We talk to Strictly Come Dancing Co-Composer Dan McGrath
Thursday, March 16, 2017
The BBC´s Strictly Come Dancing is one of the UK´s most popular prime time TV shows attracting millions of viewers each episode. Its theme tune, which is also used on the show´s American counterpart ´Dancing With The Stars´, is one of the most distinctive in modern TV history, instantly recognised around the world with its infectious, upbeat and vibrant Latin style. The theme´s creators, Dan McGrath and Josh Phillips, recently released an insightful video revealing how they produced the music (see below) so we got in touch with Dan to find out more about his studio set-up, the process of writing for TV and his other work, including the soundtrack for the 2016 London New Year´s Eve fireworks.
Hi Dan, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. First off, how were introduced into the music industry and composition/production?
In the late 80’s, I trained as TV sound engineer and recorded and mixed training films for Barclays Bank, during that time the Paint Box Graphics guy asked me if I could write a piece of music for an in branch promo video called ‘Why Queue?’ - which played on the screens and prompted the customers to use this new fangled thing called an ATM! It was my first actual ‘publicly performed’ work… that led onto mixing sound and writing jingles for the Big Breakfast and eventually working with Chris Evans’ company Ginger, working on Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, TFI Friday and the Radio 1 and Virgin Breakfast shows, during that time I wrote jingles and stuff for the radio show because we didn’t want stock imaging…
Also, Danny Baker used to call me on a Friday and sing down the phone whatever comedy song they needed for TFI Friday that night, I had a JV1080 synth, Mac G3 and a Roland digital recorder - once I’d recorded the music and vocals a bike would arrive and the DAT would go off (no, multiple versions or last minute changes possible).
Your first ´big´ TV job was the soundtrack for the BBC´s Jonathan Ross show - how did that come about and was there anything in particular you learnt from that experience that helped you with future TV work?
I know Jonathan from my days at Planet 24 (The production company behind The Big Breakfast, The Word etc) and Ginger… So, when I, along with the rest of the current on air team left Virgin in 2001 (that’s a whole other interview) I started trawling my black book, ringing around to let people know I was looking to write music for TV/Radio and ‘New Media’ (as it was called back then). The producer of the BBC Jonathan Ross show was an old friend from that part of my career, she got in touch and said they were looking for a theme for Jonathan’s new chat show.
I think the main thing I learned was, go with your gut... the basic idea for JR´s show came into my head while I was on my motorbike going to the studio, so I stopped and sang it into my dictaphone I carried with me, we (Stuart Crichton - now an LA based songwriter) and I worked it up, sent it over and Jonathan rang back and said “It’s bwilliant, thanks” - I thought ‘this TV music thing is easy’….how wrong I was!
Do you have any big influences when it comes to composing?
I do for song writing... but none of them are useful when it comes to media music… That’s not true actually, I grew up hearing loads of different rock and pop through my Mum and older brother, bought my first Bowie single when I was seven, fell in love with post punk Electronica in the late 70s, loved the 80s and spent the 90s on the radio, So, more importantly I have a really good knowledge of music.
My writing partner (Josh Phillips) is a really accomplished musician, has toured, written and played with loads of known artists, so he brings to the table his ability and separate influences which gives us a lot to draw from when were looking for inspiration.
I think it’s worth mentioning those classic entertainment TV theme writers, Tony Hatch, Alan Hawkshaw, Ronnie Hazlehurst etc, they were given (a generous by today’s standards) 1 - 2 minutes to announce the show, to herald its arrival on the screen - It doesn’t matter how much a TV producer these days wants their theme to sound like the Spotify Top 40, the DNA of those classic tunes usually finds it’s way in, because TV music is a genre all of it’s own.
Talk us through your studio setup - what are the key pieces of hardware that can be found in there?
Mac Pro: needs updating, I’ve maxed out the RAM and replaced all HDs to SSDs but it still struggles!
Apogee Ensemble: Great A to Ds etc but it’s Firewire so the software has been unsupported for a while.
Roland FP80 Piano: I got it because it has speakers in it which are really useful for Josh and I to switch on and write quickly ‘round the piano’. Great sounds, but for some weird reason you can’t play them via MIDI! Come on Roland!
Nord Wave: really good versatile synth.
NI Kontrol 25: so I can audition sounds from the desktop.
Euphonix MC Mix: I need faders to grab hold of... (I sold the MC Control as I use key commands and couldn’t be bothered to change my ways).
