Jon Lee: Capitalist Turned Composer

profile picSo how does one of the top television-scoring professionals in the business get to where he is today? 

If you’re Jon Lee, first you run a hedge fund for 15 or 20 years…


You’ll have to forgive Jon for not taking a more traditional route to the top of the film and television-scoring business. He found his true calling a bit later in life than most. But that hasn’t stopped him from making quite a name for himself in the field.

Although Jon started out in finance, it became a job he ended up “totally hating.” During his last few years in the business, he decided to do something about it and began pursuing his avocation: learning to play music. He took piano lessons, which eventually led him to composing. With the music bug firmly in his system, he soon enrolled at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where he studied with many well-established composers.

Jon got his Graduate Certificate in Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television, marking the formal end of his career in finance, and set out to land some initial gigs. He soon connected with fellow USC alum Timothy Michael Wynn, a hardcore SONAR user who co-founded the music production company Sonic Fuel. Jon went to work with Tim and his partner Chris Lennertz for about a year, “’til they kicked me out and said ‘go get a career,’” as Jon jokingly recalls.

At first Jon picked up small projects on his own, but got a break after a director passed Jon’s demo reel along to a friend. The friend happened to be well-known writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell. Cannell soon contacted Jon and he wound up working on scores for three of Cannell’s movies.

Next came the comedy film “Who’s Your Caddy?,” his first major motion picture and which would ultimately lead to Jon’s biggest break of all.

By now he was starting to be able to pick and choose his work. “I took projects I found interesting,” he noted. One of those interesting projects was a documentary called “Unsettled,” about the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. The film was entered into the Slamdance Film Festival in 2007 and won the Grand Jury Best Documentary award.

“One of the companies that sponsored Slamdance was Langley Productions, who are big believers in the cinema verite style of filmmaking,” Jon recalled. They apparently liked the music in ‘Unsettled’ and Jon eventually met one of the executive producers, Morgan Langley at the festival.”

Later that year, while working on the score for the film “Who’s Your Caddy?,” Morgan called Jon and described a new project they had created that required a cool, hip-hop feel for the intro of the main title. They asked if he could do it. Eagerly, Jon created a song called ‘Get Me Out’ which they really liked and ended up using for their new show, which was called “Jail.”

That was the beginning of Jon’s relationship with Langley Productions.

“Jail” led to additional projects. From “Street Patrol” (now in syndication) to “Las Vegas Jailhouse” (a new show that just got picked up for the second half of its season), Jon works closely with Langley Productions in creating a distinct and memorable musical footprint for each new show.

His DAW of choice?

Jon made a choice early on: SONAR was his go-to DAW, and he’s never wavered.

    guitar playing

“I’ve been using SONAR since SONAR 4, on some of my earliest projects,” Jon said. “With TV, the deadlines are really, really crazy, and I’ve had great luck with SONAR because it’s so stable. Plus, whatever is in my head or whatever I’m thinking about musically to go with a picture, I can quickly and easily get down an idea. Whatever the style. I can’t imagine any style of music I can’t write using SONAR.”

He also appreciates its ability to tap into 64-bit processing. “Running SONAR 64-bit is just killer. It’s such a good program, I don’t know why you wouldn’t use this program, especially now with 64-bit. I’m running with 12 GB of high-speed RAM, so now with as efficient as SONAR is, I never touch my CPU. I might run 80 tracks and 40 plug-ins [per project], and it doesn’t even touch my CPU, and I have an older computer.”

“SONAR’s been there the entire time. Every project I’ve done as a composer on my own has been in SONAR.”

And he’s clearly gotten pretty adept with it: “For one movie, I had a violinist from the San Diego Symphony come in to play the solo for a big orchestral piece,” he recalls, laughing. “She listened to the track and asked which orchestra I recorded, and I said ‘Well, actually, this is just me and SONAR.’  So I can fool a concert musician into thinking this is a real orchestra playing along with her.”

You can take a closer look at Jon Lee’s SONAR setup on our YouTube page.

If it works well…

Langley Productions produces music for other visual media projects, and since Jon has scored so many of their television shows, they asked what music software he uses. “They wanted to know what my set-up was and they ended up creating a studio that was even better than mine. They took it one step further and brought in a V-Studio 700 because they also do video editing with it, and they integrate its ACT function with SONY Vegas.”

On composing for television and movies

We asked Jon for his thoughts on the differences in the various types of composing he’s done over the years and if he had a preference. 

“Working on the television shows that Langley Productions produces is very exciting, and for me it’s better than working on a movie. With a movie, you score an hour and a half of film and then you are done. You move on to a new project. With TV, I get 13-26 episodes (or 13 hours) to create themes and ideas and do variations and develop ideas. With movies, you don’t get quite as much time; with TV, if you get lucky, you get 65 episodes to do it with.”

“On movies, you’re going to get zillions of notes [edits],” he continued. “Your greatest moment of relief is where there are no more notes. With television, the delivery schedule does not permit you to have lots of notes. The other thing about movies is that it tends to be a bit more political. You end up writing a score probably three times. People don’t realize that it’s very common in the movies where they’ll bring in a movie, they’ll have it ‘temped’ [produced an early version using library music or older film scores], so you’ll write ¾ of the score, then they’ll just change the movie, making the score you have composed useless. There are also a lot more personalities involved. Actually, someone just offered me a movie, but I passed.”

