One of the beautiful things about composing film music is that it’s open to musicians from all genres of music. Whether that’s classical or heavy metal. The film, TV, and game music industries have been growing rapidly over the last few years, but many musicians don’t know where to start.
It’s a huge question. This is my attempt to answer it in as much detail as possible. Without actually writing an entire book, that is!
I’ve broken the process down into 11 steps. Obviously, the steps could be broken down further, but this is a comprehensive starting point for anyone wanting to start scoring films. My method is not the only method, nor the definitive method. Find what works for you. There are no rules. Most importantly, experiment, and have fun!
If you’re interested in the skills you’ll need, you’ll enjoy my companion article: 10 Skills you Need to Be a Media Composer
Finding A Project
This is, without doubt, the most common question I’m asked. The answer depends on what kind of projects you’re looking for. Are you just looking for practice? For high paying commercial work? Artistic/creative movies? Each has a different approach. One thing unites them all though: you need to start networking. The more people that know “you make music” the more chance you have of stumbling across a project. Start by letting your friends know what you do, then get involved with communities (both local and online) and find projects. You’ll need proof that you can do it, so start by putting together a showreel.
For your showreel, you could risk ripping an existing movie and scoring your own music to it. That’s fine for practicing, but has three pretty major problems:
- It’s illegal. Unless, of course, there’s a CC license on it. Most major studios aren’t going to be happy about you uploading or sharing their movie. Yes, you own the copyright to the music, but not the image.
- It’s not real. Anyone you’re pitching to will instantly know that you didn’t actually write the original music for “The Dark Knight”, so they’ll assume you haven’t worked on anything. Plus, it doesn’t show that you know how to work with lower budget films.
- It’s not original. The original music for a sequence already gives you the “concept” for the music. That’s half the battle!
A better option is finding real projects to work on. Yes, it means you might not make big bucks to start with (but you wouldn’t from ripping off big films either). And yes, the production quality of the movie will look worse. But at least it’s honest. It shows a potential client that you’ve actually worked on projects. It also shows that you’re not relying on the visuals to “carry” your music.
And how do we find those projects? Well…
Who composes Steven Spielberg’s films? John Williams. How about Tim Burton’s? That’d be Danny Elfman. And the Coen Brothers’? Carter Burwell, of course.
What’s my point? Pitching your work to a director who already has a favoured composer is going to get you nowhere. You need to find people that are still scrambling around trying to find someone good enough to write music for their projects. Or, you need someone to believe that you can do a better job than the person they’ve used in the past. If a director has only worked on one, maybe two projects with a composer they still might swap. After they’ve built a working relationship, they usually stay pretty loyal. Do not, under any circumstance, try to “poach” a director from a composer. Make friends with directors, and if they happen to ask you to work with them great. If not, they might recommend you to someone who will. It’s all about making friends.
Find people that are starting out. Keep an eye on your local filmmaking groups. Festivals. Online communities (Skype/Facetime is a wonderful thing…). Look for good quality projects to get involved with. You’ll need to get used to how “indie” projects look, and how films in general look before they’re finalised. They don’t have the “polish” of high budget productions, which can be off-putting at first sight. With a bit of practice you’ll be able to spot the difference between the ones that will go somewhere, and the ones that will flop.
Once you have a few projects under your belt, you’ll find that you start finding new ones easier. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a really proactive director who pushes to get their films onto the festival circuit. Then you can be up for awards and all sorts!
Of course, there are also agencies and job listing sites like Film Music Network, Mandy, Taxi, Shooting People, and Film Music Agent, along with a variety of country/city specific sites that you can pitch for work on. The downside is that you can spend a lot of time creating pitches with no guarantee of getting the job. This option can be good if you have a lot of music already created in a wide range of styles, so that it doesn’t take you long to create/adapt new pieces from scratch. Think “library music.”
There are also agents who specialise in music for moving image that you can contact directly. It’s usually easier if you can be recommended though. There’s that pesky “networking” thing again.
Finally, there are music libraries that you can submit your work to. Video creators can browse the library and pay to license your work. This can be a great way to recycle material that you used for a pitch, so that it doesn’t go to waste. Just be sure to thoroughly read the terms and conditions. You don’t want your music trapped in an “exclusive” deal that you didn’t want. As you’ll only be able to submit it to that library and never use it on another project.
