Composer Peter Nashel On Scoring Rubicon, Lie To Me & The New Golden Age of Television

Tribeca, Manhattan: Watching AMC’s serial thriller Rubicon this past Fall, our ears perked up big time. The original score — composed by Peter Nashel — brought the picture to life in such an exhilarating and unexpected way as it advanced an often dialog-free puzzle of a plot, uncovering a secret society and murderous conspiracy. Cool show, amazing music.

“Rubicon” is a modern-day political conspiracy thriller set (and scored) in NYC.

And what was so amazing about it? For starters, the music was authentic and you could hear it: the live instrumentation and ambient space, the smallish ensembles, the soloing cello and piano, and the surrounding room sounds. Combined with tastefully appointed, undulating and accenting electronics, Nashel created a kind of electro-chamber music and, well, we needed to know more.

We discovered that Nashel, partner at Duotone Audio Group in Tribeca, was composing this music and recording it with small ensembles each week at Avatar. After Rubicon wrapped, we scored an interview with him and when we visited, found him already hard at work on a psychological thriller of another flavor, Fox’s Lie To Me. He’s also scored a couple high-profile documentaries this year: Client 9 and Freakonomics.

Read on for our conversation as Nashel fills us in on his world and the opportunities he’s discovered in the new golden age of television…

You popped up on our radar via Rubicon. The music, especially in the first few episodes, really made the show in my opinion. Well done!

Thanks! I’ve gotten a lot of really great feedback. I’ve been hearing from all kinds of people steadily — fans of the show, composers and even post-production houses who want to use it as temp music. It’s been really great to hear such positive feedback!

I bet. And I know you’ve been at this awhile — co-founding Duotone back in the mid-90s. Tell us a bit about your background: what’s your primary instrument and where are you coming from as a composer stylistically?

I originally started as a jazz saxophone player years ago, and what I got out of my years of study was a working knowledge of the keyboard. I’m not really a piano player, but I have arranger’s chops on the piano. I can kind of piece things together; that’s how I conceive of everything.

The “Rubicon” ensemble tracking in Avatar Studio C.

Stylistically, I’m most interested in music that combines real instruments with electronic elements. There’s so much immediacy that you get from real musicians, and air in a recording, and the breath and vibration that you get from real instruments that you just cannot get from synths, particularly when synths are simulating real instruments like sample libraries. Getting a performance out of real players, there’s still nothing like that.

Combined with electronics — when the electronics are done well — it can really take on a quality that people cannot quite place. They’re not sure what they’re listening to. For instance, a lot of the score of Rubicon would be mixtures of sine waves with real instruments, and I’m not sure that people were necessarily able to separate the two because it just kind of created this cool palette. I love how that sounds.

To me, the overall impression it made was more organic than electronic and yet  hard to describe — modern-classical, electro-chamber music?

Yes, well I’m also really moved by music whose genre you can’t quite figure out. And I think that stems a little from my love of watching actors who I’m unfamiliar with inhabit a role. I felt that when I watched The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men. These aren’t huge movie stars that I’ve seen a million times so there’s a part of my brain that can really believe in those characters.

Musically, I like that as well…instead of ‘oh, yes this is that thriller movie score,’ you’re thinking ‘what is that music?’ It’s something unique and somewhat new to you.

In the case of Rubicon, what kind of direction were you given? I’m curious because sometimes it’s what the producers or music supervisor think they want musically that pushes a composer into a genre. So what were those initial conversations about?

In my earliest conversation with the music supervisor, Thomas Golubic, he described Rubicon as a smart series a la Three Days of the Condor. It was such an opportunity for me as a composer because it was very British in the way it was made — with these massively long stretches with no dialog and a plot that moved slowly.

And it was kind of a dream job in that it was really talked about in kind of an abstract way – we talked about the fact that the music could almost be a character, but there wasn’t a ton of incidental background music. The music had to telegraph the interior world of the character — what is the struggle and what is going on — because the character wasn’t necessarily doing much in the scene. Maybe he was just looking around, or looking at some papers.

So it had to do a lot of heavy lifting. And we talked a lot about the music fulfilling that role. But we didn’t talk a ton about what the tone of it should be. I was the one who suggested it have a purely modern feel to it but at the same time bridge that gap between the somewhat unglamorous world of information gathering and the excitement of what they were discovering.

So the music really had function beyond underscoring whatever feeling or emotion the scene was conveying.

Oh big time. It had a couple of different roles. There was the interior world for Will – the main character – I had a very high, half-step two-note theme that signaled the conspiracy whenever we witnessed that in action, and there were a couple iterations of that. There was music that pertained directly to Katherine Rhumor’s character and her journey.

Then, there were incidental themes that pertained to the other characters along with some surveillance / conspiracy themes. There were definite themes that occurred throughout the series. It was great to be able to work this way, almost treating each episode like a short movie – but where I had my palette and my themes that I could return to each week. But it was also a TV show in that the music would signify the interior lives of the characters [as they developed over the season].

