Ever tried to put music to pictures? Then the odds are you've discovered just how difficult it actually is. Chris Many explains "hit points" and "cues" and shares some of the secrets of the professionals.
If you've ever had the urge to score your own video or write music for your favourite TV series, let a professional give you a few tips first...
THE MARRIAGE OF story and music is an old, old idea. For centuries, minstrels wandered through the countryside of Europe weaving musical tales as they went. Silent films were never without an in-house organist or pianist to extemporise on the visual themes, and opera is essentially nothing more than a stage production set to music. Nowadays, music is a crucial ingredient in any film, television or video project. If you've ever seen a rough cut of a film or TV movie before the music is added, you know how dry and slow the action can be without it.
Writing music for that film or video is quite different to writing a hit single. Different disciplines are involved and you'll run into problems you never even imagined when writing music in song format. Much of the music used in film or TV simply won't stand on its own without the picture to balance it up - a fact borne out by the fate of many film soundtrack LPs. Some composers may disagree, but turn off the television picture and listen to someone skulking around a house for two minutes - it sounds pretty boring. With the image back on the screen, the music works with it to heighten the suspense. Of course, it also works with action, humour and any other situation that can be created visually.
TIMING IS ONE of the main considerations in scoring to pictures. The composer is constantly receiving different times from the director of the project: the length of a scene, or series of scenes, is the first thing you'll take into account. And we're not talking about approximate timings either. Let's say a chase scene is exactly 1 minute and 12 seconds long and you're producing the music - or cue - to accompany it. If your music runs to 1:16, you're going to have a problem when the chase scene cuts to the poignant goodbye immediately following it. If you bring the music to a close three seconds early, the last screech of the brakes occurs after your final chord dies away.
Not only do you have to start and end to order, but within a cue there might be another five action points you'll want to emphasise with counterpoints, accents or other musical devices. These are called hit points, and although they may not be obvious when you watch a movie or television show, you'll soon know if the composer hasn't taken full advantage of them.
Returning to our chase scene, the car slews around a corner, barely missing a woman and child, pulls a 180 in the middle of a crowded highstreet, turns the wrong way down a one-way street, misses a car coming the other way by inches, stops in an alley for four seconds and roars off in the opposite direction leaving dust settling on astounded passers-by. The whole scene takes 1:12, but each of those events may require musical attention. The point is that the pictures dictate to the music - absolutely.
Composers have dealt with this in a number of ways over the years, and thanks to computers, a lot of the drudgery has recently been taken out of the job. But before jumping in, we should talk about SMPTE for a minute. SMPTE is becoming a buzzword for musicians because it is a reliable method of synchronising computers, audio and video equipment together. SMPTE is also a method of identifying a position within the music and visuals in hours, minutes, seconds, frames and subframes. There are a number of formats - 24, 25 and 30 frames-per-second (fps) and something called Drop Frame.
By far the easiest way to work with film or video is to get a copy of the work transferred to a video tape with SMPTE code on the second audio track (and/or another track called an Address track if you have a VCR that allows you to access this) and a visual window of the same code added or burned on the video. This means you need a stereo VCR if you want to be able to hear the dialogue and sound effects from track one, both mandatory items in writing music for any project. Most professional video and film applications use a 3/4" tape format, not the ½" tape to be found in standard VHS and Betamax video cassettes. Suitable domestic machines are used by many professionals to rough ideas to before the music is finally recorded to the finished cut of the film, video or scene.
Different people approach the mathematics of scoring in different ways. I like to work out all the non-musical basics first and then write within that framework. So next would be a matter of determining the total length of the cue - let's stick with 1:12 for now - and where each of the hit points occur. If you have a video tape with timecode burned in (visually displayed on each frame of film) it's a simple matter of going through the cue, and noting down each point. You'll have to be able to shuttle back and forth so you can get the exact frame, and it can be a time-consuming business especially if your VCR does not readily lend itself to this mechanical process.
Now I have a cue list that looks something like this:
- Chase Cue 1 Total = 1:12
- Start 01:01:00.00
- Corner 01:01:08.14
- Start 180 spin 01:01:23.26
- Enters one-way 01:01:36.12
- Passes car 01:01:57.16
- Stop 01:02:04.22
- Start 01:02:08.26
- End 01:02.12.00
Each of the hit points is expressed in hours, minutes, seconds and frames; subframes are not normally displayed. You'll notice a one-hour offset has been added to each of these times, as this is a common standard practice within the film industry.
THE NEXT THING I like to do is to select a tempo for the music that seems appropriate (though this approach may not suit everyone). Obviously you usually wouldn't pick a slow tempo to accompany a chase scene, although it depends on the mood the director wants to evoke. Let's say that the cue has a theme of tension, and we want a contemporary feel using drums, guitars and synths. Watch the scene a couple of times through to pick up a rhythm for the cue - the idea is to find the tempo that works for the scene and for you. Turn on your metronome, be it a sequencer click or a traditional metronome, and find out what the tempo is.
"Synchronisation: It's one thing to work everything out on paper and quite another to make a cue that syncs with all the hits and feels right."
