Television as Teacher
Anyone who has seen Seinfeld has heard bumper music. In the case of this particular show, the producers took the theme music and created little snippets of the signature bass guitar to move the program from scene to scene. It worked so well that they used the same set of bumper music through the entire run of the series. Of course, many other television shows use the same methods, but few are as easily recognized. Talk radio uses similar techniques to get in and out of commercial breaks and each show has its own special music for that purpose. So, if the big boys use bumpers, why shouldn't you?
The audio production world has an entire library of music-related terms. Two with similarities to our bumper music are segues and stingers. A segue is very much like bumper music with one difference: while bumpers are often complete musical thoughts, segues often fade up to fill the emptiness, then fade out when they are no longer needed. Stingers are short pieces that have a definite, satisfying ending — a musical way of saying the video is finished now, and you can go home. The next time you watch TV, listen closely to how the various shows — from news to sitcoms — use bumpers, segues and stingers. They're all over the place and you can use them to achieve the same effect.
Bump It Baby
So, where do you get bumper music? You make it, of course. Well, depending on your available music library and software, you may not have to make it, but let's learn how anyway.
Adobe's Audition and Sony's Sound Forge are great audio tools for slicing and dicing music into bite-size chunks. Most buyout music comes in various lengths for convenience; usually a full-length version along with 60 and 30 second versions for broadcast purposes. Some even offer 15 second and shorter versions that are perfect for bumpers. Of course, you don't want to use the same bumper for every instance, but you can take a cue from the authors and edit new versions. Choose a piece of music that fits the theme and character of your video and listen through the long version. Thinking musically, you'll hear a clear opening section, along with a verse/chorus structure just like a song on the radio. You may even hear a bridge — a section that is musically different, but related — and a solo section. Unless the song fades out, you'll also identify the point where the song begins to end.
Load the full-length song into your audio editing software and, using markers or cue points, pinpoint each transition as accurately as possible. Be sure to place markers as precisely on the beat as possible, or you may end up with something that doesn't sound quite right. To do this, you can play the music as you press the key that places markers on your audio timeline, making sure to press the key precisely on the beat. Once you have the track marked up, you can copy specific sections to a new file, mixing and matching the various parts. Using this technique, you can create new edits of the music with custom lengths and even re-arrange the tune if you like. Each edit should contain a definite beginning and end, but you can fade the endings if necessary. Splice the beginning and end together for a quickie version of the musical theme. Take the bridge and loop it for a bed under some poignant dialog. Mix and match the various elements until you hear something you like. It's time consuming and takes some practice but, when you're finished, you'll have a nice variety of bumpers for your video project.
Whether for speed, convenience or effect, there are times when segues are better than bumpers. Here's a simple way to slide a segue or two into your production. You can use the same methods described for editing bumpers if you like, or you can just drop the whole theme on the timeline and split it into arbitrary chunks. Slide some music under each scene transition, overlapping a few extra seconds at the beginning.
Depending on your NLE software, set keyframes or markers where you want the piece to begin and end, then set two extra markers in the middle of the segment. Slide the volume or gain control at the beginning and end markers all the way down. Next, jockey the first middle marker to the point where you want the music to be full volume, then set the second middle marker where you want the music to start fading out. You can also add extra keyframes or markers to do complex fades and volume adjustments as your project requires. Some NLE packages allow you to use a virtual audio mixer and record manual volume adjustments, eliminating the hassle of keyframing. Just use whatever works best for you, your software and your project.
How Much is Too Much?
The length of your bumpers and segues are determined by the content of your video. For instance, in a generic training video, each segment will fade to black, then text fills the screen summarizing the previous section and/or introducing the segment to follow. You need bumper music to fill this void. From a practical standpoint, your viewers should have plenty of time to read the text, but not too much. For reference, play the transition segment and slowly read the text aloud. Make a note of how long this takes and adjust the screen time to fit. Your musical filler should start before the previous segment fades to black and end just as the content starts. This may be a couple of seconds or a half-minute depending on the screen content.
In dramatic presentations, music is used as a transitional element to set a mood or let us know we're going to a new place. In Star Wars, it's musically clear when we're visiting the Ewoks on Endor or Darth Vader on a battle cruiser — each scene has its own unique musical theme along with the visuals. The next time you watch a movie, pay close attention to the music used for transitions and take your cues from that. Of course, every motion picture is different but, after a few viewings, you'll see a pattern to the process. You can leverage those same methods to create and use musical transitions in your projects.
Bumpers, segues and stingers are great ways to punctuate the visuals in your production. Using the right music, along with some careful editing, volume adjustments and timing will add the right amount of spice, bringing the soundtrack of your project up to the same level as the big-budget behemoths.
Software To The Rescue
For the ultra-creative types, you can make your own unique musical bumpers and segues using software like Sony's Acid. Available in professional and lite versions, Acid lets you "draw" sound using little snippets called loops. Combine several different loops to create a completely new musical piece. Those using Premiere Pro can add SmartSound. This unique software allows you to choose music style and length, down to the frame. SmartSound takes the elements from its library and creates a bumper that fits your criteria, including several variations. Export as .WAV files, import into your timeline and you're good to go.
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson has been producing stereo soundtracks for over 24 years. He owns a consulting company that specializes in media production.