An afternoon with the students of the Pacific NW Film Scoring Program

A few days ago, I was asked to visit the students of Seattle’s Pacific NW Film Scoring Program to speak about my role as music copyist, orchestrator and music librarian for feature films and video games.

The students asked some great questions, so I thought I would post a few of them along with my answers here.

Q: What is the typical production timeline to prepare music for a film or video game score?

A: In my experience, this can vary quite a bit depending on factors such as director approval of cues, but we usually start seeing music for a film or video game score two – three weeks prior to the recording downbeat.

Q: Is there a difference between Film score and Video Game music prep?

A: Music for Video Games can sometimes have a more nuanced approval process than for Film. In some cases, there might be multiple producers in charge of various aspects of a scene, and so more people have to sign off on the music in some cases. This can affect the timeline.

Q: What is the process for working out errors with the composer or orchestrator?

A: My general rule is to always fix anything that is obvious without going back to the orchestrator or composer unless the question cannot be answered otherwise. For one thing, asking the composer or orchestrator to focus on a small error invariably tends to the discovery of other errors (or perceived required changes) in that location of the score. The other thing is being aware of the composer’s valuable time. On a film with an hour of music to get through, and only a couple of weeks to do it, there simply isn’t time for distractions. By quietly fixing minor errors in the parts (and score if necessary), the orchestrator and composer can continue to move ahead on new material.

Q: What is the most common paper size used for parts?

A: These days, we work a lot with 9″x12″ parts pages, 70lb or 80lb text weight if the budget will allow for oversized paper. The reason is that a number of tabloid workgroup printers support printing of 12″x18″ paper through their bypass trays, which means that it is possible to print n-up 9″x12″ pages in these machines. This cuts down greatly on taping and binding labor. Letter pages can be printed n-up on Tabloid (11″x17″) paper. For lower budget projects, particularly where the cues are consistently shorter, letter parts pages are used quite a bit.

Q: How do you calculate / estimate fees for music prep work?

A: The Musicians’ Union (AFM) publishes rate scales for orchestration and music preparation, which provides a good competitive guideline for pricing professional level workmanship. Different projects fall into different categories, which have different page and hourly rates. For instance, Motion Pictures have a different rate than Low Budget Films, which is different than the rate for Live Performance, etc.

Q: How do you typically receive music for copying? Is it Digital / MIDI, or do you copy from hand written scores?

A: This depends on the orchestrator’s preference. Most orchestrators now are working in one of the music notation programs like Finale or Sibelius, but we still see hand written scores from old school orchestrators. It’s worth noting that for commercial music preparation (e.g. film or game scores) it is the orchestrator’s job to prepare the score “file”. The music copyist prints and binds copies of the score, and is responsible for preparation of the parts from scratch, transposing as required, etc.

Q: I notice you carry a “tackle box” with you for recording sessions. Can you tell us what you keep in there?

A: Basically, when I am the music librarian on a session, I try to show up to every session with whatever someone might ask for on a session: For the musicians, pencils and a pencil sharpener are the most common requests. For the conductor, I bring colored pencils and even crayons for score markup. (Some conductors prefer crayon since it doesn’t bleed through the paper). I also bring lots of tape (for both scores and parts) a folding bone, a large artist’s clipboard (handy for taping scores), paper clips, a USB drive in case files need to be transferred, etc.

Q: If we make it big in Hollywood, what are things to avoid?

A: Don’t berate your musicians! They are human beings who can make or break your sessions. Treat them with respect, and you will get better performances, and the musicians will be willing to invest more of themselves in your music.

Q: Anything that neither Finale or Sibelius handle very well?

A: For composers and orchestrators, true video sync to picture and seamless integration of high end sample libraries comes to mind. The current workflow for nearly every working professional is the same – do nearly all of the work in your DAW, and then export to Finale or Sibelius as a final step. This is a disconnect, IMO.

Q: Do you have a preference between Finale and Sibelius?

A: Not really, they both have their strengths, and when it is all said and done, are about equal, in my opinion.

Q: How do you proofread? Do you print everything out, or proof on screen?

A: For commercial music (film and game scores), proofing on screen can work great, as long as you are paying close attention. The workflow advantage of the proofreader being able to make changes as errata is discovered can really be a productive way to work. When proofing on screen, I personally like to proof from a printed version of the score which I have marked up with highlighter, but I have seen people get good results using one screen for the score and one for the parts, keeping everything digital. I definitely recommend proofing in multiple passes for accuracy whenever possible.

Q: Do you have any favorite plugins?

A: Yes, definitely. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout out to Jari Williamsson on the Finale side and Bob Zawalich on the Sibelius side. Some plugins I use a lot in Finale are JW Polyphony, JW Meter and Rhythm and Yada Tremolo. For Sibelius, I don’t even know where to start, but three plugins I use nearly every day are Inverse Select Notes, Position Dynamics and Add LV Symbols to notes.

Q: Do you have any advice for how to get started as a composer in LA?

A: Most of the composers and orchestrators I know who are successful now started out interning for established composers. However, it should be noted that the paths for composers and music prep are different.

Q: What are the most challenging instruments to create parts for?

A: I would have to say any of the braced grand staff instruments such as harp or piano offer unique challenges that can present issues for part creation and layout. You can learn a lot by looking at professionally prepared piano and harp parts, particularly by the better known European publishers such as Henle or Bärenreiter.

Q: What is a common mistake you see on parts for recording sessions?

A: Lack of good cues! If the musicians always know where they are, the session will be a lot more efficient. When cueing instrument entrances that come in on a downbeat of the bar, you don’t even need the notes for a cue; a text indication helps the players stay oriented. The convention for recording sessions is to have bar numbers on every bar, which helps the musicians stay oriented, but I’ve seen parts with 50 bars or rest with no cues, and then the musician is expected to jump in on a flurry of 16th notes. As a music copyist, you have a responsibility to set the players up for success.

Q: Any differences between classical scores and commercial scores?

A: The two biggest differences are probably Time signature size and Bar number frequency. In a typical commercial score, oversized time signatures are used, and bar numbers appear at every bar. To be sure, we are seeing more of these modern conventions in “legit” works, and certainly for symphonic pops works, etc.

Q: Do you have a printer you recommend?

A: If you are printing your own works a few times a year, I might recommend just taking PDFs to your local FedEx Office and having them print to size. This is an economical approach for small, infrequent print runs. If you are ending up doing a fair amount of printing, but can’t really justify the expense of a new high end printer, you can buy an 11×17 capable remanufactured laser printer fairly inexpensively. I have a couple of older HP 5100 printers that are great. Over the years, I’ve replaced their fusers and rollers, and they just keep running. The 5100 handles very heavy paper through the bypass tray, and will print on up to 12″x18″ paper.

Q: Can Sibelius scrub or loop a section of music?

A: Finale has an audio scrub playback feature which is very handy. While Sibelius does not have any kind of scrub playback feature, you can select a specific note and press P for playback quickly from that spot. Also, Ideas will loop as long as the mouse button is held down, if set that way.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on the new scoring software being developed by Steinberg?

A: I remain hopeful that more competition in the area of pro level music notation software will be a good thing for end users of notation programs.


Thank you to the PNWFS for having me visit, and special thanks to Erik Feldman for taking notes!


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