Custom Music Tracks For Video – Part Two

This blog is the second post of a four-part series, where I talk about what goes into creating a song from scratch. To read the previous article, click here.


Like I said in the last post, my dad’s a chef. As a kid, I bugged him to teach me his skills. I remember the first time he taught me how to make his pizza sauce — this tasty red sauce full of tomatoes and spices and herbs. “Ok dad, how much dried basil did you just put in the sauce?” “I don’t know, son.” “What do you mean you don’t know?!” It was crazy to me that he didn’t know how much of a certain ingredient he put in, yet his sauce was always the same delicious flavor. He taught me that cooking is way more of an art than a science. Over time, he helped me develop the same palette skills he used in cooking. He’d give me a spoonful of the sauce from the warm pot and say, “How’s it taste?” “Bland!” I’d reply. He’d ask what was missing, and I’d tell him it needs basil, and salt. “How much?” he’d ask. “However much it takes to make it good,” I’d say. “Exactly!” He was teaching me it’s an art, a dance, to get all of those different ingredients blending with each other in harmony to make something tasty.

That’s what composing custom music is all about.

Custom music isn’t 1tsp of guitar, 3 cups of drums, and a dash of synth. It’s a carefully crafted and experimental balance of ingredients blending with each other in harmony to make something emotional. And just like in cooking, you start to learn what ingredients work well with each other, and what spices you need to use for a specific dish. If I’m making traditional Italian, I’m not going to use ground ginger root. And if I’m making an uplifting, hopeful tune, I’m not going to use a cowbell (sorry, Will Ferrell!)

Let’s say I want to write this uplifting, hopeful tune. I usually start with grabbing an acoustic guitar and playing random notes together until something strikes a chord with me (pun!) and gives me the emotion I’m after. Usually, the film I’m writing for is already edited together, so I will loop the video over and over while playing the acoustic guitar, working through what chords should go here, what kind of build should happen there, and where the triumphant climax should hit. A lot of times, the acoustic guitar never even makes its way into the final song, but it’s a great and versatile instrument to begin the writing process on.

So, now I’ve got my chords and a general outline for the song structure. Next, I start choosing instruments. I’ve got a lot of fun toys here at office to choose from — acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, lap steel guitar, electronic drums, synthesizer patches, even a violin! (Honesty moment — the violin is missing strings, and I have no idea how to play it, but that’s beside the point..) All of these instruments act as ingredients and spices. Since I’m crafting a song that’s uplifting and hopeful, I’m probably going to use a nice warm soft synth pad throughout to create that constant feeling of hopefulness. Next, I might add clean electric guitar with lots of delay and reverb to give the song pacing and to add swelling movement.

Uplifting songs don’t sit in one place, they take you on an emotional journey. Often, they get sad or moody for a segment, before returning to triumphant hope. After all, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel if the tunnel isn’t dark, right? Towards the end of the song, when we’re getting closer to the “light at the end of the tunnel,” I might use swelling orchestral strings or a building snare drum to quicken the song and heighten the emotion until… Pop! Triumphant climax. The film reaches the point in its story where success happens — the football player scores the winning touchdown; the protagonist gets the girl; the coffee snob finally discovers the perfect cup of coffee (it’s not in Seattle…). The music emphasizes this visual moment to communicate to the audience that this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. How bland would it be if that same visual moment had no music underneath it?

Since inspiration comes from everywhere and composition is an experimental art rather than a formulaic science, it’s a good idea to dedicate at least 1 – 3 days for this period in the songwriting process.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the challenges of tracking a bunch of instruments by yourself. I’ll also ask the question, “How many cups of coffee does it take to make a song?” Cheers!

For a full library of the songs I’ve crafted, head over to our Soundcloud playlist and give the songs a listen.