Today’s Provocation strays ever so slightly off our April theme, but I hope you’ll follow along anyway. I’m going to lay out my some of my own ideas on turning delivered cues into demo cues. My overall opinion: if you want to put your best musical foot forward, there’s work to be done. Potentially lots of work.
Let’s start here: when we’re delivering cues for a film mix, or even for network television, we tend to allow the dynamics to “breathe” much more than we would if we were producing them for an album release. In fact, I think the extra attention to mastering detail at the album stage is something that sets guys like Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control colleagues apart from many other established, respected composers… even A-list folks.
If you could hear, side by side, the album version and the “in-film” version of some of the Remote Control guys’ scores, I suspect you’d notice substantial differences.
First off, the album-version cues are limited and tweaked to within an inch of their lives. The waveforms resemble what you’d see on commercial albums by recording artists… thick black blocks. A super-full sonic spectrum. This isn’t normally what you want to deliver to a dub stage—even in the fairly rare event you’re delivering full mixes in the first place.
So, for me, Step One is re-thinking the mix concept. That might mean going back to the original sequence file or Pro Tools session and starting more or less from scratch. In my view it’s worth it—the goal of what you’re creating at this stage is entirely different from its original purpose, so re-conceptualizing your mix makes a lot of sense. It also forces you to evaluate exactly which cues are worth the effort—sort of pre-selecting your favorites to go into the Demo Bin.
Along those same lines comes Step Two: editing for content. I think of a demo CD as a carnival ride… which the listener can get off of at any point. Your job is to keep them on that ride. Manipulate their attention span so that there’s something new and interesting every few seconds, while at the same time maintaining the overall musical integrity of the cue.
This is one of those areas where you can apply as much or as little time and energy as you have to spare. Honestly—by the time you experiment with different mixouts, different shapes, moving sections around in sequence, combining two or more cues into a single cue, etc., there are instances when you might as well start from scratch entirely (at least it often feels that way!).
Also, some cues just prove impervious to cutting. In those cases it’s time to make a command decision whether to accept the cue as-is or chuck it out of the Demo Bin entirely.
So… here’s one of the Big Questions people often debate: how long should a demo cue be? The answer is really a part of your own personal musical aesthetic—and I don’t know that, inside a certain reasonable musical-duration ballpark, there’s really a wrong answer. One of my own pet peeves is demos that contain only one loooong track (I’ve received a few). They’re gonna make me listen to that whole thing one way or another! Except, you know, I don’t. Filmmakers like to be able to fast forward if what they’re hearing isn’t interesting. It’s not a bad thing, I think, to give them the opportunity to do this (and thus to get to something they might like better!).
Next up: if your demo consists entirely of cues from a single project, you should take Step Three: considering track order, just as you would any other kind of demo CD. This may sound obvious, but I’ve had the following conversation on several occasions:
Aspiring Composer: “So… what did you think of my demo?”
LHS: “Well, [other, unrelated comments]. And I would have put that first track later… maybe third. Take the fourth track and put it up front—”
AC: (interrupting, slightly rudely): “—But the first track is the Main Title! The whole thing is in chronological order; I’m telling the story the way it was in the film—”
LHS: (returning the favor with my own rude interruption): “—And I don’t care what the order was in the film. I think moving things around makes for a better ride.”
AC: “Hmm.” (delivered in that tone of voice that means there’s no way this particular piece of advice is going to occupy any more of AC’s head space, and now AC is wondering where the nearest Starbucks might be located).
Do what you want with track order… but I encourage you not to set arbitrary limits. And I consider “that’s the way they appeared in the picture” to be arbitrary.
Finally, it’s time for Step Four: naming your cues. “1m21″ isn’t gonna cut it, and unless you’ve already come up with something clever (say, in the spotting session), now’s the time to think of some really evocative titles. Again, for some reason people send me demos. The ones whose cue titles are most interesting tend to be the ones I’m most excited to hear. Simple as that.
If I read “Chase” or “Comedy,” I’m expecting something as generic and vanilla as its title suggests. I don’t mean to suggest that you have to put undue strain on your thesaurus for this, but it’s one of those attention-to-detail things that might make your demo ever so slightly more interesting to a listener… and that, in my opinion, makes it worth the stretch.
This weekend’s column isn’t intended to be my Last Word on making demos… but I hope it’s reminded you of how important it is to treat them as their own thing, rather than just copy/pasting your film-dub versions onto a CD playlist. The difference requires more effort and hassle—in some cases, a lot more—but it’s worth it.
If you have any other tricks or tips on this, let’s talk… hit the COMMENTS. Something I’ve left out? Something you disagree with? I’d love to hear it. SCOREcast is only as vital as we all make it!