In writing the music for the short film Abiogenesis, for the Berlin International Film Scoring Competition, I ran across quite a few obstacles, oddities, and nearly complete meltdowns. Hopefully you can learn from my time, mistakes and missteps, so you won’t waste your own time working on similar projects. Also, if you missed Part I of this series, it is available here for your perusal. As is the full video of my final entry.
Time, Tempo, & Tribulations
Or, Film Music's Biggest Pain in the SMPTE SINCE the Player Piano
I had heard of SMTPE before. I knew it was basically a system like a GPS that gave the precise location in a film’s picture. And that this was the way that you synchronize music, sound effects, and anything else you can imagine to that picture. Also, I knew it was in the format Reel : Hours : Minutes : Seconds : Frames. (For the most part. There are some variations that include sub or quarter frames. But typically these are not necessary for scoring purposes.)
So, after a quick refresher via Google in Logic’s shuttle display settings, I was staring at my blank project, SMPTE time and beats showing in the LCD, and went to import the silent film.
Luckily, one potential derailing was avoided when Logic asked if I would like to change the FPS of my project to match the movie. This is pretty critical I would later come to find out, but we’ll get to that eventually. It also asked about extracting the audio from the movie, and changing the sample rate. You’ll have to trust me for now, and it will become clear why when I say to you:
PAY ATTENTION TO THESE
ALWAYS make sure your project settings match your video. (fps)
NEVER extract the audio from the video if it is a silent track. (You’ll waste memory and can potentially run into placement issues-as I did-later in the process).
And ALWAYS (unless it’s otherwise specified or necessary) make sure your sample rate is at 48kHz. It’s the industry standard.
So, that pretty much ends my headache-free time dealing with SMPTE in Logic. Don’t get me wrong, It’s very easy to set up and use the correct tools to do what I spent the next several weeks of my life learning the hard way.
Hits - where music meets film
When writing music for film these days, it’s not very common to line up every action on screen up precisely with a sound effect or musical occurrence. That is a technique referred to as “Mickey-Mousing”, and it does tend to add a cheesy (pardon the mouse pun) feeling. If you ever watched Merry Melodies, or early WB or Disney cartoons, you know what I mean. Xylophone rising chromatically as a character climbs stairs, or a slide whistle portamento downward as our friend slides down a fireman’s pole… Things like that.
No More Mickey Mouse
So, in an effort to avoid such antics, composers (usually with the guidance of a director) will pick certain points in the film they want to “hit.” These are the points that a downbeat aligns with an action or cut on screen. They are also typically accompanied by one or more of the following:
- a shift in texture,
- a melodic apex,
- change in orchestration
- change in dynamics
- Full orchestra “hits” (where the term originated)
- Cymbal crashes / Percussive hits
- a multitude of other musical “punctuations”
Usually this would be hashed out in a spotting session with your director. However, in the case of small projects and competitions such as this one, there is no director, so you must decide what moments to hit for yourself. (This does offer an amazing level of freedom to be creative, however, it can sometimes lead to a frenetic haphazard score. Don’t let the freedom make you lose focus on the story)
The old way backward
I was able to easily accomplish this the old-fashioned way, using pencil and paper. Then it came time to start putting those moments into Logic…
I did a little research to refresh my memory on the marker system in Logic, and it seemed pretty straightforward:
1. Set the playhead at the point you want to mark
2. Create the marker
3. Name the marker.
If only This Worked Like I think.
This would all be fine and dandy, were it not for a couple of things:
1. Logic uses MIDI – i.e. Measures, Beats, Subdivisions, and Ticks…. Ordinarily this is fine. Even when you are adding sounds or some prefab music to a short video, the alignment with the SMTPE timecode is not all that important, and most people probably wouldn’t even give it a second thought. But when you add a Marker in Logic that gets rounded to the nearest beat subdivision, and that’s 19 frames away from where you intended, that can cause confusion later.
2. If our markers are set according to beats, and we intend to aim for them in the composition process, they should not move. This is not the default for Logic, because music on its own does not have fixed points that mustn’t change relative to the other parts of the music. But, if we were to shift the tempo of our project with all of our markers set correctly, they would either compress together toward the beginning of the film (upon tempo increase) or spread apart (if we slow it down).
Do as I say, not as I do.
So I made this mistake, and it’s very easy to avoid if you take some precautions and are aware of how it works.
I knew I wanted to have the markers specifically in the place I set them, which is not the default case for Logic, as we saw above. So, to remedy this, there is one handy option you will find nestled in a submenu, but if you are unaware of its existence, it can become the bane of yours:
I think this is probably a good time to mention SAVING YOUR WORK AS OFTEN AS YOU SHIFT IN YOUR CHAIR!
Seriously. If you save often, the versioning system in MacOS becomes your best friend when you go totally nuts and have no clue what you’ve done, and the last 100 things in your undo list is “Created Event. Deleted Event. ad infinitum”
I put you there, now Stay there!
So now we have solved the problem of Logic not creating our markers where we wanted them to be, but they are still likely to move if you wanted to have any variation in your tempi from the default 120bpm… (granted, you can fake it a couple of ways, but that’s not ideal long term)
So how do we stick these markers in place? Luckily, there’s a feature of Logic that does just that, though not by default. Once you have created your markers without rounding them to beats, you’ll want to convert them to what are called “Scene Markers.” (Funny how they name these things exactly what they should be, right?)
Yes, but HOW?
You can do this easily and quickly by opening the list editor panel, selecting all your markers under the marker tab, right click and choose “Convert to Scene Markers” at the bottom.
How fast is your Film (music)?
Now that we have all our markers anchored in time, named and organized, we’re ready to write some music right? Finally!???!?
We have one last thing to consider in our setup. Something rather integral to music, and that is tempo.
I mean, part of the reason we had to convert the markers to scene markers was so that when we shifted the tempo, they wouldn’t move… But how do we decide on a tempo for a section?
This can be a subjective question, but there is one thing that has to happen – our hits must align with something we can correlate with a musical “strong point”.
A new Way Forward
Luckily, composers have been doing this for almost 100 years now, so there’s a pretty simple method to follow. If you are interested in the old-fashioned, by hand, mathematical way of figuring this out, I will be writing a post on that very subject in the next few weeks. Check back here for when it posts.
So, there is one place on the timeline, both SMPTE and MIDI that does not shift regardless of tempo, and that is the very beginning. (Provided you haven’t set a SMPTE offset, which you can if you like, but I find it unnecessary)
A Starting place
If the playhead is all the way to the left limit of your project, SMPTE 1:00:00:00 should be aligned with 188.8.131.52 no matter what you have changed tempo-wise.
Given this point of no alterations, however, we can line up any future point (our markers) with a usable practical bar and beat by using the method here:
1. Set the playhead on a barline (usually the easiest) that is relatively close to the desired marker.
2. Adjust the tempo in the tempos list editor until the marker is aligned with the playhead
3. You will want to zoom in horizontally as far as you can to get the greatest accuracy.
4. Check the markers tab in the list editor for “perfect” alignment
(notice our 2-pop is now at 184.108.40.206, whereas in step 1 it was 220.127.116.11–close, but not quite spot on.)
Sometimes, I find it easiest to adjust the tempo while zoomed out for longer sections, as you can then see all the markers for the hits in a section, and try to find a tempo that gets closest to having them all land on a strong beat.
That about does it for Part 2… Keep an eye out for Part 3, dealing with key selection, motif development, and focusing on story.