Making Music in Soundtrack: The Basics

It’s easy to make your own music with Garageband or Soundtrack Pro. If you don’t have the budget to buy music, it’s essential to make your own to avoid copyright problems — and often quicker than searching through a library of “almost-right” music anyway.

The basic structure of Western music revolves around a rhythm, typically provided by drums and bass. Most songs work in rhythms that are a multiple of two, usually as groups of two or four loops, often changing on a multiple of four.

  • First, make sure Snapping is turned on (View > Snap should be checked).

The easiest way to get started with an original song is to audition a few drumbeats — to play them. There are many available to choose from, in many different musical styles.

  • Add a drum loop (we’ll call it “Drum 1”, and extend it across the entire timeline by clicking on the lower right-hand edge and dragging to the right. (Suggestion: “80s Pop Beat 10”.)
  • While Drum 1 plays in the timeline, audition several bass loops to complement the drums. (Suggestion: “80s Dance Bass Synth 02”.)
  • Drag the next loop (we’ll call it “Bass 1”) into track 2.
  • Extend Bass 1 across the entire timeline.
  • Reduce the volume of both tracks to approximately -9dB. This will give us room to add additional instruments without peaking (going higher than 0dB).

Now we’ll add a solo instrument to the mix. This is where much of the interest in a song comes from, and where most of the variation could be. This instrument might be a guitar, a synthesiser, or something else, but we’ll refer to “Solo 1” in these notes.

  • Play your composition so far.
  • Audition a few instruments and choose one that has several variations on a theme. (Suggestion: “Funky Electric Guitar Riff 1-49”.)
  • Add one of these solo instrument loops (referred to here as “Solo 1”) in track 3.
  • Position it at the start of the fifth measure, 5.1 on the measure ruler.
  • If it’s not already long enough, extend Solo 1 for four measures, to 9.1 on the measure ruler.
  • Pick a similar solo loop, the same length as or shorter than Solo 1. (We’ll refer to this loop as “Solo 2”.)
  • Add this loop to track 4 at 9.1 measures, and extend it for two measures only, to 11.1.
  • Duplicate Solo 1 (within track 3) by option-dragging it to 13.1 on the measure ruler. This should be immediately after Solo 2 finishes in track 4 — as if the musician is now playing different notes.
  • Reduce Solo 1 to half its original length.
  • Duplicate Solo 2 (within track 4) by option-dragging it. Position it immediately after the second instance of Solo 1 in track 3.
  • Select the second instance of Solo 2 and choose Clip > Transpose > +3. Transposing can add variation in a limited selection of suitable loops.

This structure now includes a pause at the beginning, a solo instrument, a variation in that solo instrument, a return to the original solo, then a variation on the second solo.

Your composition will probably need some work before being good enough to be given attention, though it could be OK as a backing track you hear now and again. For variety, we’ll now duplicate this structure and change it.

  • Select everything by choosing Edit > Select All (command-A).
  • Copy the entire structure.
  • Click at the end of the composition so far, in the first track, then choose Edit > Paste.
  • Creative rearrangement. Change the arrangement of the solo instruments — add a new pattern in the first four measures, transpose one or more loops, introduce new loops from the same family.
  • Split at least one track by selecting a loop at the end of a measure and pressing S. Letting a track rest now and again makes it sound fresher when it returns.

This basic structure can be varied and reused in many compositions. A little more info:

  • Western pop songs usually have an introduction (8 or 16 measures) followed by chorus and verse (each 16 or 32 measures).
  • A repeated chorus at the end is called a coda.
  • Within each chorus and verse, the harmony might change every one, two or four measures.
  • The end of a pattern is often different, to signify a change. This is called a fill.

Listen to as much music as you can, studying the structures used. Not every piece of music is a song; not every piece of music has or needs a rigid structure. However, knowing the basics will help you plan your music more easily — start working with the conventions and stretch them as appropriate.

Feedback is welcome. This tutorial was written some time ago for Soundtrack and has been heavily revised for Soundtrack Pro 3. The basic principles will also work for Garageband.

Obligatory plug: visit for all your Motion Template needs!

