Whether it’s film or television; comedy, action, suspense, or drama, all good visual media makes use of musical cues as a way to heighten the viewer’s experience. Music editors work as part of the post-production team to edit and integrate original scores, existing songs, and source cues (music that is part of the scene rather than playing over it) into a show or film. Editing music for motion pictures is different than editing music for an album. For one, the music editor has to consider that these mediums are first and foremost visual— the role of music is to underscore what’s unfolding on screen. It’s nuanced work that requires both a keen ear and a sharp eye.
Full Sail Hall of Fame inductee Sean Spuehler has worked with artists like Blur, Beck, and No Doubt. He’s spent years touring with Madonna as her vocal mix engineer. During a recent break in his touring schedule, Sean landed a gig with Pitch N Sync, where he edited music for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder.
“The art of editing the picture is the biggest thing I’ve learned this year,” says Sean. “To cut music to time code instead of bars and beats, to cut music to picture, that’s a different skill set. So that’s [been] really fun.”
Once an episode is shot and the visual edits are locked, Sean conducts a “spotting session,” where he goes through each scene and marks where the musical cues should hit according to mood and pacing. After that, he receives a set of finished tracks from a composer, which he cuts to fit the scene. Ideally, all of the tracks would come in at once. But due to the nature of the business, it doesn’t always work out that way.
“A lot of times, at the mix stage, there are still cues that haven’t been written, or they’re waiting for version two or version three. Sometimes you’re in the mix and you’re downloading music that’s going into the final edit. You have to load it up in Pro Tools and get it seamlessly in place. If [the producers] don’t like where something is hitting, then you’re making edits right there on the spot,” says Sean.
Because most shows and films require a quick turnaround when it comes to post-production, music editors must learn to work under pressure. Deyder Cintron, a 2007 Recording Arts grad who’s worked as an editor on Glee and Rock of Ages, says it helps to keep your priorities straight.
“You’re not doing it for the creative purpose as much,” he says. “[Working on] Glee was about getting things done so they could shoot video when they needed to.” This meant sticking to deadlines and working quickly and efficiently. “The process was more of a system.”
Despite the fast pace of the work, the schedule is less grueling than a lot of other jobs in the recording industry, due to the fact that most positions in the film industry are unionized. For Sean, the steady hours were a big appeal.
“I wanted to do something other than touring that would keep me home so I could be with my family. On a record, you might be there until four in the morning every night. It’s like the Wild West. But on a TV show or movie, you’re [working] union hours, so they don’t want you to go over because that’s overtime. If you get your own show, it’s on your own time. You might work like crazy for a day and then have a couple of days where you don’t have to do anything. So it’s pretty civilized. It keeps you in town.”
Since a show can run for years, the schedule also allows an editor to build a deep repertoire with the rest of the team, often resulting in creative partnerships where each member brings a unique perspective to the table.
“In Glee, for example, [some of] the other producers and editors would place more priority on pitch and time, and I would place more priority on character and feel. Everybody has their own flavor. When you’re working with different vocal parts, you have different emotions along the takes,” says Deyder.
“There’s no barrier,” he adds. “I’ve never been restricted in any way. I like to push, and I think people like it.”
For more insight on the process of editing music for film and television, check out this clip of Sean Spuehler from the Full Sail On Air Studio.