Music Libraries Buyer's Guide - Musical Enrichment

Music Libraries Buyer's Guide - Musical Enrichment

Music is to video what icing is to cake! Sure you can eat a cake without frosting but you will not get the full effect of a delicious and attractive cake. The icing fills the seams; it covers the cake and makes it more attractive.

Each slice is crafted by the filling within and around the cake. The mood of the cake is created by the type of frosting used. Your cake can be dark and luxurious or bright and filled with fun and excitement. Add some sprinkles and your cake comes alive! Without the icing it's just a triangle of spongy loaf.

Your video is very much the same as a wonderful cake. You baked it to be terrific, right? So now you need the right frosting to blend your cake together and create the perfect mood it should convey. It all starts in the mixing bowl.

Carbon Copy or Pizzazz?

When you begin creating your video, you need to have an idea about what the final product will look like, just as you need to know how your cake will come together. It's good to have a library of music you can pool from as you mix your creation. Knowing what music will fill the gaps in your video will help you to make it flow and tell your story.

When you have your video mixed up just right you should already be thinking of the music and where you will add it. All too often videographers will just use the same old music they use every time. And each video they bake looks just like the last one. Where's the pizzazz in that?

It should go without saying that you should never copy any music that is not legal for you to use. This includes popular music or any recordings not licensed to you. Think about how you'd feel if you discovered someone on the internet "stole" your precious footage to use in their commercial. Music Copyright protection goes both ways.

So, back to your cake - ask yourself, will my video have swirls and patterns? Or will it be slick and smooth? Do you want to jazz up the cake or underscore it with straight lines and perfect borders? It's your cake and it will reflect the mood you intend to mix into it. Music is the bond that holds your production together and adds to the story you are telling. It's the punctuation on your program, the beat of your banter. In fact, it is about 60% of your whole creation. It is the icing on the cake!

What to Look For

There are different ways to approach your music selections. You can purchase morsels specifically for one production, or invest in a library of tunes to have on hand and select from. In any case you need the right music for each individual video you make. Some videographers make their own music from scratch. That's great if you know how and have the time to do it. However, many editors are on a deadline and need to have ready-made melodies on stand-by to finish off a beautiful creation. Music libraries are the ticket here. You can have short or long cuts, tunes with vocals and even loops and rifts. In fact your library is a frosting-making kit. Just mix and match to make a melody! So what should you look for in a music library?

Choosing a Library

To get the perfect flavor of your creation you will need to select a library that is versatile. Cuts of different lengths and styles are a necessity. Some libraries come with software that will allow you to select specific instruments as well, such as the Digital Juice 'Juicer'. This can be a life saver if you need tracks and an underscore of the same music but need to add or lessen instruments or sound.

Traditionally, cuts will be 30 and 60 seconds, and full length. Many libraries will also offer ten and 15-second cuts, as well as odd length cuts. The shorter cuts are great for stingers and transitions. The library should be organized well with cuts within themes or sets and the dark and foreboding tracks separate from the lively tunes.

Avoid free music when you can. Why? Because everyone has it and everyone uses it. That free track may sound good, and even better because it was free, but keep in mind that it is not special and probably has been spread across many videos like yours. The last thing you want is for someone to associate your video with some other program they remember the music from. When an audience views your video you want the music to attach itself to your creation and always be a reminder of your production.

License to Use

All libraries will have an agreement that allows you to use the music. You should study this carefully and know that you have a license to cover the way you want to use it. Some types of music include Royalty, Royalty free, Blanket licensing, Needle drop licensing, In Perpetuity and Creative Commons. Each will have specific rights to how the music can be used. Be clear on how you can use the music before you buy. Here's how it usually works:
Royalties: This is the payment an artist receives when someone uses their music legally and a portion of the fee should find its way to the person who created the original work.
Royalty-Free: Once you pay for the cut you can use it multiple times in many productions.
Blanket Licensing: You can use all the music in a set without having to pay fees per cut.
Needle drop Licensing: You pay only for the music you use, each time you use it.
Production Blanket: You pay one fee based on your production, and for that production only.
In Perpetuity: If you buy the rights to use a piece of music "in perpetuity," it means you own those rights forever.
Creative Commons: This can vary from artist to artist, read the license carefully to insure you have the right to use the music in your production and in the way you want to use it.

