Composer Giancarlo Vulcano on 30 Rock Music & The Pursuit of Imperfection

BED-STUY, BROOKLYN: TV and film score composers will often talk about their musical scores as characters in the advancing plot. But it’s rare that audiences experience the score on that level – especially on television and maybe most of all, on television sitcoms. Unless, of course, you’re talking about 30 Rock.

30 Rock’s sophisticated jazz and musical theater-inspired soundtrack makes the show’s ridiculous that much more ridiculous and its heart that much more endearing. Since the first season in 2006, Brooklyn-based composer and guitarist Giancarlo Vulcano has worked on the music with 30 Rock composer and executive producer, Jeff Richmond.

Giancarlo Vulcano

With Vulcano playing the guitar family of instruments, and Richmond on saxophone, clarinet and keyboards, the two create and perform most of each season’s music episode-by-episode, on a weekly basis, between their studios at home and at Silvercup in Long Island City.

Though by now they have an enormous library of 30 Rock cues, they write each score from scratch, very often the weekend before it airs. They mix it on a Tuesday or Wednesday and the episode airs on Thursday.

Heading into the seventh and final season, which premiers tonight, we spoke to Vulcano about his role on the show, the musical production process, his career path, and so many other interesting things!

Vulcano welcomed us into his compact Bed-Stuy home studio, which is as distilled and unassuming as the musician himself – equipped with just the select essentials: a Mac Pro running Logic, Universal Audio Apollo, Focusrite OctoPre and a single Soundelux microphone.

Tell us about your studio – and how it’s setup for your work on 30 Rock?

Well, we wanted to have the same main gear all over the city: for Jeff Richmond at his home studio, me at mine, our rigs at Silvercup, and even portably – we mix at another facility – Sync Sound on 56th Street. We’re always working on music, and no matter where we are, we have to be able to pull it up.

When the UA Apollo came out, I thought it looked like it might be more inspiring [than what we’d been working with] – the preamps are better, the plug-ins are great. So now we have the Apollos and we can just plug in the same headphones wherever we are, and we’re listening to the same thing.

Then, the way we work is basically Dropbox and it’s been very trouble-free and fantastic. You update your file, and it automatically updates on Dropbox. And with Logic you can color the regions so we can quickly refer to updates we’ve made to the files.

All of our audio files are in five different locations – we both have a “samples” drive on our system and the hierarchy of where they all are is identical – we clone our samples drives, so everywhere we go, we have the samples and you can open a session, and all the samples come right up.

And by samples, you mean the 30 Rock library of cues?

Yeah – well, basically for every cue, we print stems. And it’s a ton of stems. In one season (looking at the file folder), we’ve bounced around 2,400 files. It’s a lot of work, but it allows you to do two things: it allows you to – at the mix – duck out of something that’s not working, and it allows you to sort of mix and match in edits. Like, in a subsequent episode, you can call up just drums from the other episode – and they can work like themes.

A first look at 30 Rock Episode 701. Courtesy of NBC.

So with six seasons under your belt, you have a deep library. Is it somehow easier now that you can source music from there?

Not really! Every year we say this is going to be a big library year, and it never is. Season 6 was 2,400+ stems, Season 5 had 2,500+ stems.

And, you’ll record a lot of the music right here?

Sure, I have this great Soundelux mic – it’s perfect for acoustic guitar – and I’ll also record electric guitar right into the input on the Apollo, and lap-steel. Then there’s this baby (pulls out a shaker), this is the big 30 Rock sound – a one-dollar shaker…

Nice. And what is the typical spread of live to sampled sounds on an episode?

Well, we have a template of string sounds, which come out of LA Scoring Strings and a lot of the sounds – like the glockenspiel (which is another big 30 Rock sound), celesta and marimba – are straight out of Logic. Anything short… staccato…always sounds best in MIDI. So that’s all Logic. Jeff plays clarinet and saxophone, so that’s usually always real; for brass we use EastWest or Kontakt. And then I do all the guitars, banjo, ukulele. Jeff also plays piano, so any piano will be well played (but also usually MIDI).

But sometimes we’ll say, OK this episode needs a lot of flute, and we’ll hire a really amazing flautist. Or we need a string quartet, and we’ll get people who play at the Metropolitan Opera and stuff like that, which is really cool. And in that case, we’ll go to a real studio, but if it’s one player – they may just come here, and get on the Soundelux.

How do you know when you need to hire a live string quartet vs. using sampled strings?

Well, first of all, there has to be enough time that we can write the music, know what it is, write the parts out, book a studio, and allow the engineer to record one day and mix the next – so we need like three extra days… which we quite honestly almost never have. But when we do, we’ll go to John Kilgore’s Studio and record.

Or sometimes it will be a flute player the day of the recording…and they have to come to Silvercup. But we either have to have the time, or it’s a show where the music is so important, like the “Kidney Now!” episode, where we did a “We Are the World” type music bit. For that, we hired eight strings, and Shawn Pelton and went to Avatar.

But that’s happened less and less, as the schedule is just more and more compact. We still use live players quite a bit – sax, strings, flute, etc. – we hardly ever use percussion; it’ll mostly be shaker.

