Edit Review: VideoHelper and Sony Creative Software Quartet
The history of stock music can be divided into several eras. Production tracks were initially recorded at major studios, mastered to vinyl, and delivered to audio post facilities on LPs (do you remember them?), where they were cataloged and lined up on rows of shelving.
The audio post community glommed onto the CD revolution with great gusto in the late 1980s and early '90s. Music producers quickly realized that the appetite for content aimed specifically at the television and radio markets was voracious, particularly because facilities renting space in high-value areas in the major markets would no longer have to devote extensive square footage to storing them. Within several years, the industry had shifted dramatically. Once limited to a few major production companies who hired composers, booked studios, and then mastered and delivered recordings, the number of music-library producers expanded dramatically. Jingle houses understood that the project-studio revolution had significantly raised the quality of demos and that those rejected by ad agencies could find a life in audio post.
Things are changing in this, the third era of production music. Working on the assumption that everyone over the age of three is comfortable sitting at a computer, and with the understanding that audio editing has morphed from its diamond-cutter-like origins — where a single slip could permanently damage a sacred piece of audio — into a set of undoable keystrokes that almost anyone can become reasonably competent handling, we are now seeing the emergence of what might be called the waveform era of stock music.
This month, I review two packages that take different approaches. The VideoHelper catalog has deeper roots in that traditional ad-music model, while Sony Creative Software Quartet relates more closely to today's ubiquitous loop-based audio-composing software.
Founded in 1995 by composers Joseph Saba and Stewart Winter, stock-music company VideoHelper currently has five networked composing rooms in its Manhattan offices. Its 2,900-title catalog is divided into three collections: VideoHelper, ScoreHelper, and the newly released Modules component.
The VideoHelper and ScoreHelper collections fall into traditional musical forms and arrangements, but the lengths of the tracks themselves are irregular, and multiple versions are offered. The company's founders operate on the premise that their content will be sliced and diced inside a digital audio workstation. Snap points are provided at the :30 point in each track for easy editing into a television commercial or radio spot. Beyond that, it is assumed that editors will apply a variety of techniques — including time compression, if necessary — to tailor cuts to their needs.
“We saw the technology coming,” Saba says, “and we wanted our products to take advantage of the flexibility that computer editing brings. You could call our technique ‘discrete sectionality.'' The first 30 seconds of every track is structured as one cohesive piece. After that, we offer remixes or reinterpretations of the main theme to give the producers additional options.”
VideoHelper employs a small stable of composers, and each of them is given the same set of mandates — which include getting to the point quickly and making sure their work is easy to loop. “We see tracks as a set of working parts,” Winter says. “We ask our composers a series of questions, including where can cuts be made in their work and where the obvious loop points are. We want to make it as easy as possible for an editor to take our tracks apart and put them together again in ways that make the music feel like it was written specifically for their project.”
Modules, the company's newest release category, is intended to function as a hybrid of music and sound effects. Because many of these cuts are atonal — devoid of any defining musical key — they can be mixed and matched easily. Again, the assumption is that almost anyone associated with the audio and video post process will be able to edit waveforms to suit their needs. It's also simple to whip out a keyboard and add your own hits on top of a VideoHelper track to support visuals more specifically.
The cost of mass-producing CDs has dropped so dramatically that companies such as VideoHelper are willing to send you CDs for free. All you have to do is pay fees according to the rate table the company provides when you use its work in a project.
Constantly expanding libraries can occupy a lot of virtual real estate, so VideoHelper will deliver to qualified clients its entire catalog preloaded onto an 80GB hard drive. Also included on this drive is a search engine, Look and Load, that the company developed to make its database searchable for the cues that will serve your needs most effectively.
Let's put VideoHelper to work and see what these .wav files have to offer. Although I have some video clips on my hard drive, I decided to create an imaginary scene that would that would suit the aggressive personality that characterizes much of the VideoHelper catalog.
My scene opens with a wide shot that zooms to a closeup of our hero, Gary Peskow — a dashing figure with bulging muscles. To score the scene, I first loaded track 11 (“Shell Shock”) from the VideoHelper Overkill disc. The first hit point, where Peskow delivers a thoroughly convincing thumbs up directly into the camera's lens, occurs at the 26-seconds, 12-frames point. Cutting the track at the :30 point, I then used the Time Stretch function of Steinberg Cubase 4 to compress the audio to match the picture.
“Cluster,” another track from the Overkill CD, made a nice transition to the next scene. I deleted the opening :30 of this track and crossfaded the two audio clips. All the Overkill tracks that I worked with blended nicely with one another. In fact, when I imported tracks from two other VideoHelper discs — Pop Smear and Factsploitation — I found that while they had unique personalities, their overall concepts and recording techniques made it easy to blend cuts from all three CDs into each other.
There's a lot of energy in the VideoHelper discs, as well as interesting figures that can be lifted and used as motifs. For example, after importing track 2 from Overkill (“Incident Wave”), I edited out everything but a quirky four-beat synth riff. If I had a repeating visual motif that matched the emotion of this figure and synced it in at the appropriate frames, it would feel as though a composer had tailored music specifically for that visual.
