Music Editing 101 – Music Spotting Notes

Our first spotting session is finished and here are the stats: 34 cues total which break down as 23 score cues, 8 source cues, and 3 “format” cues – format cues include the Main Title, End Credits, Gracie Films Logo, and the Fox logo. The guest star for this episode is Kiefer Sutherland playing a character with a secret past, fans of TOP CHEF will also get a special treat, and we reveal the results of the NEDNA Internet voting. I can’t reveal any of the musical details at this point but will share specifics of the spotting session soon after the show airs.

Now I head back to my home studio and begin work on the second of my seven music editing steps: preparing the music spotting notes.

Everyone who works in post production receives a digital video file of the final locked edit of the episode.

Sidebar: The only thing that is actually locked at this point is the overall length of the episode and the length of each of the scenes that make up the episode. This is very important to us because the music has to be composed to the exact length of the scenes. If any of the scenes change length, then the cue has to be re-timed and rewritten. One of the toughest aspects of composing for television is the very short, tight schedule – Alf will often only have one week to write an entire score. But that tight schedule also works to our advantage because the picture can’t be continually tinkered with, so last-minute length changes are very rare. In feature films – especially CGI-heavy movies – length changes happen constantly, right up to the last possible moment. Among the parts of the episode still unlocked: some dialog that has recently been added or rewritten, some animation that still isn’t yet finalized either because of technical problems, imperfections, or redesign.

Okay, back to the spotting notes. Using the digital video file, I now go through all the spots again, referring to my notes from my laptop and the voice recording of the session, and noting all of the exact timecode locations of the start and stop points for each cue.

*What did he just say?*

By now you’ve all probably seen a timecode window on some TV show.           
The first two numbers (furthest left) count hours, the next two count minutes, the next two count seconds, and the last two (furthest right) count frames per second (there are 24 frames per second in high-definition TV). There is a timecode window burned in to every copy of every version of the video during the post-production process. This way, all editors, mixers, producers, etc. can discuss a specific timecode location and we will all be looking at the same frame. The window is finally removed from the final version of the episode when delivered to FOX for broadcast.

The first frame of each SIMPSONS episode starts at exactly 01:00:00:00 and runs to about 01:22:00:00 – the exact length of the show varies a little week-to-week. Each cue will start at an exact timecode location and will end (or tail) at an exact timecode location. I go over each music spot that was discussed in the spotting session, then locate and note each start & stop timecode location in the digital picture file. Then I write out the description – the “why are we doing this music” – for each cue, putting as much detail and as many key words or phrases that were discussed so that Alf has a clear picture of the purpose of each cue as he sets out to compose. When I used to prepare the spotting notes using video tape and hand-written notes, the process could easily take 6-8 hours. Now that my notes are already in a computer and the picture is digital, I’ve cut the prep time down to 3-5 hours depending on how many cues are in the episode and how much detail there is to describe.

Here are the music spotting notes from “The Ned-liest Catch”, our season-ending episode from last May.

You can see from the notes that this episode has all of the types of music I described in my previous post: score, source, montage, and format music.

Once the spotting notes are finished, they get distributed by email (formerly fax) to LOTS of people: the composer, the orchestrators, the music contractor, the recording studio, the sound effects & dialog editors, the producers, the music copyists & librarian, the recording engineer, and the Fox Music Dept. In future posts I’ll fill you in on these various jobs and the people who perform them.

Now that Alf has his spotting notes, he can start getting organized and ready to compose. He knows how many cues will be score, how many will be source, how many total minutes of music he will write for the episode and he will divvy up the orchestration work amongst himself and his two orchestartors. But he can’t begin full composition until I get into my next step of the music editing process – breakdown notes. I’ll cover breakdown notes in the next Music Editing 101 post.

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