Since nobody likes an FAQ page, we wanted to make this one something special. Yes, we address all the most common FAQ's. That said, we've also compiled the most useful questions from the past 15 years and dropped them into a single location. You'll find all the questions, terminology, and anything else you could possibly ask for right here. Referencing this page will offer inspiration for your new soundtrack, expedites collaborative conversations, and, most importantly, gives you creative control over the process.
Can I talk to somebody? Yes, please! First of all, if you find the FAQ page impersonal and off-putting, please contact us. Here’s our contact page. That said, we urge you to start here. Nearly every question that could possibly arise will be answered here (and will exist as a reference during our collaboration). We invite you to review this page, it will be the greatest help to you. This way, our first conversation will be more productive and directed toward solving your musical needs.
What does a typical soundtrack process look like? The following is a brief map of our journey, from first meeting to final delivery, all summarized in this link here. How much does a soundtrack cost? That depends on three things: 1. Your budget limitations, 2. How many minutes of music do you need, and 3. How many musicians it will take to accomplish that recording? Recording 60 minutes of music with 100 players will cost a lot more than a score with synthesizers and five soloists. We customize budgets exactly to the needs of your film, and find solutions for any limitations you may have. For example, here's a link to our three tier approach to structuring a score. Here's a recording of a MIDI & Soloist score, here's one with 30 Live Strings, heres a Hybrid Live & MIDI large score.
Do I always have to pay for a big orchestra? Nope, you don't have to! We create a budget plan based only on what you (your project) truly need. Sometimes you only need two clarinets and a banjo. You’re the boss, and you get to approve everything first.
Is there a way to see sample budgets? Yes indeed! Here are three budget tiers that represent different strategies (and budget limitations). They are very broad estimates, based on 60 Minutes of finished music, recorded in Los Angeles. Here is the Indie Tier, Midsize Tier, and Studio Tier. Keep in mind recording overseas (Prague, Budapest, Bratislava) will be a dramatically lower cost per hour. Of course, final estimates will be based on our spotting session conversations: how many minutes your film needs and how many musicians will be required to produce the score. Every figure will ultimately be tailored exactly to the needs of your film.
Can a soundtrack be done with MIDI alone? Yes! You’re the boss, and you only pay for what you agree to. Some films profit immensely from a paired-down soundtrack. Not every movie is Star Wars. That said, almost every director ends up needing some life breathed into the music. This is where using a handful of live soloists may enter the budget discussion. A mere 5-10 soloists are a whole lot cheaper than 80 players and add extraordinary power (and value) to a soundtrack.
Here's a song that's almost completely MIDI, with light vocals, and various items laying around the room: The Truth Comes Out.
Here's another big musical number with live vocal soloists, and half the orchestra is MIDI: All Hallows Eve.
Do I need to hire every service listed here? Absolutely not. Every film needs a different combination of these services, most of which you won’t need at all. We only choose exactly what you need. Just because we offer it doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it.
Can I mix, match, and customize the services I actually need? That’s exactly how it’s done! For instance, 1. you may need a score that is mostly synth-based, which is very affordable. However, 2. you may feel that a few live soloists will help breathe life into a few scenes. That is also very affordable. Finally, 3. there are three scenes that require some serious firepower, and you need 30 players to give it the force it needs. You can hire 30 players in 3HR blocks, and get 20 minutes of music from them. That is more affordable than 30 players for the entire film. This way, we’ve selected only the items you truly need rather than a blanket solution for the entire score. (Here's a link to our three tier approach to structuring a score.)
How do we customize a score to our budget needs? Simple, our spotting session and early phases of composing will determine the kind of recording you will actually need. Just because we offer something doesn’t mean you have to use it. For instance, we plan scores based on which scenes need only synths, a few live soloists over the synths, and which scenes you might consider using a larger group (20-70 players). Rather than using a full orchestra wall-to-wall, we only use what sounds right to you. You’re the boss, and you determine what belongs in your film! (Here's a link to our three tier approach to structuring a score.)
