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Cue the Music, Part 3: Royalty Free Music Under the Microscope

Cue the Music, Part 3: Royalty Free Music Under the Microscope

by Simon Power

 Cue The Music is a three part series examining the options available to amateur and semi-pro audio/visual producers who wish to incorporate music in their productions. In Part One, we examined the process of clearing copyrighted music. In Part Two, we offered some alternatives to using copyrighted music. And in this Part Three, we will be examining the process of using royalty free music.

In part two, royalty free music scored high on convenience, expense and usability when searching for a music resource. But what exactly is royalty free music and what does the process of buying and using royalty free music really entail?

Royalty Free Music under the microscope

Let’s start with a definition. royalty free music describes a composition that you may use as many times as you like and for whatever purpose after paying just a one time license fee. So, you could simply purchase a suitable piece of music for a one-off payment and include it in our small budget, short run audio/visual project with no further costs incurred to you, the producer.

Within that definition there are a number of stipulations. You can’t just buy a load of royalty free music and release it on a CD, and you can’t alter the composition by for instance, adding lyrics or a rap and releasing it as your own. But other than that you’re pretty free to do with it what you want.

Our catwalk footage features some published music

One other point. As with any music, performance details would be noted if your project were to be ever broadcasted by a third party. But this is the responsibility of the broadcaster and not the producer, whose commitment to the project would have been fulfilled prior to broadcast. To the producer, the music remains entirely free from royalty payments.

How To Access Royalty Free Music

That’s a brief outline or definition. So how does the process work?

Let’s go back to our original brief in ‘Cue The Music – Part One’. We were toying with the idea of seeking permission to use the track ‘Still D.R.E.’ by Dr. Dre, the original background music on our fashion show footage.

Let’s suppose that there were too many obstacles and expenses and the process of clearing the track for copyright became counter productive as a result.

We decide instead to remove the audio track from the original footage and replace it with a sound alike track (we can always add some crowd atmosphere and applause to give the event a live feel and make it sound realistic).

So what we need is a sound alike piece of music to replace the original music bed, ‘Still D.R.E.’ by Dr. Dre.

First of all it’s useful to know the tempo, key and genre of the track. Far from being random elements, they could hold the key to finding a suitable sound-alike. So our track, ‘Still D.R.E.’ comes in at 93bpm in A minor and is rooted in the category of Hip-Hop.

Armed with this info we approach a royalty free music website.

Visiting A Royalty Free Music Site

Many of the sites have a variety of ways we could now precede. We could check out their ready-made collections. These are normally available as either download or physical CD’s. Many of them will be categorised by predetermined moods. You may get a CD called ‘Chilled’ or one called ‘Uptempo Dance’ or ‘Rock Radio’. Normally their titles are pretty self explanatory.

The better sites have preview facilities so that you are able to listen to each track and decide whether the collection suits your needs. Remember, these CD’s may cost close to $100, so you’ll need at least 4 or 5 tracks that you think maybe useable. The best way to check usability is by previewing the track and running your footage alongside it in your Movie Making program. Do all the elements work together? If not, move on.

Perhaps in this case as we need only a single track we should check out the sites Music Genre categories. On top end sites, a list of categories won’t be far away. Usually displayed skyscaper-style down the left or right hand side of every page.

Remember, our track is routed in Gansta Rap. Most sites will refer to this as Urban/R’n’B or Hip Hop. ‘Gangsta Rap’ may be available as a sub genre, but is more likely to be a little too esoteric for most tastes! Let’s try Urban. That’s the closest. Clicking on this category link will take you through to a list of tracks available in the style of ‘Urban’.

Now the fun begins. At your leisure, you can read through the description of each track and preview them against your footage. The music will usually be ‘watermarked’ with an ident. A voice over stating that ‘This is a preview’, or something to that effect. But this shouldn’t prevent you from judging whether the track will be suitable for use.