“How much do you get paid to compose film music?” or “how long is a piece of string?” Unfortunately these questions are one and the same. I’ve seen people try to work out how much they charge “per minute” of music (is that for solo piano or full orchestra?) or decide their hourly rate and provide an estimate (what if you go over/under?).
The general rule is to ask! Find out what the director has budgeted and figure out a way to work with it. Some people recommend that a certain percentage of the production budget should be spent on music, but doesn’t always happen. I’ve heard of people with a $10,000 music budget on a $100k film (that’s 10%) and others with the same budget on a $1million film (that’s 1%).
If you are asked to quote (like if the client has no idea what music is worth) there are three other methods:
- charging “per minute” of music,
- working out your hourly rate and estimating how long it will take you
- work out how much you’d like to make in a year, divided by the number of projects you think you’ll work on, and then set “low” and “high” budget options
Obviously, the above can give you wildly varying and potentially unrealistic results. Like, what do you charge for 8 seconds of music? Or what about a short film that needs wall-to-wall music but would be great for your CV? Do you factor royalties into the equation?
Don’t forget to discuss the hiring of musicians/engineers if you need to. Make sure you work out who’s paying for them!
You’ll need to have a good discussion with the director about what they’re expecting. And be honest. If they don’t have the budget, tell them! But don’t just shut them down. Try to use your creativity to work out a solution.
Again, after some practice you’ll know how much things cost and how long things take. Then you’ll be able to work out how much you need to charge or how to work better within the confines of a production budget.
Spotting Your Project
This is a vital step to the process: figuring out where your music is going to fit in the film. If possible, you should have your own spotting session in private to generate some of your own ideas before meeting with the director, music editor, and/or sound designer in the “official” session.
The spotting session is an opportunity to ask as many questions as possible. Find out the in and out points, hit points, how the audience should be feeling during each cue, anything the director was inspired by, if the director already had any styles of music or specific instrumentation in mind, and anything in particular that they had planned with the sound designer (so that you can work your music around the sound and not be fighting for space). Take as many notes as possible, and try to organise them by cue so that they’re easy to refer to later.
There’s actually a naming convention or “code” for cues. In order, your pieces should be named: 1m01, 1m02, 1m03, etc. This comes from “reels” of film tape. The first number means “reel 1” (1m) followed by the cue number (01) – sometimes the cue numbers would reset on each reel (i.e. …1m04, 1m05, 2m01, 2m02, etc.) other times they’d continue (i.e. …1m04, 1m05, 2m06, 2m07). The number of cues and names should be decided during the spotting session.
At the end of the spotting session you should know:
- Exactly how many cues of music you’ll be writing and their “code”
- The aim/purpose of those cues
- The start and stop points of the cues
- Any important hit points
- Any specific sound design to be aware of
Conceptualising Your Composition
Now that we’ve got the gig, we need to get to work. But, that doesn’t mean going to sit behind our keyboard/guitar/DAW. No, the first stage is coming up with a concept
Conceptualising, or coming up with a concept, is arguably the most important stage of the composition process. Many of the great film composers frequently talk about the time they spend conceptualising, some even saying that this stage takes them far longer than the part where they actually start writing notes and chords. When you think about it, it makes sense; when was the last time you watched an interview with a composer and they talked about which intervals they used, or how they decided a minor seventh would set the perfect mood – they never do, and that’s because that isn’t the important part. The important part is what they were trying to convey with their music, what emotions they were trying to create, how they were planning to work with the visual.
So what is conceptualising? Well, it’s the thinking that goes on before you sit at the piano, keyboard, computer, guitar, whatever. Too many musicians and composers think that when they’re going to compose the first thing they should do is sit down with their instrument. Why? What will that achieve? More than likely what will happen is that you’ll just hash out the same chords/melodies that you always do, maybe in a different order.
Think about writing a book. As an author, you don’t just sit at your computer and start writing random words (notes) or sentences (chords) in the hope that they’ll end up as a compelling story. You begin by planning, coming up with a plot, the characters, the morals, etc. Do the same with your composition.
