Music in a Box

It was the summer of 1977 and movie fans were buzzing about a new science-fiction movie that was better than any that had come before. I gathered some friends, we bought our tickets and (after waiting in line, of course) found premium seats in the theater. We were not prepared for the sensory overload we were about to experience as some simple words appeared on the screen, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Then it happened. Bam! The Star Wars logo filled the screen and John Williams’ powerful title theme practically knocked us back in our seats. By today’s standards, the visual effects in Episode IV are almost amateur, but the music remains timeless. To this day, I get a tingle and goose bumps every time I see the beginning of a Star Wars movie. My point is simple: spend all the time you want on the visuals, but the soundtrack can make or break your production. Let’s look at a variety of ways to get powerful, appropriate music and sound effects into your next video.

The Landscape

A complete list of all the available music and sound effects libraries and software might extend as far as the dunes of Tatooine, but we can quickly divide the options into three basic groups: Humans, Droids and Aliens. The Human category represents pre-recorded music and sfx libraries, and there are plenty to choose from. The Droid group defines the software category, which includes software that either creates the music for you or helps you compose more or less original works. Finally, the Alien class consists of the products that don’t fit in either previous category.


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Before we jump into all the options, why do you even need this stuff? Can’t you just rip your favorite tracks from a CD and drop them on the timeline? From a technical standpoint, of course you can, and it’s pretty easy, but there are larger issues. The first issue is a matter of effectiveness. Will your viewers be concentrating on the content of your video or will they simply remember Britney, Garth or Snoop? Commercial music, especially the overplayed pop variety, can be distracting to your viewers and they might end up associating your production with the famous artist. They may even dislike that performer, which will reflect poorly on your choice and content. We all want happy viewers, so you need a signature piece for your video. Second, there are legal issues. We could spend all day on the validity of current copyright law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act but, at the end of the day, the fact remains: if you play, you pay. Movie producers shell out big bucks to include commercial songs in their soundtracks. Even radio stations have to pay a fee every time they play a song. Licensing a major song for your video can be a pain.

Human Music

A quick glance at our buyout library manufacturer’s list might leave your head spinning, but this is only a partial list and there are other companies to be sure. The one thing they have in common is humans playing instruments. That’s not to say that every performance is purely acoustic in nature and synthesizers (and, by extension, computers) often figure quite strongly in this type of music. In fact, many companies create only electronic scores. Finding what you need is simply a matter of what best suits your production. Your homework assignment is to get on the ‘net and do some research of your own.

This category of music has its own vocabulary and understanding the terms will help you make the best purchase decision. First, you’ll see the terms “Buyout” or “Royalty-Free” in reference to the library in question. Many companies create music for you to buy and use as you wish: no additional fees, no tracking of usage, no hassles–it’s all yours. Purchasing one of these packages usually many times as you want in virtually any circumstance (with the notable exception that you cannot resell it as buyout music). This means you can use a piece in a video this week, in a commercial next week and then build the same piece into a music-on-hold announcement later. Be sure to carefully examine the buyout agreement from each manufacturer, as they will differ somewhat. The Music Bakery is a good example of the companies you’ll find in this category, with several years in the business and some very impressive, expressive music in their archives. Depending on the vendor you choose, prices range from $50 to $100 per CD, but they even offer an entire 200-disc library for $6,000. For your money, you receive several songs per disc and, usually, multiple edits of each song, including 60-second and 30-second versions ideal for commercials on TV. If there’s a downside to buyout music it’s this: everyone can buy and use it. You may hear that eclectic tune you so carefully selected on a network commercial or even in a video game somewhere.

The opposite of buyout music is “Needle-Drop” or “Licensed” music. In this case, you choose a song or library of songs and pay a fee for each use. The term needle-drop comes from the old days when vinyl records were the medium of distribution. The producer paid a fee every time they dropped the needle in the groove. Depending on the music company, your fees could be based on the project, the number of copies made or the extent of distribution. Some companies offer blanket licenses that cover all your productions for a year and offer you access to their entire collection of material. Network Music is a steadfast elder in this category. They’ve been around for a long time and I guarantee you’ve heard their music if you’ve ever watched television.

