By Jennifer Walden
Children may not be the best source for deciding when bedtime should be, or deciding what’s for dinner (chicken nuggets again?), but who better to decide what toys kids want to play with? A large part of the Tom Hanks film Big was based on this premise.
ABC’s new inventor-centric series, The Toy Box, which premiered in April, features four young judges who are presented with new toy inventions. They then get to decide which toy prototypes would be popular with others in their demographic. Toy inventors competing on the show first meet with a set of “expert mentors,” a small group of adults who delve into the specifics of the toy and offer advice.
If the toy makes it past that panel, it gets put into the “toy box.” The toy is then presented to the four young judges, who get to play with it, ask questions and give their critique to the toy inventor. The four young judges deliberate and make a final decision on which toy will advance to the next round. At the end of the season, the judges will chose one winning toy to be made by Mattel and sold exclusively at Toys ‘R’ Us.
The Toy Box needed a soundtrack that could both embody the essence of juvenile joviality and portray the pseudo-seriousness its pre-teen decision makers. It’s not a job for your average reality show composer. It required askew musical sensibilities. “The music is fun and super-pop sounding with cool analog synths and video game sounds. It’s really energetic and puts a smile on your face,” says the series composer/music supervisor Jason Moss at Super Sonic Noise in Los Angeles. “Then for the decision-making cues, as the kids decide whether they like a toy and what they’re going to do, it had to be something other than what you’d expect. It couldn’t sound too dark. It still had to be quirky.”
Moss knows quirky. He was the composer on IFC’s Gigi Does It, starring David Krumholtz as an eccentric Jewish grandmother living in Florida. Moss also composed the theme music for the Seeso original series Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, a partially improvised comedy series that pokes fun at real estate reality shows.
Moss covered all of The Toy Box’s musical needs — from high-energy pop and indie rock tracks when the kids are playing with the toys to comedic cues infused with ukulele and kitschy strings, and tension tracks for moments of decision. He wrote original music as well as curated selections from the Bulletproof Bear music catalog. Bulletproof Bear offers a wide variety of licensable tracks written by Moss, plus other music catalogs they represent. “It’s a big collection with over 33,000 tracks. We can really compete with bigger music license companies because we have a huge amount of diverse music that can cover the whole production from head to toe,” he says.
Moss composes in Apple’s Logic Pro X. He performed live guitars, bass and ukulele (using the Kala U-Bass bass ukulele). For mics, he chose Miktek Audio’s CV4 large diaphragm condense tube and their C5 small diaphragm pencil condenser, each paired with Empirical Labs Mike-E pre-amps.
Moss combined the live sounds with virtual instruments, particularly those from Spectrasonics. XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums were his go-to for classic and modern drum sounds. For synths, he used reFX’s Nexus, libraries from Native Instrument’s Kontakt, Arturia’s Analog Lab and their VOX Continental V. He also called on the ROLI Equator sound engine via the ROLI Rise 25 key MIDI controller, which features soft squishy silicone keys much different from a traditional keyboard controller. The Akai MPK88 weighted key controller is Moss’ choice in that department. For processing and effects, he chose plug-ins by Soundtoys and PSP Audioware. He also incorporated various toy and video game sounds into the tracks.
The show’s two-minute opener combines three separate segments — the host (Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet), the expert mentor introductions and the judges introductions. Each has its own musical vibe. The host and the expert mentors have original music that Moss wrote specifically for the show. The judges have a dramatic pulsing-string track that is licensed from Bulletproof Bear’s catalog. In addition, a five-second tag for The Toy Box logo is licensed from the Bulletproof Bear catalog. That tag was composed by Jon LaCroix, who is one of Moss’ business partners. In regards to the dramatic strings on the kids’ entrance, Moss, who happened to write that cue, says, “The way they filmed the kids… it’s like they are little mini adults. So the theme has some seriousness to it. In context, it’s really cute.”
For the decision-making cues, Moss wanted to stay away from traditional tension strings. To give the track a more playful feel that would counterbalance the tension, he used video game sounds and 808 analog drum sounds. “I also wanted to use organic sounds that were arpeggiated and warm. They are decision-making tick-tock tracks, but I wanted to make it more fun and interesting,” says Moss.
“We were able to service the show on the underscore side with Bulletproof Bear’s music catalog in conjunction with my original music. It was a great opportunity for us to keep all the music within our company and give the client a one-stop shop, keeping the music process organized and easy,” he explains. “It was all about finding the right sound, or the right cue, for each of those segments. At the end of the day, I want to make sure that everybody is happy, acknowledge the showrunners’ musical vision and strive to capture that. It was a super-fun experience, and hopefully it will come back for a second, third and tenth season! It’s one of those shows you can watch with your kids. The kid judges are adorable and brutally honest, and with the myriad of adult programming out there, it’s refreshing to see a show like The Toy Box get green-lit.”