The following was prepared as a companion to the SCL seminar I gave on 11/05/19, and expands on some of the things discussed during the event. You can watch a recording of the live stream of the event on YouTube and/or just keep scrolling and read this blog. I hope you find something of value here that helps you on your musical journey. Feel free to reach out with any questions.
Defining a shoestring budget
Any project that has a budget that is significantly lower than the scope of the work would normally require. This can range from scoring a project for free to 6 figures, depending on the circumstances. Creating an electronic score for a feature film for just $1,000 or creating an orchestral score requiring a 70 minutes of music recorded live with an 80 piece orchestra for just $100,000 package deal would both qualify. Each is woefully under-budgeted for the work required to achieve the desired result.
There are many reasons to take a shoestring project. Depending on where you are your career and life, the reasons to say yes may change. Reasons that were appealing earlier in your career may no longer hold the same appeal later in your career. Reason’s that may seem unattractive when you’re going through an extremely busy period may seem more attractive during a slow period. There is no right or wrong answer nor is there a formula when deciding whether or not to take such a project. It’s an individual choice that depends on a variety of variables.
Some reasons to take a shoestring budget project may include:
- Gaining experience
- Building a relationship with a new filmmaker
- Maintaining a relationship with an existing client
- Favor for a filmmaker
- Building one’s reel
- Building one’s library
- Personal fulfillment
- Artistic expression
- Stretching oneself creatively or technically (or both)
- Opportunity to do something new
- Practice one’s skills
- Potential for awards
- Potential for exposure
- Test out new software or hardware
- Test out a new workflow/team
- Build a team and learn to work with them
- Nothing better to do at the time
By definition, this is usually not a very good reason to take on a shoestring budget project, though perhaps there’s enough money to make it worth while or the anticipated royalties make it worth while financially.
How to survive while working on a shoestring budget project
Get a job! Particularly early in your career, making your living from scoring films/TV may not be a realistic immediate goal. So get a job that covers you cost of living, and score projects whenever you can – nights, weekends, etc. Your job may be completely unrelated to the world of media scoring, or you may work as a composer’s assistant or as an orchestrator, or music editor, or some other related job. Either way focus as much of your free time on scoring your own projects as you can.
If you’re very fast, you might be able to do a sufficient number of shoestring projects to earn enough money to cover your bills. Or perhaps build (or join) a team that works together so you’re able to work on enough projects to make ends meet.
When I first went freelance I got a job in construction. I would be on the construction site at 5:00 am, work until 3:00 pm, then head home and hustle and/or score short films and whatever else I could get until about midnight or 1:00 am, then I’d sleep for a few hours and do it all over again. Weekends were great because I could spend even more time looking for work or writing than I could during the week and even catch up on some sleep.
Early in my career I worked for a post-production facility where I would put in 50-80 hours a week. In addition I would score short films I got on my own whenever I could, often pulling all-nighters, or spending my entire weekend working on those. When I wasn’t working on my own projects I’d write music for the facility’s in-house music library for use in TV shows we worked on. Things I wrote for free (and had to give up all the publishing and share writing credit with the owners) nearly 20 years ago are still generating royalties today!
When you have income, make sure you save aggressively. If you’re not getting paid through a traditional employer (W-2) make sure you set money aside for taxes, and in addition set aside money for savings. I recommend building up 9-12 months worth of living expenses in your savings before you upgrade your life in any meaningful way. And then make sure you adjust your savings strategy to match your new cost of living. Building up that savings cushion will allow you to manage slow periods, as well as invest in yourself when you need to. More importantly, it’ll provide peace of mind.
Know your limits
You must always assess your skills, abilities and resources (including the project’s budget and your savings and your availability) when deciding whether or not to take a project. When assessing a new project, make sure you keep things within the scope of what you can do well. It’s good bite off a bit more than you can chew, it’s how we grow, but beware of taking too big a bite and choking. Trying to go beyond what you can reasonably handle can lead to failure – whether it means the production quality will suffer, you won’t be able to meet the schedule (or it’ll take too long in general), or you’ll blow your budget.
Failure an tarnish your reputation and undermine your progress. It’s extremely important for your clients to be thrilled not only with the end result, but with the entire experience, that’s how you earn recommendations and referrals, as well as earn repeat business. Remember former clients can potentially go on to bigger and better projects, and if they like working with you they’re more likely to call you again. They’re also more likely to refer you to their colleagues and speak well of you.
When agreeing to a project make sure what is required is in line with your abilities and limitations (skill, budget and/or schedule) and that you can meet the filmmaker’s expectations. Make sure the reverse is true and that the project as well as the filmmakers meet your expectations. It’s not unusual for filmmakers to have unreasonable expectations and you may need to educate them on what’s realistic within their limitations.
Discuss expectations before starting and make sure the filmmakers and you are al on the same page. Discuss whether or not the budget is realistic for what they want. If it isn’t discuss alternative approaches that are realistic within the given limitations. Discuss the schedule and whether or not it is realistic. Are you available to do the work within the given amount of time? Will the schedule require bringing on help? If so do you already have a team or do you need to build one? Does the budget support bringing in help?
For example, when director Dax Phelan & I discussed scoring his film Jasmine, he wanted very little music, but he was referencing scores that used large orchestras and were very aleatoric, which wasn’t something we could do considering the lack of budget. I came up with the idea of an electronic score, completely changing the musical approach. I wrote a couple of demos to show him what I had in mind and he liked them so we moved forward. The more I wrote, the more music he wanted until we had a version of the film with wall-to-wall music. We later removed a lot of the music as sound-design came into the picture. That score ended up pushing me technically and creatively, which was extremely gratifying despite the lack of budget, and both the film and the score went on to win several awards, which is always very humbling and validating.
Working with filmmakers
Keep in mind that most of these projects will involved inexperienced filmmakers. More experienced ones have likely worked their way up and are working with bigger budgets. But you may be working with a very experienced or established filmmaker working on a passion project with limited funds. Whatever the case, be aware of their situation and keep it in mind whenever interacting with them
Inexperienced filmmakers often have insecurities. This may be their first film and they’re learning as they go, or they don’t yet have the comfort and confidence that comes with working with a familiar team. They may appear very confident and in control yet still be less self-assured than they let on. In my experience many filmmakers feel quite a bit of uncertainty when it comes to music. Be sensitive to this, especially when issues or problems arise, or when they are indecisive or struggle to explain what they want, or what isn’t quite working for them.
