Want to write music for films? TV? Video Games? Some tips and advice from someone who's been on the inside. (Part 2/2)
The final part of our series of how to break into writing music for visual media focuses on all the other factors outside of writing music the way that music supervisors expect. These factors, while they may be less interesting, are by no means less important.
In addition to these compositional concerns, there are key technical considerations for working in visual media. The differing storage capacities, hardware capabilities, output formats, and playback environments dictate different delivery formats. Here is a high level overview of some considerations for each of the mediums mentioned above:
Dynamic Range: Generally a wider dynamic range is allowed in film, due to the fact that film audio is typically mixed more dynamically.
Sample Rate: This is dependent upon the destination format(s) for the work. 48 kHz has been the standard for most professional video, but with the rise of Blu Ray and other high quality audio destinations it may be a good idea to deliver at 96 kHz. Coordination with the project’s rerecording mixer is a must to ensure delivery of the proper format. In any event, if the destination formats are known then it is a good idea to configure your recording sessions to be natively at the desired sample rate(s).
Bit Depth: 16-bit has been the accepted bit depth for most film work. Again, though, with the rise of higher quality destination formats it is a good idea to have a 24-bit master with a properly dithered 16-bit render.
File Format: Any uncompressed format is appropriate (WAV/AIFF/BWF).
Channel Format: It is important to know the destination output configuration for the release (Stereo/5.1/7.1/11.2/etc.). This will determine the way that you should configure your recording and mixing sessions as well as the final output. This topic is very detailed with many additional factors to consider, but for the sake of this discussion the mix engineer of your pieces can collaborate with the rerecording mixer to determine the output
Dynamic Range: Somewhat more constricted than in film, as television audio is mixed with a smaller dynamic range (8-10 dB). This is due to the fact that the listening environment for television is typically noisier than in a theater. It may be a good idea to narrow the dynamic range of the master somewhat, but generally a wider dynamic range is allowed than in commercial music production.
Sample Rate: Television has abided by the 48 kHz standard that all professional video has used. If the television show will eventually be sold in Blu Ray format, though, it may be a good idea to have a 96 kHz master of the pieces. Coordinate with the rerecording mixer, and if the final destinations are known then configure your recording sessions to be natively at that sample rate.
Bit Depth: As above, 16-bit has been the standard for professional video work. If the destination includes Blu Ray, though, it is a good idea to have a 24-bit master with a properly dithered 16-bit render.
File Format: Any uncompressed format is appropriate (WAV/AIFF/BWF).
Channel Format: As with film, it is important to know the broadcast format of the network on which the music will be used. Coordinate with the rerecording mixer to ensure proper recording session configuration and delivery of the proper format.
Dynamic Range: A narrowed dynamic range is recommended for this format. Using television-style mixing as a guide is a good rule of thumb.
Sample Rate: This tends to vary widely, depending upon the target hardware. Sample rates from 8Khz to 48 kHz have been used, primarily to ensure that the file size of the audio budget does not go over. Coordinate with the audio lead on the project to determine the proper delivery format, and downsample the final render as appropriate.
KEY NOTE: As audio is downsampled, treble content is lost and additional errors may be introduced (known as aliasing). When the delivery format is going to have a low sample rate it is a good idea to avoid sounds with a large amount of treble content (i.e., cymbal crashes).
KEY NOTE: Some hardware requires that the file conform to a multiple of a set number of samples in order to loop correctly due to audio encoding settings (usually 1024 samples). If the song length does not conform to a multiple of 1024 samples, there will be an audible gap when looping and it will not be seamless.
Bit Depth: This, too has varied greatly over the course of the history of video game sound. Coordinate with the audio lead to determine the delivery format, render a 24-bit master of the songs, and convert the sample rate to the destination bit depth while using dither to ensure a minimal amount of data loss and error.
File Format: File formats can vary, dependent upon the target hardware. XMA, WMA, WAV, MP3, OGG, and other proprietary formats have been used in the past. It is important to coordinate with the audio lead to determine the desired audio format so as to ensure proper playback on the hardware.
KEY NOTE: There are problems with using MP3 format for looping songs. It is a good idea to avoid this format for anything that must loop seamlessly.
Channel Format: Games have used channel configurations from mono to 7.1 surround in the past. Typically, mobile formats will use mono audio, consoles will use stereo, and occasionally consoles/PC’s will use 5.1/7.1 surround. Coordination with the audio lead will ensure that you deliver in the proper format.
KEY NOTE: When converting from stereo to mono, occasionally the situation will arise where audio artifacts will be generated. This is due to problems where audio effects/mix techniques cause portions of the stereo spectrum to cancel out when summed to mono. It is a good idea to work at the final channel format from the beginning for this idea.
