should be able to do it in two minutes, and don’t overthink the edit points. Every great song has great dynamic, great build, coming back down. Verse/pre-chorus/chorus is sorta how you should think about it, even in a tension cue. Like removing some layers—like we say in the TAXI listings—adding or subtracting layers, but building up to a tension, and maybe bringing it back down. But, yeah, too long of an intro is not a great thing either. You know, maybe two bars, maybe four at the most.

AM: So I’ve noticed that the listings are always asking for at least two minutes. I watch live TV like you’re supposed to and listen, and a lot of cues seem to be like they’re a lot less than 30 seconds. That’s why I thought the edit point was important.

The reason we ask for two minutes is so that you’ve got all those sectional contrasting that Dave and Jonathan were talking about, so they can go in and choose. They’re probably not going to use the entire two-minute cue — that would be a really rare instance. But they do want sections with different energy levels and dynamics to choose from.

AM: Hi. So a question going back to the last scene we saw on I Am Cait [in the ballroom], where they’re getting ready to go and ride bikes. I was looking at the music playing behind that and trying to figure out what genre that music was. I got the uplifting vibe right out of the gate, but as far as the genre, I was having trouble with that. And I came up with uplifting Pop, and was a little surprised when you guys described it as EDM. So kind of reverse-engineering that, if I want to either learn how to write that stuff, or what that even is, what genre folder would I find that in on your hard drive?

Jon: That’s a good point. I mean, maybe we overuse the term EDM. I actually do have some folders labeled Pop-electronic, and that just means it’s pop music, but it’s using electronic instruments. There may not even be a guitar in there; it could be all synth-drum, synth-bass and synthesizer. So I would say Pop-electronic. Like Dave said, there are some editors who are skilled as musicians, and they come from that world. And there are some who have just been doing it for so long, it doesn’t matter what the bin is labeled. If it says Pop-electronic uplifting, he’s not going to say, “Well, I don’t want electronic music.” He’ll just listen to it, and if it works, it works. So I wouldn’t get too caught up in the genre names.

AM: The thing is we submit to listings that are in specific genres, and I guess what I’m hearing is, if you consider yourself a Pop composer or a Rock composer and you skim through the EDM listings, you might be missing some opportunities because it’s not all four-on-the-floor club music; there’s a lot of stuff within EDM.

Jon: Yeah, what I like about most of the TAXI listings has at least two or three YouTube music examples and you can hear exactly what they are looking for. Or if it doesn’t have that, then it’ll have the show name, like check out the cues that were used in CSI. So it’s less about the titles and the genres, and more about what you’re hearing as a composer when you’re listening to that YouTube clip. “Oh, yeah, I can do that. I don’t care what it’s called. I know I can do that.”

"Reality TV is so diverse in its emotions, even in just one episode."-David McIntosh

I cannot recommend strongly enough that every TAXI member should at least skim all the listings. People miss so many incredible opportunities. Sometimes we’re sitting there shaking our heads going, “I can’t believe this. It’s a $12,000 direct-to-supervisor, no-publishers-split opportunity, going to a really big TV show or film or something, and we’ll only get 37 submissions. Then a week later, we’ll have a similar listing requesting the same type of music for a no money up front opportunity, and we’ll get 300 submissions for that one. The only thing I can think of is people are thinking, “If it’s paying that much money, I got no chance.” I’m befuddled by it.

AM: Well, thank you, Jonathan and David and Michael. It’s been so educational. My question is about the genres for reality seems to be right now Hip-Hop, EDM, as you guys mentioned earlier. For us composers, is there any way of knowing in reality TV what the trend might be for the next good genre to write for, so we can perhaps get ahead of the curve and provide libraries with the new stuff?

Jon: When I work with composers and I’m looking to see what the next trend is, or at least what’s going on right now where I could do a compilation, I go to the Top 10 of what’s on Billboard. And just like that group DNCE—one of the Jonas Brothers, I believe, is in it—and that’s a huge hit, and I would talk to a composer and say, “This is what’s happening now—write me a few of these.” Again, less about genre, more about looking at what’s on the charts, and as a composer trying to see where it’s going. But that’s where you have to go. I think you would go to the charts first, and less about genre. Great Pop-Rock stuff with a guitar could work, too. We heard some of that in I Am Cait, it doesn’t have to be all electronic instruments. It does have to sound authentic, sound like something that would be on the radio, that high quality of material.

Dave: And also, reality TV is so diverse in its emotions, even in just one episode. I don’t write music, but if you get stuck just cranking out 180 EDM tunes and Hip-Hop, there’s a cue from “Born This Way” that’s just like a retro cue, and it’s just funny. It was just a funny theme we needed to do, and it’s none of those genres. It’s weird—you’ll come up with a moment like that and the producers are like, “Oh, it’s great,” and it doesn’t fit anything we’ve been doing for like four episodes. Because those are great, though, when you find that moment and find that one funny little cue. But I don’t know if I’d make a bunch of those.

AM: I was really surprised when you said that the one show where the cues were almost never used more than once. I couldn’t help but think about the old Mission Impossible were the same cues were used again and again. And we really loved those cues; they were so good. So is this cyclical, or are those days gone forever?

Dave: I don’t know. I think it just depends on the series. Like The Challenge—about 28 or 29 seasons on MTV—that one lends itself to it. Other shows like The Kardashians, you can replay the same cue multiple episodes in multiple seasons. So I would say The Challenge is actually odd.

Jon: It is odd, and I think for I Am Cait we did try to think about it like; we’re hiring a composer, some of these cues are going to be theme or thematic. Like for each character we would want to have… I don’t know if we accomplished that, but we would have a certain theme for Cait, a certain theme for one of her friends. So, you know, I think a lot of these shows may not take the time that Dave and I have spent on these issues. I don’t want to keep dissing Housewives of Orange County, but there are so many reality shows out there, and they are just looking for the cheapest music, if they are free or if the networks get a piece of it, that’s what they will use. I think that we’re in the minority in that we care so much about it and we take pride in what we do. But I don’t even think that a lot of these reality shows would even think to create a theme… maybe some do. They’ll keep repurposing these cues.

Network shows do it too, by the way. They’ll have composers write for the whole season, and they’ll keep re-purposing the cues. Like you say, for the old Mission Impossible series, they do that all the time still today on network TV.

Dave: It’s discussed. We do talk about it. With Jonathan, we’ve probably talked about how we should be more thematic with cues and repeat some of them. And I’ve talked to other music supervisors and directors. It’s like how do you change it? How do you make it different, other than just use a cue multiple times—or not multiple times—or really making the music scene with the story? As opposed to, like you said, like with Housewives, “we’re just gonna throw some stuff in there and make it work.” We discuss that stuff all the time. It’s a weird battle between people holding the money, and the people trying to do something a little bit different…not even hugely different, but a little different.

Guys, that was amazingly informative. Did you guys enjoy that as much as I did? David McIntosh, Jonathan Weiss, thank you guys so much. That was amazing! [Applause]