Tracks and Files

Most libraries will have tracks in a format you can use within your editor. However, if your library consists of ".ogg" files, but your editor will only accept ".wav" files you may have to convert the music or select another library. .wav files are the most common and will work in any editor. Some editors may have issues with MP3 or compressed audio files so be aware of your editor's requirements and capabilities.

How much of a library should you buy? This depends a great deal on how much video you produce. For a one time creation a set of themes for that production may be all you need. However, if you produce videos on a multitude of subjects then a large library of different styles and flavors would be best. More is always better. In a pinch you can find just about any cut you need in a large and complete library. From Jazz to Orchestra, Rock to Acoustic you will have cuts suitable for any production and all moods.

Mix and Match

Just as a baker keeps a stock of many different frostings, you should have a stock of all kinds of musical flair. Each one has a unique taste and will add to the marvel of your production. Choosing the right music is akin to deciding on the right sprinkles to accent your perfect cake. You want the flavors to mix and have a little dance in the mouth of the viewer. It should not be too blaring or too subtle, and it should seamlessly flow around your production bringing delight to the audience. Know when to add music and when to serve just the cake.

Libraries from one company will have flavors that work together. The real excitement comes when you mix brands! Having more than one brand of library on hand will increase your musical horizons and give you selections from a multitude of styles even within the same theme.

It's like listening to the same cover band. The songs are different but the band plays them the same. Bring in a different band and you can spice up the mix around the same production. One company may offer wonderful Pop tunes while another has better Hip Hop.

Sample the libraries before you buy. Listen to the cuts and compare when shopping. If they offer samples, download and try each one. Drop it on your timeline and see how it flows. Mix two brands together and find the right combination that fits your video style!

One thing to consider is how the music is arranged. Are there beds and openings in the music where you can insert the vocals from your production without covering the punctuation of the beat? Tracks that have a lull or lower key at points within the tune may allow you to fade up the voices of your cast at poignant moments. Listen for marks when you can cut away from the music if needed, or blend from one track to another. Think about how you will cut to the beat, or how long the track will cover the moments in your show that need music.


If cost is a factor, you can find individual cuts for as low as 99-cents. Libraries, however, will come in sets or volumes and can range from a few bucks for an older disc to hundreds of dollars for complete inventories. Keep in mind that this is an investment and will help ensure you have the tracks you need on hand for the future.

A number of companies produce royalty-free music. The accompanying buyers guide will help familiarize you with the many music libraries available today that will fit your needs and budget. You can find a set of complete songs and tracks on disc for as low as $24 from or go for larger libraries. Music Bakery offers individual tracks from $29 and up or CDs from $77 and up. Digital Juice offers its Music Box collections for about $350 per set. Each set is grouped in themes with many different styles. Older libraries can be found on eBay for less, but keep in mind the music may be dated and if it's cheap it has probably been used quite a bit in many productions.

A music video with fast cuts and transitions will require a different approach than a memorial or serious feature. And your production may include both, moments of reflection as well as scenes that transition from serious to excitement. Your library should have all the elements to accomplish any kind of mood or theme and blend seamlessly. You may need to blend sound effects in with the music, yet have it appear natural as well. Just as your cake may have layers; your production may switch styles. Smooth it all out and throw in some sprinkles on top!

As you apply the creamy icing select the best flavors and tracks you can find from all sources you have. Never be afraid to buy more, digital leftovers are always appreciated and can be added to another cake you bake in the future. Design your cake with the audience in mind, leaving them with a hunger for more.

