Hi Def, lights off, sound up. The last shot nails it for me.
Hi Def, lights off, sound up. The last shot nails it for me.
Okay, listen up, performers in all venues. Sing, Theater, public speaking. Anybody with an audience, really. This is a bit long but it communicates something I’ve always wanted to say. If you don’t have an “audience” then you can skip this. But in one way or another most of us do. I think this can help.
When I talk about the level of planning and execution that it takes to work at a really high level, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Take four minutes and watch this amazing performance (h/t Matt for the link). Pay attention to his execution, misdirection (watch what he wants you to watch, then rewind and watch what he _doesn’t_ want you to watch). Then keep reading.
This performance represents hours and hours and hours of patient, slow, methodical practice. Every movement is thought out and carefully crafted. What you’re seeing looks spontaneous and natural, but every twitch, gesture, and facial expression is being executed purely on muscle memory. He’s probably done this sequence of actions five thousand times. And no, that’s likely not an exaggeration.
THIS is the kind of thing I always have in mind while planning a show. You have to think on several levels. What levels? I’m glad you asked:
1. Emotional/Entertainment (highest level): what is your purpose? Not just moment-to-moment, but overall. What do you want to leave the audience with? A feeling of awe? Of sadness? Of quiet reflection? Of anger? Of joy? Each of these is a legitimate goal depending on your purpose. But you will never be able to communicate what you’re trying to say unless you _define_ what you’re trying to say. And saying “we want it to be good/awesome/amazing” isn’t enough. You have to define exactly where the target is or you’ll never know if you hit it. There’s a difference between the emotion you feel during the last scene of Schindler’s List (Liam Neeson standing by Schindler’s grave) and the final image of Monster’s Inc (“Kitty!”). But you can be sure that each of those moments was chosen as a goal. An end-state. And the emotion that you felt as an audience member was carefully crafted and manipulated within you so that when that moment came you were able to experience it clearly. “Manipulated” in this case isn’t a bad thing. There’s an implicit agreement among creators and audience members that this sort of manipulation is okay. I like getting emotional at movies. It’s okay if I’m in on it. Often it’s so easy to lose sight of your target because you get lost in the details. Keeping your goal in mind is always, always, always the #1 thing.
2. Structural: this is the second level of execution. What are the structural elements required to reach your emotional end-state goal? Why is doing that movement or gesture or motion better than that one? This kind of knowledge and understanding comes with experience. With seeing a lot of things that don’t work and then trying something else and something else and something else until you figure out what does and then putting that thing that does work in your bag of tools to use later. With enough time, your bag of tools gets big enough that you can start to see commonalities when presented with a problem to solve. Even better, you start to see connections between things that you never thought existed and can reach into your experience and solve a problem in a unique way. Your bag of tools will look different from mine and that’s okay. This is called personal style, and is a reflection of the particular experience we’ve each been through. However, the accumulation of these tools represents a common language that we all speak, even if we’re not aware of it. Being cognizant of the tools turns you from emotional consumer into experience creator. In our culture that’s a powerful place to be.
So the structural level supports the emotional/entertainment goals (everything supports the emotional/entertainment goals). Just doing the song/move/moment/whatever in a vacuum may be cool, but you have to attach it to an overall scaffolding of elements that builds to a goal in order for the moments to be meaningful. This, in my experience, is where most people lose sight of the bigger picture when putting together a project. They often think that just putting flashy stuff in will be enough. But you need the meatier elements to be present so that the entire thing has substance. In the case of my own work, placing the cool Sing move at a certain point can be neat and make the audience yell, but putting it in a specific spot for the right reason, with the right timing, can absolutely drive the moment home. Having an amazing opening stage image relate to a relevant and focussed closing stage image (even if it’s a “YEAH!” jazz-hands moment) shows craftsmanship and forethought. It looks polished and professional.
In whatever you do, always think about each structural element and how it contributes to the larger picture. Flying buttresses are an important innovation, but people travel to Notre Dame cathedral to see the gorgeous Rose window.
Yet the window could not exist without the supports.
3. Physical (lowest level): Finally there is the physical level. Also known as “ya gotta have the moves”. Once levels 1 and 2 are nailed down, level 3 thinking means doing like this guy in the video and practicing, practicing, practicing. Every movement and gesture. Polishing until they’re all perfect, lead naturally into each other, and contribute together to build a structure that supports the overall emotion. If you don’t execute this level then the whole thing can either look amateurish or come crashing down. So get this part right. Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong. And communicate this ethos to your participants. They need to know that the goal isn’t just good execution of the physical level, but good execution of the physical level in order to support the structural and emotional levels.