From this point there are a number of ways to proceed, but you need to find out how this potential tempo is going to fit with your cue list. In the good old days, before the advent of computers, film composers had developed a 2"-thick book of tempo/film arithmetic. In it you could look up any tempo, where your hit points lined up and work out whether or not they would hit with the rhythm. Remember, video tape decks that composers could transfer films to and work from are a relatively new advance; it used to be a script, conferences with the director and editor for timings, and writing the music with few or no visual reference points. A method of marking Film cues with sprocket holes that made audible clicks as the film was run was developed for composers to use as a timing reference in these sessions. You can still see film scores without a tempo in bpm (beats per minute), but rather with references like 13-2, which is a film click reference. Before SMPTE this 'click book' would have been your best friend, without it you'd have had to calculate each and every hit against your tempo. You can still work out your cues long-hand, and those well schooled in this technique do it as if it was second nature, but it is a very laborious approach.
Now we have computers: software programs like Auricle, Cue and Q-Sheet have been written expressly for scoring films and video. For our chase scene we'd enter each of the SMPTE times of our hits, enter in the proposed tempo and metre (let's say 4/4), press a button, and voila. In a second or two, you're presented with a layout of your cue and where each hit falls at the tempo you picked on the computer screen. The time saving is enormous, which is why most TV and film composers today use one of these programs.
OK, YOU'VE CHOSEN a tempo and of the six hit points, three fall right on the downbeat, one falls between beats 2 and 3 of the 9th measure, one falls late on beat 4 of the 26th measure and the last is early on beat 2 of the 29th measure. You'd be unbelievably lucky if every hit fell on the downbeat in 4/4 time, so let's try a different tempo to tidy things up. Using the computer it's a simple matter of entering the new tempo and seeing if that helps. Of course, now all the hits are offset, and while you might have fixed one, two others have moved out of sync. As you can see, selecting the right tempo is very important to making your cue work and getting your hits lined up.
It's a process of give and take, and you'll have to select which hits are the most important to accent, as it is unlikely that every one of your initially selected hits are going to all come on downbeats in 4/4 time. You might find that you can throw in a 3/4 or 5/4 bar in the middle of the cue and make it work that way - provided you can write your music to sound comfortable in this fashion. Alternatively, altering the tempo within the cue, using ritardandos or accelerandos may get things lined up. And the truth is, there is no rule that states your hits all have to be on a downbeat - I've used that simply to illustrate writing music to a specific reference point.
But what do you do if you don't have an Auricle, Q-sheet or a Click book? You could start the cue running and manually start a metronome on the first frame and just watch the cue against the click. As it runs by you can make marks on your piece of blank music paper, noting when the hits occur against the tempo. You'll see pretty quickly whether or not the tempo's going to work. If it does, great. If not, change it and run through it again until you find one that does.
Whether you do it visually, arithmetically or computationally, you're going to wind up with a tempo that works and a knowledge of where your hit points are within the framework of that tempo. If you can write music you should get out some blank manuscript paper and note down the hit points on the bars and beats on which they occur. Even if you don't plan on writing a chart or score out, it's still a good idea to have a visual idea of your hits. That way, when you're writing you know where to build, modulate or whatever.
ALL THAT REMAINS is writing the cue - I'll leave that one to you. However, there is another point that might assist the constant review you'll need to be making of your work, and that is the use of a SMPTE-based sequencer. It's one thing to sit down and work everything out on paper and quite another to make the transition from paper to a music cue that syncs with all the hits you've noted and that feels right. You're going to want to watch this chase cue through several, if not many, times to judge for yourself whether or not your music is working. Having a SMPTE-based sequencer makes this a hell of a lot easier, especially with longer cues. And it's not only helpful on playback, it's a great writing tool as well.
Basically you need to set up your sequencer as usual, but make track 2 of your VTR - or whichever track has SMPTE code laid down on it - the control track for your sequencer. Put the sequencer in external sync mode and run it from then on by using the controls on your VTR. When you operate this way you may have to offset the start point on your sequencer, because you'll need some kind of lead in. Sometimes it's a matter of a simple calculation, other times you can accurately guess where it should start and trim it as needed.
But by syncing your sequencer so that it slaves to the VTR, you can work back and forth with the cue, and the music and picture are always in real-time sync with each other. You can see instantly whether or not the hits are falling correctly and if the music's going to work or not.
The necessary setup involves investing in a SMPTE-based sequencer - or some method of converting the SMPTE on video tape over into a clock format that your sequencer can read, like MIDI Song Position Pointer - but it's well worth it. Realistically, song position pointers are essential if you don't want to have to go back to the top of the cue every time you need to view something. And with the release of MIDI Time Code (the stripped down version of SMPTE that is transmitted as MIDI data), costs will continue to drop for direct synchronisation packages.
Scoring film, video, commercials or television shows is a bit more involved than most people believe, especially because the deadlines involved in such projects can be fairly tight. But once you get your own working methods worked out, it not only becomes a lot easier - it actually becomes fun.
Feature by Chris Many
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