Music Editing 101 – Breakdown Notes

It’s been nearly a week since we spotted the first SIMSPONS episode of the new season. The spotting notes have been prepared and distributed and now I’m deep into step 3 out of my 7 steps of music editing: breakdown notes.

Breakdown notes (also known as timing notes) are very detailed transcriptions of the scenes that will contain music. Using the digital video file of the episode and the spotting notes, I’ll go to the first frame of the first cue that Alf will be composing. Most often the first cue Alf writes each week is given the designation “1M2”. The number before the “M” tells us that the cue will be in Act 1 of the show. In film-music parlance “Act” doesn’t refer to the dramatic arc of the story (i.e. Act 1 introduction, Act 2 complications, Act 3 resolution) but to the chunks of the episode broadcast around the commercial breaks (i.e. opening scenes of the episode are in Act 1, then a commercial, next group of scenes are in Act 2, then a commercial, etc.) For most of the run of THE SIMPSONS the show was broadcast in 3 acts. For the last few seasons, in an effort to generate a few more $$, the show is now broadcast in 4 acts. The number after the “M” represents the order position of the cue within the act. So 1M2 means “Act 1, 2nd cue”. Why is Alf’s first cue 1M2 and not 1M1? Because every cue in the show gets a designation whether Alf composes it for the episode or not. So, Danny Elfman’s Main Title Theme music is the first cue in the show every week and it gets the “1M1” honor.

Sidebar: I’m often asked, “Does Danny Elfman still write the music for THE SIMSPONS?” Danny wrote the Main Title back in 1989 before I was hired to work on the show, so I was not a part of the original Main Title recording session. At the start of season 2 in 1990, The Main Title sequence was slightly redesigned and reanimated. Danny was called back in to re-record the new-length music. I did work with him on that one recording session. He also recorded a handful of “library” cues that were not scored to any particular scenes and could dropped into the show whenever needed. Those cues were used sparingly in seasons 1 & 2, but not since then. Those two recording sessions are the full extent of Danny’s involvement with the show. And one last tidbit: at the start of season 3 in 1991 the Main Title sequence was redesigned and reanimated again. This time Alf Clausen did the new arrangement and orchestration of Danny’s theme. The recording from 1991 is the very same recording you hear on the show today.

As I was saying, I go to the first frame of 1M2 then I type the timecode number and a detailed description of the picture into a custom-programmed spreadsheet that was designed for me by John Eidsvoog. In a previous post I mentioned that my former boss Roy Prendergast was developing computer software to modernize the breakdown notes process. Roy was the idea guy, John Eidsvoog was the programmer. When I told John that I wanted to do my breakdowns on any computer (we used dedicated hardware back in the 80s), he suggested doing it on an Excel spreadsheet. I gave him all the parameters and he did a brilliant job of making it work.

In the illustration above (taken from “The Ned-liest Catch” from season 22), the cue is 1M4 (Act 1, 4th cue); the brief, thumbnail description of the cue is “The latest of Bart’s pranks” which gives a quick, simple overview of what the cue is about – the detailed description of what the cue is about is in the spotting notes; there are 3 columns CUME TIME, TIMECODE, and NOTES. I enter the first timecode and description and the program calculates the CUME TIME (short for CUMULATIVE TIME) as 0:00.00. Imagine that when the music begins you are looking at a stopwatch – the music and the stopwatch start simultaneously. This means that at the instant the music begins, the stopwatch is at 0:00.00. All cues start at “zero” cume time. As the scene progresses, I make note of all the dialog starts and stops (there was no dialog in the cue notes shown above), all cuts, fades, dissolves, and all significant physical actions between cuts (at cume time 0:01.50 Bart pulls the bleacher retractor switch). As I enter each timecode for each description the cume time is calculated. There are 13 note entries for this cue and the “spot” lasts only 8.43 seconds. That’s a lot of detail for such a short period of time. Why so much detail? Because the music editor can never anticipate what the composer will “hit” or “catch” in a cue. Some actions will receive musical emphasis, others won’t. Although it takes a great deal of time and patience to transcribe this much detail, it’s actually less time-consuming than having to have Alf tell me ahead of time what he does and doesn’t plan to “hit” in each cue. I just give him all the details and he picks and chooses.

How does the composer actually “hit” those specific moments in a cue? Back to high school algebra! Remember R x T = D (rate multiplied by time equals distance)? It’s just a variation of that formula: T x B = S (tempo multiplied by beats of music equals seconds). You may also remember from algebra class that if you have any 2 parts of the formula you can calculate the 3rd. From the notes Alf  already knows how many seconds have to be filled. So he can either choose a tempo that works for him (as a general rule – but by no means etched in stone – sad cues tend to be slower and happy or heroic cues tend to be faster) so if he divides the seconds by the tempo, he knows how many beats of music to write. Conversely, he may need to write a specific number of beats so if he divides the seconds by the number of beats, he knows what tempo to use to get all the beats into the defined time frame. Alf uses a computer program called The Auricle Time Processor to aid in all of his tempo/beat calculations. The program greatly simplifies a chore of the job that used to be done with pencil and paper or a calculator. It can calculate tempos in fine detail down to the 100th of a second for very precise timing of catching those crucial “hits” in a cue.

In the 80s & 90s, the job of generating breakdown notes was done using video tape for picture & dialog, a dedicated ATARI computer for the notes program, a photocopier to make a copy of the notes for the composer, and a courier to deliver the envelope full of notes (eventually a FAX machine delivered the notes). Today, I can do all the work on my Mac laptop. I have a digital video file, the notes are created using my custom spreadsheet, I print to PDF files and email them to Alf. I have been 100% paper-free on THE SIMPSONS since 2005.

As of the writing of this post, I’ve completed Acts 1-3 of episode NABF16. That’s 22 pages of notes made up of 254 separate entries. I’d better get busy with Act 4!

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