(For the sake of this post, I’m going to speak in terms of editing documentary or reality or corporate presentation type projects, not scripted. The approach to music in scripted projects is a little different)

More often that not lately, editors in my end of the production spectrum have been tasked with using library music in our shows. Meaning that there isn’t a composer. Well, there MIGHT be a composer, but they simply provide us with stock music, or music used in previously scored shows. Sometimes they might be utilized to score part of a show, so we have some original music. But lately, more often than not, the music us editors add to the cut is THE music that ends up in the final project.

And this brings me to the realization that there are many editors that simply don’t know how to edit music.

This is an issue that pops up all the time, specifically when working on a show with multiple editors. Very often I’ll be watching a cut, and something odd happens midway through a scene or near the end…the music will “jump” suddenly, or shift to a different tempo mid stream. When I solo the tracks I’ll note that either the music simply cuts from one cue to the next, rather clumsily, at a point where the editor wanted to change the mood of the piece. Or there might be a simple dissolve joining the parts of the music cue together. I understand how people can have trouble with this, as music can be very hard to edit, especially to a specifically timed scene. The music needs to change when you want it to change. But you cannot accomplish this simply by adding a dissolve.

This will not do.

You need to find a natural cut point in the music. Those typically happen on the beats. And not just any beat…you can’t cut to a down beat when an upbeat is coming up….they need to both be down beats. This is VERY HARD to explain in a blog, and when I lack the music language knowledge to know what all the vocabulary is. My daughter will be shaking her head in shame right now. But if you listen to music, you’ll hear it have upward movements and downward ones…and beats. You can’t suddenly change direction on your beats…say two downward beats, or it will sound odd. You need to find the similar beat to cut on. This will mean that you need to adjust the timing on your cut…for sure. You might need to space your narration further apart, or the dialog, but if you do it right, if you can get it to land on the right beat, then the music can actually accentuate the statement that someone makes.

On documentary projects (and some types of reality), one trick that I have come to employ is to cut the music to the narration and interviews and recreations right away…in the “radio cut” phase. In essence, really make it a RADIO cut. Make it sound like a piece you might hear on THIS AMERICAN LIFE (don’t know this show? I can’t recommend it more!). Make it work as a radio show that you later add images to. So first I’ll string together my narration and interviews, then I’ll hunt for the music cue I think fits best and cut it in. I’ll listen to the rough with the music, and if I’m lucky, there’ll be hits or rises that happen that might be perfect for when someone says something major. If it takes a while for that beat to hit, then I’ll adjust the music so the impact happens after the statement. I’ll need to edit the music. So I’ll see if there is a repeating movement that I can simply cut out, or make blend properly. If I want it to have more impact, I might add a sound effect to punctuate. Or…sometimes other musical instruments like a rising cymbal to slowly signal a coming change to the music.

It’s also tricky when you want to edit a section with the impact at the end of a music cue, but it doesn’t “back time” properly to meet up with the first part of the cue. Then you need to get tricky and creative, and really hunt for beats that match, and adjust timing to they match well. And then there times when you want a cue with one tempo to start, say a nice slow moment, then boom, cut to a fast paced exciting moment, you need the music to blend. And not just with a long dissolve, they might need to have a common beat. At times like this it’s like I’m a club DJ that needs to transition from one song to the next. But while they can adjust the speed of the songs slightly to compensate, I really can’t.

This REALLY is hard to blog about. This needs to be heard to be understood.

I guess all I can really convey is try to blend the music better, see if you can get a good radio edit of your footage. Having the right cadence and pauses in the right place, and even adding sound effects to make a point impact more, will really help you figure out visuals. This is why finding the right cues matter, and why finding music that works just right can take time…a lot of time. Many times I find myself spending more time finding the right music cue for a scene, then actually cutting the scene itself. And once I find the right cue, I’ll need to adjust the scene to accommodate it.

Finding the right music cue is VERY important. It is often the difference between a scene working, and it not working at all. One day your producer might watch your cut and hate it, and the next day love it, and all you did was change the music cue. In a screening not long ago a new editor came aboard an existing show and was…new to the show style. When his act was screened, we hit this one section where the music cue really hit the producer wrong. While it was a moment of celebration, the cue used was…well, he said “Oh my god, I can’t take it. This sounds like a graduation cue! No…stop it, I can’t watch this scene…I can’t…stop it.” The right wrong cue can make a good scene unwatchable.

OK, one final note I’ll make…make sure your music “buttons.” That means…make sure it ends, not just fades out. It needs to resolve, end on a “bahm BAHM bahm!” or some other musical thing that has it end. It might fade after that…meaning it won’t just cut to silence, but have that last note slowly die off. Unlike many songs you might hear on the radio where it’s just the chorus fading to silence as the song ends (I hate that), the cue needs to have an ending. Needs to button. Watch commercials and documentary shows to see what I mean.

If this isn’t difficult enough, revisions throw a wrench into the works. If we are told to cut a line here, or swap things around…that messes with the music timing. Or we are asked to move chunks of story from one act to another, or swap scenes. Now we need to do real damage control. Blend the music with the new scene, maybe find entirely new cues so they match better, because what you had before no longer works. Fixing that can take a while. Good producers know this, and allow for that time.

That’s it for this blagh post. If I get enough of you commenting, asking “what the hell do you mean? Can you show us what you mean?” then I might be persuaded to make a podcast about this. If I can find a scene that I can show to people. I’ll try to dig something up.

PS – I know one production company that specifically asks if you play a musical instrument, because they require people to do a lot of music editing, and understand how music works together. It took a lot of convincing to get that job, as I don’t play an instrument.