Writing music for a dialog-heavy scene is one of the trickier aspects of film scoring. It’s not too difficult if you’re just writing a simple pad or drone, but often the music needs to be more detailed than that.
As we all know, in a movie dialog is king. Rightfully so, since that’s where most of the story lies. It may be a pain, but as film composers it’s our job to stay out of the way. Writing a melody on top of dialog usually means your music will be mixed so low you can barely hear it. Keeping the music in the gaps between lines is still the safest approach, but here’s a little trick for those times when that’s impossible:
We all tend to speak at one particular pitch. Our voices wander up and down a little, but it’s much less than you think, and most of us stay within a third or fourth of one central frequency. The secret is to identify that note and leave a gap of a sixth on either side of it. This gives the dialog a comfortable range where it’s all alone, and you’ll find you can turn the music up quite a bit before you lose intelligibility.
Identifying the pitch of a particular voice can be difficult. I use Melodyne to help me, but most other pitch correction software would work equally well. I analyze the chunk in question and locate the central pitch. As you can see in the screenshot to the right, there are sometimes a few errant pitches due to especially prominent overtones, but most of the dialog is centered around the low F at the bottom of the screen. (Make sure you identify the proper octave as well. In Melodyne you can click and hold on a blob to play the pitch. Then it’s easy to find it on a keyboard.)
Once I’ve identified the central note, I mark out a sixth on either side of it and keep all my instruments—even the accompaniment—out of that region. When you’re done writing, you should find the dialog stands out beatifully. If it is still being obscured, it could be that overtones of one of the lower instruments are getting in the way. Mute tracks until you identify the culprit and add an EQ dip at the root frequency of of the voice or at one of the multiples of that frequency. Identifying the proper frequency is easier if you use a conversion chart.
There are many other tricks to writing around dialog. I’ll talk about others in future posts.