Years ago, Guitar Player magazine had a corner column for the studio musician, the hard working-behind-the-scenes-guitar player whose name would appear in fine print on an album, but who wasn’t part of a «real» band. The column talked about who was doing what, for whom, and where. Guitar Player no longer has that column, I assume partially because the structure of session recording has significantly changed. So, I thought it might be a fun opportunity for readers to hear a little bit about some session musicians out there today.
Session musicians might find themselves playing on a soap commercial one moment, a television series the next, and a major motion picture later that same day. Arguably the most famous session guitarist in the world is Tommy Tedesco, with a resume so lengthy, you could wallpaper a small room with sheets of single-spaced type. Some of Tommy’s most famous solos would include Bonanza, M*A*S*H*, Batman, and dozens of recordings by Elvis, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, The Monkees, and literally thousands of others.
When Tommy Tedesco started to slow down and make plans to record less, he reached down from the guitar-God heavens and touched a young player named Joe DiBlasi. Joe began to pick up work ported to him via Tommy Tedesco, and has long ago gone on to fill the shoes that Tommy Tedesco left behind. (Tedesco retired long before his death in 1997.) To quote Joe directly, «Tommy Tedesco gave me my career.» Joe is amazingly humble about his accomplishments behind the microphone and mix console.
I recently caught up with Joe DiBlasi at his home in Northern LA, where he played me some cues for a television show he’s bidding for.
After having watched an episode of the show the night before, it was a tremendous shift in the attitude of the show, which in my opinion, was a little slow and even improperly scored for some scenes. So, in the process of asking Joe why he was bidding such assertive and driving music for the show, which is (in the episode I saw) mostly strings and pads, I wanted to know more, and felt it worthwhile to share his answers here.
Diblasi’s approach was a refreshing, present guitar. Many themes on shows today have become all MIDI and sample-based, but hearing a real guitar player moving from deep distortions to strikingly clean sounds made for some very emotional pushes. Joe explained that from his perspective, the show had just as many young viewers as adult viewers, and there is a lot of aggressive dialog coupled with tense moments. He felt the driving guitar could best convey that in some scenes, as opposed to relying on a ‘library’ approach where off-the-shelf MIDI riffs and samples are the ‘go-to’ sounds and styles.
It was immediately clear to me that Joe had been spending time not just with sessions he was playing on, but on other sessions, too. I asked him what sorts of music he’d been listening to and in the ‘aura’ of recently. When he told me that his daughter was the voice of the little girl singing in Pirates of the Caribbean, I was stunned. His daughters have résumé’s longer and stronger at age 7, 11 and 18 than most major singers have in a lifetime. Work for The Simpsons, Harry Potter, Peter Pan, and many Disney shows seems to round out the day at the DiBlasi home. After learning Joe has written for, produced, or performed on recordings as diverse as Charo to Raiders of the Lost Ark, one would suppose that the unexpected is the norm.
Joe, I’ve seen some of your resume’, and it’s pretty interesting that a guy can go from producing Charo to working with Pink Floyd, to playing on the soundtrack for Sommersby. These all seemed to be works of you as a session guy. How did you get into scoring for TV/film?
From my early days as a session guitarist I’ve been exposed to every genre of TV/film music. I’ve been very lucky to have worked on some of the most successful TV series and biggest motion pictures of all time. I’ve always had an interest in the correlation between video and sound and how they interact. Sitting in a recording studio, interpreting the music of John Williams on an Indiana Jones movie and seeing how the greatest film composer of all time develops a score was incredible on the job training. Needless to say, having been fortunate enough to have worked with many of the masters, I’ve had the best opportunity for education that any composer could hope for. Getting back to the question, I was asked to score a «B» rated murder mystery several years ago by a producer friend. The movie was titled Point Dume. It was downright AWFUL, but there were no restrictions placed on me and I was able to experiment to my heart’s content. This really triggered the desire to delve deeper and at this point, I went on the hunt for any scoring projects I could find.
In listening to these ‘demo cues’ I could clearly hear tense moments, anger, and euphoria, driving purpose, and even sort of a ‘march’ in the music. Not seeing the images you were scoring to, I could still picture what was happening, so obviously you were inspired by something on the screen. What sorts of elements do you look for in a visual to inspire a particular musical segment?
The first and foremost importance is to figure out what feeling the film maker is trying to convey. The music should accentuate this emotion. If you think back to the classic shower scene in Psycho, the build-up of the music had you petrified in anticipation well before the murder happened. To see the impact that the score has, try watching the same scene with the sound turned down. It very well might put you to sleep. Also check out Kevin Kostner’s Robin Hood. There is no dialog for probably the first 10 minutes of the film. The entire sequence is carried by the score. Michael Kaman did a remarkable job of creating excitement, tension and resolution in a very long film segment that might have been laborious otherwise. In general, I tend to look for visuals that portray emotion and can be greatly enhanced by the score. A tense moment as in a chase scene might be best captured with some sort of heavy rhythmic background. You can’t go wrong with lots of drums, shakers or anything else percussive combined with some ethereal sounds. On the other hand, a love scene would generally be treated in a more tender way utilizing maybe strings, acoustic guitar and woodwinds.