Music for moving image is calculated, not just randomly thrown together. Just like our painting, we need to know what the criteria is, what our constraints are, and what we’re actually trying to achieve.
The conceptualising stage really helps you to decide what mood your going for and how to achieve that. At this stage you should be thinking about as many musical and emotive ideas as possible. Think about and write down:
- What you are adding to the film (are you just trying to emphasise what the film is already doing, or are you going to give a different perspective, or add another layer)
- Who or what you are following in the film (is your music going to mimic the lead character’s emotions, if so, what are those emotions? Does the lead character know as much as you do about where they’ll end up? For example, if the character you’re following is going for a meeting with someone you know to be a serial killer, but they don’t, why would your music be ominous or scary here if that’s not what the character is feeling? Will your music focus on the location, perhaps – in which case will try to use authentic musical styles and instrumentation from that location, or just try to capture the mood of the location in your own style?
- The mood your aiming for (do you want to compliment what’s happening visually or contrast it? For example, Carter Burwell often talks about how he writes very serious music for his comedy work with the Coen Brothers)
- The instruments or sounds that capture this mood (remembering to be as specific as you can be: soft, high piano melodies sound very different to low, clunky piano chords) – don’t be scared to go out of the ordinary for a distinctive sound (like the cimbalom heard in many old spy movies, or even instruments you can make yourself, as in the film “Brick” where Nathan Johnson creates a “junkyard orchestra” out of all kinds of items found in a student house – there’s a great documentary of it on the special edition of the Brick film which is definitely worth watching).
- Any theoretical ideas you might try or that you know capture the mood (such as certain scales or modes, any particular chords, or tempo and time signatures) or things that you’d like to experiment with
- Anything else that you feel will help speed up the actual composition
The more you can do in the conceptualising stage the faster you’ll actually compose your music – as the composition simply becomes capturing the ideas you already have, rather than you sat with your instrument getting frustrated at coming up with nothing for hours on end. Likewise, this stage allows you to come up with things that you would have never been able to with an instrument due to the restrictions you put on yourself (for example, your actual playing ability, the range of your fingers on the keyboard or fretboard).
Try to consider your composing as another instrument, rather than something you do with an existing instrument. You need to practice it, just as you would an instrument, and it requires a totally new set of skills and techniques. Had Bernard Herrmann sat at a piano while composing the score for “Psycho” there’s no way he would have come up with the score he did, as it’s unplayable on piano. Composition happens first in the mind.
Once you have your concept be sure to discuss it with the director/client to make sure that you’re on the same page. There’s nothing worse than spending days creating a romantic masterpiece in the style of Rachel Portman’s Chocolat only to discover that the director wanted action music in the style of John Powell.
Equipment You Need
After “how much to charge”, the next question is usually “which sample libraries/what equipment should I buy?” Again, it’s not a simple answer. One thing is for sure though: having the best sample library does not make you a better film music composer. I’m also a huge fan of working with what you’ve got; if you don’t have a great quality brass sample library, don’t write for brass – use your creativity to come up with an alternative.
As this tutorial is more geared towards Logic Pro X, I’ll assume you already have that. Other DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) are just as good – such as Cubase, ProTools, Digital Performer, etc. – but personally I’ve found Logic to have the best workflow for my needs. Some people choose to compose in Logic and mix in ProTools – that’s a really sensible option as it plays to the strengths of both programs. But, it means buying two DAWs and learning two systems.
Logic Pro X’s basic sample library has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years. When I first started out, the thought of using Logic’s library was laughable, nowadays it’s still not great, but it’s certainly a lot better – and a solid option when you’re getting started beofre you can afford to upgrade. However, it is still a basic library – kind of like if you bought a top-of-the-range DSLR camera but only used it with the basic lens that comes with it. Sure, you’ll get some lovely photographs of your family and friends, but it’s not likely you’ll make it as a professional photographer (I know, I know: I’m sure there are exceptions).
My advice is to invest in what you’ll use. Don’t just hoard sample libraries for the sake of it – you’ll be overwhelmed with how much you have at your disposal and become a programmer rather than a composer. Start by upgrading to a wide range library. If you’re focused on more orchestral stuff, you can’t go wrong with EastWest’s “Symphonic Orchestra” (or you can subscribe to their “Composer Cloud” which is a really great deal) – if you can stretch for the extra mic positions, it’s really worth it. For more “epic” stuff with big percussion sections, Spitfire Audio’s “Albion ONE” is fantastic. If you think you’ll be using instruments beyond the orchestra, including band instruments and synths, then Native Instruments’ “Komplete 12” bundle is a great starting point.
