One man has worked on hundreds of reality shows. His name doesn’t always appear in the credits, but his work is more immediately noticeable than many of the other people whose names fly by. It sets the mood, highlights a moment, and often helps to establish the voice of a show. He’s also no longer just one person, but a team of more than 130.
What they contribute is part of shows as disparate as Survivor and Are You The One?, American Ninja Warrior and Treehouse Masters, Hell’s Kitchen and Whale Wars, and Face Off and Big Brother.
He is composer David Vanacore, and along with other composers at Vanacore Music, he’s scored a lot reality television over the past 15 years. The story of how he got from working on that show to contributing to so many starts with the show that changed reality TV.
Writing music for Survivor, then and now
When I talked with David Vanacore, he’d just left a session scoring Survivor, which he’s worked on for all 31 seasons. For many of those, there were two composers, but Russ Landau left the series in 2014. Although some of Landau’s work is still featured, including the theme song he wrote, the music credits on the CBS series now say “music by David Vanacore.”
In the late 1990s, Vanacaore worked with producer Craig Piligian on documentaries at the Discovery Channel and other places, and when Piligian was hired as showrunner of Survivor Borneo, he brought Vanacore in. “I had to audition,” Vanacore told me. “A lot of music, I was just writing on spec. I felt very strongly about the identity of the show and what I bring to the table, and I just worked very hard at recording material that I thought would work for a show like that. Eventually, Mark agreed, Craig agreed.”
This was before the show was even filmed: “they hadn’t even gotten out to shoot it yet,” he said. Production settled on two composers. “We worked completely independent of each other,” Vanacore said, confirming what Landau told me. “We both would deliver music to the show; the show would pick and choose what pieces of music felt right for what scene. Each individual producer would be responsible for a show, and that producer would send out stuff to be scored. They would basically use whoever they felt worked for the scene. It was really up to the producers to decide who they wanted to work on what particular scene.”
Writing for Survivor remains “a combination of writing music before each season and producers sending us raw footage to score.” Vanacore told me, “today, I’d go and watch the episode completed, prior to the mix—about five days prior to the mix. And then go to the producers if there’s something I think I could make better and change, highlight certain things that might happen.”
Survivor’s music is a collaboration
This is a method that works well for him. “I still think that’s the most creative and successful way to get the best out of what I do. I think it’s the best thing for the overall product: get the composer involved early, pre-write the music so you have an idea of what works and what doesn’t, score some things each week,” he said. “We have a show that’s 42 minutes; there’s no way I could score it from beginning to end in five days. And then fixed what needs to be fixed. You can really concentrate on those within the five or six days and make them great. Then the whole show has this great continuity of reality and score, and it should feel scored from beginning to end. It should have a nice flow to it.”
That end product is a collaboration between editors and the composers who create the music they have to work with. “Every new season I write a huge chunk of new music, and they always go there first,” he said. “Some editors have some of their old favorite cues that they’ll pull in, but I’d say most of the episode is new music. And then there’s a few specialty things, a few pieces of music that kind of reoccurred in Survivor over the years.” That includes challenge music and Tribal Council music.
Vanacore personally scores Survivor along with two members of his team. “We work hard each season to create a new sound based on the location, the people, and the premise,” he said. “That always has a lot to do with the sound of the show each season. We do a good job of setting a new precedence a new vibe. Not much of the old material tends to fit. If we revisit a country, maybe those cues might get pulled back in, but more than likely, we’ll stay within the country and the region for the music.”
I asked how much of the episodes are new music versus cues from that vast library that the show has accumulated over the years. “It really changes each week,” Vanacore said. “Usually, 20 to 30 percent for first episode. As we get our footing, some episodes are 10 to 12 [percent], some episodes are two to four. It really depends on if the editors chose the right music or not. We have so much music now in what we call the Survivor library. Sometimes it’s just, let’s freshen this up, or let’s hit more of these moments that the cue’s more or less playing through it.”
Scoring reality television
Survivor, Vanacore told me, “was the big show that opened the door for me. I’d done a lot of work prior to that.” Earlier in his career, he worked as a session keyboard player, and then went on to work on a few dramas, including Silk Stalkings. “I really thought I would end up a drama writer,” he said. “And then Survivor came along and blew open the door to this reality TV. Because I had the experience in dramatic score, it fit really well.”
What he learned early in his career has translated well to the genre that took over television. “I love collaborations; I was in bands, and being a studio musician, you’d learn that collaboration is the key to a good recording project. I’ve taken that approach with producing,” Vanacore told me. “It’s been a lot of fun. You take somebody’s idea, and you give them a little bit of your’s, and there’s back and forth. Then you come up with something, and you go, ‘Wow, that’s cool, and I wouldn’t have created it by myself.’ I’ve taken this person’s vision and taken this clay and molded it into something that’s uniquely ours.”
That collaboration now includes a huge team that’s worked on a huge number of shows. I asked if he knew how many shows he’s worked on—IMDB lists close to 300 on his page alone—and Vanacore said no. “I’ve always been like this, and probably become my nature has been a working musician’s mentality—I never really counted numbers. I was always really working hard and writing the next piece of music, and not really focus on how many pieces of music are out there or how many shows am I working on. That’s kind of the way I’ve made my career,” he said. “I don’t really look back.”
There is a lot of range in the music he’s created, which is evident from looking at the differences in shows and styles, from a dramatic thriller documentary series such as Whale Wars to the comedy of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List. He’s even been on The Apprentice:
“Variety is the key to reality TV. We could go from a waltz to a jazz cue to a funk cue to a rock cue to a country cue to a hillbilly cue—it really is all over the map,” Vanacore said. “And because of my versatility as a studio musician, it played well into the styles of reality TV.”
