Photo: Tim Truman

A conversation with Miami Vice composer Tim Truman

American composer Tim Truman was particularly active in US film and TV music during the 1980s and 90s. In 1988, he received the enviable task of scoring the fifth season of Miami Vice after the legendary Jan Hammer. Truman delivered in spades, writing hour upon hour of new musical material in a rock-based style, supported by the brilliant guitarist Michael Thompson. 

In this brand new interview, Truman talks about his whole career in the music business for the first time, from working with Michael Jackson in the 80s to plans of directing his own films for his TimeCall company.

Q: Tell us about your youth, where you grew up and how you got into music. You were a percussionist, right?

It seemed like every kid wanted to play the drums in 6th grade. My school limited the number of aspiring musicians who could participate as a drummer. I chose trumpet and played it for several years (not very well). Then I was able to switch to percussion. I took years of private lessons on drums. In high school, I started to try other instruments just to see how they worked and felt. I played electric bass guitar, piano and then mallets (marimba and vibraphone). I really enjoyed the marimba and went on to win 22 superior medals at state music competitions. Playing the marimba brought me into the tonal world. I won ‘best musician’ in high school every year, and in my senior won ‘best musician’ in California at the Battle of the Bands at the Hollywood Bowl.

Q: Did you work with Michael Jackson and James Horner on Captain Eo in 1986? You are credited with additional music for the 17-minute short film.

Tom Carlin, a music editor who helped land Alan Silvestri Romancing the Stone (1984), asked me to meet with the producers about stepping in and finishing the score to Captain Eo. I had recorded a concept album, Digital Eyes, that Tom heard and enjoyed. Michael Jackson had some kind of problem with the ‘incredible’ keyboardist John Barnes, and they parted ways on the project. Michael had the most expensive Synclavier out there at the time, with the largest library loaded in it. Back then, just a string section for the Synclavier cost $22k. When I showed up at Westlake Studios to start work on the second half of the film, the only sounds in the Synclavier were….nothing. Somehow, the entire library was erased! I had to book another studio that had a Synclavier and wrote a piece that would expose holes where I would play samples from this other sampler. I took those isolated samples and put them into Michael’s sampler. Michael Jackson came to the studio nearly every day. He drove a VW bug and wore an Albert Einstein mask. He was always good to work with.

Tim Truman in 1989. Photo: Keyboard Magazine/Helmut Werb.

Q: What kind of work did you do on the Newhart episodes between 1985 and 1990?

The original composer, Nelson Riddle, was in failing health. The producers reached out to several up-and-coming composers and asked them to score an episode of the series. I went into the music library and studied some of Mr. Riddle’s scores. I mirrored his style and the producers loved that first score. I went on to score 150 episodes (editor’s note: lists only 102 – five seasons). The final year, I scored both Newhart and Miami Vice. Two very different musical shows.

Q: Please explain how you ended up scoring the 5th season of Miami Vice in 1988/89. There is a story/myth going online saying that you knew Don Johnson before you did the show. Is this correct? Seems like he was co-producing the TV-movie Life on the Flipside that you scored in 1988?

Don Johnson had produced a pilot called Life on the Flipside. Composer Al Cooper scored the pilot, but Universal Studios wanted a different approach. I had scored some comedies like Newhart, The Popcorn Kid, Coming of Age (a Universal production) and Universal asked, on a Friday, to rescore the pilot. I finished it by Monday and turned it in. Don Johnson called me and said he and the producers were happy. A little later, I discovered that the TV show The Equalizer was looking for a new composer. I was about to submit when Don Johnson called and said «forget that show – submit for Miami Vice»! I could not believe it. Nearly every composer I knew, or heard of, was submitting. I heard Tangerine Dream and even John Tesh submitted. I wrote three new pieces. I recorded them on my Fostex 16 track reel-to-reel. I had Michael Thompson play guitars on the demo. Michael was just starting to get known around town. I mixed it myself and sent it in. I never asked Don if he did anything to help out, but he later asked me to score The Marshal for Paramount Studios, as well as a speed boat race show he was in and an international beer commercial.

