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).

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.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Music Producers Recommend Fermata™


Fermata™ is used to treat advertising and entertainment professionals who suffer from a specific Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, marked by certain audio sensory issues, which narrow creative vision and often result in Demo or Temp 'Love'.

4 out of 5 Creative Directors who take Fermata™ subsequently report feeling that other people's opinions may have some inherent validity.

Like Music For Your Soul

Generic Name: Chill Pill
Brand Names: Fermata™

Important information about Fermata™:

You may feel like you are losing control or acquiescing to mediocrity when you first start taking Fermata™, especially if you are naturally prone to feelings of creative and artistic infallibility.

A common side effect of taking Fermata™ is a greater acceptance of competing ideas from colleagues and associates. Increased tolerance to other points of view, regardless of true or relative merit, or relevancy, is a common side effect of taking more than your doctor's prescribed dose of Fermata™.

In general, people who take Fermata™ report fewer instances of outbursts that contain the phrase, 'I just want it to be great', 'It was my idea to begin with' or 'You don't get it, do you?'.