If we could include an honest line item in our film budget, detailing the number of hours we search for the perfect source track for a film, it would be ridiculous. Hours at a time trawling through good but ‘not quite right’ music, then a few minutes more multiple times a day when a flash of inspiration strikes. This can go on for weeks sometimes. Eventually we find it and when we do I’m glad we didn’t settle for less.

Melody and rhythm are, of course, the primary factors that sort the wheat from the chaff. Once there are a few hopeful tracks that might fit, I take a close listen to the lyrics. I don’t just automatically hit the ‘instrumental only’ tab if there is one. That would be like going to a restaurant and not checking the ‘specials’ board — maybe you’re missing something really, really good. 

There is a reticence among many editors when it comes to fitting song lyrics to films, especially short films or documentaries where a lot has to be conveyed in a short space of time. I get it, there’s the ever-present danger that track lyrics will compete with a spoken narrative, or your carefully crafted short film turns into a music video. It seems safest to just use an instrumental. There’s another thing you hear often, even on quite decent budget network series; the killer track kicks in—it’s probably recognizable, maybe even famous—the scene gathers speed, then the heart-wrenching speech or ‘take home’ message begins, and what happens to the music and vocals you were enjoying? They’re dipped, and often all the energy of the scene dips away with them. All that time you spent searching for the perfect track get flushed down the proverbial toilet.

So, what’s the alternative? How do you use lyrics in such a way that they don’t distract from the narrative and instead add to it? Well, you have to get a little creative, maybe even reach into your costume closet and find that music producer hat you never thought properly fit.

There are two main tasks. The first? Figure out if the lyrics of your chosen track relate in any way to the subject matter of your film or scene. While this might feel like a stretch sometimes, musicians and songwriters are often poets of the highest degree. Common themes include love, sadness, freedom, the power of sexual relationships, triggers for such visceral feelings that they can relate to and therefore be plugged into almost any narrative if you’re careful. 

‘Being careful’ brings us to the second often fairly involved task; reworking the track in such a way that both the melody AND the lyrics match the flow of your story.

While some musicians might hate me for saying this, don’t be shy when it comes to slicing and dicing a track to ensure it flows for you. Occasionally it just won’t, but most of the time you’ll find enough variation to be able to isolate bridges, choruses, percussive moments or maybe a runaway guitar solo and use them where they fit best, and maybe, more importantly, use them to ensure that powerful lyrics hit exactly where you want them. 

And you don’t have to be a Logic or Audition professional to be able to manipulate your audio tracks. Premiere or any other video editing software is more than capable of doing this, as long as you use your ears.

And you don’t have to be a Logic or Audition professional to be able to manipulate your audio tracks. Premiere or any other video editing software is more than capable of doing this, as long as you use your ears. 

Here are a few questions you should ask yourself whilst in the process of massaging your track of choice to work for you;

    • Do I need to alter this? Despite everything I’ve said above, the musical artist has spent a lot of time creating the track you’re working with. They’ve created something you love, so be sure not to ruin it. Before you go to town, check to see if some simple visual edits might allow your handiwork to fit the track rather than vice versa. 
    • Am I following the rhythmic structure of the track? In certain circumstances, especially for structurally very defined tracks, you can run into problems. For example, if you’re using a track based around the 12 bar blues, and you cut it in such a way that it becomes 11 bars, it’s probably going to sound wrong if not to you, to somebody. Experiment with adding another bar, perhaps from a different verse if it provides a more suitable vibe, or spacing your visual edit to fit.
    • Are there instrumental stems available? An effective way of minimizing the amount of ‘music producing’ you have to do is to use the instrumental stem (if it’s available) to provide a bed to your scene and pick the most powerful verse of lyrics to include at a chosen point. Not only does this give you more flexibility, it also often gives the lyrics you’ve chosen to use extra power and makes it way easier to prevent voices competing with the main narrative.
    • Does the track have a defined beginning and end? Tracks sometimes fade up to begin and often fade out to end. These fades are not your friends. When it comes to manipulating music, many of your musical tools you’ll be able to isolate will come from the beginning and end of a track. This is often where percussion or solo instruments give variation that can be used in other places underneath your narrative and sometimes looped to allow the track to begin or end over a few extra beats.
Example: Climbing Out of Disaster (Black Diamond)   //   Source track: Tiffany Lee – Jailbird

In this example, I thought it would be a crying shame not to include the incredible voice of Tiffany Lee. As luck would have it “I Got To Get Free” are the lyrics of the refrain in this track. This could relate to a lot of subjects, but to me, it spoke powerfully to not only leaving the ground when climbing but also shaking oneself free of the trauma of an act of God and wrestling free of your own demons. The percussive elements of this track, including the beautifully ‘reverby’ clicking, gave me some very welcome flexibility.

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