Sound for the screen: A practical masterclass on soundtracking for film and television
Between blockbuster movies, the explosion in streaming services, online video ads and brand content, the demand for soundtracking professionals has never been greater. We provide practical tips on how you can begin your journey into the field of music for picture.
Traditional television is changing. In addition to well-established and high-quality terrestrial broadcasters, subscription-based streaming giants such as Netflix are lining up to compete for your attention. Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and Disney+ are the latest names on the block but you can be sure they won’t be the last. Meanwhile, the profiles of leading film composers continue to soar and higher-education courses at global universities and music conservatoires are finding their film-music or music-to-picture pathways increasingly over-subscribed. If you’re among the growing number looking to get involved in writing music to picture, this is for you.
There are three core ways that music-to-picture writing happens in film, television and advertising. The first is the primary focus of this article: a music writer is hired to create a bespoke soundtrack for a project. The second way that soundtracks are typically collated for broadcast is via production music, widely known as library music, a fine option for broadcasters with budget and time constraints. A solid library should boast thousands of tracks, organised by genre, style and instrumentation, making it a simple case of searching for tracks that fit your broadcast’s narrative.
Production music is convenient if music is required close to a broadcaster’s transmission date but it lacks the exclusivity that comes with a unique commissioned score. Remember, those very same library tracks are available to other productions too. Thirdly, existing music can be licensed for picture. Perhaps the best example of this is when pop songs are picked up for the opening or closing credits of a film or commercial. These tracks are typically well known and bring with them their own connotations, while their sounds, lyrical content or the profile of their singer has been deemed a match for the publisher’s aims.
Composers make money in two ways via production music and individual track licencing.
- The first: a fee is paid to secure the usage of the track in question. This is called a mechanical licence.
- The second: once the project airs, it generates performance royalties based on when or where it plays, on television, radio, online or in cinemas. These royalty streams are also available to composers who are directly commissioned to write music to picture.
The fee paid to a composer substitutes for a mechanical royalty and, once the project airs, it too will generate performance royalties. Both production music and track licencing are worthy of features in their own right, the following focuses on what happens when you’re commissioned to write to picture directly.
Perfect alchemy – The role of music
One of the reasons we watch film and television is the power of storytelling. The human brain finds stories compelling; it’s seemingly written into our DNA that the experiences of those with whom we share the world – or dare to dream of worlds unexplored – have the power to fascinate us. But, of course, some tales appeal and some don’t – those that we can never forget and those that we forget within minutes of seeing the credits roll. There’s a unique chemistry at play in those stories that we carry with us, a particular alchemy that manages to hold all the pieces of the story together.
Ask directors, producers or film-making creatives what attracted them to the industry and they’ll often reply that they wanted to be in the business of storytelling. Your job, as the creator of music for their project, is to underpin the emotional narrative of the picture. If you’re lucky and you’re given the opportunity to go further, your job could also be about driving their story, adding layers, extra colour, detail and clarity. It’s worth remembering that any story worth telling will matter hugely to the people telling it, and this where the journey into music-for-picture begins, understanding what you can bring to the narrative.
The majority of projects that require a hired composer will be well on their way to completion by the time original music has become a serious consideration. It’s relatively common for a composer to be hired during the last few weeks of a film’s production cycle, by which time the finishing line will be in sight for most involved, while the composer is just lining up to start their own race. By this stage, to prove the project’s viability to executives or financiers, directors will often temp the working edit of their project with music. The expectation is that none of this music will make it into the final edit, and thus no rights issues should arise from its inclusion at this point.
However, temp music can be both a blessing and a curse for writers. Directors don’t always speak the language of music so it can be a starting point in a conversation between director and composer. It helps in terms of understanding a director’s vision and aids in plotting an emotional narrative. But it’s also common for directors to be wedded to the temp tracks they’ve selected, no matter how famous, expensively made or expensive to license they might be. Imagine working on a low-budget independent film and hearing John Williams’ Indiana Jones theme temp’d onto its opening titles and knowing that it’s your job to replace it. Temp music is an inevitable part of a composer’s job. You’ll learn to love and hate it in equal measure.
