I feel bad. I’ve been promising this book all summer. Well, it’s written and edited and now I’m working on interior photos and illustrations. The cover is done though:
So here’s Chapter 14, ‘Notes on Music’ with a sample video to go along with it:
Some Notes on Music
Music, like anything else in a film or video, is a partner in the story-telling task. It’s a huge subject and there will be no attempt here to cover it in any great detail—especially since I am not an expert on the subject, but suffice it to say that you are more an expert than most if you just know that the purpose of music in a film or video is to help get across the message of the film or video.
That being the case, obviously the best music for a video would be music that is specifically scored for that video. After all, that’s how it’s done in the film industry and for good reason. It is necessary to know the lengths of scenes, the lengths of transitions, the emotional content of each scene and so on, in order to plan and write music that will do its job. You simply can’t have the ‘oh beautiful, happy day’ music come on when it’s supposed to be the ‘whatever you do, don’t open that door!’ scary music (unless you’re deliberately trying to induce heart attacks).
For the lone shooter and small production company though, custom music is probably not in the budget. That leaves you with production music libraries, and this is where I think too many videographers aren’t imaginative enough or just get lazy.
How to Choose Music for your Video
If you can’t have the music scored specifically for your video, the next best thing is to find some stock music that is generally of the right genre, the right mood and a fitting tempo for your video.
If you simply edit your video (with or without narrative) and then tack on some music, it’s going to come out sounding like elevator music. (It will do nothing for your video except perhaps annoy people).
The funny thing is, if you’re really clever and do this right, in the end it can sound like the stock music was written for your video.
Here’s what I do:
1) Determine overall length of video
- If there is no narrative planned for your video (music only), simply determine what the optimum length of the video should be based on the content you will be using and then choose a suitable piece of music of the right mood and tempo of that approximate length.
- In the case of narrative-driven videos, the first thing I do is mix the voice track of the narratives I’m going to use. That’s because I’m about to chop it up into a lot of pieces, so it’s best to have any audio work done first. You can always go in later to tweak various pieces of it at a later stage, but I’ve learned the hard way that mixing the audio before you start slicing it up is a big time saver.
- The next thing I do is edit the interviews to create the narrative (which is essentially my script). Adding a few seconds for beginning titles (if any) and 10-15 seconds for end titles, that gives me an approximate overall length for the video.
- It is not necessary at this point to add in B roll, or titles or to do any other fine-tuning of the narrative. By the time you’re done editing the video with the music, the length may change by as much as 15 or 20 seconds. So this stage simply gives you an approximate length of music to choose, and once you’ve chosen the music, it is going to inform and assist your edit.
2) Source the music
You have many choices of sources for obtaining inexpensive licensed music. I find it easiest to use various websites that provide this service because you can quickly narrow your search to type or genre of music, length of music, the tempo (beats per minute) and most sites allow you to listen to the music in its entirety.
A couple of the good sites I use are Videoblocks.com and Audio Jungle, though there are many more.
The better sites will enable you to narrow down the type of music you’re looking for (corporate themes, instrumental, children’s music, classic rock, new ages, etc.) while also allowing you to quickly listen to the song in its entirety.
Once you’ve picked the style of music you’re looking for the next thing you want to do is find only the songs of the same approximate length of your video. They can be a little longer or a little shorter.
Usually a site will provide a drop-down menu to help you sort music by things like ‘longest to shortest’, ‘shortest to longest’, ‘highly rated’, ‘most popular’, etc. Just go for the ‘short to long’ or ‘long to short’ and advance through the pages until you reach the section containing the length you’re looking for.
Now sample each of them one by one. Most of them you’ll discard within seconds. Some you may consider as possibilities, so keep some notes. In all likelihood you will find only one or two suitable songs for your video on any given site. If you’re not totally happy, do the same thing on other sites until you find your short list of songs, which you can then narrow down to the top two choices.
The nice thing about Videoblocks is that once you subscribe, you are allowed unlimited downloads of anything on the site (music, stock video and whatever else they have) for the entire year. I was grandfathered in on a very low rate a few years back, so essentially any song I like I just download. If there are two or three I think might work, I download and try them all. Even the current subscription rate makes it worth it and if you’re trying it out for the first time, they allow unlimited downloads for a period of time. The songs you download and don’t use may come in handy for another video later.
Since I use FCPX, I just put the songs into iTunes under a ‘video music’ folder, which I can easily access from within FCPX.
Anyway, by whatever legal means you get the music you will use for your video.
A note on corporate music libraries
This probably applies to more than just the corporate genre, but I must say that the musicians who create this stuff, for the most part, really know what they are doing.
Almost any song will have a beginning section that fits the length of a typical title sequence of your film or video before the song segues into its main theme. Also, during the course of a song (depending on length) they will generally have 2 or 3 variations on the theme either in terms of complexity of the arrangement, and/or pitch, and/or volume, and/or tempo. And each piece of music will all generally have a good ending where you’ll have your end titles or call to arms.
Probably knowing that editors will want to adjust the length of their songs to fit an edit, it is usually relatively easy to cut out phrases of music seamlessly to reduce the overall length, as each phrase or ‘cue’ of music has a consistent beat and some repeating element and can be taken out with each remaining end seamlessly attaching to each other.
Likewise one can cut out a phrase and copy and paste it in order to increase the overall length.
