Tom and Jerry: Modern Vintage Cartoon Music - Vivek Maddala Interview
In today's world of retro, throwback, vintage popular culture. Everything old is new again. Running the gamut from entertainment, to food and even fashion. This is especially true for animation. With a rebirth of television and ubiquitous streaming of movies online. Cartoons have followed suit with everything from Disney to Warner Bros. getting the full reboot treatment.
Much of this revival has been brought about by technologies that have super-charged the creation of cartoons on every level. What used to take armies of people working with analog tools has been greatly reduced with modern digital technologies. A prime example is the original 1940s Tom and Jerry cartoon that has been brought back to life, now airing on the Cartoon Network.
We had the opportunity to speak with soundtrack composer, Vivek Maddala, about his work on the new Tom and Jerry cartoon to get some insights into how modern sound technology was used to bring a vintage property into the modern day.
How did a composer focused on symphonic writing with ethnic textures end up writing cartoon music?
Working in film music, I actually got my start scoring TCM/Warner Bros. restorations of classic silent films made in the 1920s (films that were made before the technology existed to marry picture and sound easily). So these pictures never had an official music score, in order to release these films to modern audiences, they commissioned me to write original scores, which would then be indelibly imprinted to the films for new release.
In scoring my first silent film for TCM/Warner Bros., I worked with a spectacular recording and mix engineer, Dan Blessinger, who is also an excellent musician and songwriter. He recommended me for the “Tom and Jerry” gig, and it’s been quite a successful endeavor.
There’s actually a lot of similarity between writing music for silent films and cartoons. In both cases, the drama is quite overt and often over-the-top. Also, the dearth of dialog (minimal in the cartoon; audibly non-existent in the silent), means the music reigns supreme—as an equal partner with picture. The music covers a lot of territory, affecting and reflecting every nuance in story, character, and action.
How does cartoon music differ from the kind of soundtrack you would compose for a film?
Most of the feature film scoring I’ve done has been for independent films—mostly dramas, but also some comedies and quite a few documentaries. Cartoon music, especially that which I’m writing for “Tom and Jerry,” is the polar opposite of my scoring for independent feature films. For the indie features, I’m quite careful about subtlety and nuance. Audiences for these films are sophisticated and sensitive to being manipulated by music. So the music has to operate in an elusive way, with every musical idea carefully calibrated to suggest or express exactly what the director wants to communicate to the audience. In contrast, when scoring a cartoon like “Tom and Jerry,” subtlety goes out the window and every physical movement on screen is accompanied by a musical gesture. With the cartoon, it’s all melody and counterpoint all the time. With cartoons I can be more musically adventurous too, whereas I’m always careful with the indie features.
Are you a cartoon / music fan, what cartoons did you grow up with?
I grew up with the same cartoons as probably everyone else. My favorites are probably the Pixar films, but I like them all. I really dig the “Peanuts” TV specials, and of course modern cartoons (“Simpsons,” “Futurama,” et al.) are wonderful. The “Looney Tunes” cartoons were some of my favorites, as well as early “Tom and Jerry” and “Flintstones.” I also have fond memories of “Super Friends,” which I watched when I was a small child.
Were you familiar with cartoon music before this, if so, who are some of the composers you were aware of and admired?
I’ve greatly admired Scott Bradley most of all, but certainly also Carl Stalling. And I love the Vince Guaraldi music from the “Peanuts” specials.
The show captures much of the classic look and sound of the Tex Avery production. Were you expected to reproduce Scott Bradley's sound as well?
Yes, Scott Bradley’s scores came up repeatedly and centrally to the early conversations with the director of the “Tom and Jerry Show.” He definitely wanted to capture that vibe.
What its like working on Tom and Jerry, with a huge legacy. How does someone even begin to approach Bradley's work, did you do a lot of research and on what?
It’s a huge honor to work on such a classic show. I spent a lot of time reviewing diligently the original 1940s “Tom and Jerry” episodes and their marvelous Scott Bradley music scores. My intention was to channel much of what was great about the classic “Tom and Jerry” scores (both musically and dramatically) into my new scores for the series, but while imparting my own musical “voice.” Indeed, I believe the new scores sound very much like me, and function with the picture much the same way Scott Bradley’s did. A lot has happened musically and culturally in the past 80 years since the Tom and Jerry cartoon first appeared, so I have a lot more influences to draw from. But fundamentally, it’s classic “Tom and Jerry.”
I am fascinated how cartoon music came into its own. Bradley talked about how he borrowed Schoenberg's serial music approach. Is that something you leveraged as well?
One of my favorite classic “Tom and Jerry” episodes was show #16, “Puttin on the Dog.” It’s beautiful, funny, and evocative as cartoon, and the score is marvelous. Bradley uses a 12-tone row a la Schoenberg in one sequence to create a disorienting effect in a comically absurd moment, and it works magnificently. I used this technique a couple of times last season for comedic effect, but sparingly. It’s possible I’ve written 12-tone elements in other scores, but only by random chance—i.e., not consciously. I believe in order to qualify as a truly Schoenberg-esque sequence the serial procedure must be intentional.
Did you try to incorporate popular themes into the new soundtrack similar to the way Bradley infused classical themes into the original from popular classical composers?
