MyMusicSource

Production music is a subjective decision. You can never have enough resources to satisfy clients. I routinely use a variety of options, including SmartSound, Adobe’s tracks for Soundbooth, Apple’s tracks for Soundtrack Pro and the whole range of music from Killer Tracks, FirstCom and others.

Now editors have a new option: MyMusicSource, which comes complete with a new plug-in for Apple Final Cut Pro. The plug-in was developed in partnership with and marketed through BorisFX. Right up front, let me disclose that I know the principals, have a little stock in the company and have been involved in some consulting and beta testing. MyMusicSource is the brainchild of Michael Redman – a veteran composer, producer, recording engineer, facility owner and software entrepreneur. In addition to Final Cut Pro, My Music Source is also actively developing other import plug-ins for various NLEs and DAWs.

Getting started

The release of the FCP import plug-in is of interest to Final Cut editors, of course, but anyone can use MyMusicSource with or without this plug-in. It’s a web-based, online resource for production music, so you can access, search, license, purchase and download music tracks using any regular web browser. The beauty of the FCP plug-in is that you can start and end the process from inside the FCP interface, but it isn’t essential. The plug-in itself is a free download, as is establishing an account with MyMusicSource. The company makes its money licensing music for productions.

Here’s a quick overview of how the plug-in and process works. Once you install the MyMusicSource plug-in (download from BorisFX), an option for MyMusicSource is added to FCP’s import menu, alongside XML, Sony XDCAM, EDL, etc. Select this and it launches your default web browser to the start page for FCP users. Log in using your established account and you are off and running. At this point the process is similar to other online music services. You can select and preview music by various search criteria in different genres. As you browse clips, add them to a project cart for later review.

One key difference from other companies is that MyMusicSource is upfront about licensing costs. Their whole approach is to “pre-clear” the music before you can download. At the beginning of your search, you should establish the intended production use for the music, before you add a track to your project cart. As a producer, you may purchase tracks with a Preview License for $.99 per track. This allows you to purchase and download a full-length, full-quality track and temporarily use it within your production (in-house preview use only).

Once a final set of tracks has been decided upon and the correct use established, you may purchase an upgrade to the license for legal use of that music. If you know in advance what the target use will be for the production, such as non-commercial web, you have the option to select that license rate instead. Each cut of music will display a price based on the selected licensing, so you instantly know what it will cost as you browse through the inventory. Non-commercial rates for personal use start at $5.

Project carts may be shared with your clients. If you’ve selected a handful of possible tracks for a client’s review, then share the cart and the client can access and preview these tracks. As with any shopping cart system, finalize your choices and proceed through checkout. Once you’ve paid, move on to the download center, where you find three options: Send to Final Cut Pro, Zip and Download NOW or Zip and Email. The last two options are the same as if you accessed the site without the FCP plug-in. Option one is enabled if you have the FCP plug-in installed.

You may also select between MP3 and 48K AIFF audio file formats. MP3 files are a faster download, but require a render in your FCP timeline. AIFF files will take a bit longer and are larger files, but work fine inside FCP. One option is to download MP3 files (using method 2 or 3) and then drag them into FCP via Digital Heaven’s Loader application. This converts the MP3 files into 48K AIFF. Another option is to convert MP3s using QuickTime Player Pro. These last two approaches work fine, but it means a tad more work and obviously detours away from the roundtrip magic. I normally opt for the AIFF files. One issue I’ve found is that the Send to Final Cut Pro feature has some access issues with FireFox, so use Safari 4 if you encounter these when using this method.

The last step of the roundtrip is back into FCP. A MyMusicSource media folder (containing the downloaded tracks) is placed into the same folder as your active FCP project file. A bin with the tracks is imported into the FCP project and shows up in your FCP browser. If you have more than one project open, you’ll receive a prompt to let the plug-in script know which project to use. Another handy feature of MyMusicSource is that when tracks are downloaded, you will also receive a PDF of the actual licensing information. This is great for the end of the project when you have to turn in music cue sheets and clearance information. It’s all right there from the very start!

OK, so the process is simple and straightforward, but what about the music itself? As I said at the start, music is subjective. The choices are good, but a big difference with the MyMusicSource inventory is an attempt to have a very contemporary sound. The selections are more artist-centric than I tend to see in the competition. There are also more vocal selections. A popular production trend is to use songs instead of just scores. That can get very expensive if you try to license songs that you’ve heard on the radio or on iTunes. In my opinion, MyMusicSource offers a wider selection of good vocal tunes than other libraries, so if your production needs the catchy sound of some indie, alt-rock band, then you’ve got plenty of options to choose from!