And I think that’s the main difference between long form serial TV as opposed to feature film or even as opposed to procedural TV. Working in TV in this longer-form, you have 13 hours as opposed to 2 hours to let the story unravel.

Yes indeed: it’s one, long story arc. And I’m curious — what do you think made you the right composer for this gig? Were the producers or music supervisor interested in you from anything in particular that you’d done previously?

They’d known I’d worked on this documentary No End In Sight and I think that, combined with some of the atmospheric music that I came up with for The Deep End or The Night Listener and my most recent feature at that point, Carriers, which was in the vein of 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead but more of a Lord of the Flies where the people become their own worst enemies, a psychological thriller…I think it was that combination of music that made the people who were running the show, the folks at Warner Bros and the music supervisor feel I’d do a good job with Rubicon.

The thing that really struck me about Rubicon was how you could hear the real instruments with the air and space around them. It almost sounded like they were playing it live right there behind the scenes on the set! Did you have to sell the producers on the idea of doing the music this way? And can you tell us about the process?

Engineer/Producer Roy Hendrickson setting up AKG 414 mics in Decca tree formation in Avatar Studio C for “Rubicon” tracking

It was completely my idea to produce the music this way and record each week. I had this idea early on that Will’s main instrument was going to be the cello, and I thought of it like this thinking man’s instrument that I could do a lot of really cool stuff with and I was right. I utilized it and it really stood out.

I figured out that I had the budget to do a small section — we started with 10 string players and went to about 12 — and we recorded them each week in a three or four hour session at Avatar. And incidental overdubs were done down here at Duotone.

Ahead of time, I would get everything sounding the way I wanted it to sound, programmed in Logic, and then once it got to a point where I would play it for [executive producer/writer] Henry Bromell and the folks at AMC and they liked it, I worked primarily with Eric Hachikian who would take down what I’d programmed onto paper and we’d go up to Avatar to record. Christine Kim was the contractor extraordinaire — she put together the players every week for me.

It was an awesome process. We worked mostly in Avatar Studio C, and the recording and mixing duties were split between Roy Hendrickson and Lawrence Manchester, both of whom were incredible to work with.

The show theme is awesome as well. Tell me about that.

That was an interesting process because it was done in conjunction with Imaginary Forces who created the visuals for the title sequence. We bandied about a couple different approaches to it and I wrote 2 or 3 versions of it and one of them just jumped off the screen. When I showed it to Henry it was a no brainer. So I recorded that with 40 pieces in the A room at Avatar. It was a total thrill to be able to do that.

And now you’re working on Lie To Me, which is in its 3rd season, but this is your first season scoring. That right?

Peter Nashel in his 5.1 (JBL LSR 4328P-equipped) control room at Duotone Audio in Tribeca while scoring “Lie To Me.”

Yes. I had previously worked with the guys at Fox on Life On Mars, which was a show about this modern day cop that ends up finding himself back in the 1970s NYC and doesn’t know if he’s alive or dreaming or what. A great deal of that music was live as well – a lot of live brass and rhythm section. It was done as this kind of testosteroned-out 70s TV show score. It was really cool. The guys at Fox were impressed and wanted to give me another shot. I’ve done a bunch of pilots for them…

How do you manage to pitch for all this work that I assume is based out of LA? Curious how you make it work!

I think what makes it possible to do the work is two things — one is that I have a setup in a live/work space out in Santa Monica which my main assistant, Dan Morocco, works out of. So when I go out to LA, I can take meetings and park myself there for a couple weeks or however long is necessary.

Lie to Me has been interesting because I only went out for the first spot to meet the team and everything since has been done over the Internet, which I don’t think is that unusual these days. I do spotting sessions via Skype and then we talk down the show over the phone, and the music editor is there taking notes and Dan is there on-site, and then I write and post, and we continue the back and forth. It’s a little unusual, but it totally works.

What’s the music production process like for Lie To Me? This is more programmed stuff?

It’s a lot of programming and then there will be incidental overdubs — guitars, winds, etc. — that I’ll do here at Duotone. If I do drum recording, which I haven’t for Lie To Me so far, it’s done out in LA with Pete Min who I’ve worked with for years. I’ll post a cue for him and he’ll pull it in with the picture and then we’ll have a conversation and he’ll work with 2 or 3 drummers to cut it and send it back.

Life on Mars was done like that, with everyone working remotely. I would write it and send it to everyone and they would send back their parts and Brian Deming, a great writer/engineer/programmer here at Duotone, would put it all together here.

There was just no other way we could have done it that quickly. The process and schedule just sometimes doesn’t allow for it. You’ll be spotting on a certain day, you’ll start writing, you’ll deliver, you’ll spot, comments will come back, etc. and there’s just too many parts of the production chain.

