Collaborating with Shredders

Last spring I scored my first TV pilot. The producer's vision was consistent from the show's inception (a blessed rarity with pilots): he wanted it scored as if a garage band was whipping out short, memorable tunes, which would be used primarily as transitions between scenes. Simple, raw, distorted, punk. A confined temper tantrum for electric guitar, bass and drums.

Recurring feedback from the demos was that the sound was too clean and not distorted or crunchy enough. My favorite: “It sounds like a Stephen J. Cannell show from the 80s.” (Sigh.) A child fan of The A-Team, I knew exactly what that meant. My first instrument was a classical guitar and I didn't pick up an electric until college. I had bought a Fender Strat several years ago, and while amp emulation software had suited me fine thus far, the music for this show demanded more, both in terms of sound and playing style. The plan had always been to bring in a guitar player for the final mix, but it became apparent the show runner needed to hear the sound he was looking for now, not later. It was Friday, and we had our first important screening for producers on Monday.

I hired my friend Ben Peeler, an experienced, touring guitar player who has played with Shelby Lynne and Shakira, among other famous artists. In order to get an authentic sound we'd need to record a real amp – no emulation. I also opted for a cheap, dynamic mic and not my reliable Neumann condenser. Subtlety was not on the menu. We also chose a guitar with poor high-register intonation and double-coil pickups (humbuckers) for a more brutish sound.

We spent most of the day blasting out different types of distortion, doubling riffs in multiple octaves, and generally transforming my sleepy home into an annex from Guitar Center. I was convinced we had found the right sound and was eager to hear the producer’s reaction at the end of the first major screening. As it turned out, only one of the cues felt right.

To be fair, this was due to my hazy direction and not Ben's playing. In some cases, I had piled on unnecessary sonic layers, falling prey to the insecurity of not being “interesting” enough. These cues benefited from vacuuming everything but the meat and potatoes; nothing beyond the obvious remained. More importantly, the show runner and I came to realize anything which felt overly scored to picture didn't fit the aesthetic of the show. It was more effective to have a 2-bar tune which barges in unapologetically rather than flitter nimbly between dialogue and tie itself in a bow at its conclusion.

For the next show-and-tell, Chris Lennertz, my friend and co-composer on the show, suggested I record with two players he'd used on Horrible Bosses: David Levita and Chris Chaney. Dave had toured with Alanis Morrisette; Chris is the bass player for Jane's Addiction. Dave brought his gargantuan British amp, which we shoved in the bathroom, voltage transformer and all. This time I was able to direct these cats more specifically, and they locked the sound down right away.

Working from home the last year, I've felt the solitary nature of composing more acutely. You get accustomed to your way of doing things and lose perspective on how to grow or improve – or worse – that you even need to grow or improve. During both recording sessions, I felt like a high school runner in a relay race handing over the baton to the musician-equivalents of Usain Bolt. Seeing these musicians manifest their gift in the world I felt a cocktail of respect, admiration, excitement and – most importantly – relief. The weight of getting it right had been lifted from my shoulders and spread out among the team.

Sadly, the pilot didn’t get picked up, but I feel richer for having collaborated with people who, on the production side, pushed me to keep sculpting the right sound, and on the musical side, took my raw ideas and made them their own. The result – something beyond what I could have ever conceived alone – is one of the many reasons I love this craft.