©2010 Oliver Peters

Sitting in the Mix

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Like most video editors, audio mixing isn’t necessarily my forte, but there are plenty of projects, where I end up “playing a mixer on TV”. I’ll be the first to recommend that – budget permitting – you should have an experienced audio editor/mixer handle the sound portion of your project. I work with several and they aren’t all equal. Some work best with commercials that grab your attention and others are better suited for the nuance of long-form projects. But they all have one thing in common. The ears to turn out a great mix.

Unfortunately there are plenty of situations where you are going to have to do it yourself “in the box”. Generally, these are going to be projects involving basic voice-overs, sound effects and music, which is typical of most commercials and corporate videos. The good news is that you have all the tools you need at your disposal. I’d like to offer some ideas to use for the next time that the task falls to you.

Most NLEs today have a decent toolset for audio. Sony Vegas Pro is by far the best, because the application started life as a multitrack DAW and still has those tools at its core. Avid Media Composer is much weaker, probably in large part because Avid has put all the audio emphasis on Pro Tools. Most other NLEs fall somewhere in between. If you purchased Apple’s Final Cut Studio or one of the Adobe bundles, then you have excellent audio editing and mixing software in the form of Soundtrack Pro or Soundbooth.

Mixing a commercial track that cuts through the clutter employs all the same elements as creating a winning song. It’s more than simply setting the level of announcer against the music. Getting the voice to sound right is part of what’s called getting it to “sit right in the mix”. It’s the same concept as getting a singer’s voice or solo lead instrument to cut through the background music within the overall mix.

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1. Selection

The most important choice is the proper selection of the vocal talent and the music to be used. Most often you are going to use needledrop music from one of the many CD or online libraries. As you audition music, be mindful of what works with the voice qualities of the announcer. Think of it like the frequency ranges of an instrument. The music selected should have a frequency “hole” that is in the range of the announcer’s voice. The voice functions as an instrument, so a male announcer with a deep bass voice, is going to sound better against a track that lets his voice shine. A female voice is going to be higher pitched and often softer, so it may not work with a heavy metal track. Think of the two in tandem and don’t force a square peg into a round hole.

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Soundtrack Pro, Soundbooth, GarageBand and SmartSound Sonicfire Pro are all options you may use to create your own custom score. One of the useful features in the SmartSound and Soundbooth scores is that you can adjust the intensity of arrangements to better fit under vocals. These two apps each use a different approach, but they both permit the kind of tailoring that isn’t possible with standard needledrop music.

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2. Comping the VO track

It’s rare that a single read of a voice-over is going to nail the correct inflection for each and every phrase or word. The standard practice is to record multiple takes of the complete spot and also multiple takes of each sentence or phrase. As the editor, don’t settle for one overall “best” read, but edit together a composite track, so each phrase comes through with meaning. At times this will involve making edits within the word – using the front half from one take and the back half from another. Using a pro audio app instead of an NLE will help to make such edits smooth and seamless.

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3. Pen tools and levels

I personally like to mix with an external fader controller, but there are times when you just have to get in with the pen tool and add specific keyframes to properly adjust levels. For instance, on a recent track, our gravely-voiced announcer read the word “dreamers”. The inflection was great, but the “ers” portion simply trailed off and was getting buried by the music. This is clearly a case, where surgical level correction is needed. Adding specific keyframes to bump up the level of “ers” versus “dream” solved the issue.

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4. EQ

Equalizers are a good tool to affect the timbre of your talent’s voice. Basic EQs are used to accentuate or reduce the low, middle or high frequencies of the sound. Adding mids and highs can “brighten” a muddy-sounding voice. Adding lows can add some gravity to a standard male announcer. Don’t get carried away. Look through your effects toolset for an EQ that does more than the basics, by splitting the frequency ranges into more than just three bands.

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5. Dynamics

The two tools used most often to control dynamics are compressors and limiters. These are often combined into a single tool. Most vocals sound better in a commercial mix with some compression, but don’t get carried away. All audio filters are “controlled distortion devices”, as a past chief engineer was fond of saying! Limiters simply stop peaks from exceeding a given level. This is referred to as “brick wall” limiting. A compressor is more appropriate for the spoken voice, but is also the trickiest to handle for the first time user.