Q: Already in the second MV episode, your song «Everything Inside Of Me» appeared, with yourself on rather convincing vocals. Was this song written earlier or specifically for the show? Did you have any prior experience with vocals? And have you done vocals after this?

I wrote and recorded the song, with Michael Thompson on guitar, on the same 16-track machine. Recording artist John Cougar (John Mellencamp) had a song the producers wanted. They were unable to clear the title at the last moment, and said to me ‘what do you have?’ They loved my song and put it in the show. The original demo was used. Universal later could not find the master to return to me. I had recorded and sung several of my own song demos up to that time. After MV, I did sing on a few projects. I co-produced One World hosted by Nancy Wilson (from the band Heart). I composed and performed the «Main Title Theme» as well as the score. My co-producer Michael Harris and I won an Emmy for that episode. Episodes after that included us shooting in the Galapagos Islands with host Olivia Newton-John. In 2000, I wrote and recorded the only ‘country’-style song I have ever written. I sang on the lush demo. I enjoyed the lyrical freedom country music explores. I was extremely busy, and tucked it away in the music library. Recently, I sent it to a producer/studio owner friend who was stunned. He is taking it to a few of his top clients in Nashville. You never know…

Q: In the episode «Heart Of Night», we hear the first example of how your music segues seamlessly from one part to another. It starts with a soft South American style and drifts into a heavy electric guitar theme performed by Michael Thompson when the bad guy enters. The same thing can be heard in «To Have And To Hold». Was this your preferred way of scoring for MV?

I learned that certain keys work best with guitars. E-minor was a favorite on MV. Transitions become smoother if you stay in certain tonal areas. I did this many times on MV. In a few scenes, I would just shout out at Michael «DANGER!», and he would rip into a cutting slam on the guitar.

Q: Your music for MV is mostly very melodic, lengthy and almost “song-based”. Does writing melodic music come easy for you?

I spent years composing songs alongside of the early scoring jobs I had. I deeply love melody and was first moved by melodic scores in my youth. I think you connect more with a melody. I understand scores with melodic themes fell out of favor for a while in film. But think of Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time, Titanic or any James Bond films without those melodies. I think you get what I mean. I did try and include melody on MV whenever it felt right. I also chose to write in a song-based style. It just worked for both the producers and myself. Michael Mann would call on some scores and tell me he was happy.

Q: Did you use any real drums in MV? If so, who performed them?

All of the drums, I played on my Akai MPC-60 drum machine, E-MU EIIIxp/xs or Akai S900 samplers. On some cues, I would play marimba, timbales, shakers, etc myself.

Q: The episode «Line Of Fire» features a cue called «Helicopter» which you shared on MySpace years ago. This may be your most beloved track from MV. How did this cue come to life?

I had been experimenting with the repeat button on the Akai MPC-60. I set it to 16th notes and triggered a Yamaha dx-7 pluck patch. I added some slight delay and loved it. I called the producers and asked them to take out the helicopter sound as much as possible. The lush pads are from a Prophet VS synth. A Roland Super Jupiter gave us that heavy bottom bass. I have always loved that piece. It was just one, of many cues, composed for that week’s episode. I put it on MySpace so you could hear how rich the original master recording is.

Q: Quite a bit of your music from MV is somewhat reminiscent of the stuff Pink Floyd just had released on the Momentary Lapse Of Reason album. Was this ever talked about among the producers? Did they at any time use it as a temp track?

No – that was not temped in. Michael Mann told me, before the first episode: «Don’t do Jan Hammer. Do what you think is right. If I don’t like it, you are gone!». I had to secure a loan to purchase a 24tk machine, Trident 24 recording console and full patch bay to do the show. The bank said ‘pay it all back in one year or we take back all the equipment’. There is nothing like a little pressure to get you motivated.

Q: The episode «Jack Of All Trades» features a lot of acapella music from the band The Swingle Singers. Personally, I found this rather annoying. Whose decision was this, and what do you think about it?