Dynamic Range: It is a good idea to submit songs that are mixed with a wider dynamic range such as appropriate for film. As your music may end up in films, it is a good idea to start here and adjust as needed.
Sample Rate: This is determined largely by the formats offered by your music library. It is a good idea to coordinate with the library to determine the needed output formats, and then configure your sessions to be natively at the destination output sample rate(s).
Bit Depth: As above, this is dependent upon the formats offered by your library. A good rule of thumb is to follow the guidelines for film/TV work: work at 24-bit, render a 24-bit master, and render an additional 16-bit copy that has been properly dithered.
File Format: Typically uncompressed audio formats such as WAV/AIFF are desirable. Coordinate with your library in case additional formats are required.
Channel Format: Typically, music libraries specialize in stereo music. There are some libraries, though, that offer surround formats. Coordinate with the library to find out the needed output formats.
It is important to not overlook that professional music production for visual media is typically a fast-paced, demanding job that requires much of those involved. There are some steps that you can take to ensure consistent productivity:
Write every day. Start by trying to complete 1-2 tracks per week between 1-2 min long each. Established composers are typically able to write 2-3 min of completed material per day, so try to push yourself towards that target.
Make sure that you take care of your health. Eating well, exercising, sleeping well, and managing stress appropriately can be significant ways to improve concentration, increase creativity, and boost productivity. Take breaks as needed.
Establishing a consistent schedule is important to help get into the right mindset to produce on a consistent basis.
Always seek to stay up to date on trends in the industry. This includes popular styles of music at the moment, production techniques, new forms of content delivery that provide new income streams, as well as changing aesthetics.
Listen to music. As much as possible. Seek out styles you are unfamiliar with and learn what separates them from other genres. Listen to mediums outside of the ones in which you primarily work and note key differences.
Set aside a portion of your proceeds to reinvest in the business. Try to continually improve your toolset, try to upgrade your working facilities, and have a cushion to fall back on when work slows.
Consider moving to major production hubs for your medium (New York City/Los Angeles for TV/film, Los Angeles/San Francisco/Seattle for gaming). In this way it is easier to network, get jobs that would not otherwise be open to individuals living in other areas of the county, as well as be immersed in the culture of the industry. If this is not feasible, it is a good idea to have realistic expectations for the volume of work available in your area, take positions that allow collaboration and delivery over the internet, develop multiple income streams, and seek to network with established producers in the mediums in which you would like to work.
If you hope to rely upon licensing library work exclusively, then it is important to understand that it is not likely to generate income sufficient enough to write full-time for a significant length of time. The rule of thumb is to allow 5 years to make a decent living. You will likely need at least 100 songs distributed amongst licensors to start making significant income, 500 before you can leave a day job, and 1500 songs distributed amongst quality licensors before significant income can be generated from the different income streams resulting from licensing your music.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS, SUGGESTIONS
Writing scores for visual media is a unique opportunity to reach a large audience and significantly inform the way that they feel about a work. In order to be successful, though, it is important to be always mindful of the factors mentioned above. Some last thoughts to consider:
Establish clear naming conventions for your recordings, choose consistent file locations for sessions and renders, and make detailed notes of the recording sessions conducted to produce music. Organization is crucial when working with such large volumes of information, so establishing clear rules to abide by can save headaches down the line and ensure that everything is accounted for.
Develop an understanding of the fee structure for the licensing of music. Understand the difference between a sync license, master license, performance royalties, mechanical royalties, as well as how each are arrived at. Know what is fair to charge a client. Be vigilant to control as many of your rights as possible. If licensing through libraries, understand the key contractual distinctions between exclusive and non-exclusive licensing.
If licensing through libraries, consider first spreading 10-15 tracks across a number of non-exclusive services (unless have signed an exclusive contract) to see which services are the most effective at licensing your music. Terminate contracts with those that fail to perform.
Read and consider joining MusicLibraryReport.com. It is an invaluable resource with a forum filled with established professionals in the field.
Do your best to have a rock solid machine to work on. If you work with high track counts or sequence in a DAW then having a large amount of RAM and a fast processor are a virtual must.
Use dedicated hard drives for session audio/video data. There are bandwidth limits for data transfer that, when combined with processing done in the session, can cause performance issues if working off the drive that the DAW is installed on. These can be either internal or external.
Internal drives may be either solid state or hard disk-based. Solid state offers far better performance but is significantly more expensive. If working with SATA then they must be minimum 7200 RPM.
External drives also must be either solid state or hard disk-based at a minimum of 7200 RPM. It is recommended to use either a eSATA/Firewire 800/USB 3.0/Thunderbolt interface to guarantee appropriate data transfer speeds and bandwidth.
Have more questions? Need help getting your songs ready to license? Have something to add?
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