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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

Laurel Ostrander 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.

Editor’s note: In this final part of the interview with Laurel, we were taking questions from the audience members during the live broadcast.

This question is from Chris Williams: “I’ve had placements that I got paid 41 seconds for, but I saw it on YouTube, and it was used for two minutes. Why is this? Were there two versions, or is this an actual mistake?”

That’s a good question. I wish that I had an answer for that specific situation. But oftentimes we edit, or we’re asked to edit, extended versions it seems. There is something called the “snap-in.” If a show airs on, I don’t know, like OWN, and then it’s gonna be sold to air internationally on another network, they’ll ask for extended versions to see.

There you go, that’s probably the answer.

This one is from Casey Hurwitz: “Is it a good idea to play your cues at low volume and see what sticks out under dialogue?”

I think it certainly can’t hurt, because that’s how ideally you want it to be played in an episode. Sure.

"I think it certainly can’t hurt to really have your ear to what is popular and current, and think about how you can make instrumental versions of that music."

Somebody asked about the direction with the scoring stuff. I think when a lot of people hear us talking about “scoring,” they’re thinking orchestral scoring, but it’s not. Many shows today will “score” using songs, not traditional orchestral score.

Well, you know, we are getting some orchestral. But one directive I got for a Netflix series that I did this year was, “We want every episode to have its own unique sound, and we all want it to sound current. So this episode we want to be the Billie Eilish episode; this episode we want to be the Beyoncé episode; this episode we want to be the Drake episode.” And we’re using music that sounds like those artists, but we’re using it to score the scene. So, I think it certainly can’t hurt to really have your ear to what is popular and current, and think about how you can make instrumental versions of that music.

I know that libraries used to commonly use in their metadata or search terms, they would put in stuff like “Sounds like Billie Eilish.” And now, because of the massive lawsuit, they are much more afraid, because they can no longer make the claim, “No, we didn’t want that to sound like Billie Eilish,” because if it sounds like Billie Eilish and the library put that in the metadata... So, is it common that when you guys get a directive from the network or from the EP telling you that we want this episode to sound very Billie Eilish-ish—I’ve never had to say that before—do you then go in and search library with the term “Billie Eilish,” and hope that stuff pops up that was tagged that way?

Yeah, either me or our music department’s music supervisor.

So, I wonder if that’s going to get harder for libraries. I’m sure that they are backtracking now and taking out artists’ names as tags, because it’s like telling a judge and a jury, “Yeah, we intended that this stuff sounded like Billie Eilish,” and there’s a lawsuit.

What’s the most common genre that you do use?

Two years ago, I would’ve said hip-hop. Right now, it’s a mix of orchestral tension and pop, and pop can cover so many different things. I think that the variety of shows that are out there right now are so vast, and every show is gonna have different needs and different parts of the show, that it’s hard to say. I would actually be curious what the libraries say that they are getting more requests for.

What percentage of cues do you use with vocals versus instrumental only, if you had to give it a number?

Depending on the show. I just did a Netflix show this year, and we tried to use only cues that had lyrics available and then strip a lot of lyrics out. And then we were told that we were spending too much money, and that we had to go back to some cheaper options. But a sound like that really does make a show sound a little more expensive and a little more evocative. That was definitely an example of using music as a score. And I love lyric-ups, because it’s that opportunity to tell the audience that this is what people are thinking without having to have your cast say it.

Editor’s note: A “lyric up” is when a song is used, but mostly the instrumental track until a key lyric line in the song is popped in to [as Laurel pointed out] “…to tell the audience that this is what people are thinking without having to have your cast say it.” The part of the lyric that tells the story or completes a thought is the part that is “lyric up.”

I know that you were a story editor before you became a video editor, and people are commenting in the chatroom about what a great communicator you are and how well you explain things. Clearly, you were born to be a very communicative person, but I’ve got to believe that your story-editing chops not only carry over to your video editing but your understanding of music as well as to what music can do for the story. It’s nice that you think in those terms, not just, “I need something up-tempo here. OK, let’s get it in and move on.”

Audience question: Do you ever make EQ adjustments, or add compression or do any sort of audio-post-y stuff while you are editing? Or is that the audio mixer that does that?

Well, I think that at a very, very rudimentary level, yes. Typically not, because I’m not very good at it. But if I am editing a scene and somebody is on the telephone, then I’ll do something to make it sound like it’s coming through telephone speakers. The most that I typically do with a cue is add a De-Verb if I need a cue to sting out and there’s not a sting in the place that I need it. A trick that we use all the time, especially with comedy, is use Vari-fi [she makes a funny sound. Vari-fi is a tool in an audio suite in ProTools, that’s often used to make the sound of tape speeding up as it flies over the playback head of a tape machine]. Or sometimes you will build that and then reverse it so that it slows back up into the cue. That’s about the most that we do. But typically, it goes to a professional mixer, who is gonna do all this.

Audience question: Laurel, you mentioned key changes. If a cue changes key for a B-section—kinda like a bridge—but returns to the original key for the ending and the sting, would that work?

I prefer not to, because as an editor I want the flexibility to be able to use all the cues all the time in the way that I want to. And if it’s a different key, then it means that I’m not going to be able to move from A-section to B-section or B-section to C-section seamlessly, and I might not have time to be able to play the full modulation in the act. So, I would prefer it all to be one key, and have dynamics within that key.

People keep asking what you want to see in the metadata.

That’s a good question. I like to see the genre; I like to see mood; I like to see instruments. You know, sometimes I’ll have a random use for a theremin, and I search theremin. Or Jew’s harp was a search that I did this weekend, and it brought up all cues that have that instrument. It gets weirdly specific sometimes, so I appreciate that. I think you can never go wrong with genre and mood, though. Those are two that are hugely helpful pieces.

