Music Licensing

Cutting Your Commercial to Music? Here Are 4 Reasons You Need to Seek out the Stems and Alt Versions

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Kristien Brada-Thompson

by Rab Bradlea, East Coast Music Supervisor

As any creative director, video editor or live human being already knows, music can make or break a project. All the production value and creativity in the world doesn’t matter if the tone of your cue is off or – even worse – if it just sounds cheap or poorly made. If you’re one of the gifted few with the budget to tap a major artist for your commercial, skip this article and get to it. The rest of us turn to a sonic smorgasbord of production music companies and sound libraries offering tracks in every genre and quality. It’s daunting, but you can find something if you know how to look.

A good litmus test for choosing a production music library is whether they offer alternate mixes and stems for their tracks. Not every music library has them, but they are invaluable for the success of your project in multiple ways.

What are stems, you ask? They’re individual audio tracks that make up a full song, usually divided into specific instruments (like drums, bass, guitar, vocals, etc.). When a production music library separates these components into individual files, it makes it possible for you to customize the mix of a track or remove certain elements altogether. And all of it can be done within the video editing software you’re already using to cut the spot.

Alternate or “alt” versions of a music cue are pre-edited versions already created by the library. These additional opens often offer variations in the length, tone or arrangement of the track.

Having worked on both the client and vendor side of this process, I’ve found these tools incredibly useful but often underutilized.

Here’s why I specifically look for stems and alt versions on projects:

  • Customization – As mentioned before, stems and alt versions let you customize the music to your specific needs. Feeling like the drums are too intense for your scene? Turn them down.Don’t like a specific instrument? Remove it entirely. Track feeling too “big”? Create a sparse remix. When you have all the building blocks at your disposal, you can fine tune the music to be exactly what the spot needs. It's not just about finding the right track, it's also about making it truly your own.
  • Time-Savings – Chances are someone isn’t writing a custom track to score your commercial to the perfect length and tone. With alt versions, you can save time and effort by using a pre-edited version that fits your needs. Some libraries offer pre-made cutdowns of their tracks, saving you the time of recutting them yourself. Alt mixes and stems can also potentially save you from having to find an entirely new track if a certain musical element isn’t working. A slight remix is usually much faster than diving back into thousands of cues for something else.
  • Flexibility – Syncing music to video is an art form, and sometimes you need more flexibility than a full track can provide. With stems, you can adjust the mix to sync up perfectly with a visual element, like a cut or transition. You can make the music ramp up or down right when you need it to, rather than being forced to cut to a track as it was mixed for general use.
  • Cost-Effectiveness – When a library includes stems and alt versions with the fee for a cue, it's like getting multiple tracks for the price of one. Not only can this stretch your budget, but it can also create a sense of branding or creative consistency across multiple videos. And you aren’t subjecting your audience to the exact same piece of music.

Stems and alt versions simply make the lives of commercial and promo editors easier. They provide a far greater amount of creative control, so you can make the music work for you. Otherwise, you’re stuck trying to find a track that perfectly fits your project’s length, tone and emotional beats simply by chance.

This article was first published by Adrants. See how it originally appeared


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