Sound Advice: Makin' Music

Today’s software tools never cease to amaze me. They routinely take intricate, complex, time consuming tasks and turn them into child’s play. Even better, these tools are available at ever-lower prices with added features and better quality. Take audio production software for instance. Ten years ago, digital audio editing required proprietary hardware and thousand-dollar software. Today, by comparison, every computer comes with built-in hardware and software to record and edit digital audio. Recently, this trend has extended into desktop music production. With your existing computer, some affordable software and little or no musical knowledge, any video producer can create custom music for their projects. Let’s explore some of your options.

Give Me One Good Reason…

There are several good reasons to create custom music for your project. One really good reason is song length. Advertising is one of very few production categories that use fixed segment lengths and many production music libraries cater to those lengths. However, the majority of projects fall outside those time constraints and rarely match the length of the song you want to use. Another reason to use custom music is content control – whether for stylistic or copyright reasons. The whole debate over file sharing and services like KaZaa and the now-defunct Napster ignore one simple principle – there are laws in place that protect music created by other people, and you, as a video creator, cannot simply drop any song you like into your next video. The January 2003 issue of Videomaker has an excellent article on the subject of copyright and how it affects you as a video producer. One last reason to create custom music is there are times when the music simply must be original. Maybe it’s a jingle or just an audio identity, but there is great value in the ownership of these audio elements. Many television shows and movies spend a great deal of money ensuring they have a unique soundtrack. And now, with today’s music creation software, it’s your turn.

Probably the easiest way to get custom music into your video is to let the software do it for you. Products such as SmartSound (included with Adobe Premiere, version 6 and up) offer a simple check-box approach. The process starts with a built-in library of pre-recorded songs, along with a twist. For each song, the software contains a list of pre-defined edit points that divides the song into perfectly timed segments. You select a style of music from a list, tell the software how long the piece should be in minutes and seconds, and then generate the finished product. Based on its edit list, the software builds a version of the song using your criteria. If you don’t like the way the software created the piece, either redo from the start or just change a few options – that’s literally all there is to it! Of course, what you gain in speed and convenience is offset by a minimum of control, but the results are consistently good and, if you need custom music fast, automatic generation is the only way to fly.

Loop-Based Production

When Sonic Foundry introduced its loop-based software, ACID, it spawned a revolution in music creation. Now, many companies offer loop-based products with a wide range of features and raw musical elements. Fortunately, they all work in a similar manner. Rather than start with a completed musical piece, loop-based creation allows you to build your own groove using short, repeating musical passages called loops. These snippets get their name from a practice used in recording studios long before digital audio was a reality. Engineers would record a short passage of music, then cut that section from the tape and splice it end-to-end, forming a loop of recording tape. On playback, the carefully edited loop created a never-ending repetition of music. Today, this is much easier, even for the novice.

Loop-based software allows you to build your song quickly from a library of pre-edited loops. Although there is no hard-and-fast rule where to start, drums are a great place to establish your groove. Then add a bass loop, then maybe a synthesizer pad or other instrumental element. The loops are placed on a timeline, similar to your NLE software and you determine when and how long each element lasts. By adding other non-loop musical touches such as effects or percussion hits, you end up with an original piece of music to call your own. A little musical knowledge is helpful with these products, but not required, and the process is fun. The main drawback to this type of music creation software is the amount of time required to finish a piece. Unlike the automatic variety, you may spend anywhere from several minutes to several hours in a loop environment perfecting your unique song.

Loop-based music is everywhere, from the radio to television shows and even major motion pictures. Producers everywhere have discovered this is a great way to get the exact musical feel they need.

Record Your Own

For the ultimate in control, consider recording your original music from scratch. Although not for the faint-of-heart, this option is more accessible than ever before. Products such as Sonar, Vegas Audio and a host of others have made the desktop recording studio a reality for many budding music producers.

Your parents said you’d be glad you took piano lessons someday. Maybe it’s today. Armed with a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) capable keyboard and multi-track audio software, one person can simulate an entire band or orchestra. Even if you don’t have the keyboard chops to pull this off, maybe you have a friend who could help. Today’s MIDI instruments and software synthesizers sound more realistic than ever, truly reproducing the entire spectrum of sounds. Using MIDI recording techniques, you have the benefit of complete control over tempo, key, and instrumental content. If you don’t like the acoustic piano in a particular spot, simply change it to another instrument. All this is possible even after the keyboardist has left for home.

Another MIDI option is a unique piece of software from PG Music called Band-In-A-Box. Although musical knowledge is required, the premise is quite simple. Type in the chords to a song (Cmaj, F, Dmin, etc.), lay out the verse/chorus structure, choose a musical style and hit the play button. The software uses a form of artificial intelligence to improvise drums, bass, piano and other parts based on your style selection. Need Old Man River in a bluegrass style? You can with this program.

For the hardcore recordist, there is nothing like capturing real people playing real instruments. If your computer is beefy enough to edit video, odds are, with the right software, you can also record and playback live instruments. Don’t misunderstand; having the right hardware and software won’t instantly transform you into the next George Martin. But, the tools are cheaper and more plentiful than ever and you can do this with your computer. Start with something simple, like an acoustic guitar piece for a sentimental video. As you get comfortable with the process, gradually add to the complexity of your productions. You can even combine these audio recording techniques with loops and MIDI for additional power and flexibility.

Regardless of how you create your custom music, you’ll have the satisfaction of a truly personal production. The software is plentiful and quite affordable compared to many video packages. Who knows? This may open up a whole new area of creativity you never even considered.

[Sidebar: Why Go To All That Trouble?]
There are many excellent buy-out music libraries. Wouldn’t it be easier to just choose a track from one of them to drop into a project? Yes, it would be easier, but when was the last time you picked a song that was exactly the right length? Unless you’re producing advertising-length pieces, the tracks from the buy-out library will either be too long or too short. As an alternative, you can drop one of these tracks into your favorite audio editor and chop it into sections. Then, based on your project length, build a new version out of the pieces. It’s a workable solution when you can’t or don’t want to use music creation software.

[Sidebar: Which came first…]
…the music track or the video clip? Sometimes it’s helpful to produce the music track prior to editing any of your video. A classic example is the music video. With the song established on the timeline, you can easily edit the video to match the content of the song. Another example is a digital slide show or video montage. Again, with the soundtrack built and waiting on the timeline, you can quickly see where to place the edits to match the picture to the music or even cut to the beat of the song. This is a powerful technique when used under the right circumstances (see the Computer Editing column on page 73 for more).

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