How long does it take to write a soundtrack? That also depends on three things. 1. Your delivery/distribution deadline, 2. The size of the score, 3. The scale of the recording. Normally, the process fits within the last two to three months of post-production. We can easily deliver a 60-80 minute score in that timeframe. Of course, we have produced feature film scores in two weeks. However, this means we must resort to extraordinary lengths to do so. That requires hiring additional crew, reducing the size of the recording, and less time for revisions and input from the director.
How do I communicate with a composer? Easy, don’t talk about music! What we mean is this - if you’re not a trained composer, and fluent in the language of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and film scoring technique, don’t worry about those things. That’s our job to figure out for you. Instead, tell us a story. Paint a picture of what you would like to feel, experience, and share with the audience. Whose perspective do we follow through a scene? What is the subtext at this moment? What should the audience feel? Where beats do you want us to hit? Those details are what guide us to do our best work.
Can we license a song from you? Indeed, you can! We will determine what kind of use you require, the rate for that kind of usage, and for what term (length of time) that usage applies and draw up an agreement legally protecting your access to the music. We typically retain ownership of the music but guarantee you will have a hassle-free experience putting the music to work for you.
Who owns the music? This answer depends on a number of variables. We always address this on a case-by-case basis and decide on what’s best and most reasonable for the production. Here is a brief attempt to summarize how this works:
In cases involving large studios, networks, and game or app developers a composer will be compelled to forfeit the copyright to their music. This is a necessity when working with large institutions, and the compensation rate is exceptionally high to compensate a composer against future losses on their music. For indie projects and lower-budget productions, composers keep their copyrights in exchange for working on lower budgets.
In order to protect non-studio productions, composers often offer the commissioning party a perpetual license on the music created for them. This means the commissioning party will never need to pay for that music ever again, use and distribute that music in perpetuity, use it for promotional purposes, and so on. They have the exclusive right to exploit the music in this way, and the composer will still retain their copyright without infringing on the production.
The composer will often agree to a period of exclusivity - meaning the production will have roughly a year (or more) of exclusivity (upon the release of the film) before the composer can share or exploit the music in any way. Of course, it can be harmful to a composer if they are unable to share their music or involvement in the film for promotional purposes. Often, during this window of exclusivity, the composer will get permission from the production to share select tracks with the public along with the film’s PR campaign and beyond.
Can we make a soundtrack album?
Can we make a soundtrack album? Absolutely! That’s what we always hope to do. Releasing an album can be a great way to promote the film and connect to wider audiences. The release of a soundtrack album is great for both the film and composer. We usually pick a handful of exciting tracks from the film to be featured on the album, since many tracks that work with picture won’t have the same impact as a listening experience. Similarly, we will also revisit the mix and mastering when creating a soundtrack version. Mixes that sit naturally with picture don’t translate well to an album environment.
What are cue sheets, and why are they so important? A cue sheet is a list of music cues featured in the film, marking the start, stop, creator, and duration of each cue. We also indicate the usage of the music, specifying that it was an opening credits, closing credits, background instrumental music and so on. Each of these usages carries different values, as does the duration of these usages. The cue sheet is created based on the final mix session (the data can easily be exported from Pro Tools), and the composer or producers may use this information to construct a new cue sheet for the film.
Cue sheets are an important part of the film scoring process. Getting the writer’s share of performance royalties are an important part of how a composer survives. More importantly for filmmakers, it is legally required that a production submit them properly. As you may know, royalties are dispersed to composers through a performance rights organization (PRO) like ASCAP, BMI, or SEASAC. This is done based on the accuracy of the film’s cue sheet. That said, there are important details the composer must supply before it is submitted. It is important to let us know when a cue sheet is being constructed and to get our approval so that it is done accurately. We’re happy to create one for your approval, but do let us review before submission. Here is an example of a cue sheet, here is a downloadable template, and here is a place you can find more information about filling out and properly submitting (though we also have these templates proofed and ready to go). Can I suggest something helpful to add to the FAQ list? Goodness, yes! We want this page to be as helpful as possible - both as an introduction to what we do, how we do it, and as a handy reference while on your journey with us. Let us know what you would like to see here!