An audience’s time is one of the most precious things a performer can ask for. When 2000 people trust you with four hours of their time you become responsible for almost a year of irreplaceable human experience. Treat that sacrifice with planning, respect, humility, and (above all) practice and they’ll return your investment with attention and appreciation.
And somewhere, in all of that, everybody can be changed.
Peregrine Andrews on the Sound of Sport: What is Real?: “Dennis started out recording music and for a time owned a studio. But, as he told me, it wasn’t an easy living. So when ESPN, the American TV sports network, started up in the 1980s, he found a new profession – as a sound supervisor for TV sport. He tried to apply the same standards, and some of the same methods, that he was used to in the recording studio, to the task of capturing sounds from the football pitch or basketballl arena. And when he took on the Olympics job in 1992, he brought in the use of a lot more close-miking, a technique borrowed from music recording, where many microphones are used, each placed close to a sound source. In archery, for example, this means putting a microphone right next to the archer for the launch sound and another right near the target for the hit. The whole picture is built by mixing these signals together in appropriate amounts. It allows for far greater definition and control than, say, a single distant microphone high above the action. But more microphones means more circuits to get the signals back, and more inputs on the mixer. But the introduction of digital pathways around events and digital mixing consoles mean that this isn’t the headache it was in the analogue past.”
Great article and short podcast
The Amen beat and its repercussions for copyright. A really interesting 18:00 piece if you have time for it.
Transom » Radiolab: An Appreciation by Ira Glass: “Artists compete. Not head to head like athletes, but in their souls. Within the appreciation of our fellow artists is the tiny wince, ‘I wish I’d done that.’Ira Glass joins us again on Transom, this time for a loving and envious homage to our friends at Radiolab, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. A radio master salutes his comrades. The great thing about Ira’s analysis is that it’s so detailed. He breaks down exactly what’s so good about Radiolab and why. You could almost learn the tricks and do it yourself. Almost. Honestly, though, you’d lose. It’s better sometimes just to appreciate.”
I’m a RadioLab addict and am always sad when there aren’t any in my feed (a tendency reinforced when I first discovered it a few years ago and mainlined probably 100 hours of the broadcast). If you don’t know this incredible show, you really do owe it to yourself to give it a listen.
Why is it that when you’re self employed the work comes in these strange waves? I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and I’ve noticed that I either have very little to do or I’m bursting at the seams with work. And it’s not just the same kind of work. Between arranging, writing original music, woodworking projects, audio editing gigs, and now a huge transcription project (reconnecting with my old friend and musician Kurt Kaiser).
It’s feast and famine but for now at least my mother and father will be happy that we won’t be going hungry for a while. 🙂
“‘The web,’ as venture capitalist Fred Wilson has said, ‘is still too quiet.’
But a few of the noisier places on the net are getting louder. The audio-sharing site SoundCloud (in which Wilson is an investor) has been online since 2008, but it’s now inching toward YouTube-like status.
Users upload 12 hours of audio every minute. The lion’s share is music, but you can find weirder stuff: activists capturing the sound of protests (for the political record) or an audiophile recording the strangely gorgeous sound of ice melting (for… the heck of it). This spring, astronaut Chris Hadfield posted a series of ambient sounds recorded on the International Space Station, and listeners found them mesmerizing. A picture of the Soyuz module may convey 1,000 words, but hearing its eerie hum? That transports you there.
‘When you hear sound, there’s a lot of implicit knowledge in it,’ says SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung. Sound is also emotionally loaded, he points out. Watch a scary movie with the volume off and it’s no longer so creepy.”
I agree with the author’s point that there have been many new tools developed in recent years for video and the written word (editing suites, graphical programs, web standards) but comparatively few for the audio world. This tends to reinforce my thinking that audio and sound are easily overlooked (both in daily life and in things like movies and commercials). We all experience audio every waking second but don’t often think about it unless there’s something wrong- a ringing in your ears, badly mixed or edited movie audio, an annoying barking dog.
As for myself, I’m notoriously aware of my sonic surroundings and it drives me nuts. I need to sleep with earplugs in just so I can sleep. A year or so ago we had a washing machine overflow and leave a thin film of creeping water on the linoleum floor downstairs. I could tell this was happening from my studio upstairs just by the fact that the high frequencies were reflecting around in an unusual way. I went down to investigate and fixed the leak before it got out of control. But this is doubtless tied to the fact that I spend much of my working day with my eyes closed just listening to sounds, picking orchestras apart, hearing mixes, etc.
