sometimes original music is the only way to go. Here’s why …

Custom scoring: sometimes original music is the only way to go. Here’s why …

Christine Bunish

It’s undeniable that production music libraries have improved significantly in recent years, but sometimes only custom scoring can fill the bill for spots, independent films, TV programming, videogames, multimedia presentations and trailers.


New York City’s Big Foote Music ( creates only specifically commissioned music. “We really specialize in bringing added value to the process–it’s a content creation mission,” explains composer/creative director Sherman Foote. “We love making sound and music audioscapes that can help convey a story.”

Big Foote is a collaborative corps of composers, writers and arrangers who produce music every day. “We’re chameleons in terms of the number of styles of music we create,” Foote says. “We try to be fluid in our choices. When an assignment comes on board, if there are clear directives, if the client says, ‘We need a certain kind of track,’ we present that idea, but we also say,’Here’s another way to think about this! We provide an alternative.”

Foote believes music “needs to be articulated in very discrete and definable terms: melody, rhythm, harmony and color. A lot of clients may not know how to speak about these things while others are very sophisticated and can tell you exactly what they want. So it’s part of the role of the musical artist to ask the client, ‘What are you trying to do? How do you want to feel? What mood do you want to create?’ You don’t have to be musically literate to engage in this conversation. Hopefully, what we do best is communicate on a very intangible, emotional level that’s compelling and satisfying and causes people to respond in a really direct way.”

While much of Big Foote’s custom scoring is for TV spots, the company works in various media. Foote scored all the incidental music for The Boys of Second Street Park, a Showtime original movie, which aired this fall. “They had a lot of source music from the ’60s and ’70s, the music of the era. Some of the incidental music had to be focused on what the characters were talking about, but it couldn’t be so modern that it was out of place and inappropriate to the time.”

Big Foote recently participated in its first game project, working with California-based composer Sean Callery on new music for the PlayStation2 game of James Bond’s Die Another Day. “We developed three-and-a-half-minute musical compositions to fit a particular style. The style guide was very clear,” Foote reports. “The editorial and game-playing process needed to be interactive, and the music had to evolve as the player went deeper into the game. The editors wanted access to every layer of the composition.”

Foote points out that there was “an interest in using live music instead of electronic music” for the game. Compositions created on MIDI gear were critiqued by the client, adjusted and then recorded with a live orchestra.

Big Foote has the infrastructure for fast, flexible, efficient music production. Five identical writing stations feature Mac G4s with IGB processors running Logic Audio 6.1 with Digidesign 888/24 hardware on the front end. Outboard synths include Roland’s 5080 and 1080, Nordlead, Waldorf MicroQ and a KorgTR rack; GigaStudios samplers are also on hand. There are Class A, Focusrite, Avalon and API mic pre EQs, a collection of vintage mics, an Empirical Labs distressor and Eventide H3000 harmonizers. One of Big Foote’s five rooms is configured for 5. I surround mixing.

“The role of the commissioned composer is one of service,” Foote reminds us.” We’re hired to create something we’re passionate about but which will work within a particular creative vision. Every project is a different kind of interaction. That’s what makes it enjoyable, surprising and fun.”


At San Diego’s Flashpoint Studios (, a company that handles any audio production need including custom music and voice talent, president Marc Lyman teamed with composer David Helpling of DHM Music Design ( on a CD-ROM and Web presentation for Covigo Wireless.

Covigo required a quick turnaround on a music score for a three-minute movie showcasing the company. “They wanted something techy, upbeat, edgy, positive and powerful,” Helpling recalls. “So we went with a sort of electronica sound, fast paced with synthesizers and a few Enya-like female vocal phrases for the human element we needed.”

“Direction on custom projects can often be a challenge since subjective verbal descriptions of music vary widely from each individual’s perspective,” Lyman points out. “David has an amazing ability to translate client descriptions of what they want into a tangible piece music that often exceeds their expectations. In the case of the Covigo project, no revisions were requested. They were thrilled with the first and only version we delivered.”

Working to a QuickTime of the Covigo movie, Helpling began to cut and process the music in his studio. In his main room he runs MOTU’s latest version of Digital Performer on a dual 1 GHz G4 Mac on OS X; a dual 2-gig G5 is on order Helpling has Dyn Audio Air 6 studio monitors; an Akai Z4 sampler; Access Virus, Roland JP-8080, Roland JD-990 and Micro Korg synths; Lexicon PCM 91 and 80 reverb processors; and an Eventide effects processor.

He recorded the vocalist in a booth adjacent to a second studio using a Neumann TLM 103 mic running directly to a True Systems P2 mic pre amp, which “makes everything sound beautiful,” Her vocal track was then recorded through MOTU’s high definition HD 192 interface.

Helpling employed the Waves Renaissance line of processors for his mix, then tapped Bias’s Peak mastering software for some final limiting and to dither down from 24 bit to 16 bit.