Compressors are adjusted using three main controls: threshold, ratio and gain. Threshold is the level at which gain reduction kicks in. Ratio is the amount of reduction to be applied. A 2:1 ratio means that for every 2dB of level above the threshold setting, the compressor will give you 1dB of output above that threshold. Higher ratios mean more aggressive level reduction. As you get more aggressive, the audible output is lower, so then the gain control is used to bring up the average volume of the compressed signal. Other controls, like attack and release times and knee, determine how quickly the compressor works and how “rounded” or how “harsh” the application of the compression is. Extreme settings of all of these controls can result in the “pumping” effect that is characteristic of over-compression. That’s when the noise floor is quickly made louder in the silent spaces between the announcer’s audio.

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6. Effects

The selective use of effects filters is the “secret sauce” to make a VO sparkling. I’ll judicially use reverb units, de-essers and exciters. Let me again emphasize subtlety. Reverb adds just a touch of “liveness” to a very dry vocal. You want to pick a reverb sound that is appropriate to the voice and the situation. The better reverb filters base their presets on room geometry, so a “church” preset will sound different than a “small hall” preset. One will have more echo than the other, based on the simulated times that it would take for audio to bounce off of a wall in a room this size.

Reverbs are pretty straightforward, but the other two may not be. De-essers are designed to reduce the sibilance in a voice. Essentially a de-esser acts as a multi-band EQ/compressor that deals with the frequency ranges of sibilant sounds, like the letter “s”. An exciter works by increasing the harmonic overtones present in all audio. Sometimes these two may be complementary and at other times they will conflict. An exciter will help to brighten the sound and add a feeling of openness, while the de-esser will reduce natural and added sibilance.

The exact mixture of EQ, compression and effects becomes the combination that will help you make a better vocal track, as well as give a signature sound to your mixes.

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7. Sound design

Let’s not forget sound effects. Part of the many-GBs of data installed with Final Cut Studio are tons of sound effects. Soundbooth includes an online link to Adobe’s Resource Central. Here you can audition and download a wealth of SFX right inside the Soundbooth interface. Targeted use of sound effects for ambience or punctuation can add an interesting element to your project.

In a recent spot that I cut, all the visuals were based on the scenario of a surfer at the beach. This was filmed MOS, so the spot’s audio consisted of voice-over and music. To spruce up the mix, it was a simple matter of using the Soundtrack Pro media browser to search for beach, wave and seagull SFX – all content that’s part of the stock Final Cut Studio installation. Soundtrack Pro makes it easy to search, import and mix, all within the same interface.

Being a better editor means paying attention to sound as well as picture. The beauty of all of these software suites is that you have many more audio tools at your disposal than a decade ago. Don’t be afraid to use them!

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Scoring with Sonicfire Pro

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Music choices are very subjective and can often be the most difficult part of finishing a production. There is no replacement for a true custom score that’s right on the money, but rarely do clients have a budget to support that, especially in the world of corporate video. I’ve frequently built videos with music changes every :30 or so. I’m essentially scoring the video without the help of a composer. That takes a lot of time to audition cues online through a needledrop library like Killer Tracks and often clients don’t have the budget to pay for 20 or 30 cues on a longer production. This is where royalty-free music sources can really shine. There are various options, including the music cues that come with Apple Soundtrack Pro or Adobe Soundbooth, but neither of these options is as comprehensive as SmartSound.

 

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SmartSound is really two entities – the Sonicfire Pro music customization software and the supporting SmartSound music libraries. In order to get the best out of Sonicfire Pro, you really need to use SmartSound music. To build up my own library, I treat myself to a few new discs each Christmas and whenever a new project can support it!

 

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The Sonicfire Pro software lets you non-destructively change the variation (arrangement), “mood” (orchestration), tempo and length of these music selections. It can do this because each song file is made up of blocks. When you change the duration or pick a different variation to a song, Sonicfire Pro intelligently rearranges the block to avoid something that sounds overly repetitive. The newer offerings in the library include “mood mapping”. This means that the discs are multilayered with instruments mixed into stems – rhythm, lead, percussion, etc. Inside Sonicfire Pro, you can change the “mood” by selecting from a preset or by changing the relative mix of these stems.

 

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Compositions are based on a fixed tempo measured in BPM (beats per minute). If setting the duration doesn’t quite nail the length you need, you can also alter the tempo. This changes the metadata for the cue and speeds up or slows down the song by altering the BPM. This is a non-destructive process, so tempo files can be deleted and the original native BPM restored. Remember that these song arrangements are made up of real instruments and real compositions, not simply a series of loops in the way that a music cue might be created using Apple’s Garageband.

