How do film composers deal with large DAW projects for film?

It’s pretty common for a film to have recurring themes or even repeated phrases, and I can easily see how one would like to import the whole film into a DAW and score right to it. I’ve heard of many people who’ve tried doing this, but come up against crashes and projects getting corrupted because the project (as you can guess) is so huge (I mean, you’re packing a whole film score into one project!)

I was just wondering… do film composers actually score the whole film in one project only? Do they break it up for each scene?

If the latter is true… what do composers do to keep that consistency throughout the score (similar themes, similar orchestration/instruments, maybe needing to copy/paste something from earlier, ect.)

This can easily apply to concept albums or other long works of music.

There’s a few techniques that help, but tbh none of the DAWs are particularly elegant at this - Digital Performer is the best, with its chunks feature you can separate cues but keep them in a master project. In general, using VE Pro to host a template is the best way of keeping project sizes manageable - it might still have 800 tracks but its all midi or audio, so not too taxing CPU-wise, it’s the real time VST use that slows Cubase to a crawl if taken up to really big sizes. What I do (not sure how common this is - I’m just a TV guy doing 15 or 30 min projects, not full features), is when working from the beginning of a project, I always save the project as a new name when I get to a new cue. Then if I change something tempo / timing wise in Cue 1, it doesn’t affect everything downstream because all those cues are resaved under their own names, but it also means that if on Cue 9 I’d like to repeat 8 bars of cue 1 I can still cut and paste (well, in its original version I can before I subsequently went back and reworked Cue 1, anyway). If that makes any sense. As I say, it’s all desperately inelegant.

The video of the film is typically a low resolution format for scoring purposes so dropping in the entire film ( which I do ) doesn’t affect performance . Sometime the film is broken up into reels 15 minutes long each so you might get 6 videos.

With the i7 intel and 32 gigs of ram, ssd drives we can do a lot now. So I don’t need vsl pro, I run 24 stereo in via adat from my slave however motu is releasing new audio cards with Ethernet protocol so when I update my sound cards I will consider those, that would eliminate the need for more than one audio card per computer.

I wish cubase had something like chunks like dp does for the score cues, I end up with one master score file but as change requests come in that affect tempo, then I have to save those changes into a new project file.

I work in midi until all is approved therefore it’s easy to copy and paste themes.

I wondered myself, too. :slight_smile:

This is a very interesting topic.

Just on this point, and assuming we’re only talking about Cubase here, the number one mistake I see people doing is exactly that … taking the video as delivered and trying to load it directly into Cubase. This is not surprising, in that we’re musicians (right?) and don’t know anything about video, certainly not digital video. My tip therefore is to first convert whatever you get into the lowest resolution MP4* you can work with and use that for Cubase (Handbrake is the weapon of choice here). Remember to set your Cubase project properties to match the frame rate of the deliverable and 48kHz sample rate unless specified otherwise.

Your audio only needs to be in sync, so the resolution of what you watch while you compose is irrelevant, other than to keep you in time (and in “tune”) with the action.

  • If you’re on a Mac, use MOV; on Windows, at the moment in Cubase MP4 seems to work best most of the time, but “MP4” is only what’s called a container format, and the actual contents can vary wildly. I usually try to convert to a “vanilla” MP4 and test that it will play OK in Quicktime (a necessary evil; always update to the latest version).

TV / Short film / trailer = All in one project
Cinema- Movies = You use about 6-8 videos /“projects” (15-20min)

Actually you talk to director and film company and they send what ever you want and what format you need.

Best Regards

Are you breaking up your score into projects for each reel out of necessity because of tempo changes or CPU, or do you prefer that workflow?

I’m working on a 15 minute short film (as one project), and the fact that it’s starting to really lag up and can hardly handle itself anymore is what led me to ask this question.

Trailers? Yeah, I totally see why you’d use only one project. But a short film or TV episode?

