How To Make Film Soundtracks
Cinematic sweeps for your visual masterpieces
Music creation comes in many forms. As a player or composer you’ll likely want to break out of the more traditional forms of songwriting to experiment with something new at some stage. Film soundtracking offers a perfect opportunity to do just that.
As a discipline, it is quite different to ‘regular’ songwriting. Where that style of writing is generally quite structured and linear, soundtracks are far more fluid. They require the composer to write based on what is happening visually at any given moment. This is much more open to interpretation and therefore requires a different set of skills. You’ll need to consider pacing, instrumentation and mood, for example.
It’s all music though, and if you’re up for a challenge then this ticks a lot of boxes. Here’s a few tips on how to make film soundtracks.
Tip #1 – Storyboarding
A crucial part of any film shoot is the storyboard. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 3 minute vlog or a full-length feature film, each project needs some thought giving to the individual scenes before a single camera is turned on.
Storyboarding is the practice of thinking about the scene in more detail at the very start of the process. You’ll typically draw out what people will see on screen at any given time, and list out the technical specifications like location, lights, camera placements and audio requirements.
At this stage, the soundtrack composer will begin to understand things like the scenes which come before and after, the duration of music required and, importantly, the tone of voice (more on this later.) Get all of this nailed at the start and work can begin on creating the soundtrack itself.
Tip #2 – Tone of voice
Tone of voice is a highfalutin way of asking what will the track sound like? How will it serve the scene over which it plays? It’s obvious, for example, that a twee ukulele melody might not suit a grisly death scene. Or that a pumping industrial metal track wouldn’t sit right on top of footage of a bunny hopping through a meadow.
The clip above is a great example. You know as soon as you hear it that there’s danger imminent. A sound or passage of music should put the viewer in no doubt as to what’s happening.
The process of choosing the right tone comes from understanding the scene, and what the director is trying to achieve with it. Get it right and the soundtrack will elevate the film. Get it wrong, and you’ll leave the viewers baffled.
Tip #3 – Choose your tools
When people think of film soundtracks, they often imagine bombastic orchestral numbers by the likes of John Williams or Hans Zimmer. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Consider Daft Punk scoring the soundtrack for Tron Legacy, or Ennio Morricone scoring all those spaghetti westerns. The point is that the instruments, compositions and tools you use have to be right for the task at hand.
The answers for your specific project will have come out at the storyboarding stage. Once you know where the director wants to take the process, you can begin putting together the arsenal you’ll use. What is important is to have a large selection of potential sounds at your disposal. A library like Native Instruments’ Komplete will give you pretty much anything you’ll need.
A good tip here is to spend a bit of time arranging your sound library. If you know, for example, that you’ll be using a lot of sampled sounds, create a folder which contains shortcuts to the relevant areas in your library. If you’re focusing on synths and electronic sounds, begin auditioning and tweaking presets until you’re in the right ballpark.
You’ll also need something with which you can perform your compositions. You have plenty of choice here, from basic USB MIDI keyboards like the excellent Novation Launchkey 25, which has assignable controls for things like effects and send/receive channels. If you’re more advanced, you might consider the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49, a 49 key beast which is designed from the ground up to play nicely with the Komplete software package.
Tip #4 – Work in sync
It’s crucial to remember what you’re trying to do with film soundtracks. The music needs to serve the visuals. There’s no point crafting a glorious 40 second cinematic swell if all that’s needed is 25 seconds.
A second monitor dedicated to visuals is vital here so you can ensure the track matches what’s on screen. You may be able to match certain actions on the visuals with accents or flourishes in the audio. Or, if the scene leads to a specific activity or point that needs highlighting – e.g. the villain being arrested – then you can ensure the audio reflects that. Some DAWs, like Ableton Live, can work in time with video thanks to something called timecode.
Keep in mind that, for the most part, any dialogue needs to be front and centre of the speakers. In practice, this means ensure scenes which are talk-heavy have the space they need to be understood.
Tip #5 – Foley
One other area to get your head around is the nature of the creative brief. When they say they need a soundtrack, is it just the music for the opening and closing credits? Is it that plus a few key parts within the film itself? Or do they actually want full sound design? Cross your fingers and pray it’s the latter because things get very interesting when you start involving something called foley.
Foley is basically finding ways to create specific, often extremely niche, sounds heard within the film. And it is a heck of a lot of fun to do. Ever heard a head explode in a horror film? That was probably the result of a foley artist smashing a melon with a hammer. Or that bit in Indiana Jones where he’s being chased by a boulder? That was the sound of a foley artist pushing a car down a hill with the engine off. Seriously, foley is a creative, interesting way to expand your sound creation horizons. If you’re asked to work on it, you can expect to have a lot of fun.
Of course, you’re going to need ingenuity and lots of microphones to do this kind of work. A basic field recorder, like the Zoom H1, will be hugely useful to you in these situations. Most important, however, is to take the creative shackles off and go a little bit wild.
There is no generic form of film soundtrack. Whether it’s for your own films or for work created by a director, creating a soundtrack is an exciting and interesting way to grow as a musician. It rewards creativity and the ability to think outside the box. And, when it all comes together and you see the finished product, it is hugely rewarding as an art form.