Composing Music for Film and Video
By Thomas Graham
Composing for film or TV can be a lengthy process that requires nerves of steel, lots of caffeine, and the ability to find a smile when you would rather say something nasty!
Getting the pre-records and tempo maps from Sequencer X to Pro Tools|HD for scoring can be a very lengthy and laborious process — and all the while, new versions of the picture may be coming in, requiring more changes. After hearing the more fully-realized score, the director may want further changes. The composer will “smile” and oblige: Back to Sequencer X to change MIDI elements and restart the process. Onward to the mix, where the music may still need to be conformed to further picture changes.
Having worked on many film scores, I have seen this process and its difficulties many times over. To combat some of these problems, many composers have switched to Pro Tools for the entire composition and scoring process. Here are some of the reasons why more and more people are composing music for picture in Pro Tools.
The Language of the Business
Pro Tools has become the post world’s language of choice. Everyone in the process — the dialog editor, the Foley recordist, the ADR editor, the sound supervisor, and the music editor — works with Pro Tools. The result: greater compatibility, fewer problems with transferring files, and more speed. Music is almost always the last piece of the post production process, and you will be called into major time-crunch situations on those final cues. Any problems with file types can be disastrous.
In addition, scoring mixers prefer to mix composers’ tracks in Pro Tools. If the tracks were created in Pro Tools to begin with, there’s no need for the lengthy process of converting cues to the Pro Tools format later in the process.
As sound designer, music editor, and composer Mikael Sandgren says, “Pro Tools is the best-sounding, most powerful, and easiest-to-use DAW on the market today. It’s also by far the most common format with which to interface with other creatives.”
Film composer Tyler Bates agrees: “My music editor and the sound design team all work in Pro Tools — it is the post language.”
Video and Synchronization
Pro Tools offers frame-edge-aligned time code that locks with the Sync I/O. This is critical when you’re trying to synchronize sounds to specific events in the picture. Pro Tools has always supported QuickTime and many levels of Avid picture for digital video. But now, with Pro Tools HD 7.2 and an Avid Mojo video interface, you can play both out of one box, digitize fully resolved high-quality picture straight into Pro Tools, and be able to edit picture and audio simultaneously.
Sandgren is especially appreciative of the ease of use Pro Tools offers when working with video. “Pro Tools has the most comprehensive tool set for working to pi-cture,” he notes. “And with version 7.2, you can import multiple QuickTime movies in the same session, and edit them just as if they were audio. I can’t begin to say how much time and headache that will eliminate for doing multiple versions.”
Unlike host-based DAW sequencers, Pro Tools|HD shifts the load of tracks, mix engine, and processing onto the DSP cards, leaving the host CPU available for all those great-sounding soft synths and samplers. And Pro Tools|HD can handle up to 192 audio tracks at 48 kHz, and up to 96 tracks at
TDM Ins and Outs
Most composers typically need many inputs for outboard synths, and several outs for monitoring needs (for surround, for example). A Pro Tools|HD rig is capable of up to 160 combined analog and digital ins and outs. Some of the top composers in Hollywood build large Pro Tools rigs to be real-time digital mixers that combine all of their GigaStudio rigs and outboard synths, and also double as a real-time stem recorder to take existing sounds to the scoring stage to play back while the orchestra is recorded over top.
Pro Tools|HD is a fully functional surround creation tool, with up to 7.1 surround support, including some incredible surround reverbs plus other plug-ins and processing options. It also features easy tools to create stereo crashdowns, QuickTime movies with your music embedded, or encoded Dolby Pro Logic mixes to send to the director.
No Time for Latency
Even when they’re cutting demos, top composers don’t rely entirely on synth sounds and samples. They usually try to weave in acoustic piano or real guitar to better sell the cue to the director. Pro Tools|HD excels at recording audio elements while staying locked to picture, with large track counts, at high sample rates, and with no host processor latency. Latency can be highly distracting and groove-killing to any musicians playing to the tracks. To avoid latency on many other DAWs, it’s necessary to disable plug-ins and such before laying down new tracks. With Pro Tools|HD, even if you’re well into your mix and suddenly decide you need to track a violin solo over the top, it’s no problem!
“With Pro Tools, I can record solo performances, then go immediately back to the orchestral material, which you can’t easily do in other platforms, crossing back and forth,” says Bates. “There are never any weird latency issues with Pro Tools. Also, it’s the most accurate for outputting digital video accurately — other programs don’t offer the ability to offset or compensate the picture for the output box.”
The Hub of the Studio
A Pro Tools|HD system can intelligently connect a ton of stuff. It acts as a MIDI sequencer, an audio loop creation tool, and a recording and editing station. This much integration in one place should
not be underestimated, for all the reasons mentioned above. Pro Tools can sync and communicate bi-directionally with Reason, Ableton Live, and Melodyne, to name a few applications (and with plenty of CPU power and RAM to spare). Pro Tools|HD’s powerful automation and mixing features include support for touch-sensitive ICON control surfaces, which can map synth plug-ins to dozens of automatable knobs and faders. Pro Tools also supports pull up/pull down for audio or video. Some other sequencers don’t, resulting in a frame-speed mismatch — which is a huge problem once you get to the scoring stage.
“Pro Tools makes perfect sense for how I compose,” Bates says. “It’s the focus of my studio. I don’t have time to change platforms back and forth, do stems, conform them to picture changes — I just could not do it. I would never have time to deliver anything.”
Sandgren adds, “It’s a much more creatively streamlined process to do everything in one environment, and with Pro Tools you can. It’ll host your virtual instruments, and record and edit your MIDI as well as your audio.”
Improved MIDI Functionality
Keeping It Simple
The pros agree: there are lots of little reasons to use Pro Tools for film composition and post production, and one big one. “The main reason boils down to simplicity,” says Gibbs. “Since Pro Tools is the standard recording medium in every recording studio I’ve been to, and the only DAW I’ve seen music editors and dub stages utilize, it only makes sense to stay within the same program.”
And with project schedules becoming more and more demanding, there’s no time for tools or techn-iques that might slow things down. “The Pro Tools environment is the truest to my process, to the demands that the project puts on me,” says Bates. “This is my beginning and ending platform; it’s the way things are done. I know that when I go to Abbey Road Studios to record choir and orchestra, they work in Pro Tools, and I can send them a session or a drive to prepare for that. I know we are speaking the same language, and we are not going to have a problem.”
Thomas Graham lives and (despite the smog) breathes in Los Angeles, CA, and has served the post production community for more than 10 years as a Digidesign product specialist. He has also freelanced on over 30 major feature films, including Ice Age, Star Trek Nemesis, The Affair of the Necklace, Collateral, The Nutty Professor, Scooby Doo, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.