Unless you've been living on the dark side of the moon, you've likely heard Rich Tozzoli's music. The Grammy-nominated mixer, engineer, producer and composer's recording and mixing credits include music icons Al DiMeola, Ace Frehley, Hall & Oates and Emerson Lake & Palmer, to name but a few. His production chops in 5.1 surround sound—Rich is a past Surround Music Award winner—are imprinted in the DVDs and HD television broadcasts he has mixed for David Bowie, Average White Band, Carly Simon, Foghat, Billy Squier, comedian Robert Klein and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.
A multi-instrumentalist, Rich eventually moved into composing music for TV, with clients including FOX Sports, the NBC Olympics, ESPN, Deepak Chopra and Oprah. Rich's music is a regular fixture on popular TV shows, including Pawn Stars, Duck Dynasty, Counting Cars, Alaskan Bush People and The First 48.
We recently caught up with Rich to ask him how he produces music for TV. The conversation quickly turned to his vast collection of instruments and how he uses them to spin his magic.
Plugin Alliance: What instruments do you use on the TV music you produce?
Rich Tozzolli: I'm a guitar-centric TV composer, which is unusual. I use the electric guitar in an unusual way, almost like a keyboard, for a lot of shows. I use a lot of deep reverbs, deep swells and volume-pedal technique. I do a lot of acoustic guitar work, as well. Six-string, twelve-string, dobros, slide guitar, banjos, banjo guitar, 7 strings with low B, mandolins—every kind of guitar you can think of, I own. I have a lot of different bass guitars; the '70 Precision is my go-to. I do a lot of orchestral stuff using sample libraries, but I work with good violinists or fiddle players for the Alaskan shows. I use as many real instruments as I possibly can.
PA: How do you compose?
RT: I write on the spot. I'll rehearse it with all the guys, or just with the drummer Ray Levier and/or keyboardist Bruce MacPherson. We rehearse it once or twice at most and then record it. If we screw up, it's almost easier to do the whole cut over.
PA: You literally start composing after the musicians have arrived?
RT: Yeah. On the spot. I've been doing this for so many shows and for so long, it's an instinct. We know what show we're doing that day, so we know what the feel should be. I sometimes get editors' notes and I will go by those. Then I'll write on the spot. Once we finish one cue, we move to the next. By the end of the day, you have no idea what you recorded many cues before.
PA: Do the producers ever send you temp tracks?
RT: I would say they're "guideline" tracks. They send tracks that they have either used on a show or, if it's a new show, that they want to define the sound with a particular approach to a sonic thing. People say all TV music is the same, but the production team behind the show has a definitive sonic thing that they want to get across, and I have to meet that.
PA: Your cues have a great live feel. Do you record to a click track or rubato?
RT: Rarely to a click track. If I'm working with a drummer, click tracks get in the way. I do record to grid mode if I'm at home, just because I also use loops. I use some of the great loop libraries out there. That makes it easier to hand in multiple passes, because for TV you want to hand in a B & D (bass and drums) mix, a mix minus the melody... When I'm at home, it's a lot easier to work in grid mode. But when I'm working with real musicians—all of us have good time—it actually gets in the way, unless there's a definitive purpose to cut to picture.
PA: Do you ever replace or layer drums you've recorded live, or just go with the organic sounds captured by your mics?
RT: I will augment with a tick-y kick for television. Something like the Slate (Steven Slate Drums) SSD Black Kick, a Mettalica kind of kick. I'll layer that in maybe 20 to 30 percent or, if it's a rock cut, upwards of 50 percent.
PA: What kind of mics do you prefer to use to record drums?
RT: I use a lot of ribbon, Earthworks and DPA mics. I work in several different rooms. One of them is the Paul Antonell’s Clubhouse Studio (outside of Rhinebeck, New York), which has a big live room. I'll use a big Neumann or other mic down the hall or down the stairs and jam the signal into a good compressor to go for the Zeppelin sound.
PA: Do you use mostly other studios to record live musicians, and your home studio to record to a grid?
RT: That's exactly right. My home studio is a personal production studio that I can do a lot of stuff in, but I prefer big rooms for recording musicians live. The Clubhouse also has a Neve, great mics and awesome outboard gear. But I have complete control at home with all my plugins.