What’s different about writing for Lie To Me vs Rubicon?

“Lie to Me,” starring Tim Roth, airs Monday nights on Fox.

With Lie To Me, it’s more gestural music meaning there are no themes for characters because they change every week. It’s more ‘these are the tension gestures, and these are the emotional gestures and this is the palette that we work with when Cal and his daughter are in the room together and this is the palette for when Cal is debunking somebody and seeing through them, catching their lies, etc. So it’s a broader stroke that you’re working with.

Tell us about Duotone. Do you collaborate with other composers here? Do other of the Duotone staff work together? What are you guys working on?

I work really closely with Dan Morocco in LA and Brian Deming here in NYC and the three of us are the team that take down Lie To Me. Brian recently did music for Swamp People on the History Channel and The First 48 on A&E. And Dan just finished his first feature, Brotherhood, which will be coming out beginning of next year.

Jack Livesey, who was my original partner in Duotone, is an incredible writer and he and I collaborated on the transitional music for the film New York, I Love You last year. He is also a fantastic songwriter – he recently collaborated with this artist/writer Jeremy Fisher on a song that just got placed in the upcoming David Frankel movie, The Big Year.

Duotone is a collective. Also in-house is Aaron Mirman who’s written some music that will be used on Bubble Guppies on Nickelodeon. We do a lot of TV. We also do documentaries and features, and about 50 percent of the business is still for advertising. But I really feel like it’s a great time in television, there’s more amazing stuff on TV now than ever.

And do you feel opportunities for composers are getting better and better?

Jack Livesey and Peter Nashel founded Duotone in NYC in 1996

They really are. I originally set out to do film after working for so many years in advertising. And starting in 2000, which was my first feature – The Deep End – there were a lot of great opportunities and I worked on some fantastic features, through this last decade.

But what really happened toward the end of the decade with the economic crisis was that a lot of the money that was funding independent films kind of went away. And so indie film is struggling like crazy to get the movies made, get them distributed. You’ll notice a lot of the majors have folded their specialty divisions. Now it’s not uncommon for an indie film to go straight to video-on-demand. It’s really a brave new world in terms of independent film.

And what, for me as a composer, has replace that, has been television. There’s such great quality TV work out there.

So, you’re based here in NYC and you’ve managed to transition as a composer from doing mostly advertising work to a lot of television and film. A lot of people would assume you’d have to move to LA to make that happen. If you’re enormously talented does it just not matter where you are?

I think it matters. There are more opportunities in LA. In the same way that the finance or publishing world may be in NYC, I think the entertainment biz is in LA. But I think there is an entertainment biz in NYC and there is some great stuff being done here. That said, most of what I have going on emanates from Los Angeles.

I think that what has made it possible is once you get a few credits going, you can take a meeting and you’re legit. And really, it goes by project to project whether people are going to be more comfortable with me being in LA. I think talent trumps everything. If you’re delivering something people really want, I think they’re willing to bend for it.

You said that over the last decade, Duotone has morphed into a 50-50 business of music for advertising and TV/film. Can you fill us in a bit on how the facility is setup for that spectrum of work? You mentioned the Vienna Symphonic Ensemble…

When you work on a commercial, it is :30 or :60, and when you open a sequence, you don’t close the sequence for a long period of time. In a TV show or in a film, you might have 21, 24, 26 or 30 cues in an episode so you’re constantly opening and closing and you need a much more sophisticated setup that can handle opening and closing all those sessions with the sound libraries, so a lot of our stuff is managed offline in these meta frames that the Vienna Ensemble creates.

That network is configured for three systems to have access to it. And then we also have identical setups — all the sessions can be identically run in the different rooms. We have three proper 5.1 writing and mixing control rooms here and then two proper writing rooms.

Is there any other technology that you’d consider indispensable to the way you and the Duotone team work? Do you have favorite sample libraries?

We actually make a bunch of our own libraries — every time we do a recording, we record things wild while we’re there and have the musicians in the room, so we have this massive internal Duotone library. And, every time we do a drum session, we’ll take the recordings and REX them and turn them into Apple Loops for our own drum library. And we’re also always exploring all the new libraries that come out on the market. There really are a lot of incredible libraries out there — I’ve liked the Omnisphere stuff, and the Quantum Leap Piano is unbelievable.

What I can say above all is that I would not be able to do what I do without our server system being setup the way that it is. And the other thing that has been very beneficial to us is WireDrive. We post all of our work for review and then deliver via WireDrive for the music editor. It’s very stable and very user friendly.

For more on Peter Nashel and Duotone Audio Group, visit http://www.duotoneaudio.com. And tune into Lie To Me Monday nights at 9PM ET on Fox. Unfortunately, Rubicon, was canceled (Boo!), but you should Netflix it like I did!