Mixing for Mood

Imagine your favorite movie or TV show without the music. It just doesn’t work, does it?

What would a Batman movie be without the dark, brooding score? Where would Napoleon Dynamite be without its quirky soundtrack? The selection, timing and mixing of music are critical to the success of your project. They set the mood for current events and can even signal events to come. So it’s worth focusing some time and effort on the sound mix. It doesn’t matter whether you have a big budget or no budget, you can create equally powerful mixes using common tools and software you already own.

Choose Wisely

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Bluegrass music probably won’t work for that skateboard video you’re working on, any more than Screamo music works for a Jamaican tourism project. The subject helps define your range of musical choices. Fortunately, there are many buyout musical choices today. Some vendors even offer free downloads so you can sample their products. Styles cover the entire gamut of music from classical to rock, techno to country. Your task is to find the right pieces for the project. Often, the right choice is a variety of styles to suit the sections of your video. The list might include a theme for the beginning and end, some less-intense bed music for filler and some variations to accent specific segments in the project. Don’t forget that contrast is powerful too. While your main theme may be cinematic in nature, complementing a chase scene with an upbeat country piece brings some levity and variety. Experiment with different cuts until you find the feel you want.

One innovation in recent years is the development of multitrack buyout music. Digital Juice, SmartSound and Sony each offer products that give the producer control over the elements and mix of the final musical product. Some offer timing and “mood” controls, while others allow the muting or export of individual tracks to use as you please. This offers several possibilities to the video producer. First, you have mixing options that rival much larger operations. Second, the mood or feel of the music can follow the action on screen. Finally, you gain a new level of control over the elements and the final mix.


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Timing Is Everything

Once you’ve established the right musical choices and variations, it’s time to decide exactly where the pieces fit in your project. Music can guide the viewer to an appropriate emotion or response. Think about your favorite movie. Action scenes use bold, sweeping, high-intensity music. Romantic scenes employ sweet, often sappy music to sway your emotions. The common denominator is their timing. The simple choice is to place the appropriate music at the scene change. While this might work many times, you can also build the viewer’s interest by building up to more aggressive music. Conversely, an emotional response can be created by a decrease in music volume and intensity.

Music doesn’t always change at hard cuts or definite scene changes. Maybe the feel of the piece changes – for better or worse – during a scene. By using music to reflect the change, you help the viewers feel the change, bringing them into the project. This may sound touchy-feely and psychological, and that’s because it is. Music is a powerful medium that evokes a response from the listener. It can enhance a good project and save a marginal one. Finding the perfect timing for your musical sections requires some trial and error, but you’ll know when it’s right.

Magic Mixes

With the timeline roughed out, you can turn your attention to fine-tuning the mix. Whether you’re using pre-mixed stereo tracks or creating your own mix from individual tracks, it’s time to make friends with mixing. There are several ways to approach mixing for a video project. The most basic method is the basic mixer view included in most NLE packages. This tool offers a virtual version of a hardware mixer and provides a solid, static sound mix. You’ll find sliders for each audio track, along with basic metering, pan controls and possibly some basic tone controls or other effects. Built-in mixers offer a quick, easy way to get a mix happening right now. The downside is its static nature – your mixes won’t change over time.

The basic mixer may be fine for simple projects, but, if you need more control, consider using keyframes on the timeline. The music cuts live on one or more tracks on the timeline. To add a keyframe, select a track and move the cursor to the place where you want the change to occur. Set as many keyframes as necessary through the change, and move them up and down like individual volume controls. Using keyframes, you can create smooth fades, abrupt changes and even mutes. If this sounds tedious, it is, but keyframes offer a high level of control over the audio elements in your video project.

For the ultimate in control, you can mix and time the audio transitions in a multitrack digital audio workstation, or DAW. Most DAWs offer video import for reference. You synchronize the sound to the video, mix as needed and export the final mix back to your NLE. It requires extra steps, but, if you’re more comfortable in the audio world, this solution might be the perfect fix.

Mix at Will

It’s fairly easy to demonstrate the nuts and bolts of mixing in the video world, but the final product is up to you. The finesse and art of mixing are all about balance – finding and maintaining a clear mix with all your elements. Find similar genres on TV or DVD, and use them as a guide. Listen closely, dissect their mixes and identify how they create their balance. Using the techniques we’ve outlined here, mix, listen and remix your own projects until you have something that resembles your reference material. Once you’re comfortable with that, push a little further to find your own mixing voice. It’s worth the time and effort to create something that stands out from the everyday.

Reference Material 101

I love to watch How It’s Made on the Discovery Channel (and the Science Channel, for you digital cable/satellite subscribers). If you ever need a reference standard for industrial training videos, this is definitely it. Each segment is tightly edited and contains only a narrator and some background music. The program often shows machines in action, and the music reflects this, leaning toward upbeat, mechanical synth-pop. The music always ducks neatly underneath while the narrator speaks and slides back up smoothly during action scenes. And the mix is near-perfect. It also cracks me up to think industrial videos could be popular on network television. Check your local listings.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.

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