Music & Pictures (Part 3)
How To Actually Set About It
Producer/Composer Robin Lumley details what's involved in writing and recording your first piece of music for a TV commercial.
Musician, producer and film music composer Robin Lumley continues his six part series designed to take the mystery out of writing and recording music for films and television.
Given that you've been lucky enough to be chosen from thousands of would-be aspiring screen music writers, and have actually got a job writing music for pictures, and have sat down at length with a director with whom you have an empathy, there now remains the actual performance process. Now in the recording studio, this can be done in many ways, so let's start with the simplest (which is not necessarily the first way you'll have to do it, but let's not jump our fences).
Do you remember Part One of this series, where I touched upon silent films, where you had a pianist actually busking along to the picture on the screen? He or she used to find, at an instant's notice from their vast memorised repertoire, something musical to fit the screen action... sweeping romantic passages, chase music, doom and gloom music, tension building stuff or whatever. Pianists were even known to bang the piano lid down hard to simulate gunfire!
But you know, in a funny way, the wheels have come full circle because, modern technology aside; forgetting your Q-locks, SMPTE coding and MIDI linking, many TV commercials are done on the same basis today. This is known as recording 'wild' to picture, that is, without the benefit of a picture/sound synchronising system, and can actually be easier in certain circumstances.
Let's follow one of these processes through, and assume you're the only composer/performer involved for simplicity's sake. There you are in the studio, faced with a recording desk, a multitrack tape machine, lots of outboard special sound processors, your own (or hired) collection of keyboards and other instruments, and a video tape machine with a monitor.
We'll also assume that you have, either in your head or on paper, a pretty clear idea of what music is going to be recorded, and have divided this into some kind of backing track, with overdubs to follow, and that these ideas have met with the director's approval. You'll already have seen the silent version of the video commercial many times at home in order to have come to these conclusions, and will have timed on a stopwatch what we call the various 'hit points', that is, specific moments on screen that require a musical moment to coincide, be it a door slam, a bottle being opened, the swish of a skirt, or a pack-shot ending chord.
Prior to arriving at the studio, you'll have also evolved what we sometimes call a 'clothes-line track', which is one continuous piece of recorded music, played very roughly on a basic instrument like a piano, or any keyboard for that matter, as long as it plots out a musical route through the film and incorporates the necessary hit points. Little, if any of it, will be used in the final result... it's just a map to work from as recording proceeds. But, because it is a map, it has to be accurate timewise. Every little hit point or sync point needs marking, and you ensure accurate timing by starting the recording machine at exactly the same time as the video playback system.
There'll be a visual countdown on the video copy you've been given to help you do this and, of course, the video itself will probably be a film transfer, containing lots of chinagraph pencil marks along its running time to show where later, at the film lab, the pictorial dissolves, laps, and special effects will be inserted. These, however, do not affect the overall running time of the piece of film. Starting and stopping recorders manually like this sounds a little stone-age in these days of hi-tech sync devices, but for short, simple films, it is an entirely adequate and cheap method.
However, stone-age or not, lip syncing is still often done this way when, for example, a film is being shot outdoors in less than ideal conditions for picking up high quality recordings of the actors' dialogue. Then, the artists, knowing what they've actually said from their script, have to come into the recording studio and repeat their lines whilst looking at the piece of film involved. This is quite an art, as you can imagine, somewhat akin to double tracking vocals, and requires many attempts and drop-ins to get it absolutely undetectably right. It's also used for musicals, where a performer is required to dance and sing at the same time, so that the voice performance may leave a lot to be desired, let alone miking up a big set well enough to catch a vocal in the first place. So the performer comes into the studio and sings his parts again to picture, without being so out of breath from dancing this time round!
And, of course, when recording a full orchestra with conductor to film, on big recording sound stages (usually reserved for blockbusters like 'Star Wars'), the film is still often run today with the screen facing the conductor, the orchestra facing him, and the music performed live as the film runs. This is happening less and less nowadays (as we'll see next month in the 'hi-tech' section) but the method of recording 'wild' like this is still prevalent.
