Production music report: Keeping scores fresh for hit formats

Several reality series that ushered in the unscripted phenomenon are still on the air, and often, with the same composers providing the score for each new season. Here, realscreen talks ...
July 9, 2018

Several reality series that ushered in the unscripted phenomenon are still on the air, and often, with the same composers providing the score for each new season. Here, realscreen talks to the composers behind some of reality’s longest-running series about how they keep scores fresh, and producers happy.

When we think of such reality juggernauts as Survivor, The Amazing Race, MasterChef (pictured) and Top Chef, we think of the incredible impact they’ve had on the genre and on television itself. And for the composers who have been scoring these shows for multiple seasons, such series are an integral part of their businesses.

“The biggest challenge of being on a long running series is actually being on a long running series,” says Vaughn Johnson, composer and president at Los Angeles-based Scorekeepers and a composer on Profiles Television’s massive hit for CBS, The Amazing Race, for 25 seasons.

Indeed, such fortune can be hard to come by as the number of such perennial unscripted hits isn’t huge, and like others involved in the production process, the teams behind the music for these series know not to mess with a winning formula. Still, freshening up the sounds for new seasons — within reason — is a necessity.

“For a music competition show, the majority of the music is licensed, and it doesn’t make sense to constantly create new material every single season,” says Mark T. Williams, composer and co-founder of Ah2, the Los Angeles-based company behind scores and cues for MasterChef, Shark Tank, and recent seasons of American Idol, among other series.

ah2's jeff lippincott, mark t. williams

Ah2′s Jeff Lippincott, Mark T. Williams

“But with MasterChef, they’re really relying heavily on keeping things interesting and fresh. If you had the same music from season one through to season nine, it would feel stale and the producers recognize that. Because they recognize the value music plays in their show, they continue to request new material for every season.”

David Vanacore, owner, CEO and composer at Vanacore Music in Valencia, California, has been scoring for perhaps the most iconic of reality series — Survivor — for 19 years. With each season taking place in a new location, there’s a constant need for new music to match the environment. Vanacore says each season’s score is made up of 90-95% new music.

“It’s not like some of the other shows — they really want new, cool stuff all the time,” he says. “A lot of the other shows will have their favorites, and rightfully so.”

But even those favorite cues — used to punctuate elimination rounds or other key, recurring moments in an unscripted series — can be tweaked and freshened up. Aaron Kaplan, part of the musical scoring collective Barefoot Music, works on such franchises as Bravo’s Top Chef and Real Housewives.

barefoot music's aaron kaplan

Barefoot Music’s Aaron Kaplan

“One thing we commonly do is change or contemporize older themes — Top Chef is a great example of that,” he says. “There’s a lot of music that we wrote in the beginning that retains its format, like the title theme, and some of it has crossed over into different shows within that franchise. So we’ll often rework old pieces to keep things contemporary and give it a fresh spin.”

Still, to keep both audiences and producers happy, the trick is to know how much to apply.

“With long-running series, you don’t want to go so far that it becomes a different show,” maintains Ah2 co-founder and composer Jeff Lippencott. “There are certain sounds that people expect to hear.”

Not only are the musical cues in many long running reality series consistent — so too, often, is the production talent behind the scenes. But when a new producer or music supervisor boards an established franchise, it can prompt the composers to change their tunes.

“I’ve been on shows where you have a new producer who comes in on a different season and they’ll have their ideas about how to make the music fresh,” says Kaplan. “I was working on a show where I was doing a lot of country music, bluesy Americana influenced stuff. Every season the producer would request a new sound — pedal steel or banjo, or whatever instrument happened to be the flavor of the week. So I essentially collected instruments over the course of writing the score, so that I could have a banjo on episode one, before it eventually went back to what it was.”

Another area that may not remain consistent over the course of a series several seasons deep is the production budget, and the line amount allocated to original music. In some cases, producers strive to keep the budget for new music intact, but in other cases, composers need to do more with less, much like their other production counterparts.

vanacore music's david vanacore

Vanacore Music’s David Vanacore

Survivor has been incredibly supportive of the music,” says Vanacore, who often spends time in the series’ various locations to record Indigenous artists and craft the soundtrack for the season. “That being said, I’m also cost conscious. I’ll make sure that their money is well spent and we’ll get more than what we need.”

“With some of these series that are still on the air, at the beginning we often used to sit in a room with producers and there was more of a back and forth, and there was a lot more concern for the musical content of the show,” offers Kaplan.

From a creative standpoint, putting more resources into scoring a series also makes a huge difference in a crucial area for an unscripted series — the editing.

Given that it’s often the editors calling the shots for the music and needing the score in advance before cutting footage, providing them with new music instead of familiar library cues keeps them invested in the project, leading to a better edit.

“There are times with The Amazing Race that I get to score to picture specifically, but the editors are the superheroes in this,” says Johnson. “It rarely happens in reality TV because there is just not enough time to finish the edit, send it to the composer and have him score it to picture. We’re having to score a lot in advance.

scorekeepers' vaughn johnson

Scorekeepers’ Vaughn Johnson

“My hat is off to the editors who make it seem like a composer has scored to picture.”

No matter how long a series lasts, collaboration between composer, editor and producer is key. “It’s not ‘just’ music,” sums up Vanacore. “It’s something that helps tell the story.”

  • This story first appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author