Using Music and Sfx Libraries.

by Jay Rose

This piece was originally written for Digital Video Magazine, and appeared in Summer, 1994. While the basics have stayed the same, some of the contact information is now out of date.

A completely revised version appeared in the magazine January '02, and may be available at their site. That version was also folded into the chapter about finding and editing music in Audio Postproduction for the DV Filmmaker.

Current library contact info and relatively-unbiased reviews are on this page.


(c) 1994,1997 Jay Rose. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents:

What was the first Hollywood movie with its own score?

If you answered 1927's The Jazz Singer, you're off by more than a decade. Long before the first talkie, producers were including suggested musical scores for orchestras to play during their blockbusters. The theme song for the "Amos n Andy" radio show was actually from D.W.Griffith's 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation. Hollywood PR flacks would also commission pop songs just to remind people of the names of their pictures. This gave us Ramona and Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time -- radio hits of the era -- as well as such monstrosities as Woman Disputed, I Love You, and Red Man, Why Are You Blue?.

[Gee... in one paragraph about seventy years ago: a movie about a Jew in blackface, another movie glorifying the Klan, an extremely popular but racist radio show, and some random offensiveness against women and Native Americans. Maybe we have made some progress. -- Jay]

The point is, music and the movies have always gone together. And with today's wide selection of library music, there's no reason your QuickTime classic can't have as rich a score as Star Wars.

Music can add the right seriousness, importance, or excitement to a presentation. It can tie a video together when the pictures don't match, or delineate sections when the topic changes. It can provide a driving rhythm for montages, or tug at the viewers heart because... "we're a people company". A grand theme, sweeping to a conclusion, can even let a suffering audience know a too-long epic is about to end... so they should start paying attention again.

Many films and tv series are scored by people who can't play a note. The ability to look at a script or roughcut, tell just what music is needed, and describe it properly are more important than keyboard chops. In fact, the Music Director on a feature often hires someone else to write the themes, and relies on library music as well.

Your own productions should have a Music Director -- you -- even if you think MIDI is just French for noontime. It's more important that you understand the emotional flow of your message, and have some way to get just the right music.

Finding the right music isn't hard. The easiest (and most expensive) way is to hire a composer. While John Williams doesn't come cheap, you may find a Williams Wannabe at a local music school or recording studio. Pay attention to creativity and sound quality as well as flashy playing. Composing, arranging, and producing are all separate skills. Your tune has to stay interesting for the full length of the video, and it takes equipment and experience to make an all-MIDI orchestra sound anything like the real thing. Good original scores should cost anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand dollars per minute.

Can't afford to buy? Rent!

Publishers have libraries of excellent recordings in every style, recorded with first-class studio players. You'll hear some of these songs on your favorite radio station, but only if you pay attention to commercials. An agency producer bought the rights to use that music in one particular ad, but paid far less than an original composition. Another producer may rent the same song -- that's how libraries make money -- but the selections are so wide that there's little chance of any viewer recognizing your corporate themesong on a competitors tape.

Most needle-down music (the term comes from the original payment scheme, which charged each time a producer restarted the record) is affordable, but still meets the highest Hollywood standards for creativity and production. A really successful piece will be licensed thousands of times around the country, so publishers find it profitable to create quality product. In fact, most feature films use at least a few needle-down pieces in their scores.

Some newer libraries sell their music on a buy-out basis -- you pay a higher price for the CD (or CD-ROM), but have the right to use it in all your productions. Since the songs generate a lot less money, publishers often scrimp on creative or production costs. On the other hand, some buyout libraries are surprisingly good. If you do a lot of video and don't need Hollywood production quality, buyout may be the right choice.

We've listed dozens of needle-down and buyout libraries, with some basic information and notes about their sound, at the end of this document. The notes are my own opinions, and are completely subjective: before you select or reject any music supplier, listen to a lot of demos.

You can use Hollywood's trick of mixing original and library music in your videos. I recently did a ten-minute film about radio advertising. We needed original music, precisely timed to on-screen reactions. Radio is about sound, so the quality had to be top-notch: a typical synthesized score wouldn't be right. (Radio is also a business, and the client wouldnt pay for ten minutes of original scoring.)

I created a cue list, detailing twenty-five different musical elements ranging from a few seconds to slightly less than a minute. Each fit a particlular piece of the project, and all would fit together when mixed with dialog and effects. I selected eighteen of the longer cues from a good needle-down library. Finally I gave Jessica Locke, an excellent local composer, my selections along with notes about cues she'd write the ones that had to fit facial griamces, gestures, or exploding watermelons. Locke didn't have to charge us for ten minutes of original music, and her pieces blended with the others seamlessly.

So much music, so little time...

Choosing the best library music is easy when you have a plan. Start with a cue list, even for something as simple as the CEOs annual Message to the Troops. Note what kind of music you need and what it's trying to convey (words like inspirational, building to a limitless future are more helpful than 'something while the Boss mumbles'). Include how long each piece will be on-screen, and any internal transitions (slow intro for 12 seconds, then optimistic march 1:20).

