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News - June 2007

Film Scoring with Cakewalk SONAR 6   (Audiomidi, 15th June 2007)


Cakewalk’s SONAR 6 digital audio workstation (DAW) program is a very powerful software package which is an ideal partner for the modern film composer. This tutorial covers the aspects most closely associated with film scoring from setup to mixdown. Included are: preparing SONAR for scoring use, working with video directly inside the program, performing score-related adjustments and editing, and outputting the finished score for inclusion into the film's final dub.


Create an effective film scoring template


Having a ready-to-use palette of sounds on hand forms the groundwork for creating an organized workflow for a film composer. Making this template is simple and easy with SONAR. Follow these steps:

  1. Under the “File” pulldown menu, choose “New” and select the “Normal” template. Give it a name and click ”OK”.


  2. Add a blank MIDI track by pressing the “Insert New Track or Busses” icon button (upper left corner) and choose “MIDI Track”. Repeat as many times as needed to cover all of the desired MIDI instruments.


  3. Now start naming the tracks to correspond to each instrument that will be used in the template. Double click the track name field to name the tracks.


  4. To aid in template organization, make use of the Track Folders feature. Insert a new track folder by right-clicking over any track and choose “Insert Track Folder”. Moving tracks into track folders is done simply by dragging a particular track onto the track folder; this movement automatically places it neatly inside.


  5. Besides using track folders, custom color coding can also be utilized. Tracks normally automatically follow a preset coloring scheme, but can easily be customized by right-clicking anywhere over a track's inspector area and choose “Track Properties” from the pulldown menu. Both the foreground and background colors of the track can be altered.


  6. Another useful visual organizational aid is using SONAR's custom track icons. Like the track color, a preset icon is also automatically preassigned to a track (for example, a picture of a head of a MIDI plug is assigned to MIDI tracks, and a picture of a waveform is assigned to audio tracks). To assign a custom icon, right-click over the existing track icon and choose “Load Track Icon”. A window displays the factory library of custom icons categorized in folders by instrument family. Choose one by opening the appropriate family folder and double clicking on an icon within. This custom icon shows up not only in the Track View, but in the Console View as well, easily identifying a track by showing a representative picture of the instrument it's assigned to. This feature assists in mixing the score later on because it visually identifies tracks much more easily than just by name alone. A composer can even create customized icons as well.


  7. When the template is complete, save it by choosing “Save As” from the “File” pulldown menu. Give the template a unique name in the “File Name” box such as “Working Film Score Template”. Change the “Save as Type” box from “Normal” to “Template”. Also change the “Go to Folder” dropdown to “Template Files (.CWT, .TPL)”. These steps ensure that when starting future score projects, this newly saved template is ready and waiting from within the “Template” listing in the bottom list pane of the “New Project File” dialog box (see screenshot of window below):

Set the Time Rulers

An unscored film has no inclination of anything musical such as tempo, meter or key. A great feature of SONAR is its capability to keep track of and display musical time in the form of bars and beats, and absolute time in the form of timecode - simultaneously.

To set this up, first right-click the small “+” box just to the right of the Time Ruler display. A popup box gives additional ruler choices:

1. Choose the Timecode Ruler (“Add H:M:S:F Ruler”):



2. Below shows the result


Using and Locking Markers to track scene changes

Shown below are markers placed to signify particular changes within a scene (the orange points with text superimposed over the time ruler):

Markers are invaluable for noting specific emotion changes and hits within a scene, as well as defining cue boundaries. These can be input either by entering them on the fly via the F11 key while playing back the inserted video file of the film inside SONAR (which the next section explains), or by manually using the Markers View.

To input a marker manually:

  1. Choose a spot in the film where a marker should go (like when a film's character starts an important line of dialog that would mark a cue start).


  2. Right-click over the Time Rulers area and choose “Insert Marker” from the drop down menu. Give the marker a meaningful name and hit “OK”.

The “Markers View” (accessed via SONAR's “View” pulldown menu > “Markers”) shows the full list of markers used in the current project. New markers can be added here, too, as well as editing the markers' time and name. One thing to note is that the second column header shows a small padlock icon. This column toggles the marker lock, which becomes important when varying tempo or meter in the project. When locked, the marker stays in place at its absolute time position, regardless of what's happening musically. This marker anchoring is important when writing and changing cues in a film so the markers keep their original positions and stay linked to the scenes in the film, not necessarily to the music.