After you have a few projects under your belt, really analyse your compositions and workflow. What instruments are you always using? Are there any instruments that you struggle to make sound good? What about instruments you’d like to use, but the sample you have are rubbish? Answer those questions, and then you’ll know what you’re looking for. I use piano a lot (I know, cliché) so upgrading to EastWest/Quantum Leap Pianos was an obvious choice. There are lots of reviews on the various libraries, and plenty of demos available – just be sure to do your research before upgrading. Watch YouTube tutorials on the libraries, and try to find demos that aren’t from the company themselves, so that you get an unbiased opinion.
For audio effect plugins, you can probably make do with Logic’s own to start with. When it’s time to upgrade, start with a good reverb. Audio Ease’s “Altiverb” is the one you’ll want to go with. For the rest (EQ, Compressor, etc.) stick with either Waves at the lower end of the budget, or if you want to go all out I’d suggest UAD.
In terms of hardware you don’t need a massive setup. Thanks to how amazing plugins are now, outboard gear is no longer a necessity. In my opinion, all you need is:
- Computer (obviously)
- Audio Interface (can’t go wrong with the Scarlett 2i2)
- High quality monitors (I’ve found the Focal range of speakers excellent for orchestral stuff)
- MIDI Keyboard (I actually just use the MIDI out from my Korg SV-1)
Beyond that, everything else is optional. A few good external drives are always recommended for backing up work. Ideally you’ll also have two separate, highly stable, fast external drives (USB-3 or Thunderbolt) – one for your sample libraries and one to record audio to (if you do much audio recording). Then run Logic project from your main system.
Most importantly though, work within your means. Don’t put yourself into debt trying to purchase all of the best stuff – there are some great budget options around for all of these things. Just do some research, try things out if you can, and figure out what works for you at this time. You can always upgrade later if your situation allows you to. Remember: the gear does not make you a better composer.
Sketching Your Composition
Okay, now onto the actual “composition” (although, I’d argue the “conceptualising” stage is probably the most important part of composing film music…but maybe that’s just me!)
I usually start with a sketch. A lot of composers hide behind sound effects, huge percussion, and production, but if you were to play their pieces on a keyboard, you’d have nothing. I find that “sketching” helps me to avoid that. I start by trying to capture just the melodies and chord sequences that I’ll be using. Later, I can arrange and orchestrate them.
There are a couple of ways to do this.
- You can work to the movie
- You can work “blind”
First things first, make sure your project is set up to 48kHz, 24bit. Logic is usually preset to 44.1kHz – this means when the director/music editor imports your 44.1kHz audio into their 48kHz project, the timing is going to be all over the place.
Working to the movie means that you’re already thinking more about the arrangement, which can help if you’re on a tight deadline (as you don’t have to rearrange material you’ve already written), but also means that you’re less likely to create a great, continuous piece of music – as you’ll be distracted by the image, and will have to immediately work to tempo and scene changes.
Working “blind” (without the movie) allows you to really think about just the melody and harmony with no distractions, but it can mean a lot of work when it comes to arranging. It can also cause you to “overcompose” – forgetting that your music will be accompanying visuals. It’s often said that the best film music is “invisible”, in that it blends so well with the visual that the audience forgets it’s there. Working away from the visual can mean you lose sight of this.
For either method that you choose, try to limit your instrumentation to just a pad instrument (like a string section), a harmony/pattern instrument (like piano), and a lead sound (like a solo violin). Create your sketch using all of the information you put together in your conceptualising stage, and from the spotting session. If you’re working “blind” don’t worry about the hit points and length of your piece for now – that comes later in the “arranging” stage. Remember not to just stick with 120bpm in 4/4 (Logic’s default). Don’t be tempted to start adding effects and/or new instruments!
You may have heard the term “leitmotif” before – this is what we’re aiming to create here. A leitmotif is a short motif of music that can be arranged and adapted into a wide variety of styles and settings. Star Wars possibly features the most famous leitmotifs, in line with its description as an “opera set in space”.
