For many years I was involved in composing; arranging; orchestration; sound design; trumpet, flugelhorn, valve trombone playing; and MIDI/audio engineering for PBS Television productions and some independent productions that were broadcast on PBS for KCTS-9 in Seattle, WA. I participated in numerous Emmy and Telly award-winning shows from 1988 into the early 2000s. This page presents an abridged summary of my participation because my memory of the events is unfortunately abridged as well. Too many shows, too long ago. Abridged too far.
Being a composer of music in the the world of television was not particularly easy. It was not easy to get in, not easy to stay in, not easy to do. A few of us were lucky enough to earn at least part of our "living" in this small niche during the relatively narrow window of years where such programs were regularly produced. I wanted to include some examples here because they represent the type of "craft" music that working composers (including me) were paid to produce during the '80s and 90's. I use the term "craft" because this is music where the musical content decisions were largely dictated by people other than the composer(s.) It was the composer's job to follow instructions for supplying what the Producer envisioned. There was certainly creativity involved but it was highly circumscribed in an understandable attempt to appeal to the largest possible, and typically older, audience. The list of television productions in which I participated over the years included "Over Washington," "Over New England," "Over Florida," "Over California," "Over America," "The Miracle Planet" four-part science series, the "Fire on the Rim" four-part science series, "Washington D.C. Our Nation's Capital," "21st Century Jet," "Rudy Maxa's Smart Travels in Europe," and many others. I personally received Telly awards for my participation in "Over America" and "21st Century Jet." The music for many of these projects (often the work of 4 to 6 composers per show) was engineered and mixed at The Vocal-Free Zone Music Studio.
The Right Skills in the Right Place at the Right Time
In the late 1980s there were three primary production houses for original PBS television content: Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. Much of this content revolved around the periodic fund raising drives done at public television stations. Seattle created what was hoped would be inviting new material for people to watch - supplying encouragement for people to dig into their pockets in support of PBS in general and local stations in particular. Video copies of the broadcast programs we were creating were often used as incentives at various donation levels.
My introduction to PBS was serendipitous through the referral of a friend and superb woodwind player Jim Coile in the fall of 1988. Jim had been my roommate in College and had gone on to quite a music career including playing with Ballin'jack, George Shearing, the Don Ellis Big Band, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, Willie Bobo, was a studio musician in L.A., and well, the list is a lengthy one. Jim is well-represented on this website because I have written several pieces of music specifically with him in mind as a performer (see the Musical Compositions page for more on Jim and music I wrote for him.)
The Music Director for productions at KCTS-9 was pianist and composer Denny Gore, seen in the photo on the right, who had worked as conductor, and/or pianist for Lou Rawls, The Pointer Sisters, the Playboy Club, the Ice Capades, Mel Tormé, the NBC Orchestra, the Bob Hope Show Orchestra, the Merv Griffin Orchestra, and the Jerry Lewis Easter Seals Telethon Orchestra, among many others. In other words, he had an extensive career in music prior to becoming Music Director for KCTS-9.
Denny had purchased a new Alesis MMT-8 hardware sequencer to aid in recording MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data from his keyboard during "on the fly" creation of soundtrack material for video productions. He needed someone to operate the sequencer while he was busy playing the keyboard. I was the one hired to operate the sequencer and handle MIDI data editing since I was quite familiar with this particular machine's operation and I had the musical background to understand what Denny needed during production. It was an interesting, and rapid, process at that time for adding music to the video cues at the station. The engineer would roll the video and record Denny as he improvised at the keyboard while watching the video – rather similar to silent movie organists back in the 1920s creating appropriate music as they watched the movie action on screen. Adding the MIDI sequencing capability increased the flexibility to edit what was recorded. The MIDI data could be tweaked and then used for the final audio pass to tape tracks synchronized to the video.