AKG Solid tube, couple of 414s and a matched pair of Sontronics mics for capturing acoustic guitar or percussion, couple of guitars, a bass etc.
Analog hardware... (Josh and I still turn to the hardware synths when we know the sound we want but can’t find it in software because we’ve been around oscillators and filters for years)
Sequential Circuits Pro One: First proper synth I bought in 1984, still sounds great. I wanted to sound like Vince Clark
Moog Source: I saw Fletch from Depeche playing one in the 80s, vowed to get one later in life - looks great, pain to use, but it simply has that Moog ‘3D’ sound...even though it’s a mono!
Roland JP8000, MC202, and a Linndrum (Martin Ware from Heaven 17, said to me, “They (The Linn) have a groove which no software can ever emulate”).
Which DAW are you using and why?
Logic X (whatever the latest version is, I’m a sucker for an upgrade).
Started with a BBC Micro and the UMI system after I saw Vince Clark using it on Rock School, it had 16 colours and 4 MIDI outs! Then I went the Atari & C-lab / Emagic Notator / Creator route, so been Logic ever since. I’ve looked at Live and Cubase but the learning curve for anything other than Logic on a day to day basis is too extreme for me to start writing with anything else, although I used to use Pro Tools in my radio days and I recently re-downloaded it and would love to get back into knowing it - if anyone wants to spend a few days training me here, I’ll make tea and pick up from the station! ;-)
What’s the typical process when writing for TV? Do you have a lot of freedom with what you can write, or do you usually have to stay within a certain style?
We’ll get asked to pitch or in some cases get a call saying “We want you to do this”, then we’ll be sent a brief or have a meeting... tea, biscuits, confidential computer renders of set with presenter in it etc.
The briefs can vary wildly, but will usually contain certain touch points which will give us an idea of where to take the music i.e. the channel, time slot, possible presenter, graphics / colours of the set, uptempo, modern, dramatic. I guess we do have a lot of freedom but it’s up to us to play with ideas and zone in on something so we can give the producers a solution to their problem i.e. they need TV music, quickly and efficiently and that’s what we do. We’d love to know about what software you own, have you got any go-to virtual instruments or effects plug-ins that you always use for specific instruments or sounds?
I think Emagic / Apple have done a great job of packing Logic with really high quality useful / useable soft synths, samplers and processing, so to get up and running quickly with an idea, we’ll pull up the standard presets in ESX24, Retro Synth, ES1 etc and work from there. Josh and I used to get some great results with the standard Logic strings etc because he knows how to arrange, We also use the B3 as Josh is a great Hammond player and is quite impressed with the sound of it. I would say the one thing Apple haven’t ever attacked properly is Pop/Rock brass. (see ‘Strictly Brass´ explanation below) .
So, now, once we’ve got a decent idea we’ll swap out or add to, to get the whole thing sounding more grown up and expensive. We use Spitfire Albion strings, Session Strings, Scarbee bass & funk guitarist (if we can’t nail it ourselves). Toontrack EZDrummer has been a staple for ages, although Logic’s ‘Drummer’ is brilliant and sits in the mix really well. We use the Toontrack Nashville EZX Kit a lot, and tap / rhythm search function is really useful... plus I’ve got EZkeys, Piano/Rhodes etc the sounds are all really great quality!
I love Lennar’s Sylenth, it’s a go to for anything huge and ’synthy´, but I’ve also got some of the GForce stuff and I’ll pull up the Mini-Monsta if the Moog Source is playing up. I recently bought the Xfer Serum / Nerve / Cthulhu / LFO tool. Can´t stand the Nerve GUI, but Serum has some insane sounds (Ampology bass anyone?) and we’ve stuck it on the intro to a pitch we’re working on at the moment to get them to jump out of their seats, plus I don’t ´bass drum side chain pump’ anymore I just put the LFO tool across.
I use Waves, the Renaissance Axxe is great for pumping up guitars, the L1 limiter is in frequent use, but when i´m writing I have the Logic Platinum analog tape compression setting across the output to keep everything in check before going to work on the mix down. Honourable mention to iZotope Ozone… the ‘Gentle Tube’ setting is totally a ‘better button’, but i’ve absolutely murdered mixes with Ozone when I’ve started trying to get clever.
How often, if at all, do you get to incorporate ´live´ performances/recordings? Can you give us some examples?
If we can play it or get someone to play something live, we’ll do it. We have a great network of players who come over or record at home but a lot of our TV music can end up using software instruments – stuff like well recorded live drums, orchestras or jazz flute ;-) as they are a little more difficult to source / record etc due to the time constraints.