“If the Covigo movie had been for the Web only I’d have wanted to use instruments, sounds and a tonality that would survive compression the best,” Helpling notes, “But because the project was also for CD-ROM, I didn’t make any compromises that would degrade the experience of the movie on a big sound system. I went with a big, wide, deep, hi-fi mix.”

Helpling worked with a scratch voiceover, staying out of the VO’s center channel and avoiding upper mid-range frequencies, which would compete with the female VO, He FTP’d his mix to Lyman who used Pro Tools for the final mix of the VO, cast from Flashpoint’s talent roster, and Helpling’s custom score.

“Our main concern in the final mix was making sure the volume levels were just right so the music didn’t become a distraction from the vital information the voiceover was conveying,” says Lyman. “By fading the music down during VO segments we were able to keep the VO information at the fore front. At the same time, we didn’t want the music to drop so low that the piece lost its continuity and flow. Once a balance was struck the audio was bounced to a final mix and sent off to the client via FTP.”


“Lately custom scoring has gotten away from the more dramatic, orchestrated stuff and sound design to pop music–rock, R&B, hip-hop, hardcore pop or dance,” re ports Paul Loomis, owner of Luminous-Sound ( in Dallas. “Everyone seems to want something with a beat. Demand is driven more and more by the pop culture.”

LuminousSound recently completed a five-spot package for the North Texas Ford Dealers from J. Walter Thompson/ Dallas and Detroit in which “every track was an authentic pop track,” Loomis says. All of the tracks will be used for a long-term branding campaign for Ford vehicles. Two tracks, accompanying rugged, off-road visuals for Ford’s F-150 pick up (a top-seller in Texas), were hard-driving rock in the style of Creed and Stain’d, A dreamy dance track was created for a Ford Taurus and Windstar spot, and a pop track in the Christina Aguilera/Britney Spears mode was crafted to market Ford Focus and Mustang. A spot for the US Hispanic market called for a Latin pop sound in the spirit of J.Lo and Ricky Martin.

At JWT/Detroit, George Piliouras served as executive creative director on the account with Rob Kocher Southwest region creative group head. Senior writer/producer Eric Foster was from JWT’s Dallas office. The package was cut by partner/editor Brent Herrington at Frames Per Second in Dallas.

All of the tracks wrapped with “The Best in Texas” positioning line,” All five of the songs have this pay off at the end, this close melodic identity, but they’re all different styles, sung by five different men and women, associated with different target audiences,” notes engineer/producer Tre Nagella.

Like all LuminousSound projects, this was a team writing and performing effort. The tracks mixed sampled instruments programmed and performed in MIDI by Loomis, Nagella and chief engineer/producer Hal Fitzgerald with live guitar by Nagella, additional acoustic guitar, keyboard by Loomis and drum programming by Nagella, Fitzgerald and Bell. Some guitar feedback was added to the band-like rock tracks. Non-musical elements were also blended in.

The rock spots were tracked in LuminousSound’s Studio A, a Studio Baulton-designed room boasting an SSL 9000 series analog console and a Pro Tools/HD system, “When we track our stuff we try hard for the authentic sound of a rock recording,” Loomis points out.” The board has really changed the sound of the room,” notes Bell. “There’s a lot more punch and low end. You really feel the warmth of the signal path.”

LuminousSound also crafted four pop tracks for a national RadioShack package from The Circle R Group/Ft. Worth showcasing radio-controlled Zip Zaps toys, ideal for Christmas presents. Targeted to younger kids and teens, the spots were scored to picture with sound effects of thunder, squealing tires, car drive offs and spins, and featured a mix of rock and hip-hop in the style of Linkin Park.

“Licensing pop music for commercials is ‘been there, done that,'” notes VP of operations Julia Sizemore. “We’re seeing our clients wanting to create their own message with custom pop music instead of borrowing someone else’s message for their brand.”


In New York City, Wonderland Productions (, which features Avid Media Composer and DV Xpress Pro editing and graphics, and its No Wonder Music custom scoring division combine to deliver “hand-crafted” projects.

“It’s a very integrated process,” says four-time Emmy Award-winner Bill McCullough, who founded Wonderland. “I edit, produce and compose, and John Wiggins composes, does sound design and mixes. Clients see things happen before their eyes, and they love the synergy between John and myself, the cool chemistry we have.”

Both McCullough and Wiggins are “always making music” with their home Pro Tools systems. They also perform, with McCullough’s wife Vanessa who is the company’s director of operations, in Manhattan clubs as the band The Robinsons. They’ve compiled a 300-song library of their original music, which can be tapped in whole or in part to meet clients’ needs. At No Wonder Music, Wiggins–also an Emmy winner–works with a Pro Tools|Mix 3 system with a Control 24 surface. Editorial and audio collaboration is facilitated by HP Fibrenet.

McCullough and Wiggins took a less-is-more approach to the audio for the :30 graphic tease for the upcoming HBO miniseries of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. “They didn’t want it to be big; we had to hold back,” McCullough reports. “It had to be in the background, mysterious. So we came up with a two-note piece: one suspended string note and French horns added with synths.”

