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How TV Editors Pick and Place Music With TV Editor, Laurel Ostrander

Interviewed live during TAXI’s Road Rally, 2021

By Michael Laskow

You and I spoke a little bit in emails before today, and you mentioned how important titles are, which I’ve been saying to our members for years. Don’t name a cue “Laurel’s Thing”; that doesn’t tell you anything other than you obviously knew somebody named Laurel at some point in your life and they inspired you to write that thing. If you could come up with some titles on the fly that might be indicative of the kind of thing that points you in the right direction and makes you as an editor say, “Oh, am I glad they called that, because that’s what it sounds like.”

Exactly! Well, I think this is something that we’ve been leaning towards in the conversation, is that we as editors don’t have time to listen to every cue. There’s just never enough time. So, if the cue can tell me from the title generally what it sounds like, then that’s incredible to me, and also it helps me search. On the show that I’m currently working on we’re doing a lot of very intense dramatic driving tension as you’re watching people get horrible wipeouts on obstacle courses. It’s great. So, the cues that I’m hoping for have titles like “March of the Gods,” something that sounds big and dramatic and crazy and orchestral, and that gives me an idea when I look at it of what it’s gonna sound like.

You know, I have seen very silly... Like they are looking at a comedy cue and it is called “Hedgehog Hunt,” and when I hear that title, I think, “OK, I’m thinking [I’m going to hear] something like little pizzicato strings.” You kind of get an idea from the title what you’re going to hear.

“Maybe it takes me 10 seconds and I know right away that this is what I’m going for, or nope, that’s not what I am thinking of in my head for this moment.”

I think it’s great that you even think in terms of pizzicato strings, because I know editors that think pizzicato is something you order in an Italian restaurant. Your mind works kind of like a musician in that regard, that you know a musical description for what might be apt for that scene, which has got to be a great tool to have. Because we can’t display this on the screen this morning, how long might you listen to each cue as you audition them? Let’s say you have to go through 13 cues before you find the one where you go, “Ding, ding, ding, I think we have a winner.” How long do you listen to a cue before you know if it’s got a possibility or not?

Well, I think that’s something that was really effective during [past Road Rally presentations in the ballroom]; To have the screen up and you could see me actually going through the cues. I try to listen to the beginning of the cue, the middle of the cue, and the end of the cue to make sure that there’s enough there, that it’s going somewhere, that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe it takes me 10 seconds and I know right away that this is what I’m going for, or nope, that’s not what I am thinking of in my head for this moment; I just need to move on and cycle through the other cajillion cues that we’ve got in the library.

I’m really glad you said about 10 seconds, because we’re always trying to impress upon our members that in their world, their music is very, very important, and I completely understand it. It’s their art, it’s what they do, it’s everything to them, other than maybe their family. And in the minds of most musicians who are uninitiated and haven’t seen a panel like this, they might think that the editor is sitting there listening from top to bottom, sipping on a coffee and going, “Wow, that’s really cool,” whereas it’s really bam, bam, bam, you know? They’ve got to let you know musically what’s going on right then and there. And if you don’t know, you’re going to move on to something that’s going to say, “Hey, Laurel, I’m what you need.” So, I’m glad that you brought that up.

I always wish that I had the time. And there have been cases where I think that the music sounds really cool, and I then I will sit and listen to it, or I’ll look it up on Spotify. In my off time, to be able to sit and listen, sure! But, when you’re on the clock there’s just never enough time.

You don’t have off time. You are an editor and a mom. I can’t imagine you have any off time. How old is your son now?

He’s three. About the same age as I’ve been doing this conference.

“You want to have the cue really jump in with that capital letter and say, “Hey, here I am. This is the start of the scene; this is the start of the beat; this is the start of the thought; the start of the joke—pay attention.”

One thing you said when you were onstage at the last Rally that everybody… This was the “Laurel Ostrander knocked me out of my chair” moment. Everybody went, “Ahh, revelatory.” And I’m paraphrasing you here, but you said, “Cues with short intros that get right to the heart of the cue work best. Maybe a really short drum turnaround like boom-boom into it, or a guitar riff into it. Why are those so appealing to you?