VideoHelper is not, of course, the only library to offer content as waveforms that can be ripped and manipulated. However, a few qualities put this series of discs on your must-consider list: the musicality of the compositions, the way they interact with one another, and the obvious emphasis on easy editing with which these libraries were created.
Over the last several years, it has been a mantra of this column to point out the various ways that you, the esteemed videographer who may lack musical training but is nonetheless capable of using new technologies to great effect, can become more active in the creation of the audio tracks that accompany your work. VideoHelper is an excellent example of a company that understands the changes that the industry is undergoing. With these catalogs, you can integrate the company's creative talents with your own.
Would you like to be a bit more creative and mix and match audio loops to develop precisely timed music beds to accompany your spots and videos? If so, Sony's four new loop libraries, aptly named Quartet, may be right up your alley.
Billed as an “Artist Integrated loop library,” Quartet includes guitarist Parthenon Huxley's Six-String Orchestra, Matt Fink: StarVu Session Keys, Tony Franklin: Not Just Another Pretty Bass, and drummer Siggi Baldursson's The Best of Siggi Baldursson: The Drum Loops.
All of the libraries contain 15 folders worth of loops. The concept is simple: drag and drop loops from any folder onto an audio track, and they should work with loops from like-numbered folders.
After reading the press release, which says that the Quartet line works with any “programs that support the .wav file format,” I dragged files onto four stereo audio tracks in Steinberg Cubase 4. The experiment was a disaster. The tempo and pitch information did not pass successfully from Sony's Acid programming into Cubase — and as a result, several two-bar loops had, for example, a length of 11 beats, and it was impossible to get bass and guitar loops to play in the same key.
Fortunately, everything changed once I downloaded and installed the free version of Sony's own digital audio workstation (DAW), Acid XPress. Sony pretty much set the bar for products that independently address pitch and tempo. Ignoring a few products from other manufacturers — Ableton Live is one — Sony still leads the pack. If you're in the market for a DAW, it would be in your interest to check out the newly released Acid Pro 6. It's a fully functional audio/MIDI environment that may be just what you're looking for.
Acid XPress is, as you would expect, a limited version of the full product. It does allow you to create up to 10 audio tracks, and that was more than enough to let me take Quartet for a spin. I'm happy to report that the libraries operated flawlessly in their home environment.
For starters, I opened the number 14 folders of all four instruments' libraries and auditioned loops within the Acid browser. It was easy to hear which piano grooves would lock up easily with Telecaster guitar hooks, and the same goes for the bass parts. Almost any drum loop will sound good with the other material in your folders. The performances are of a high quality, and they are released as 24-bit, 44.1kHz files that have been recorded well.
The information that was missing when I opened the files in Cubase 4 was all available inside Acid XPress, and no audio problems occurred when I repitched the melodic and harmonic material by half an octave or so in either direction. As you would expect with Acid files, the flexibility of the tempos was excellent.
Many of the parts within the individual instrument folders complemented each other nicely, and with just a little experimentation, anyone with good ears will be able to develop arrangements. Given the tempo flexibility of these files — at least when used within the Acid environment — creating songs that match the length of your scenes should be an easy assignment.
Programs such as the highly popular SmartSound Sonicfire Pro 4.5 constitute the highest hurdle for a product such as Quartet. These applications cull from a database of song structures that can be cobbled together in a malleable fashion, and they have their attractions. But a set of loop libraries that can be combined with a user's MIDI performances also has its advantages. If you have soft synths and samplers in your rig, it's easy to process individual tracks or add sound effects and musical elements to the data that Quartet provides.
The usefulness of Quartet would have been enhanced if Sony had included hits and stings in each of the folders; these would let the user create hard endings to arrangements. As things stand, you'll have to fade out the endings of the audio files you build.
Do you need Quartet? Taken together, these libraries do not constitute the be-all and end-all of scoring tools. On the other hand, if you're looking to give yourself as many options as possible in order to do inhouse audio post, Quartet could well be an important addition to your arsenal.
Company: VideoHelper www.videohelper.com
Product: VideoHelper, ScoreHelper, and Modules
Assets: Pay-as-you-use pricing model, well-composed tracks written with :30 commercials, editing, and looping in mind.
Caveats: Not built strictly for looping programs.
Demographic: Professional videographers needing personalized audio tracks.
PRICE: Varies by license
Company: Sony Creative Software www.sonycreativesoftware.com
Assets: Well-recorded loops that integrate easily with each other, excellent pitch and tempo flexibility.
Caveats: No hits or stings, the music you develop is limited to the personalities of the four instrumentalists, I experienced problems while using the loops in Steinberg Cubase 4.
Demographic: Film and video professionals looking to keep audio work inhouse.
PRICE: $99.95 (Parthenon Huxley's Six-String Orchestra); $99.95 (Matt Fink: StarVu Session Keys); $99.95 (Tony Franklin: Not Just Another Pretty Bass); $59.95 (The Best of Siggi)