Of course there are complications like many tempo and key changes, but don’t you start to experience serious CPU issues with such a big project?

My tip is to first convert whatever you get into the lowest resolution MP4* you can work with and use that for Cubase. That takes the strain off the CPU so you can concentrate resources on the music.
As I said earlier …

My video’s as basic as it can go and I still get issues. I’ve even completely removed the video several times and there’s no improvement.

Then your problem lie elsewhere.

Explain a little more about how you are working. Do you use a template? Do you use VE Pro (or Plogue etc)? How many vsts are you using and are they multitimbral? What are your basic specs?

Not sure why this thread is focusing so much on video, these days it’s a non-issue unless its very high res and / or a strange codec (and of course then you can convert).


I do use a template. I do not use VE Pro. I’m using MANY East West VSTs that are not multitimbral (does that help with performance? Even if so, I usually don’t like having to deal with a limit of only 16 instruments per go, but if it’ll help, I’ll do it). Computer specs are in my signature.

Great tip! :slight_smile:

Could you please explain a little more about video settings in handbrake (framerate, codes etc.)?
Screen Handbrake.png

Could the issue be the reliance on East West plugins? I like them myself, but find they are “twitchy” in Cubase. I believe others here have also noted the same…

Great topic by the way. Thanks.

Sorry to hear you have trouble but its Mac related issues and not just Cubase any DAWs on MAC.
That is why so many Mac users that still use MAC use Windows 7 /8 machines in slave to the MAC doing all the work for them. That Cubase use QuickTime its also bad choice of technology and that is a story by itself.

Personal I don’t use Macs I use own build powerful PCs and Windows 7 x64. Anyway there are free softwares out there that can divide any clip in any length that work for you. Use low quality resolution video.

Good Luck!
Best regards
Freddie :slight_smile:

I’m pretty sure it is. But I just asked the question originally just to get an idea of what others are doing, as well as what the norm tends to be.

Most film/tv composers I know and work with including myself use video synced in an external host. This is for several reasons, but mainly it’s because as various cuts come in you only have to reload the film once instead of 30+ times or so for each cue.

I tried working with video internally in Cubase for a while, but it was a real pain when I wanted to slide the cue around by 2 frames a few times or change start tempos, etc. I have a mac mini server hosting the video in Logic (though you can use another version of Cubase, DP, Reaper, Pro Tools whatever) that locks up using MIDI over Lan and Midi Time Code. Works great. I also run Logic and Cubase simultaneously synced with the IAC MIDI driver on my MacBook Pro when traveling.

As far as project management, one project per cue is certainly the way I prefer. Multiple cues in a project can be unwieldy and dangerous if you’re not careful with time-changes, tempos, etc. It also highly encourages writing from the beginning of a film to the end which in my own experience is not the most conducive to theme development/creativity. I have a template created for a film that has the sounds/instruments I’ll be using. The template morphs and changes as the project goes on.

All that being said one of my biggest beefs with Cubase is that it is REALLY lacking in tools to make sharing of instruments/audio/midi/tracks/themes etc. easy between projects. DP definitely has this sewn up with their chunks and Pro Tools is a close second with their Import Session Data feature.

Cubase has the Export/Import Track Archive feature, but it is quite flawed on several accounts. The first of which is that whatever timecode your Track Archive was exported at, when you import it into your new project it will change the timecode of your current project to match. AND if it was earlier than the project being imported to, will shift any events currently there later. This is fairly maddening. There are some tricky workarounds to making this kind of work, but I would love for Steinberg to simply give us the options of what data to import from track archives similar to what Pro Tools does. Allowing us to import session data from an already existing project like DP or PT does would be even better as it would save the step of having to open up a previous project export the data in the first place!

Anyway, this has gotten long. Hope that helps.

I can totally see how this would happen… does that ever become a problem for you? How do you manage your projects when you’ve added a ton of stuff in Cue #10 than you now want in Cue #1?