Shockwave-Sound Blog and Articles

Temp Tracks: A Movie’s Secret Score

Selecting ‘temp music’ tracks is an essential part of the overall scoring process in film making. Yet its importance is often overlooked.
In this article, I explain exactly what temp music is and the role it plays in everything from a low budget short films to a major Hollywood feature.

A Temporary Definition

First of all, let’s look at the definition of the term ‘temp music’. A temp track is temporary music (sometimes referred to as ‘scratch music’) chosen by a movie’s music editor (or indeed, the director themselves) for key scenes in a feature film. This temporary music is intended as a guide on early previews of the film to suggest the mood or essence of a particular scene. As music has the power to alter emotional responses to the narrative, it’s important that this temporary music precisely depicts the director’s vision and intentions for the scene. And is music that is able to be reinterpreted at a later stage by the composer and turned into an actual score for the film.

Stock Music & Pop Music

Many directors may already have chosen some temporary music at an early stage. Even in pre-production. However, more often than not, the music editor will turn to a vast and varied collection of Library Music (Production Music/Stock Music) to compose a temporary score for the film.
After all, with the right experience and knowledge, the editor can quickly bring to mind the perfect track for the scene chosen from a vast array of ready-made stock music mood tracks. That’s why Library Music is often used as the quick and effective solution for temp tracks for this in-depth and often time-consuming task of supplying a temporary score.

Other solutions may include published music or film music from other movies. Especially in sequels, where the temp music will often be ripped from the previous release. As in the case of Lethal Weapon 4 where the temp score was taken from Lethal Weapon 1, 2 and 3!

Hollywood Wish List

So, for temporary music, the music editor and director have a wide range of music to choose from.

Using vast amounts of Library Music, hit songs and other movie soundtracks. After all, it’s never going to be heard outside the studio walls, so they can really allow their imagination to run amok and make some ‘wish list’ choices. In fact, There have been occasions where this wish list has become a reality.

Quentin Tarantino chose the track ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ to accompany the notorious ‘ear slicing’ scene in his early feature, Reservoir Dogs. It only became clear at a later stage that a publishing deal for the song may not be granted. Until Tarantino, himself stepped in and hired another music supervisor who could guarantee the Stealer’s Wheel track for his film.

When editing Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppola scored the entire film with ‘temporary’ tracks by the rock group The Doors. All that remained of this temporary score by the time the movie was released was The Doors’ track ‘The End’. Used to chilling effect alongside the Napalm attack on the jungle outpost at the beginning of the film.

Stanley Kubrick was inspired by classical music by Richard Strauss and Gyorgy Ligeti to bring alive his vision of Man’s evolution in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So moved by the results, that this temporary music became the score in the final cut of the film.

Low Budget Independents

Of course, not everyone is producing a Hollywood style blockbuster movie. Most productions are small independent films where the director will communicate their ideas for the score directly with a composer. The ‘temp score’ may indeed be a rough demo produced by the composer. Something that includes his ideas, but with pared-down instrumentation. On approval, the composer will set to work bringing the score to life. Perhaps replacing sampled or synthesized sounds with real instruments and orchestration.

Imitation & Limitation

So those are most of the ways that temporary music finds its way into early pre-production versions of a movie. However, it can be an area of contention and not always just a cut and dried process. In fact, temp music can be very subjective indeed.

I was once working on a score for a film when the director presented me with a piece of temp music for a particular scene. It was taken from the soundtrack of one of the Star Trek movies. A few days later I sent him the cue that I had produced. I sensed he wasn’t entirely happy and asked him if my cue was what he wanted. “Yes,” he replied, “it’s exactly what I wanted and that’s the problem!”

Without realizing, I had mimicked the Star Trek music to such a degree that they sounded almost identical. This is a very common pitfall with temp music and from a composers viewpoint, it’s a two-stage process. Get the music sounding similar, but then step back and add your own essence to the piece. It’s surprising what new directions may be revealed. A few days later I sent the director a second draft and he was entirely happy with the finished piece. And so was I. It had taught me a valuable lesson about how to reinterpret temp music into new compositions and surprise the director with an extra layer of ingenuity.

Temp music can also prove to be extremely limiting on the composer’s ability to use their imagination. Another time I was sent an edited version of a short film. While watching the film I had many ideas for the type of music I would like to compose. A week later, the director sent me some temporary music he had chosen from his personal record library. This music was nothing like I had imagined. In fact, almost the polar opposite! In those situations, the composer must come forward to see if a compromise can be reached. Perhaps the director will eventually appreciate and enjoy the new freedom that a second person’s input can offer. We eventually agreed to make some changes and the results were better than we both imagined they would be at the time!

Marvelous Music?

