Monday, February 09, 2009


This article is the second in a series examining the utilization of temp music in advertising, entertainment and media production.

Whether you call it temp music or scratch tracks (or something else), the utilitarian use of pre-recorded audio as a stand-in (or reference) for an as of yet to be determined or composed soundtrack, is standard operating procedure.

A discussion of the ethics of directly referencing other musical works, to varying degrees of detail, is reserved for another article.

But if you’re a young or amateur composer, songwriter or music designer yourself –trying to break into the system– you may be asking yourself why bother with temp music at all? Why not, for instance, simply be original?

The quick answer is that most commercial projects, whether advertising or entertainment, do not represent the singular vision of a composer, but the collective vision of a party of stakeholders in a given enterprise.

In addition, commercial works are usually derivative by nature.

Neither summer blockbusters nor advertising campaigns appear out of the ether. Few, if any, are insanely original. Most of the time, these projects are constructed according to, if not a formula, then convention. And so, it follows, the music commissioned by their makers is also constructed with industry or genre conventions in mind.

Lest you already have your mind made up, the product of formulaic thinking does not always have to be measured by a negative value. Equal temperament, the ii-V-I progression, 4/4 rhythms and absolutely every single tonal tradition –including those so-called anarchic forms, such as serial music, punk and no wave– are all produced by formula. Even the composite work of a random number/pitch generator –such scores do exist– is the result of an algorithm. And yet every single convention proves itself quite useful to adept composers, able musicians and eager audiences alike.

As it happens, there are as many reasons to consider the use of temp music, as there are creative professionals who do so. Although any single artisan may be aware of only his or her own immediate necessity for its implementation.


In the broadest sense, filmmakers use temp tracks as surrogate scores, whether for preview audiences or to suggest to vendors, investors and other stakeholders what a finished film, commercial or other media project (slated for, or still in production) will eventually look, sound and feel like.

But scratch tracks aren’t only slapped against picture as surrogate scores or even as a reference tool. Long before a single frame is even shot, or a script complete, directors may select a piece of temp music as inspiration, and not just for the eventual score, but for the entire project itself.

Likewise, directors resist music suggestions embedded in scripts, but that doesn’t stop writers from making their choices known.

Still, later in the process, a temp will be chosen to accompany a pre-production model of a given project using scanned storyboards to produce what is known as an 'animatic'.

For those without any basic knowledge of the film making process:

Storyboards, while perhaps not as nuanced as a comic strip, are nonetheless a series of scene-by-scene illustrations that serve to suggest the final version of a film, TV show or commercial.

I think of storyboards as Hollywood manga, and I’m surprised there isn’t a larger interest or after-market for them amongst film fans.

Storyboards are primarily produced because they help identify a variety of needs, such as: what the film will look like; how will it be shot; what kind of sets will be required; what the costumes will look like, etc. In short everything but the music. Although once in animatic form, directors will certainly integrate temp music. Ultimately, animatics help producers arrive at a budget and schedule.

And the same thing can be said of temp music. It’s not too far fetched an idea to think of temp music being as to storyboards what storyboards are to feature films.

Temp music can also serve as a performance tool during actual filming or video capture. I can already hear the cackling, there are lots of tools in Hollywood, but this one is quite useful.

For instance, during production, directors and cinematographers may use music to enhance dramatic action via choreographed camera movement.

Less directly, performers of all kinds use music to focus, prepare, get ready and 'get pumped' before a scene or event.

It’s interesting to consider that a writer might have crafted a scene –or even an entire script– inspired by a specific piece of music, and then hand that script over to a director who might then hear something else altogether different in his or her own imagination.

And whilst shooting, each actor might have prepared him or herself for a given scene listening to their own respective individual playlists; thereby fueling their performance with yet another musical overlay.

On top of that, the cinematographer might have a symphonic score in mind, or in his or her ear buds, anyway. Still later in the process, an editor may yet select still another track to cut to.

In this hypothetical arrangement, when the music supervisor can’t secure a license, a composer is finally commissioned to score the cue, which he or she does, presenting an original work whose only common elements with the director’s (or editor’s) original scratch was mood and tempo.

Universes collide, but I guess that’s how stars are made.


Pre-scores are indeed commissioned from time to time, especially in the case of animation projects.

Animators, more than composers, are loath to work with temp tracks because their work must be absolutely synchronized to audio. When animators are forced to work with a scratch track, and the final music is anything but a near infringement of the temp, there is likely possibility that either audio or picture, or audio and picture, will require any number of costly revisions –tweaks– in order to synch with each other.

For this reason animation houses, anticipating such revisions when knowledge of a temp is known before the bidding process, will justly increase their estimates for a project that requires they work with an unfinished or surrogate score.