Always remember that writing film/TV music is not about the music, it’s about the story being told. Your job is to help the filmmaker tell their story their way. The trick is to give them what they want, even when they don’t know what they want, and ideally do it in your own unique voice.
When discussing the score, remember that most filmmakers are not musicians. They likely don’t know or understand musical terminology and some may misidentify instruments. Don’t talk in musical terms, but isntead talk about story, mood, pace, emotion, drama, colors, textures and so on. It’s your job to translate all of those things into music, not the filmmaker’s. If the filmmaker uses musical terminology, mirror what they’re saying in non-musical terms to make sure they’re not misusing musical jargon and giving you bad direction.
I remember when I was in school one of my instructors recalled working with a director who kept asking for a cue to be more dissonant. He rewrote the cue two or three times, each time making it more and more dissonant, to the point where he was concerned that it no longer works as well emotionally. When he played that second or third revision the director complained that the music was no longer working, but it still wasn’t dissonant enough. My instructor asked, “what do you mean by more dissonant?” The director responded “You know, faster!” I’ve never had as extreme an experience as that, but I’ve had filmmakers misidentify instruments or use musical terminology incorrectly.
Another thing to consider is that the filmmakers have a myriad other things they are dealing with in addition to the score. And if the filmmakers are inexperienced, they’re likely equally inexperienced in all departments, not just music, so they have a lot going on. Make sure that whenever they interact with you it is a pleasant experience and that you are providing solutions to their musical problems, not creating new problems.
Sometimes there are multiple filmmakers involved, with diverging tastes and agendas. If that’s the case identify who has the final say – that’s the person you ultimately need to make sure your’e pleasing first and foremost. Usually that person will be whomever is holding the purse strings. However don’t ignore the rest of the filmmakers. You don’t want to alienate them.
Keep in mind that they have likely been on the project much longer than you and have been dealing with their differing sensibilities on multiple fronts for some time. You want them on your side, you want to try to build consensus through honest discussion. Rather than picking sides, always let the project dictate what you think is best and argue for that. If you can’t get them all on the same page, offer to present more than one version to address the differing approaches. Sometimes the best way to prove a point is to just show them and it becomes obvious.
Finally, I’ve been asked how to deal with difficult filmmakers. It’s my opinion that there’s really no such thing as a difficult filmmaker. If there is difficulty dealing with a filmmaker it’s usually the result of mismatched expectations and/or poor communication. A little understanding and empathy for their situation can go a long way towards overcoming obstacles, foster better communication and lead to finding good solutions and aligning expectations. That said, sometimes you may simply not be the right fit for this filmmaker and/or project. Sometimes we just don’t really click. If that’s the case you still want to do the best you can to improve communication and get the job done well. They may not hire you again and this may not be the beginning of the next Spielberg-Williams collaboration, but you certainly don’t want to alienate them and risk them speaking ill about you.
Sometimes you may just hit the wall and not know how to deal with a situation. This could be a creative impasse, an interpersonal one, a political one, or a situational one. Whatever the case, you can always ask your friends and colleagues for advice. Talk to your partner, or reach out to a trusted friend and run things by them. If you’re working as an assistant and feel comfortable doing so, ask your boss for advice. If you don’t have someone you can reach out to personally, there are many online forums and resources where you can either find answers to similar questions, or ask your question.
If the problem is creative and you just don’t know what to write, use temp score to help figure it out. And if you have no idea where to even start, just start anywhere. Literally anywhere – grab a song, a classical piece, a soundtrack you have handy and play it against the scene that’s giving you trouble. Even if it’s completely wrong, it’ll be very illuminating because it will become clear what about it is wrong. Do this a few times and in no time you’ll have a very good idea of what not to do, which in turn leads to what you should do.
NUTS & BOLTS
The key to being efficient is great organization. Being organized is crucial to keeping things under control. Use a system to keep track of your project and progress, preferably one that’s easy to share with others (Google Sheet, CueDB, Cue Chronicle, etc. You’ll find a few resources listed at the end of this post for your convenience). The reason I prefer systems that are easily shareable is because at some point in your career you’ll start working with a team, not to mention that sometimes the filmmakers like to have access and see what’s going on.
Next, make sure your file management is well organized. Disorganized file management will lead to all sorts of problems, which waste time. The more organized you are, the more efficient you will be. If your’e working on more than one project, have a separate project folder for each one, with appropriate sub-folders. If you’re working on a TV show, have season sub-folders in the project folder, and episode folders for each episode within the season folder.
Depending on your workflow you may require different sub-folders inside your project (or episode) folders, but it’s good practice to have a video folder for your quicktimes (I like to include my audio guide tracks in here. And when expecting multiple picture versions I create sub-folders for each version. You’ll want a DAW folder in which you store all your composing sessions, each cue in its own cue sub folder. And you’ll want folders for every other function that is relevant to your show (for example Notation, Pre-Records, Paperwork, Final Mixes, etc.) When naming your folders make sure you use consistent naming conventions so things are properly sorted and easy to find.
When collaborating with others, use a file hosting service like dropbox.com or box.com (I’ve listed a few at the bottom of this post for your convenience). You can sync up your file hosting service with your local folder(s). Whether you sync or not, make sure the file-structure is well organized on the hosting service.
Some clients don’t like, or don’t have accounts with file hosting services. You can use file transfer services such as wetransfer.com or hightail.com with these clients. When using this method, make sure you have an effective file structure so you can keep track of exactly what you sent to whom and when.
Finally, make sure your file naming conventions are effective and consistent. Whenever printing mixes or stems that need to go to anyone else (team members, dub stage, etc.) make sure the following information is included:
- Project name (usually an abbreviation)
- Episode number (if applicable)
- Cue number
- Cue version
- Picture version this cue was written to
- Start timecode of the file
- Stem name
- Cue name (optional. I like to include this in stereo mixes, but not in stems)
The order isn’t as important as long as you start with the Project name and Cue number and end with the timecode. For example for my film The Message, a final mix might look like this:
TM 1m03 Text Apology FINAL MIX p031219 1.08.19.18
A percussion stem for that same cue might look like this:
TM 103 PERC p031219 1.08.1918
Some people don’t like to use dots in their timecode (I find it easier to read with the dots) and like to add TM in front of the number. Other like to add a letter in front of the stem so that whenever they are imported into ProTools they always come in at the same order so it might look like this:
TM 103 F PERC P031219 TC 1081918
Others like using underscores instead of spaces. It really doesn’t matter how you do it as long as the information is clearly included in the filename and you are consistent. I don’t really care about letters in front of stem names because I can simply sort my track alphabetically and I get the same end result, but some people are more particular about their track order.
