It is for me a great pleasure to accept Giovanni Rotondo’s invitation to write a series of technical tips on his excellent blog. Having spent 27 years in the world of film music, I have seen this profession being considerably transformed by technology. Today we wouldn’t be able to create a soundtrack for a film, a documentary, a TV series, a spot or trailer, if we didn’t have a computer and specific music software.
Over the course of this series we will explore the creation of a film score taking into account the role of notation software.
Yesterday and Today
Composers, students and enthusiasts writing music for images increasingly rely on to the use of music technology. Technology opens the possibility of shaping your compositions while viewing in real time the images.
Markers help, among other things, to distinguish the beginning and ending of the cues. Finding fitting time signatures, as well as hitting sync-points are all very easy tasks. Most applications can calculate the tempo of a cue so that music matches perfectly to pictures.
Relying on technology is necessary because production time and budget have contracted. Much work that was previously packaged in a recording studio is now managed directly by composers’ home studios (in the picture above – composer Silvia Leonetti’s home studio in Rome), leaving only post-production tasks to larger professional studios.
In the early 1990s, the most sophisticated home studios consisted of a computer, various MIDI keyboard controllers, synths, a sequencer, a notational editor, a video recorder, a timecode generator (a device able to sync the different pieces of gear with the computer), an analog mixer, a tape recorder or ADAT, some effect processors (reverberation, equalization, chorus, etc.), and one or several pair of monitors.
Today most of the listed hardware is virtualized, thus simplifying a composer’s workflow while keeping the costs in check. In 1988 my home studio was built with around 22,000 euros. Today I can have a much more powerful system with 8,000 euros.
During the pre-recording phase composers, and their assistants, mainly use a DAW and a score editor. The first allows to manage MIDI programming, to record/import audio clips and to fine-tune a mock-up. The second can also be used to write music but it also allows to prepare scores that will then be used in the recording session.
Some of today’s most used DAWs are: Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, Pro Tools.
The most used notation software are: Sibelius, Notion, Dorico while Finale, having recently dropped integration with video files, will certainly have a lower impact in the future.
Lastly, sound libraries of incredible quality allow to hear how a cue will sound at the end of the scoring process. Through sampling or synthesis to physical models, hybrid techniques, sophisticated synthesis and sound design, they offer perfect emulations of acoustic or electronic instruments but also vocal sounds.
2 Ways of Writing.
When a recording session is on the horizon there are 2 approaches to writing film music:
1) writing in the DAW with powerful MIDI editors and virtual instruments support. In this scenario one can open video files and better manage all syncs through sophisticated time functions. He can add audio recordings, loops, plug-ins to control the timbre and work on the mix. He can quantize all MIDI parts and send them to a notation software via the midi file or musicXml format (better option when the DAW has an internal notation editor).
2) writing using the notation software with the possibility of linking a video and managing the various sync-points. Notation softwares come with internal sample libraries. Since a couple of years it has possible to use NotePerformer (if compatible with the notation editor used). This tech, combined with internal libraries, allows to get a better orchestral simulation and removes the need of fiddling with complex sampler interfaces (such as Kontakt). Then the score is exported in a midi file version and can be opened in a DAW to fine-tune the mock-up realism.
Often the client does not have sufficient musical knowledge to be able to evaluate complex harmonic, melodic and orchestral writing but will judge how the music sounds above all. For this reason it is important to use a DAW to set up a preliminary mix of the various cues with the help of mixers, buses, effects processors, reverb, group tracks, VCA channels, etc..
Giving the Proper Weight to Notation Software
Although many DAWs have score editors one should probably refrain from relying exclusively on them for score preparation. The reason is simple: they don’t do a great job and they aren’t quick. Score editors inside DAWs are ideal to get an idea of what the score will look like in a notation software, a preview that can be exported in the musicXml graphic format.
The Third Generation of Notation Software
It seems a long time ago since the first generation of score editors was announced. They had an exclusively graphic approach and were conceived as layout software like Illustrator.
In the 1980s, the MIDI protocol was implemented giving sound to every note and launching the second generation. This first rudimentary form of sequencing got the attention of composers, arrangers, orchestrators, etc. Loading up a video in sync with the music was another noteworthy innovation.
A couple of years we have reached the third generation thanks to Dorico from Steinberg, allowing for the first time complete management of a project (writing, printing, listening, mixing ) without going through a DAW. Once perfected this process will save a lot of time in the pre-recording phase.
In the next chapters we will use the Cubase DAW along with Dorico and Sibelius to illustrate the various processes that lead to the creation of film music in the pre-recording phase.