The sound of the 30 Rock score has gotten into this smaller, pitsier, lighter sound…which has to do with the mix of the whole show and what you can manage to squeeze in and not get in the way of the dialog. We used to make these great pieces of music and then you get to the mix and realize you can’t have all that music. So basically, Jeff has discovered that these little pluckier movements work better. And now it’s like a short-hand – Jeff can communicate a lot of musical information with a lot less stuff now.

And the music has such a personality…It adds a level of ridiculousness or irony – I mean, it’s not just relaying the mood of the scene. 

Yes, and that’s Jeff’s vision; it’s his music. He understands what it needs to be, and no one could come in the way of that. I have scored a few episodes myself, but mostly where I come in is, for example, he’ll do a theme and ask me to play banjo or guitar on it in a few keys, because the key is really important on our show, in terms of how that helps the story feel like it’s progressing. It’s not the same cue over and over.

The relationship of keys is important – it’s quite sophisticated. I’ll do a banjo part in a different key, and then maybe I’ll do that on guitar as well, or add another part. And then Jeff will take that and add something on top of that. So there is that collaboration.

So, going into the final season…will you start working on music ahead of time?

We always try. It’s like the beginning of the school year, when you think you’re going to read everything. “Let’s get ahead of it.” But that never totally happens. We’re right where we have to be but never ahead of schedule. We’ll be writing music the weekend before, then mixing it just the day or two before it airs.

Outside of the script and these amazing characters, what inspires the music and sounds? What are some of the reference points that have come up?

Well, there’s the idea of pastiche – Stephen Sondheim talks about when you can comment on what’s happening on stage by writing music in the style of the 1920s or the 1960s, etc. And I think Jeff does a lot of that. Where he goes, ‘Oh, Tracy’s having a problem with his wife,’ I’m going to score this like a 60s bossa nova-whatever. So he makes this comment using pastiche – he takes a style and superimposes it on the style of 30 Rock.

Sometimes we’ll reference a piece of music – like, we really want this to sound like Vic Mizzy, the guy who wrote the Addams Family and Green Acres themes. He had this really great, really thin 60s guitar sound. And for a while we were really doing that.

Jeff studied and loves musical theater; he knows every musical. And when you’re as conversant as Jeff, it’s really amazing. You can move through all these stylistic periods.

What an amazing job…so, how’d you get started in the business, and ultimately land this gig?

Well, I started out copying music for SNL. And in 2000, NBC had its 75th Anniversary and Howard Shore was the music director, so I met him, just as he was about to embark on the Lord of the Rings series. And in 2001 I started working for him, and that was non-stop for five years – copying music for Howard, who writes everything out traditionally; he doesn’t create in a studio. I worked with him for a good 5 years. It was a really big time in his life/career – we did all the Lord of the Rings movies, Gangs of New York, The Departed and The Aviator.

When I left Howard, I had already known Jeff from SNL, and 30 Rock was starting up. I went to check it out, and slowly he gave me stuff to do – two days a week, then more and more until it was seven days a week.

And then throughout 30 Rock you’ve continued to work on your own music – you score films, play with Las Rubias Del Norte and a new trio, The Dollars, and put out albums of original work. The music on your album, Vetro, is of the minimalist new-music world, but there’s a distinctive freedom or ease, and simplicity in its approach. How does your personal artistic aesthetic come through in your work as a composer for film and TV? Do you have a consistent “sound”, or approach?

Well, on a scoring project, I really try and do what the film is asking for. But I feel like every film score composer does that. And then it somehow ends up sounding like that person. But I’m not sure if you listened to my film scores that you’d hear anything unifying in them.

When I’m writing serious music for a project, I do try to push it and push myself – but as a musician and producer, I’m not one of these people like Donald Fagen, doing things over and over again (as much as Steely Dan’s my favorite music in the world). I think the funkiness of Donald’s music is served by its technical perfection. The same doesn’t seem to be true when I go in the studio. I don’t believe in having a bad time, if I can help it. If it sounds good, and the vibe is there, go with it.

In my new project, The Dollars, we play music by and inspired by [South African jazz pianist] Abdullah Ibrahim. And with his music – the complexity or profundity is in the simplicity of it. He is a musician who will just play an F chord, but in such a way that just listening to it, you can hear so much mastery.

I’m not a stickler for perfection, and I used to beat myself up about that, but now I feel like – in a lot of ways – perfection doesn’t come from the perfect eighth note. I just don’t know what’s gained from that pursuit. So I’ve committed to this road of not going for perfection. So on my original stuff, there will be shit that’s out of tune. And, you know, everything does something to the film. If you were to re-record that in-tune and perfectly, it would be different. Keeping the vibe in the room is more important.

[As far as approach,] I really favor recording everything in one room – like at John Kilgore’s studio. He has one room, and it’s not big. And it’s my experience that it never gets better when you go off and mix and overwork it. Always commit. The imperfections are really important to me.

And it’s the imperfections that sometimes make you take notice of the music in a film or show – like on 30 Rock, the music has space, and sounds like it’s being played by human beings, has a personality…

Yeah, and that music is super imperfect too! (laughs) But it feels like an actual show. Like you’re sitting down to watch a show.

Watch the 30 Rock season premiere – “The Beginning of the End” – tonight on NBC at 8/7c.