Adding (Legal) Music to Podcasts and Videos

by Dan Blank on January 22, 2009

Guest column by Peter Welander, Control Engineering process industries editor.

musicAdding a little music to an audio or video production can make a big difference to the “professionalism” that comes through, but it’s important to do it legally.

There are ways to obtain and use music with your multimedia productions that are appropriate and legal. (Bear in mind that there are much more qualified people to discuss the finer points of copyright law, so please don’t ask me any more detailed questions.) Suffice it to say using Bruce Springsteen or the Chicago Symphony for your podcast theme music just because you like it probably violates any number of relevant laws. Getting appropriate licenses and permissions is a complicated process and not for legal amateurs. Moreover it’s expensive.

If you are hoping something you want to use has had its copyrights expire and is in the public domain, check carefully. Copyrights can run for a very long time, so you really can’t assume something is free unless it is from 1923 or earlier. (I’m not kidding.) I don’t think many CDs are that old.

So, what does that leave you? There is a whole world of recorded music called buyout music or royalty-free music. This is the audio equivalent of stock photos, and can be very useful. A Google search on buyout music will give you hundreds of possibilities. Here are a few highlights:

And the list goes on and on. (The only one of those I have used personally is the Music Bakery. Control Engineering podcasts for the last year have used a theme song I purchased from them.) Basically you pay a fee and they send you a CD or you download a file. Some offer collections, others sell single songs. Which ever way you buy it, you can now use that music for your productions as often as you like, and you never have to pay them again. (Some suppliers take exception if you use the music on broadcast TV, so if that’s a possibility, make sure you check that issue.) The amount you might have to pay is all over the board, so shop carefully. Most of these sites will let you hear samples for free.

There is something called needle-drop licensing, but this is a different thing. You get a recording and pay a fee every time you use it. That can get complicated and there’s enough other material available to eliminate any need to use that approach. There are also sources for music that are completely free, but read the fine print. If you manage find something you like, that’s fine. On the other hand, if you have to pay, that drastically limits the probability you’ll hear the same bit somewhere else.

You can get any style imaginable, but a common element is that buyout music is usually electronic. Don’t expect to find much that is fully orchestrated using real instruments. I suspect much of it is produced by people in their basements using synthesizers, so don’t be surprised if you have to sift through some junk to find tracks you like.

Some suppliers will offer you a choice of what digital format to take, for example, Music Bakery has MP3, WAV, and AIF files. In most situations, WAV would be the best choice, particularly if you record in an uncompressed format. If you need MP3, you can always convert a WAV to the more compressed format. Going the other way doesn’t work as well. If you’re planning on doing a lot of video, AIF could be better as it moves more easily into digital editing platforms such as Final Cut.

How you should apply music is a matter of taste and practicality. Traditionally, we open with about five to eight seconds and then pull the volume down for the opening speaker making the introduction. Once the actual discussion begins, we fade out completely. At the end, we fade back in during the closing comments and copyright statement, and then let the music go for another ten seconds or so at full volume until the song ends. That means I look for something that has a quick opening and establishes itself in three or four seconds. You don’t want your introduction to be too long. It also needs a good ending to finish off.

This simple step can go a long way toward making your productions more memorable. Anything we can do to separate our capabilities from our competition is a step worth taking.

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