That was not my decision and I also found it strange. Someone up the ranks thought it was cool. I completely disagreed. I really never understood that choice.

Q: «The Lost Madonna» starts with a brilliant 6-minute opening theme. Would you say this was among your strongest moments during MV?

What a great episode. I really enjoyed scoring it. One cue I thought was so moving was the very last cue of the series. Lush and simple. I ended the piece, and the entire series, on a major chord. It was so sad and fitting. Nobody heard that because they stuck in a song. Several cues have resonated with me over the years. Sometimes just a single piece out of an episode of 24-27 cues. I had to write so fast. Compose, record them, record guitars and then engineer Steve Sykes would spend a day mixing the show with me.

Q: In «Too Much, Too Late», Tubbs’ old sweetheart Valerie returns. Was there ever talk about using Jan Hammer’s «Tubbs & Valerie» again, in your arrangement for instance?

That would have been nice. No one brought it up.

Q: Tell us about getting Don Johnson to sing on the song «No Way Out» in the final episode. This episode also features the cue «Freefall» which may be the second favorite track among your fans, after «Helicopter». Do you agree that the «Freefall» cue is the archetypical Tim Truman track from Miami Vice?

Again, the show could not get a song cleared and asked me to compose an original. I composed «No Way Out» along with all of the other cues for the episode. I cut the tracks when I recorded the show. I asked Don Johnson to sing it. He agreed and we went into Westlake Studios at midnight and he performed the song. I later found out that Don was signed to a record deal. The Universal legal team took care of that mild mess. The score for «Freefall» was a wonderful challenge. Some parts are huge with the rising choir, other parts are simple acoustic guitar. That is a keyboard-sampled guitar I played. Michael Thompson soaring above the chaotic moments proved a valuable addition creating some powerful musical moments.

Q: Was there any talk about releasing a Miami Vice: Volume 4 soundtrack album during or after the 5th season, featuring songs and score like the three previous volumes? Do you still have plans of getting your Miami Vice music released officially?

This has been the biggest frustration for me. I received letters, phone calls, and when the internet came around, thousands of requests for the music to be released from the final season. I contacted Universal Music dozens of times. I sent them hundreds of fan e-mails to show them the interest. A no-brainer! They would not do anything. Recently, I met a guy from Universal Music and we discussed it. He shared that streaming pays so little, they would still not approve of a release. So many people have posted the scores to season 5 on YouTube, totaling millions of views, I may do the same from the original masters. They sound much better than some of the tracks out there. During the final year, a season 5 soundtrack album was never mentioned. I brought it up right away with Universal, but they were not interested. Everyone was moving onto the next project.

Q: How much contact did you have with Michael Mann during your stay on MV? And did you know that Philip Michael Thomas actually scored a film called Miami Shakedown in 1993?

Michael would ‘spot’ the shows with us each week. He had notes on what he liked. I enjoyed working with Michael Mann. I didn’t know about Miami Shakedown. That’s very cool he scored it.

Q: After the closure of MV, you continued working with Mr. Mann on his TV movie L.A. Takedown (1989). You even used some of the music from MV. Tell us about this project.

That’s true. Michael Mann loved some cues from a few MV episodes so much, he licensed them for L.A. Takedown. That project started just a little while after MV finished, and I was really tired. Many times during that final season, I pulled all-nighters trying to finish on time. My engineer was not available to mix it and I had to bring in another guy. Michael Thompson was hard to book, and in came someone new. I still think there is some really cool musical moments in that film. Michael Mann wanted Michael Pare for the lead, but scheduling prevented him from joining the production. He wrote the film and directed it. The project was much more tense then MV.

Q: Did you feel that you kind of revisited some of the atmospheric/ambient Miami Vice sound on 1990’s Kid?

Scoring Kid was enjoyable. Mixing some Ennio Morricone vibes with heavy drums was fun to create. The ambient element came easy. Dusty and vengeful.

