Making movie soundtracks

Hi guys,

I am thinking about making the soundtrack to a public domain silent movie. Has anyone tried or is actively making soundtracks? I would love to know more. How is your creative process? What tools do you use?



this is my “job” so I’ll offer what advice I can.

as far as tools… I use Cubase for everything (midi library tracking/editing, real recording tracking, syncing to picture, mixing, mastering) and for most of my work, the sounds are 95% Kontakt sample libraries. For a while I used a mix of MANY different libraries, but recently I cut everything down to pretty much just Spitfire Audio stuff, to keep things simple and because their stuff sounds great and has a very pleasing interface. When I want to get more electronic/experimental I’ll record the eurorack/juno/etc.

In my experience, the process has gone like this:

  • talk with producer/director in general creative/stylistic terms about the project

  • receive highly specific notes from producer/director with timestamps so I know where everything will go

  • load up a piano library and start to sketch out themes/ideas/structure to picture. it’s a balancing act between translating the director’s notes into musical terms, and also to try and figure out what they want. a LOT of the time, they have trouble communicating what they want (this is very understandable) and they don’t really know what they want until they hear it.

  • record the piano sketches to picture with proper (still rough) timing, this is just as a placeholder

  • figure out what the actual instrumentation will be, and then play each part one by one (this can take a loooong time depending on your piano chops/how hard your parts are). when I was in college some people did a lot of stuff manually writing in notes and working in the MIDI window a lot, but I always found that much more excruciating than just trying to play the part well by hand.

from there you work with director/producer to refine it until it is precisely what they want, sometimes you get lucky and nail it first try, othertimes they realize they want something a little different and you make adjustments.

good luck and happy to answer any other questions!


I can’t offer anything much in terms of firsthand experience, the most I’ve done is stuff for licensing, but there are some excellent podcasts that might be of interest. The Haxan Cloak was interesting on the last episode of Hanging With Audiophiles and there’s some great episodes of Synth Stories (Kris Dirksen especially).

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Over the last year I have been increasingly interested in the idea of scoring short films. About a year ago I found a ~10 min short film online, took out all the audio, and scored it. I had an incredibly fun time even though I only spent a couple days writing to it. Later, this summer (about 7 months later) I ran into a friend who graduated in film a few years ago and was working on a new short film. Through a long conversation, I ended up showing him that personal score I did, and he asked if he could show it to the other co-director of his short film. Things fell into place where I ended up working with him and wrote the score for the 25 min short over a few months. It premiered two Saturdays ago and we’ll be doing another local screening of it here just after the Hollidays.

As far as process, I found it helpful to talk to the directors about specific moods and write them down, find reference tracks, and talk with them about whether the music should be “internal or external” (words we just decided to use to differentiate between explaining the characters internal thoughts and letting the audience in on that (internal), or having the music express the narrative of the bigger plot line (external)). I’m in no way a professional full time composer, but hopefully that can help give some insight into my first steps into trying to write some short film scores.

I used Ableton for tracking, sketched out notes on my piano, sent the midi notes from the piano to many different hardware synths for experimentation and sound design, I used the LCO (London Contemporary Orchestra) strings which are exceptionally beautiful, and I used the Machinedrum and Nord Piano into Norns MLR and Glut quite a bit. Then just mixed and mastered with plugins in Ableton.

Hope that helps, and happy scoring!


Writing soundtracks is something that I’m actively pursuing as a career goal. Pretty hard to get into and I don’t know if I can make it but I’ll regret it if I don’t give it my best shot! I think I’m doing pretty well so far.

At this stage I’ve done over 20 short films and a couple of indie games. Some films that I’ve scored have won awards and most have played internationally at festivals, which is a really cool thought!

For me my processes seem to change depending on the project, but what’s kept consistent is that I compose using entirely physical instruments into FL Studio, where I’ll arrange, edit and mix to fit a picture tightly. What’s good about doing it this way is that there’s a natural, organic feel to what I create, messing around with timing is easy because I’m literally playing to onscreen actions, and that the work flow is fast because I’m not messing around with libraries or soft synth presets, instead working with the instruments that I have in my studio.