A point here could be made about current big budget movie scores such as the Marvel franchise. Clearly, the scores in these movies are designed to be nothing more than audio wallpaper these days. The music rises and falls along with the action, but never breaks out as a stand-alone feature unless a piece of published music or a hit song is somehow crow barred into the soundtrack.

But this hasn’t always been the case with Marvel.

Remember Danny Elfman’s music for Spiderman back in 2001? Well, this just may be the problem. If that terrific score has been used as temp music ever since, what we are now faced with is a decades old imitation of the perfect super hero music. There is only one Danny Elfman. And endless photocopies of photocopies just won’t ever produce another brilliant composer. Please, Marvel. It’s your duty to try something new? I’m pretty sure that you have the available budget by now!

Back To The Studio

Meanwhile, back in the studio and with all these available sources of temp music neatly edited into a score, the film is ready for early screenings to studio executives or test audiences. And, of course, as inspiration for the actual score, to be produced at a later time by the chosen composer.

As an example, the temporary music for the original Star Wars test showings was The Planets by Gustav Holst. Easy to judge how this resulted in the eventual rousing classical score by composer, John Williams. As too, music by Irish singer Enya was used as temporary music for key scenes in Titanic. Which then inspired James Horner’s soaring Celtic tones in the film’s final cut.

Temporary Music Credit?

Just a note here on temp music that may be a subject for discussion. A film score composer is being asked to imitate (dare I say, plagiarize?) a piece of music that the director and/or music editor has decided fits perfectly with the emotional arc of the scene. Yet that temporary piece of music is then discarded and never credited when an imitation has been made. Does that seem a little unfair to the composer & producer of the original temporary track?

This is perhaps where a general usage/single payment license seems to be the perfect solution. This way the composer/producer and publisher of the temporary track will receive a payment for their temporary placement in a film. That’s mutually beneficial and seems only fair. Even if no credit is given in the actual film itself.

A Final Imitation

So finally with the score completed, the movie is yet another stage closer to its final release date. The temp music has done its job as the secret ‘invisible’ score. A temporary music bed that has allowed the director, music editor, music supervisors and composer to work towards a common goal. Communicating their ideas through music in order to get the best score and soundtrack the film could possibly have.

Simon Power
As Dream Valley Music, Simon Power has scored a number of short films with his music being placed in feature films such as Chamber’s Gate, Pickings and Ouija 3.

Sound Effects and the Fake Engine Roar

Sound Effects and the Fake Engine Roar

Over the years, the auto industry has increasingly honed their craft at creating environmentally sound cars and reducing unwanted noise levels for the drivers. As a result, the authentic organic engine sounds is masked more and more. For car aficionados who may buy vehicles specifically for the engine roar, this is not necessarily a good thing and they’ve made this known. The auto industry has responded by creating new technologies upon these new technologies that attempt to restore the classic engine sounds that so many have come to cherish.

The trend is succinctly described by K.C. Calwell from caranddriver.com in “Faking it Engine Sound Enhancement Explained.” Calwell references work done by Yamaha’s Center for Advanced Sound Technologies, hired by Lexus for the launch of the LFA model in 2009. Fascinatingly, the Yamaha involved here is the company that creates musical instruments – violins, guitars, etc. Lexus contracted Yamaha to specifically “utilize sound as a medium that can achieve a direct link between the driver and the vehicle” (archive.yamaha.com “Yamaha Creates Acoustic Design for Engine of the Lexus LFA Super Sports Car”). Here, sound is utilized as a concrete object, a physical means to affect the mental state of the driver – it is “sound design” in its purest form.

 

Yamaha was chosen because of their expertise in establishing a powerful emotional and performance connection between musicians and their instruments with the intent of maximum enjoyment of the musician. In this case, the vehicle is the instrument and the driver is the musician. Beyond the pleasure of driving an excellent sounding vehicle that responds to the driver’s acceleration actions, the additional sound element also adds a higher sense of control, allowing the driver to be more “in tune” with their vehicle. As Yamaha states, “Accurately passing on high-grade engine sounds to the driver makes it possible to feel the vehicle’s condition and instantly take the next minute action that is required (“Yamaha Creates Acoustic Design for Engine of the Lexus LFA Super Sports Car” archive.yamaha.com). Yamaha refers to the this back and forth interaction between the driver and vehicle through sound as “feedback,” and an “interactive loop” which makes the driving experience more pleasurable and exciting.

Calwell smartly compares the cabin of the car to the “hall” of a performance area and the driver as the “audience.” In addition to Lexus, he mentions BMW as a forerunner in the addition of recorded engine sound to the driving experience. BMW’s method is playing an exterior perspective recording of the car’s engine directly through the stereo speakers. Incredibly, the samples are chosen according to the load on the engine and the rpm in real time. As the real sounds of the engine are still somewhat audible, the additional sound through the stereo speakers is described as “backing track.”