PA: When you are recording live in a big room, do you hire an engineer so you can focus on composing, performance and producing?
RT: Only sometimes. I have a portable rig that sits in front of me in the live room. I engineer the sessions as I'm composing. It gets a little tricky (laughs). It's a lot of hats to wear at once, but I have it down to where it doesn't get in my way. I don't have to think about Pro Tools. It's a third hand.
PA: Your guitar sounds are dynamite. How do you get those great tones?
RT: I use both real amps and amp sims. I also use a ton of plugins. When I'm cutting hard rock stuff, I turn to the Brainworx ENGL (Amp Bundle) all the time. I'm also digging the new Brainworx bx_bassdude (an early '60s Fender® Blonde Bassman® amp-emulation plug-in) because I've been craving good Fender sounds and have had trouble before finding them. I'm really glad bassdude got released. Fender sounds are more versatile for television because not every show needs the big bad boys such as the ENGL. If it's a funk part, it has to be clean; I need a Fender-y kind of amp for that. It's really useful to have a spongy, creamy Bassman. Bassdude is my go-to amp for that sound.
I grew up playing tube amps, and I still have a bunch of them, so I'm very aware of the sound of really good amplifiers. The Clubhouse has a huge collection of around 50 amps: Magnatones, Gibsons, Fenders... Therein lies my ability to appreciate plugins: I know which ones sound really good. The bassdude really sounds good; it's really a tremendous, spongy, beautiful amp. And the ENGL I use because it's nasty. It just delivers this savage tone with my Les Pauls or whatever I plug into it, and that's what I need.
PA: How do you typically use bx_bassdude?
RT: I drive the input gain really hard to get crunchy tones. Or pull it back (for clean sound). Even if it's cranking distortion, you can power-soak it back so you don't clip your signal. (Plays a driving guitar lick through bx_bassdude.) That's a heavy sound for a Bassman!
PA: Do you print a dry direct track in case you have to reamp later?
RT: No. Never. I speed-record. Everything gets printed immediately. I never look back. When I'm working with plugins, the nice thing is I can change the sound if I need to.
PA: What plugins do you use on your master bus when you mix?
RT: My master bus has the Vertigo VSC-2 (compressor) on it, Sonnox Limiter, Manley Massive Passive and bx_digital V2 EQ . The Vertigo is friggin' thick and nasty. My absolute go-to eq is the bx_digital V2 equalizer. In television music, I suck a lot of bass frequencies out. bx_digital V2 lets me find the frequencies, solo them with the solo-isolation feature, and suck them out. If the bass frequencies suck up all the room on a track, I can't make it loud enough. For TV, I need to punch through as hard as I can.
PA: Do you deliver 15-, 30- and 60-second versions of your cues?
RT: No. Never. I hate that. I won't do it. If someone gives me that assignment, I often won't take it because it takes so much time to force me into a 15- or 30-second thing. And editors couldn't care less. They're gonna cut my stuff up anyway. And their scenes are based on the dialog. They're not based on forcing something into 15 seconds. That's also why I don't have to be forced into using click tracks. Just deliver the feel. That's all.
PA: In what file and channel formats do you deliver your music?
RT: Just stereo, 16-bit/48 kHz. Sometimes 24-bit. They just need a good, punchy mix. I make every TV track sound like a record. That's my approach.
PA: What meters do you use to conform to loudness specs?
RT: I don't have to. I hand it in to the show's producers, and they do it. I do reference the Waves Dorrough meters in my master chain, but I print blazingly hot. Not to the point of where there's no headroom, but I make sure my tracks have a lot of punch. That's what I use the Vertigo compressor plugin for.
PA: Before we let you go, can you give an example of a difficult challenge in your work and how you overcame it?
RT: That's easy: too many layers of people giving feedback. That's why I generally stick to the world of television versus advertising. There's a huge difference. I don't ever do jingles anymore. I have done them, but I prefer not to because jingles are those 15-, 30- and 60-second cues that you're forced into, and layers upon layers of people want to put their fingerprints on it. In television, the people who give me the assignments let me be who I am and do what I do without stepping on my creativity.