It takes some tricky editing to find the exact edit points where this can be done. You might not get it right at first, but by adjusting the edit frame by frame in either direction, eventually you’ll find the exact beat where your music edit suddenly becomes seamless. It’s pretty fun actually when you get it right. Makes you feel like a musician even when you’re not. (Apologies to the real musicians!)
This is why I said you want to pick a song of the approximate determined length of your video. Both the length of the song can be adjusted and almost certainly the length of your edit will be adjusted.
But now that you have the music, you can really start editing.
3) Editing with music
As mentioned earlier, the normal correct sequence for adding music is after the edit is done.
What I’m talking about here is the poor-man’s approach to music in which the process is done out-of-sequence when using music that was not written for the film or video. Specifically I’m talking about using the music as a guide or assistance to determining or adjusting many of your edits. The end result can be surprisingly effective (providing you choose an appropriate and fitting piece of music) in that it will seem as if the stock music you chose was written for your video—and that happens when various edits in your video coincide with beats or shifts in the music.
The more the pictures and music seem to match up, the more the music will seem to be custom. But more importantly, the more the music will actually be helping to get across the overall message of the video because it’s now no longer out-of-sync with or irrelevant to your video. If this is poorly done, or not done at all, music can seem distracting and out-of-place which causes a mild or major distraction from the overall message of the film or video which would be a violation of the purpose of music.
Once I’ve determined the rough length of my video and chosen the music, I then lay down the music track. I usually find that the beginning of the song is appropriate for my title. I also find very often that there are music beats or cues that will dictate the edit points for title changes if I have, for example, company logo, a main title and a subtitle. At this point I run the music to a level of about -6db and drop it down to about -18db for the start of the narrative.
This is where it starts to get really fun.
Since my videos are generally 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, I usually watch the whole rough cut at this point with the music just as I’ve laid it down. I am often amazed, even at this early stage, how certain shifts and changes in the music correspond to different parts of the video. It nevertheless gives me an opportunity to spot certain points in the music where significant video edits should occur. At this points I may place edit markers so that as I’m adjusting the edit from the beginning I can keep an eye on the editing timeline for the upcoming markers I want to align a certain part of the edit to.
At this point I go to the beginning of the video and start editing.
So far what I’ve got on the time line is a blank spot for titles followed by the edited narrative with no B roll* (footnote to define B roll). There may be certain parts of that narrative where I want to be sure to have the person on camera and I’ll either mark or just remember these. The rest of the narrative will be B roll that is relevant to what is being said (and which now covers my edits in the narrative). This is where the music will often help me determine the length of the various shots, which are primarily determined by the narrative.
Remember everything we’re doing in an edit is toward the forwarding of the message. The B roll must be relevant to the narrative—either directly supporting it or perhaps even counter-pointing what is being said. So the first consideration of the length of a B roll shot is the narrative itself (what is being said tends to dictate what B roll shot or shots should be used).
The second consideration of length is cutting it to the beat of the music.
If you go through the edit in this fashion you will wind up with a nicely integrated video with music that seems to have been scored for it.
But there’s a little more to the process than that.
You’ll find yourself wanting to make adjustments to the edit for various reasons. Once you start working with it you may decide to delete or shorten pieces of narrative that now seem irrelevant or redundant. You may then find your video is shorter than the music. I usually don’t worry about this much as I construct the edit from the beginning because I know from experience that I can always successfully, one way or the other, shorten the music to fit. (Or you may decide you have to add a bit to the narrative for some reason, but the same applies; you can always extend the music by repeating some portion of it where it won’t be noticed).
It is also at this stage that I tend to start cutting out “ums” and “ahhs”, hesitations and other aspects of the narrative that break the clean flow of story-telling or any other fault. But doing all this as I go along and trimming the B roll as I go and using the music as a guide to effective edit points, I finally wind up near the end where I have to start considering editing the music (either by lengthening or shortening) so that everything dovetails nicely at the end, be it a call to arms or end credits or both.
I mentioned earlier about dropping the narrative down to about -18db under the narrative. That’s a rough guide and is usually workable. You could wind up dropping it even lower in volume.
The rule of thumb is set your music track 12db lower than your narrative track. The real test is listening to the narrative with the music. You must balance it so that the narrative is clear and easy to understand. This is another reason that the audio mixing of the narrative should be done before evaluating the final level of the music. You additionally have the option of mixing the stock music to help separate it from the voice (more or less treble or bass, for example)
Now you do your final tweaking. If there are blank spots in the narrative where we are meant to be watching some activity or process covered in the B roll, you may want to bring the music level up unless some other audio or sound effect is more important at that point.
Once everything is tweaked and finalized, you will have a video with off-the-shelf stock music that not only helps forward the message and mood of your video, but will also seem to have been written for your video.
To be honest, sometimes your choice and editing of stock music will be better than other times. Occasionally it will be stunning. But one thing is for sure: It will always be a hell of a lot better than just schlocking any ol’ music onto your video without regard for these things.
(end of preview)
Here’s a recent video that’s in the category of music that I thought really worked out. This piece of music had various ‘chapters’ to it. When I heard it I knew it would work, because the video itself had various ‘chapters’ as you will see. I simply took the cumulative total of about 8 minutes of footage and cut it down, using the best shots, to more or less fit the music. In a few weeks I’ll upload another video to this post (as soon as it’s approved) that also had a great stock music fit–two pieces of music actually.
This video was a bit of a throw together for a fundraising dinner that was scheduled even though the proper narrative driven video wasn’t yet complete. Shot with the Sony HXR NX30, all hand-held.
Bit of a tear jerker–in a good way. Enjoy!