One of the biggest keys to efficient composing is having a great template. Whether you’re using multiple computers and VEP, or doing it all on one machine, make sure your template is working for you in such a way that you spend as little time as possible dealing with “housekeeping” tasks such as setting up tracks and routing outputs. Below are some tips I’ve picked up over the years as well as how I setup my own template.
- Have all your go-to sounds at your fingertips. Make sure all those sounds are loaded in your template and properly routed so that all you have to do is go to the chosen track and start playing
- If your DAW supports them, use folders to organize your tracks by groups (i.e. Woodwinds, Brass, Percussion, Strings, Pads, etc.)
- Use colors to keep things organized. For example color all tracks & their enclosing folder the same color.
- Keep track names short by using consistent abbreviations (i.e. Always Vn or Vln but not both).
- Use CAPS and lowercase when naming different track types. For example use Proper English (Capitalized first letter) for instrument tracks, lowercase for MIDI tracks and CAPS for stems.
- Create stem aux tracks and route your individual tracks to the appropriate stems (don’t forget to match the stem color to the corresponding track colors). For example Woodwinds, Brass, Percussion, Strings,, Pads, etc.). Solo-safe (aka solo-defeat) your stems so you don’t lose signal when soloing individual tracks.
- Route all of your stems to a Stereo Mix stem. Like the other stems, make sure you solo-safe your Stereo Mix stem. Set the output of this stem to your physical output that goes to your speakers. Avoid adding mastering plug-ins on your Stereo Mix stem in order to make sure all your stems at unity equal your stereo mix. It’s Ok to have some light limiting to avoid clipping.
- Create individual reverbs/delays or other group effects for each stem and route the outputs of those reverbs to the corresponding stems. Don’t forget to color code them to match.
- When using instrument tracks, set the output of each instrument to the appropriate stem. If you’re using a combination of instrument tracks, MIDI tracks and aux-returns from the instrument tracks, set the outputs of the aux-returns to the corresponding stem just as you would an instrument track.
- Use sends to add reverb (or delay or any other group effects) to your tracks. Assign all the appropriate sends in the individual tracks to the appropriate reverbs so it is all pre-routed within your template.
- If you want to add any kind of effect plug-ins to individual tracks use the inserts of those tracks.
- Create empty tracks with plug-ins loaded and routed to appropriate stems for sounds where you may need to browse through patches. That way they will be pre-routed to the appropriate stems and all you have to do is search for the patch you want without needing to set anything up.
- Create empty audio tracks (both mono & stereo) that are routed to the appropriate stems and have the appropriate inputs set. That way whether you’re recording locally or having someone record remotely and send you the audio you have tracks ready to go and all you have to do is record/bring in the audio.
- Create a Dialog/FX track (or if your guides are split, one for each), a Temp music track & an overlapping music track and have their outputs all routed directly to your physical output. That way you can never accidentally print stems with reference audio married to them. When you write cues that overlap with others you can import the stereo mix of the overlapping cue into that track to help you hear exactly how the overlap will sound.
Below are some screenshots from my Cubase template to demonstrate this workflow and give you some ideas. There’s no right or wrong template, this is just for reference. I use Cubase and do everything on a single PC. I use individual instrument tracks for every sound I need rather than using instrument tracks with multiple different patches and aux returns to separate them. However I like to have all my articulations loaded for each instrument and use key-switches to control my articulations. I have all but my piano sound disabled by default and enable tracks as I need them. This may not be right for you and how you like to work. Do what works for you. Hopefully you’ll get some good ideas from reviewing my template.
Using the signal flow described above, you’ll be able to quickly print stage-ready stems by printing your stem tracks. At the same time if you’re having someone else mix your tracks and want to give them dry tracks you can simply print all your individual tracks instead of the stems. Keep in mind that any insert effects you have on individual tracks will be printed unless you bypass/disable the plug-ins first, but you usually want those types of effects printed as they are part of your sound. You can even print the reverbs separately if you wish for reference. This type of signal flow offers a lot of flexibility, which is why I like working this way.
If your DAW allows you to customize your shortcuts, take the time to do so and and shortcuts to functions you use often. This will help speed up your work. Some DAWS allow you to program macros, use them to program repetitive actions so you don’t have to do them manually over and over. If you have a tablet use Lemur or Touch OSC to create buttons to activate functions you use often. This will also help speed up your work and frees you up from having to remember tons of shortcuts.
There are lots of templates available online (some free, some paid), which can make a great starting point. I use Lemur and have a 4 page layout that works well for me. Just as with your template, there’s no right or wrong, just what works for your workflow. Feel free to review the screenshots of my layout below for some ideas when creating your own.
Finally, start your music at bar 5 instead of bar 1. You never know when you might need to do a revision that involves starting the cue a bit sooner, it happens all the time. Having a few empty bars makes it easy to go back for stuff like that. It also creates a moment of silence before the music starts that can help let lingering effects ring out when you’re jumping around, and allows volume and other automation settings to jump back to the right spot before the music begins so when you play it sounds right. This is especially important when printing your cues.
Now that you have your template ready to go and your DAW is optimized to your workflow it’s time to get creative. Here are some tips to help get things going quickly and efficiently.
The first thing you want to do is watch the film/show without any music so you can get your own raw impression. Then have a conversation with your filmmakers about their expectations. Find out if they already have a musical direction in mind (they probably do). Perhaps they’ve cut in a rough temp already, if so you want to hear it.
Use temp music as a communication tool. If they already have a temp, find out if they like it or not. If they do find out what is it that’s working for them, what isn’t? If they don’t have a temp, find existing music to use as temp and use that early on rather than spending a lot of time writing music that may be on the wrong track. Use temp music to help discuss musical direction with the filmmakers.