Vangelis’s unique synth-based soundtrack for Blade Runner was a perfect fit for its dystopian visuals.
Finding a sonic character
But what does film music actually sound like? We all have our favourite soundtracks and they tend to inform our answer to that question. But the soundtrack to Star Wars sounds different to that of Blade Runner, which in turn sounds unlike that of Sicario or United 93. Many people share the preconception that music for picture means orchestral music. Of course, orchestral writing can play a major role in writing for picture and makes up the palette of many Hollywood-based composers. However, it’s not a prerequisite that you study orchestration or arrangement in order to be a successful score-writer.
This year’s Academy Award for Best Original Score was won by Hildur Guðnadóttir for Joker. While the score is heavily reliant on the sound of her assorted cello instruments, her soundtrack writing is just as likely to call on sound sources entirely outside the realms of orchestral textures. For Sky and HBO drama Chernobyl, the composer used sounds sourced almost entirely from recordings taken in a Lithuanian power station.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Chernobyl soundtrack used sounds recorded in a real power plant to better place the viewer inside the world of the show.
In an interview with Steinberg, she expanded on this approach. “I felt it was really important to be as honest as possible about what happened [at Chernobyl] and to do as little dramatising with the music as I could,” said Guðnadóttir. “Because I felt as soon as I started doing anything fictional with the music – adding drums or over-emotional strings – it took away from the real-ness of what happened. It was important that the music had a way to be the radiation.”
“Because the radiation is a character in these events that you can’t film or see but you need to be able to feel it. So I went with my score producer, Sam Slater and Chris Watson, a field-recording expert, to a power plant in Lithuania – Ignalina. It was like being on a treasure hunt because there are so many sounds there that are so fascinating. But it was also a really important part of the process to not make the power plant make any sounds that it wasn’t already making. I didn’t go in there and slam doors or bang on stuff. I just wanted to hear what it feels like to be there. Every single sound in the series comes from this power plant.”
Guðnadóttir addresses two critical points here: a score can tell parts of the story that the visuals can’t; and orchestral musical templates can not only be inappropriate, but they can also actively detract from a story’s truth.
To write music to picture, you’ll need a DAW capable of hosting a video file. Your sonic templates will vary depending on the kind of sound palette you favour but there are some technicalities involved in the scoring process that demand that your DAW is comfortable running picture. There are many capable DAWs out there, including Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, Digital Performer, and Ableton Live, but if you’re starting from scratch and planning to pick a DAW with music-for-picture writing in mind, it’s worth doing some research.
Cubase has a superb reputation within Hollywood, partly because it’s the go-to DAW of Hans Zimmer. It has some well-established features that are particularly suited to writing for picture, including the provision to host multiple movie clips in a single session and to wrap the tempo of a particular track around film markers, all of which have long proved attractive to scoring creatives. Other workstations have their own advantages and, indeed, many have recently adopted some of these features themselves. John Powell, composer of such features as How To Train Your Dragon and The Bourne Identity, and its three sequels, for example, is a Logic user, as is one of LA’s most prominent and successful TV composers, Didier Lean Rachou.
When it comes to choosing your DAW, the most important thing you’ll need to familiarise yourself with is its sound-making capabilities, as well as its functionality. All of the most popular titles feature their own suite of instruments and can host third-party instruments, effects and sample libraries too. Ableton Live, for instance, has particularly flexible warping capabilities for working with audio files, which could be hugely attractive if, like Guðnadóttir, you’re drawn to creating atmospheres from source recordings.
Once you’ve selected a DAW, you’ll find that there is no shortage of instruments and effects you can reach for to help you sculpt a distinctive sonic palette. If you’re drawn to synthesizer-based soundtracks, the list is far too long to accurately record here, though instruments such as Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere and U-he’s Zebra are particularly popular. If you’re looking for orchestral sounds, you’re also spoiled for choice. The past 10 years have seen a revolution in the provision of these kinds of sounds away from the established well-used articulations.