Don’t forget: many of these companies offer sound effects (SFX) libraries in addition to music in both buyout and needle-drop format. Go to the Sound Ideas web site and you’ll find their own brand of SFX along with effects from Lucasfilm, Hanna Barbera, 20th Century Fox and even the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.Depending on the company, you may have a variety of options with your music or SFX selection. The most common method of distribution is the audio CD, although some manufacturers offer WAV and MP3 data files on CD-ROM or DVD. Of course, you can preview tracks online, but some stores (such as Sound Dogs) even let you buy and download for immediate satisfaction. This makes quick work of finding the right song and eliminates waiting for the UPS driver to arrive with your purchase.

Putting the Droids to Work

You know your computer is a powerful tool for crafting video, but have you ever considered using it for music creation? With today’s software, it’s faster and easier than ever. There are three basic categories: multi-track recorders, sequencers and loop-based programs. Multi-track recorders use a timeline, but instead of video, you record or place audio files in individual tracks. They are the computer age equivalent of the traditional multi-track studio and require as much talent, although the digital assistants certainly help. Sequencers evolved from MIDI keyboards and drum machines and create music programmatically, although you’ll have to enter the notes. Once all the elements are in place, a mixer section allows you to blend and shape the sounds just like a professional studio. Cakewalk’s Sonar is a popular audio sequencer and multi-track recorder in the Wintel world. With features that could make an old-school audio engineer cry (with joy), digital audio sequencing is a persuasive reason to create your own music.

Loop-based music tools make up a different, but overlapping, category. Following the lead from Sony’s ACID, these programs use small, repeating loops of pre-recorded musical content, often just one instrument line or sound. You can then mix these loops together on a timeline and create a virtual band. There are mountains of loop CDs and libraries available, in nearly every conceivable musical style, from a variety of manufacturers. Loop-based music is ideal for those without the musical skills necessary to perform their own tunes. Plus, loop-based song creation is fun.

Alien Invasion

A few innovative software products just don’t fit these categories. For instance, SmartSound’s Quicktracks includes several pre-recorded songs (like a buyout library), but you get to decide the length of the piece and choose from several variations with different parts (like a loop-based software tool). Pretty cool. Another alien is PG Music’s Band-In-A-Box that automatically generates MIDI music based on your selection of style and chord progression. Simply type in the chords (like Bm, Gsus, Ab), pick a musical style (from several hundred options) and hit the play button. Once you have an arrangement you like, you can output the final mix as an audio file and drop it into your video project. Other examples include the many companies that make audio plugins to enhance your existing music creation software. For instance, Propellerhead Software’s Recycle is a loop-based workstation that plugs into audio programs from most of the major manufacturers. Many other plug-in options are just a click away. Just use the included software manufacturer’s list to get started.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a 25-year production veteran and owns a media consulting firm.

Sidebar: CD Music and Sound Effects Libraries Manufacturers’ Listing

2b Royalty Free

AirCraft Production Music Library

Associated Production Music

Contempo Music


Davenport Music Library

DeWolfe Music

Digital Juice

Elite Video

FirstCom Music

Freeplay Music

Fresh Music Library

Gene Michael Productions

Ghostwriters Radio Mall

Hollywood Edge

Instant Access Music

JRT Music

Killer Tracks

Lazertrax Production Music

Manchester Music Library

Manhattan Production Music


Mokal Music

Music 2 Hues

The Music Bakery

Music Leads

Narrator Tracks

Neo Sounds

Nightingale Music Productions

Non-Stop Productions

OGM Production Music


Partners in Rhyme

Production Garden Music

Pro Background Theme Music

Signature Music Library


Sound Dogs

Sound Ideas

Studio Cutz

Token Media

TRF Production Music Libraries

UniqueTracks Royalty Free Music

Wicked WAVs

Sidebar: Music Creation Software Manufacturers’ Listing

Compiled by Charles Fulton




FL Studio


PG Music

Pinnacle Systems


Sony Pictures Digital

U & I Software

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.


  1. The computer is a great music-creating tool. However, I don’t like the fact that when people are given tools without education, they always produce with poor quality, making it difficult to find good content–whether it be music or a logo or a product. Just because we can do things, doesn’t mean we should.

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