Monday, February 02, 2009


Audiences may believe that every score for every movie, or original music bed for every TV ad, is solely the result of a unique idea generated by a gifted composer. In reality, that's only sometimes the case: Ideas are not always unique nor composers always especially gifted.

Much of the time ideas are recycled; and composers –as with other professionals in the creative food chain– endowed with varying degrees of determination and capability.

Taking into account this human variable, combined with ever present budgetary concerns and schedule issues, the result is that any efficiency that can be identified is accommodated and executed. Consequently, producers and clients will often present the composers they commission with what has long been referred to as a 'Temp Track'.

Love 'em or hate 'em, temp tracks are standard operating procedure for both filmed advertising and entertainment production.

So, what is a temp track exactly?

A temp track is any existing pre-recorded work synchronized to moving picture, intended to act as a temporary audio placeholder for an eventual score.

As with a stand-in for a movie actor, temp tracks are stand-ins for final music. Beyond that, as we'll see, their utilitarian use serves numerous purposes to the various production professionals who work on a given advertising or entertainment vehicle.

This article is the first of several that examines these multiple purposes and details their legitimate use by composers or music designers working on contemporary media projects that employ moving image.

The ubiquitous use of temp tracks is certainly old news to media and audio professionals. But the role they play may still come as a surprise to young music designers. I remember the first time I witnessed a prominent composer play through a variety of music tracks while simultaneously playing an unfinished commercial he had been commissioned to score. He was analyzing how different music treatments enhanced picture:

How did a symphonic arrangement inform the picture? What did a rock track do?

In all, I think he played twelve excerpts, each representing a different style; and in so doing, finally arrived at some idea of how he would proceed with his own immediate task of composition.

I had been composing music for a few years before that, and had studied with several well established composers –Joel Chadabe, Bill Dixon, Stephen Jaffe, Sergio Cervetti. But it had never once occurred to me to so directly and purposefully source inspiration –fundamental ideas– from another person's work for my own compositions.

I thought, you know, that you were supposed to just wait until a muse graced your soul with audio pixie dust.

So from the start, temping music seemed somewhat disingenuous to me.

Ah but then, cut to me three years later: By 1994 I had become the Senior Producer for a roster of award winning young composers. And along the way, I acquired and accepted the role of commercial aesthete. Which meant that, along with my colleagues, I became one of those people that advertising agencies call in order to solicit an expert opinion on suitable temp music for a national shampoo campaign edit; or with which to inspire the launch of a new running shoe; or –circa 1996– the magic of broadband to the United States of America.

To win a job, it didn't matter what previous successes my colleagues and I had achieved, what awards were on the shelf, or that I could direct a client to any television in order to see our current work.

Believe it or not, the commission of any given project often hinged on whether or not I could identify and recommend suitably inspiring temp music for my client's newest project. In this capacity, I was often asked not for one idea, but for many ideas –ten, twenty, fifty pieces of music– each of which had to perform and inform a rough cut in ways that enhanced story, maximized entertainment value or message delivery and conveyed a given brand mandate.

As it turns out –and as with all established production processes– the use of temp tracks is as prevalent as it is because, ultimately, temping music serves a legitimate and instructive purpose. It is, to coin a clumsy phrase, both cost efficient and creative efficient. And creative professionals working with moving picture would do well to figure out how to utilize them to their best effect.

So what lies beneath the vinyl surface?

Among their many purposes, temp tracks provide composers and other audio professionals with a clear creative brief, via referential non verbal sound. What better method, after all, than to use music to communicate musical concepts to music creators?

Completely abandoning words for music, however, isn't the best strategy if the aim is to create a wholly original work. Language can illuminate ideas and serve to focus attention on detail, as well qualify a given example with external concepts. Alternately, language can distort ideas; intentional distortions initiate nonlinear thought processes, and sometimes, the results of nonlinear thinking is exactly what the client requires.

Although, in my experience, it is a rare undertaking that the production of film, video or any other commercial media –not to mention the task of composing a commercial score for such projects– is ever executed with the aim of producing 'a wholly original work'. Which is why temp tracks are just as often not simply sources for inspiration but are also used as blue prints, recipes or formulas for construction.

Whatever your preferred metaphor, a reference track will make certain goals immediately apparent.

Artists may abhor formulaic processes, but there is no creative industry without them.

Horror flicks, as one example, are formulaic, as are pretty much all releases within a given genre. Television demands of its writers an even more rigid reliance to tried and true formulaic notions, than cinema. The entire production process is an assembly line. And it's not any different for a thirty-second TV commercial or a two hour feature.

That said, temp music should never be construed as a model upon which to plagiarize another composer's work, but rather as an mere indicator of what musical conventions or criteria a client wishes to adhere to. But of course, many composers find it can be a fine line to walk.

How then does the process impact composers and music designers?

