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Copyright in the 21st Century

 

As we know, March 2020 has been a strange time for most of the world due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Subsequently, the music industry at large has been extremely quiet, but before the outbreak and lockdown rules became widespread there were several interesting events and technological advances relating to music copyright law.

The start of March saw the current Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” legal battle rage on into its sixth year, with the band winning their latest appeal for a new trial – the group Spirit had previously won a case that ruled Zeppelin’s famous opening arpeggio riff had infringed the Spirit 1968 song “Taurus”. While it seems this particular feud may be far from being over, it was closely succeeded by another high-profile case days later.

Stairway to Heaven:

 

Taurus:

Following a previous lawsuit in 2019 that ruled Katy Perry’s song “Dark Horse” had copied the ostinato from Flame’s 2009 track “Joyful Noise”, the verdict was overturned on 17th March by federal judge Christina A Snyder. Judge Snyder stated:

“It is undisputed in this case, even viewing the evidence in the light most favourable to plaintiffs, that the signature elements of the eight-note ostinato in “Joyful Noise” is not a particularly unique or rare combination.”

While news of the judge’s decision to overturn the verdict came as a surprise, the sentiment of Snyder’s statement resonated with most musicians who had listened to the songs in question – you can read my comparison and analysis of the 2019 trial here

The latest Katy Perry development felt like a “win” for good musical sense, but where do we go from here? What might the future hold for common sequences and regularly used traditions of composition? Damien Riehl and Noah Rubin think they might have some influence on this – the duo has developed technology that is working to find the answer to the eternal question “Is the number of melodies in this world finite?” As there are only a finite number of notes, can they only be arranged in so many ways?

Rubin is a musician and programmer as is Riehl, who also happens to practice law. Together they have created an algorithm that writes 300,000 melodies per second to disc as a MIDI file, thus automatically copyrighting them. The data set parameters for measuring the melodies use a range of one octave (incorporating a major and natural minor scale), and counts up to 12 individual note values for the length of the melody line, as this range works well for the conventions of pop music.

The two big questions arising from this technology lead us to ask whether the pair have infringed on every existing song there’s ever been, and will the songs of the future infringe on them? Riehl says no to the latter – the intention of creating this technology is to put the findings into the public domain to make the world better and “keep space open for songwriters to be able to make music”. The technological parameters of the algorithms’ range are expanding and developing all the time – the pair are currently working with a pitch range of 12 chromatic notes which means that in terms of genre this covers more than pop music, such as classical and jazz melodies. Riehl is sure that one day the technology will be equipped to use “100 notes and every rhythmic and chordal variation in the future”.

From Riehl’s expert legal view the repercussions of this technology could be ground-breaking in ensuring creative freedom exists for composers; he believes the copyright system is broken and needs updating, explaining that the average legal fees for these cases are in the range of $2 million-plus a fee to the original songwriter. The consideration of whether the accused had access to hear the original song in question would still be taken into account, as would the idea of conceding that songs can be “subliminally infringed” without ill intent.

In explaining the mathematical programming element of the algorithm, Riehl borders on the metaphysical as he shares the findings that we have a finite number of melodic combinations available to us and that “melodies to a computer are just numbers – those melodies have existed since the beginning of time and we are only just discovering them”.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition that this new technology is strangely aligned with the ancient concept that we pluck or channel our ideas from an unknown aether where they have always existed. Who knows, but maybe we can find some comfort and feelings of connection with something bigger than ourselves as we work through these solitary times.

You can download all the music created by Riehl and Rubin plus the algorithm programme code at http://www.AllTheMusic.info

A Note on Saying Thank You

When I was 16, I was hired for my first front-of-house position. In my new role as “person in charge” I quickly began noticing all of the little obstacles that seemed to appear each night. They had been present before, of course, but never so obvious. The way that bands assumed anyone in the room except me was the sound engineer. The flashes of surprise that crossed their faces upon being pointed my way. The way I was talked over, dismissed, or needed repeated requests to get things accomplished when the same request from a male coworker was heeded immediately. The questions I faced about my knowledge of audio sometimes turned into full interrogations. I had known that I would face challenges like these, but the relentlessness was getting to me.

Then, a few months after being hired, I did sound for a math rock band called TTNG. They walked in, immediately accepted that I was the sound engineer, and didn’t question my competence. They listened to me and treated me kindly, as an equal. I didn’t feel like I needed to prove anything to them. It was refreshing. Although I didn’t realize it at the moment, after the show I started to see just how much their respect for me had meant. How it had given me hope. And I decided to send them a message saying exactly that.

This started a habit. I now do my best to acknowledge bands that stand out for being exceptionally nice or easy to work with. I want them to know that I noticed and appreciated their behavior, and tell them thank you for making my job that much easier. If I can’t do this in person, I’ll usually send a message a day or two after.

I feel very strongly that it’s important to pass on these thank-you notes because it’s often underestimated how much weight a band’s attitude can have. How simply being friendly and rolling with the punches makes or breaks stressful situations, and makes all the difference between a rushed soundcheck being doable or downright miserable. I’ve managed to make lasting connections, friendships and may have even gotten my foot in the door to touring by doing this.

So if someone has made a good impression on you, don’t hesitate to let them know. You never know what might come from it.

