What is a temp track?
The temp track (temp stands for temporary) is the music track in a film or television program that an editor creates with ‘temporary’ music. It is also know as the guide music track or scratch music track. The temp track is usually only ever used in the edit stage of the production, and it is predominantly used to play to producers and executive producers to give them a rough idea of mood/pace of what the editor and/or director wants from the music.
The temp music is also often used to play to a composer for the same reasons. Some directors will not want to play a temp track to a composer as they would prefer the composer to respond to the film without being influenced by someone else’s music. When they do play the temp music to a composer a director could quite often say “We like the temp music here, can you do something in this style or pace or feel?”. Or perhaps the director’s comment would be “ignore the temp music, it is only there as a holding piece…feel free to do something very different”.
The temp track can also become a burden for a composer. Directors and producers can become very hung up on a certain track: they love the temp music for a particular scene and no matter what a composer writes for the scene, in their minds it can never match the temp score. From a composer’s point of view this can be very frustrating.
In the film Arrival, there is track by Max Richter (On The Nature of Daylight) that works beautifully and this began as a temp track for the film in the edit stage. The story goes that no matter what Jóhann Jóhannsson composed for this scene, the production team always went back to the Max Richter piece and it ended up staying in the film. An unexpected consequence of this additional piece by Max Richter was that the soundtrack for Arrival could not be nominated for an Academy award in 2017 in keeping with eligibility guidelines as a score can be disqualified if it is diluted with pre-existing music.
I remember once hearing composer A R Rahman say that the bigger the Hollywood film, the more prescriptive the temp score is and the less room for creative freedom by a composer there is.
Do I like to be given a temp score?
I find that the temp score can be very useful, but only if the director can then embrace an original score. A temp score can very quickly inform me on perhaps: pace, tone, instrumentation, mood, aesthetic quality etc. It immediately gives me ‘goalposts’ and can help narrow down the musical language and elements that I will use to score a film or drama.
Whilst the temp score can be useful, every choice that I make for a film/tv composition is all very informed and thought out and much of this stems from a good dialogue with the director.
I love coming onboard a production at an early stage, so I can provide musical sketches and ideas for the edit based entirely on the script or early rough cuts or dialogue with the director. These musical sketches can then begin to form the backbone of the temp score. Plus it gives everyone on the production team a chance to really hear how the music could sound and what really works. I believe that I have often achieved my best work when music and picture are developing at the same time: one informs the other and vice versa.
I remember when I started work on the television series Summerhill for the BBC, a children’s drama there was a fantasy fight scene that had been ‘temped’ with a track from the Hook soundtrack by John Williams: an epic and delightful orchestra piece with wonderful orchestral gestures. My choice was: do I try to emulate this (with a very limited musicians budget and limited time) or do I try my own original approach. I decided to go with my gut feeling and scored the scene in a completely different way to the temp track. My music immediately gave the scene a very individual sound and was far more in keeping with the rest of my soundtrack and the style of the film. Thankfully producer Stephen Smallwood and Director Jon East loved the new cue!