I like the fact that specific instruments are mentioned. It would be tough for a musician who is tagging their own thing, or even a library owner, or somebody that works at a library, to know which are the most important. And you don’t want to over-tag, but people will tend to put everything, including the kitchen sink, in there hoping that one of those things will result in that music popping up in a search. But things like an acoustic guitar matters, so you know it’s an acoustic guitar track versus a synth track. Jew’s harp is a great example, or harmonica, bagpipe—things that are out of the ordinary for those rare moments where you have to search for that. That sounds like a great thing to add.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I could interview Laurel every year for the rest of my life and know that you guys are getting great information. I’ve had other editors that did fine, but you’re a cut above.

"We’re going to want the final version of [a piece of music] so that we know, OK, this isn’t gonna have to go back to the composer, because once it gets to us, the ball is rolling so quickly to get these up there."

Here’s a question from Sonic: “Do they usually want final mastered tracks, but is it normal or acceptable to submit unmastered instrumentals and stems?” So, do editors even think in terms of, “Oh, I really like that, but it doesn’t sound like it’s been mastered”?

I would say my ear is probably not trained enough to be able to hear that difference. I’m sure a professional mixer when he gets a cut might know that. I think that we’re going to want the final version of anything so that we know, OK, this isn’t gonna have to go back to the composer, because once it gets to us, the ball is rolling so quickly to get these up there.

I’m gonna add something sonic as a retired post-mixer. And I’ve got trained ears, and I’m not sure I would know the difference in the heat of battle if a track is mastered or if it’s just a really good mix. Really, mastering was invented to make every cut on an album have a similar sonic personality, if you will, so it all sounded the same. Like this was recorded in that studio; that was recorded in another studio, mixed by a different person. You want a certain amount of cohesiveness, so mastering was for that purpose as well as not having the needle jump out of the grooves, because if you have a super-big kick drum hit or a bass guitar note, they would literally cause a needle to jump out of the groove on vinyl records. I think people confuse mastering today with… It does add a certain amount of polish and professionalism to it, but a good mix does that as well. So, I wouldn’t worry about that so much.

Although, we did show some software the other day in one of the prequels. This mastering software that is like idiot-proof, almost one-button easy, and it’s like you put it on anything and it just sounds amazing. Like click a button and go wow, and I’ve got to believe that audio-post engineers would want to use it on shows. It doesn’t have this dramatic effect on dynamics and stuff, but it just makes everything… You know, it’s like the button you hit on your phone’s camera when you take a shot and you hit that “enhance” thing and it just gets the lighting a little better and adjusts the color. It’s basically that with one button for audio and it really, really worked well.

One funny story. Something that happened to us on a show this past summer was we accidently applied reverb to an entire music cue… completely accidental. We just accidentally got it down to the reverb tracks, and the network wrote back, “What is this amazing-sounding cue? It’s so cool. It’s like nothing we’ve ever heard before. It’s kinda like you’re in a cave, but it’s really neat.” And we’re like… “Sure!”

Now they want everything swimming in reverb.

I think sometimes it really works. Like if you really want some pop kind of a cue, like maybe if it’s a little dark, throw some reverb in there; apparently, they like it.

Audience question: Do you guys ever have a need for cues that would have scratching vinyl records? I’m not sure if he’s asking for scratching like a DJ, or clicks and pops like vinyl sounds.

Like if we’re doing like a hip-hop kind of a sound? Sometimes. I would say that that might be a nice example of where we would want a version that has that effect on it, and a version that does not have the effect.

We get people that aren’t fully initiated to the drill yet, and they will send in cues that have like raindrops in the beginning, or thunder and lightning as a sound effect rolled into the beginning of a cue, and I always tell them, “Don’t do that!” You’re dramatically limiting the use for this, because the only way an editor can use it is if they wanted thunder and lightning. So why do that?

Glen Lavender asked: “Can Laurel offer some examples of what kinds of shows are using the more scored sound?”

I would say a lot of the streaming networks are. A lot of the Netflix shows that I’ve worked on are doing that. The more relationship-heavy shows are doing that, like Married at First Sight. Dating shows are going that route.

I figure it would be tough being an editor looking at a bin full of cues for tension cues. Although I know it’s waning a little bit, but tension. I mean, there is tension in The Bachelorette; who’s gonna get the rose, who’s gonna get the boot? Tension; husband and wife having an intense moment in a reality show standing in the kitchen trying to decide where they’re going for dinner tonight, whatever. Tension; that might lean towards the more horrific side, like you’re gonna walk into the room and be scared to death. So, are there titles or any sort of hint in those titles when you are looking for tension, or is it all just massed into one bin and you really have to go to work to find the right cue with tension?

Well, we say tension. It’s usually broken down into many, many finer categories than that. You’ve got dramatic action, orchestral tension, pop, hip-hop tension, so it’s broken down for the vibe and genre.

The problem with tagging is it’s hard to be objective about your own music, and it’s also hard to know which are the most important things that you should tag. I find that many musicians don’t even get the genre right; it’s just really hard to be objective. Is this a singer/songwriter song or is it an indie folk song?

Oh, my goodness, I’ve gone overtime. I didn’t even realize that—wow. Well, I guess all the rest of the questions will have to be answered on Laurel’s next visit, because we are absolutely certain that we’ll be asking her back.

Laurel, you’re a rock star in our world. People kept saying, “Wow, she’s such a great communicator.” Yeah, I’ve been telling you guys that. You’re delightful to interview, because every sentence that comes out of your mouth is valuable. So thank you. I think that TAXI members probably got their entire membership fee for the year paid for just by this interview. So I’ll see you again in the future, I’m sure. Thank you for doing this on a Sunday morning; I really appreciate it. Ladies and gentlemen, Laurel Ostrander.

Thank you so much!