Writing & Licensing Songs for Film & TV Episode 4: Writing Instrumental Cues with Guest Carla Kay Barlow
Hi! My name's CK, and I'm a friend and colleague of Michelle's through Taxi, the independent A&R company that we both use. Michelle has graciously invited me to write a guest post about instrumental cues. If you’d like, you can hear a bunch of my work by visiting http://www.reverbnation.com/ckbarlow.
Let’s get right to the point, or at least one of them! If you take nothing else away from this post, please remember this: Anyone with a credit card can get the same gear – the same instruments, the same software, the same loops and sound libraries, the same boutique mics and exotic preamps, on and on – as you. So the most important tools you've got, ultimately, are your creativity, your unique style, and your commitment to quality.
Let's face it: When we’re talking instrumental cues, a monkey can throw a bunch of loops into a DAW, let the software match the key and tempo, then stick a fork in it and call it done. Set yourself apart by aiming higher than that. Be a composer. Make music that you're proud of.
OK, off the soapbox and on to some details!
Form In instrumental cues, you'll typically use one of the structures described below. In all of them, two things will hold true 99% of the time:
● you’ll want to maintain the same key for the entire piece, and
● you need a button ending, meaning the piece stops definitively rather than fading out. One of my publishers recently requested something pretty smart: endings that combine hard stops with big hits that then fade out. Consider the ending of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and how useful those hits are to a music editor on a show. You could cut the song after any of the hard-stop hits or after that second-to-last hit that sustains and fades. Give the editors some cool options!
Now for some forms.
ABA Start with a very short intro and then build some variation on ABA (ABABA, AABA, etc.), where the successive A sections are bigger, more developed, more exciting than the last, or maybe broken down and then built back up – your goal being to balance interest with unity. This is the closest to normal song form that you'll likely produce as an instrumental cue.
If you work at it, you’ll be surprised how many variations you can create with just those two sections. My highest-earning instrumental track, Snap Crackle Pop, complies with this form, but to be honest, its intro is probably too long. Music is really subjective, but if I had to guess at this track’s appeal I’d say that upbeat, fun tracks are always in style, and this tune combines several interesting sounds that fit the vibe. Nothing virtuosic, but lots of fun.
C? Nope. But You Do Need Edit Points. It’s rare that you’ll need a distinct third section comparable to a bridge. What you will need, though, are some edit points, which are spots in the cue where things halt or at least break down enough to let a show’s music editor cut away from the music cleanly and easily.
This doesn't have to be difficult! Genres like dramatic orchestral lend themselves to breaks really well – you know, BOMP BOMP… BOMP! But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find ways in any genre to create breaks and even to do them at ad-friendly times like 14-15 seconds in, 29 seconds in, 59 seconds in, and so on. I’ve posted my track Skipping Stones, owned and represented by Drama King, to illustrate these ad-style breaks for you. Check out the melody leading up to the 59-second mark – I shortened it by a measure to hit the 59 while still leading musically back to the tonic.
A, another A, another A, etc. … and that’s it. This form has no intro; it comes out swinging with what songwriters would consider a chorus, then builds and differentiates mainly with textural changes to maintain interest and create movement. See the Taxi TV episode with publisher/artist John Fulford; he explains this well and also points out that these intense cues will only last a minute or so, and they should make up only about 20% of your catalog. Per John’s request, please do not swarm him with emails. Thanks!
Drones and Underscore Cues Like all cues, these exist to create a mood. There might not be a true musical statement beyond the mood, perhaps some instrumentation and scale choices that indicate geography/ethnicity. And there might not be a clear delineation of sections, or much if any harmonic movement. You’ll hear plenty of these that sustain a single bass pitch with subtle changes above that to create motion. It needs to set a mood without distracting from the action. I recently learned that five tracks of mine were used across four episodes of HBO Vice, so I've posted those for you as examples. Note that in every case, the supervisor chose an alternate mix – that is, a mix with at least one part removed – rather than the full mix. You should always provide alternate, reduced mixes for just this reason.
Length Your publisher will usually give you a target range. Generally for instrumental cues, 1.5-2 minutes is a great target because it gives you ample time for a basic ABA form with some nice edit points. As mentioned, those edit points are crucial! If you have advertising hopes for the track, put the edit points at around 14-15, 29 and 59 seconds.
I do have publishers who ask for lengths of 2.5-3 minutes, but in my experience those aren’t as common as 90 seconds to 2 minutes.
Mood and Genre What should you write? There are many possible answers, depending on your own career stage and circumstances.
If you have publishers already, they're probably asking you for specific genres and moods. If not, and if you don't have personal connections in the industry, your best bet in my opinion would be to use services like Taxi and Hit License – not one of these but several – that will help connect you with music supervisors and publishers; and by virtue of using those services, the supes and publishers have specified their in-demand genres. Again, the Taxi TV episode with publisher John Fulford spent a little time discussing hot genres. John specifically mentioned dubstep (yes, still), dramedy (think Desperate Housewives light orchestral with a mischievous vibe), urban, and gangsta grass (aka hick hop). I can vouch for that; I've got hick hop and dramedy requests from one of my publishers right now!
● It’s always smart to watch current TV shows and then produce tracks comparable to those used on the show. Putting a towel over the TV screen is a great way to focus on the sound world of the show.
● Within a genre, stay current (unless you’re asked for specific past era). If a publisher asks me for hip hop tracks, I immediately visit Billboard, check the hip hop charts, then study the top three tracks to pick up trends.
● Finally, if you’re just starting out, try new genres! You never know where you might discover a hidden talent. Then, as you build your catalog and your publishing relationships, analyze which genres – and which publishers – are working best for you, then focus your energy there.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Michelle Lockey is a multi-award winning singer-songwriter sharing the knowledge she has learned over the years writing for Film & TV.
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