In my experience, though, most people just aren’t that aware of what goes on around them sonically, and it’s a real loss for them. It’s also one of the reasons that I recently got out of the production mixing/recording side of the audio world. Far too many directors give lip service to sound but don’t know the first thing about what’s required to get a good mix, nor are they willing to give time to doing it right.
Anyway, blah blah blah sound. It’s good stuff. Listen to it sometime.
Some great pictures from All University Sing 2013.
I built 40 flintlock muskets and an 8lb Revolutionary War cannon for one of the acts. Here’s a look:
The Macaulay Library. 150,000 indexed animal calls. Believe it or not, I have use of this sort of thing periodically. Neat stuff.
When it’s quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly.
‘In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound.’
And this is a very disorientating experience. Mr Orfield explained that it’s so disconcerting that sitting down is a must.
Sorry for the lack of posting the past few weeks. The truth is that this is my annual Sing crunch and I have very little energy for anything outside of rehearsals and performances. The first weekend is over and we’re in mid-week rehearsals now. It’s amazing how many tweaks and little improvements you can do to a “finished” show. I’m sure we could keep improving it and improving it forever, but alas, this Saturday is the final judging night. Months and months of work will come down to the results and we’ll find out who makes Pigskin (the “bonus show” in November for the top 8 acts out of the 17 currently competing).
It’s been a great year with a wonderful show full of zany creativity, oddball ideas (some that work and some that don’t), and lots of new friends. I am thoroughly blessed that I get to do what I love and that I get to do it with fun, encouraging, and enthusiastic people. Even though my job takes a pretty big toll in energy and work, I’d be a fool to complain about it. What fun!
Paradise Recovered is available for preorder on Amazon. Way to go Team Paradise!
Paradise Recovered has been nominated for Best Sound at the 2012 IIFOC film festival! My little ‘ol name is on the ballot. Fingers crossed…
Paradise Recovered just won Best Feature Film at the Central Florida Film Festival! Congrats to Andie, Storme, and the whole crew.
We have some relatives who tell a funny story about remodeling their kitchen a few years ago. They went into it wanting new cabinets, so they got a local cabinet maker to build them some beautiful cherry cabinets. Once they started seeing the cabinets being constructed, they realized that their floor would have to be replaced. Then the old appliances started to look rather dull, and after this the countertops. They ended up changing out pretty much everything in their kitchen and it’s now a stunningly beautiful place. It’s a conundrum familiar to anyone who has done remodeling. The beauty of the new outshines the old so much that you just end up replacing everything.
Last year I purchased a rather large sample upgrade to my sound library. It was a significant investment and it’s paid dividends in much better sounding work. However, the brass sounds still were not up to par yet. So a few days ago I upgraded my brass sounds and ho-lee-cow, what a difference. The portamento french horn alone was worth the upgrade cost. I’m working on a rather huge orchestral project right now and the new brass sounds are getting a workout. Check out this example:
Keep in mind that there isn’t a bit of “live” orchestra in there. It’s all midi triggered samples. Based on the strength of these demos, as well as my experience with the sample library from the past year, I went ahead and bought the brass library.
It’s wonderful. The horn makes you weep, the trumpets are declamatory, and the low brass is big and bombastic the way low brass should be, without a hint of “midi-ness” that often accompanies these libraries sometimes. The problem? Now my strings sound mushy by comparison.
The company has issued a single “orchestra-wide” sample set, which I purchased last year, and which is very good. But then they’ve gone in and started focussing on each of the individual sections (strings, brass, woodwinds, perc, etc) and started issuing whole libraries of just these sections, with much more depth and realism to their sound sets. I have the new brass set, but, like the new cherry cabinets, the spectacularness of the new sounds is making me crave the Wolf fridge… I mean the string sounds:
So now I’m listening to the online examples and thinking well, with this job I could easily pay for them… and they make my stuff sound so much better.
Curse you, cherry cabinets.
The world’s first acoustic diode.
“The acoustic diode works much like the electrical component of the same name, letting current (or, in this case, sound waves) pass in one direction but blocking it in the other. Composed of a structured arrangement of elastic spheres that ferry the sound through the material, the diode can be tuned to work only at certain frequencies or to downshift the frequencies moving through the material to lower frequencies as needed….the tunable diode could scavenge energy from noisy machinery and channel it back into a transducer that converts those sound vibrations into electricity that could be fed back to the machine, reducing net energy consumption. It could also downshift sound frequencies to ranges that are optimal for energy conversion.”
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