Edit Expertise: Compose Your Own
Back in the day, entry into the stock music business required a sizable investment for composers and studio costs, office space, advertising, and other sundry items — all with no immediate prospect for payback — keeping the industry rather small.
By the mid-1990s, however, things had changed considerably. Affordable recording equipment with good specs upped the quality of audio tracks — demos in particular — and music production companies realized they could turn demos that were never picked up into cash by assembling them into music libraries that could be inexpensively produced and distributed on CD.
The stock music industry has continued to evolve, and if you're a video producer who wants to add music to your own work or offer this service to others, these are exciting times. Computers and software such as the three products we'll be taking a look at make it possible for almost anyone to add stock music to a video. More impressively, the music that SmartSound Sonicfire Pro 4, Synk Audio Musicbed DV, and Sony Creative Software Cinescore generate can yield — with just a little bit of study on your part — a product that sounds as if it had been written specifically for your project.
Sonicfire Pro 4 is clearly the most mature of the three software packages. It also has the most extensive and, in my judgment, the most superior-sounding library. But all three libraries share a similar approach. For starters, each has a browser feature that gives the user easy access to all of the titles he or she currently owns. Sonicfire also lets you browse its website and audition tracks that you don't currently own. If you find something you like, you can purchase it from them and use it in your project. You can preview selections against the video you've imported, which is very helpful. All three applications offer keywords that let you narrow the music being offered for consideration; if you're scoring a suspenseful cue, for example, there's no reason to audition love themes.
When Sonicfire (Mac/Windows) was first released, I reviewed it and was impressed with its potential. However, the ability to tailor cuts to match a picture and cross-fade between cuts in a convincing way wasn't quite there. Wow, have things changed for the better. All three apps give you great control over the cues you select and how those cues blend into one another.
The real advancement in the version 4 release of Sonicfire is a feature SmartSound calls “Mood Markers.” These markers, which you drop in your timeline, let you alter sections of a single tune in ways that dramatically increase the application's ability to create music that meets the needs of your video. Make sure you're using the new Strata libraries — Mood Markers don't work with earlier versions.
Mood Markers give you control in two ways.You can choose variants on a theme: rhythm section only, lead instruments only, and so on. Once you've chosen a variation for a particular section, click on the Mood Map track and you're directed to a screen that lets you remix the cut. You can raise the level of the bass, roll back the drums, and so on. My wish list would include automating these rides over the course of each mood's length, but that's not possible.You could cheat by adding a number of different moods in succession and changing the level of an instrument incrementally in each one. Even so, the Mood Marker component is a significant addition to Sonicfire just as it is.
Just before we rolled the presses on this story, SmartSound announced a free upgrade to version 4.5, which includes several new features that may be of critical importance to audio post professionals. Under severe time pressures, video editors as well as directors and producers often hunt for music without referencing picture. SonicFire Pro 4.5's new Express Track (included only in the Network version, available for purchase), decouples the application's search engine from its video component. Users can select mood, instrumentation, and the length of a track, and build a music bed without having to load a video clip.
Other features in the free upgrade include Smart Recall, Maestro, and BackStage. Smart Recall enables users to save a WAV or AIF file that includes an embedded version of the project itself, while the enhanced Maestro display makes it easier to determine where a score's critical hit points line up with video. BackStage users can take advantage of premium audio disks, a customized EDL service, which analyzes an EDL and creates a cue sheet from it. SmartSound is also opening up its encoding process to outside music. For $250 per track, BackStage customers can send in their own licensed audio and have it turned into a file that can be manipulated within the Sonicfire Pro environment. Custom composing is also available now.
Let's say you're scoring a 30-second local TV spot and need to leave four seconds for the announcer tag. All three apps let you select 26 seconds as the length of your track and then drag a music cue onto the timeline. From there, each one lets you customize, but in unique ways.
Musicbed DV (Mac only) lets you add key frames and automate the music in interesting ways. For example, your video starts with a group of high-school kids chatting in a hallway. At eight seconds, they walk outside, and at the 12-second mark, the video shows them skateboarding at high speed. You highlight the Melodic/Percussive slider, enter key frames at eight seconds and 12 seconds, and draw a line that, over a four-second period, changes the mix of the cue you've selected. It's that simple — and very effective.
But there's more: Check the Manual Sequence box, and Musicbed DV lets you re-think the compositional choices it made when it tailored its cue to the length you requested. You can delete one or more of the blocks that make up this cue and replace them with others, and tailor each one to match the picture.
Cinescore (Windows only) is equally adept at helping you alter its 20 musical themes (more are in the pipeline) to work with your video. Setting regions is a snap. Browsing through its themes is easy, and the next step, generating music, creates a WAV file that you can refine.
Once you've generated a music cue of the desired length (or close to it — Cinescore can draw on its roots as a descendent of the Sony Acid line and adjust the tempo if need be), you view a timeline that contains all its building blocks. Below this lies an Intensity grid, which you can use to thin out or beef up the texture of your track. There's also a Hint area where you can make further alterations.
Cinescore's main project window gives the user one video and three audio lanes. You can import WAV files, which you can't do in Musicbed DV. I like this feature a lot, for several reasons. If you own a sound effects library, you can easily add elements to your track. Or, if Sir Paul McCartney is a good friend and he's authorized you to use The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, you can import that. Of course, it's not possible to alter this audio as you would one of Cinescore's own themes.
A fourth contender has just entered the market at press time. Based in County Galway, Ireland, Abaltat recently released Muse (Mac OS X), its own composition software tool. While we haven't had a chance to review this new program, here's a brief rundown of its features: Muse lets the user choose an algorithm that relates the density of a composition to the saturation of the video's color palette, if desired, or construct a piece independently. Currently, three ensembles, each with four instruments, are available. Sliders can be used to control the complexity and tempo. Key frames, which let the user add instruments along a timeline, are also provided. A seven-day free trial will be available this month at abaltat.com.
So, which of the reviewed products should you purchase? If you're seriously interested in scoring videos with this kind of software, I'd suggest that you consider buying all three. Each has individual strengths, and the more music you can get your hands on, the better. If you need to narrow your choice down to just one, you can learn about each of them by going to the respective websites and studying the excellent tutorials offered by the companies.
For More Information
SmartSound Sonicfire Pro 4
Price: Starts at $199
Synk Audio Musicbed DV
Price: $249 (includes Seasons 1 and 2)
Sony Creative Software Cinescore
Price: $174.95 (includes 20 themes)
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