If they’re further categorised by BPM (our tempo is 93BPM) and key (A minor), then check out those first, so that our search becomes as accurate as possible.

Most tracks will be available as full versions, or as loops of various durations (10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute etc.). There may also be an underscore, which will include basic instrumentation, useful when there is a voice over to be added. In our case, there is no voice over.

OK, so let’s judge the quality of the music.

Choosing The Right Track

I can virtually guarantee that many of the composers on many of the sites you visit will have produced a (shall we say) homage to the great Dr. Dre and his ground breaking world wide hit, ‘Still D.R.E.’. Ah, yes. If only that royalty free producer had grown up on the wrong side of L.A., come up with that incredible piano riff before Dr. Dre, and befriended Snoop Dogg who then agreed to rap on it…Well, it could be a whole different story, my friend. But no. His royalty free version will forever merely be a facsimile, albeit a very good one, of the original track. And as we listen through, it becomes clear…This Dr. Dre homage is just what we need to replace the original on our fashion show project. In fact, it’s perfect…

As for format, most mp3’s on offer will use a high quality compression algorithm barely distinguishable from a 44.1 wav. But the audiophiles among us will feel more secure in the knowledge that our project offers the best possible quality and download the wav version rather than the mp3. Be aware that the wav takes longer to download, depending on your broadband connection.

The decision is yours.

OK, happy?

So ‘Add To Cart’ and let’s go!

Add To Cart

Woah, there! Before we go any further, let’s consider the cost. Typically an mp3 version of the track should hover around the $30 mark. With a 44.1 wav version being slightly more expensive.

Many sites will be offering ‘bargain bin’ prices ($7.00, $4.00…My entire catalogue for $37.50!). This low cost is often reflected in the quality of what’s on offer. Of course, some sites will charge a lot more than $30, but this is no indication of quality. That’s left to your own judgement, discretion and indeed budget allowances!

Trust your ears and preview a number of times against your footage. Remember that truly robust music will stand up to repeated listens. If there’s any doubt about the quality of the composition, the flaws will expose themselves after a number of plays. Is our chosen track Dre enough? It is? OK, proceed to checkout.

Proceed To Checkout

But what’s this? We’re being asked a number of questions about ‘licenses’…I thought this was supposed to be ‘royalty free’?

Patience, it is. But there are a number of different licenses within that category and you need to make sure you choose the correct one.

Normally there will be a choice of two (some sites have more). These will be a broadcast license (for TV, radio and film etc), and a non-broadcast license (typically the best one for our short-run audio/visual project). This non-broadcast license will have a restriction on the number of copies you can produce. As an example, anything over 5,000 may be termed as mass market and would require you to buy the alternative license.

Sealing The Deal

So, after choosing the correct license you will be forwarded to a typical Internet shop where you are able to pay for and eventually download your royalty free track.

Within minutes the process is complete and the track is yours ready to import into your movie maker program and sync up to your fashion show footage.

And that’s it!

A Conclusion

OK, so we’ve been through the definition and the process involved in using royalty free music as a music resource.

But as always, there are downsides. There will be times when you find it impossible to find a good match to what you have in mind. You may spend a frustrating amount of time searching through music that just doesn’t somehow meet your needs. There is also an enormous amount of royalty free music available, which can lead to confusion over choice and price comparison.

Sometimes you will be scared away by the frustration of visiting sites with music that just doesn’t come up to the mark.

But find the right site, and buying royalty free music can be the most satisfying and enjoyable process of all. And the results quite often speak for themselves when your project is given that indefinable ‘X’ factor by a well chosen music bed. If you haven’t used it already as part of your audio/visual production toolkit I can recommend it as a highly beneficial resource of good quality music.

Now let’s move on and finish that fashion show project before the weekends comes!


