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How Music Makes It into TV and Film With Music Supervisor Mason Cooper Part 3

Picking up where we left off in Part 2, Mason explained how budgets for music have come down in both films and TV shows, and the following response is what he does to help make up for that. —Editor

Mason Cooper: What I try to do is make up for the lower sync fees by the quantity of uses I get for those people. I’ll always try to go back to the [people I’ve worked with before] if you are that easy to work with, and [get them more placements].

Mason responding to a question about source music (music that comes from a source in the scene, like jukebox in a bar or a car radio) that he saw in the live chat during the interview: Source music is a way in [for musicians]. Everyone uses source music differently. Sometimes you head into a scene and the edit hits a bar [location]. You leave the scene, and it just becomes background music the whole time. I like to bookend scenes, so I might use the transition where you actually hear the vocal. It’s full, it’s not filtered, and it comes in the scene either with a hard cut or a dip-it-down at its source. And then, emotionally, if it works right, I lift it up at the end, so it becomes featured on the two sides of the scene. Bookends.

And every project is different; every director or showrunner has a different aesthetic for that. It doesn’t pay more or less; the budget is what the budget is. And yes, if your song can become a [featured] montage song, [it will pay more].

I warn people when I’m gonna use their song: “Don’t go tell all your friends and your mother and father to watch the show and listen for your song.” But they often do, and then they’re like, “I didn’t hear it.”

It’s painful. I get those emails and phone calls from members. They’re so psyched, and they invite their mom, their dad, their wife, their kids, the next-door neighbor over. They order a pizza, they’re sitting in the living room, and when the song comes on, basically you hear the hi-hat and maybe a little bit of the vocals, because it’s down so low in the mix.
But I’ll tell you this, though: As low as your song is and nobody could “hear” your song, if we had it and we just took the song out, the scene will sound empty. So just know that your song still helped that scene become what it was. Even if it’s not very audible, it still fit and helped that scene become full and more effective than if your song wasn’t in there. It doesn’t help your ego, but it is a valid part [of the scene].

You know, when I did the film, Jobs—about Steve Jobs—we featured a lot of songs, because there are montages there, or they were scenes in certain time periods. But even though they were more featured, I still have to make sure that it’s about the scene, and not about the song. And that was hard. There were some songs in that same time period that were just distracting; somehow you just became focused on the song. It had to be the right energy, the right size, the right frequencies, the right rhythm that just felt you pulsing through the scene, as opposed to it’s a music montage. So even where it’s featured, we still have to be careful about the song distracting the viewers from the story.

I don’t want to notice the wardrobe, the makeup, or the setting or the music, I just want to believe it’s all really happening… that it’s all real. And having music that’s so faint you can’t really hear it, adds to the realism. If it’s not in there, you’d notice it, even though it’s so low in the mix you can barely hear it. And if a viewer notices a song and says, “Hey, we danced to that song at our wedding!” that’s not good. It pulls you out of the scene and the story.

I understand that. When I quit making records and transitioned to audio post, we’d use room tone—like the sound of air conditioning or a computer’s fan running faintly in the background, because dialog doesn’t happen in a vacuum…
Well, when you do ADR (automatic dialog replacement), which is basically post-production, the actor comes in and says the line in the recording studio, mimicking their mouth movements. Because there’s some reason while they were shooting the film or the scene; a plane was overhead, or somebody’s car alarm went off. But the performance was great, so they want to use that take, but there was noise in the background. So, they come in later… So, when you put in ADR, and on its own, it’s nothing, it’s clean dialogue. But you can’t just put clean dialogue in, you now have to have clean dialogue, and then layer room tone under it to match what was around it.

“I’ve used iPhone guitar vocals from people, because for some reason they’ve nailed the performance and they got lucky with the balance of the guitar and the vocal.”

That’s exactly what you’re talking about. And music is the same thing. I’ve had songs fall out [of being placed in a film or TV show]. People ask me a lot on these types of panels, how “finished” does the song need to be?