Those working with orchestral strings, for example, might require long bows and staccato shorts. However, composers and listeners alike are just as likely to be inspired by weird and warped sounds that bend in and out of tune or the tones of an intimate ensemble of players, which might lend well to a scene that must convey vulnerability. While there are many sample library providers, Spitfire Audio has taken this revolution by the scruff of the neck and driven it along. The company’s Albion range of instruments, which features orchestral palettes, organic pads, tempo-locked loops and dedicated percussion libraries, is an inspiring place to start.
The writing process
So, you’ve had a constructive conversation with the film’s director to help you understand the story, and it’s given you plenty to consider. Remember, you’ve been hired to provide music because you understand music, so a huge part of your job is to interpret the director’s vision and translate it into sound. Your DAW can handle video and you’ve imported the video file into your workstation to begin work (see our step-by-step guide, coming soon). What happens next? The temptation is to start writing right away but, if possible, make time for experimentation first.
In Michael Kruk’s book An Introduction To Writing Music For Television, Michael Price, composer for such shows as Sherlock and The Unforgotten, illuminates this very point. “If you’re on a 10-days-per-episode TV-type schedule then you haven’t got time to start exploring when you’re in the middle of it,” he says. “It tends to be however long you can bolt on at the front of it. And I do find, if I haven’t done any exploring, even if it’s just for a day, and if I’ve just opened up an old template from a show, you just find yourself naturally repeating yourself, which isn’t a great feeling.”
If there’s temp music on the movie you’ve been sent, it’s a good idea to listen to this a couple of times but, if you can resist, no more than that. As much as possible, you should be looking to write original music with its own direction, rather than simply copying temp music. If a director asks this of you, you should treat it as a mild condemnation of your writing capabilities.
Just as your advice to a director wouldn’t be to improve his film by copying, frame by frame, the action of another, your role is not to recreate that which already exists, no matter how faithfully temp music might do its job at a basic level. It’s only directors who are suffering from severely limited vision that will instruct you to produce a borderline legal musical photocopy.
Temp music can, however, assist in insightful ways. It can give you a sense for feel and tempo and, if the editor has worked with a temp track, you might find that the edit is already closely cut to suggest a specific tempo to which you should work. Pay attention to the mood of the temp music. Is it dark and troubling? Exhilarating and emotionally charged? Pulse-quickening and packed with character? Ask yourself how those adjectives relate to the music itself. Is the music in a major or minor key? What instruments have been used? Is the temp music working well in some areas but jarring in others? Does it get in the way of dialogue? Does it undermine the mood?
Once you’ve satisfactorily answered these questions, mute the temp track and try not to reference it throughout your own compositional process, to avoid the temptation to rewrite it and to minimise any subliminal bleed-through of ideas. If the film doesn’t feature temp music, you’re free to begin writing from scratch. This liberty and lack of boundaries can, however, make the process even more daunting. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with watching a film that is nearing completion and feeling as though the music is a long way behind.
Overcoming writer’s block
If original musical ideas seem few and far between, there are two approaches we recommend. The first is to create your own version of a temp track, derived from other film scores or instrumental music, to put up against the picture. Investigate how the mood of the film changes as you audition different musical styles and instrumentation. Alternatively, having watched the picture a few times, save yourself the technical time-sink of trying to hit cut points and instead write freely, away from picture, before importing your experiments back into the DAW hosting the film.
“A lot of the work that I do is outside the grid”, said Guðnadóttir, speaking to Steinberg about her work on Joker. “It starts with being in a flow and just capturing recordings, or capturing performances, or capturing audio, which is never on a grid because I hate grids. Then I’m able to bring it into Cubase and build things around that performance.” Bear in mind that it’s all too easy to become so consumed by hitting cuts that you compromise your creative process.
Once your initial ideas have taken shape, familiarise yourself with how your chosen DAW can help you lock your project to particular moments in the film. It could be that you want your track to hit specific points and to lock burnt-in timecode (BITC) markers to particular downbeats in your project, so that the music arrives naturally into a scene or cut. Some DAWs have tools that can help you finesse this, with algorithms that create automatic tempo changes between two points (see our Logic Pro X walkthrough on this topic).