Once you have a handle on what you think they want, it’s time to start working. But before you start writing, consider if you already have something in your library that might work for this project. We all music in our library that never got used for one reason or another – whether it’s a rejected cue, something we did for fun, ideas we’ve been playing around with. If you have something that feels like it’s a good fit for the project you’re working on, temp it in to one or two scenes and show the filmmakers just as you would use temp music. If they like it you can explain it’s a piece of your own and you can create something new and original based on this idea for them.
When I was hired to score Captain Hagen’s Bed & Breakfast I made the mistake of spending a couple of days writing some music I really loved, but the director hated. I was on the completely wrong track. Rather than starting over, and spending hours writing something new again, I searched my library and realized I had a rejected demo that I thought was on the right track. I played it for the director and he loved it, and this became the main theme of the film.
Reusing existing material is especially applicable when you’re also responsible for source music in your project. You may already have something that works perfectly and then you can simply license that track to the production rather than having to write and produce a brand new track.
As you well know, when writing for film & TV we often need to deal with odd meters in order to make the music fit the scene and hit key moments. Therefore, when writing I suggest you don’t think about meter, but rather if the music is rhythmic think of a sense of pulse and simply think in 1. Doing this will free you from the constraints of a set meter and make it easier to stretch or compress your melodies and motifs. If you’re going to have live musicians play on your track, go back after you’re done and meter the cue so it makes musical sense.
Avoid starting the music in the middle of a bar (beat 2 or 3) because when recording live, especially with a group, it can cause confusion about how many count-off clicks they will hear before they play. For example if you’re in 4/4 and the music starts on beat 3 and the conductor calls 4 clicks to bar 1 but the music actually starts after 6 I can almost guarantee someone will mess it up and play in the wrong place. Instead create a 2/4 bar, then a 4/4 bar. Really the only time where it’s safe not to start on a downbeat is if there is a pickup into the downbeat (i.e. an 8th or 16th note at the end of the bar) in which case the conductor can call out 8 clicks to bar 2. Or if the music starts on an upbeat (i.e. beat 1 &) it’s not a big deal. Other than situations like that, avoid having music start anywhere in the middle of a bar.
Find the general tempo of a scene and stick to it. I don’t like constant tweaking of tempi from one bar to the next, especially if the music will be recorded live. It can be difficult for the musicians to follow, which will slow down the process, something you can’t afford on a shoestring budget. After you’re done writing, you an tweak the tempo for sections of the cue for better sync. Having minor tempo fluctuates from one section to the next is fine and won’t trip up your players, but don’t vary it all over the place.
Avoid tempo changes when you can, and if you do need a tempo change, make sure that you prepare it. For example when going from a slow section to a faster section, change the tempo a bar or two before the perceived tempo change over a held note to give the musicians built-in warning clicks. That way when recording you won’t need to stop for a pickup. Here’s an example of what I mean.
It’s often tempting to write something freely and not the click, especially for emotional cues. But when working on a shoestring with live musicians, this can slow things down and make them more difficult during recording. It’s always easier to comp together takes when everything is done to a grid, to a click track. But that doesn’t mean the music has to be rigid and can’t feel like it’s free.
There are tricks that can be used to make the cue feel like it’s free-time when it is, in-fact, written to a click. One is using odd metered bars, including 3/8, 5/8 & 7/8 bars to mimic a fermata or to speed up time a bit. Another is writing around the click by using syncopation and triplets. These techniques are also great ways to catch hits without needing lots of tempo changes. I’m not a big fan of 3/8, 5/8 & 7/8 bars. I use them on occasion, but more often I find that I can catch a hit using syncopation instead. Here’s an example of writing around the click.
Another writing tip is try to come up with themes that are easy to manipulate to get more out of your themes. When starting out sketch out your theme ideas and try a few variations for different key spots in the film/show before you commit to the theme or spend too much time creating amazing sounding mockups. That way if they’re not quite working out, you haven’t spent too much time before realizing you need to do something different. Before submitting the rejected demo I mentioned above as an idea for Captain Hagen’s Bed & Breakfast, I quickly sketched two other key spots to make sure it would work. More on that below.
Use orhcestration, arrangement, and modulation to squeeze more out of your themes. Rather than writing more music, reworking what you’ve already come up with can greatly speed up the process. Earlier I demonstrated how I re-used a rejected demo as one of the main themes in my score for Captain Hagen’s Bed & Breakfast. If you re-listen to that cue, you’ll notice I repeat the theme over and over, and simply change the orchestration and arrangement to get more out of it without ever changing the tempo. This allowed me to write that cue very quickly. Below is that cue again so you can listen to those elements, as well as two more variations that I sketched out before committing to this them.
If you play an instrument (or a few) use those skills to your advantage when creating your score. Writing for instruments you can play and record yourself means you can do it all yourself and don’t need to spend any money hiring anyone else, which is a huge benefit when working on a shoestring budget. You’ll also likely write better for instruments you play than for instruments you don’t. Maximize your strengths and use them to your advantage.
Efficient writing workflow
Writing a feature score (or even a short) can feel quite daunting. There are a lot of minutes of music to write, which can feel overwhelming. But there are things you can do to ease the load and make things go more quickly and efficiently.
I like to find key scenes where I need to use my themes and start with those. I try to pick the longest and/or most climactic or pivotal scenes and start there. Once I’ve done that, I can then copy/paste the cue to all the other spots that require that same theme and see how it works. Often there are at least a few cues where all I really need to do is edit the cue to fit picture and make some tweaks or rearrange or re-orchestrate. So instead of starting from scratch, I will simply save a copy of the cue as a new cue, and make the adjustments allowing me to create new cues very quickly. You may even be able to create an edit using audio stems and simply write a new intro our outro, or add an overlay to create something very fast. Below are some samples of what I mean.
When working on longer cues that incorporate multiple themes, consider splitting them up into sections. That way you can use the above save-as method to quickly create the different sections and you may even only need to write some transition bars from one section to the next. Again this can be done using your DAW’s MIDI sequences or perhaps by re-using audio stems and not even bothering with the MIDI. Below is my end credit suite from Matt & Maya as a demo of this concept.
I was concerened that we might not have enough time to record the entire suite, so I intentionally wrote it using huge chunks from other cues. I made slight variations, but had we not had the time, I could have simply copy/pasted those sections from the other cues. On the score I indicated which bars corresponded to which bars in other cues, and which bars were a must to record in order to have the bits and pieces needed to create the suite. Thankfully we ended up being able to record the whole thing, but you can follow along with the score and see all my indications of how to build this suite if we couldn’t record it all. Click here for a PDF of the score so you can follow along with the audio below.