Here's a closer look at the Markers View window:


Working with SONAR’s synchronized video player

In the not-so-distant past, working with video meant synchronizing the composer's score to a timecoded signal on a separate video cassette playing back a copy of the film. Luckily today, this process has become much easier, thanks to the computer playing back the video file directly – all while in perfect sync to the music.

SONAR can work with the most commonly used video file formats, such as Windows Media, Quicktime and MPEG. It also can split out the attached audio (if it exists) from within the video file and place it into a newly created audio track.

To load a video file into SONAR:

  1. From the “File” pulldown menu, choose “Import > Video…”.


  2. Navigate to the desired video file and choose “Import Audio Stream” if any attached audio should also be imported. Click ”Open”.

Two new elements are added to the project. First, a new window containing a floating playback view of the selected video is displayed. Right-clicking over the window brings up many adjustable settings for how the video can be played and processed by SONAR. Second, a special video track is automatically placed at the very top of the Track View where video thumbnails representing the content of the video file are automatically generated across its length.

The video start, front and back trim times are fully adjustable via the video track's inspector area. Two icon buttons are also included here. The first is to show or hide superimposed frame numbers. The second shows or hides the video thumbnails. Also, the entire video track itself can be shown or hidden by pressing “L” on the computer keyboard. Hiding this track removes the tendency of SONAR to constantly redraw the thumbnails during zoom operations, thus saving extra CPU cycles.


Piping the video out via Firewire

SONAR can output its video directly out via the IEEE1394 (Firewire) protocol. This in turn can be processed via a suitable converter box, then on to an external video monitor or television (see below):

Outputting video externally instead of using the built-in internal video display reduces CPU use as the Firewire converter box does most of the display calculations itself (provided that a properly encoded DV video file is fed to it first).

To output video via Firewire:

  1. Physically attach a suitable Firewire converter (check Cakewalk.com for details) to the computer's IEEE1394/Firewire output port. Windows and SONAR will discover the converter automatically. Connect a proper video display or television to the output of the converter box.


  2. Right-click on the video display window or the video thumbnail track and choose “External DV Output” > “DV Devices” > (Firewire Converter Box Name). The floating video window's video content disappears and is now externally being fed through the converter.


  3. As there is an inherent processing delay when playing back video via Firewire, SONAR can offset this effect by adjusting a time value accessed by right-clicking the floating window again, selecting “Video Properties”, and inputting a time value in the “Video Sync Offset” box. Experiment watching the video while adjusting this setting and this will help zero in on the correct offset value for the particular Firewire device.


Getting the score to fit a scene: tempo and meter changes

For many reasons, changes are required during the course of writing a film score. Sometimes the director isn't quite satisfied with the pace of the music within a scene, and sometimes the composer will already be writing cues for a film which hasn't been completely edited (or “locked”) yet, resulting in disruption of timing and feel due to certain scenes being changed.

One of the best ways to make a particular piece of music fit its scene is by manipulating its tempo and meter.

To manually insert a tempo change:

  1. From the “Views” pulldown menu, choose “Tempo”.


  2. Open the tempo list view by typing “T” on the computer keyboard.


  3. Locate the cue to be changed by clicking over the gray measure line at the top of the window. Use the window zoom tools at the bottom right if necessary to bring the length of the cue into focus. One thing of note for film composers is that the previously placed markers are displayed within the tempo window, which makes placing tempo changes that much easier because the front and end of the targeted scene are visable.


  4. To insert an abrupt tempo change, switch to the Draw Tool (“D”) and click on the graphic grid (up and down is tempo, left to right is bars and beats).


  5. To make a gradual change in tempo, such as an accelerando or ritardando, use the Draw Line Tool (“L”) and click a starting point, then an ending point, and SONAR will calculate the necessary tempo changes in between automatically.

Shown here is the making of an accelerando from bar 1 to bar 6:


...and then the result:


SONAR also has the ability to automatically timescale a whole section of music – MIDI and audio simultaneously – to an exact ending-time position. This command is called “Fit to Time”, which is located via the “Process” pulldown menu. This feature saves lots of time with its most powerful command when the composer has to quickly shrink or enlarge cues to fit a given scene.

