What exactly is a temp track? A temp track is basically an existing piece of music that can serve as a guideline for a certain style or emotion that a director or producer is looking for in a production.
It can come from a variety of sources, from production libraries, film soundtracks to mainstream albums – or, if you are a composer, from your own back catalogue. It is only used during pre-production and its purpose is to ensure that those who need and those who create the music are working in the same direction.
In the following, I use the term ‘director’ to describe someone who is responsible for original musical content in a production – but it could just as easily have read producer, project manager, or creative director.
Remember that if a track is to be used for anything else than a point of reference for composer or director, make sure to get the appropriate clearance for the track. It should not be used anywhere in a production – pre-production material, presentations, demos, or final product – unless proper licensing agreements are in place. Discuss this with a music publishing company, or ask the composer to sort out the clearance for you.
Tips and ideas for directors
When determining the musical content for a production, picking a temp track can be a good starting point. Perhaps the style of music has already been decided on, and then it is only a matter of finding a piece that contains what you are looking for.
This is not always as easy as it sounds, so ask the composer to help out. A few general keywords are often enough to key in the composer to your needs and for him to pick out some appropriate pieces.
By listening to what he presents to you, you can quickly determine if you’re both going down the same track. If not, give him additional pointers, based on the tracks he has already presented to you, and you will be well on your way to finding exactly the sound you’re after.
Define how the temp track should be used, and communicate this to the composer. Will it only serve as a general guideline, or should it be followed rigorously? Remember that if you ask the composer to strictly adhere to the temp track, you may be losing creative input and ideas that the composer might have added. Perhaps he had a completely different musical take on a scene that would have been worth pursuing?
This is especially the case when there has been no previous dialogue between director and composer before the temp track is selected.
A key point to getting great musical content is to get the composer in on the project as early as possible. A composer is a resource and a specialist when it comes to music, and can provide you with valuable creative input. When talking with the composer, you may come to realize that you already have a common understanding of the project. In this case, you might not be needing a temp track at all.
The temp track should only be seen as an instrument for making sure you are working in the same direction –not a means in itself.
Tips and ideas for composers
Think of the temp track as a tool to better understand where the director wants to go, and as a tool to save time and money. It helps you to avoid spending days composing draft versions, only to have the director reject them and ask you to go down a completely different musical path.
I’ve heard several composers say that they feel creatively limited by having to follow a temp track, and this is definitely a valid point in some cases. Having to mimic a certain style can be a distraction from your own creative ideas, so make sure you help the director determine if a temp track is needed at all.
If you have to follow a temp track or temp score – even though you would rather just compose away as you like – try to look at the bright side. By having to follow the style and sound of another composer, you’ll gain valuable insight into the composer’s way of working – and you may even learn a few tricks and get fresh ideas for your next project along the way.
If a director presents you with a temp track you feel is just plain wrong for a given production, ask him if you can present some alternative ideas to him. Again, using temp tracks – or even better, material from your own back catalogue – to demonstrate your ideas to the director is a quick way of coming to terms on the musical content.
To make use of temp tracks, you’ll obviously need a lot of music to choose from. Spend some time collecting a large catalogue of music from a wide range of sources, and in many different styles. You probably already have a lot of music in genres you like, but for your temp track collection, the keyword is diversity. So go for as many different genres as you can find. The bargain bin of your local music store can often be a great way of tracking down obscure recordings and odd musical genres!
An added bonus is that in familiarizing yourself with many styles of music as possible and learning to appreciate their unique qualities, you can actually improve your musical awareness as a whole.
The Pitfalls of Temp Tracks
Temp tracks can be helpful, but there are certain areas that could cause trouble:
• Asking the composer to combine many temp tracks into one original piece. A director may feel that for the final piece to work, it needs to contain elements from many different temp tracks. Trouble is, in real life the result often ends up being a mishmash that is nowhere near what neither the director nor the composer wanted. To avoid this situation, the composer should work closely with the director to narrow down the number of temp tracks to as few as possible. And the director should be aware that he probably won’t get the desired result by asking for a final piece which combines five or six different temp tracks.
• Asking the composer to imitate the reference material too closely. A director may have a temp track at hand that he feels is just perfect for his production. When this happens, the natural thing to do would be to ask the original composer to create something similar for his project, but this is not always possible. It may be too costly, the composer could be tied up with other projects or there may be other issues preventing him from working on the project. In that case, another composer can be asked to do a piece as close to the temp track as possible. But this is where potential trouble lies: First of all, the line between plagiarism and inspiration is a thin one, so the composer needs to be really careful in cases like these. The director won’t get a note-by-note copy of the original temp track, but something that is as close as possible without breaching any intellectual property laws. This is everyone’s best interest, after all, as nobody wants to end up in court for plagiarism. Secondly, there is the issue of creative freedom. By asking the composer to closely stick to the temp track, he might be missing out on any unique and creative ideas the composer could add to the project.
• Selecting reference material that the composer just can’t match. Temp tracks allow for a great deal of freedom for the director, and he or she can basically pick and choose from any material and genre they find fitting for their project. But there’s one caveat: The composer chosen for the project needs to be skilled in that genre as well. If a composer specializes in composing soulful blues, there’s not much point in giving him a hard hitting techno track as a reference. Instead, pick an expert in the genre you’re looking for – or approach a company that employs a number of composers with various fields of musical expertise. That will ensure you get the best results for your production.
As I’ve hopefully demonstrated with this article, temp tracks can certainly make life easier for both director and composer, and when used with care and consideration, they can lead to great results. They allow the director and composer to communicate through musical pieces and work towards their common goal – to get the best musical content for a production.