Jon often works on multiple projects simultaneously, usually two shows a week. “I will finish one, and then they give me the other. We will kind of swap back and forth. Sometimes I’ll get two or three episodes at once, because of changes in the production schedule, but that is rare. I usually have between five and seven days per episode to write and produce the music, which for me, is plenty of time.

And with television, the payoff can be immediate. “Sometimes I’ll work on something and it airs the next week.”

    Zac Langley of Langley Productions

Interestingly, Jon also needs to be careful pirating from other shows, even ones he’s worked on: “For example, Langley Productions produces the show ‘COPS,’ so obviously we’re not going to do a reggae theme for another show, because the song “Bad Boys” is closely associated with the show. But you want to try and brand each show. Every show I’ve ever done with them is very different musically. It’s very challenging to try and create new themes each show, and employ them in different styles, and continually look for ways we can we improve them.  

So as he works on multiple projects, Jon becomes a musical archivist of sorts. Ultimately, however, it’s a team effort between the guys at Langley and Jon all talking about a project and throwing musical ideas back and forth to get a show’s musical identity developed.

On his biggest challenges

Aside from tight turnarounds and strict deadlines, we asked Jon about what other challenges composing presents.

“In composing for a visual medium, it always comes down to ‘How do you help a project with music?’” he said. “How are you there without being there too much? If you don’t have the music in a certain spot, the scene is not going to have as much of an impact. It’s not going to move as well. So you have to balance between the emotional impact of the scene and overdoing it.”

He also noted that it can sometimes be difficult working with directors who are not trained musicians and cannot express themselves with the vernacular of music. “It’s a challenge to get on the same page with them. Like if I say to another composer, ‘This cue needs ostinato, and we should do it in Phrygian mode, and we should do it with a lot of ethnic percussion,’ they would know exactly what I was saying.
To a director who has no musical training, that’s going to be Greek.”

Jon continued, “It is about trying to find a way to hear what they’re saying and then to execute it musically. With regards to the three shows I do for Langley productions, most of the background music and scoring decisions are left to me. On all of the main title sequences, it is much more of a focused collaboration, and we try to incorporate as much of everyone’s vision as we can. [For example,] for ‘Las Vegas Jailhouse,’ I created about 60 different musical ideas, over roughly three weeks. Generally I’ll have some musicians come to the studio and lay something down. I will add drums/percussion, or orchestra ideas and do the mixing, and then I will send the producers an MP3 of those cues. They will listen to the cues, and come back and say ‘Can we try doing something more in this style, or can we add more grit, etc.’ Some shows are easier than others. For the show ‘Jail,’ the song Get Me Out was the first idea, and it was exactly what they wanted.”

But that begged the question: What do you do if someone can’t describe adequately enough what they’re looking for? “Obviously the thing that drives the music is the visual feel of the show. If I can see the show, if you show me what the main title is going to look like, I can produce l a musical idea in 3 minutes. The hardest part is doing it without the picture, and that’s sometimes what happens too.  You may only get a verbal description: ‘It’s gonna look like this, or be an overview of that, or we think the graphics are going to look like this.’  I can score that too, no problem. But when I can see the picture, and the way or the tempo that the editor has cut it, or how the visual has developed, then I can feel an internal tempo and bam, it’s no problem. So if you can give me anything that remotely looks like what you want, I can give you exactly what you’re looking for musically.” 

On his future

With so much on his plate, we were curious how the rest of the year was shaping up for Jon. “Well, we’re definitely doing at least 10 more episodes of ‘Las Vegas Jailhouse,’ which is one of the top-rated shows on TruTV. We have 12 episodes of ‘Jail’ which airs on Spike TV under our belts, and we’ll see what happens with that show for next season. There are other shows in development that I will  probably work on, so it’ll be pretty much non-stop scoring [for television] for the next 4-5 months.”

    DAW setup

But as entrenched as he is with his Langley work, doesn’t Jon long for the days he had varied projects, like film? “I really enjoy working with Langley Productions,” he asserts. “They trust my musical instincts, and their shows present the opportunity to try lots of interesting musical ideas. And the one thing that’s really nice about TV is that [a project] comes in on Wednesday or Thursday, and it’s out on Monday. It is a great challenge to quickly create some musical ideas, execute them, and mix them so that they sound great.” 

Right now I’m working on an hour show plus two other half-hour shows and that’s gonna keep me pretty busy for a while. You figure one 90-minute show is like doing a movie every week. So for the moment it would be tough for me to take on another project.”

And what about becoming typecast? “Career wise, that’s one thing you never want to happen. And unfortunately it does happen. ‘He’s a comedy guy, he’s the urban guy or the action cue guy,’ and the thing I like about working with the Langleys is that every show is really different in what they are trying to do. Sometimes you have to write comedic, light-hearted cues, sometimes edgy, and sometimes you have to write for stuff that’s hard to watch.”

But whatever he’s asked for, he’s got SONAR to help make it happen. On deadline.

As we wrapped up our conversation, we asked Jon about the secret of his success (aside from SONAR, of course), especially after making a 180-degree turn so late in his career. “When you start something later in life, you just have to work a little harder,” he philosophized.

We’re pretty sure that even though he may work a bit harder now, it’s a lot more fun than hedge funds.