Denny and I worked well together. He knew I was a musician/composer and asked to hear recordings of my music. He apparently liked what he heard and hired me as a composer. That soon evolved into a multifaceted endeavor where I was doing composition, arranging, and orchestration for myself and others on the team. The team consisted of up to about six composers per project, depending on the demands and length of the particular show. The Producer and Denny would “spot” the show to decide the placement and types of music needed. The music sections were called “cues.” Denny would then assign cues to the various composers on the team, including himself. Most of the time a "needle drop" was played for the composers to give them an example of what the producer had in mind for a particular section of music. The term "needle drop" originated from dropping a phonograph needle onto the grooves of an LP track. It was the composer's job to create music that resembled the mood of the "needle drop" while remaining original in content. A process of sketching, review with the Producer, modification, more review, etc., would proceed until the Producer approved the sketch. The more quickly one fulfilled the intent of the Producer the better, because the composer was only paid by final airtime in minutes, not the sketch and development time. Nailing it on the first sketch paid the same as the 3rd try or the 8th try. These cues could vary from 30 seconds on up to about 15 minutes in length. The complete shows were usually either a half hour or an hour in length. Many of the fund raising shows had the challenge of requiring virtually wall-to-wall music. I played trumpet, flugelhorn, or valve trombone on my own and other composer's works. I occasionally collaborated with Denny or Jim Coile writing cues. The functions of composer and arranger/orchestrator often overlapped. In the process of arranging/orchestrating other composer's music I would add melodic lines/counterlines and modify harmonies of the original piano sketch of the composition. This also helped to give an overall stylistic coherence to a production. There was usually considerable latitude in fleshing out arrangements and orchestration of piano sketches although general instructions or suggestions were usually supplied by the composer.
At first the technology was quite primitive and had many exasperating limitations. I think of those early years of integrating music and video as similar to the Wright Brothers and flying; we often seemed to be using bailing wire and bicycle parts (does that make me a spokesperson?) to hold things together when the available tools proved hugely inadequate. For my first year I did all composing in my studio in the form of MIDI data which was then taken to the station to be played back while "triggering" hardware sound modules (strikingly limited sound modules) whose audio output was recorded to audio tracks synchronized to the video. The MIDI data was not synchronized so there was a lot of "ready, set, GO!" to pushing the "play" button on the MIDI sequencer. Narration and sound effects were tracked separately by the station's engineering staff. Mixing was usually done at the station by Bill Fast and/or Toby Higashi.
In the second year we often used the fine personal studio owned by Scott MacGougan, another member of the composing team. Denny later purchased Scott's studio and further advanced the technology of that studio for the PBS work. The ensuing years rapidly shifted more elements of music production to the evolving personal studios of the composers. This freed the station's audio production rooms for other things and generally increased the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the process. By 1992 I was controlling all aspects of my own music production at The Vocal-Free Zone including composing/arranging/orchestration, live acoustic instrument tracking, and music mixing. My completed music mixes were delivered to the station on Digital Audio Tape (DAT) ready to be added to the narration and sound effects.
Another change brought more work to The Vocal-Free Zone: The Producer(s) apparently liked the way I mixed my music and the instrumental sound palette I had developed. They decided to give an overall consistency to all music tracks within a given show. To this end, the composers on the team would do all preliminary work in their own studios and then, for the last stage of music production, bring things to my studio for the final tracking, editing, sound choices, and music mixing.
One of the big challenges of these productions was the very tight time-constraints for the creation of the music. The video side of the productions often took several months to prepare. The addition of music, narration and sound effects was always near the end of production. In most cases, we would have about three weeks from initial cue assignments to the final mix. Now, that is a tight deadline because it forces you to take a Producer's instructions, sketch a compositional idea, get it approved in temporary mix form, do the arranging and orchestration, record any live instruments, then complete the editing and mixing chores for delivery to the station with a cushion of time for them to incorporate the music into the show along with the other audio elements! Somehow we did it, even if the final results were often less complete and polished than we would have preferred. Compromise was unavoidable under these circumstances but, even so, many of these shows still sound quite good – even when you know exactly which elements got short-changed in the musical rush to deadline! The deadline was always a published broadcast date. Unmovable, intractable, set in stone. To the best of my recollection we never missed a broadcast date.