If you have a great groove, background patter or percussive loop you’ve come up with, consider reusing them rather than re-creating them or writing new similar ones. Often you can just take something you’ve already done and build on it writing new material on top to quickly create a cue that’s related yet different and original.
If you’re going to record live musicians, you can save a lot of time and expense by reusing material so you only have to record it once, and then you can edit the recording to fit within other cues as needed. Make sure the tempo is the same and keep the same key, though I’ve had success pitch-shifting recordings up or down up to a step (sometimes more) so I can use the material even if it’s in a different key. Here’s an examples where I only recorded guitars for the cue titled Archery Competition from the upcoming film The Message, but was able to re-use them by pitch-shifting at the end of the cue Let’s Cross Together.
Addressing creative notes
Often filmmakers give notes in the form of a solution rather than explaining what they want. For example, “can we lose the trumpet?” But losing the trumpet may not be the best musical choice. Whenever you get these types of notes, always dig a bit deeper and try to understand why the filmmaker is giving that note. When you understand the reason for the note (is the trumpet stepping on dialog? Is it too heroic? Or something else?) you’ll be able to come up with the most musical solution to address it (move the trumpet line so it doesn’t step on the note, change instrument, rewrite/reorchestrate those bars). You may want to read my blog post Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should, which expands on this topic.
Whenever getting a note take a moment to consider if it means a rewrite, or just a revision. This may involve asking the filmmaker a few pointed questions to get a deeper understanding of exactly what s/he wants. More often than not, creative notes mean revisions, not rewrites, so always start by trying to make adjustments rather than starting a rewrite from scratch. Tweaking existing material is much faster and more efficient than rewriting.
If you do need to rewrite a cue, make sure the new cue is meaningfully different than the original cue. Creating what amounts to another version of the same idea won’t get you very far. If you’re not sure where to start try finding some temp music to help you figure it out as described above in the What to do when you don’t know what to do section.
Addressing picture changes
Ideally when working on shoestring budget projects, you’ll be working to locked picture. But sometimes picture changes happen and you’ll need to adjust your music to fit the new cut. It’s usually fastest and therefore most efficient to address such changes with your printed audio rather than by going back into the DAW and your MIDI.
When conforming, especially if just conforming audio, I prefer to do it in ProTools. Below are some screenshots demonstrating how I like to do it.
Making the edit may involve nudging things a bit for musicality. Keep in mind sometimes you may have to sacrifice a hit for musicality and that’s ok. Don’t get caught up in trying to maintain everything exactly as it was, the picture has changed and it’s OK for the music to change accordingly. Pick and chose the key moments that are most important to really nail on the sync, and sacrifice less important moments if you have to for musicality. Great as they are, hits aren’t nearly as important as making sure the cue feels natural and isn’t awkward in order to make those hits.
Working with live musicians
We all want to work with live musicians, and sadly it’s not always possible on shoestring budgets. But there are ways to get it done affordably. The key is to be resourceful and do your homework, meaning impeccable prep-work.
As mentioned above, if you play an instrument (or several), go the DIY route. Invest in a decent (or better) microphone, maybe a pre-amp and some room treatment to handle noise and record yourself playing. The next best thing is hiring individuals who can either come to your studio or record themselves remotely and send you their tracks.
Finding the right musicians can be your first challenge. Start by asking your friends. If you know someone that plays the instrument(s) you need, ask them to do you a favor and play on your soundtrack either for free or dirt cheap. If you don’t know someone that plays the instrument(s) you need, it’s time to widen your net.
Ask friends for recommendations, or use online resources. The Remote Recording Database is a great resource that I created a couple of years ago to address this exact problem. It’s free to join as a member or to search for musicians and there’s no catch, this was something I did as a way to pay-it-forward to our community. You can also go on Facebook groups and other social media and let people know what you’re looking for. If all else fails, or if you need to hire a larger group, hire a contractor. I highly recommend Gina Zimmitti.
ording Database is a great resource that I created a couple of years ago to address this exact problem. It’s free to join as a member or to search for musicians and there’s no catch, this was something I did as a way to pay-it-forward to our community. You can also go on Facebook groups and other social media and let people know what you’re looking for. If all else fails, or if you need to hire a larger group, hire a contractor. I highly recommend Gina Zimmitti.
OK, so you have your musician(s) but they need to know what to play. Make sure you prepare materials for your musicians really well. This will make a huge difference in the results you get and how quickly and efficiently you can get things done. When sending materials to someone who is remote recording themselves for you, find out their preferences in how they like their materials prepared. Do they want a ProTools session? Just WAV files or MP3s? Do they want a full mix & a mix minus, or perhaps they prefer a mix-minus and the mockup of whatever they are replacing as a separate stem. Do they want their audio with a baked in click track? Do they want a separate click track? Do they want a MIDI file? Confirm the technical specs like sample and bit rates used. Find out what they want and make sure what you give them is exactly as they’d expect, well labeled.
If you’re sending any kind of stems (i.e. a mix minus & a mockup stem of the part they’re replacing) make sure the audio files line up perfectly and are exactly the same length. For example you don’t want to have your mix minus start at bar 1, but the mockup start at bar 12, that would be confusing.
Make sure the parts look great, and match the audio perfectly. So for example, if your music starts at bar 5 but your audio file starts at bar 1, make sure your score has 4 empty bars at the front. Or conversely, don’t send audio that begins at bar 5, have it match the score, and if sending a MID file make sure it matches that, too (always starting at bar 1).
If preparing to record a group or an orchestra (in person or remotely) make sure your scores and parts look awesome. Make sure they all include the Project name, Cue number, Version number, Cue name & composer name. Create a title page for your scores and make sure the pertinent cue info makes it to each page and the parts. Don’t forget to indicate of the score is a concert score or transposed. Make sure things are laid out clearly for the conductor, use large meter changes and bar numbers on every bar. When using odd meters it’s helpful to add an indication of how they should be conducted (i.e. a 5/4 bar can be 3+2 or 2+3) See examples below (special thanks to the wonderful Ed Trybek for providing these)
Make sure your parts are as flawless as your scores. Make sure the instrument name is clearly stated on the page along with the project name and cue number & name. Make transpositions are correct, that courtesy accidentals are given when appropriate. Don’t worry about how many bars you have per staff, instead group phrases together so they are easy to follow. Make sure things are spaced out well and that everything is clear. Below is a sample violin part.
