If you were writing a pop song you would make sure that the lead vocal track was the center of attention and mix the rest of the instruments around it. Right? But I bet a lot of composers of trailer music haven’t even considered that in many cases the ‘main instrument’ will be added long after the mastered track has left their studio – the voice-over.
ANNCR: IN A WORLD... Editor: Oh my God. ANNCR: FULL OF EPIC TRAILER MUSIC... Music Super: It sounds so big. ANNCR: ONE TRACK... Creative Dir: It's perfect! ANNCR: IS DESTINED FOR THEATRICAL GREATNESS Editor: Let me just drop in the VO... [Insert Explosion SFX] ANNCR: UNTIL SOMETHING...GOES...TERRIBLY...WRONG
Why you might want to consider the voice-over during the mix process?
Let’s imagine as a producer/engineer that I am working on a radio trailer for an epic new upcoming summer action film. I have already gotten an epic delivery from one of the trailer voice-over guys. I string the voice-over out with the SOT’s (dialogue bites) and get a good vision of what the finished spot is going to sound like. Then I pull eight possible pieces of music from the several trailer music libraries that have the right push, intensity, mood and drive to keep the spot narrative moving forward. The selections come from top notch libraries so all sound great by themselves! One by one, I import them into the ProTools session and place them under the voice-over/SOT string to see if the music works well in the spot. Several tracks get eliminated right away for various reasons I will discuss in future posts. I narrow the field down to two pieces of music I like a lot.
And here is where the trouble lies. I like the first track the best with its driving ostinato cellos and all the editor friendly moments I am looking for. However, once I place it under the voice-over the music’s drive turns to mud. The announcer is eating up the same frequency that those cellos used to occupy. The compressors smash the already compressed music bed and all the drive and forward motion created by the cellos disappear – all we are left with is just the basic color of the track. Sometimes that is enough – but not in this case. The track gets the axe and I go with my 2nd choice. I have placed thousands of tracks in promos and trailers and you would be surprised how often this situation pops up! I am not just talking cellos. A lot of things share the same frequency range as the narrator like various percussion instruments, brass, guitars, low violins, male choirs, etc.
There is a lot of great trailer music out there to pick from. Thousands of tracks full of epic orchestras, epic choirs, epic brass, and tons of lush epic epic-ness. If you write trailer music you know this (and you use the word epic too much). With so much competition in this genre every edge counts, and this is just another thing to add to your considerations. Now to be fair, as a sound editor, there are things I could have done to help the situation. I could have notched and sculpted the tracks to play nicer with each other, but here’s the thing, time if often of the essence. I can easily find another piece of trailer music that does exactly what I need. Further more, trust me when I say this, a studio/network executive is going to side with word clarity over any piece of music one hundred percent of the time!
Solution – Another step to add to your mixing and mastering checklist.
I am not suggesting that you leave a big frequency hole in the middle of your music – you should always make the quality of the track the number one priority! Granted not every trailer has voice-over, in fact lately it is common to use less narrator in the theatrical trailers. However, the television and radio trailers are typically wall to wall voice over and dialogue. I can imagine as a composer you hate to think of your music not getting used for a little reason you haven’t even considered, so add this to your mixing and mastering checklist.
My suggestion is to get a clean voice over to use as a tool and keep it handy. Don’t fake the voice over – hire one of the real trailer voices to scratch a spec script. Then when you get to the mixing and mastering stage on new tracks pop it in temporarily and see what happens.
- Can you no longer hear the favorite parts of the track?
- Do you lose the focus instrument?
- Is the push and drive of the track gone?
- Does a secondary part of the track suddenly stick out to much? Like the high winds, for example.
- Is the clarity and definition of the music compromised?
- Does a melody draw your ear away form the voice over?
- Are you too over compressed and the VO digs deep holes?
If you answer yes to these questions then perhaps some minor adjustments are neccesary. Perhaps not, but it is worth your time to give it a listen and add it to your mixing considerations. Every edge equals more money in your pocket and more means to create the epic music you love!
I plan on writing several posts in the future on reasons music does and doesn’t get chosen for licensing opportunities, stay tuned.