Composing by Editing: Recreating Music

   By Sarah C   Categories: Audio SoftwareMastering AudioMixing Techniques

One of the most controversial, creative, and important skills of a music editor is the ability to edit music which has already been recorded. This may seem to run contrary to the purpose of having music written for the movie, and indeed to the music editor’s primary goal of protecting and preserving intact the composer’s music as they originally conceived and created it. However re-editing is a reality for many projects.

There are a variety of possible reasons for changing a composer’s score, including:

● The movie has been recut since the score was recorded—that is, a “conform” is needed.

● The director has added a scene and would like to include music that wasn’t spotted for.

● The director wants to reshape some or all of the score elements to redefine the music’s emotional or dramatic impact.

● The score is interfering with one or both of the other elements of the soundtrack (dialogue and sound effects).

● The composer may not have had the time or money to complete all the cues, requiring the music editor to create cues from stems recorded for other cues.

It is in the music editor’s best interest to let the composer know when there is a likelihood that the score will be edited, for any reason. The music editor should also have established at an early point whether the composer wants to be kept informed of any or all changes to their music; however, since this kind of editing often occurs at the dub, when the music editor is under great pressure, he or she may not be able to inform the composer prior to editing. In most circumstances, the composer will understand the potential for this and will trust the music editor to do their best to maintain the integrity of the music; this kind of trust between composer and music editor is often the result of working together on many projects.

The technical and musical considerations for this type of creative editing can include the following:

● When shortening or lengthening a piece, maintain the integrity and intention of the music. Pay particular attention to keeping hits or musical shifts in their intended positions in the scene.

● Be careful not to lower or raise volume or digitally process individual stems— the composer mixed their cue in a specific way, and with the emotional arc of the scene in mind. However, these kinds of changes might be done or requested by the re-recording mixer.

● Individual stems and parts of stems may be eliminated in part or as a whole to address the creative or technical needs of the dub mixer or director. They can also be re-edited, copied, or moved to address new picture changes. However, the priority in making these kinds of alterations is avoiding changes that interfere with the overall impetus of the original cue.

● Make every effort to avoid the director’s throwing a cue out—the music editor is often asked about this, and so should make their opinion known. On occasion deleting a cue can be in a film’s overall best interest. This is particularly true if the composer has been asked to provide what might be considered too much music. In this situation, look for scenes that play better without music.

● Choose your battles wisely! If the director is concerned about multiple cues, pick the most important one to defend or discuss with respect to changes. Reaching a consensus can be challenging. Some of the most important things to consider are thematic melodies, the music’s emotional impact, and keeping its structure.


An example of cues created by a music editor by finding and re-editing material from other cues. In this case, three cues which were spotted but not recorded (4m42, 4m43, and 4m44) have been replaced by editing the music from six others (2m13, 2m14, 2m22, 2m23, 1m9, and 1m10).

Only the director and composer trump the music editor when it comes to music placement.

Excerpt from Music Editing for Film and Television by Steven Saltzman © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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About the Author

Steven Saltzman, MPSE is a music editor and composer based in Los Angeles, CA. He received his Bachelors of Music in composition and film scoring from Berklee College of Music and is a certified Avid Pro Tools instructor. He has been editing music for film and television for the past eighteen years. In addition, Steven has lectured nationally, and he has created and taught numerous music editing courses. A recipient of a Golden Reel Award for music editing, Saltzman is also a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and he sits on the board of the Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild.


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