Well, I think because it gets my attention immediately right off the bat, and I get a sense of, OK, this is exactly what the cue sounds like. Especially now, because I think that music is changing in reality television. Music is changing more; my awareness of the way it’s being used is changing a little bit, because now some that work are more of a “sports” sound—and we can talk about that later—and in that case they do want music to kind of sneak in and catch you unawares, and then I really lock into the scene. But especially in a lot of docu-follow type shows and competition shows, you want to have the cue really jump in with that capital letter and say, “Hey, here I am. This is the start of the scene; this is the start of the beat; this is the start of the thought; the start of the joke—pay attention.” And then we’ll go from there.

So, I think a really great way to organize [or arrange] the cue is if you can give me dynamics within the cue. Come in with a punch! Don’t be afraid to have a quiet moment in the middle; I can always rearrange it. If I needed to sneak it in, I can take that middle and play it early and then come into your big punch, and then always punctuate it at the end with another great sting.

I like the fact that you’re calling the front of it a capital letter. I don’t think you used that term onstage, and I always say that a sting is an exclamation point, but now I’m gonna steal that [description] and tell everybody that coming into it is the capital letter. That’s imminently stealable! Thank you, Laurel.

Do you ever find cues that you absolutely love, and you tag them or stick them in a special subfolder and use them over and over as much as the EP will let you get away with that? Because it’s reliable and you know that it works better than most other cues of that type?

Yep. The first thing that I do whenever I start a new show is I create my own library, basically, of all of my favorite cues. I will designate them by scene type or by emotion type, whatever, so that I can find them, and I will use them until I’m sick of them, or the EP is sick of them, or the network is sick of them, whichever comes first.

“If a cue is too busy, if it’s got a ton of instruments going on simultaneously, then it’s probably going to drown out dialogue and be really difficult to find a place for it.”

I think a lot of musicians who are new to the world of instrumental cues think that you’re looking for compositional brilliance, and that their entire cue might get you. Obviously, you want great cues. You’re not looking for just OK. You wouldn’t have a job if you were just picking “OK.” But is it a compositional brilliance that makes it great, or what other factors make a cue desirable for you? Rather than saying, “Wow, that’s the best composer I’ve ever heard; he’s gonna kick John Williams’ butt someday.” Other than compositional brilliance, what makes you pick a cue?

I think that there are so many things that go into choosing a cue, but one of the most important is remembering that it is gonna be layered in with so many other elements simultaneously. So, it’s got to be something that’s not going to overwhelm dialogue; it’s gotta be something that’s not going to necessarily overwhelm sound effects. If a cue is too busy, if it’s got a ton of instruments going on simultaneously, then it’s probably going to drown out dialogue and be really difficult to find a place for it. Something that I think is really useful with cues is when a composer can provide us with… I call them stems—I’m sure that that’s not the correct term for it—but when I get multiple different versions of the same cue broken down by the different instruments, then it’s a little more versatile. So, I can in that case maybe use a cue multiple different times in the same episode. If I’m using just the drums and bass in one place, maybe I’m just using the guitars in another place, and maybe I’m using the drums and bass in a different part of the episode. Because if I’ve got a really emotional scene, you start with the strings, and then you bring in the beat at just the right moment, and then you layer on guitars and build your way up to the full version of the cue. It can be really flexible.

And you are more of a musician that you give yourself credit for. You think in very musical terms, but you tie it to the emotion that you’re going for, which is probably why you’re an A-list editor.

I know there’s no real average length that a cue might be used. But is it safe to say that more often than not you only use pieces of cues, not the entire thing? And assuming that’s correct, why is that?

Yes. Well, again, I think that the longer you sit in a cue, you know, it feels like OK, this thought has gone on for a really long time, and as a viewer you start to get bored. So, when you’re changing the music, you’re keeping the episode feeling more dynamic. That being said, I’ve worked on a lot of shows in the last couple of years where you might use an entire two-minute cue if you’re doing a really exciting montage that’s having you touch base with multiple different characters in your cast, but maybe they are all talking about a similar subject. Then you can wrap that whole big thought—that whole big beat—around one cue. But that I think is a very specific instance. For the most part, cues can be as short as 10 seconds. On average, I’m using about 30 to 40 seconds worth of every piece of music.