But back to our little jingle example. By now, you've got your 'clothes-line' down on tape, having perhaps had several goes at it, like getting the recording to start simultaneously with the picture (needs practice, this, but soon comes easy!) and have now got a musical map that fits the picture all the way along. Now things become a little easier. Knowing on the soundtrack, however rough, where everything is (or needs to be), means you can dispense with constantly rewinding your video and manually starting the recording tape simultaneously, and need only do this occasionally to check certain effects and how they are working out.
You can now proceed as if you were recording a purely audio soundtrack, by adding whatever overdubs, such as strings, brass lines or even vocals, that you may have had in mind to begin with. And so layer by layer, track by track, the musical piece evolves until you think you've finished.
Now, back to starting the video machine with the recorder to check it all out. At this point, the director may feel that certain things are not quite working (such as too much of this, or too little of that) and you may have to make certain musical modifications.
For example, the director may want a voice-over (that's a spoken line delivered by an actor plugging the product) just as you've got a big string chord - so it's quick re-write time to fix that one, and re-record something else. Most likely, this won't happen, as your planning stage will have ensured not, but always be prepared to busk at the time to keep the film people happy. After all, they're paying the bills, and you want to satisfy them in every way so as they'll ask you back again! But I stress again that this is not musical prostitution, as the finished product, music and picture together, that old symbiosis concept again, is what really matters and counts in the end.
So, with everyone happy, having run the music and picture together, even fairly roughly (within a second or so), you can sit down to mix it all; levels, special outboard effects, echoes and so on, and you may find that the director wants a few things done here as well. Continuing your mutual empathy, you, as a sound man, can advise as much as be instructed at this stage, and don't forget to listen back to mixes on small TV-type speakers to check what it's going to sound like in everyone's front room in a few weeks time when the commercial is finally screened.
Check your mix with the picture, by getting your recording starting exactly in time. This so far has been achieved with two people shouting 'ready, steady, go!' and pressing Play together on the video and tape machines. It hardly makes for hi-tech sync, you may think, but you'd be surprised at how accurate and easy it is to do this, if one is working at this particular cheap level. For a start, in a 30-second TV commercial, there's usually a 1.5 second run-in before the music starts (that's after the picture) and sometimes a run-out at the other end. Which is why your original 'clothes-line' has been so easy to record in the first place; you've had that much prior warning.
Talking of 'clothes-lines', there is probably not much, if anything, left of that guide track by now, as you'll have overdubbed it, and may have dispensed with most of it.
When all is finished, and playbacks of pictures and sound seem to be pleasing everyone, you may find that the inherent low-tech method of recording like this has caused one or two hit points to be a frame or two wrong ie. out of sync. Don't worry. When the commercial was originally shot, miles of it went on the cutting room floor, as they say, and it's really quite easy (and very often done) to insert/delete a couple of frames of film in the editing room so that all does finally fit perfectly before the dub. The 'dub'? That's when your piece of mixed quarter-inch tape of music is married to the film in a dubbing suite. The editor, director and sound man will all be there (and if you're lucky, you'll be invited too) and they sit down and transfer your completed music track to the film's optical (or other) stripe. You'll notice that the chinagraph marks on the picture will now have disappeared, and been replaced with film lab effects, such as dissolves or different colour balances.
They'll have a few goes until the director is satisfied and then call it "a wrap" (which is film-maker's jargon for 'all finished'). Perhaps one more playback for a gloat, and then the clients, ie. the advertising agency who commissioned the film in the first place, get a look at it all and everyone goes away (hopefully) happy. You breathe a sigh of relief and start writing out invoices for your work!
As a beginner, you can't expect too much remuneration, but don't be seen off. Ideally, you'll have agreed a price for finished music, studio bills, equipment rental and so on before you've even begun, but nevertheless, go in strong about it even though the director has probably said something like "I'm sorry it's such a small music budget"! Still, you want to be hired again, and collect a reputation for a job well done, so be prepared to compromise on your fee.
Well, that's the low budget, manual way of doing things, and next month we'll delve into the world of hi-tech syncing and recording, and discover the wonders of MIDI, Q-lock, and SMPTE coding both for commercials and feature films.
Feature by Robin Lumley
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