Q: On Mikey in 1991, you got a chance to score a film with horror elements. How did you approach this, and how was Thomas Newman’s engineer John Vigran to work with?

This was produced by the same company that made Kid. They later produced Wedding Crashers and Old Dogs, among many others. Writing horror music was my gut-based reaction to what the scene needed. I had composed most genres of music because of the diversity of jobs I had through the years. If they asked if I could write country polka – I would answer ‘yes’ and go study some country polka. I would suggest that composers learn and understand many styles of writing. John Vigran was an absolute joy to work with. His instincts are always wonderful. He would fill out a mix quickly. I usually would leave at the start of any mix to shake out the ears. When I would return, I could get a clear sound picture of where the engineer was headed. I really enjoyed working with him through those long mixes. No stress or problems.

South Central (Stephen Milburn Anderson, 1992).

Q: 1992’s powerful South Central, with Oliver Stone as executive producer, may be the biggest feature you worked on. It includes some great saxophone playing and even something a bit similar to Hans Zimmer’s rhythmic early 90s scores. Tell us about this score. Did you work with an orchestra here? How was engineer Brian Reeves to work with? Did you try to get any of your score material on to the soundtrack album, an album which sadly is of no interest for film score fans the way it ended up?

South Central was a great and powerful experience to work on. Producer Oliver Stone said early on ‘I only want movie music’. He knows what he wants. The score was originally recorded with samplers, live saxophone and guitars. Once Warner Brothers picked up the distribution, they decided to record live strings and percussion. It sounded so much better, of course. I tried to get at least the end title theme on the soundtrack, but Warners would not budge. Working with the incredible Brian Reeves turned into us working together for over a decade. The very best guy to mix with and be around. Mix sessions can go from day to late night quickly. Brain Reeves is one of the very best. The last time I checked, he had mixed 20+ top ten hits! On Jeremiah, MGM wanted a vocal song for the main theme. Brian did an incredible job on that track. The wonderful and moving vocal was preformed by Paul Van from the group Solarcade.

Q: Did Don Johnson help you get In the Company of Darkness (1993), directed by David Anspaugh?

David Anspaugh was a director on Miami Vice. Don invited me to dinner at a restaurant owned by Miami Vice creator Anthony Yerkovich. David Anspaugh and I became friends there. Later, David asked me to score In the Company of Darkness. That one went very well. Music editors used that score for years in temp tracks.

Q: You scored Knight Rider 2010 in 1994, three years after Jan Hammer scored Knight Rider 2000. Did you look at what Jan had done, or even the music by Don Peake and Stu Philips from the 80s series?

Universal Studios called and asked me to score it. No one ever mentioned another Knight Rider to me. This was part of an ‘action night’ Universal launched.

Q: Tell us about your work on Melrose Place. Did you write a new score for each episode?

I composed the main title theme as well as 120+ episodes. Five seasons. I scored every episode from scratch. I did not have assistants or other composers contributing anything. The main title that you heard through the entire run of the show is the original demo I submitted. We never remixed it. I created an extended version, with new material, in a dance format. I will put it up soon. Melrose Place creator Darren Starn then asked me to score his new series, Central Park West. The producers would fly me to New York each week. The main title theme earned a prime time Emmy Nomination with Ta-Ta Vega singing.

Q: Can you please explain once and for all the story of the Sunset Beach theme? Did you or Dominic Messinger compose it? Who performs the sax? And what’s the story of the Tim Truman character in the series?

Melrose Place producers Charles Pratt Jr and Frank South became good friends. We saw each other every week, spotting the episodes and at the show mixes for years. They would attend my holiday parties, etc. They also produced Sunset Beach and asked me to write the theme. The theme got a great Hollywood Reporter review. The sax is Michael Palo, who did an exceptional performance. The theme ran for only one year. Dominic Messinger scored the show along with a team of other composers. Something happened behind the scenes and my theme was replaced by his in year two. I never found out why, but I heard rumors he threatened to leave the show unless he got his theme put in. The producers did name the character Tim Truman after me. They thought it was a fun thing to do.

