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How TV Editors Pick and Place Music With TV Editor, Laurel Ostrander
TAXI's Michael Laskow interviewing Laurel Ostrander during TAXI's 25th Road Rally.

By Michael Laskow

Hey, Laurel. I’m gonna introduce you in a second, but first I want to thank our sponsors. Because, without them the Road Rally, and the 24 that came before, would not exist. Their recognition and support of this incredible community that you are all part of is much more than a business relationship. Please show your support for their products and services every chance you get, you guys. Every minute of this event is possible because of Disc Makers, Bandzoogle, MasterWriter, Ilio, AirGigs, Sessionwire, Paul Reed Smith Guitars, Final Mix Software, Fallout Music Group, Pandora Amp, Music Pro Insurance, Cal State Northridge, Arturia, and Shure. Let’s hear it for them. [applause]

And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time to hear from one of our most popular presenters in the history of the 25 years of the Road Rally. Please give it up for Laurel Ostrander. [applause]

Laurel is an A-list TV editor who has wowed the audience during the previous Road Rally ballroom presentations she has done. She’s incredibly smart, and one of the best teachers who has ever graced our stage. Laurel’s going to tell you why she chooses one piece of music over another, what type of instrumental cues and songs work best, and how she uses music to make scenes in the shows that she edits much more impactful. Her recent credits include Rhythm and Flow, Wipeout, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and Married at First Sight. She has created content for networks including Netflix, Disney+, Paramount+, Fox, CBS, MTV, and many more. From family-oriented docu-follows to horror-themed game shows. Laurel uses music as a tool to create compelling and entertaining stories.

Welcome back, Laurel. It’s great to see you.

Thank you, Michael. Great to see you, too!

I’d like to start out by setting the scene. Can you give us an idea of what a typical week for an editor on a reality show looks like, from the workloads, schedule, and deadline pressure perspective?

Sure. Well, every show is a little bit different, but in a typical week I will be presented with an act at the beginning of the week. I will get a string-out from a story producer, which is usually a radio edit, basically; it’s the rough draft of what you act is going to be. And then I usually get two or three days to do a picture edit on that and get a sense of how I want to put it together. And then, if I’m really lucky, I will have two days at the end of the week to drop in music and sound effects and really do a polish. Usually there are a couple rounds of notes [from the producers] in that week, and then it goes off to internal executives and the network executives—rounds and rounds around. Then you put it all together and eventually there’s a TV show.

It's unbelievable that all that stuff gets done in that short amount of time. So the pressure is intense, and you have to work really, really fast, right?


Can you give us an overview of how many editors would typically work on a show? Are you working on like next week’s episode, and somebody else might be working on the week after that? Is there a team of editors?

It’s always different, depending on the show. I’ve worked on shows where there are as few as four editors who handle an entire season of 12 to 13 episodes. I’ve seen shows where there are as many as 20 to 30 to 40 editors! My husband has worked on Love Island, and they’ve got an episode that they’re putting out every day, so that was a massive team of people all working in concert to get something done. Sometimes, I have an episode that’s completely mine; sometimes I’m working with a whole different team of editors, so we have to have a shared vision and style to make sure that the episode looks seamless.

And how do you come up with what that shared-vision style is? Do you guys have like pre-post-production meetings where you all sit around and say, “OK, so this year we are going for a little different vibe,” “We want more outdoor shots,” or “We want more negative emotions, so we have conflict.” How do you decide that stuff?

The visions of the season will come from the top down through your executive producer. And sometimes you will have a lead editor on a project, and the lead editor and the producer will work with the network to decide what they want the overall vibe of the show to be. And then it’s just ongoing conversations with everybody as the series goes on as you’re going to the post process.

You never mentioned your husband before in context of what he does. Is he an editor as well?

My husband is a post supervisor—we call him the cat wrangler. He’s the one who makes sure that all of us editors and producers are sticking to our schedules and budgets.

So the two of you, I imagine, prop up in bed at night watching TV after your daughter goes to sleep, and the two of you are sitting there picking shows apart, going, “Oh, man, that edit was horrible,” “I would have done this,” “I can’t believe they didn’t do that.” Or do you actually watch the show and enjoy it?

