The number of software and hardware choices for adding original music to video and film has increased exponentially over the past few years. At the high end, where budgets for original scoring are serious, the latest versions of the longest standing Digital Audio Workstations and the introduction of ever more sophisticated virtual instruments have extended composers’ creative and sonic possibilities with near total control over a vast terrain of resources. At the other end, where many projects are completed with little or no budget for music at all, there are relatively inexpensive programs that use sophisticated internal logic to generate complete original fit-to-fill performances based on choices made by the operator, editor or composer. If you’re eager to add more polish to your productions, you’ll want to consider the range of tools and deep feature sets available for those of us on tighter budgets. For a quick guide to specific features, see the sidebar on page 28.
Scoring Tools
Scoring- specifically, creating music to picture- is a specialized form of music composition. The tools have evolved rapidly in recent years, putting very extensive capabilities into the hands of experienced composers with traditional skills, as well as into the hands of a new breed of computer-enabled newcomer with tech-heavy alternative training. Either way the technological and financial barriers to entry are lower than ever before. The latest in software-based digital audio workstations (DAWs), software (virtual) instruments, sound libraries and loop libraries have effectively taken things to a new level for composers at all levels. For example, partially or completely synthesized soundtracks have become the norm.
DAWs, MIDI Audio Sequencers, and Notation Programs
In a truly custom digital scoring environment, the DAW, or sequencer, is the central composing, recording, editing and mixing interface. Some sequencers focus their feature sets on recording and mixing audio, while others are more oriented to musical composition with MIDI, loops and virtual instruments. While a typical workflow might begin in a MIDI/loop/virtual instrument sequencer- such as those found in Logic Studio (Mac), Digital Performer (Mac), Cubase (Mac/PC), Sonar (PC), or FL Studio (PC)- and end up in an audio-oriented sequencer- such as in Pro Tools or Nuendo (Mac and PC)- the audio and MIDI-based feature sets within all these systems have grown dramatically.
When scoring any project, you need to be able to see synchronized video. Most DAWs can import a digital video file and provide some level of synchronized playback. Some can make minor video edits and some can export a video. Most can output a viewable movie in DV format.
One very important feature for most digital composers is the ability to create and manipulate tempo maps. On the whole, tempos throughout most film and video projects vary much more than they do in a typical song recording. Once you have video playing in sync, it is important to be able to "spot" the main visual events that will be the reference for the music. You need to be able to drop markers in key spots and then manipulate tempo events to create the rhythmic foundation for the scene with tempo changes and tempo ramping. All the major DAWs now do this. Specifically, Digital Performer, Logic and Pro Tools do this very well.
Notation and Written Scores
Logic Pro, Digital Performer and other MIDI-based DAWs have notation/score windows that provide the ability to print out sheet music of the MIDI compositions. This can be used to record live music instead of using the MIDI sounds. Many composers prefer to use full-featured notation software, especially Sibelius from Digidesign or Finale from MakeMusic. These programs excel at providing printed manuscript but are also valued by many composers as the central composition tool. The recent versions of these programs include large MIDI instrument libraries and support video as well.
Expanding Your System: Sequencers, Instruments and More
With the DAW of your choice firmly at the center of your production system, there are many ways to expand. First, you can slave additional sequencers and complex virtual instrument suites to the main DAW using ReWire (or in some cases a proprietary technology). ReWire (created by Propellerheads software) is an industry standard virtual host/client cabling system for connecting digital audio applications that is supported by most systems today. It works very simply. With the host DAW open, ReWire-compliant programs become instant clients upon opening and detecting the DAW. Propellerheads Reason and Ableton Live, are two popular instrument suites with sequencing and effects, that are frequently slaved to a DAW. Even though they have their own timelines and can work as standalone systems, their individual tracks can also be routed directly to tracks in the DAW while their tempo and operations are controlled by the DAW.
