As a Post Production Supervisor, one question I’m frequently asked by producers is, “Do I really need to hire a music editor?” For first time filmmakers, I can understand the confusion. Perhaps there isn’t a lot of music in your film, or maybe your score is pretty straightforward and your composer is timing everything to a locked cut. But if your feature has both score and source music, the answer would probably be you’ll need one. A music editor doesn’t necessarily have to come on until later in post production, but it’s always a good idea to make sure you have someone who is going to be able to fit all of the music that you are putting in your movie just right, and usually the music editor is the only person skilled enough to do it well.
I’m currently working with the incredibly talented music editor, Tom Trafalski, on Michael C. Martin’s directorial feature debut, Ten Cent Pistol. A film noir set in Los Angeles, it’s the story of two brothers who are caught up in a life of crime, a love triangle and seeking revenge and redemption. Taking a cue from the film Drive, Ten Cent is driven by score and source music, which necessitated the need to have a music editor on hand. During our sound mix at Monkeyland Audio, I had a chance to talk with Tom, and asked him to explain his role on a project and the advantages of having a music editor on a film.
Tell us a little bit about what you do as music editor.
On big features my role is pretty clear —I will do a temp score for the director/producer/studio, to help everyone find a tone, flavor and general direction for the music as well as have a playable movie with an appropriate temp score for screenings and focus groups. I’ll generate a music cue sheet to track everything, interface with the music supervisor (if there is one) to find songs, or find songs on my own if there is no supervisor. I will make sure all music is cleared and accounted for, attend a music spotting session with the composer, and generate notes that reflect the projects needs.
Additionally, I’ll ride shotgun and navigate for the composer as he writes the score and I’ll keep him abreast of director or producer requests as the music gets written. On bigger budget projects, I’ll wrangle the score and scoring process, assist with orchestrator and live player wrangling and possibly track cues or cut trailers. No matter what budget, my job is to continually conform the temp score and composer score to the current picture cut, and assemble the score and all music for delivery to the stage. This entails taking all of the songs, score cues, stems, and elements and provide an assembly that will seamlessly play for the mix stage. You don’t want the dub stage to get an assorted wet bag of songs music bits and OMFs that they then have to figure out and assemble into a playable sequence at $500 an hour. Even the simplest score that exists as an OMF from the picture editor needs to be cleaned up as it was mixed for his editing suite, and Media Composer cannot edit inside a frame. A frame is 30 milliseconds , and a long time in musical terms, in other words, you’re gonna hear the picture editors music cuts if they are not cleaned up by someone. Also, often in the temp process MP3s or YouTube rips are used to convey the idea, but high quality elements are needed to mix into the final , so the music editor often has to reverse engineer the picture editors edits into the full quality tracks. You wouldn’t pay thousands of dollars for a helicopter night city skyline flyover shot and use a low-res YouTube clip in the online final. Why would you use an MP3 of a song if you’ve paid thousands to use it in an awesome music montage?
I think a lot of indie film producers think their picture editor can accomplish what you do, and it’s frustrating to me, as a Post Supervisor, because I know they are going to end up paying for it on the mix stage.
On features with a more modest budget, music editor duties do get more and more absorbed by either the picture editor, the composer and his crew, or the dub stage. Some picture editors are great at cutting a good temp score—some are not. Some have the time to do it, and some projects are so hectic they don’t. But none are as fast and have the tools that a music editor has at his disposal. It’s true, quite often on low-budget projects, hopeful producers try to constrain costs try to minimize a music editors presence. They hope the picture editor can cut a good temp score, or live with a mediocre one. (Although a good temp score can noticeably increase a movie’s quality, hence increase its salability.) Producers hope that someone like the picture assistant will track songs and clearances and timings, and that the dub stage will be able to address music changes. And they wing it and hope that someone at the end will understand how to create a proper legal music cue sheet & deliverables that a studio will accept. I often describe my job as being like an EMT at a race track—some Sundays no one crashes, other race days there’s a crash every lap and there’s a struggle to address all the fixes. Keep in mind that a music editor can address changes at $50/an hour, while fixes done by the dubstage will be hasty and executed at $500 an hour. So it’s a gamble not to hire a music editor, but painful and expensive if you guessed wrong.
When should a filmmaker consider bringing a music editor on?
Well depending on budget, you should have a qualified music editor do the temp score, as well as having him to deliver the music to the stage and be on the dubstage to address fixes. The composer will ask that you carry the music editor during the spotting, writing and scoring process as well, as someone needs to wrangle notes and changes the director/producers want addressed in the score.
How important is it for you to be in the sound mix?
As I’ve mentioned before, thrifty producers hope there will be no music fixes, and that all parties will like the songs , score and timings at the final dub , but inevitably changes will be needed and they will be expensive and painful if the stage mixer needs to do it.
We met on Ten Cent Pistol, you came to the film through the composer, Jim Dooley. Give us a run down of what your work was like on the film and how you worked in collaboration with Jim.
Every Composer and music editor relationship is different. Sometimes editors are strangers to the composer and just clean up and wrangle the score and sometimes music editors are more intimate, thus more akin to co-producers, and can offer a good sounding board for composers to bounce ideas off of.
As a music editor, do you treat score and source music the same, or differently?
Each have their issues—getting licenses, clearances and high quality tracks of songs always takes longer than you think. Cutting songs can be tricky as you have no stems to be clever, also some artists forbid you from cutting their songs, or request approval. Score is usually pretty straightforward and most editors have a shorthand with the composers they work with all the time.
What type of software are you typically working on?
I use Protools to cut and prep score. I use Logic or Cubase to be compatible with the composer if i need to pull anything out of his sequences, and sometimes I use Media Composer directly to cut temp score for the picture editor. Filemaker to create cue sheets and wrangle music information.
What are some of the challenges a music editor might face on a project?
Tight schedules, last minute conforming, and refereeing political differences in the music can be some of the most challenging issues for a music editor to wrestle with.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.