Don't specify one piece when two will do. Even if you're using a needle-down library, you'll probably be buying a blanket license (see Put Another Nickel In). So it won't cost extra to change the music according to the dynamics of the video. If you're listing multiple cues, indicate which should be related (peaceful theme :45, based on earlier march #7) and which should sound different. Give the viewer a break from time to time -- put in a different piece, or even silence. Twenty minutes of the same music, endlessly repeated, is only good for elevators.

Now go to the library. If your facility doesn't have a selection of disks, check larger local recording or video houses: you can probably rent time in theirs. Bigger music houses often have offices in major production cities, with expert librarians available. Some publishers have automated listening lines: punch in numbers from their catalog, and youll hear selections by phone.

But this is not the time to start requesting demo disks and rate cards. It takes time to learn, and compare, what different publishers have to offer. Selecting a basic supplier while you're producing is as silly as installing new video software the day you edit the CEO's speech.

Obviously, you'll listen to the music youre considering. But first, look at the disks. Titles won't tell you much Our Wedding could be Mendelssohn, a medley of foxtrots, or even a comic underscore but the descriptions can be useful. The better needle-down libraries use wordings like brooding strings; panic stabs at :19 and :23. (Some more marginal libraries describe everything as Great! Perfect for financial, high tech and retail. Uh-huh.)

Check the composer, too. The bigger libraries have stables of freelance writers with different styles. Two or three pieces by the same composer, even if they're on different disks, might fit perfectly as a suite. Buyout libraries often don't indicate the composer, or everything is written by one person. Be careful: even if their demo sounds great, you'll be limiting your options when you have to score full projects.

Now start listening, and make notes on which music is best for each cue. Take frequent breaks: stop the music every fifteen minutes or so, and do something else (human brains turn to oatmeal after extended library sessions). Use the pause control a lot. As soon as you've gotten the feel of a cut, turn it off while you make notes. The more time you spend not listening, the better you'll be able to evaluate individual pieces.

Once you've got a short list, go back and explore those pieces again. Mix the voice with music while youre listening, or play it against video. Sounds good? Then turn the music off while the voice keeps going. You should immediately feel, in your gut, that something's missing. If you don't, the music isn't contributing anything. If you don't have a mixer or tape deck, place a boombox with the narration next to the CD player. Or bring potential selections into the video suite during an off-hour. It's that important to try the music under real circumstances.

Dont worry too much about synchronizing specific hits or meeting a particular length while youre auditioning. You should be able to do all that easily when you edit. If your library that supports Airworks TuneBuilder, the music will cut itself to fit.

The medium isnt the message

Also, don't worry about using CD-ROM just because you're doing computerized production. There's much more music available on standard stereo CDs, and they're easier to play. Many multimedia programs also control standard music disks during playback. This is easier for the computer, so the video will play more smoothly. Some music services will build a custom audio CD with just your selections.

Any music, from any medium, can be digitized onto a disk file if you need it that way. Quality will depend on your sound board and digitizing skills,but some factory-digitized CD ROMs we evaluated were pretty awful, too. A lot of programs now transfer audio CDs right to files, with no redigitization. You can select precise parts of any song, and specify any file standard. The quality is excellent, since the program pulls the audio information directly through the SCSI cable.

CD ROM are useful when you need a lot of music on a single disk, with flexible access. One set of buyout ROMs, Music Madness (Arizona Mac Users Group), includes a utility to rearrange intros and verses at will. You you can build exactly the music you need. The software isnt as pretty as commercial offerings, but the songs are as good as many other buyout libraries.

You may also consider buying music as MIDI files, particularly if your soundcard has a good wavetable synthesizer or you're running the current QuickTime. You'll need musical skills and sequencing software to edit properly, and you may want additional equipment to keep things from sounding too much like a video game. But if you know what you're doing, this kind of music can be as good as some buyout libraries while using a tiny fraction of the disk space and processor time.


No matter what you do, remember music is an artistic endeavor. No set of rules, catalog descriptions, or software can replace your best directorial judgment. Don't be afraid to go against type -- I once scored a network special on jogging with Bach fugues -- and don't be afraid to make a statement. Just be sure it's the same statement the CEO wants to make. There are enough unemployed musicians.

You have the right to remain silent

There are really only three choices: write the music yourself, pay the people who wrote it, or don't use music.

Copyright is a fact of life. Virtually any use of a recording in any presentation, without written permission, is illegal. There's no such thing as "fair use" when scoring a business video, and the old eight-bar rule -- which was never written into law -- was specifically eliminated years ago.

You can assume any music written since the 1920s is under copyright. You can't grab classical recordings either, because their performances are protected. Publishers have large and hungry business departments, and they almost always win. Sometimes they even pay their composers and performers, which is The Right Thing To Do.