That’s great. That helps new composers who don’t know the drill yet understand that they have to write to make it dynamic throughout; in other words, up and down throughout. Come in strong, finish big and in the middle keep it interesting so that you’ve got a lot to work with.

“As many times as I try to like stick ‘Dueling Banjos’ into my cut, it just never quite fits.”

Anecdotally, many of our most successful members tell us that the cues of theirs that get used most often are the ones that are in fact pretty stripped down—like you mentioned, just bass and drums—and they see the most income coming from the most sparsely populated cues they make. So it sounds like simpler is often better. True statement?

Yes. As many times as I try to like stick “Dueling Banjos” into my cut, it just never quite fits. And I’ve been thinking about this too, why do drum and bass cues work so well, and I wonder if it’s… Now I’m gonna be silly, musical, and not really know what I’m talking about. But you’re looking at a symphony and how you got your bassline at the bottom of the symphony really driving the scene. And I think that a scene in television is similar. You’ve got your dialogue track sitting there up at the top, you know, your female voices and then your male voices, and then you’ve got that really great space and percussion lines that grounds everything together and keeps the momentum going. Cues like that are so versatile, and I will go to them first every time.

You talked about things heading a little more towards score. Let’s talk about that. Are you talking about a traditional type of score, a new type of score? Tell me anything you know about what types and why and how they are being used.

True. I think it’s really exciting, because I think it is leading to this really cool sound in shows that I’m seeing in the last couple years, especially with these bigger-budget streaming platforms. They’re asking us to use music in more of a score sense and move a little more away from sort of the more traditional style of comedy where it’s like very pizzicato… You know, pizzicato strings, and that’s what comedy sounded like in unscripted television forever. It’s starting to feel a little stale. So now, instead of having a pop cue with a great lyric just played over a transition, maybe now we’re starting to see that pop cue sneak in under dialogue and come up for a few moments with a really evocative lyric. As your cast is staring into each other’s eyes thinking the things that the lyric is telling us, and then you bring that back up for that really great big-swell moment over your transition leading us into another scene, and then it takes us out of the scene. So, it’s using our unscripted music in a way that you’ve seen more in film or scripted television.

So that must make the choices harder, because now you’re dealing with lyrics and you’re looking for lyrics that in some cases—maybe not all—are very relatable to the storyline. Do you find that you need more time? Is it harder because you have to have to search more diligently?

Yes, in an ideal world you get the actual lyrics, and you can search the lyrics. Otherwise, you’re sitting there listening to the music, which I’ve said is really difficult to find the time to do. And what you’re trying to do is find something that has the instrumental that’s still driving the scene, and then trying to layer the lyric on top of it. And, you can’t have the lyric be too on-the-nose. If I’m saying, OK, Laurel Ostrander walks into the room and I choose a lyric that says, “She’s an editor. She’s great,” it’s gonna be ridiculous and you’re going to find yourself laughing at it and it will take you out of the scene. And I love to search for music and using music in this way. What you’re trying to do is find something that is sort of a universal theme or universal emotion, but with really creative lyrics.

As an editor, it’s another tool in the tool kit of a way for me to tell the audience something about a character or about a moment of the scene. If I can find a lyric that really, really says something evocative enough in that moment, then I’m gonna do it, yeah.

When you start getting notes back from either the executive producer or the network people, can you give some examples of types of notes you might get and how you have to deal with that to solve the problem?

Well, the worst note is, “Meh,” and that tells you nothing! But sometimes you’ll get a note that’s like, “I felt bored,” or “The scene drags,” or “The scene felt slow.” And one of the things that you can do to address a note like that is to go to your music and find something that’s maybe more uptempo, maybe is more dynamic and really comes in with an amazing punch, or a braaam if you’re looking for an orchestral, intense kind of a thing, or a lyric that’s either less on the nose or more on the nose and look at ways of wrapping your cut around that. But, you know, we talk about how editors typically think in terms of mood or emotion or tone, and the notes that we get are typically the same way. You’re usually not going to get a note that says, “I really think that we need horns instead of strings here,” or “Let’s go with something more legato.” It’s never that specific, so you really have to interpret and figure out how you can take that note and apply it.

Don’t miss Part 3 of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!