MediaStorm’s Ten Tips for Working With Music in Multimedia

Music is an all too frequently overlooked facet of multimedia production. In this ongoing series of tutorials to improve your multimedia, I’ll explain 10 techniques that the MediaStorm team utilizes when working with music.

First, though, a few definitions commonly used to describe musical attributes.

Tempo: the speed of a musical composition, how fast or slow it’s played.

Timbre: the voice or sound of an instrument. A stringed instrument has a different timbre than a piano or a saxophone.

Pitch: the frequency of a sound. Bass notes have a low pitch; the upper octaves of a piano produce a higher pitch.

Rhythm: the variation in length between sounds and accents. Rhythm is often tapped onto a surface.

1. Decide whether to use music. If the music you’ve chosen is not exceptional, don’t use it. Viewers need only a single small reason to stop watching your work; poor music is a big one.

If you do use music, don’t steal it. Unless you have explicit permission to use a piece of music in your work, you cannot use it. Schools and festivals sometimes receive waivers from music licensing companies like BMI and ASCAP, but as a good rule of thumb it’s best to hire a composer or search Google to purchase royalty-free music.

Royalty-free music often comes with a variety of licensing options, for Web, TV, or film usage. It may take trial and error but there are numerous companies that license individual tracks at fairly reasonable prices.

2. Don’t needle-drop. A needle-drop is when you simply drop a music track onto your timeline and let it play from beginning to end, as is. This is the easiest and generally the least effective way to use music in your multimedia work.

Unless you are working with a composer to create an original score, chances are you’re going to need to cut up your music. But by editing and rearranging sections of a single song, you create the impression that the music was created specifically for your production.

Just as important, try to avoid using music for the full duration of your work. Sometimes dramatic parts of a story are much more effective when they are told quietly.

3. Use music with a strong rhythm. Musical cues with a pronounced beat are often easier to work with, as they provide natural edit points. Strong rhythm will also inform your pace and help to keep things moving. Bear in mind that a strong rhythm does not necessarily mean a fast tempo. It’s good practice to use slow songs as well. Variety keeps the viewer interested. For an example of a composition with a strong rhythm, see the opening of Marcus Bleasdale’s Rape of a Nation.

4. Use music with strong stings. A sting is the last few musical phrases of a song, how the piece ends. A strong sting provides a definitive conclusion to a section of your production.

To edit a sting, locate the last beat of the song. Now shuttle the playhead backward three beats. Create a new edit here.

Next, replay the sting. Pay particular attention to the note that begins this last phrase of the song. Now comes the challenging part, you need to find this same phrase earlier in the piece.

Once you locate it, create an edit point right before this beat. Move the two sections together. You may need to roll back a few frames on either side to create a seamless edit. This is without a doubt the hardest part of editing music. There’s no secret. It takes patience and practice to perfect.

See the credits section at the end of Black Market for an example of a pronounced sting.

5. Turn off other audio tracks when editing music. Before mixing or editing your music track, make sure your interview tracks are disabled. It’s an obvious but often overlooked tip. Select your interview clips, then use control-B to enable and disable them.

For more Final Cut tips see Tips From the MediaStorm Final Cut Pro Workflow.

6. Keep levels consistent. When splicing two pieces of the same track together, make sure both sections are mixed to the same level at the edit point. Otherwise, your ear will deceive you into believing the sections don’t quite match, even if they do.

7. Strategically place imperfect music edits. Ideally, your edit should be indecipherable, but if a perfect cut is not possible, hide the edit by lowering its volume and placing a voice track over it. This will help disguise the edit point.

Along these lines, avoid cutting images on the same frame as an imperfect audio cut. Failing to do so with emphasize the flaw.

8. Create an interplay between your narrative and music. Music should not be used as simply background sound. It’s an integral part of multimedia, as important at times as your images, narration, or video. Effective music editing creates a rhythm, a call and response, with your other media sources.

For an example, see minute 1:40 from Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Driftless chapter, Town Bar. As Tumara describes her experience wanting to “check out,” the music plays counterpoint. Listen to how the guitar riff plays in the spaces between Taumara’s sound bites.

9. Fade music levels as interview bites begin. Avoid lowering music levels far in advance of an interview bite. Nothing draws attention to your music like a sudden drop in volume for no apparent reason.

The secret here is to lower the level just a few frames before your sound bite and continue to dissolve for the next second or so beneath other sound sources.

It takes some trial-and-error, but in the end the fade between music and interview should be smooth enough to not draw attention to itself.

10. Learn an instrument. The more you understand music, the more skilled you will become at editing music. You don’t have to be Miles Davis, but a few theory classes will go a long way toward understanding the way music is constructed. And when it comes to cutting music, the ability to distinguish between pitches is an invaluable skill.

Learn more about our approach to producing multimedia by purchasing MediaStorm’s Post-production Workflow. Spanning more than 200 steps, the workflow covers every phase of editing, from organizing and editing assets in Final Cut Pro 7 through backing up and archiving your project. The workflow includes exclusive access to our Aperture Workflow and our Final Cut Asset Parser. Learn more about MediaStorm’s Post-production Workflow.