 

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The Sonicfire Pro interface works in two parts: the SmartSound Express Track window and the project (timeline or tracksheet) window. Express Track is a smart media browser that lets you search, audition and modify your music selections. It also lets you browse SmartSound’s online library for additional music. Express Track also displays composer and license information that may be used for music licensing cue sheets. Many editors mistakenly believe that they have unlimited rights to use royalty-free compositions for any purpose. SmartSound music covers most typical productions, but not everything. For example, you are covered for regional TV spots, web videos, film festivals or cable networks like Discovery; but, you are not covered if your show runs on HBO or if Warner Bros. buys your film and distributes prints to thousands of theaters. Check with SmartSound if you have licensing inquiries.

 

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Most of the actual music adjustment is done in the project window. Music is inserted onto a track and the song’s length can be adjusted by dragging the end of the selection. Each song is composed of an arrangement of separate thematic subsections that are each made up of blocks. You can opt to protect certain of these arrangements as you lengthen or shorten a track. This prevents Sonicfire Pro from completely changing the arrangement based on its internal algorithms. The subsections change at keyframed points and the keyframes can be slid earlier or later, thus changing when one subsection transitions to another within the same song.

 

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You build up your score by assembling various music cues onto separate tracks, complete with crossfades and even add “hits”, like a cymbal crash, bell effects and more. A multilayered or “mood-mapped” cue can be split into sections on the same track to change the mood within that music cue. For example, if your video starts and ends with a high energy visual montage that bookends a talking-head spokesperson in the middle section, simply add a mood change at the start and end of this dialogue sequence. Choose a more subdued variation in the mood setting or manually reduce the level of some of the more intrusive instruments by using the property sliders or the appropriate volume envelopes in the tracksheet.

 

What about Final Cut Pro?

 

So far this has been a quick overview of how Sonicfire Pro 5 Scoring Edition works in general. SmartSound has worked with numerous NLE manufacturers over the years and in fact, has already developed timeline integration with Avid Media Composer, using MetaSync tracks. New since NAB 2009 is Sonicfire Pro 5.1 with the Final Cut Pro plug-in.

 

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To use Sonicfire Pro with Final Cut, simply edit your FCP timeline as you normally would, adding markers to indicate music changes or the start/end points for a music cue. Once you’ve edited the sequence, save it and leave FCP open. Now launch Sonicfire Pro. The first way is simply to select individual songs and customize them to length. To do this, choose “import from Final Cut Pro” in the Express Track window’s right-hand slide-out drawer. Your FCP markers will be displayed with timing information. By highlighting a marker or a range of markers, Sonicfire Pro will customize the length of the song to fit that duration.

 

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When you are done, choose “Export Soundtrack/Video”, check Final Cut Pro in the dialogue box and save the file (now a rendered/flattened AIFF). It will appear in your FCP browser, so drop it on the timeline and continue. If you need to roundtrip back to Sonicfire Pro, make sure you have set up your FCP preferences so that audio files use Sonicfire Pro as the external editor. If so, right-click the clip on the timeline and select “Open in Editor”, which sends you to Sonicfire Pro. The app knows to pull up that song and you are ready to make adjustments. Make the changes, export again (replacing the previously exported file) and FCP will reconnect to the newer media.

 

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The second and more fun way to work with the two apps is to use Sonicfire Pro to score your complete FCP sequence. Choose “Import from Final Cut Pro” twice: once in both the Express Track window and again into a new project (under the file menu). If you exported a QuickTime reference file of your FCP sequence, you can also open this in Sonicfire Pro to sync the timeline and video. When you do so, the FCP markers will also show up in your Sonicfire Pro project timeline. You can also import the soundtrack from your video (presumably dialogue) and do a final mix right inside of Sonicfire Pro. In any case, this is a great way to make sure your music is perfectly customized to match your FCP sequence. When you are done, “Export Soundtrack/Video” (choosing FCP again) and your mix appears inside your FCP browser.

 

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Over the years, I’ve been a happy SmartSound user. I like the quality of their compositions and I really appreciate that they continue to add to the available library. Although the newest selections are multilayered, that doesn’t obsolete the older, non-layered music. In fact, I still use QuickTracks, which originally came bundled with Premiere 6.5! As I said at the beginning, music is very subjective, so there’s no guarantee that a large SmartSound library is really going to cover every client’s need – but it sure helps. The new FCP plug-in simply makes it easier to use Sonicfire Pro and FCP together.

 

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SmartSound has provided a number of video tutorials on their website that offer a better look at how the whole process works.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters