by Marshall Such

It’s something you use every day. You may be in Creative Heaven or Production Hell because of this product. It is something that’s absolutely essential for radio commercials and promos. Yep, it’s your friend and mine: production music.

As a guy who’s written hundreds of production music tracks over the years for a number of libraries, I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject. And maybe you production people (I’m glad to see women are also picking up the ball and chain in the production room) would enjoy a little insight into how production music is created. (I’ll also give you some tips for Doin’-It-Yourself in your production room.)

Behind The Music

First, the people who run production music libraries can be like apples and oranges. Yet, at the same time, they all share the same vision of having a very special product. Some syndicators specify exactly what they want in a track you’re to compose, while others will let you go nuts.

For example, when we were developing the Laser Lighting library at Century 21 Programming, President Dave Scott, now Honcho Deluxó of Scott Studios, handed down this simple dictum: “Have a big hit at the head, groove, then slap another hit at :10. Groove to a big finish at the :30 and :60 points. Use the rhythms and sounds of the CHR, Urban and Rock hits. Oh! And strip out ten of the best tracks to just a rhythm or drum/bass mix.” Over and out. And by golly, this was a winning format. Since I departed the “Century” fold before the library reached maturity, I’ve only heard unsubstantiated reports on the tremendous success this product achieved.

At TM Century, Producer Mike Hines (“Audio Architecture”) usually supplies samples of the various genres for us to imitate. Recently Mike had five of us composers all contribute to a World Beat CD. For this project, he simply directed us to to get ideas for this “melting pot” styled music.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been writing a lot for CSS Music in L.A. (For those of you with the Radio Potato demo, you’ll understand why). With this company, the attitude is completely different. CSS Music President Mike Fuller tells us writers, “Do a Light Jazz CD and make it great.” Again, over and out. The only restriction is to make the music Light Jazz and provide :60 and :30 versions of the longer cut.

But what I have yet to hear from a music library syndicator is this: “Give me a track that starts with a lonesome harmonica-on-the-prairie for 12.5 seconds, then break into a fast two beat acoustic guitar to :45, then stop and reprise the harmonica playing a high energy blues riff that wraps up with an ensemble shave-and-a-haircut that finishes at 59.5.”

As you read this description, you may be able to envision a script that has lonesome cowboys lamenting about how they’ve “searched all over East Aardvark looking for a deal on a new Ford truck, but just haven’t found anyone who can pony up a deal.” Enter the ballzy announcer (I always picture Don Pardo) who tells these cowpokes that Joe Blow Ford is the only dealer in East Aardvark who finances underemployed farm workers. Reprise Clem-the-cowboy (over the fast blues riff) telling the other ‘boys that he’s “headin’ out to Joe Blow Ford right now.” The announcer then speed-speaks the address over the shave-and-a-haircut stinger.

Here’s the point: When we create production music, we’re given specific instructions, at least in terms of musical genre, for the style we’re to compose. So the final product that ends up on your production CD is usually of the same style, tempo and orchestration throughout.

Granted, there are times when a track that is cleverly written and arranged can come to the rescue to help punch up copy. In fact, I have suggested in the “Tips and Techniques” section of Radio And Production that dubbing off interesting tracks for your copy writer can lead to inspired radio ads.

Movie Music

One of the CSS Music composers is David Wurst who is first and foremost, a film composer. (David scored the Unibomber movie on the USA Network. He’s also done a bunch of direct-to-video films as well.) As a guy who loves to use film music in creative promos, I’m in awe of David’s talent.

What I believe makes film music so good for promos, or at least setting a tone for a promo, is the “emotionality” (is that a word?) of the music. Just listen to the first few bars of any great soundtrack and see if you don’t have an opening sentence for a promo in your head instantly.

Creating film music is not unlike composing other types of production music, but the orchestration, arranging and pacing are quite unique. If you think about your favorite soundtracks, notice how simple the themes are. And most often, these themes can be descried as “broad and expansive”—that is, few notes with a strong melody. The reason movie music is written this way is to allow for dialog and sfx. It also should never detract from the visuals on screen. Perhaps that’s why film music makes for such great radio promos—you can usually mix the music way up around the announcer’s voice for real dramatic effect.

Groove Tracks

What I call “groove music” is generally just a stripped down mix with little or no melody. (You may have your own name for this genre.) Again, like film music, groove tracks have lots of “space” for your announcer and effects.

You can find this type of music on an action film soundtrack CD as well. Think about a chase scene. With sfx like engine roars, tires squealing, crashes, gunshots, etc., the music has to simply have “motion” and not much else.

In creating groove music for production libraries, I generally listen to some bands who I think have a sense of cool grooves. I’ve emulated INXS, Earth Wind and Fire, Smashmouth, various techno bands, and yes, even The Backstreet Boys. I get a sense of what the drums/bass/percussion are doing, then capture that feel with my own interpretation.

Nuts And Bolts

Let’s take a look at how a track is built from square one. I’ll use examples from a Modern Country CD I just finished for CSS Music’s “Repro-file Plus” as a reference.

The first thing I have to do when working in a particular genre is research. I usually tune in to one of our local Country stations and get ideas from the more contemporary artists (Garth, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks, etc.). Since I have to produce this music without vocals, I listen for interesting licks and grooves and then create my own versions of these.

Next comes the writing. With 10 tracks and 10 work parts to create, I lay out the CD on paper as to style, tempos and orchestration. I know that I’ll have instruments filling in for the vocal, so I try to assign which sections of each song will have the melody carried by the guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, etc.

Once the tracks are composed, a decision has to be made as to what’s going to be live and what’s going to be samples. MIDI modules, samplers and sequencing programs have come a long way in the past few years and very convincing drum/bass/keyboard parts can be created this way.

As an aside: Just like you have budgets for your production departments, we also have budgets. On this particular CD, we budgeted for live guitars and live fiddle/steel/dobro/mandolin. (We’ve got an incredible musician here named Milo Deering who plays all the stringed instruments beautifully.)

For this Modern Country disk, I programmed my drum parts using both drum loops and samples from Ilio’s “Double Platinum” drum CD ROM. For the bass, Ilio’s “Bass Legends” provided some incredible selections of bass guitars and acoustic bass. Piano and organ samples came from a variety of sources.

Once the foundation of drums, bass and keys are programmed, I either put a rough mix of these instruments to a couple tracks on the multitrack or submixed the drums to a stereo pair, bass to a track, keys to another, etc. It was all contingent on available tracks and how many other instruments were to be added.

(For you guys using SMPTE or MMC (MIDI Machine Control): You don’t have to really commit to anything in the drums/bass/keys tracks since you can always lock up later and change/add/delete parts accordingly. In fact, when I mixed this project, I had the keyboard parts playing back “virtually” from the computer while the other “live” tracks played in perfect sync.)

Next, I brought in a guitarist. In this case, I used two players—one for acoustic and a second for lead/electric. I usually lay down two acoustic tracks and pan them left and right. With the lead/electric for this disk, we set up a couple tracks for rhythm and licks, and another track for solos/melody lines.

The final phase is the icing on the cake—adding the instruments that will give the songs that Modern Country flavor. Bringing in “Magic Milo,” I overdubbed fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin and dobro. I assigned melodies, doubling of licks or ad lib sections for these instruments.

Fine Points

I’ve got to tell you that while this may sound easy, there’s a lot finessing that goes into programming and recording each of the parts. Ideally, I’d love to have the budget to bring in a live rhythm section for this type of project. But since I can’t, I try to get each part to work with the groove with as many subtle nuances as I can. And when I lay the MIDI tracks over to the multitrack, I try and create ambiances that emulate what it would sound like with say, a live drummer playing in a room.

For you guys messing around with MIDI sequencing, you can make a track sound more natural by keeping the quantization (timing correction) strength reduced or turn it off altogether. By playing the part at a slower tempo, you’ll find that when you speed the track back up, your performance will (hopefully) sound more realistic. And by using pitch bend and modulation, you can also spice up a performance with some of the natural effects a real player would incorporate.

With the advent of the “all in the computer” sampler/MIDI sequencer, you can find high quality samples from a variety of sources. And the better the quality of the sample, the more realistic your music will sound.


If you’ve got the time and inclination, you can create music right in your production room. I’ve talked to a number of you guys who are creating music using Acid (for the PC) or Recycler (for the Mac). Yeah, these programs are cool, but in my opinion, it’s not really creating music. It’s just cutting and pasting prerecorded parts together to create a composite. Not to say I haven’t used loops! Some genres of music require a foundation of a drum or drum ‘n bass loop.

But you may not need this type of track for your spot or promo. You may want a samba with a jazzy, breezy feeling. If you have some musical background, you probably can create a track from scratch using sounds from your MIDI sound card and a simple sequencing program. (There are a TON of them on the Internet—from free to shareware to more costly, professional versions.) You can use an inexpensive musical keyboard (that has a MIDI Out port) to program your parts, or you can use your keyboard and mouse and enter notes directly into the computer. Be aware that this later method of data entry is EXTREMELY tedious. (I have used data entry when I need a very fast sequenced arpeggio where each note perfectly falls on a 16th or 32nd note.) I really think musical keyboard (or MIDI guitar) entry is preferred.

If you’re not musically inclined, there’s a program for both the PC and Mac called Band-In-A-Box. It’s designed more for musicians to jam with, but it’s also a pseudo compositional program. You can choose a style, (“Swing” for example) and the chords of your choice. Band-In-A-Box creates a melody based on these choices and will play drum, bass, keyboard, etc. parts in that style. You can edit the track much like you would a word processing program and save the final result. The program is inexpensive and works with just about any sound card. (Or Quicktime Musical Instruments for the Mac.)

Just learning a little about using MIDI will open some doors to your creativity. And it’s also a lot of fun. Try playing a piano part, then assign it to your drum channel. It can lead to some pretty wild grooves. And if you can sync MIDI to your computer’s multitrack software, you’ll have the ability to compose music, in time, to your announcer’s voice tracks!


One of the caveats I forgot to mention earlier (referring to film music) is that it is ILLEGAL to use a film soundtrack (or any non-licensed music) on an advertiser’s commercial without a synchronization license from the publisher. (These licenses can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.) That’s one of the reasons we do “knock offs” of popular musical styles. I believe it’s okay to use the music for a station promo since stations are licensed through ASCAP and BMI to play the music. But I suppose by the strict letter of the law John Williams could get a “cease and desist” if he heard Theme From Star Wars being used in a manner he thought was inappropriate.

And if you decide to create your own little music library using third party samples, be SURE to read the licensing agreement thoroughly. Some sample syndicators (like East-West) do NOT allow their samples to be used for production music.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through the land of how prod music is made. Even after all these years, I still enjoy creating this type of music. And with new musical styles always popping up, the challenge of learning new genres keeps you fresh. Adios potatoes!