Royalty free music at shockwave-sound
Comprehensive international list of royalty collection agencies

More in this series:

There are previous two parts in this series:

Part One – Using Copyrighted Music
Part Two – Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget

About the author: Simon Power has made
over 50 short films and documentaries for the music technology website Sonic
State. He has also removed & replaced copyrighted music on a number
of commercial BBC releases. In these articles he offers advice and tips
about using music in your low budget film and audio/visual projects. You
can learn more about Simon and his projects at his website,

Cue the Music – Part 2: Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget

Cue the Music – Part 2: Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget

by Simon Power

In Part One, we looked into the process of using copyrighted music on a low budget short-run audio/visual project. In part two we are going to look at the Top 5 alternatives to using copyrighted music by seeking out available music from other sources.

Where Do I Start?

There is an ever growing number of alternative sources of music available to the amateur and semi-pro audio/visual producer. Websites are falling over each other to exploit music budgets by enticing producers with a variety of deals and bundles. But the choice can often be bewildering, and the quality, price and usability can vary wildly.

Hopefully this article will help make some sense of exactly what is on offer. And how you can get the best possible value from your music budget.

So let’s look at the alternatives as we count down the Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget.

By the way. I’ve used a star system here whereby each source is marked out of 5 for convenience, expense and usability. The higher the star rating, the better it performs in that category.

5. Music Software & Programs

Many of the leading music software packages come bundled with comprehensive selections of music loops & kits. In GarageBand for instance, there are a huge number of loops featuring high quality instrumentation. And many of the virtual samplers like Halion, Reason and EXS24 offer simple solutions for music creation that are highly intuitive and easy to use.

However, you have to buy the software to access the loops. If music production isn’t your primary business, you may end up paying over the odds for a wealth of music software that you can’t use for any other purpose than gaining access to the bundled music. Then of course you have to arrange the loops and process them to suit your needs.

Some music software programs offer bundled music loops

There are also dedicated video production businesses that now offer buy-out music as part of their service. Many of these offer every conceivable tool for visuals, from stock footage and animation, to graphics, sound FX and yes, royalty free music loops and kits. Although these are rarely sold as entire compositions, favouring instead 8 and 16 bar loops necessitating the need for a command of music sequencer programs to edit to your needs. And beware. The quantity of loops available often out weighs the quality. My advice would be to preview the entire package to gauge its usability before making a purchase. Although many of the compositions sound highly polished on first listen, you may find subsequently that they just don’t cut it when used as an underscore on your audio/visual project.

    Convenience **
    Expense *
    Usability ***

4. Sample Collections

Sample collections have improved immensely in recent years as more and more established music producers make their self produced samples and loops available on commercial releases. Quite often they will offer entire ready-mixed tracks that can be utilised as music beds with little adjustment. The loops are normally categorised by genre, tempo and key which would certainly help to find suitable music that needed to be of a strict predetermined speed or duration.

However, the ability to manipulate these loops or create your own music beds will require a degree of musical know-how and the ability to operate dedicated music software. You will need to have a sound knowledge of composition, mixing and layering to get the best results. Playing around with loops and samples may be the last thing you need to be doing if you’re on a tight deadline.

Another negative aspect may be the cost. Gaining access to elite collections of samples doesn’t come cheap. Physical CD’s can cost anything up to $200 and you still may not be able to guarantee finding a suitable music bed.

Also beware of copyright. Despite the initial expense, the producers still maintain ownership of the music. In most cases, you’re merely buying a restricted license to use their work. So sample collections can often be a pricey and unwieldy way of finding a solution.

    Convenience **
    Expense *
    Usability ***

3. Production Music

Production Music, or Library Music as it’s commonly known has been around for a long time. Infact it was introduced back in the days of silent movies and has been an abundant resource of ‘synchronized’ or licensed music ever since. Lately, though the business model has started to look decidedly creaky. A lot of Production Music libraries ask for exorbitant up-front fees plus subsequent royalties that put the music out of reach for producers working with a limited budget. Some Production Music companies have addressed this issue by adjusting their business model to suit today’s needs. While others hold on to their values, seeing the alternatives as quirky fads that will soon fade away into obscurity. Sure, you will find high quality music from experienced musicians and composers, but the business model errs more towards TV and film production rather than the low budget producer who is the subject of this exercise.

