Sick Scores

Until very recently, putting music and sound to picture required a lot of gear and technical know-how. From Sony Betacam decks to tapes striped with SMPTE

Until very recently, putting music and sound to picture required a lot of gear and technical know-how. From Sony Betacam decks to “workprint” tapes striped with SMPTE time code and stems (submixes) delivered on Tascam DA88 digital-audio tapes, a composer's job was fraught with various delivery formats and synchronization challenges. Fortunately, our current crop of quad-processor supercomputers (and even Apple Mac G5s) together with wonderfully powerful digital-audio workstations such as MOTU Digital Performer have greatly simplified the steps required to marry your music to video. Now, to lock your score to picture, you can simply import a QuickTime movie directly into your DAW. Combined with the wealth of available virtual instruments — from authentic ethnic percussion to convincing orchestral strings — scoring to picture can be an entirely desktop-driven production.

For years, film and television composers have preferred Digital Performer as a writing application. The latest version, Digital Performer 5 (Mac only), is guaranteed to perpetuate this preferred status with new QuickTime movie overlays, a host of built-in virtual instruments and more. Whether you're scoring a serious movie or putting together an extreme sports documentary of your friends, Digital Performer 5 has the tools for the job.


Digital Performer recognizes DV and MOV QuickTime movies (.dv and .mov extensions, respectively). MOV is a compressed file format. Importing a movie from a camcorder into Apple's iMovie, for example, saves the video by default in the DV file format. DV files are not compressed, so their file sizes are much larger (20 times or more) than MOV files. When you open a movie in Digital Performer, it is automatically snapped to the beginning of your sequence (such as bar 1, beat 1). Alternately, from the Movie window's minimenu, you can employ the Set Movie Start Time to adjust the movie's SMPTE start position.

The size of the movie window in Digital Performer is fully scalable, and there are handy presets for half, normal and double sizes. The playback of sequences and movies is seamlessly integrated. For example, you can navigate a session from either Digital Performer's Control Panel or the Movie window's transport controls. To ensure that the movie maintains a frame-accurate lock with your sequences, make sure that Digital Performer's frame rate (in the Frame Rate menu) matches the movie's. Check the movie's frame rate by opening it in QuickTime Player and choosing Show Movie Info from the Window menu.

When you open a movie in Digital Performer, its audio will play as part of the movie. That is fine if you don't require any control over the movie's audio. However, if you need control over the audio — such as level adjustment of the field recording or to remove “temp” music — then you'll need to disable the movie's soundtrack and import it directly to an audio track in Digital Performer. From the Movie window's minimenu, select Copy Movie Audio to Sequence to place a copy of the movie's soundtrack on an audio track in your current sequence. Then, to turn off the soundtrack in the QuickTime movie itself, you'll need to employ QuickTime Pro. (The QuickTime Pro online upgrade costs $30.) Open the movie in QuickTime Pro, and from the Show Movie Properties window, uncheck the Sound Track box.


Looking at a small movie squeezed between Digital Performer's windows is not very conducive to capturing the feel of a scene. It's much more pleasant and inspiring to view the movie on its own monitor. If you don't have a second monitor, the solution is to send the movie out of your computer's FireWire port. That can be accomplished with any DV-formatted QuickTime movie and a FireWire box that converts digital video to composite video, such as the Canopus ADVC110 ($319; Alternately, if you have a DV camera with FireWire and composite video output (most new cameras feature those connections), you may be able to use it as a converter box to send the video to a TV.

Outputting a movie via the FireWire port and disabling the Movie window in Digital Performer (by turning off Echo Video) reduces the processing power necessary to run a session because the TV renders the video rather than the computer. However, FireWire DV playback devices introduce some delay, ranging from three to nine frames, depending on your converter. A dedicated box (such as the ADVC110) usually introduces less delay than a DV camera. To compensate for this delay, employ the Video Output Playback Offset dialog box in the Movie window's minimenu. It may take some trial and error, but to achieve frame-accurate playback and stills, set the frames and timecode bits (there are 80 timecode bits per frame) that you want the movie to offset.

Keep in mind that only DV-formatted QuickTime movies will play out of the FireWire port. For example, if you want to output an MOV movie, you must first convert it to DV. To perform the conversion, open the movie in QuickTime Pro and choose Export from the File menu. In the Export dialog box, choose Movie to DV Stream, and under Options, choose NTSC for the Video Format in the US (or PAL in Europe).