I worked on so many shows for over a decade that I don't really remember all of them or the specific work I performed on each - I wore many hats and different ones on different shows. Rarely did I get all of my contributions acknowledged in the final credit roll of the show but that was just a fact of life for this kind of work. Itemizing each person's contributions would have made for a very long credit roll or a very fast one! Beyond the productions I have mentioned above, there were children's shows, and cooking shows, and . . . I forget. I was recently helping Denny review some of these old shows and as we were trying to identify cues I took note of a cue that I clearly had written and on which I had performed a flugelhorn solo. It was definitely me but I didn't remember doing it – or anything about it! That's when you know you've participated in many, many shows over a long stretch of time. Either that or I'm getting so old that . . . that . . . now, I know I was going to make a point here of some kind. Wait a minute! I just remembered one show that should carry a great deal of prestige - amongst primates anyway: "The Baby Monkey Goes to School!"
The time I spent with PBS also laid the powerful groundwork for skills that I would apply later in my work with the Garritan Corporation – sample programming in particular. But there were also sound design, recording, and other engineering skills developed in both MIDI and audio areas that became indispensable later on. The fact that we had to invent creative solutions to the many technical hurdles we encountered led to problem solving skills that came in very handy during the Garritan years. These hurdles in the early PBS years were sometimes formidable, as in dealing effectively with the minuscule amounts of sample memory available (I did the Over Washington show with 640kb of total sample memory! It would not be unusual to use over 50Gb of sample data today with streaming technology.)
The initial lack of reliable synchronization between video and audio led to issues where sounds that were designed to hit certain screen actions instead missed the mark(s.) In one case superb composer Kari Medina and I spent 17 hours mixing a very large cue of hers only to find that synchronization failed when the audio was delivered to the station and placed with the video. To our extreme dismay we discovered that the final video at the station had been cut to a preliminary analogue cassette copy of the music cue and the cassette speed was predictably and significantly inaccurate. We were forced to redo our mix at a sprint in the remaining available 4 hours. The result, of course, wasn't as well-crafted as the first, more meticulous mix but . . . well, . . . welcome to television!
Over time we found both solutions and procedures for the audio/video puzzle, some of which have become standard industry practice in the years since. As I suggested, we were audio/video pioneers of a sort.
It should be understood that PBS budgets were always very tight because they depended upon grants and viewer donations for much of their support. These shows were necessarily produced with very limited money budgeted for the music portion of the project. Because of this, we simply couldn't afford to hire very many live musicians for the soundtracks. We "made do" with just a handful of live musicians (often the composers themselves) mixed in judiciously with sampled and synthesized “stand-ins” for everything else to complete the illusion. And "illusion" it largely was.
I recently discovered a very kind letter sent to me near the beginning of my association with PBS by Jeff Gentes, the Producer of the “Over” series of programs. I received the letter a few weeks after the broadcast of the very first show I worked on as a composer in early 1989: "Over Washington." We went on to do many, many more productions together after this! Thanks to Jeff for extending permission to reproduce the letter:
Below are a few excerpts from my work with PBS. These examples are the ones I have been generously given permission to use by KCTS-9. I worked on a much wider range of material than is represented here but copyright restrictions can involve considerable entanglements and I'm fortunate to have gotten this much approved. Even setting aside the copyright issues, the tapes from most of the shows I worked on have not survived (in my possession) so the choices are necessarily limited to the ones I still have on hand. I also wasn't very diligent about keeping a running tally of my work. I should have known I'd one day want to revisit things on a website (as my 1989 self can be heard to say "a web what?") All of the cues below are intentionally small files of relatively low quality - just enough size and video/audio quality to give you a reasonable idea of what the shows looked and sounded like. To see them in their full video and audio resolution you would need to purchase the shows on DVD and/or Blu-ray where I assume the full original quality has been transferred and maintained. Emphasis on "assume."
The music for the following examples was intentionally created as rather "Easy Listening" in the form of light jazz and orchestral music with some "New Age" overtones, here and there, although on rare occasions I managed to slip in something more adventurous when the Producers weren't looking. I would say something like, "Hey, look over there! Isn't that a squirrel wearing a hat like Abraham Lincoln?!!" and while they were distracted I'd slip in an unusual chord sequence. I'm taking this opportunity to confess that I didn't really see a squirrel wearing a hat. Sorry for the misdirection. It was actually a gerbil wearing a sarong.