I was somewhat surprised to hear some ACID loops in some of the other music you’d played for me today. I guess I hadn’t thought of a full-time composer using ACID loops. What sorts of things should a videographer scoring with ACID or Soundtrack look for when scoring?
ACID and Soundtrack are very powerful tools that are incredibly effective and very easy to learn. They put performances of great musical minds at the fingertips of the masses. They give the non-musician (as well as the musician) the tools necessary to create unique and original musical compositions utilizing the sound of some of the world’s top performers. Where else would you be able to hear Mick Fleetwood and Rudy Sarzo performing together on a piece that you created in just minutes? The danger is that the resources are so vast and the libraries so complete that one could go into experimental mode and forget that a project needs to be delivered. (Finish the project, then play … ) Virtually any type of musical enhancement that one can imagine is covered by one or more of the available libraries. My advice to a videographer scoring with ACID or Soundtrack would be to experience as many other similar works as possible. Listen to how a great composer would treat the same kind of situation. Emulating the style of music used by a professional is the quickest way to learn which instruments to use and how to effectively breathe life into your film.
That’s interesting, because as a session player I would have thought you’d be frightened by the access that desktop musicians and video editors have to great sounds. So, since I hear some loops in parts of your works, I suppose you’d feel good about using loops in television and film work?
When I started my career as a studio guitarist, there were no loops. As LA’s top studio musicians, all of us were confident in thinking that we were the one business that could never be affected by computer technology. Boy were we wrong! When loops first came into use, the quality was poor and the fidelity was inferior. We laughed at producers that wanted to add loops to their tracks. But now it’s a different day. I don’t think I know of any composer (other than the serious hardcore classical snob) that doesn’t incorporate loops into his/her music. I utilize loops as textures in most of my compositions. With loop based programs such as ACID and Soundtrack, the non-musician as well as the musician has the tools necessary to effectively create incredible original musical scores. The days of having to rent an expensive studio and hire a writer, arranger and a bunch of musicians have long gone.
Any tips/tricks you’d give readers about scoring their corporate, training, or documentary video project?
Effective music to picture should be seen and not heard. In other words, music should not draw attention away from the film. It should enhance the visual without detracting from what’s happening on screen. It should create the ambiance needed to impact the audience in setting the mood and character of the film. Music is also very effective in smoothing the transition from scene to scene. When dialog is happening, try and keep the score as uncomplicated as possible. There are times when a sound such as a single held cello note is the best choice. My best advice would be to keep it simple. You don’t need a lot of notes to be effective.
What other things should video editors consider in doing a mix and score for a film or television spot?
Mixing is an art unto itself. With a bit of diligence again in listening to tracks of a similar nature, great mixing results will eventually be achieved. When I mix, I always have a reference track of some great work to compare to. The sounds will be different, but I try and match the volume, panning and amount of effect (EQ, compression, reverb, delay) of each individual instrument. If you spend a few minutes getting each sound in the right perspective, the entire mix will blend much better. When mixing, always start with your foundation. Get the drums and bass working well together. Drum loops will already be panned. Bass is generally heard in mono panned straight up the middle, although digital technology now allows for the bass to move around in the mix a little. When you are satisfied with the balance add the remaining instruments to the mix one at a time. Try several different panning alternatives to make the most of your stereo image. Eventually you’ll feel comfortable mixing stereo and will easily be able to make the transition to surround. Using loops will make the job of mixing even easier. The higher end loop libraries such as ACID and Soundtrack are state of the art, particularly the 24-bit ACID libraries. They are pre-balanced. Any level spikes, noises or other imperfections inherent to the recording process have been removed so nothing will stick out in your mix. In using a drum loop for instance, the bass drum will be in the proper perspective to the snare, hi hat, toms and cymbals. This insures that one of the most critical mixing tasks is already taken care of. Mixes always seem to change on different speakers. After finishing a mix I always check it on either a boom box or in the car. You’ll tend to hear details differently when you change speakers. Quite often I will make adjustments to my final mix after referencing an alternative playback system.
Any final thoughts to add to the conversation?
Creating music is something I’ve spent my entire life developing and I have an incredible passion for what I do. It really is fun. The tools that have become available make it that much more exciting. To quote my close friend Rudy Sarzo, «If you can think it, you can create it»… Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with your readers.
Thanks Joe, for sharing some time and knowledge with me.
Douglas Spotted Eagle
Sundance Media Group