Some of the great composers (Hans Zimmer, John Williams, etc.) often create an “overture” (a single piece of music that contains all of the themes, harmonies, and instrumentation) which they then arrange (or have an arranger arrange) into the individual cues. This is a great method, but depending on how tight your deadline is, can be impractical. If you find yourself getting nowhere with a deadline looming, do some analysis.
Depending on your relationship with the client/director, it could be worth checking in with them again at this stage. Be careful though, if your music is only in a really basic form they might not have the musical imagination to picture how the end result will sound, and could shut you down. The more you’ve worked with a director, the more they’ll understand your method. Like Spielberg and Williams.
Arranging Your Sketch
Arranging is basically the manipulation of existing material. It can include altering the tempo, time signature, harmony, and pretty much all other aspects of a piece. In our case, we’re using it to adapt our music to fit certain scenes. At its most simple, this could just be adding pauses or repeating the chord sequence or melody to fit the timing of a scene. In its more complicated form, it’s actually changing the mood of a theme in order to meet the required emotion. The real skill in composing film music is in the arrangement.
If you were working “blind” you’ll have a bit more work to do, but potentially you’ll have stronger themes to work with 😉
Import your movie into Logic Pro X (if the project is long, it might be worthwhile editing the movie into smaller chunks with just the actual scenes you need – it saves processing power and saves you getting lost in Logic, or accidentally moving/changing an entire cue when you change the tempo earlier in the project (yep…I’m talking from experience…))
Then you have to seamlessly integrate your composition with the visuals. Remember that your primary objective is to work with the visuals and dialogue. If there’s dialogue, avoid using any melodies in the same frequency range as the speech. In the space between dialogue let your music enter and exit subtly – try to think about what your music is saying: has the character just said something important that you want to emphasise? Always arrange with the sound and dialogue, if possible.
You’ll need to be very creative here, chopping up your melody and adapting your harmony. For the moment, try to focus on placement and the emotion you’re trying to create – don’t worry about instrumentation. That comes next.
Again, if you have a trusting relationship with the client/director, now is a good time to send through some more drafts for feedback.
Orchestrating Your Arrangement
Orchestration is where you spread your music out onto instruments, and add the more intricate details and flourishes. This is a really magical moment in your film music composition, as it’s finally going to start coming to life. Before you start orchestrating, you want to make sure your arrangement is solid. If not then the phrase “polishing a turd” is applicable.
You’ll need to learn a little about the instruments you intend to use: what their ranges are, how they sound in the various registers and dynamics (i.e. high violins can be thin and harsh, whereas their mid-range can be full and warm), and what the strengths and limitations are of each instrument. It’s also useful to know any specific articulations that they can use (i.e. strings can be bowed, plucked, or even struck with the wooden part of the bow). All of these articulations can help to expand your orchestration palette. You can learn this by listening to music featuring those instruments, or by talking with people who play them. Definitely worth taking the time to do so!
Think carefully about which instruments you want playing the melody, and how you can spread it around the instrumentation. Again, consider what sound is already in the movie and how you can work around it. For example, if there’s a driving scene, engine and road noise will fill a lot of the low and mid range, so try to orchestrate on higher pitches.
You also need to work out how you are going to spread your harmony across the instruments, and how you’ll voice your chords – some knowledge of traditional arrangement will help here. If that’s not your strong suit, I’d recommended trying to learn it, but for now trust your ears and keep experimenting until it sounds right.
Think about how you can combine instruments. If your melody on the flutes isn’t as defined as you’d like, try copying the melody onto a xylophone, or another more percussive instrument. If your string harmony isn’t as full and warm as you wanted, double the harmony onto low brass. There are some tried and tested things, but some experimentation can go a long way.
I’d start by working on just the melody and harmony, and then add any ornamentation and flourishes as and when you need them – try not to add too much. Be sure to take regular breaks, and even leave a cue alone for a day or two. When you come back to it, I’m almost certain you’ll end up removing a load of the stuff you added. Remember, you’re hearing this piece on repeat, so it’s always going to sound like it needs more. Everyone else will be hearing it for the first time while also trying to take in all the visual, dialogue, and sound information. Don’t overwhelm their senses!