More Specific FAQ's (music, terminology, instrumentation, crew members, recording)
Here are the most common creative, technical, musical, and terminology-based questions we get. Learn a whole lot about music, recording, orchestration, and film scoring right here: What does a composer do? We create the music. This means creating (and presenting you with) new melodies for characters, choose instruments and sounds, and generally create an orchestral or electronic sound palette in search of the film’s overall tone. We create MIDI (synth) mockups that approximate how the final recording will sound, synchronized with picture, affording you the chance to give approval before spending any budget. Our job is to collaborate on a creative direction, offer you musical ideas, make revisions as needed, and give you creative control over this aspect of post-production.
What is a spotting session? The spotting session is an exciting moment! This is when composer and director sit and watch the first assembly (or some full or unfinished form of the edit) for the first time. The goal is to get a feel for the film, and discuss the tone, style, and any other musical needs the production may require. From there, we spot through scene by scene. This is when we decide which scenes need score, which ones don’t, why a scene needs music, and how to get in and out of those sequences (a good rule to follow is never starting a score cue without knowing how and where to exit the scene). We can discuss other items like budget, recording, deadlines and more.
How does the composing process work? After the spotting session, we start sending you musical ideas. This are usually melodies for characters, genera sound palettes, even finished cues (songs) to try against picture. With us, we will usually start with specific scenes that reveal crucial character qualities. This helps us create the most important themes that we scale into a larger score. From there, we tackle the largest and most complex scenes, and finally all the other cues from start to finish. We will compose initial drafts in MIDI mockup form, integrate your feedback to make proper revisions, and record only when all the cues have been approved.
What is a music editor? Music editors can help a composer take spotting notes, set up the tempo and meter map for a composer to work from, and help conform the music timings when music must be rewritten. They are also extremely helpful when edits occur after the score is recorded and out of the composer’s hands. This happens more than you might expect, and they are the qualified professionals to handle this job properly. Most of the time, the music editor may not be necessary. However, when creating a very lengthy and dense score (over and hour with over 80 musicians), or an extremely short deadline, a music editor will likely be necessary to deliver a score on time. Sometimes there is more music to make than hours in the day, so this service may be necessary for the success of a film.
What is a scoring mixer? This is where you get your money’s worth! Among the most essential items you can budget for is the score mixer. A good mixer can take an acceptable recording or mockup and turn it into something spectacular. When you invest in an original score, the composer only provides the musical essentials. The mixer integrates the final audio tracks into a beautiful, clear, balanced, and powerful cinematic product. While many of us composers are good mixers (this is the case with us), the professional scoring mixer adds a dimension of value that will elevate the entire production. In addition to artistic quality, they also prepare the final assets for deliver to the final sound mix. This takes the form of printing final mixes and stem groups (giving you individual control over each section of the orchestra), time-stamping final mixes, and preparing a special Pro Tools session that will seamlessly integrate with your final sound mix. At this stage, they guarantee a smooth transition from music mix to final dub.
What is an orchestrator? Sometimes there is more music to produce than hours in the day, and the recording is weeks away. Often, the composer is still working with the production making revisions and conforming cues and cannot handle the mountains of arranging and printing that must be done. This is where orchestrators are the composer’s best friend. They take a composer’s final (director-approved) MIDI mockup and transform them into a final, written score making it readable for the musicians. They take the roadmap we create for them, and add all the details that make the music possible to play in real life. Without this task, there would be no sheet music for the musicians to read. Orchestrators are one of the most critical parts of the film scoring team.
What is a copyist? While the orchestrators are still arranging the full scores for the composer, someone needs to extract, format, print, and tape the actual parts for every individual player at the recording. This is what the copyists do. We bring in a team of copyists (or “music preparation team”) to get the sheet music to the stage, perfectly formatted for fast-reading, thoroughly proofread, always on time! On smaller or less hurried productions, the composer and orchestrator may be able to handle this job. That said, when the clock is ticking, never underestimate how important good copyists can be.
Why do we need a orchestra/vocal contractor? When you need an orchestra or choir to show up at the right place at the right time (and on budget), you will need a contractor. As you can imagine, the composer is busy working with you making revisions and conforming the music to fit ongoing edit changes. While the orchestrator and copyists are hard at work, your contractor will handle the hundreds of emails and calls it takes to get the performers you need. They will also be busy booking the scoring stage and hiring the right players to fit your exact budget needs. Not only is this a full time job all in itself, but they are the only ones with the access to guarantee your session will happen as promised. Without a contractor, there are no promises you will get the score your composer is writing.
