The making of Broadway Noir (1 and 2)

If you read this thing with any regularity, you know that, in my spare time, I compose and perform themes for several podcasts. Of those podcasts, the most interesting assignments come care of David J. Loehr's The Incomparable Radio Theater—an every-so-often podcast that recreates the feel of the classic radio dramas/comedies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

The most recent episode, "Away We Go," is the story of two cops investigating a murder in New York's Broadway theater district. For it, David asked if I could come up with something that was part "Harlem Nocturne," part "On Broadway."

After the initial "Say what!?" that often accompanies some of David's requests, I sat down at the keyboard and Logic Pro to see what I could come up with. After noodling on variations of each song in an attempt to make neither sound too much like the original (and getting nowhere fast) I tried a different approach.

That approach was to take the most characteristic part of "On Broadway"—the bump-da-bada-bump-da-da rhythmic pattern that particularly underlies the George Benson version—and see if I could work the two themes over it. Turns out I could, but I didn't want to overly emphasize the rhythmic accompaniment, so chose to play it on orchestral strings where you lose the bite of the beat because of the strings' slow attack.

For the first go-round I chose to clearly distinguish the two themes by using a different instrument for each—a clarinet for "Harlem Nocturne" and a piano for "On Broadway." I like the smoky tone of the clarinet for noir themes and I'm so honestly in love with Spectrasonics' Keyscape piano (a Yamaha C7) that I use it every chance I get. This is the version I sent to David.

He loved what I'd done, but asked that I replace the clarinet with a horn because he wanted a harsher feel. Fair enough. I substituted a trombone, which is in the version you'll find as "Broadway Noir 1" on the Music page.

But we weren't done yet. David then asked for a version that was a bit more urgent. Again, fair enough.

In some cases, you can deliver urgency simply by increasing the tempo, but not in this case. The strings are lugubrious and increasing the tempo would just make them sound lugubriously fast. So no, it was back-to-the-drawing-board time.

The next obvious approach was to give the thing a beat. With that in mind I scoured Logic for a jazz drummer playing with brushes to take on the job. Regrettably, you won't find a jazz cat among Logic's drummers. However, thanks to some recent additions to Logic's pool of drummers, you do find Finn, a drummer holed up in the Percussion section. After some judicious noodling with the complexity and make-up of his instruments, I was able to come up with a loping street beat that drove the theme in a more compelling direction.

But the trombone didn't work with it. It really needed a sax and, as you may have heard, synthetic saxes and I don't particularly get along. Still, the sax was a must and so, against my better judgement, I gave it another go.

And to my great surprise and delight, it was a worthy effort. Apple has recently added a collection of studio instruments to Logic and the Studio Baritone Sax was just the ticket. With the addition of some reverb and a bit of aftertouch, it wasn't entirely unconvincing and gave me the grit I wanted.

With the sax added, the piano melody for "On Broadway" didn't seem right, so back we went to the clarinet, which I think is a better counterpart—reedy and atmospheric. I then dumped the strings entirely and accompanied the themes with Upright Studio Bass, Keyscape piano, and Orchestra Harp. You can find this version as "Broadway Noir 2" on that same Music page.