In the case of live action, editors are generally free to use temp music as mood and tempo maps without financial repercussion. Each audio clip presents a concise distillation of human expression whose pulses form a grid or TEMPO MAP upon which subsequent cuts to moving image are made.

It has long struck me that the art of editing is every bit as musical as it is visual, and that the modern editor's art closely resembles that of an electronic recording artist or beat maker. But remove the temp and the musicality of the edit still remains.

It's as if Film and Video Editors are DJs or drummers of light, with story being the ultimate goal of this illuminated art form.

As such, music not only helps to tell the story, it also actually helps build it.

A project takes shape when each stimuli inducing element feeds into the other, resulting in what feels like a perpetual inspiration circuit, and a kind of multimedia symbiosis:

• Sound
• Image
• Conflict
• Resolution

–These are the four quadrants that support story and embed any given experience into one’s brain, whether a cinematic fabrication or present and real.

A story can certainly move forward without either emotion or music. But both emotion and music –like aphrodisiacs, steroids and Sildenafil– are performance enhancers.

The result is a tighter cut, whether the editor then chooses to

A. Present the cut without the temp track,
B. Present the cut with the temp track, or
C. Present the cut with an alternate temp track, in order to provide options for a particularly unruly piece of footage.

It makes one wonder if our lives don’t unfold in the same way, with karma ultimately being something like a Motown or Meters loop, played at a discrete level, yet still capable of propelling the entire cosmic story forward; until at last some divine editor decides to make the final cut.

Shiva, creator and destroyer of worlds (in Hindu mythology) is after all, depicted as a dancer.


If a director defines the look of a project, editorial retains great leverage in defining mood.

Curiously enough, it frequently boils down to which person selects the scratch track.

Certainly, if a director has a specific work in mind for the temp, editors will first use that. But even if presented with a select by the director, an editor might still propose another idea –maybe several ideas–, and chose to cut and present to an altogether different kind of track than the director or client originally had in mind.

To be clear, an editor can't run wild with a personal scratch track choice and hope to go final. The director, client, studio or other stakeholders must approve the alternate selection. Nevertheless, the situation, as is approval of an alternate temp track, is indeed quite common.

It probably happens more frequently with advertising projects that with features. Why? –Because directors (on advertising projects) are often retained solely for the shoot itself –that is, for their eyes and their capacity to capture magic on film or video, during the shoot, but not necessarily afterwards.

Directors may therefore seem entirely absent from the edit process. Or if they are present for the edit, it is in a consultant capacity, highly valued for their opinion, but without any real authority to define a final cut.

Meanwhile, editors are hired not just for their eyes, but also for their talent as storytellers. With or without temp music, the best of the lot have a deep, almost primal feeling for pacing. And if editors are indeed drummers of light, they are also, like the BBC's Dr. Who, Time Lords.

Given this circumstance, editors retain great leverage choosing the temp music they will cut to. In fact, by virtue of their power to chose temp music, editors are also often the unsung and undeclared music supervisors of a given project.

By the time an editor is finished building a story out of raw footage, he or she may have essentially re-defined the look and sound, if not the very experience of a project –all because of the music they chose to cut to.


Although there are some advantages to commissioning a pre score in lieu of temp music, being free is not one of them. On the other hand, unlicensed temp tracks allow for directional change later in the process without creative or financial penalty.

Aside from the editorial process, temp tracks can be quite useful in other ways, too. Temp tracks against rough cuts or preproduction trailers help producers garner financial interest in a project.

Potential investors then can measure the potential audience for a project based on this preview, itself a kind of beta version of a film, and then make an informed decision whether or not to contribute their own dollars into the making of it.

When production finally gets underway, rough cuts will get synched to scratch music as one means of communicating direction to the various artisans who, while they may be vendors in one sense, are also co-creators of the project.

Likewise, during previews, studios use the presentation of unfinished movies (synched to temp tracks) the same way Madison Ave uses focus groups, –in order to discover potential weaknesses of a given entertainment experience. As with focus groups, the results of previews provide producers with an opportunity to maximize entertainment value and thereby insure their investment by making suitable changes prior to release.

It’s easy to think of scratch music as serving one singular purpose. In reality, the practical uses of temping audio is varied throughout the production assembly line. Whatever your personal opinion, or preferred process for working, one would do well to understand the strength of the scratch track before abandoning the concept completely.

And if you have any desire or hope of scoring for film or advertising, then resistance, as they say amongst the Borg, is futile.

* * *

Click on the following link to read the first article in this series:

TEMP TRACKS AND THEIR PURPOSE, Monday (February 02, 2009).

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