Adjusting and creating tempo and time-signature changes can be done manually too. It’s all about slowly finessing the work you’ve done so it better supports the musical story. Writing to picture typically gets easier the longer you work on a given project, as you earn the trust of the director and as the sound world you’re creating becomes more sophisticated. Sometimes projects are heavily thematic, with individual characters, places or moods featuring recurring musical identities. Once you have a collection of sounds the director has expressed a fondness for, using a cue as a template for further cues can streamline the operation.
When a stereo mix isn’t enough
Film-making is a mercurial exercise. The shoot is likely to have wrapped by the time you’re sent an edit but the film-editing process will probably be continually evolving even as you’re writing. In a recent MT interview with Tyler Bates about creating the score for Hobbs & Shaw, he offered some insight into the changes (and associated pressures) that can come as an edit is being finished.
“There were significant changes to the picture happening as I was getting on the plane to London to record – and we were going to record 70 minutes of music in two or three days, which is a lot,” said Bates. “Once I got back, the music editors would often cut those cues to the newer picture. Some things could still be salvaged but some could not.”
With this in mind, know that it’s rare that a mix of a specific track or cue will be delivered as a single stereo master when working to picture. More commonly, each instrument group will be delivered as its own stem, so that when the dub takes place – this is the final mix, where dialogue, sound effects and music are blended – there is the potential for flexibility.
In one of our guides, we’ve taken you through the process of setting up a template project, which will aid not only the writing stage but the recording of instrument group stems. These capture each instrument group, and a dedicated set of effects for each, in a single pass. The advantage of this is that, unlike setting up a single reverb, shared by pianos, synths, strings and percussion, the effects for each instrument group are recorded alongside the instruments themselves, without any cross-pollination. In other words, the piano’s reverb won’t be heard in the string stem, for instance.
If you’re drawn to writing music for picture, you’re not alone. Many of us are inspired by the soundtracks that shape the films we love, and the process is becoming better understood as the resources around writing for picture develop, with interviews from industry masters more widespread than ever before. But remember that your inspiration should be to develop a sound of your own, an original sonic vision.
Most importantly, through it, you should in your own small way contribute to the story, rather than attempt to emulate the sound of a more established composer. On that subject, we’ll hear again from John Powell, who spoke to Spitfire Audio in 2013. When asked what advice he’d give young composers setting out to find their own musical voice in the field of music-for-picture, he said, “All I know is that if I do have my own voice, it is entirely due to my own musical fetishes. I feel we should all ignore what the vicar says on Sunday and indulge ourselves. Oh, and stop listening to fucking film music for fuck’s sake.”
More resources for aspiring film composers
There is insight to be found both in terms of technique and creative approach across the internet, so use these wisely and note down anything that strikes you as significant. Finally, the author of this tutorial hosted a live Film Music Scoring In Logic Pro X class on behalf of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in November 2018, which is free to view on YouTube.
As with so many areas of specialism, there is no shortage of resources for anyone keen to learn about writing music for picture and to better understand the surrounding supporting service industries. We’re grateful to author Michael Kruk and his publishers Fundamental Changes for permitting us to use Michael Price quotes from the ebook An Introduction To Writing Music For Television, a strong resource for anyone starting out in the area. The book also features extensive insight from composers Walter Murphy and Mac Quayle, responsible for scoring such shows as Stingray and Mr Robot, respectively.
Spitfire Audio is helping to lead the charge when it comes to resources too, not only with its sample libraries, which are released with lengthy in-depth contextual videos, but also through its co-founders Paul Thomson and Christian Henson’s YouTube channels where they discuss the many issues surrounding music-for-picture. Spitfire’s free online Composer magazine is a valuable asset too. The ever-popular Masterclass series, through which both Zimmer and Danny Elfman have provided courses with detailed insight into their working practices, is a boon for composers at all levels. The above, coupled with our Guðnadóttir quotes from her interview with Steinberg, are but a fraction of the tutorials and tools available.
Stay tuned for the buyer’s guides and tutorials for film scoring/sound design. More guides here.