    Convenience **
    Expense *
    Usability ****

2. MIDI Files

Musical Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI for short was invented in the early 1980’s to allow communication between digital synthesizers, sequencers and computers. Since then it has become the industry standard protocol for computerised music. Even to this day all music software packages interact with controller keyboards using MIDI interface, although wholly ‘in-the-box’ sequencers have somewhat reduced it’s sovereignty over sequencer control. GM or General MIDI was introduced as a secondary protocol so that MIDI data could be interpreted by the same standard on every synthesised instrument. (A predetermined MIDI channel for a piano, a bass, drums and so on). GM was consequently introduced to soundcards and computers internal synthesis programs and functions. Hence the popularity of MIDI files for all sorts of applications from karaoke to games music.

This popularity and standardisation has led to an enormous industry based on MIDI files of popular songs. Any number of sites will offer tracks as MIDI files that utilise General MIDI that will prompt your soundcard to play a song faithfully when imported into your digital sequencer.

However, let’s take an example. Say you downloaded a MIDI file of ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ by Foreigner, recorded the MIDI data as audio and inserted it on your audio/visual project. This would be a copyright infringement and result in legal proceeding should the publisher decide to sue. These are copyrighted songs that are on offer, not original compositions. You will need permission to use them, much in the same way you would to use a specific recording. (Although in this case you wouldn’t require permission from the owner of the physical recording of ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ by Foreigner, just the synchronisation rights from the publisher).

Having said that, there are sites that offer original MIDI recordings by their own staff composers. In other words, ‘royalty free MIDI compositions’. This may be a cheap and effective way to produce original (albeit non-exclusive) music beds for your project. Of course, this requires a degree of knowledge in manipulating digital recordings and the results will be determined by the quality of the sounds on your soundcard or choice of VST instrument. But all in all it’s a reasonable, cheap solution, bearing in mind you need to factor in a certain amount of time to get the desired results.

    Convenience *
    Expense ****
    Usability ****

1. Royalty Free Music

The royalty free music business model came out on top for a number of reasons. Of course the quality varies and some sites are better than others, but overall the process involved was the smoothest and most convenient.

Bearing in mind that the music on offer is non-exclusive, gaining access to highly useable tracks, MIDI and SFX is easy, cheap and fast.

Matched up against production music and sample CD’s, royalty free music scored high on economics, being currently the cheapest way to access good quality music. And for usage possibilities it scored well against software loops that still don’t as yet offer as much variety as royalty free music. For convenience, too. You don’t have to be a musician or digital music producer in order to prepare a track for your project. You just download it and import it straight into your Movie Maker without much fuss at all.

Dr Who & The Pyramids audiobook
enhanced by royalty free SFX in post production

Perhaps things will change. We are currently seeing a great rift appearing between royalty free sites that are slashing prices, while others are charging higher fees to use their music. Eventually the higher quality compositions may become more in line with production music, pricing themselves out of the reach of the ameteur and semi-pro multi media producers. While the one’s slashing their prices will be exposed as offering ‘poor quality’ music. But currently times are good for the consumer, and there is an opportunity to build up a vast selection of credible music via royalty free libraries. Right now it’s the best way to access effective music solutions for low budget audio/visual projects when you’re up against a stiff deadline.

    Convenience ****
    Expense ****
    Usability ****


I hope this article has been helpful and informative. In part three we’ll be examining things in a little more detail when we put the royalty free music business model under the microscope.
More in this series:

You may proceed to Part Three of this series.
Or even go back to Part One of this series.

About the author: Simon Power has made
over 50 short films and documentaries for the music technology website Sonic
State. He has also removed & replaced copyrighted music on a number
of commercial BBC releases. In these articles he offers advice and tips
about using music in your low budget film and audio/visual projects. You
can learn more about Simon and his projects at his website,