All Things Audio: Music Creation Software, Music & SFX Libraries and Audio Editing Software.
As video producers, most of us get energized planning angles, determining exposure, crafting compositions and motivating our talent or interview subjects. But when it comes to creating a final music and sound effects score worthy of our video efforts, too many of us lumber to the closet to paw through discs in a beat-up cardboard box, searching for something that "will do."
It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, when you don't treat them as an afterthought, music and sound effects can inspire you to think of new visual ideas. But, even when you appreciate the value, coming up with just the right sound can be daunting. The Internet, for all its value, has made this search both easier and more difficult. It has made it easier by the mere fact that you can download just about anything you want, if you're willing to pay the price. The challenge now is that, like grains of sand in the Sahara, your options are nearly limitless, and "just right" becomes a beguiling mirage (see note below).
Before the Internet and the common use of computers for sound creation, you had three choices: hire a composer to write and musicians to perform the music, subscribe to expensive and often narrowly-licensed music libraries, or take lots of music lessons. Adding to these, we now have music creation software, reasonably-priced libraries and even single-track purchase options. Plus, you can usually preview tunes and sound effects from all categories online before you purchase.
But all music, even the tunes you pay for, come with important limitations. So it's important to first understand how you can use them.
License to Play
All right, we all know we're supposed to pay and/or get permission for music we use, but many producers have a host of rationalizations. Let's say you have a popular Led Zeppelin tune that fits perfectly with your video. You're not planning to make money on this; it's just for "personal" use, so isn't that OK? Or, you've found a great remix of a classic "old" song that surely must be in the public domain. Aren't these reasonable exceptions to forking over cash? In a word, "no." The bottom line: if you didn't create it, you'll most likely have to pay for it. For some specific exceptions to this rule, be sure to read Mark Levy'sWhat's Legal article, Musical Copyright, in this issue.
If you've done a little research online, you've no doubt run into an array of terms that describe different types of licenses and usage rights such as Public Domain, Buy-out, Creative Commons, Fair Use, Non-Exclusive, Limited License and many more. One that is a little different is General Public License (GPL). It was created to foster a spirit of sharing. Other terms have similar meaning, such as Copyleft and Share-Alike. Some have more legal weight, others practically none. But they're all meant to encourage the free sharing of creative products. Depending on your subject, such as religious themes, you may find a wealth of worthy material. The only caveat is that you must allow for the continued sharing of the creative product, even if you change it. That's what's meant by Share (and share)-Alike. But the most common usage category you'll likely use is Royalty Free.
The "free" in Royalty Free means simply that you do not have to pay additionally each time your video is shown. Professional organizations such as ASCAP and BMI, among others, police the illegal usage of copyrighted music. And they do their job. Trust us. But with dozens of manufacturers of music and sound effect libraries out there, why worry? While the quality of Royalty Free offerings used to vary from songs obviously hacked from a used Casio keyboard to live orchestral recordings, lesser-quality selections have been mostly squeezed out. Music providers also offer a variety of ways to get the sound you want: single cuts, small collections or complete libraries. You'll end up paying more for single tracks for a similar number of songs in a themed collection, but you don't have to worry about getting sounds you'll never use. For those who don't know exactly what they want until they need it, most manufacturers sell small collections or sampler packs consisting of as few as one to several CDs or DVDs of their music. If you reckon you'll never swing to country, there are plenty of companies that offer small themed collections, from Acoustic Ambience to Funk Fidelity. Finally, investing in a complete library will keep you surrounded by options.
Even though you're not paying royalties for this type of music, the usage rights do vary, often in very important ways. Several companies have limitations on how many copies you can make or even where your final production can be shown. If you've never read one of those pesky User Licensing Agreements when loading software before, we strongly suggest you do it before you purchase any music, to be sure its restrictions will meet your production requirements.
Loop-based music creation software allows you to create your own soundtrack with an incredible amount of control and simplicity. If you've never investigated this category of music because you think you lack the musical ability, you may find that creating your own music tracks is really not as hard as it sounds. Several of the major software manufacturers have designed the user interface specifically with the video producer in mind. That means you won't even have to know how to edit on the beat to lay down great tracks. In fact, some make sound creation as simple as dragging and dropping a music template onto a timeline with your video to create a perfectly-timed bed complete with intro, bridge, chorus and ending.
For those who want a little more control, most software packages also allow you to scale not only the length but the intensity of each score as well. Introducing or subtracting certain instruments varies this intensity within the same song. For instance, your video opens with the morning sun peeking over purple mountains to kiss a swan-filled pond. Your music score template at full intensity includes not only soothing violins but also cymbal crashes and trumpets. Dial the intensity back a bit, and now you have just a single viola heralding a new dawn, with the same melodic motif. Loop-based packages normally come with a small sampling of more complete themed collections, from Hawaiian ukulele ballads to Detroit Grunge. Most music creation software packages also come with an array of sound effects, but it always seems like just the one you're listening for isn't included. Along with additional music template bundles, you can also purchase more sound effects.
So for your next video production, experiment with developing at least a draft music score first. You may find that what you hear will give you a whole new vision for your production.
Note: Sounds like....
You have a particular musical artist or popular copyrighted song in mind, but you can't afford the real thing -- what can you do? Several royalty-free music providers have "soundalike" offerings. If searching these sites doesn't work, do a global Web search with "soundalike" or similar term. You may even try looking for a soundalike song from another artist that sounds like your first choice. Try a music mapping service like www.music-map.com to find related artists that might spring other searches. And for you Windows users, don't forget the shortcut "Ctrl+F" to help you find a specific word or phrase on any given page.
Brian Peterson is a video production consultant, trainer and lecturer.