Finale, Collaborating on Music for Television, and “The Event”

Jeremy Levy, Scott Starrett, Tim Davies, and Mark Cally, recording the score for The Event.
Photo by Susie Benchasil Seiter

If you’re like me, most of your Finale projects start and end in Finale, and are primarily a one-person affair. This week, with the help of long-time Finale user Tim Davies, we’ll look at a different workflow in which Finale is used in conjunction with other software, and in collaboration with many people.

The Event is a highly imaginative NBC serial drama steeped in conspiracy theories, science fiction, adventure, and more, somewhat in the vein of Lost. Every episode of The Event contains about thirty minutes of music, much of which is performed by a small orchestra. All of this music is recorded in one three-hour recording session.

Let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at Finale’s role in the fast-paced process between the composition and the recording of the music. You might be surprised to learn how many people are involved. A variety of tools are also used, and files are shared between team members via Dropbox so everyone can see every file at every stage.

Our tour begins with composer Scott Starrett. He receives an edited episode into which one of the picture editors has placed temporary music, primarily taken from previous episodes. Then Scott, music editor Gordon Fordyce, and the show’s producers meet to discuss the music and to come up with the exact plan. Scott actually creates the cues (or short musical pieces) for the show using Apple’s Logic software. Once he receives approval for a specific cue, he’ll share a MIDI file of the cue with Jeremy Levy.

One power-user tool used throughout the process is QuicKeys, software that can automate tasks (including multiple keystrokes and mouse actions) and assign them to a single keystroke. QuicKeys is used in saving, naming and correctly storing files. (It’s more reliable to have QuicKeys type the countless cue file and folder names, especially when they’re as memorable as “5m09-10v01 LCK.”) QuicKeys is also used within Finale to speed up any repetitive tasks.

Jeremy fine-tunes the MIDI file in Mark of the Unicorn’s Digital Performer software, quantizing as needed and doing general clean-up. For example, a cue written at 160 beats per minute might be changed to 80 bpm in an effort to both save trees and get a better reading. Once this is accomplished it’s saved as a MIDI file again and then imported into Finale.

Because Jeremy has customized his Finale default file, when he imports the MIDI file into Finale, it automatically contains all his desired expressions and settings. At this point Jeremy creates a sketch score, essentially a rough outline containing only the music the composer provided. Jeremy also cleans up the file, making sure all rhythms are written the right way, short notes are short, etc. He also makes sure the enharmonic spellings are correct, marks trills and tremolos, and puts in descriptions of any one shot samples, where a single MIDI note triggers the playback of an entire string section or an orchestra playing some sort of atmospheric cluster or texture. Once he’s finsihed the completed file goes into another Dropbox folder.

Once all the sketches are done, Tim Davies (or occasionally Jeremy) will create the orchestration. Tim’s process is to use a QuicKey to add staves to the sketch score: He leaves the original sketch score staves unchanged throughout the process so he can always refer back to the composer’s intentions.

The Event uses a unique lineup that was developed as the show developed: two horns, harp, 14 violins, three violas, eight cello, and bass. Given a bigger budget they’d probably prefer a larger ensemble, however, in the end these decisions contribute to the unique flavor of the show. Tim or Jeremy will fine-tune everything to work with this orchestra, making it sound as loud and as full as possible on the action cues and as lush as possible on the sentimental ones. There are also synths and percussion that are programmed and they’ll occasionally mix in some samples to, for example, fatten up the bass.

Once the orchestration is complete, Tim uses another QuicKey to open their score template, name it, and save in into the correct folder. Then he uses a FinaleScript to copy his orchestrated staves from the sketch score into the final score template, which includes his preferred Document Style and Linked Parts setup. There he lays out the pages, prints the score, and proofs it. When the score is approved it goes into another Dropbox folder where copyist Mark Cally takes over.

Next week we’ll learn about Mark’s role, take a peek at his work, and follow the process through the recording process. Let us know what you think, or questions you may have, by clicking on “Comments” below.

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