“We avoided a tonal base, “Wiggins adds. “We kept it shimmering, which is very hard to do.” They also laid in the sound bites, fragments of lines voiced by an all-star cast, which accompany imagery of huge feathered wings. No Wonder Music was rewarded with further work for the miniseries. In contrast, the trailer for the Court TV original movie, The Interrogation of Michael Crow which netted the men a Telly Award, required a big, theatrical sound.

McCullough cut the :60 trailer, for TV and cinema release, from the movie footage. “The whole trailer had to build,” he explains. “There was a set up to explain the story, rising excitement and tension, and a climax with the title.” He and Wiggins took heed of the mandate to “make it bigger” for the trailer’s cinema release. “Running in a string of trailers for other movies, including the latest Harry Potter film, it had to stand out,” he observes.

“The music we created with Korg Karma and MS2000 and Roland 5150 synths was very percussive and big with strings,” McCullough explains. Wiggins’s sound design was tuned to the music’s pitch “so it felt part of the music.” Since the trailer would be mixed at NYC’s Sound One in 5.1 surround for theaters and stereo for TV, Wiggins could plan out each sound effect’s placement.

“The trailer was a classic example of massaging the project between two rooms,” Wiggins reports. “Sound design influenced the edit and vice versa. There was a real back and forth, and things got better and better.”


The primary business of Mediatone Music, Inc. ( in Carrollton, TX, is its production music library Studio Cutz. Thanks to this extensive buyout library, Mediatone has a large stable of composers in the US and abroad who specialize in different styles of music. “The 30-plus composers who work for us are the real power,” says president Brian Beshears, who is himself a contributing composer.

Custom scoring is called for when clients want exclusive use of a track or when the budget allows for a score fine tuned to fit a production, he notes. Mediatone has crafted custom music for Ford Motor Company, American Airlines, International Paper, Omnibus and Mary Kay Cosmetics.

“The trick in satisfying the customer is to get a clear understanding of exactly what they want,” says Beshears. “Music is very difficult to describe verbally. We go through a fairly extensive process to assure that we can do what they mean, not just what they say.”

A spot for national long-distance company DPI featured lots of copy that had to fit into 30 seconds. “There really wasn’t any room for intros, melodic or thematic movement or a good ending,” Beshears explains. “Still, the client needed the music to communicate a strong vibe, way in the background, and not fight the voiceover. This is sort of our specialty: music that acts big without really being too big and getting in the way.”

Beshears created a strong musical texture for the spot with a contemporary, slightly aggressive feel flavored with rock and techno skewed toward a younger demographic. He worked in one of Mediatone’s two Pro Tools|Mix Plus suites. One of the rooms has AvidOption for synchronizing/scoring to video.

A different custom approach was required by an independent filmmaker who found an instrumental he liked in the Studio Cutz library, which could serve as the basis for the hit song the rock star character has in the movie Death Whispers. “We wrote a special license that enabled the filmmaker to create lyrics for the song he liked,” says Beshears. “Then he sent us the lyrics, we adjusted the song with his approval and brought in a vocalist and recorded the song for the movie. We also provided all kinds of mix outs to use throughout the film.

“Most of the time we don’t see moviemakers commission lyrical work,” he notes. “They usually license existing songs. But because we had the individual tracks at our disposal, we could customize them to what the filmmaker needed.”


Like Beshears, Shael Wrinch of Beatty Lane Recording Studios in Vancouver was asked to tailor music for an indie film, Moving Malcolm, a comedy directed by Benjamin Ratner about an aspiring novelist who hopes to win back his one-time fiancee by moving her elderly father to a new apartment. The Sundance bound feature already had a main score when Wrinch was called upon to craft seven additional pieces of music. Each piece was custom fit into 23 places in the movie in clips ranging from :05 to :60 in length.

A music producer, composer and engineer, Wrinch created tracks to suit the different moods of various scenes: poignant, ethereal, big and breaking free. He used mostly acoustic instruments combining piano and guitar to establish Malcolm’s character; drums, bass and tremolo guitar for a dream sequence; and multiple layers of electric and acoustic guitars, drums, bass, piano and vocals for a let loose sound.

Wrinch’s Beatty Lane Recording Studios sports two control rooms, an editing suite, a large drum room and several iso rooms. His compositions often take shape on guitar and piano, although he also employs Steinberg’s Nuendo software. His toolkit also includes Fairlight MFX 24 and MFX 48 systems, a Digital 8Bus Mackie board and VI hard disk drives for post to picture.

Wrinch is understandably keen on custom music and custom acoustic music in particular. “You’re creating music you’re not going to hear anywhere else,” he emphasizes. “I had a bunch of songs roughly finished when Benjamin sat down to listen to them. When he said, ‘I love this one,’ we’d see where he wanted to put it, then custom fit it to the picture. “When you have custom music, instead of saying fade it at 30 seconds, you can drop out the drums or let it ring out,” he explains. “Customization can smooth out editing transitions.”

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