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Film and Television Music, Part V - Composing vs. Placement, and Technical Details

Originally Written for Live2Play Magazine

Okay, so we’ve talked all about licensing your already produced music for use in picture, but what if you want to score for film – otherwise known as composing. How do you get into that and what does it entail?

Unlike just getting your songs placed in something after you’ve recorded them, composing requires the ability to work directly with directors and producers to get the proper feel for their film, and more importantly a truckload of focus, energy, and time. Composing for picture is no easy job. Most musicians who do this type of work have a background in orchestral composition as well as strong understanding of how to develop different kinds of compositional themes. If you’re a one-trick pony when it comes to what you produce, film composition may not be your cup of tea. Ditto if you lose focus having to write anything that doesn’t just have a traditional pop song structure or doesn’t sound like it belongs on the radio.

But just because you aren’t exactly John Williams doesn’t mean you can’t get into film scoring if you want to. There are many independently made films today that will hire on beginning composers because they are desperate for someone to do the job for cheap. So if you have a home studio with some decent tools, lots of time on your hands, and the desire to explore a new realm, it is likely you could find someone – at first, perhaps, a student film – who will take a risk on you. Just don’t kid yourself about the experience or the work. Film composition is a massive amount of writing and recording. And highly interactive. Everyone involved in the film with final say-so will have an opinion about what you create for each scene. They will want changes. Often. Film composition is a thankless and demanding job. It might be wise to start with a short film. And when talking with the director about what they need, be realistic about your skills. Just because you bought the Platinum orchestral sample library does not necessarily mean you know how to score for orchestra. If your strength is ambience, then make that known. If everything you write sounds the same, be honest about how far you can really push your creativity. Films with particular needs may require you to engage help from other musicians. Will your fee cover those costs? If not, you’ll have to figure out how to engage help for little or no money.

Back in LA, my best friend and I scored a short for a director friend whose primary goal in shooting the film was to prepare for an upcoming feature she was directing. As a result, she chose the feel of music based on the quirky lead character she had created, so in looking at how to develop the idea, we threw out the concept of doing original French chanson with an old 1940’s feel. For me, it was a challenge. Needless to say, I knew nothing about chanson – either writing it or recording it. But my best friend did, and she set to work writing six or seven original pieces with French lyrics that embodied the character of particular scenes. One is literally about how much she loves fish, because in the scene, one of the characters is preparing a fish for dinner.

There was a lot to consider in the construction of those recordings. We had to borrow an accordion and my best friend had to kind of learn to play it. Thankfully, you can fake a lot of things in studio, and we did. I set to work on learning some mandolin, and we experimented a great deal with micing her Wurlitzer upright so it sounded a little tinnier and old fashioned than normal. We sampled our own record white noise and added it to some of the cues. These particulars all leant to the authenticity of the sound. It was a great experiment and a whole lot of fun. It also took the better part of three months to complete all the necessary music, which ranged from jazz cues for a coffeehouse scene to our version of a modern French pop song for the closing credits. If you’re interested in the final product, you can check out a track called “Nos Etoiles” on the music page of my website (

The short went on to be featured in international film festivals all over the world for about two years. It was cute and entertaining for the film festival audience, but no one was going to get either rich or famous from it. Which is how a lot of indie film scoring work is. It’s an exercise in musicianship. And if you want to grow into being a film/television composer, it’s a great place to start. There’s a lot to learn about creating music that supports the storyline arch in a short or feature-length film, and like anything, you have a lot of great competition out there. Achieving your dream will take work and study. Can you make money? Not a lot of it, but some. Don’t be shocked if once you do the hourly breakdown, you come up with cents per hour. If you’re lucky, the film’s creators will like most of what you do out of the gate. If you’re unlucky, it can be an ugly endless path of re-work and re-vamp. And you never know which path you’re going to be on.

So that’s composition.

Okay – so final tech details. I’ve heard musicians worry aloud about mastering. Your recording doesn’t necessarily need to be mastered to end up in either TV or in a film. That’s because of the magic of post production.

