Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Libraries - Not the Reading Kind

Hello everyone,

Sorry I haven’t written a post in a while. I’ve been swanning around Quebec City and San Diego as you do – a little bit of work, a little bit of holiday, which is always nice. But I’m back and I’m raring to go.

As I’ve been banging on about library albums here and on social media, I thought it was about time I wrote a post explaining a little about them. Here goes...

Library music, also known as “production music” and sometimes “stock music” (like stock photos), is music that hasn’t been written for a specific project, but is licensed (or lent out, if you like) to companies for use in a TV show, film, commercial, or whatever they want music for. Often, a library album will be written to a theme – something like “dark documentary”, “Hollywood action”, or “fantasy orchestral” – with a number of tracks in a very similar style. This makes it easy for editors, directors, or music supervisors to find the kinds of music they need. For example, somebody making a documentary on gang crime can find the “dark documentary” library and pick tracks from it, whereas somebody making a superhero feature film can look at “Hollywood action” music for the big fight sequence.

There are many production music companies out there who specialise in obtaining and placing library music. They all work slightly differently, but generally, they ask a composer to write an album – for instance, Bosworth (the company I mostly write for) have me writing an 8-bit video game album at the moment – and then put it into the catalogue of music they sell and try to get placements for it.

When writing a library album, I tend to be asked for 10 tracks, each one three to three and a half minutes long. Then, I have to produce alternate versions and what are called “cut-downs” for each of these tracks. Cut-downs are shorter versions of the track that can be used where the longer version isn’t necessary or as title music, for scene transitions, or as interstitial stings (the short versions of titles before and after adverts). It makes things easier for the company that wants the music for their production. Each track on the album will end up with between six and ten versions, depending on what is required. I usually end up writing:

      1. Full version
      2. Underscore version (or instrumental version if it’s a song)
      3. 29-second version
      4. 15-second version
      5. 10-second version
      6. 5-second version

The full version is the track in all its glory. The underscore version is a slightly thinned-out version of the original track. For this, I often take any melody away and I sometimes thin out the orchestration (depending on the style of music) so that I end up with what my brother Dan and I call “wallpaper” music – music that is really unobtrusive and easy to edit, which library albums often need because they are going to be used across a number of different productions*. Then the cut-downs are needed. The 29-second version is often useful in pre- and post-title sequences. The 15-, 10-, and 5- second versions are often just the last bit of the full track; in fact, the 5-second version often ends up being a few notes or sometimes even a single chord.

I don’t usually do the cut-downs until the full track has been mixed. This is mainly because it’s easier and faster not to have to mix six or more versions of the same thing. The only downside to it is if you have to rewrite anything to tweak it so that it works as a shorter version – then you have to mix it all over again. (You can avoid this by writing everything at 120 bpm, which makes for lovely cut-downs, but also risks limiting your music and making it less interesting.)

I usually do the cut-downs for both the full and the underscore versions (not something every production company requires), because it gives clients the most choice and flexibility when placing music and often means that they can use a single album for the majority of their production, giving the score a consistent sound.

I really enjoy writing production music as it allows me to explore genres that I might not otherwise get a chance to write music for. It’s challenging to write without the input of a specific project, because you have no story or images to guide you (which is why the “wallpaper” style of music works best); I often make up a scene to write for so that I can capture a specific mood or style more easily. The more I write library albums, though, the easier it gets and the more I enjoy it.

I had better get back to funky 8-bit music now. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from people reading this blog!


Sam x

*If you’re lucky, that is! If a library track is really good, productions with very different genres and styles (think romance and horror) will use the same track – so it has to be versatile.

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