Always create tacet parts when an instrument isn’t playing. If you don’t I can guarantee when a cue is called, the folks without a part will raise their hands and say they don’t have parts, causing the conductor and everyone else to scramble to make sure the parts aren’t missing, which wastes time. If you have tacet parts, it’s crystal clear that they simply don’t play on those cues and there are no questions. If you have several instruments that are tacet on a cue it’s OK to list them all on the part and print out the exact same part for the different instruments. Here is a sample tacet part.
Great layout of score and parts makes them easier to read, which leads to better performances and less mistakes, which in turn allows you to record faster and get more done per hour. Don’t under estimate how important it is to the smooth and efficient flow of a recording session.
If you’re sending out a part for someone to remote-record, have a conversation with him/her before they record describing what your’e after. If you’re after something very particular, you may want to have a 2nd conversation once they’ve had a chance to review the materials you send them. Make sure you request several takes, so you have a few options. Discuss the possibility of them doing additional takes once you’ve had a chance to listen the tracks they send back to you and how that will affect your cost (if at all).
When planning a recording session, especially with a group, count up the actual recording minutes rather than the cue durations. It’s not unusual to have cues where several bars are MIDI only and the actual recording minutes are shorter than the cue lengths. This is important to getting an accurate minute count of what you actually need to do, and will help you plan (and budget) accordingly.
Sometimes different sections may have significantly different amount of music to record, making it more cost effective to split them up into separate sessions rather than having everyone play together. Other times you may not be able to get the best balance when they are all playing together depending on your instrumentation. For example, when working on Stargirl with Pinar Toprak, we record strings and brass separately for several reasons.
- We have a limited budget and don’t have a big enough string section to balance well against our brass section if they were in the room at the same time.
- Splitting them allows us to use smaller (and cheaper) studios that can fit each section on its own, rather than using larger stages that we would need if we had them all in the same room together.
- We typically have close to twice as many minutes of strings to record than brass. This means we can have longer string sessions and shorter brass sessions, which saves us money.
Another consideration when recording an orchestra, is splitting it up over multiple sessions into progressively smaller orchestras sizes. Inevitably, not every cue in your score will require your largest group, so reviewing your actual needs, counting up exactly how many minutes you need with which group and planning accordingly can save you a lot of money.
A few years ago I was helping produce a score where we needed to record about 60 minutes of music over 4 sessions. We had a $100,000 budget and when the contracted gave us the budget using the same orchestra for all 4 sessions we were about $10,000 over budget. I meticulously went through every cue and its orchestration and created an excel spreadsheet with a grid showing exactly which instruments were needed for which cue. This allowed me to split the sessions up into 4 different orchestra, each progressively smaller than the last. When we received the updated budget with this new plan we came in nearly $15,000 under budget! And we didn’t have to sacrifice anything, we were just being very efficient with our resources, and I had to come up with a record-order that would work.
Which brings me to the next thing when preparing to record, especially with a group. The record order can have a huge impact in how quickly things go during the sessions. I always start with an easy or moderately difficult cue that has a large dynamic range and is around 2-3 minutes long as the first cue. This lets the musicians warm up without having to jump straight into the hardest cues, and it gives the recording engineer the opportunity to adjust his/her settings on the recording. I then like to group similar style cues together because once the players are in that “mode” they automatically make adjustments from one cue to the next and things go faster than if we’re jumping around stylistically.
If there are big action cues, especially long ones, I try to schedule them for the latter part of the first hour. This way the players have had a chance to warm up and the engineer has had a chance to hone in his/her settings before they get to the hard stuff, but they’re still fresh and not tired from playing a while. It also typically means we take a break part way through recording the cue, which lets them relax and not get too tired. I will follow big action cues with easy cues to give the players a break.
If I have cues that don’t require everyone (for example if we’re doing brass and I have a few cues that require horns only) I’ll put those at the end. That way if we have to go into overtime for whatever reason, I can let most of the band go and only hang on to the few people I need, which saves money. I’m a bit anal, so I create very detailed and meticulous record orders color coding them down to the hour. Below is a sample record order from an actual session, I just renamed all the cues to keep the confidentiality of the project.
When preparing to record live musicians, make sure your pre-record sessions are well laid out and engineer-friendly. Make a separate session for each cue. Make sure the filenames are consistent so things are sorted appropriately. Make sure your track layout is consistent, this helps the engineer quickly find his/her way around your sessions. Use consistent track names within and between sessions, and keep those names short. ProTools truncates long names, which can create a meaningless jumble of letters. Having short clear and consistent names helps.
Color code your tracks according to their groupings/stem assignments. This helps visually and it also helps the engineer if you figure this out so they don’t have to, which speeds up their work flow. Make sure to print your click track, use an unaccented Urei click sound. Make sure any 8th note subdivisions are properly printed, especially with odd meters (i.e. 7/8 clicks might be 1/4 + 1/4 + 3/8). Make sure your clicks end on the final beat of music, the musicians don’t need clicks beyond where they stop playing and this helps avoid click bleed on the ring-outs. Finally, always check your sessions against the scores and make sure everything matches. Below are some screenshots of session prep.
Since I’m lazy and don’t like to have to remember things whenever I can avoid it, once I figure out my setup for a particular show, I like to take screen shots of my stems and the colors I assigned them. That way I can just look at those and know what colors to assign to which tracks. Below are my colors for my latest project as an example.
You may want to read my blog post Tips To Get The Most Of A Remote Recording Session for more information on this topic. You may also want to check out Anne-Katherine Dern’s excellent ProTools Session Prep Tutorial video, it’s great.
Whether your project will get an official soundtrack release or not, I highly recommend you always create a soundtrack when you’re done. If nothing else, you’ll want to have it for yourself and it’ll help you create better sounding tracks for your demo reel as I will discuss below. Besides you never know what the future holds and when having a soundtrack may come in handy.
When I finished scoring Jasmine and the film was released in festivals, I created a soundtrack album, which I decided to self-release. I really didn’t expect anything to come of it, yet about a year later an opportunity came along and Varèse Sarabande were interested in possibly releasing the album. Since the album was already cut and mastered, it was a very cheap and easy release for them and it became the first title to be released under their Signature Series! And just like that I got to check off an item from my bucket list – have an album released on Varèse Sarabande. If you’re interested you can get your own signed copy here. There is also a digital version available on all the various digital platforms.
When cutting a soundtrack don’t just put everything in and in show order. The first thing you should do is listen to your tracks and go through and “trim the fat,” edit the cues so any vamping, repeating, or noodling that isn’t particularly compelling is eliminated. If the cue is in a specific meter with occasional off-meter bars that were clearly created to hit picture, make little edits to make those bars at the original meter, it makes for a better listening experience.
Next rearrange the track order to create the most compelling listening experience possible. I find that usually this means going in order but occasionally swapping cues around for a more enjoyable listen. If you have very short cues, see if you can edit them into other cues or creating suites so they feel like a continuous piece rather than having lots of short tracks. Pay attention to the spacing between the tracks, the timing of the silence between cues is part of the listening experience and you want to create an enjoyable flow to your soundtrack.
When you’re done cutting your soundtrack, always master your tracks. If you can’t afford to get them professionally mastered, take the DIY approach and do what you can. At a bare minimum adjust the levels so the peaks are all even and the quiet cues aren’t too quiet. You don’t want people reaching for the volume as they listen to your soundtrack. Even better, use something like iZotope’s Ozone, which has lots of presents that can be used as a great starting point. And of-course if you can afford it, have them professionally mastered.
Remember that when you send your tracks out as demos, they are competing with all the other music that is being heard. If they don’t measure up technically, it’s unlikely they will get a fair shake creatively. Which leads to my final note on soundtracks and demos – when creating MP3s make sure you have awesome metadata in the files. You want to have nice artwork, the name of the track, the name of the album it came from (if it’s a custom demo for a project you’re trying to land, use the name of the project), your name and most importantly your contact info! Always have your email and phone number in the comments field so the person listening can easily find you and reach you should they want to. I also like to have a few descriptive words in the group field, this helps me when searching through my catalog for tracks to send as demos for specific pitches. Below are a couple of iTunes screenshots with good metadata.
You may want to read my blog post Good File Naming and Metadata Practices for Your Audio Tracks for
BUDGETS & CONTRACTS
When working on shoestring budget films, it’s been my experience that budget is the one place where there is very little, of often no wiggle room for negotiation. They have what they have, take it or leave it. As I discussed earlier in Reasons for taking a shoestring budget project, money is rarely one of the reasons to agree to do it. Make sure there are enough reasons to say yes regardless of the budget. Again your reasons can change over time depending on your circumstance and where you are in your career, but whatever the case, make sure your’e comfortable with the decision to say yes.
Consider how much you need to pay yourself (if anything) and the rest of the money is your production budget. This is money you can use towards hiring musicians, getting help, buying gear, or new sample libraries, or plug-ins, whatever you may need.
Next identify your creative priorities, that’s what should dictate where you should spend whatever budget you have. You’re going to be wearing a lot of hats and doing a lot (if not everything) on your own. But consider your strengths and weaknesses, and your weaknesses are likely another place where you will spend your budget. Once you’ve identified where you want to spend your money, create a detailed budget so that you have a plan and stick to it.
At times after beginning work, you may discover that you want to spend money on something unanticipated, or perhaps certain costs are higher than expected. These may be opportunities to discuss coming up with more money with your filmmakers, or if you don’t think there’s any room for discussion you need to decided whether you’ll absorb that added cost or figure out another way to get the job done without the added cost.
For example, when I scored Lost Time, the director & I discussed that I would be creating a MIDI score. However at some point we realized we wanted to add a solo violin and solo cello, and while my programming and samples were pretty good, we both felt it wasn’t quite as good as we wanted. I called a couple of friends and got cost estimate from them, and then I reached out to the director and explained how much it would cost. We ended up splitting the cost, he came up with half the money, and I paid for the rest out of my initial fee. We were both thrilled with the result and he felt it was well worth the extra cost, and I was happy not to have to absorb the entire cost on my own. Win win.
When recording live musicians there are lots of options these days. As I mentioned earlier, if you can do it yourself, great, that’s the most cost-effective solution. But if not and you need to hire individual musicians to record remotely, plan on paying about $100 an hour for most good players (assuming non-union recording).
When recording an orchestra you also have lots of options. You can record under AFM contract in Los Angeles. This will usually be the most expensive way to go, and you’d need your project to become a signatory with all the strings that are attached. But in return you’ll get some of the best players on the planet, you’ll be supporting your local community of musicians, you’ll be working at great studios and you’ll have the convenience of being local. Depending on where you record & which musicians you use, there’s also a “cool factor” that can’t quite be quantified.
Years ago I recorded a demo under AFM contract. I remember for one particular cue, although the music was quite different, I wanted my snare to sound like the snare in the beginning of James Horner’s score to Glory. I was talking to my percussionist Bob Zimmitti about it and to my surprise and elation his response was (I’m paraphrasing) “I played on that score, I’ll bring that same snare drum.” How incredibly cool is that? And if you’re curious, here’s the cue
But recording under AFM contract isn’t the only way to go. There are so many orchestras around the world that are available and can be a good fit for your needs, usually at a much lower cost and at a buyout, meaning you don’t have to deal with residuals like on an AFM contract. You can find orchestras in Seattle, Nashville, London, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Bratislava, Macedonia and on and on. Each has their strengths and weaknesses.
The biggest upside to recording with a non-union orchestra, especially oversees in Europe, is that it is a buyout recording, meaning you own the recording outright with no strings attached, and they are significantly cheaper than recording in LA, especially under AFM contract. The downsides are that many of these orchestras aren’t quite as good as our incredible local musicians; some of the studio facilities aren’t as great as our local facilities; and you’re working remotely which means going slower than when you’re in the same room, not to mention often working very early in the morning or overnight due to time-zone differences. You’ll also likely spend more time editing the recordings from these sessions than you would recordings done here in town. All that said, here is chart comparing the cost of recording 20 strings using different scenarios local and foreign. This should give you some idea of the differences in cost and services available.
In addition to the musician costs, you need to consider your studio choice (if recording locally, usually when recording overseas there isn’t a choice). First consider if you really need to get into a studio, or can you record what you need at home or with some individual remote sessions? If you do need a studio to record a group, consider what’s appropriate for your needs. For example, going to the Newman scoring stage at FOX to record a soloist wouldn’t be very practical, especially on a shoestring budget. However if you’re trying to impress your client and can afford it, paying a little extra for Capitol studio B vs. another comparable studio may be worth the added cost. Conversely if you’re just trying to get the job done as cost effectively as possible, use every connection you have to find cheap solutions.
