From a technical point of view, preparing music files for delivery according to your client’s requirements should be a pretty straightforward thing. Although every project is a little bit different, there are some standard procedures, and we’ll go over them, with some definitions, a few precautions, and one or two minefields.
Before I get started, it’s a good time to remind you that it’s always a good idea to ask your clients what their delivery requirements are. If the producer or director can’t tell you directly, they will refer you to a post production mixer or technician who will have all the answers.
In a past article, I’ve gone over standard digital file issues, such as sample rate and bit depth. Review if needed. Of course you will be delivering finished mixes (or sometimes “stems”), not raw unmixed instrument tracks.
Since most postproduction work is done using ProTools, you will probably be asked to deliver in either a ProTools “session” file or at least something that’s easily imported into ProTools. Some composers are already equipped with ProTools software and hardware, but I wouldn’t say most are. So you might say, “Well, if I have to turn in something in ProTools, then how about if I just get a little cheap ProTools LE system?” But there’s a hitch — unlike its (expensive!) big brother ProTools HD, the LE systems do not support timecode, unless you pay extra for “post-production toolkit” features.
Let’s pause for a moment and review what our intent is here: you have prepared each piece of music to go at exactly a certain spot in the film, usually defined by a timecode starting number. Just because you are viewing the video in your DAW software (Logic, DP, etc.) doesn’t necessarily mean that the music will automatically go to the right place on the dubstage; someone needs to place it there in their DAW software, i.e. ProTools. An important distinction is that when you are in “composing work mode” you will have each piece of music in a separate file or chunk, but for the dub mix they will all need to be in one common “session” file.
For several years I’ve worked with composer Greg Edmonson on the show King of the Hill (Fox TV), and after the composing process in Logic, part of my job was to put all the mixes into ProTools for delivery. Here in brief is my workflow for that:
Each cue was mixed in Logic and then exported as a 24-bit 48K WAV file (either one interleaved stereo file or two mono files will work equally well, but stay tuned for one small hitch in this process). Then in ProTools HD those files were imported onto tracks, one at a time, and “spotted” to the right start location by timecode. It’s pretty common as I mix for the file I create to not start at bar 1 beat 1, but before, to accommodate instruments which may attack slightly early — so it’s important to keep a list of timecode starts for each file, which may be a different number than the music downbeat.
I usually use two stereo tracks (or sets of tracks), and alternate odd-numbered and even-numbered cues. This allows for any cues that may overlap each other at the start/end. Sometimes there is an additional track as well for source cues, which may be overlength.
So that’s pretty basic, but as I mentioned before, what if you don’t have a timecode version of ProTools? That’s when it pays to really know your clients, and figure out how to accommodate their needs. Some of my composer clients are able to simply deliver a folder of stereo files, with a list of timecode start numbers. There may be an editor who is willing to take a few minutes to drop the music in the right places. On a higher-budget gig that might actually be an official Music Editor, a professional who can be a tremendous help to a composer in many ways. Sadly, they are rare in lower-budget projects.
My colleague Randy Knaub writes about the use of OMF and AAF file formats, and I’ll leave it to him to explain this. This allows you to use some other DAW software to create a file which should be compatible with ProTools. I have just a couple of reservations about this: if you do deliver this way then it’s important to have someone “on the premises” check the work and make sure everything has ended up in the right place. I would avoid any edits, punch-ins, fades, and automation. Those are not appropriate in a score delivery anyway. Also, in the ProTools world, the ability to open and accommodate these files is a paid option (and somewhat expensive depending on your point of view — another nice Digi/Avid wallet zinger), so check in advance to see whether your client can accommodate this.
One thing that will help your music to go in exactly the right place is to use files that are time stamped. Most DAW apps can create and accommodate file time stamping. Then in ProTools the file can be easily spotted automatically to the intended location, avoiding the tedium of typing in all the numbers.
Digital Performer automatically and reliably adds time stamping to any WAV file, when your project file is set to the correct time start number and you record in real time. However, annoyingly, Logic will not. (Yes, I know they say it will, but I found that sometimes it correctly timestamps a WAV file and sometimes it doesn’t, with no predictable rhyme or reason. It’s a bug that has existed since Logic 6 or before; I’ve found this with more than one client under a variety of circumstances. In repeated inquiries I have found Logic tech support and local reps had no clue why and didn’t seem much interested. Ideas?)
File types NOT to use
In previous articles I discussed file types, but it’s worth mentioning again that some computer compatible file types are not appropriate for professional production work: MP3 and AAC. These “lossy” file types are intentionally “shrunk” in order to make them easier to e-mail or transfer quickly through the Internet, but this is done by intentionally throwing away part of the sound data.
If you need to deliver over the Internet, this is a good place to use FTP or an iDisk; don’t compromise the music you’ve worked hard on by then compressing it to e-mail it. If you’re placing a piece of music downloaded from a service like iTunes, try to get an original copy CD instead, and extract an AIFF file from that.
It really makes a substantial difference in how good things sound. Maybe it’s a hassle, but if you are going to be committed to working hard to making your music sound great, then why not have those elements as good as they can be as well?
This may be a situation in which you educate your client as well. Suppose they ask you to send an MP3, or maybe send you one of some source music. On little speakers on a computer it probably doesn’t sound any different. But I promise you on the loudspeakers in a dubstage, or after broadcast processing, the difference in richness and punch will be substantial. Plus if there needs to be editing or EQ then an uncompressed file will respond better to that, with less deterioration. Like blowing up a photograph really big—do you see lots of blurry mushy pixels or is it detailed and focused even at large magnification?
Fight the bad
For a variety of reasons, I hear a lot of music that doesn’t sound as good as I think it could or should, especially on television, sorry to say it. I know there are a lot of challenges.
We’ve all heard, and probably said, “It’s good enough for…”. Fill in the blank — For TV. For no money. For an impossible deadline. For those @#$%s who made me stay up all night to do five rewrites.
My humble suggestion: Fight the temptation. If you insist on quality, from the smallest detail like avoiding MP3s, to everything else, all the way to the top of your professional and personal “food chain”, you will feel better about your work, and others will notice. Isn’t that how you want to be?
LES BROCKMANN is a Los Angeles-based recording engineer and score mixer with over 20 years experience in television music, from NORTHERN EXPOSURE (CBS) to KING OF THE HILL (Fox), feature films including the award-winning documentary GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB (HBO) and the cult howler TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD (Larry Blamire, dir.), and video games UNCHARTED 1 & 2 (Sony/Naughty Dog). You can find his SCOREcast bio (and links to his other sites) here.