Banish the Lazy Soundtrack, Part 2

“It could totally have another music shift in there. I wouldn’t be surprised if it could even have two more shifts.”

I sat in an editing class in Hollywood, CA. My teacher invited a veteran of the Hollywood editing scene to our class, and he graciously gave his feedback on our final projects. Our assignment was to cut a simple three-minute reality TV-like segment featuring a dog and his owner. My edit already had four music cues, more than I had ever managed to cut together without it sounding “weird”. And here both my teacher and this veteran editor were saying it could have more? Say what?

In the previous part of this conversation on video-editing and choosing music, I mentioned that music is the means by which our audience feels our work. Our music choices can either strengthen or undermine our edits. We talked about how the audience knows what to feel based on the instruments used in the music, the tempo of the piece, and the dynamics of how the music changes over time.

Now that we know how the audience feels emotions, we can use make them feel whatever we wish. Talk about amping up your editing.

So how does this process work? Here is my general process for both choosing and editing music. Your process may change depending on your workflow, whether or not you work with another editor or sound designer, or the structure of your particular project. These should be regarded as guidelines and not actual rules. So let’s dive in!

Step 1: Define the emotions you need your audience to feel throughout your edits.

Your story arc will help you with this. Does the audience need to feel hope? Joy? Surprise? Satisfaction? Anger? Uncertainty? If your video is already cut together, try to get an idea of how long these emotional spaces last.

Step 2: Find music that sounds like those emotions.

How can you tell what emotion it is? Take an active listening stance: when you close your eyes and listen, what do you feel? Now ask, how well does the music match the emotion that you need?

Also in this step, think outside the start and stop of a piece of music. Just because it might not open with the right feeling doesn’t mean you have to discount the whole piece. Sometimes the right emotion will be found in only a small part of the whole. Note the timecode of the useful section, and continue.

Personal Tip: I try to find two or three different tracks for each emotion I’m looking for. This gives me options later in the edit.

Step 3: Score your edit.

Place the music tracks on the timeline according to the emotional space, climaxes, and moods you wish to create. This is the fun part! It’s also not an exact science. Play around with when and where the musical moods shift for maximum audience impact. And remember those different tracks you found for each emotion? Experiment and try each of them in the edit. One might work better than another and sometimes you won’t know until you hear the piece in context.

To keep my timeline workable and to prevent my tracks from cutting into each other, I’ll lay each music track into it’s own audio layer. Don’t worry about the tracks overlapping as they stack, or not having enough length right now. We’ll fix this in the next step. The point here is it to put the musical feelings where you need them to be.

Step 4: Now that the music is in the timeline, it’s time to adjust anything that’s either too long or too short.

This step might seem complicated and time-consuming, but it is here that we shape together the auditory landscape our audience will experience.

The tracks that are “too long” might seem straight-forward to fix: just cut off the excess and fade out, right? It depends. Let’s say you have this dark and moody track setting the stage of the problem your character faced. Now, you transition to the next part of the story where they discover the solution. On cue, you put an uplifting, victorious sounding piece of music to define the new emotional space. But a simple cross-fade won’t work. The musical pieces have two totally different sounds. Somehow, you have to marry the two together in a way that doesn’t cause the ear to jolt at the change.

Utilizing a natural ending to the first track is a great way to help smooth this. End the first track by splicing the original ending where you need the piece to end. This requires matching together the rhythm of each section. Trust me, your ear will know when it’s right. Once the first track ends naturally, the next piece can start where you need to. The only issue with this method is when the first track ends with a fade-out. That does not give you a natural ending. But can you fake it?

Yes, I said fake it. Listen through your track again. Is there any point in it where it seems to rise to a finish, only to start up again? We can take this single section and splice it into our end point. It will help the music feel “finished”. After the auditory ending, we can do a very short fade-out to hide the remaining notes. To further smooth this transition, I’ll sometimes hide it with a cymbal swell.

The cymbal swell can also be used on it’s own as an auditory transition. This technique also works with swooshes, swirling synth pads, and certain atmospheric stingers as well. Just be sure that the sound compliments the musical soundscape. Place the center of the audio peak over the cut point of the music track to end the piece and a transition into the next music track.

Now that the long tracks are where they’re supposed to be, what do we do with music clips that are too short? It’s a similar process. Each musical piece has patterns within it. Perhaps it’s the way the piano progresses through a simple set of chords, or the fact that every second time through the melody, the guitar kicks in. It’s these kinds of patterns we’re listening for. Listen for sections in the music track that can be copied, lifted out, and spliced back into the track to replicate and create more music.

Cutting and splicing music within the established pattern allows us to adjust the music in a way that sounds natural to the piece. Again, you’ll need to match up the rhythm between the splices for it to sound right. But once this is done, your short tracks will fit to length perfectly.

Step 5: Level your audio.

Mix everything together and adjust each individual music track’s volume to a harmonious level. Likewise, if you have voice over or someone is speaking, you need to dip the background music and effects to a level where they will not compete with the voice. PBS’s Frontline editor, Steve Audette, once called a bad leveling job an “auditory double exposure.” You don’t want two different sounds, voices, or elements vying for attention in your edit. The right mix allows for each element to be heard, but without competition or confusion.

Step 6: Give your video a listen to.

Ask yourself, are the emotional spaces right? Are the audio transitions smooth? Are they in the right place? Make adjustments as needed. Just like tweaking your visuals a few frames to get a better eye-trace, make sure your ears are led through the auditory soundscape with ease. Make sure the changes match the feeling of the visuals.

A successful and satisfactory music edit takes time and effort, but the results are well-worth it. And you’ll know when you get it right. As you playback your finished edit, notice how you feel and react to what you see and hear. If you “feel it,” your audiences will “feel it” too.