For example, early in my career when I worked at a production facility, I had access to the studios late at night and I would bring in musicians to record my own stuff after hours. If your’e a composer’s assistant and your boss has a recording space, ask if you may use it on your own time. When I needed to record the vocals for the opening and end credit song for Captain Hagen’s Bed & Breakfast, I asked my good friend John Swihart if I could use his studio and he was kind enough to allow me to do so. It cost me nothing (I think I paid for lunch the next time we got together).
Always get a written contract that spells out the agreed upon terms and make sure both you and the filmmakers sign it before or as work commences. Even if you’re only getting paid a pittance, and your’e working with friends, make sure you have a contract. Should any issues arise down the line, you’ll have an agreement to turn to to help resolve any disputes. Furthermore it’s the professional (not to mention smart) thing to do and you want to make sure you’re being treated as the professional that you are.
Filmmakers will usually want a work-for-hire agreement, where they own all the music. This is usually the first place where there is room to negotiate, especially when the budget is meager. Offer the filmmakers a non-exclusive license in perpetuity for all media rather than a work-for-hire. That way you will earn 100% of any royalties that the project may generate and you’ll retain full ownership of the music allowing you to monetize it by reusing it and licensing it elsewhere. You can grant the filmmakers a period of exclusivity if they’re worried about the music getting associated with something else before they’ve had a chance to release their film. I’ve done this on several projects with exclusivity periods ranging from 1 to 5 years.
If the filmmakers insist on a buyout, you can negotiate for a publishing split, so that you can retain part of the publishing, meaning you’ll potentially earn more royalties down the road if any are generated. I was once unable to get the filmmakers to give up any of the publishing, but I negotiated the administrative rights to administer the publishing on their behalf. I negotiated a fee (a percentage of any licensing income generated) and was able to license some of the tracks for other things, which generated additional income for me as well as the filmmakers.
If there isn’t much (or sometimes any) upfront money but you’re interested in the doing the project, you can negotiate deferred payment or some kind of back-end compensation. Deferred payment typically means you will get paid at a later date, often dependent on some extraneous factors (i.e. if they successfully raise sufficient finishing funds). Back-end means that you get partial ownership of the film (typically between 2-5%) and if the film generates any income down the road, you get your share of that income.
If you agree to a back-end deal, make sure that the contract spells out a reporting mechanism so you can see what’s going on. Also make sure you agree on what metrics are used to measure income (typically something that’s publicly available like boxofficemojo.com or thenumbers.com).
Make sure your contract specifies deadlines and milestones. These should include a payment schedule and music delivery schedule. Specify your delivery requirements.
Always exclude music editorial from your deal. This is very important for a few reasons. First, music editorial is considered part of editorial, not music so it shouldn’t be part of your deal. Second, music editorial can include a lot of things that are completely out of your control and you don’t want to be on the hook for things you have no control over. For example if the show is an IATSE signatory then the music editor must be a union editor and get paid according to whichever contract the show is under. You can’t be responsible for that.
In addition the music editor is cutting songs, and on the dub stage and typically stays on the project after you’re done with it. You can’t be responsible for paying someone who’s not working for you and you have no say over their schedule, hours or pay.
Often you’ll end up being your own music editor, which will make the filmmakers grateful and feel like you’re going above and beyond.
If there is need for any songs or source music, exclude those from your scope of work. Unless you specifically discuss writing an original song for the film ahead of time, you don’t want to be on the hook for either having to write original songs/source cues. And you certainly don’t want to be on the hook for any 3rd party licensed songs they may wish to get. As with music editing above, there is too much that is out of your control. And if you end up writing a source cue and including it, you will have gone above and beyond making the filmmakers especially appreciative. Not to mention that if you have a great pre-existing track that’s a perfect fit for a spot in the film, this could be an opportunity to make a bit more money by licensing it to the production.
Specify whether you are creating a MIDI score or if you are expected to provide live musicians. And if you’re specifying live musicians, specify how many or some kind of budget cap on it. That way you can’t be on the hook if the filmmakers suddenly wants a 100 piece orchestra when there’s barely enough money to record a single guitar. You can specify that if the filmmaker demands musicians or anything else beyond the agreed upon scope, they have to cover the costs.
Don’t limit how many revisions you’ll provide the filmmakers. I think it’s a bad move. Hopefully you’ve had some time to gauge the filmmaker and trust him or her enough to enter into a working relationship with them. Trust that it will be a productive collaboration, and don’t mar it by setting arbitrary limits before you even get started. In the unlikely event that it doesn’t work out and you end up having a bad experience you’ll learn from it for the next filmmaker, and know you’re probably not a good fit for repeat business with this one.
As you can see there are all sorts of creative ways to get paid and negotiate your deal. But as I discussed at the beginning of this post, these projects are rarely about the money, so don’t sweat the small stuff. Often even if you negotiate everything you want, the project won’t generate a penny and you may not be able to monetize the score in any other way either. Remember 100% of nothing is still nothing. These types of projects are about building your way up to bigger and better ones. And if by some miracle this project happens to make it big and you missed out on the financial benefits, it’s not the end of the world, because it will have likely opened doors you couldn’t have imagined opening this soon that will more than make up for it.
When the project is finished, always make sure there is a cue sheet which gets submitted to the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESCAC, etc.). Often you’ll be the one creating the cue sheet for the filmmaker. ASCAP & BMI have come together to create a system called Rapid Cue. They have an excel spreadsheet template, which you can find here. Use it.
When creating the cue sheet ask the filmmakers for the final mix, and use it to determine accurate timings of the music used. ASCAP and BMI typically will not accept the cue sheet from the composer, so once it’s complete send it to your filmmaker and ask him/her to submit it. All they have to do is email the excel document to email@example.com.
Make sure you can create professional looking invoices for your clients. To be a media composer is to run a small business, even if you’re the only employee. Act accordingly.Being a media composer is
Make it easy for clients to pay you. Many clients will simply send you a check, but some prefer Paypal or Venmo or other similar services. If you don’t already have an account with a service you client wants to use, open one.