What is an orchestra? An orchestra is a larger ensemble (30-100 players) we use to perform dramatic soundtracks. There is no exact shape they are required to take, but we follow some principles that make the music coherent, balanced, and physically possible to record. It's made up of five primary instrument families: woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboards, and strings. Additionally, I like to consider the choir an important, sixth family member. Let's explore these sections a little more:
Strings (violin, viola, cello, bass) can play for endlessly long stretches without stopping, since they can breathe at any time and don't easily fatigue. Therefore we use them more than any other section. They are also rather soft, so it takes a large section of strings to balance against the power of brass and percussion.
The woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboe) have brighter sounds and cut through the strings, so we don't need as many. Winds also need more breathing time, so we space out their entrances (meaning they don't play quite as often).
The brass is a mighty section (trumpet, horns, trombones, tuba), so they are fewer in numbers. They also require spaced entrances for breathing, and because their instruments fatigue their faces more quickly. We write more strategically for brass than winds or strings.
Percussion, like the strings, can play continuously without fatigue. That said, they are loud like brass and must be used sparingly. However, they need to move between multiple instruments (from marimba to timpani to the cymbals), therefore strategic writing and spacing entrances (to help instrument transitions) is an important consideration.
Keyboards include instruments like piano, celesta (bells inside a piano), synths, and lots of other fun stuff. The harp is an angelic, yet complicated beast with seven pedals that makes most composers heads spin.
Of course, the choir that add endless color and emotional dimension to a score. They are human voices, so breathing, range of singing (how high or low to write), and fatigue must factor into your writing.
Finally, don't worry about managing all this information. It's just here for your consideration. Orchestration is for your composer to sort out. Remember, we need your help with issues about story and scene direction. Guide us deeper into the character's journey, show who or what to follow through a scene, explain the unspoken subtext, and that will help us do our best work.
What is a soloist? A soloist is a single, featured instrument or voice, standing out from the rest of the music. When budgets are tight, sometimes having a light score (piano and synths) can take the place of a large orchestra. In these cases it helps to have a features instrumentalist (like a cello or alto flute) or a vocalist stand out as the leading musical line. This not only reduces the overall cost, but adds immense value to the score by featuring one outstanding musician. Even with a large orchestral recording, the use of soloists still adds emotional power to a score. On a storytelling level, having one or more soloists attached to characters brings thematic coherency and reinforcement to their story arcs. It’s almost like giving them a second voice. When using a few live soloists, we have noticed that most people can’t even tell the rest of the score is mostly digital. The human presence of just one or more soloists can elevate an entire score that otherwise would have been noticeably digital.
What is a scoring engineer? Who records the orchestra at the scoring stage? The scoring engineer does this job. Often, as with us, it’s also the score mixer. Having your score mixer record the session is efficient, and a creatively salient. We prefer having our mixer on the stage, hearing the music take shape, and taking that experience back to the final mix. In any case, this is the person who will be running that gigantic sound board, setting up the microphones, and making sure the recording is exactly what we desire!
What is a scoring stage? It's just a recording studio. In this case, rather than recording a rock band, scoring stages are designed to record large numbers of musicians. When you must record a group that resembles an orchestra (30 or more players), you will need a scoring stage. If you only need to record a handful or soloists, or a very small ensemble (like a string quartet), then most studio small spaces or recording booths will be a good (and more affordable) option. For any soundtrack that requires large numbers of players, or the sound of a large space, a scoring stage is where we make this happen.
What’s the difference between a final mix and a dubbing session? The final mix is something that happens before the dubbing session. The final mix represents the final export of the musical tracks and their stem groups. This is the composer’s final task when delivering a soundtrack. The dubbing session is where we deliver this final music mix. The dub session is where the sound, music, foley, ADR and other audio FX are integrated into the one, final surround (5.1) mix (often in a theatrical mix room like Dolby).