During post, all of the individual details of a picture are brought together. This can be numerous tracks of audio – not just music, but sound effects, looping of actors’ voices that is done after the original filming to fix issues in the original dialogue tracks, Foley tracks, voice-overs, and – obviously- the final cut of the picture itself. During post, sound mixers will edit and mix all of these elements together at the proper levels. They will then master it themselves for final output. Which is why your recording doesn’t necessarily need to be mastered. A really solid good quality recording that is not noisy and has no horrible digital artifacts (popping, clipping, peaking, or digital dropouts) is what you need to provide.

If you’re an original artist who is recording your album, you can do yourself a massive favor in the foresight department and get your mix engineer to run a version of every one of the tracks on your album without the vocals. I know what you’re thinking: why would I want to give anyone my album without the song or my vocals represented. Chances are, you won’t want to. But, people might ask for it. And sometimes, they will even decide not to use your music if they can’t get a version without the vocals.

The reason is that often tracks mixed for sale as an album or single interfere with dialogue when dropped into a picture. If an editor wants to use your song, but is finding that it doesn’t fit well in the scene, it’s better to be able to give them a non-vocal version than to have them drop your track all together, right? Right. Ditto for if they are looking for something instrumental in the first place. The genius about making your album is you’re actually making two sets of usable music: your album and instrumental licensing versions that could find themselves into a lot of other different projects.

Just do yourself a favor: do this at the original mix of your album. If you don’t, and are thinking – “Hey. Whatever. I’ll just go back to the studio and get it done if anyone asks for it,” you are setting yourself up to be massively screwed. Studios notoriously become tight fisted once a new opportunity arises for your music. On top of that, now you need it as a rush – so they can charge whatever they want because you’re desperate to have it. You may also find yourself suddenly playing hardball with people who you thought were your friends. Where there’s blood, there are sharks. And if a studio or indie engineer thinks there is money to be made on your new opportunity, they may try to tell you that this work was either not included in their bid to do your album or they “just don’t do that kind of thing.”

Ironically, if you think of this at your original mix session, no one will care. That’s because often studios include radio edits or radio versions of album tracks and think nothing of it. Instrumental versions are no different. While these are just things you don’t need right away just in case, the work is included and it’s no big deal to take a few extra minutes to provide them. When they become things that are generating income for you and you need them yesterday, everyone’s a wheeler dealer. So cover your bases from the beginning and get them before it’s urgent.

Provide the editor with either a high-quality audio file like an AIFF, WAV, or FLAC, or an original CD of your work. Copying a copy of a copy you burned last year is always a bad idea since even with digital, copying can introduce errors and artifacts into your files. And no matter what, before you put the CD in the mail or drop it off, check that the track plays perfectly with no issues. Mp3s should not be sent, no matter what quality, unless an editor tells you that they really don’t care. Most professional editorial programs accept all kinds of files, but mp3s are a lower quality version and you want to put your best foot forward. Ask technical questions whenever you need clarification from the team. Better to send the right thing once than the wrong thing three times.

You can also use a large file send service like yousendit or Dropsend to send larger files via email, which people on tight deadlines always appreciate. Just make sure to confirm receipt. Don’t ever assume that a busy film or TV person is going to do your follow up for you. They are too busy to see straight. So again – cover your bases. Get the specific things they ask for, including paperwork, to them promptly and communicate well.

Let’s wrap up the Film and Television music series with probably the best piece of advice I could give you about anything: whenever possible, prove to people you are not “one of those musicians.” Be courteous and respectful. Ask questions. Don’t try to impress people who know more than you do. And if you do, by the luck of the draw, find yourself sitting in a post production house in a million dollar studio and some awesome sound mixer with a gazillion years of experience under his belt is being very nice to the newbie and asks your opinion about something, say something super cool and unassuming like, “You’re the pro here. I think it sounds great!” Offer other people your M&M’s and try to remember that any opportunity you get in life is as much luck as it is skill.

Kind of glad we’re done with this series because we have so many other things to talk about. No idea where we’re headed next week…so stay tuned. I will definitely have my party hat on. Somebody bring some tequila. It’s gotten altogether too serious around here, lately…


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