Q: 1997’s Executive Power features a large orchestral score by you, conducted by yourself and Richard Kaufman, and mixed by the late legendary Tim Boyle. Tell us about writing this score. How could a rather small film like this afford a full orchestral score?

I have always pushed for having live musicians whenever I could. Two of my friends produced that film. I was scoring Retroactive for Orion Films. My friends pushed back their dub so I could score it. The film had to have that big wonderful orchestral sound. So, like every composer out there, I pitched them in detail how much it would raise the value of the film. We recorded in Seattle with an 85-piece group. Many Los Angeles musicians lived up there and the musicianship is off the charts. The greatest part was I got to work with orchestrator Thomas Pasatieri, Thomas Newman’s long time orchestrator. The Road to Perdition, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption etc. Thomas is such an incredible and gifted talent. Tim Boyle effortlessly recorded a huge sound. The mix was awesome and powerful. Tim was one of a kind.

Q: Your scoring activity slowed down almost completely in the new millennium, except for the Jeremiah series. Was this a clear decision by you?

Jeremiah (MGM) was one of the most interesting and enjoyable series I worked on. Primitive and tribal. Deeply human stories. Melodic and dramatic music. I scored 35 one-hour episodes. One episode, I was asked by the creator, J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) to never stop the music. I told him I believe music works when there is no sound, sometimes for contrast. He won, and I wrote sections that overlapped to keep it going through the entire 46-minute production.

On the work slowing down: I never chose to slow things down. I had a weak agent at the time. I secured and scored Newhart, Miami Vice, Melrose Place and smaller series all without an agent. I also worked with Peter Cetera (Chicago) writing with him and recording the Chicago Symphony strings for one of his albums. I wrote and arranged an orchestra for rock group Queensryche. Other artists include composing and producing for Patti Austin and even the wonderful Micky Dolenz (The Monkees).

I have always loved storytelling. Story is why I write music. To lift it up or pull us deeper into it. To shake us emotionally or allow us to cry. A composer has to wait for something wonderful to show up. Many times, what you get can be less than wonderful. Then you can spend weeks working on something that doesn’t inspire you. I had an Ultra High Definition dream during this time. Blindingly clear. In the dream, I was watching a film I knew I had written. It was so real. I woke up and quickly wrote it down. I saw the film. It was handed down to me. I applied the same work ethic as composing ,and started writing down the story. Industry professionals loved the finished script. One literary agent called me and said he read it all in one sitting and cried at the end. That film was supposed to be filmed this coming October, but the world got infected and shut that down. I have finished twelve feature scripts with several more in development. Another film, set in Paris, was being set up at Warner Brothers in late February 2020 with some legendary talents. That production also stalled.

Q: Your most recent scoring credit on IMDB is Tontine Massacre from 2010. How did you get involved in this?

I met Dean Zanuck, son of Producer Richard Zanuck, and he pitched the film. It was very clever and the production budget was very low. It all looked together. We all flew down to Fiji and filmed it. Story holes and weak direction left everyone with a film they could not sell. That stuff happens in Hollywood.

Q: None of your music for film or TV has ever been released on CD. How do you look upon this?

There have been so many wonderful people who have reached out asking for it. I have tried on many productions to get the music released. How does it feel? Awful. There are tracks that should be shared. I may start a Tim Truman music channel and just put it up. When you compose for a production company or network, the company owns and controls the master recording. The composer keeps his 50% writer’s royalty.

Q: What are your future plans? Is it correct that you have plans of directing films, in addition to scoring them?

Currently, I have co-written, will be producing and directing a series of international commercials. I will score them as well. I am set to direct that first ‘vision’ film as soon as the Covid smoke clears. We are planning to shoot in West Virginia at an old mental hospital. I will also score the picture with live choir and full orchestra. My plans are to direct and score all of my films. I have always lived by the creation process of ‘open the window and get out of the way’. Let it all in and flow with it.

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