Breaking reality TV’s music apart
Vanacore now composes with what he describes as “layers and structures,” turning one music cue into many. That’s helpful because it’s “putting some of the power in the music editor’s hands, which in turn is good because there’s such a fast turnaround and now the show’s are even faster turnaround.”
That’s a technique that fits well with what so much of reality television has become, and it has its origins in Survivor.
“In the beginning, in the first season, I was scoring huge pieces of music,” he said. “There were many challenges, but basically it starts with 60, 70 pieces of different instruments inside these cues. And then Survivor would call me and say, ‘We really like this, but can you change this, and can you change that, and can you take that cymbal off of there?’ And I found myself re-mixing the same piece of music too many times. It was very time-consuming and it was stopping me from creating new music. So, there was always a lot of editing involved.”
The solution was to give the editors options. “I gave them different layers of music—which means I’d give them the percussion layer, and then give them the string layer, and then give them the effects layer,” Vanacore told me. “I’d give them the full mix but then I’d break it down and I would give them elements that I thought could be used by themselves, as a smaller mix, or could be used in conjunction with other mixes or other tracks from other mixes. And then I would take out the things that might be annoying to an editor as he was editing something, like cymbal strikes and unique rattles and sounds. So if a rattle got in a way, or a weird sound, they could literally cut around it using my multi-mixes.”
That makes the music “easier to work with, and then it gave the editors more freedom to manipulate the cue,” he said. If they wanted just the drums for 10 seconds, they could cut to that version that just had the drums. It really is like taking a full piece of music and then taking some of the building blocks out.”
Music makes its way from Face Off to Big Brother
Those music cues are now in the hands of many different shows across broadcast and cable television. One of those is CBS’ summertime hit Big Brother, and Vanacore had praise for the show’s post-production crew.
“That’s one of those shows that moves very, very quickly. And we try to update them with new music to use—and they us a lot of music,” he said. “The editors don’t have much time to cut a new episode. They’re cutting about as fast as you can cut a TV show and make air and deliver. It’s unbelievable how well those guy do, with the amount of time they actually have to get a show on the air.”
However, he also lamented how the time constraints affect what they’re able to do as composers. “We would love to have a little bit of time, but literally they’re locking and going straight to air. We don’t have as much control on a show like that, in which case, we would love to be able to be more involved, but there’s just no time,” he said.
Last season, I noticed that Big Brother‘s editors started using a music cue from Vanacore’s library that Face Off had been using for years. Vancore talked about how that kind of reuse really is unnecessary.
“If they’re using my music library, they may grab a piece of music that was on another show,” he said. “There’s so much new music that we create all the time, that there’s kind of no need to reuse anything. I would prefer that we are in the business of creating new music all the time, but that’s become not the case with the budgets at hand sometimes. They don’t have the budget to write new music specifically for a show, so they’ll use our library. In those cases, more and more of that style of music will creep into their show and get used. Good music lasts a long time. If it’s good and it works, people are going to use it.”
While he composes new music every season for Survivor, that’s not the case with every show, Vanacore said. “I really don’t have control over what they use in most circumstances, especially if they’re using just the library license. We really have no input at all. I’d love to have more input but sometimes it’s just not—the studios or the producers don’t have the time, or don’t know we’re in this thing to make good shows and we’re happy to be involved,” he said.
He’d prefer to be an active part of the creative process. “My company in general, we like to be more hands-on,” Vanacore told me. “We feel like we can do an outstanding job, given a little bit of time and a small budget to be involved.”
Why reality TV offers more variety than drama
“The good thing about reality is that it’s always different for us,” Vanacore said. “I love dramas, too, it’s just at this point, we get more reality TV than dramas. Once you get a drama set up, you’re going to stick to that palette of sounds every week. You’re going to write new music, but you’re going to be stuck within the palette. With reality TV, the palette’s pretty large. You have a little bit more flexibility with what you can write. You can have some fun with some different instruments.”
Those instruments includes what you might expect, but also instruments such as a kazoo. Breaking music cues into different layers means, Vanacore said, that “if they don’t want the kazoo in it, it’s not in it. But you’d be surprised on how often the kazoo catches on because you just try to do something different. It’s kind of a cool instrument; editors start using it, and next thing you know, it’s like, ‘Hey, we want some more cues with that kazoo in it, or that weird rattle.’ They all have their creative merit, and they’re all slightly different. But at the end of the day, it’s music. If you’re a creative musician and you’ve studied and worked hard at your craft, then I think you’re going to do well at whatever style of TV or film you’re scoring.”
Vanacore’s success has been largely with reality television, and he’s been providing much of its soundtrack for 15 years. “Genres are just genres, especially when it comes to composers. It’s just a matter of what you get hot at doing. Some guy gets hot at doing sit-coms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do reality. And some guys get at hot at dramas and don’t get asked to do comedy,” he said.
Vanacore repeatedly mentioned how grateful he was for the work he’s been able to do, and the producers he’s worked with and shows he’s worked on. “I think it’s because of all of the different TV shows and different producers that I’ve been exposed to, there’s nothing I’ve not had a chance to do,” he said. “I’ve been in some impossible, most scary situations, having been brought on by networks when composers have gotten fired, and I’ve had three days to completely score a new show, and we’ve succeeded at really high levels.”
At the end of our conversation, he came back to the show that really changed things, for television and for him. “I’m just happy to be with Survivor,” he said. “I look forward to every season like it’s season one all over again. I just love the show, I love the creative people I work with on that show—and many others. Keeps me excited about getting to do this every day. I’m a lucky guy.”