You can use a basic, or all-round sample library for this stage – the sound isn’t too important for now.
Listen to some of your favourite film scores as carefully as you can to learn better orchestration. If you can get hold of the scores for any cues, it’s really beneficial to see how the orchestrator has chosen to combine instruments, even if you can’t read music. You’d be surprised how much is going on that you can’t hear.
Send this draft to the director for feedback before starting your mix. Sometimes it’s worth doing a bit of mixing and sample improvements to help “sell” your music to them. Judge this based on your relationship with the client again.
An important thing to note here is your willingness to make changes. It can be difficult, but you have to be willing to revise your work either based on feedback from the director, or because they suddenly decide to remove 2 seconds from a scene. Taking out two seconds of footage is no problem for an editor, but it’s a lot of work to magically make 2 seconds of music disappear – don’t get frustrated, just draw on your creativity!
Mixing Your Composition
We now move into the more technical aspect of the composing film music. Mixing is all about getting the individual instruments sounding amazing, and balancing all of the instruments together in volume, frequency, and direction (left to right).
Improving MIDI Samples
The first step is to work on improving the MIDI samples as much as possible. I try to treat my samples like real musicians, and I kind of pretend to have a “recording session” with them. What I mean by this, is that I save the project as a new file (“[cue name] – VIOLINS”) and delete all of the instruments I don’t need, focusing on just one. I do this for every instrument. I could just mute the others and then bounce them together – which I’d certainly do on a larger project – but if I’m only working with a handful of instruments I find this method works for me.
At this stage, it’s great if you are able to actually record any real instruments – even one or two acoustic instruments can really trick the listener into believing the rest of the instruments are real. Importantly though, try not to change anything in the arrangement at this point, as you don’t have the other instruments for context.
The first step is to put the instruments onto your best samples, whatever they are. Make sure your panning is central (on both the channel strip and in your sample library) and that you’ve taken off all effects – we’ll add those later. Bear in mind that MIDI sounds awful without reverb, so you’ll be hearing this in it’s worst form for a while. If you try and add reverb now though, you’ll end up with a mess when you put all of the instruments together.
Focus on making sure it sounds like it’s played as realistically as possible. Make sure it’s not all perfectly quantized, and that the velocities aren’t all exactly the same. Listen out for any notes that are too hard or soft and adjust accordingly. If it’s a section of instruments, add slight overlaps, as not all players will change note at the exact time. For brass/woodwinds, make sure there’s space for the players to actually take a breath. At the end of a phrase, add fade-outs as players naturally diminuendo at the end of a note, they don’t just stop dead like a sample library. And for piano, don’t overuse the pedal in place of reverb.
If your sample library has any effects controlled by modulation (like dynamics or vibrato) it’s a really good idea to hit record and ride your modulation wheel and try to capture how the instrumentalists would play.
Once you’ve done all of this, you can bounce the file to audio. One file for every instrument. Then setup a new project and import all of your audio files – we’re going to start the final mix. It’s a good idea to setup a “template” for your mixing, it’ll save you hours in the long-run if you can use it on multiple projects.
Before we start really mixing everything together, we need to make sure we’re looking after our ears. Set your volume knob to a level that you’re comfortable with (if you’re going to be listening to music all day, you’ll want to stick to around 65dB) and don’t turn up. If you find yourself wanting to turn up, take a break in silence and come back to it. Avoid using headphones, unless you have some serious self-control, or don’t care about your hearing.
Begin by getting each individual sound as good as possible. Send it to two reverbs – one smaller and one larger – and try to use the same reverbs on every instrument so that they sound like they’re actually in the same room. Only add EQ and compression if you think it needs it, not just for the sake of it. I was in the bad habit when I first started of adding the same set of effects to every track and then wondering why my mixes sounded awful.
Bear in mind that reverb disappears behind dialogue and when music is turned down, so you’ll probably want to add more than you think you’ll need. A good trick it to turn your speakers down until you can only just hear the music and then see if you think it needs more reverb.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to start learning or programming key commands for mixing too. For example, did you know holding “alt” (or “option”) while clicking the “solo” button for an instrument automatically un-solos any other instruments? That could save you 1 or 2 seconds every time. Multiply that by 1000 per project, on 50 cues, and you’ll save over 14 hours!!!