I record with modular synths, poly synths, string synths and Mellotron for orchestral timbres, guitars, bass, violin, wind instruments, folk instruments… I can’t necessarily play them all that well but find it works well for me as a type of creative restraint, where I may play a simple motif or melody, using an instrument more for its sonic character.

I’ll usually sit down with a director and do a spotting session with a rough cut, deciding on what kind of music to use and where. From there it’s very much a back and forth process of composing pieces, seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what the director likes/wants, and having the editor cut to the music and vice versa. Some directors really know what they want and are good at communicating it, others are happy to leave it to you.

What brings strength to a score is knowing the story, what it’s trying to say, how it’s trying to say it, and why it’s trying to say it, and working to that.

It really is different with every project, unless you were working as a composer for television or something.

Here’s a couple of clips from my showreel to show what I do:
(Note: this one is still screening at festivals and so it has the dialog cut out and a password, which stops it from previewing in this post. Password is “reallyreel”)

More than happy to talk more about my processes :slight_smile:


I recently did the Day of Silents at the Castro Theater in SF. At the festival they had several different groups of people live scoring films. One of the groups the Alloy Orchestra was quite good - this is a link to their website it might provide some ideas about how to score a silent film.

I also attended a film in florida where Renee Baker from a composer from Chicago used a live experimental modern orchestra - the performance included sections that were recorded live triggered with additional parts played by live musicians.

From venue -Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, FL- “Renée Baker premiers an orchestral score for A Page of Madness , a 1926 film by Japanese director [Teinosuke Kinugasa]featuring musicians from EMIT (St. Petersburg).” I didn’t have an exact link but she is quite established.

There are many forums for live performance of scores for silent films, to me it looks like a very fertile area to explore, especially if you are doing at least parts of the score live.


There’s a concert series in Seattle called “Puget Soundtrack”, where bands are commissioned to create a new score to an existing film and perform it in front of a live theater audience. A few years ago my band was tapped and we chose the all-timer Alien. It turned out to be a hugely enriching experience and taught me a lot about long-form composition and the special considerations of working against picture.

Our process went generally like this:

  • We all got together at one of our apartments, ordered some pizzas, and just watched the film. No interjections, not trying to analyze too deeply, just taking in the atmosphere, themes, trajectory.
  • After the movie, we had a long conversation about our thoughts and feelings about what we saw. Through this dialogue we established what we thought were the three main forces in the film — the Human, the Machine (Ash and Mother), and the Xenomorph.
  • Each had distinct and complex motives and characteristics, so we thought that it would be interesting to create three themes and associated sound palettes that we could surface as necessary throughout the plot. This gave us a solid framework.
  • Next, we blocked the movie out into rough “chapters” — clusters of scenes that are marked by major transitions in the plot/action. Usually these clusters would be associated with one or two of the forces ([HUMAN/XENO] or [ASH], for ex.)
  • Then it was a process of chunking those out more granularly. We had set up a projector in our rehearsal space and basically went piecemeal through the movie, calling out any specific moments we wanted to hit.
  • At this point, it became essential to have some kind of documentation system. So we created a shared document where we could annotate all the moments we identified via timecode, with a brief signifier of the action (“ex. Rain Room Cat Scare”) and roughly the vibe we wanted in that moment ("abrupt sample stab, jagged guitar).
  • Many rehearsals later, we had trawled through all two hours of the film, gathering samples, melodies/motives, dissonances, vibes. All the ingredients were in place, but we still had the problem of how to actually perform all of this in sync with a film being displayed behind us.
  • My solution was to create overlays on the video itself, with the lower third describing the theme and event taking place. In many cases, we needed to hit a moment very precisely (a jump scare, someone pressing a specific button, things like that), so I included a five-count to lead into that moment. This video was displayed on a screen in front of us, not visible to the audience. Here’s an video from one of our rehearsals that demonstrates this: instagram

The performance was super fun and it was an honor to share the moment with a theater full of friends. We recorded the whole thing with mics throughout the room/from the board, and someone reached out not too long after expressing interest in releasing it. That release became The 8th Passenger, a dual cassette with hand-assembled risograph covers. I’m rather proud of it! Since then I’ve really wanted to score a new film, hopefully the opportunity presents itself someday.