With the perfect music library you can have your cake and eat it too, and enjoy return visits for the morsels you present. Viewers will appreciate the time and effort you put into your program. And, they may even sheepishly ask for your recipe!

Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Music Library Buyer's Guide

J. Michael Long is an event video producer as well as a special interest documentary producer with 19 years broadcast experience.


J. Michael
Wed, 06/01/2011 - 12:00am


Half an hour ago, before

artsmith's picture
Half an hour ago, before I decided to attend to my emails, I was in the process of matching a piece of music to the rhythm, (if you can call it that), of sealions chasing each other across a sandy beach, part of an on-going documentary project of five years, to date, and 'adding', (to the 99 DVD's I have packed with DV-AVI footage from past shooting sessions). Picking through the copyright minefield, became such a chore, that I am currently stripping my series of all music not composed 'in-house', in favour of what I have written myself. If you grew up in a musical family, as I did, there is much excellent software which is able to make the job easier. It need not be inordinately expensive. I use, for example, a rather obscure sequencer of Canadian origin, which did not break-the-bank. I have gradually added the other things I need, Native Instrument's 'Kontakt 4', three DAW's, of which only one gets hard-use, a 'cleaner-up' for the audio, audio-editor, and so-on. You need not have a 'music degree', in fact, I doubt if that even helps very much. If you can read sheet music, it's highly likely that you would have no great trouble writing it. My education in musical theory ended in the lower-grades, at age 12, but that has not proven to be a problem. If you can pick out a tune on a keyboard 'bar-room piano' style, you will have little difficulty in getting started. The one thing which is indispensible, is to have been a good 'listener', especially to the kind of music you are most likely to wish to feature; I favour the classics, (and it matters not much, what 'kind'), although taking notice of good film/TV music also helps, as some of it is surprisingly well-written these days. It's really matter of getting down-and-dirty with the equipment, time spent 'hands-on' is of much greater value than classrooms and tutorials as long as you are prepared to learn from your experiences and past mistakes. The one drawback, it can be a bit time-consuming. If you take your music and audio generally to be of equal importance to your visuals, that is normally not a problem. It is a great way of combining dual interests I have found, and the satisfaction of steering a symphony orchestra in full-cry, puts truly awesome forces at your disposal.

I hail from a country wit

artsmith's picture
I hail from a country with the national symbol of a 'Kiwi', a flightless bird, sans lifting appendages, with the performance envelope of a brick; but that is not why I am typing this. After reading, restrospectively, what I had written regarding roll-your-own music, it seemed to me that such thoughts could only have come from a race of masochists with a penchant for endlessly re-inventing the-wheel. Allow me to explain, then, that this characteristic is by now genetically imprinted into most of us, although I have my doubts about today's 'me-first' generation, for all that. Robert Louis Stevenson, (or was it writer Anthony Trollope), once wrote of our country as 'last, loveliest, loneliest' on the planet, and who am I to argue? Unfortunately, we were, in our early days, and for far too long, a British Colony, as indeed was most of the U.S. Being twelve-thousand miles from the source of spares in the event of the family 'wheels' breaking down, meant communication by-telegraph, to Britain, usually, then a six weeks wait, minumum, for the parts to be shipped halfway around the planet. With luck, it might have taken less than that interval, again, for New Zealand Railways to get them the remaining 35 miles, or so to your local service-centre. With 93 shipwrecks having taken place during the history of our Province's coastline, whether you received the spares, at all, was frequently something of a lottery, more so during two World Wars. Not unnaturally, under-the-circumstances, we developed a reflexive instinct for doing things for ourselves, and somehow it became genetically imprinted into the nation's psyche. Just thought I would explain that, but seriously, writing and performing your own music in a 'virtual' environment can be fun, and unlike copyright-free music from its various sources, it needn't all sound pretty much 'The Same Old'.