The dialog box offers many options to help make the change happen as transparently as possible.

The “Fit to Time” facility makes adjusting a cue's length to fit a modified scene almost seem effortless.

To insert a meter change:

  1. From the “Views” pulldown menu, choose “Meter/Key”.

  2. Press the “Insert Meter/Key” Icon button, or type “A” on the computer keyboard.

  3. A second dialog box is displayed to make the change. Note the measure box at the top, then input a new time signature under the “Meter” subheading. Hit OK to apply the change.

Making orchestration changes via the Piano Roll View (PRV)

SONAR has a great stacking feature in its MIDI editors, called the “Track Pane”. Multiple MIDI tracks can be superimposed upon each other, which in turn, can then be revolved for individual editing. The film composer can take full advantage of this feature for instant orchestration changes. For example, a string section made up of many individual tracks can all be brought into the Piano Roll View (PRV), which instantly displays a view of the string section's (for example) orchestration. This feature promotes intuitive track editing, while at the same time, updates changes to the section's orchestration picture, all in plain view. The film composer can now easily check section overlaps, thin-out or thicken-up musical passages, or blend instrument colors together more effectively.

To stack more than one track for editing in the PRV, follow these steps (and reference the screenshot below):

  1. From the Track View, shift-click two or more tracks by clicking on the track numbers.


  2. Press Alt and the number 5 together to put these tracks into the PRV.


  3. Now in the PRV, press “H” on the computer keyboard to display the Track Pane on the right side of the PRV.


  4. The topmost track in the Track Pane is the current selected one. To select another track for editing, click on the track’s name, and the PRV will now show it in front of the others.


  5. Besides editing, the Track Pane also contains controls to mute (“M” square), solo (“S” square), and record arm (“R” square) each track individually. Enable / disable (white square) and track hiding (colored track square) are also available on a per track basis here.


  6. The “Pick Tracks” dialog within the PRV (press “T”) permits flexible edited track assignments to be displayed in the PRV shown via the Track Pane.

Shown below is an example of the above; three MIDI tracks to be edited inside the PRV with Track Pane and floating “Pick Tracks” dialog box:


Once the composer's work has been completed and approved, the audio must be prepared for inclusion into the film's final mix, or dub.

Preparing stems for submixing

At the final mix, the mix engineer will need flexibility in mixing the composer's outputted score, so separate submixes, called “stems,” are required. Stems are usually segmented by orchestral section, such as: woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion, synths, effects, special, etc... They can either be in normal stereo, or in surround sound format (if that was used during the composer's mixing process).

Here are a few guidelines to follow when stemming for the final mix:

  • Export at the sample rate and resolution that the film will be mixed at (typically this is 48Khz / 24 bit). It's a good idea to compose entirely in the final mix rate and resolution, if known ahead of time.

  • Leave a little headroom (3-6dB) as each stem will be combined with many other sound elements later.

  • Make the start of each stem exactly at the same spot (usually the film's absolute starting time). This step is to ensure proper lineup of all of the tracks. Don't be concerned that some stems may contain mostly silence because proper synchronization is more important than worrying about wasting disk space.

  • Leave less traditional effects (like thick digital delays or lo-fi) out of the stem mix, unless the director calls for it. Remember, the mix engineer cannot take things out of a stem's mix. If in doubt, create a separate stem with just the effect; it can then be mixed up or down to suit.

To export a stem:

01. Make sure that the “Render Bit Depth” setting under the “File bit depths” section (“Options” pulldown > “Global” > “Audio Data” tab) matches that of the stem destination file (see below).

02. Mute all of the tracks that are not to be included in the stem to be recorded (soloing may be easier in bigger templates).

03. Under the “File” pulldown menu, choose “Export” > “Audio”.

04. Choose a directory where the stem is to be recorded. Give the stem recording a name. If the stems are to be mixed in Pro Tools, for example, choose “Broadcast Wave” (“Files of type” field) and “Channel Format” as “Split Mono”. Check any other applicable options.

05. Press “Export” and the file will be mixed down and saved. Repeat these steps again for the remaining stems left for the final mix.


As already shown throughout this tutorial, film scoring requires flexibility by nature, and the tools needed to do the job have to be equally as flexible. That's why SONAR is easily a perfect choice for the modern film composer.

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