Virtual instruments are typically available as plug-ins for MIDI sequencers. Once assigned to a track and a MIDI channel, these plugs will respond to MIDI controllers and produce the programmed sound. The sounds themselves are sampled either from real recorded instrument sounds or generated from software-based synthesizers and can be tweaked ad infinitum from there. Many of the DAW programs come with large libraries of virtual instruments and feature many variations within each library. In Logic Pro, for instance, you can select from Yamaha, Steinway or Bosendorfer grand pianos, each recorded in several different size rooms. Expect great quality, but that’s just the surface. There are also many terrific specialty virtual instrument programs out there. I especially like the Fab Four plug-ins from EastWest, which comprise a set of virtual instruments built, with similar period instruments and recording equipment, to mimic the original Beatles instrument sounds produced by Beatles engineer Ken Scott. Bass Tripper or Pepper Guitar, anyone?
The synthesized virtual instruments currently available include almost every synthesis and instrument concept with software emulations of analog, PCM, FM and other synth types. Multiple software instruments can be stacked and combined to produce an unlimited number of combinations and configurations. Spectronics has three instruments that many consider excellent with Stylus RMX (groove module with thousands of grooves), Atmosphere (dream synth module) and Trilogy (bass module). Native Instruments, Applied Acoustics, and MOTU are also leaders in the Virtual Instrument field.
Sound Libraries and Loop Libraries
There has been an explosion of great affordable sound libraries on the market. Instrument samples can be used as audio files or can be turned into sampled virtual instruments. Most of the major DAWs include a sampler that can convert audio files into instruments or edited into loops. A simple Web search will reveal more than 500 online sites featuring sound libraries. Most are affordable and many are free. Drawing on its Sony Pictures composition and sound effects production archive, Sony Media Software has added a number of impressive libraries to its latest offerings. Similarly, there are many loop libraries widely available in different formats compatible with Garage Band, Logic, Acid, Ableton Live, Soundtrack Pro, Sony Cinescore and others.
Music Generators
With programs like SmartSound Sonicfire 4, and Sony Cinescore, the user simply chooses a musical theme, a mood and the length or the piece and the program will generate a complete composition. The results can sound a bit canned, but both applications have sophisticated tools that can help you further tweak and adjust your score to reflect visual cues. Sonicfire 4 has been around for a while and has some very strong editing tools. Sony Cinescore comes with beautifully produced and excellent sounding music libraries.
Another interesting program worth mentioning is Band-In-A-Box. Though mostly thought of as a practice device for musicians, the software application is also an intelligent composition device. Once you enter chords and specify a playing style, the program will generate a musical piece according to the rules you set up. The resulting MIDI performance file can then be exported to a DAW, where the individual parts can be replaced with higher-quality instrument sounds and further edited.
Surprises Off the Grid
While the products mentioned here are, for the most part, in the mainstream and well known, I’ve found some wonderful tools while surfing the Web. One recent discovery is Zplane’s vielklang at This downloadable plug-in is an audio harmonization instrument that intelligently generates vocal or instrumental harmonies with up to four voices. The company develops a range of other music-related plug-ins for time and pitch scaling to tempo and beat tracking.
The open-source community is also working hard to provide Linux-based solutions for desktop scoring. Check out for a glimpse of what’s going on there and what’s to come.
Things to Consider
The latest and the best of desktop scoring programs and instruments are very technically sophisticated and many of the mixing functions that used to require an expensive array of audio gear have been moved inside-the-box, as have plug-ins for almost any audio effect or processing function. If you aren’t going to outsource this task, be forewarned: Building a hardware environment that can support several programs running together with video requires fast processors, a lot of RAM and a lot of hard disk storage. It’s an investment that takes time, research and foresight. It’s not nearly as expensive as it once was to build a studio, though doing it virtually is certainly the most affordable. Once you do choose your software, be prepared to devote a lot of time to learning how to use it. If you’re serious about the quality of your music for picture, and if you’re a composer or an aspiring one, my advice is to choose a main sequencer program and work with it for a while in order to reap its full potential. It won’t happen overnight. With that foundation, however, you can always add more sounds and tools.
David Leathers is a writer, producer and musician in the Los Angeles area. He’s been working ion NLEs since 1990. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a member of the punk band Mink DeVille. His company, Eye Square Productions, specializes in audio and video post.