Unless you have a relationship with the producer, the director, the creator, and you’re in early on a project, and you’ve worked with them before where you are actually writing a song for that scene—which we don’t often have budgets for—so this is very seldom, now. We need a finished production, and finished production can be many things. It could be in the vocal; it could be a rock mix because that scene has a bar band in the corner. If it’s too polished and sounds like a radio song, it’s not believable that it’s a bar band in the corner. So, what is a “finished” song? That’s subjective. But it needs to be finished for that scene’s purpose and what I need in that scene.

That’s actually a great way to describe “broadcast quality.” It doesn’t always mean sonic perfection. It depends on the scene and the context of what’s needed…

“So don’t ever say, ‘Well, I could change this, or I could change that.’ We don’t have time for that.”

Again, I go back to the Spotify playlist. If I need a song like a Barbra Streisand song or a Celine Dion song—I give you those two examples—sonically the production, the performance and the mix better match that. If your vocal is too loud, if strings are synthesizer strings, but they sound really bad… Well, if I had a big budget, I’d put real strings on it. Anything that is distracting, the sonics can blow your song [out of that scene], even if it’s a brilliant melody. Really, it’s the presentation of your song that matters, unfortunately. But I’ve used iPhone guitar/vocal songs from people, because for some reason they’ve nailed the performance and they got lucky with the balance of the guitar and the vocal. And you put it back and it sounds like a little Colby Caillat song, and I’ve used one of those songs in about eight different projects—that Colby Caillat-ish type of guitar/vocal thing way in the background. They got lucky that the balance worked.

So don’t ever say, “Well, I could change this, or I could change that.” We don’t have time for that, and we don’t have the budget for that. Know what you are presenting. And I also say… Here’s a tip if you have your own home studio: When you do your production and your mixes, always do a track mix (mix minus vocals)—I’m sure you’ve heard that on all these panels. You mix your song, you put your mix down, there’s your master mix. I always say I respect the artists. Before, when I said I don’t care about your music, I actually do. Always make your music for yourself, first. You are the artist; you are the creator; you have the right to do that. Make the mix for yourself, and now that’s your master mix. Mute the vocals, including the background vocals, by the way. Some people think that it’s just the lead vocal. Now, it’s gonna sound empty. I don’t care if it’s a hip-hop rap song, the only thing without the rap is just a drum or a bass. Don’t do anything, just do a track mix. It didn’t cost you another dime.

And keep all your faders exactly where they were, including your master fader.
Do not change anything. Keep it all there.

Even if your meters look low, because of the vocals not being there. Resist the temptation because editors might want to cut back and forth from the vocal version to the mix minus vocals in certain parts of the scene to allow for dialog.
Because if here was your vocal and there was your track mix, all we want to do is take it away. Don’t do anything.

But then, now that you have that, now start doing some alternate mixes, depending on your song. If you have an EDM song, and there is just some high percussive part just clicking through there, either take it out or take it way down. High frequencies are the biggest problem. I’ve had songs in a TV series called Full Circle that I did three seasons of. The first season, every episode was set in a restaurant. So, the only setting for this whole series was in the restaurant. It was two characters that kept joining up and came full circle at the end of the season. I would put certain songs in there and the network guy would come into the mix and start yelling at the sound effects people. He liked yelling.

He would yell at the sound effects people, “Just because it’s a restaurant, you don’t need to have everybody back in the kitchen dropping silverware.” And they were very confused until they realized that there was no bass part in the song, and it basically had a tambourine and a hi-hat.

You really can’t make this stuff up.
And I didn’t have time to chase down… I was hoping they could notch that out in the master EQ, but it was so present. And the song was great, but I didn’t have time to go to the writer and say, “Do you have an alternative mix?”