It’s not fun for us to watch TV together. [laughter]

“Music tells us when a full thought has begun, and when it has ended. Music tells us when we are moving from scene to scene, and what we should expect to see in that scene, or music helps us reflect on what we’ve just seen and heard.”

I know this is gonna be hard to say in an encapsulated way, but what is music’s job in the context of a reality show, or maybe even an episodic drama?

I think that music is one of the most important parts, really, of any show, but especially a live and unscripted show. Music sets the tone for the series. I think music is a really important tool in your toolkit to drive a character. And I talk a lot about how music is sort of like the paragraph in a book: Music tells us when a full thought has begun, and when it has ended. Music tells us when we are moving from scene to scene, and what we should expect to see in that scene, or music helps us reflect on what we’ve just seen and heard.

So in a reality show, the music supervisor doesn’t sit there and actually hand you the music that he or she has gotten approved by the executive producer, scene-by-scene or beat-by-beat, is it true to say that they have gone through the multitudes, maybe two, three, four different music libraries prior to your team starting, and they’ve picked out the music that goes with the general tone of the show, and then they put that into electronic buckets—which are called bins—and from those you start working…? You know that the music you pick has already been pre-approved. Is that a true statement?

I will say yes and no, again because every show is different, and I’ve worked at one glorious company where we did have music supervisors who did choose the music for each moment of the show. It made my job a little easier, but it also made my job a little less creative. That was one wonderful situation. Ideally, we do have a music supervisor who has been having conversations with the network and who has gone through and who has approved the music. Sometimes we don’t, and we are just given libraries, and as editors we have to decide what we think the sound of that particular show or scene needs to be, which can also get overwhelming. So, in an ideal world, the music supervisor is really there to help guide us towards the ideal sound that we are going for.

I know this is going to be an impossible question for you to answer, but if you had to venture a guess how many tracks might be in your bin on a reality show? Is it like 200 or 2,000, or 20,000?

Oh my gosh. I don’t think I can answer that question. I know that I would always rather have access to more, as long as I can easily search through them. Because you never know what you are going to necessarily need in any given situation. For example, the show that I’m on right now on Wipeout, we’ve got anywhere from 10 to 12 teams competing, and each team has an individual sound, and each sound is gonna have multiple beats throughout the episode and you are gonna need something specific for that. You know, I’m requesting anything from Billie Eilish soundalikes to “Baby Got Back” soundalikes to zombie/horror music. You never have any idea until you get into the episode.

And you use the word “beats,” which I remember the first time we met and had you onstage, I stopped you dead in your tracks and said, “Tell everybody what a beat is.” Honestly, I know a fair amount about post-production, having been an audio post-engineer years ago in New York. I’d never heard the expression “beats” before, but knowing that we are talking to a bunch of musicians this morning that are thinking boom-chika-boom. .. So, tell our audience what a “beat” is in video-editor land.

Well, and I use it because I was a story producer, so a “beat” is a complete thought. And the rule of thumb that I like to edit by is, new thought/new cue, so for each story beat, the music is what tells us that the thought has begun, and when the music ends it tells us that that thought has ended and we’re going to move on to a new topic.

My favorite example—I’m sure I’ve said this to you onstage—is like Kim Kardashian being in a kitchen and she can’t get the cap off of the milk jug because her nails are too long and she’s whining about that, and then finally she hands it to whoever her husband is at the time, he gets it off; that’s a beat, right?


Again, I know there’s no such thing as typical, probably, but I want people to understand the number of cues in a given hour of reality television. Is it 50, 100?

You’re looking at between 100 and 150 [music cues] for 44 minutes of television.

That’s a lot of music. Wow. And how many hours of work time for you might it take to lay in those 100-ish cues?

Never as many as I’d like. On a great day, you know, a 10-hour shift for me, I can usually get through one act. So that’s anywhere from eight to 10 minutes long.

