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Movie soundtracks with Live

2013/10/09 1 Comment »

I’ve always been a sound geek. I love sounds, and particularly movie sound, from well crafted soundscapes and effects, via intricate orchestral composition to foley. A good friend of mine is getting serious with his amateur film projects, and he asked me to do the music for his very first short. As it turned out, I took it upon me to do all the foley and sound design too, and I’d like to share my experience using Live for this task.

In this post I’ll do a write-up on my first experience scoring and soundscaping for film in Live. I’ll also analyse the process and list all the mistakes I made underway, and suggest what should be done instead.

The post is intended mainly for musicians who want to delve into the sound editing part of a movie soundtrack.

Why Ableton Live?

The short answer is: because Live is a tool you know, and it can do the job. The very notion of doing foley/soundscaping in Live will possibly scare professional soundtrack artists into a full-on prance; they’ll go into a whole “right tools for the job” kind of rant, etc. In my opinion, Live has all the tools you need: it has a movie window (yes, it is very bare-bones; it has no timecode stamp and you cannot directly sync Live’s timeline to the movie’s frame rate, but it does the trick). I’m not suggesting that seasoned users of more specialised software should switch to Live – I’m merely saying that Live can get the job done. With that out of the way, let’s move on:

Initial steps

When I sat down to get started with the project, I didn’t have a plan at all. At the time when I started dabbling with my initial ideas, I only had the script to go on, and I expected to do the music and nothing more. That was my first mistake.

  • First rule: make sure you know exactly what your task is before you accept the job.

This is probably the most important step, regardless of your software or workflow. Scoring and sound editing are two different jobs. If you have the time, desire and ability to do both, go ahead. But keep in mind that they are NEVER done by the same person in a more professional setting. At first, I agreed to do the music; I might have predicted that I would also be handed the sound editing, but, well, I didn’t. But we know that Live is a brilliant music-making tool, so this would be a nice exploration of further possibilities. Of course there are better tools for syncing foley to picture, but these are other tools and expensive tools. I already own and know Live, and I was confident it would be up for the challenge. I was handed the script, and as I’ve always wanted to score for film, I was eager to get started. This was before they’d even finished filming, if I recall correctly. That was my second mistake.

  • Second rule: never start your work until you have a finished – or close to finished – movie to work on.

I started working on the music, based on the images the script conjured up in my head. After awhile, I finally started getting rough cuts of the various scenes, but they were “works in progress” all the time, so any synchronisation work I did would most likely have to be redone later. Also, when I did get the full film so I could lay out the entire soundtrack in one go, the scene transitions were a temporary “quick fix,” and even though my mate did a good job getting things to sync up again when he redid the transitions, a few sounds were off, so I’m a bit grumpy over this… 🙂

  • Third rule: Make sure that the film makers have set aside enough time for all the sound work AFTER they’ve finished editing the movie.

It is, of course, not easy to know exactly how much time you’ll need, but you have to make a semi-educated guess, based on your previous experience with audio work: how much time do you spend on a track? How long is the film you’re working on? How many hours do you have at your disposal any given day? Do nothing until you’ve cleared this with the film makers. Sure, you can do field recordings, gathering the necessary sound effects etc., but it’s pointless starting the actual foley sync work until you have the edited film in front of you.

  • Fourth rule: Make sure the recorded dialogue and the on-location sfx are of usable quality.

As you’re most likely working on an amateur film project, you’re probably the most knowledgeable person in the team, as far as audio is concerned. If they give you crap quality sound from an on-camera microphone, you’re definitely going to be frustrated, because even though you can do amazing things with audio restoration software like iZotope’s RX3, there are limits. Crap in = crap out. Make sure that the film people realise this.

Once you have these four, fundamental rules in the clear, you can proceed.

Workflow: keep it organised!

First: a technical bit that’s important: make sure to enter Live’s settings and adjust the audio settings to (at least) the specs of the target product (DVD, Blu-Ray, whatever). You don’t want to mess around with this later in the process, so keep in mind the various formats.

keep-it-tidy

As a musician, you’re probably used to being able to change anything at any point, and so you might be tempted to do both foley and music in the same project. Don’t! You should definitely keep the two jobs separate for as long as possible; my advice is to start with the foley and sound editing, and the very first thing you should do is to plan ahead: organise your various soundtrack elements into groups by category. One group for dialogue (where possible, you should keep individual voices on discrete tracks), one group for foley, one for ambience and one for special effects. You can, if needed, use more groups per category (e.g. “foley 1,” “foley 2,” etc.), but your overall goal here is to render the various groups as stems – a concept you’re surely familiar with as a musician – so that when you’ve mixed the individual tracks and the groups in relation to each other, they constitute a whole: the “sound” part of your soundtrack. The other part is the music. You could, of course just bounce the entire soundtrack to a single file, but when you have a handful of stems, you have more creative control when mixing in the music. For instance, you might realise that a certain part of the ambience adds too much sonic “mud” in a segment where you have both music and dialogue and where you also want a certain foley element to be audible; if you’ve got the “offending” sound as a discrete stem, it’s easy to filter it or adjust its gain, without affecting the other parts.

soundtrackslive-fps

In order to get the foley and dialogue synced as tightly as possible to the picture, I set the tempo in my foley Live set to 225, and changed the Arrangement grid resolution to 1/32 (which are the magical numbers in order to get one “frame” in Live’s arrangement to equal one frame of film at 30 frames per second – do the maths yourself if you have a different frame rate 😉 ). This could be considered needlessly picky, but it saves you guessing time, as you know that 1/32 note is one frame of film at any given time. You can also set Live’s timeline to various FPS formats, but I didn’t find this useful, and just kept it set to regular ‘time.’

Now, I know that my advice was “finish the dialogue and other sounds first,” but what I did was actually moving back and forth between the two projects, importing SFX stems to the music project and vice versa, because I found it hard to stick to the rule. I still firmly believe that it’s better and more efficient to finish the SFX first, but as with mostly everything else, it’s the end result that matters, so it’s all about finding your own workflow.

Moving on to the music

If you are in the position of doing both the audio editing and the music, you should now render your stems, by exporting your bus tracks (“foley,” “ambience” etc.) individually. Even if you’re not doing the music or the final mixdown, I’m sure the mixing person will appreciate stems. Uncheck ‘dither’ in your export settings, as this should be the final step when mixing down the finished soundtrack. Now you can open a new Live set – the music set. Here I’d suggest that you should drop your stems as audio tracks in a new group (make sure the resulting clips are un-warped – they should now be in sync with your movie file, and you don’t want to cock that up with warping!). Now you can import the movie again and start your music making. The movie and soundtrack stems will be in sync, so the challenge now is to sync the music to the picture! 🙂 Live user and soundtrack composer Daniel James has an intricate technique for doing this (YouTube clip), but my own methods were a lot cruder.

I assume that you know how to do the music part, though, so that’s all for now. I’ll add more to this post if I find that I’ve omitted something important.

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