So, what we do is… I think, Michael, you have seen me do this in some of my panels. I want the volume way down, so when you’re in mixing and you want to do your sync mix, let’s call it—and I don’t believe in writing for sync—but this is about presentation. Bring the volume way down so it’s hard to hear it and start talking, talking with friends, or turn on the baseball game or get on your phone and start typing and see if something is popping out. Usually, the high frequencies are going to pop out, so just be wary that that’s how you can do an alternate mix so at least now there’s nothing distracting in there that is going to distract. Now you have your full mix, and if I’m like I want it for a featured song, I don’t mind the hi-hat, though. I don’t mind the screaming guitar solo. That’s the featured song, but if it’s gonna be background, that stuff’s gonna pop through.

I have a question. You said don’t write for sync, and I’ve heard that plenty of times in my career. I was moderating a panel at the Hawaii Songwriters Festival, and something incredibly good got played. And as I was moderating that panel; I was looking at the panelists and I could see that they all had a question mark on their face, and the question was, “Was this written for a sync?” It was right on the edge, because somebody knew enough about the sync side of the advertising business that they wrote something that was just so perfect that it almost, almost felt contrived, but it was just so perfect. And it turns out that the writer said that she didn’t write it for sync.

So, writing for sync in the context of television and film, not so much commercials, I would like to give a counter-argument to that, but only a slight counterargument, in that there are topics that I see that get used over and over and over again. So, I would like to give people a list of topics, things like home. It never hurts to have some songs about home. “I wanna go home,” “I’m leaving home,” “Home is where the heart is,” songs about non-romantic love relationships that could be used by somebody saying goodbye to a parent who is dying. There are some things that are just more usable than others, and they come up all the time. You didn’t like that, huh? I told you, the counterargument. [Mason chuckles]
No, I like it—point/counterpoint. Yeah, there is validity to that for those that choose to round up a catalog such as that. I guess what I would want to balance that with is if somebody who has never ever been in a relationship wants to write a love song. If somebody who has never lived ever in a city wants to write a song about the city streets, it’s gonna be fake, right? It has to be authentic. Sometimes you might hear about a project, or have somebody say, “Hey, we need songs about home.” There are a lot of women-empowerment songs, and a lot of social-justice songs, now. There are songs about life and hope, but they are general that don’t need anything other than just, you know, you might use metaphors, you might use imagery: The sun is shining, the grass is greener and we all come together with family; life is wonderful. Those are great, but they can also be just cheap and generic. Sometimes that’s really good for my needs because it’s so generic that it will never call attention to it.

So, I can agree with you on that. What I like doing, though, is supporting the artists and say, “Write what you want to write, and write it great. And write a lot of them.” But also, you don’t only have to write about your life. You might be inspired by a friend’s life, a family or history that you have read, or a novel or anything that inspires you to write about a topic. You might not be a hiker at all, but for some reason you go visit a family member and they say, “Let’s go hiking.” And it just inspires you for some reason, something that you would have never written about.

Write a song that you want to write, and write it great. What I mean by not writing for sync, Michael… I can agree with you about that. Topics are a good place to start because they inspire us. If you’re writing your own album, you’re looking for topics that are either universal for somebody else, or personal to yourself. You don’t want to write a song that means nothing to either you or the other person.

Right, but finding that intersection is difficult.
Yeah, right. So, what I mean by not writing for sync is dumbing down your song. And I’m glad you said topics, because I had another writer use that word with a couple co-writers that have been uninspired by [that approach]. But these persons held themselves out as specialists in sync. They wrote for sync. And I had a meeting with this person once, and they were telling me, “You know, there are certain rules.” I forget all the rules; I lost it after the first two. It’s like there are certain words you need to use for “night” or “nighttime.” He was going down this list, and it was the biggest piece of… Let’s just say it was the biggest piece of malarky that I have ever heard.

And that’s what I mean about don’t write for sync. Don’t dumb yourself down; don’t sacrifice something that you want to say, play or sing. Be true to yourself; respect yourself. Where you then do for sync might be the production, might be your performance, and will be about having passed it and how you pitch it, when you pitch it and match it up—the business side of everything. That’s for sync; it should be the process of getting it for what you created to be used. And that’s business, but don’t dumb yourself down. Write what you want to write.

Don’t miss the final part of this interview next month!