7 tips for anyone who's making soundtracks for TV, video and film

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The demands of writing music for picture can be brutal. Talk to any film composer and you’ll hear familiar stories of sleep-deprived writing sessions for crazy directors who have sacked another composer with the mixing deadline just two weeks away. Of course, everyone loves a harrowing tale and not every project is so gruelling but it’s true that writing music for picture is a remarkable job where you can easily have no work for months on end and then find yourself chained to your studio for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, on a diet of adrenaline and strong coffee. 

As a result, learning on the job isn’t really an option for this particular area of music production. It’s implicitly understood that if you put yourself forward for a job, you know how to import film into your chosen DAW, sync and mix dialogue and sound effects, operate the sample libraries and instruments that you’ll be using for composition, and use the film to determine tempo and structure.

No doubt about it, it's not your average gig, but if you do decide to make the move into soundtrack production, here are seven things you'll want to keep in mind…

For more on working to picture, pick up the November 2018 edition of Future Music.

1. Make an original showreel

The ultimate catch-22 with writing music for picture is that if a showreel of work is required to secure the ‘next job’, how do you get the ball rolling? While it’s good practice to download scenes from TV or films to sharpen your scoring acumen, there’s little professional credibility in sending these out. What you need is ‘original picture’ that hasn’t already been scored. One approach is to reach out to final year film students. Their projects will benefit from an original score and those on the most notable courses will become tomorrow’s TV and film directors; so you get scoring experience and great contacts.

2. Learn how to respond to directorial feedback

Yes, you’re the musical mastermind at the heart of the soundtrack and you need to stand up for your work. But don’t be a diva who can’t collaborate. Film music is collaborative, so take constructive criticism and do your best to interpret it musically. 

3. Manage your portfolio

The showreel has been completely redefined by the internet. Whereas sending in DVDs to directors or producers was once the only way, people now expect to be able to find your work online. If you work alone and you’re still building contacts, that single film on your website may look like an isolated slice of ‘luck’ before long. Try taking a more holistic approach to posting. Instead of the final film or promo being the only thing you document, build a compelling narrative around a job. Instagram photos of recording sessions or in-studio screenshots of busy arrangements show the work you’re putting into your latest project.

4. Find your voice

Don't try to sound like Hans Zimmer. He’s doing an excellent job of that himself and the most common myth in film music is that you’ll get more work if you can imitate the sound of someone who’s successful. Develop a strong original music voice and not only will you get more work, but you’ll also not feel like you’ve sold your soul to the devil.

5. Understand deliverables

A score is a score, right? Yes and no. Depending on the project, and how much flexibility the client wants, composers may receive a (sometimes extensive) list of deliverables. Say the job is to write the title sequence for a light entertainment TV show. The makers will need their main theme, of course, but potentially also underscores (versions with the main theme, or drums, or synths, or strings, etc, missing, to use under dialogue), break bumpers (to go into commercial breaks), stings, end titles… the list can go on. Be sure you’ve asked for a full list before you price and start a job.

6. Get organised

Be organised. On large jobs, create to-do lists of everything required. A film is usually broken down into reels (shorter, more manageable chunks), so plot where music needs writing and develop a spreadsheet showing the progress of each cue: demo written, approved, recorded, mixing, edited.

7. Dealing with unavoidable software requirements

Nearly every music-for-picture mixing job overseen by a mix engineer will be carried out in Pro Tools. By all means compose in whichever software programme you like, but the inevitability of Pro Tools’ involvement means that if you’re writing to picture, familiarity with Avid’s DAW will help. Learn to track-lay (prepare Pro Tools sessions with the individual parts or stems from your mix) or set up recording sessions if you’re working with live players.

There is a little more variation in terms of scoring software, but Sibelius has ruled the roost there for some time, so similar rules apply.