Here’s a pic of us directly after performing, in our dorky Nostromo costumes :slight_smile:



Very happy to have found this thread as I am currently working on the score to a short film produced and directed by a close friend. We are students and it’s a school project so there’s not too much pressure, I’m just enjoying it tremendously as a learning experience.

The director and I have been close friends and collaborators since I scored his first film when he was in high school, which went on to win a couple student film awards. This time around, I opted to used Ableton Live 10 to build the score as opposed to the modular system I’d used previously.

Our process was simple but different to what some of you have described or what might be the norm in professional filmmaking. We sat down together last night and basically scored it in real time. He’d show me clips from rough sequences and I’d sift though various instruments until we found a sound that struck us, then we’d start building melodies to match the atmosphere of the clip. As we went on, he built the sequences around my melodies and I’d build layers until the mood was right. By the end of the night we had three pieces done for a five-ish minute film, and we’re both pretty happy with it although we might sit down again and smooth out certain parts to make everything more cohesive. All in, it was a very rewarding process, more so than the process we used the first time where he sent me a rough cut of the film and I worked independently on the music.

Film scoring is a wonderful pursuit and I hope to keep this conversation going even though this thread is older. My takeaway is that collaboration with a visual artist leads to better results, but that’s just been my experience.


Hello everyone!

I would like to start a thread to exchange ideas and work processes related to the creation of soundtracks. I have recently been commissioned to create the soundtrack for a feature film and I am new to this, although I have been in the world of sound improvisation for some time and have made music for many of my video works. The fact that normally all the work is done by me puts me in a new situation: that of creating something for a director following instructions that sometimes I don’t share or understand. And there is my first question…

How far to compromise?

I dedicate myself mainly to making experimental music. What to do if they call you for a project because they like what you do and then they ask you for pianos, violins or give you references of that type? Or if the sound editor comes to you and tells you to try changing a C to a C sharp? How far to go?

On the other hand this is a project with very little budget. In a way, it’s not something that matters too much to me, but what it implies… Should the budget for creative freedom be inversely proportional?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted with this project and the honor it implies, but I would like to contrast opinions…


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It would seem that they would have to be at least somewhat familiar with your style to give you the work? There should be a discussion(s) fairly early on about ideas and expectations, take it from there.

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Greetings @Cromatica45

Filmmaking is a highly collaborative art form and the director is the conductor of the final work. One would hope that the filmmakers are familiar with your strengths as a composer and want you to continue working within your style and have you bring your best to the film, as you see fit. Perhaps you won’t feel you are compromising your artistic integrity if you accommodate requests from the director if they make sense and are offered in a collaborative spirit to make the film stronger and closer to the director’s vision. If you disagree with any requests you’ll have to decide if you want to try to submit to the director’s wishes as a creative challenge you hadn’t considered, or to ignore them which could potentially cause conflict and difficulties with further communication.

As a film sound editor and mixer I can say that the director and picture editor are likely to want music that will support the mood and pacing of the scene in which it appears and that they may want some development of pieces that recur and evolve over the course of the film to reinforce the various threads of the narrative. It can be very helpful for them to get early versions to cut the film to, if it’s not too late for that. In the end we mixers love to get stems of the music for spatialization in 5.1 or wider formats. Breaking the score down into separate instrument or texture groups is handy and makes mixing better in many ways. The stems can be mono, stereo, LCR, quad, 5.1, etc, as needed to capture the spatialization you have created.

I hope you have good fortune with your scoring gig!

Yes, I’ve made a few soundtracks for public domain films (as well as other videos).

Last year I put together music to accompany The Lost World, which ended up requiring a few corners to be cut.

Originally I’d planned to MIDI the whole thing, then make a performance out of tweaking hardware.

Then it got too hard, so I just mixed a soundtrack using mostly my pre-existing tracks.