In my scores, if you look hard, you could find oblique references to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Jimi Hendrix, and even modern film scores—but the references are subtle and never quote actual themes. It’s more like stylistic gestures. On occasion, I’ve quoted Strauss, Rossini, Sibelius, and others whose work is in public domain—but those references tend to be more obvious.
Is there some of Bradley's feel that you have to retain and how do you balance what's him and what's you?
I feel like the music I’m writing retains Bradley’s approach, while sounding 100% like me. It’s possible that growing up listening to his work, I’ve internalized it to the point where it’s part of my own musical vocabulary. Perhaps we’re all this way.
How much room to move do you have when it comes to creativity in a cartoon score, or any project for that matter?
For the “Tom and Jerry Show,” I have quite a bit of autonomy. I receive very little direction from the director or from Warner Bros. At this point, I pretty much do what I want, while staying focused on what I’ve come to recognize the director and the executives at Warners want to hear.
For other films, the matter is quite different. And the amount of “room to move” varies greatly from project to project.
Cartoon Music used to be a big production between writing and recording. Can you briefly compare the old days to a guy who has is own studio, today?
It’s fairly seamless in my workflow. Since I have my own studio with live recording room, lots of great equipment, and an impeccable acoustic environment, I’m able to do the entire production here. I orchestrate as I’m writing, and use combinations of virtual and live instruments to execute my ideas. For recording live musicians (which I typically do individually or in chamber-sized groups like strings comprising a “4,3,3,3” configuration or woodwind quintet), I transcribe my MIDI sequences into Sibelius software to make the charts. I record and conduct myself. So it’s entirely a self-contained operation for me, in stark contrast to the way scoring used to work. The turnaround time is very fast. Typically I begin work and complete it within 5 days. This includes initial spotting, writing thematic material, detailed scoring to picture along with all orchestration, transcribing, recording, mixing, and delivery.
I see you also will conduct other players for scores. How much of the Tom and Jerry score is done in your studio and elsewhere?
So far 100% of the music I’m writing for “Tom and Jerry” is done in my studio. It’s a state-of-the-art facility that allows me to accomplish more quickly and effectively what I need to do than anywhere else I can think of. However, if I needed to record a 100-piece orchestra, then I’d be happy to go to an external scoring stage and conduct and record there. It’s a lot of fun to do it that way, and of course the results can be outstanding.
Where and what parts of the production process are you responsible for. Are you doing just the music or foley / sound effects and other elements?
I’m doing music only, no foley or sound effects. My work dovetails with that of my colleague, Dan Blessinger, who’s been doing sound effects.
The score for these cartoons is very complicated and diverse. Many of the movements and gestures appear to have a sound associated with them. Is that so, and how do you manage all of that on a technical level?
Managing all of that is quite labor intensive, but it’s integral to the functioning of the score. It’s part of the suite of techniques one has to master to score an animated show like this.
I see a guitars and drums in your remote studio. Are all your sounds generated from those, what kinds of synthesizers, sampling and or processors do you use in addition to those?
On my scores I play all of the drums, percussion, guitars, bass, and piano. They’re all live. Much of the rest of it, I accomplish using virtual instruments—many of the same ones we all use. And then I replace some string, brass, and woodwind sections or parts with live players as needed. I don’t use “synthesizers” per se, but the virtual instruments are based on samples of actual instruments, or on physical modeling.
From recording, to sound making to mixing there are so many options for making sounds today, what kind of production environment do you have setup in your studio?
I’ve got three separate DAWs, my main one along with a backup, and a secondary machine for printing stems and running video. I have a large selection of analog and digital inputs in my main and backup DAWs, with everything wired up between the drums, guitar amps, live room (for strings, brass, woodwinds), and piano room. I’m also using DANTE for audio over LAN, which works wonderfully for communicating between rooms (in addition to analog lines). I also have a good selection of great-sounding mics, preamps, and converters for front end, along with fantastic outboard gear and VSTs (for EQ, compression, reverb, delay, etc.). And my monitoring environment is par excellence. I’ve spent a lot of time building the studio, and I’m quite fortunate to have these great tools.
Do you use many electronic instruments in the Tom & Jerry score, or elsewhere? What are some of the challenges working with electronics for soundtrack work?
It all depends on the needs of the film—both dramatically and logistically. I try to avoid using electronic instruments if the desired sound is acoustic, but I’m quite good and programming virtual instruments using MIDI to sound like the real thing. There are times, on other projects, where the desired sound is “electronic”—in which case I will either use electronic instruments or I will use “non-electronic” instruments as a source and then modify the sound drastically using electronics.
You also have a background in audio product design and development for various companies? I have to think you designed those fantastic sound treatments for your studio as well?
Yes, I have an electrical engineering background and spent years working as an engineer and scientist designing products and technologies (e.g., Dolby Laboratories, Avid, Tektronix). Many of the tools I use in film scoring are things I designed. My most used microphones, preamps, and speakers are all products I designed and built. I worked with an amazing acoustician as a consultant on my studio before and during its design, and did a lot of the calculations and wiring myself. Ultimately, these are like the paintbrushes I use to make paintings. It’s the paintings that I value most.
We at Encyclotronic thank Vivek for taking the time to talk to us about his work as a composer, Tom and Jerry, and cartoon music. You can find more information about his work at his website located at maddala.com