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American musician and TV composer W.G. Snuffy Walden began his career as a guitar player and solo artist supporting icons like Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Bill Withers on tour. After Walden was hired to create the score to the 1980s hit television series Thirtysomething, Walden became one of the industry’s most in-demand TV composers, scoring more than 60 titles including Roseanne, The Wonder Years, Nashville and Friday Night Lights.
In addition to winning an Emmy Award for his theme music on The West Wing, Walden has received 26 BMI Awards and numerous Emmy nominations. Walden recently took a break from writing his most recent score to talk about how his career developed and why he uses Blue Microphones in his scoring process.
I started out as a rock and roll guitarist, spending years in England and Southern California playing guitar with Diana Ross, Chaka Kahn, Stevie Wonder and more. In the 1980s I was asked to score a television series. After I finished the pilot for that show, Thirtysomething, I immediately started working on The Wonder Years. That same year, Thirtysomething won the Emmy for Best Drama and The Wonder Years won the Emmy for Best Comedy—and those were my first two shows! So I kind of went from 0 to 120.
When I started scoring, I had no formal education and I was just a rock and roll guitar player. For Thirtysomething, I borrowed an acoustic guitar and used a lot of techniques that I learned from electric guitar—a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs—and honestly, it was the only thing I could do.
If you'd have put and gun to my head and asked me to write a John Williams score, you'd have to shoot me because I really wasn't capable of doing that at that point. I only had one voice at that time—my guitar playing—and so my approach was to take what I could create as a solo artist, while remaining sensitive to the vibe of whatever show I was working on. I inadvertently started a trend in American television for that sort of thing.
After I had worked on a few shows, I bought a piano and taught myself how to play so I wouldn’t become known as a one-trick pony. I didn't want to limit myself so I expanded my palette with every opportunity until I was finally given a chance to work on an orchestral score for The West Wing.
W.G. Snuffy Walden’s recording studio in Los Angeles.
When I started doing The West Wing it was originally supposed to be an Americana acoustic guitar score. I had already worked with Aaron Sorkin on Sports Night. He came to me and said, “I have this script about politics, would you be interested in doing it?” and I said, “Of course, what kind of score do you hear?” He said he was imagining a guitar score, so I said, “Great, that’s right up my alley, let's do it!”
They started shooting the pilot, and the next thing I know they came to me and said, “Listen, we've kind of changed our mind and we want to go with a more orchestral-type score. Can you do that?” And I answered the only way I could as a musician whose job was up for grabs—I said, “Of course I can do that.”
And all of a sudden, I dove into every American orchestral composer and score that I could find. And I realized that it was still about a little four-bar spiritual melody. So in the end, it wasn’t so different from my own style.
When I originally connected with Blue we had a music label and we were doing a lot of videos out of my studio. One day Blue Microphones came and brought some mics to the studio and we started trying them out. We used them in videos because they looked great—but more importantly, I started using them in my scores because they sounded great. I was able to get a different color on my recording.
W.G. Snuffy Walden mic collection features numerous Blue microphones, including the Blue Bottle in center.
Because I've scored so many different television shows, I've always tried to make sure each show had a specific sound—an identifiable sonic signature that would separate it from the other shows. If you do 70 shows and they all sound the same, you’re probably not going to get hired much longer.
I’ve always tried to audition instruments and microphones the way a director might cast actors for certain roles. Once I started using Blue Microphones, I was able to find perfect matches for each guitar to get a sound that nobody else was getting. The choice of using a different guitar or a different mic will make me play differently. When I find the unique combination of the right mic and the right guitar, I’m able to make each score exist in its own world.
Charlie Bisharat recording violin with Blue Dragonfly microphone
Hummingbird is one of my favorites microphones for acoustic guitar. You can rotate the head and point it wherever you want. Sometimes I'll use Hummingbird for close miking and I will add a Bottle farther away to pick up some of the room sound. We also use Dragonfly and Kiwi on recordings.
George Doering recording guitar with Blue Kiwi microphone
I think the most important thing I could say to young composers is to find your voice. There are a lot of people who can imitate John Williams, but it takes a different kind of composer to do what Jonathan Wolff did on Seinfeld, or what I was able to get away with on Thirtysomething.
It was my limitations that led me to creating this sound. It wasn't my great expertise, it was strictly experimentation and relying on my limited amount of chops. Somehow in the combination between the two, I discovered a sound that worked for me and that other people liked.
Try to find your voice, the voice that is inside you, and bring that to the table. If you can make a simple statement with a singular voice that's unique, I think that's the best way to get in the door.