“Is this a scene that’s really uptempo and exciting? So, I need to find something that comes in with a punch and tells us, ‘Hey, pay attention. Put down the laundry. Stop talking to your family. The scene has started—let’s go.’”

Go ahead and walk us through the process. I know it’s sad that we don’t have it up on the video screen so you’ll have to do it with words, but you are a great teacher so I trust that you can nail this. The floor is yours.

Thank you. So, I talked a little bit about this earlier, but first I’ll get a string-out from my story producer, and that’s the rough draft of what your act or scene is going to be. I look at that and I usually break it down by story beats, by what the point of the scene is—what action or emotion are we trying to convey? And then I think about how to get those points across in the quickest and most emotional and evocative way possible, because 44 minutes goes by really fast in television, and you never have enough time to tell the story as you want.

Then I go through and I edit the dialog to tell the story exactly the way that I want to, and I choose my visuals to tell the story the way that I want to, and then I lay in sound effects. Sometimes you can have as many as 20 or 30 different layers of sound effects at any given time, depending on the show.

And then, finally, once all of that is done, then I start to lay in music. And I really think about how I want the music to drive the scene. Is this a scene that’s really uptempo and exciting? So, I need to find something that comes in with a punch and tells us, “Hey, pay attention. Put down the laundry. Stop talking to your family. The scene has started—let’s go.”

And then I use the music to make sure that I’m dynamically weaving in and out of those story beats. And I like to think of it like a paragraph, or like punctuating a sentence. You always have the capital letter at the beginning of a sentence and a period at the end of a sentence, or an explanation point, or an ellipsis. And music can do all those things if you’re coming in with a really great cymbal swell, or drumbeat, or a really great “lyric up” that’s the punctuation at the beginning of the sentence. And then the cue moves through the sentence under the dialogue and sound effects. And then we’re looking for a really great sting at the end of the cue that tells us, “OK, that thought is done, and now we are moving on to the next thought.”

So, after 10 or so hours of laying in my music, then I’ve got my whole act down, and then I can send it off to [the people who send me back] notes, and then everybody rips it apart and tells me how terrible it is and we need to fix it.

“And in an ideal world, really great music, like a really great edit, recedes back into the background, and what really shines is the story.”

How many notes do you get back? Let’s say you’ve laid in 120 pieces of music; how many of those might need to be changed out after you get back notes?

It depends, and it’s different for every show. If I have done my job perfectly—which you never do—but in an ideal world you don’t get many. And in an ideal world, really great music, like a really great edit, recedes back into the background, and what really shines is the story.

Don’t tell musicians that. But it’s true. [laughs]

It’s the truth of the business. If I’m doing my job right, then nobody sees it.

“Editors typically think in terms of mood, and that’s how our music is organized when we receive it. So, our bins and libraries within our editing software are usually broken down by genre and tone.”

I know that you’re a musician, and you tend to think in somewhat musical terms. And I’ve met a couple other editors, and I actually have a friend who is an editor also who is a highly accomplished musician, but there are editors who are not musicians, so they may not think in musical terms. But I’m guessing… Do you ever think, “Oh, I’d like to use a legato string cue here”? Do editors who are picking music who aren’t music people, what kind of thought process—I know you’re living in their head—but do they think, “I need something funny here”? Or “Something with marimbas and a corny cymbal crash might work here.” How do they translate, “I just need something funny into a music cue”? How do they pick those, or even know where to go?

Well, it’s really kind of you to say that I’m a musician. I don’t know that high school band counts, but I’ll take it. Editors typically think in terms of mood, and that’s how our music is organized when we receive it. So our bins and libraries within our editing software are usually broken down by genre and tone—hip-hop comedy, uptempo, like exciting pop, celebration, dramatic tension. These are different ways that we have of identifying what the music is. And a lot of editors are brilliant with music, and they know that they need something with strings, or I need something with a mechanical riser, or I need really great timpani here. Typically, we’re just going for, “Okay, I’ve got a scene; it’s set in a club. I need something that’s gonna be a really great club beat that has these couple of words from the lyric up, and that’s where you go.

Don’t miss Part 2 of this incredibly informative interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!