On anything mildly percussive (like piano, harp, or actual percussion) adding a very subtle delay can help bring it to life. Only a tiny amount, almost like a reverb. You can also send some of this to the rear speakers if you’re working in 5.1 for some extra depth to the music.
In terms of EQ, rolling off around 2-2.5kHz with an EQ on MIDI strings can help them sound a little less “digital” – for other instruments just listen carefully and decide if it needs brightening or dulling. You’ll find that the higher-quality the sample library, the less you’ll need to EQ, as it’s been recorded so well.
After you have each individual instrument sounding good, listen to the mix as a whole, and adjust anything that needs adjusting while balancing the volume and the panning of the instruments. Once you have a general balance you can start adding automation – think about the parts that you want the listener to hear during each section and automate that part to stand out. If your arrangement, orchestration, and balance is good though, you shouldn’t need to do too much automation.
I always recommend having a reference track to keep listening back to to make sure your mix is going in the direction you’d like. Remember to keep taking regular breaks so that your ears don’t get over-tired (and to help prevent any hearing damage).
Mastering Your Mix
After you’ve finished mixing your track, you can now master it. This step helps to balance out the dynamics of the track, and ensures it sounds consistent across a variety of speakers. You’ll want to make sure you have a few different ways of listening to your master: on TV speakers, laptop speakers, and cheap headphones. The aim is to make sure it sounds good on all of them. Composing film music is difficult in this regard, because some people may hear it on super high quality cinema speakers or home cinema systems, whereas other might hear it in mono on their phone speakers.
When mastering a song you’d usually bounce everything down to a single stereo file and then master that file. Not with film music, as the the sound/music editor may need to take out parts of your music. For example, if the sound designer has added an important effect that clashes with your music, the editor will simply remove your music if they only have a single master track, but if they have multiple stems they could just mute the one that’s clashing.
So, group your instruments into sections and “send” each section to an individual bus. You’re going to master each bus individually – applying the same settings to each one. A standard set of plugins for mastering is:
- Multimeter (to meter pre-mastering)
- Linear Phase EQ
- Multiband Compressor
- Adaptive Limiter
- Multimeter (to meter post-mastering)
You could also add an “exciter” prior to the multiband compressor to add presence and a “stereo spreader” before the adaptive limiter to spread the higher frequencies.
In your EQ, roll off anything under 25Hz, as it’s inaudible. Don’t overcompress with the multiband compressor, it should only be to take any peaks off. Limit the adaptive limiter to -0.1 to avoid any clipping.
Copy the strip settings onto each group of instruments you’ve created. You might need to turn each bus down an even amount to avoid the master stereo out from clipping.
Make sure you also automate a fade in and out at the start and end of your cues. You can make a track in the arrange area for your “stereo out” and automate that.
And now you’re ready to bounce! Depending on what your client/director has asked for, you’ll either be delivering a single stereo master or, more likely, your stems that you mastered previously.
Solo the bus you’re going to bounce, and for good measure mute all of the other audio files/tracks. Before bouncing, I usually play a few seconds of silence after the track ends just to make sure I don’t get any random reverb tails at the beginning of the bounce.
Bounce the track in .aiff or .wav depending on what has been requested – at 48kHz, 24bit. Bounce in real time in order to have a final listen to the play through to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Make sure you don’t have “normalize” selected as it’ll ruin your mastering, and give it a sensible file name (i.e. “1m01 – Strings”). After you’ve bounced listen to the file (I know, tedious, but you need to make sure nothing went wrong) and then repeat the process for each bus.
Finally, send the stems to the director/music editor. If possible, try to be involved in the final sound mix, so that you can advise on any important parts of the music that need to be heard. Again, try to remove your ego from the equation – the sound, visuals, and dialogue are all just as important as the music. Your music might be quiet, but that could be for the greater good of the project.
And now you’re done! Your film music composition is ready for the big bad world!
Phew! That was a big one! If you think I’ve missed anything, or need more detail anywhere, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to add it. I truly hope some of you will find this article helpful to get started with composing film music – don’t forget to sign up to my mailing list to stay up to date with all my latest content.