Appalling Compositing from Chanel

I don’t think I’ve ever seen worse Photoshop work in the fashion industry than the compositing nightmare that is Spring-Summer 2010 CHANEL. It’s Flash, but if you only have a few moments to laugh, check out #37 (featured on Photoshop Disasters) and 29, 30, 36, 50, 56.

That’s right, they’ve used clipping paths instead of layer masks throughout the collection, and those images feature meshy fabric you can should be able to see through. Oh dear. (And they really shouldn’t have put sharply focused shoes on a blurry background in every single photo.)

Canon 550D/T2i: Why not Log and Transfer?

Canon have released a plug-in to let you use Log and Transfer in Final Cut Pro. It doesn’t work out of the box with the 550D/T2i, but people have figured out  how to make it work.

I don’t recommend it. Why?

  1. It’s always a good idea to keep your original files. Metadata is important, especially if you’re building an archive for the future, especially if you have something like Final Cut Server to take immediate advantage of that metadata. It’s completely awesome to know exactly when everything was shot, automatically.
  2. You never gain quality by transcoding, and often lose something. ProRes isn’t going to lose noticeable quality, but it takes up much more space. One example: 32.2MB as shot, 86MB as ProRes. I’m not touching ProRes LT or anything else; quality is important and I try to avoid online/offline workflows wherever possible. And where’s my metadata gone?
  3. It’s possible to edit the native files if you need to save space and don’t need real-time effects. You can work in a native H.264 sequence with the native files — just be sure to set Field Dominance to None on all your clips before you start. Right-clicking lets you do them all at once, and do it before you add your first clip to a sequence and answer “yes” to the auto-conform prompt. Good for quick rough cuts or for editing long source clips down before conversion to ProRes.
  4. It’s dead simple to use a Compressor droplet to convert only the files you need. You don’t need any spare .THM files, you don’t need any kind of file structure, just the QuickTime movies that came off the memory card.

To me, it’s a miracle that we can just copy HD QuickTime movies off a disk and just play them. Why jump through all the Log and Transfer hoops we had to with AVCHD?

Art at QUT: Identikit in 3D

A long time ago, in 1998, I won a grant as part of Stuff-Art 98 to produce a piece of multimedia art that would fit on a floppy disk. I made something called Identikit. There was a party, I set up lights, I took pictures, then I mushed them all together and let people make their own composite faces. Fun stuff, but a little buggy today.

Fast forward to now, and Identikit has been reborn, in 3D, and will be shown at QUT from 9-19 April, dusk to 9pm. It’s a non-interactive version on two screens, and is fun to watch. Here’s a still, but each segment spins around on its own.

Identikit 3D

However, for one night only, there will be an interactive version on display. On 27 April, you can visit the opening night of Face to Face, and control it yourself using a fancy joystick. It’s fun, so come along if you can.

Hazelwatch: Discussing the residue left on her foot from a band-aid applied yesterday, she came out with:
“If I don’t hurt myself, I won’t need a band-aid, and I won’t get any sticky stuff on my foot.”

iPad Prices in Australia

Because spreadsheets aren’t all bad, I just ran some numbers on how much Macs cost here in Australia, compared to the US. GST was removed from the Australian price, as sales tax is not part of the advertised US price.

You’re left with an effective exchange rate. Prices usually only change when a model is refreshed, so the rate varies from model to model. Right now, Mac Pros are most overpriced (US$1=AU$1.31) and the best deal is the MacBook (US$1=AU$1.18). There are smaller fluctuations made locally to make the price end in a “99” (or a “49” for the cheapest Mac mini).

The average is US$1=$AU1.22.

That all means that the Wifi iPads will probably be $649/$799/$950 (if we’re lucky) or $699/$849/$999 (if we’re not). The AU$ is strong and has been for a little while, so let’s hope it’s the lower of the two numbers.

Please feel free to correct my numbers if you wish.

US Price AU Price ex GST AU Price inc GST
iPad WiFi 1 499 A$611.39 A$672.53
iPad WiFi 2 599 A$733.91 A$807.30
iPad WiFi 3 699 A$856.43 A$942.08
iPad WiFi+3G 1 629 A$770.67 A$847.74
iPad WiFi+3G 2 729 A$893.19 A$982.51
iPad WiFi+3G 3 829 A$1,015.71 A$1,117.29