In the case of a TV commercial, a temp track will arrive as a thirty-second excerpt from a existing longer musical work, which the editor has typically cut picture to, and which is then 'layered' with the picture.

Sometimes editorial will begin with one temp track and switch to another that contextualizes image differently. Such substitution is only viable (after an edit gets 'locked') if the surrogate track/s share the same tempo, or are beat matched to synch with picture.

Likewise, different audio artisans competing for final music on a given spot may all be assigned a different temp track as a platform for inspiration. Sometimes clients can't make up their mind on what the best approach is until they see or hear it executed.

But whatever music the composer receives, it's safe to assume that any particular temp track was chosen because someone –the director, editor or client– thinks it 'works' with the picture, enhancing it in some agreeable and applicable manner that should be obvious to you, or you are in the wrong business.

In the case of TV commercials, instrumental sections of popular tunes are often culled as temp tracks. Advertisers typically want music that appeals to a specific demographic, say, young women between 18 and 25. Therefore they will choose a song popular among this group, and use it to suggest creative direction to a composer.

There are cases when music is not demographic specific, as when the assignment requires a classic film score treatment. Also, a certain rock sound, which once skewed young, and now defines boomers, by some trick of sonic ubiquity has become so elastic that it can sometimes serve to define everybody else, too. Neutral tracks of any genre can also transcend age specified demographics, although every time I hear a spot with incidental music, I think why did they even bother. You're never going to appeal to everybody, so why not use music to reach out to the specific people whom you would like serve?

'Why not identify your fans? And why not identify with your fans?' –is another way of putting it.

In the case of a feature length film, the temp track is not a single work, but rather a series of works, and these works are quite often borrowed from other film scores.

Practically speaking, the temp track may refer to one piece of music accompanying a single cue, or to all the temporary works scattered throughout a single film.

Generally, the producer, director or editor will define the scene by drawing a comparison to other scenes from other movies in the same genre and will borrow an existing score as the temporary material.

For example, for a romantic exchange between the leading man and woman –a common enough cue– the film maker/s may lift the music for a previously documented passionate kiss and play it with their own cue depicting a similarly passionate kiss.

Ideally, temp track and moving picture synch together perfectly from an editorial perspective, capably driving story forward while simultaneously enhancing dramatic content, and yet still reveal itself as an imperfect surrogate to a capable composer.

If the music is too perfect, the filmmaker may ask the composer to compose a nearly identical work, often forcing the composer to strain the limits of copyright infringement. An imperfect work, however, grants a composer ample leeway to inform the concept with a dose of originality and thereby compose a customized piece inspired by the temp track, but original unto itself. Such is the ideal.

Why use temp tracks at all?

Clients often demand them, if not to indicate direction to composers, then at the very least to simulate completeness during pre or post production (for themselves and other artisans working on the project).

Pre production temp tracks suggest a final version of the film, and therefore help producers arrive solutions to creative, talent and budget decisions.

In post production, temp tracks allow filmmakers to proceed with composite and post until such time as they receive an original score, or a music supervisor obtains a license for the producer to use the temp track itself, or some other piece.

Movie producers may also preview a film in front of test audiences, before establishing a final cut, using temp tracks. Preview audiences are Hollywood's answer to focus groups. Vetting movies, commercials, products, games or music before test groups doesn't sound very artistic, and it's not. But it is good business for commercial entertainment vehicles.

But if clients don't arrive with temp track in hand, music producers and other audio professionals may still use them as a means to demonstrate they understand a given project, and therefore worthy of a given commission.

It doesn't always go well. I recall watching one rough cut for a package shipper. It depicted a fun and crazy vignette, and I thought 'party music'. But the advertising agency saw itself as representing an American institution and therefore wanted music befitting such a client. Needless to say, I did not get that job.

Regardless of intention, a good temp track selection always sounds like it fits. Some fit so well, however, that clients fall in love with them, an obsessive state of mind I'll discuss in a future article. In those cases, for better or worse, the temp goes final. And as terrible as that is for a composer fired from a project because the client fell for the temp, sometimes the temp IS the best arrangement for a given project.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for a pharmacological solution that composers can give clients, which successfully cures or manages 'Demo Love'. I think it would have to be classified as an anti-anxiety drug, and it would be especially designed for Obsessive-compulsive creative leads possessing audio sensory issues. Perhaps these pills could be discreetly distributed in the dimly lit screening rooms of post production facilities, in between conference calls.

And of course, they should be called Fermata™.

Seriously, and certainly, searching through all the music ever recorded in order to identify even one suitable temp track can be a stressful and lengthy task. Compound that stress then, when a specific time frame, a limited budget and job insecurity loom over the process.

However, once selected –whether by the producer, director editor, composer or client– and subsequently synched to a rough cut, a given temp track can ably provide implicit direction to a given composer without anyone ever having to say a single word. And while temp tracks also have their weaknesses, therein lies the immediate strength and efficiency of the humble temp track.

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