Volkswagen – Soundaktor: Active Sound

So, here is what Volkswagen initiated in 2011. In order to beef up the sound of their engines, they created the “Soundaktor” which is German for “sound actuator” – ie something that creates sound. Essentially it is a speaker between the engine and the cabin which combines noise to the normal engine sound to create a more “authentic” old-school power sound to the driving experience. This is the definition of “active sound” in terms of automobiles – sound through the speakers triggered by real-time actions of the driver. An audio file is housed on the vehicle’s computer and triggered by changes in the throttle. All noise from the Soundaktor is played through the one dedicated speaker as opposed to other systems that play enhanced engine sound through the car’s stereo speakers. Interestingly, with a bit of digging you’ll find car enthusiasts on forums discussing the best methods with which to dismantle the function on forums – one user saying he pulled a fuse to dismantle it as soon as he bought his VW. It seems that some of these connoisseurs tend to not like the “fakeness” of the added sound, though most drivers its appears aren’t bothered enough to worry about the authenticity. A quick search for BMW Active Sound shows these videos – all providing info on how to dismantle their sound system.

Most likely, the general consumer doesn’t even realize they are listening to a replacement engine sound and simply appreciate the experience. Some users in the know, however, are wishing there could be a toggle on/off for the additional sound which would give them to choice to engage or not. As with all these systems, the purpose of the additional audio is to compensate for the muffling of the actual engine sound due to advancements in sound proofing.

Ford – General Motors – Acura: Active Sound

The Cadillac models incorporate Bose sound systems to add additional noise-canceling technology to rid the cabin of unwanted “road noise” and simultaneously employing a stereo based system akin to Volkswagen. As an audio engineer and music producer, I 100% appreciate what these auto sound technicians are doing – they are “cleaning up” the audio of the car’s performance. It is purely analogous to the job of live sound mixers as well as those in post-production and mixing/mastering music – get rid of the unwanted noise! At the same time, they enhance the choice sounds via the stereo system.

Acura as well have moved into the foray of vehicle sound designing in an impressive way. The moniker for their efforts is Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). This is eerily similar to the theatre mixing work of blah blah discussed in a previous post. Which is creating a system that dynamically responds to sonic assaults in real time that may disrupt the performance/driving experience in order to kill the noise. Acura’s ANC works to cut out the low frequencies noises similar to cutting out the bass under 60-100dB when mixing an audio track. A bit of google digging could probably unearth the exact frequencies they are targeting – perhaps it’s 500 dB where the “mud” of an audio track tends to live at the meeting of the bass drum and the bass guitar/element. Regardless, to cut the unwanted bass out of the cabin’s aural experience Acura uses overhead mics within the cabin that create a reverse phase (noise canceling) signal to handle and mute the unwelcome deep tones. At this point, ANC is able to increase the sound levels from the engine to fill in the now clean space afforded by noise cancellation. Again, all of this is dynamic and works to raise the engine sound level within the cabin by up to 4dB. This audio system is a standard element of the MDX, RLX, TLX, and ILX models. (www.thedrive.com/tech/22834/from-acura-to-vw-bmw-to-porsche-car-companies-are-getting-sneakier-about-engine-sound-enhancement)

Incredibly, this technology has been taken to now allow cars that have 4 cylinders to sound like engines that are much much bigger, as explained in this video.

From a professional sound design perspective, being challenged with syncing dynamic engine audio samples to be triggered in real time during a live driving experience is enticing. For an audio nut, or a current student it’s kind of like “hell yeah this sounds like fun!” not to mention the earning and career potential doing sound design for car companies. This is a wide open field for sound designers. On the flip side, for the consumers and those who love these vehicles, it appears to be sort of a nightmare, as they want the “authentic.” In fact, when googling “car sound pipes” the first 5 entries and videos are all about how to dismantle them – as with the forum posts mentioned above. I include a post from Larry Webster on popularmechanics.com here because it is not only exceptionally written but quite telling. Webster, on popularmechanics.com in “The Rise of the Fake Engine Roar” laments the development of this experience that he deems “fake. First of all, the title says it all – the “Fake Engine Roar.” He references the main contributors for these “fake” sounds – muffled noise from excellent insulation and environmental regulations. He quotes car buyers who state that the industry is “lying” to them by using sound samples.

While car owners who want the classic noise might appreciate the attempt at improving the aural experience, there is some negative reaction from car lovers – from those who live by their car, and they appear to deem the auto industry’s effort to be a fake, creating a faulty experience. Whether we think the environmental benefits outweigh the opinions of these car lovers, or whether we lament the loss of the “classic engine sound,” one thing is true. That sound design and sound effects continue to play a major role in many types of products, not only on the stage, but in vehicles. The use of the sounds transforms the car itself into a performance venue.