When working with film, common visual cues are created by scratching off bits of the film's emulsion and punching holes in key frames of the film. There are three distinct types of visual cues: streamers, punches and flutters. A streamer is a vertical bar that travels across the screen from left to right. When the streamer reaches the right side of the screen, the event (or “hit”) occurs. Punching a hole in the film for the frames where the hit occurs is a punch. A flutter is a series of punched frames, where every other frame is punched over the duration of several frames (such as three, five or seven frames). That creates a fluttering effect that is often employed to emphasize where the first downbeat of a measure should fall in the picture.

Obviously, you can't physically alter QuickTime movie frames. But Digital Performer 5 creates these same types of visual cues by overlaying streamers, punches and flutters directly onto QuickTime movies playing in a session. Streamers can be associated with any marker in your session or inserted into the Conductor Track without being tied to a specific marker. To view the streamers in the Markers window, from its minimenu, you must select Show Streamers. Industry standard streamer times (2, 2.67, 3 or 3.33 seconds) can be set for each streamer. Flutters and punches are not tied to the markers and can be inserted directly into the Conductor Track. All three types of visual cues are enabled and can be color-coded in the Film Scoring Events preferences.

Although streamers, punches and flutters will appear in a QuickTime movie within Digital Performer, they are not output to FireWire video. Consequently, if you want to see these visual cues on a television, you'll need to render them into a new QuickTime DV movie. After you've created the visual cues in Digital Performer, bounce the QuickTime movie to disk. Select Bounce to Disk, and set the Format to QuickTime Export Movie. In the QuickTime Export Options dialog box, check the “Include film scoring events track” option. Your visual cues will then be bounced to disk as part of the QuickTime movie. This process may be inconvenient, but it beats not having any visual cues on your television monitor.


When you're writing music that's not synchronized to picture, it's common to employ markers to designate different sections of your song. In this instance, the markers need to remain locked to a specific bar and beat, relative to the other song sections, regardless of any changes you make in the musical arrangement (such as tempo changes and inserting measures). Conversely, when you employ a marker to designate a hit-point (the exact frame where an event begins) in a movie, the marker needs to remain locked to a specific frame, independent of the music sequence. For example, if the tail of a skateboard hits a rail at 00:05:32:12 (hours:minutes:seconds:frames), the marker for this hit-point needs to stay locked to this time, regardless of any changes to the music's tempo, bars and beats. Locking a marker to its SMPTE time frame is easy in Digital Performer; just enable Lock for the marker in the Markers window.

Aligning the downbeat of a measure to a hit-point is a classic technique for adding emphasis and drama to a video. For example, you could drop a slamming beat at the very moment the skateboarder lands a ridiculous half-pipe trick. If the music has already begun before the hit-point, and its start time is tied to an earlier event, you can employ subtle tempo changes to cause the downbeat to land on — or very near — the hit-point. Visually, you have a couple of frames on either side of the hit-point where the downbeat will appear synchronized with the action — it's not an exact science. The tempo changes themselves can also add drama to the scene leading up to the hit. Creating the tempo changes manually is the most organic way to synchronize the music to the action. However, Digital Performer also has a very handy Find Tempo feature that can extrapolate tempos between locked markers, and then apply the resulting tempos to the Conductor Track.

One movie can be shared by all the sequences in the Chunks window, or each sequence can be assigned its own movie. That makes auditioning different musical treatments for one movie, or even different work prints of the same movie, as easy as clicking on a sequence in the Chunks window. If you have a director breathing over your shoulder, recalling entire arrangements complete with picture — in the same session — with a single click of your mouse is guaranteed to earn you brownie points.


When your score is complete, you can bounce both the QuickTime movie and your audio mix directly to disk as a self-contained QuickTime movie; it doesn't get easier than that. Alternately, if you need to lay the stems back to an external deck (such as a Sony Betacam or Tascam DA88) for delivery to a professional mix stage (where the motion picture will be mixed), Digital Performer can lock to incoming SMPTE timecode with the proper interface (such as MOTU's MIDI Timepiece AV). With all of Digital Performer's onboard effects and new virtual instruments, along with MOTU's other virtual instruments (Symphonic, Ethno and MX4) and a powerful laptop like Apple's MacBook Pro, you could bring your entire session straight to the mix stage. The mix engineer would love you for it because individual tracks are always more flexible than stems.

Considering how inexpensive DV camcorders are today and all of the amazing movie-editing programs available for home computers, the time has never been better for aspiring film composers to jump into the mix of pioneering indie filmmakers producing movies on their own terms. Whether you want to try your hand at scoring a film, an extreme sports documentary, TV pilot, etc., Digital Performer 5 provides the tools you need to score and record music for picture.

Special thanks go to Ben Newhouse, author of Producing Music with Digital Performer (Berklee Press, 2004).