When we wrote the theme to Strictly Come Dancing we used an EXS performance of brass samples (Best Service ‘Super Section’) that I had manually mapped into the EXS24, (I needed them for George Dawes’ songs on Shooting Stars) When we won the pitch, the BBC paid for us to go to Olympic Studios to record the band / orchestra who would feature on the first series. Once we’d finished the day’s sessions it was agreed with the producers that the samples and loops we’d used in the demo were fundamental to the sound of the theme, so what you hear on the TV to this day is all performed and played by Josh and I.
Very recently we wrote a theme for a quiz show which needed that classic retro alto sax vibe, so we sketched it with ’Session Brass’ and then got a sax player to replace just that bit to give it human authenticity and attitude.
The virtual instruments/plugins market is pretty well-served these days but do you feel there are any specific tools, or types of sounds, that are lacking?
That’s so tough, as you say, there’s an ‘app’ for everything! Sometimes when inspiration is lacking, we´ll pull up a drum / bass / synth loop to kick start the creative juices, then we’ll usually lose it later on as the piece develops. Imagine if your DAW analysed the tempo, key, chords, vocals etc of your project and had a ‘You might like this’ button which throws out suggestions for loops, samples, instruments available (either in your browser or online) with a ‘safe to insane’ slider? I know Cubase suggests chords based on your project (which I wish Logic would do) but this would be a really neat addition.
Which has been the most challenging TV ´job´ you´ve worked on and why?
We once got asked to keep re-working a piece of music into whatever style the exec producer seemed to be listening to over a period of lunchtimes – that was dull. They’re all ‘challenging’ on various levels, some good... some not so.
Talking of a challenge, you organised the music for London´s New Year´s Eve fireworks this year. How do you begin to tackle a project like that?
We (Nik Goodman) and I, work closely with the production company and fireworks team. We meet in the Autumn, to discuss the general direction we feel the sequence might go that year and then we start putting together ideas and playlists on shared documents, from September. The over arching brief has always been that it needs to be a sequence of music that no other city would use because it predominantly reflects and celebrates the year in London and also the rest of the nation.
The soundtrack contained such a vast array of music - how did you choose what tracks made it into the mix?
We draw up lists of music genres, artists and agreed sequence elements we think should be considered for inclusion, anything from deaths (Bowie, Prince) tracks which choreograph well to fireworks (Kungs vs CoTB) to comedy (Edmundo Ross). Once we have a selection of ‘paper edits’ of the tracks, we start working on the ideas, chopping up hooks to see if we like them, augmenting tracks or doing rough mashups etc.
I was asked to get involved by a publisher friend of mine and I felt at my stage in life / career, if there was anything I could do to ‘give back’ I should. Josh and I have done a few talks at schools recently, talking about what we’ve achieved and I’ll always finish up with a quick chat on reaping the rewards of one’s creativity, the subsequent copyright generated and how it’s important, as a creator on any level, to protect your IP. In a world where the sharing of information and content happens at the tap of a screen, it’s important for anyone who creates original work to know (and protect) their rights and to stand together with other creators to make sure they are fairly compensated for their output.
What has been the proudest moment in your career so far?
At this point I should say ‘my kids’?… but I won’t... but I will say finding a copy of Sound on Sound, which my 18 year old had bought off his own bat, made me well up.
Seriously, It never ceases to make me smile when I see someone on YouTube in a far flung corner of the globe singing the Strictly Come Dancing / Dancing With the Stars theme, knowing Josh and I wrote that in my garden shed studio. We have 10 ASCAP awards for that 35 secs of music... unfortunately people still remember me for the Radio 1, 4DJ song (If you don’t know…you don’t need to know).
Any exciting projects you’re working on at the moment or coming up in the near future that you can tell us about?
Yes, couple of dead cert TV projects, but we´re always pitching (It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in entertainment TV music or TV & Radio soundtracks, you still have to pitch). But also, after going to the ASCAP songwriting expo in LA, I said to myself, 2017 would be the year I made inroads with the songwriting side of the business. It’s something we have to crowbar in between the bread and butter stuff, but so far we’ve managed to get a couple of tracks put on hold with a high profile artist, so all good!
Sounds like there´s plenty more exciting times ahead, thanks for your time Dan!
You can find out more about Dan´s work on his website here or follow him on Twitter here.
Check out the video below as Dan and Josh explain how they created the theme to the BBC´s Strictly Come Dancing...