These particular selections show my work in composing, arranging, orchestration, trumpet/flugelhorn playing, some minor sound design (although I did considerable sound design on other shows,) and MIDI/audio mixing work. Unfortunately, the audio/mixing quality will not be easy to evaluate because of the compromised nature of the small, highly compressed files below - unavoidable artifacts are present due to file compression and deterioration of the original analog tapes. Please make allowances. At least that's my excuse.
At the beginning of each cue I have added identification information about each of the participants, such as I can remember. Obviously, this information is not visible in the actual commercially available video for these shows. That is another good reason to purchase the complete shows: The printed names don't get in the way on the real thing!
When watching and listening to these cues keep in mind the severely limited resources we had available to create this sometimes large-sounding music. When you hear (what sounds something like) a full orchestra, or even a French horn section, you are actually hearing audio sleight-of-hand tricks since we had no such resources at our disposal. The tools to do this kind of acoustic instrument legerdemain are common now but were new back then, and we were, out of necessity, helping to invent them! My later work with the Garritan Corporation was entirely about creating these kinds of tools for composers.
Here's an arcane bit of trivia from my PBS years: I was probably the trumpeter heard by more people than any other playing over video of the grave of John F. Kennedy. So, I have included that quiet clip of the Eternal Flame from "Washington D.C., Our Nation's Capital." It was easy trumpet playing to record but interesting for the context.
The projects below are still available in the form of DVDs and, sometimes, Blu-ray discs and I strongly urge you to support PBS by purchasing these at standard retail or online outlets. With the exception of "Over Florida" (which is available at Amazon among other places,) I'm including links to the available videos at the PBS store, just click on the cover art or title below. I'm providing the links as a courtesy even though, as I briefly stated on the Home page of this site, I no longer receive compensation of any kind for this ancient work. Keep in mind that when I use the word "ancient" I'm being kind to myself. So, all the money from sales goes to support PBS, with portions to manufacturers, distributors, retail outlets, etc. Fortunately, I do retain ownership rights to the music I composed for those shows if I ever wish to use it in the future. Now, if I could just remember what I composed!
The following two cues are from 1992's "Over Florida." The first clip is of Jacksonville displaying Jim Coile's alto sax in a light jazz/pop cue and the second is a Latin-influenced Miami at night that features my flugelhorn. Narrator: Jim Cissell
One of the larger assignments I had on a single show was the Massachusetts section of "Over New England" in 1991. This was a considerable amount of music to compose, arrange, orchestrate, and mix in a short amount of time. I did all of it alone at the Vocal-Free Zone except for the Boston Daytime section. Boston Daytime was composed primarily by Jim Coile with a few compositional contributions from me. We recorded some of the tracks for Boston Daytime at KCTS-9 with a few of the later overdubs and the final music mixing at the Vocal-Free Zone. I then assembled the entire "suite" and delivered it to PBS as a single cue. It's a worthy inclusion for the illustration of how even relatively large scale works could be created (after a fashion) despite the technological and other constraints. Narrator: Jim Cissell
I sometimes played improvised flugelhorn solos on Denny Gore's light jazz cues. Here's an example from "Over New England":
The next clips are from 1994's "Washington D.C., Our Nation's Capital," which was the original title. "Over" was added later for some DVD release versions. I was not a composer on that particular show but I was very active as a brass player, arranger, orchestrator, MIDI editor and audio mixing engineer. Narrator: Jason Robards.
Finally, I was asked to do a lot of different types of trumpet playing over the years. Here's a brief example of Mariachi trumpet playing (I overdubbed two parts) from Denny Gore's San Antonio section of 1995's "Over America." This was recorded at Denny's Safari Studios. Narrator: Tom Skerritt
Thanks to KCTS-9 for extending permission to use the above video clips. Special thanks to Legal Affairs Manager Amy Jolley of KCTS-9.