The Hills are Alive with the Sound of (TV and Film) Music

David Vanacore demonstrates some of the hardware used to compose music for television and other media. Photo courtesy of Blake Gardner Photography.

You may know that a lot of television programs and movies are shot here in Santa Clarita, but you may not realize that a good deal of the music that you hear in network TV, cable shows and movies is written and recorded here as well.

Two local companies, Vanacore Music and Ah2, produce music that helps crank up the excitement and drama of such TV shows as “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “America’s Got Talent” and “Shark Tank.”

Vanacore Music, which counts reality shows “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “American Ninja Warrior” and the crime series “Bosch” among its roster of shows, was founded in 2004 by David Vanacore. The company has15 in-house employees, including composers and administrative staff, and about 60 or so composers dispersed across the globe.

“On any given day we’ll have to write, record and produce 20 or so tracks,” said Vanacore. In addition to reality programs, the company creates music for comedies, commercial jingles and a variety of other projects. “It’s turned into quite a machine,” he said.

As a pianist and aspiring rock star in the earlier part of his career, creating music for TV and films was not what he set out to do but was something that organically took on a life of its own.

Moving west

Hailing from New Haven, Conn., Vanacore’s older brother, Victor, a musical prodigy, played keyboards for the Jackson 5 in the early 1970s, andthe family relocated to California. Meanwhile, David also displayed prodigious musical talents. Once in California, he studied with Paul Smith, Ella Fitzgerald’s piano player, and learned orchestration at the Dick Grove School Without Walls. At 17, he began teaching piano at Cassell’s Music in San Fernando and later went on to tour with acts such as Poco, Loggins and Messina, and Cher.

When he married and began raising a family, he left the life of a traveling musician. A fortuitous meeting with producer-composer Mike Post led to numerous projects composing music for television. Then in 2000, he was hired to create music for a new show, “Survivor.”

“Survivor becomes this huge hit and started a genre,” said Vanacore. “It was pretty much different from anything else I’d done before.”

Through that project, he met TV producer and current head of MGM Television Mark Burnett, which led to other television collaborations. Reality shows started to take off, and a lot of them started to hire him to do the work.

He eventually moved his operation and his home from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Clarita and has been operating here ever since.

In addition to composing original music for show such as “The Apprentice,” “Survivor,” “Battlebots” and “Ninja Warrior,” Vanacore Music maintains a library of more than 18,000 musical tracks that are licensed to TV and film productions.

Not only have the musical projects continued to come in, so have accolades from the entertainment industry. The company has won numerous ASCAP and BMI awards over the years. In 2016, Vanacore won ASCAP Screen Music Awards for “Big Brother 17,” “Survivor: Cambodia,” “Survivor: Worlds Apart” and “Undercover Boss.”

A musical neighbor

Coincidentally, the year before Vanacore’s founding, Ah2, another company that produces music for TV and films, set up shop in Santa Clarita.

The name “Ah2,” which Jeff Lippencott and Mark T. Williams chose for thecompany, is the phonetic way to pronounce “a2” in a score. It’s used to designate which instrumentalist should play a given passage, explains Williams.

Although Ah2 is located in Santa Clarita, the story of its founding begins in Nashville in the 1990s. Lippencott, a native of Long Island, N.Y., was living in the country music capital. He worked for arranger Ron Huff and was a string arranger for Shania Twain and Faith Hill. Williams, who comes from southern Virginia, was attending Belmont University in the country music capital. The two became friends, sharing a mutual interest in composing, arranging and orchestrating music.

Williams moved to the west coast in 1999. He first looked for housing in L.A. proper but was lured to Santa Clarita by the region’s reasonable rents and less frenetic pace, compared with Los Angeles.

Williams wrote music for commercials with a firm called Machine Head in Venice Beach. A couple of years after Williams relocated to the west coast, Lippencott moved to L.A. He was working on record projects and when a TV project came up, he and Williams collaborated on it.

Williams was asked to submit theme music for a Mark Burnett TV show, a six-episode summer series on the WB Network in 2003, “Boarding House North Shore.” Burnett liked the theme and chose it for the show. He was invited to score the show, and he accepted with the proviso that he would work on it with Lippencott – they had started Ah2 three months prior to that.

In 2004, they were hired to write music for another Burnett production, “The Apprentice,” andthe show was an instant success.

“Typically, you don’t get a hit show right out of the gate,” said Williams. “We were very fortunate.”

A library of sound

In addition to composing new music, the firm licenses its catalog of musical scores primarily to television series. Sitcoms such as “Everybody Hates Chris,” crime dramas including “CSI,” “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” feature Ah2’s music, as does “Who Do You Think You Are?” a genealogy show, and “Gordon Ramsey’s Hotel Hell.”

“At any given time we have many projects that we’re juggling,” said Williams.

The company employs four other full-time composers, and others contribute on an as-needed basis.

The company moved into its current location off Constellation Road in 2006, and it includes around 5,000 square feet of studio space with six composition-recording rooms as well as offices.

Doing business outside of media-heavy regions such as Burbank and Hollywood doesn’t appear to have slowed the company’s progress.

In addition to winning numerous high profile projects, both Williams and Lippencott have gotten a couple of Emmy nominations, CBS’s “Kidnation,” and “On the Lot,” a Steven Spielberg show on Fox. In addition, they have won multiple BMI film and television awards between the two of them.

“And we’ve done it all from Valencia,” said Williams.

Vanacore is also convinced that Santa Clarita is a good alternative to L.A.

When the company moved here from the San Fernando Valley, many employees relocated from Burbank and North Hollywood to Santa Clarita and bought homes.

“Once they experienced it and experienced the studios, they said it’s a good place to live,” said Vanacore.

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