Even if you're not afraid of lawyers or bad karma, you shouldn't use popular recordings under a presentation. Psychologists have found that people would rather follow the familiar tunes they've heard on the radio, instead of struggling with your more-complicated business message or images. Mix them together, and you lose.

What about MIDI?

MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is actually a Local Area Network standardized by synthesizer manufacturers a few years ago. It works like other LANs, including Ethernet and AppleTalk, in that each instrument on the network has one or more addresses. The synths pass messages along until they hear one with their name on it.

Messages are primarily musical instructions: Play middle C fortissimo, turn C off and play the E above it mezzoforte, and so on. Obviously, enough messages equals a tune. Other MIDI messages may control overall volume, pitchbend (for instruments like electric guitar), continuous pressure on sustained notes, housekeeping functions like what sound a synth assigns to each address, and special ones reserved by the manufacturer. Since MIDI is so ubiquitous a network standard, various manufacturers have also adopted it to control tape decks or pass text messages.

Addressing can get convoluted. The original MIDI specification calls for only 16 unique addresses, called channels. Todays synths make different sounds simultaneously, and each may need as many as a dozen channels to sort them out. This doesn't leave many channels for the next instrument down the line. To further confound things, some noninstruments (including echo boxes, tape decks and mixers) also use MIDI as a convenient command language.

For this reason, many MIDI music studios use parallel networks. MIDI interfaces simultaneously connect the master computers serial ports to as many as eight separate networks, called cables. A computer with two serial ports, like the Macintosh, can then control up to 256 separate sounds16 channels on each of 16 cables. Sophisticated switchers route the cables around, so different synths can respond to the same notes to strengthen the sound or add texture. Sequencer programs control what messages are sent, and keep track of overall timing.

The programs can also edit melodies, create their own harmony or rhythmic variations, and even print sheet music. Computer MIDI files follow a standard format, and files can be imported by different programs to play approximately the same song. Clip music CD-ROM discs are often in this format. Since the files just represent note commands, rather than actual sounds, they can be quite compact: A MIDI version of a 60-second clip theme might need only 16 kilobytes, while a stereo digitized version of the same song at moderate quality would eat a whopping 5.2 megabytes. (Of course, the digitized version can also include hot session players, studio mixing effects and human voice -- sall impossible with a MIDI version. It also doesn't need a rack full of synths and some production expertise to get the best sounds.)

If you don't require the best sounds, you can get adequate MIDI playback through various PC soundcards. (In general, those using "FM Synthesis" don't sound as real as those with "Wavetable" samples.) Yamaha, Roland, Kawai, and others also make external sound modules that also include echo and other processing; these can sound as good as the best arcade games. Or you can generate MIDI music without any additional hardware at all, with Apple's QuickTime 2.1. Standard Mac or DOS MIDI files can be imported to a movie and played back in a variety of Mac multimedia programs. The instruments live in the computer's system folder and are called as required, so file sizes remain small, and they sound pretty good: Apple licensed a variety of samples from Roland ranging from a piano through acoustic and electric guitars, strings, brass, and even some sound effects.

Put another nickel in

How much will it cost? Library rates depend on how the publisher chooses to do business, and how you plan to use the music. But they're surprisingly consistent.

Needle-down libraries charge $12 - $15 per disk, and $50 - $75 per use (all these prices are for business videos; commercials and films for large audiences are more expensive). You don't pay any more than the disk fee, until you've decided to use a particular piece.

These libraries also offer "production blankets" -- you can use their entire catalog, in as many snippets as you want -- based on the total length of your project. A blanket for a ten-minute video will cost about $250, and typically buys about half a dozen different pieces. But the only limit is your creativity.

Annual blankets are also available from the needle-down houses. You pay a fixed annual fee for everything you produce that year, and they usually throw in the disks for free. Prices vary widely depending on the size of the library. As with production blankets, bigger publishers' licenses are worth more because the music selection is wider.

Buy-out libraries sell you the disks and licenses simultaneously. Once you've bought them, you can use the music whenever you want (with some limitations specified in the license). Prices vary -- and musical quality varies incredibly -- but the prices stay between $75 - $175. Almost all the publishers give discounts for multi-disk sales. But be warned: there is absolutely no correlation between price and sound. Some disks are absolute ripoffs; others are incredible bargains.

This is a sample of Jay Rose's writing for Digital Video Magazine. If you'd like to see his monthly column on audio, why don't you
jump there?

Jay has an immense music library -- and has scored projects for IBM, CBS, NBC, TNT, MGM, and a bunch of other impressive initials -- at his Digital Playroom. He's love to hear from you, particularly if you want to spend a few bucks on a soundtrack or commercial.

He's also a section officer of the Audio Engineering Society, and has put some of his more technical documents on the web. Check the index.

This document is (c) 1994, 1997 Jay Rose. You may read it on screen, or make a copy for your personal use. But you can't copy it, distribute reprints, or use it for any commercial purpose without violating the law. If you want reprint permission, contact the author.

To tutorials index

To Digital Playroom main page

Mail to

update Dec 6 2002