A step by step guide for custom music

Hiring a person to create music for you has the potential to be an extremely mysterious process, but it does not have to be. In the following points, I will briefly explain my own work process and professional approach to creating a single musical track for a client.

I will be including some useful tips for effective communication, efficient workflow, and creative considerations, as well as detailing the expertise required to take music from just an idea to a commercially acceptable product.

Note that some of these steps may be omitted depending on the budget. Full high-level production is only possible with a requisite number of man-hours, dollars and resources. If you’d like to find out how much it costs, just drop me an email.

1. Establishing style

If there is a particular "sound" that you are aiming for, it is much more effective to reference existing music in order to communicate this to the composer, rather than attempting to describe it with words alone. Youtube, Spotify, Grooveshark and a host of other publicly available streaming services are great resources for this.

Using references allows the composer to immediately understand the type of instrumentation desired (orchestral, big band, hair metal group etc.), as well as tempo (or speed), mood and a whole host of other details.

In short: Do your research! A developer or director well exposed to music can spend more time on the actual creative aspects of the track, and ease communication between composer and client. It will also allow you to pick a composer correctly. This echoes simple good hiring practices, because it is much better to find someone whose style and work fits your aesthetic closely than force a great orchestral composer to write dubstep.

2. Preliminary Sketches

Once the style and feel of the music has been agreed upon, I will work on a melody, or main thematic idea that will form the basis for the rest of the piece. The importance of this little fragment of musical material in narrative mediums such as games and films cannot be overstated. It is what listeners remember, and what creates identity (Indiana Jones, Star Wars etc.)

When the bulk of these melodies have been whittled down to the best few, I will present them to the client to choose from. Once a favourite has been selected, we move on to the next step.

Tip: Listen to Steven Spielberg and John Williams talk about their work process on what is possibly one of the most successful themes of all time, for the importance of these building blocks.

3. Composition/Orchestration Drafts

At this point, with the selected melodic material, I will draft a structurally complete, partially orchestrated piece of music with rendered audio for the client to approve. By this point, the client is usually better able to pinpoint specific parts of the piece that could use changes. For example, at 0:53, the client may decide that he does not want a guitar playing there, or that he would like the percussion to be more "present" and so on.

Once the requested changes have been noted, the draft will then be fully orchestrated and rendered for client approval before moving into the production phase, in the next step.

Tip: This is not the time to have brand new musical ideas. i.e. "Instead of "My Little Pony", we decided (without consulting you) that a soundtrack along the lines of "Inception" would be better."

4. MIDI Sequencing or Recording

The music has been fully written and finalised, and the client has chosen one of three options

1. Electronic rendering of the score with top of the line sample libraries and software

2. Recording the score with a live ensemble in one of several world-class soundstages

3. Hybrid Production - Recorded music reinforced electronically

Option 1 – The cheapest option. You have to realize that you are working with sample libraries. Some of them are very good, but they're no match for the teams in Hollywood who work on blockbuster movies with real orchestras and players. With managed expectations, this can be quite effective. To give you a general idea of how much these libraries cost, “LASS”, an industry standard orchestral strings library, costs 1000 USD.

Option 2 – Best quality option. The music is recorded by a live orchestra in a professional studio with engineers and a conductor. A 3 hour session including breaks and rehearsal with a 20pc chamber orchestra can yield 20-30 minutes of recorded music, depending on the complexity of the score. Prices can range from 50 - 100 USD per player, so a session like the one I just described would cost approximately 4000 dollars (minimum) including studio time, engineers and a conductor. This is a figure from a recording orchestra in Boston - very affordable.

Option 3 - The middle road. The music is recorded with a much smaller orchestra, and sample libraries/synths are used to reinforce the recorded music to give the impression of a bigger ensemble. This is increasingly common, and highly recommended for mid-budget projects.

As a general rule, live musicians are extremely important to have, because the imperfections and emotional sincerity of a live recording can immediately set your music apart from most of the cookie-cutter music that’s available on the market.

5. Mixing and Mastering

The music is sent to an mixing engineer who I partner with, where leveling of the recorded and/or sequenced audio is done, and effects such as equalization, compression and reverb are applied to give the track the desired sonic profile.

Once this is done, the mixed track will be "mastered", either by the same person, or by someone else who specializes specifically in mastering (recommended). This further enhances the audio, and optimizes the track to sound great on as many playback systems as possible, with the option of focusing entirely on a single playback system (i.e. cinema).

If it is part of a soundtrack, the mastering will serve to make sure that all the tracks are consistent with each other and play back at compatible volume levels, so that listeners do not feel the need to adjust sound levels between tracks.

6. A Dose of Reality

Quality costs money. If you are into the cheap and fast, that's totally ok. I would recommend in that case that you patronize stock music libraries that are readily available online. They are a fantastic resource for people who do not have the budget or the inclination to hire a skilled composer to create a custom soundtrack.

Custom soundtracks are not always necessary, but when they are, it's not advisable to cut corners. Invest in quality wisely and you will reap the returns. As always, you can only have two of these three things – Cheap, Fast and Good. A contractor offering all 3 should raise some red flags.

I hope you've learned something from these short peeks into the process of creating customized music. If you have any questions at all, I'd be happy to answer them. Just drop me an email!

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