You don’t know his name, but if you own a television you’ve likely heard his music. Custom cue composer David Rockower describes how virtual tools help him create music efficiently in a highly-competitive industry.

Sometimes it’s a rock-star job. Like the time when he was watching Superbowl 50 and his publisher called to say his cue would be on in a few minutes. "Then it was over," he deadpans. "I took a picture of it."
Most of the time he isn’t composing for the Superbowl but for television shows like Duck Dynasty, Pawn Stars, Wahlburgers, or one of Gordon Ramsay’s cooking programs. As a cue composer, his job is to produce one-and-one-half-minute cues, or “streamlined songs,” as he puts it. “The Beach Boys would write a three-and-a-half-minute song – the traditional pop constraint – and a cue has to do the same thing in less than half that time.”
A cue is composed with the knowledge that it will be edited by a video editor. “The cue supports scenes in a visual medium,” he says, “so it’s got to be easily choppable and loopable for use in a TV context.” Think of what John Williams does for a two-hour Star Wars film. David Rockower does it in ninety seconds.

Re-writes: a particular hell

While there might be a little glamour involved, there is not always a lot of money. Competition for work is stiff, and those like David are playing the long game, hoping they’ll strike gold when their cue is used episode after episode, season after season. “When I got into this my main financial goal was to build a catalog that receives royalties,” he says, “and so you’ve got to look at it from an entrepreneurial point of view.”
For example, David has been successful writing for Wahlburgers. “I was a fan of Danny Elfman growing up. Quirky stuff stood out. I sent one cue to Wahlburgers that’s been used in its entirety but also in little pieces in multiple seasons.”
But sometimes clients insist on paying everything up front. “I had a cruise line that wanted two cues to market products. They sent a reference track that was blistering jazz, acapella 70s vocals in complex harmonies. The job paid 100 bucks with no back-end.”
He opened a finger-style harmony book to study and find inspiration and quickly realized he’d signed up for some complicated work. “And they wanted me to sing it, too. I sent them something and they replied, ‘Eh, but can you do this?’ I sent them something else and they came back again: ‘Well, how about a disco version?’ And I’m still on the same hundred bucks! The trick is to find a way to work quickly so I can stay interested in the job and still want to do it.”

The four-hour rule

Since a composer can’t spend an eternity on a cue that may or may not be used, and since David wants to still remain enthusiastic about each project, he’s developed what he terms the four-hour rule.
"I try to get every one-and-a-half-minute cue done in four hours. You could spend an entire day on a song and come up with something. Sleep, the wife, the kids, or drinking with the boys will then intervene and make you want to do something different with the cue. If you don’t tell yourself you’re finished, you may never finish it.”
David keeps a giant timer on his studio wall. “When I get to three hours and thirty minutes I start to wrap things up. It’s not going to be ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and anything you add to it will not change what it is.”
He’ll do whatever it takes, use whatever tools, to keep it simple and focus on the essence. “Ninety percent of the time I mix in mono so I don’t get lost in fascination.”

Mixing at a higher level

David discovered S-GEAR in 2016 when his friend Marcus Larabee – “a much better guitar player than me” – turned him on to it. “I didn’t demo it. I just bought it. I figured if Marcus liked it then it had to be good.” S-GEAR has become a key component in a work process that enables David to stick to his four-hour rule. “It’s the most useful solution I’ve found, and it’s allowed me to totally change my workflow.” “Before I had a few amps that I always left mic’ed up in isolation boxes. A Marshall JCM 800, a Bassman, and a couple of great stomp boxes. I’d move the mic around, try a different mic. That just takes too much time. And if you’re not happy with the sound that you got you can’t do anything from the original capture level. That’s really where it’s at.”
David thinks of S-GEAR in terms of dynamics. “It’s got fantastic character. S-GEAR moves in and out in the right ways. I spend a lot of time recording real amps. You can use a processor that presents your guitar in your face all the time, but a guitar doesn’t actually sound like that.”

rockower signal path

S-GEAR allows David to minimize the amount of decisions he gets stuck with at the conceptual or capture level. “I can completely focus on just playing the guitar parts that I want, with the guitar voices that I want, and have complete faith that when I feed the guitar into S-GEAR at the next stage of putting the piece together – I will have something that completely stands up in the project.”
When I move out of the creative stage into the mixing stage so I can present the music forward, S-GEAR lets me mix at a much higher level. Originally I wasn’t fond of the 57 [Custom 57 S-GEAR amp], but now I really like it. Not because it sounds great, but because it sounds real. Like something you’d mix.”

Just six strings

David is all about real. “If you listen to guitar sounds that you really like, nine times out of ten it was a sound captured to serve the song it’s in. I’ll have my Les Paul style up front playing the hook. Then the strats will come in 16 bars in. Then a telecaster comes in. I’ll mix it way back so you don’t notice it, but it’s there. S-GEAR allows me to make those choices right off the bat.”
The four-hour rule doesn’t allow him the time to plug everything into an amp, choose the mics, positions, and settings. Besides, the best part of the job is playing guitar. “If you took everything away and just played six strings and a pickup – that’s what we’re recording here.”

Interview by Scott Diel.