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TV cartoon music gaining in sophistication

From digitally constructed symphony orchestras and hip hop to techno and rave, the music backing up today's cartoons bears little resemblance to the simple, melodic scores of yesteryear. Insiders in TV animation see the music getting edgier and more sophisticated, even...
September 1, 1997

From digitally constructed symphony orchestras and hip hop to techno and rave, the music backing up today’s cartoons bears little resemblance to the simple, melodic scores of yesteryear. Insiders in TV animation see the music getting edgier and more sophisticated, even as other areas of kids entertainment are being toned down in the aftermath of the FCC rulings. Fueling the trend is interest by producers in luring older audiences to cartoons via adult-friendly music.

‘When I write stuff for kids, there’s not really anything I shy away from,’ says Mark Mothersbaugh, former Devo band member, creator of the music for the Rugrats and owner of Mutato Muzika, a music production studio in Los Angeles. ‘There’s more of a danger speaking down to kids than going over their heads.’

Ron Kenan, executive vice president of music at Saban Entertainment, agrees. ‘It’s always smart to target up [to older audiences],’ he says. ‘Younger kids will listen to what older kids listen to. You may not find them going to raves, but if they find it on Saturday morning, they’ll groove to it.’

Widespread changes in scoring can largely be traced to a key technological advance in the early 1990s that made the simulation of most instruments quick and inexpensive. ‘Things changed around 1990 with the introduction of the MIDI [Music Instrument Digital Interface],’ says Steve Rucker of Chase Rucker Productions, creator of the music for Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory and The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. The MIDI’s musical sampling capabilities made the use of live musicians to record scores a luxury rather than a necessity. ‘The good news with the way we do it now is you can see your ideas directly,’ says Rucker’s partner Thomas Jones Chase. Even though digital scoring is standard for TV, films still use live symphonies. ‘An orchestra is an orchestra,’ notes Chase. ‘For many kids, animation music is their first exposure to orchestral music.’

For seven years, Marcel Nottea’s M3D Studios has been creating music in-house for its computer-animated cartoons using digital methods and sampling, notably Pigasso’s Place, which aired on ABC affiliates throughout the U.S. ‘Scores that kids are attracted to are much more instrumental and orchestrated. Today, everything is digitally sampled using 48 to 100 tracks,’ says Alon Nottea, technical director at M3D Studios.

‘The traditional, Warner Bros. music was more wacky, sillier,’ says Chase. ‘Music has become more dramatic now. While we’ve been working on [Dexter's Laboratory], we’ve been requested to do more and more cinematic music.’ Producers also frequently request popular sci-fi and movie music, even though kids might not catch the references.

Rucker combs record stores to find out what’s hot and, like other composers, he monitors competitors. ‘We look at new shows, like [the movie] Spawn, to see if they are doing something we’re not doing. Sonic libraries are constantly being reviewed,’ Rucker adds. ‘You have to shed all of your prior knowledge and try to get to what you’re feeling to reach this age group.’

Kenan also pursues a contemporary feel in scoring the shows he does for Saban each year. ‘I always look for the emotion you want to get across on screen. For action, it’s orchestration and rock. What’s more perfect than the music happening today? It’s very cutting edge, very mainstream, industrial, fast.’ Kenan took a risk early on with heavy metal during the initial scoring of Power Rangers. ‘It was sort of a gamble to go with hard rock. The philosophy then was that kids have virgin ears, but I’ve found they’re ready for anything.’

Amidst all of this innovation, nostalgia remains high for the classic cartoons scores, according to a spokesperson at Kid Rhino, a division of Rhino Records. The label reports brisk sales for Toon Tunes, a recently released collection of 50 cartoon theme songs spanning the 1930s through to 1996. Melodies include tunes from Popeye the Sailor, The Bullwinkle Show, Underdog, The Jetsons and The Flintstones.

Toon Tunes liner notes feature trivia that promises to stump even the most devoted cartoon lover.

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