 

 

Beth O’Leary – Baking a Cake on a Moving Tour Bus

Beth O’Leary is a freelance monitor engineer and PA tech based in the U.K. She has been working in the industry for 11 years and is currently working as a stage and PA tech on the Whitney Houston Hologram Tour. She has toured as a system tech with Arcade Fire, J Cole, the Piano Guys, Paul Weller, a tour featuring Roy Orbison as a hologram. She recently filled in as the monitor engineer for Kylie Minogue and just finished a short run for an AV company in Dubai.

Live Sound was not her first career choice, as Beth was originally attending university for zoology. Although she has always been passionate about music. She remembers the first festival she attended “I remember the first festival I went to (Ozzfest 2002 – the only time they came to Ireland), and the subs moving all the air in my lungs with every kick drum beat. I thought that was such a cool thing to be able to control. When I heard about the student crew in Sheffield it made sense to join.: Join she did and it was there she learned “ everything about sound, lights, lasers, and pyro in exchange for working for free and letting my studies suffer because I was having too much fun with them.”

Her studies did not suffer too much as she graduated with a Masters’s in Zoology, but she would go on to work as a stagehand at local venues, eventually taking sound roles at those venues as well as a couple of audio hire companies. Even though she had no formal training, she would attend as many product training courses for sound and few focused on studio works. She says at the time “real-life experience was more important than exam results when I started, I think it’s changing a bit now. But, it’s still essential to supplement your studies with getting out there and getting your hands dirty.”

By her mid-twenties, she wanted to expand her skills and start working for bigger audio companies. After a lot of silence or “join the queue” replies to her emails asking for work experience from various companies, she met some of the people at SSE at a trade show. She would learn that they are really busy over the festival season and said she was welcome to come to gain experience interning in the warehouse. She remembers arranging to intern for three weeks “I put myself up in a hostel and did some long days putting cables away and generally helping out. A week in, they offered me a place as stage tech on some festivals. I’m pretty sure it’s because one of their regulars had just broken his leg and they needed someone fast! I then spent most summers doing festivals for SSE. After a few years I progressed to doing some touring for them. I now also freelance for Capital Sound (which became part of the SSE group soon after I started working with them!) and Eclipse Staging Services in Dubai, amongst others.”

Can you share with us a gig or show or tour you are proud of?  

I baked a cake on a moving tour bus once, I’m very proud of that…

Apart from that, I used to run radio mics for an awards show for a major corporate client. Each presenter was only on stage for a couple of minutes, but the production manager didn’t like the look of lectern mics or handhelds, so everyone had to wear headsets. Of course, we didn’t have the budget or RF spectrum space to give everyone a mic that they could wear all night, we needed to reuse each one three or four times. I put a lot of work into assessing the script and assigning mics in a way that would minimise changes and give the most time between changes. I then ran around all night, sometimes only getting the mics fitted with seconds to go. I always made sure to take the time to talk to the presenters through what I was doing (and warned them about my cold hands!) and make sure they were comfortable. I did the same show for about five years and was proud that the clients, most of whom were the top executives for a very large corporation, were always happy to see me, and asked where I was by name when I couldn’t make it. Knowing that the clients appreciate you is a great feeling.

Can you share a gig that you failed out, and what you learned from it: 

I was doing FoH on a different corporate job, the first (and last) gig for a new company. I had terrible ringing and feedback on the lav mics. It was one of those rooms where it will still ring, even if you take that frequency out wherever you can. I worked on it all through the rehearsal day, staying late and coming in early on the show day, trying to fix it. I did most of the ringing out while the client wasn’t in the room, so as not to disturb them. I asked the other engineers in other rooms for advice, and probably followed my in-house guy’s lead a bit too much. I figured he knew the room the best of anyone, but in hindsight, he wasn’t great. The show happened, and the client was smiling and pleasant, but it definitely could have been better.

Afterward, I got an email from the company saying the client had complained to them about my attitude. I was devastated. I had worked as hard as I could, and I pride myself on always being as polite as possible! I realised too late that from the client’s point of view, they saw an issue that didn’t get fixed for a long time, and they didn’t see most of the work I put in or know what was going on. I learned that it is so important to take a couple of minutes to keep your client in the loop and let them know you’re doing your best to fix the issue, without going overboard with excuses. It can be hard to prioritise when you’re so focused on troubleshooting and you don’t have much time. I still have to work on it sometimes, but it can mean the difference between keeping and losing a gig.

What do you like best about touring?

The sense of achievement when you get into a good flow. So few people realise how much work is involved. For arena shows, we arrive in the morning to a completely empty room, we bring absolutely everything except the seats. We build a show, hopefully, give the audience a great time, then put it all back in trucks and do it all again the next day.

What do you like least?

When the show doesn’t go as well as it could. There’s no second take if something goes wrong that’s it and you can’t go back and change it. It’s quite difficult not to dwell on it. All you can do is make sure it’s better next time.

What is your favorite day off activity? 

I love exploring the cities we’re in. My perfect day off would be a relaxed brunch with good coffee, then a walk around a botanical garden, a bath and an early night. Rock and roll!

What are your long-term goals?

I need variety, so I’d like to stay busy while mixing it up. Touring and festivals, music and corporate shows working with different artists and techs. I’d also like to get to a position where I can recommend promising people more and help them up the ladder.

What if any obstacles or barriers have you faced?

I think one of the major barriers in the industry is people denying any barriers exist. I was told I needed a thicker skin, to toughen up, everyone has it rough. Then after years of keeping my head down and working hard, I saw how my male colleagues reacted to words or behaviour that didn’t even register as unusual to me anymore. Their indignation at what I saw all the time really underscored how differently they get treated.

Thankfully I have done plenty of jobs with no sexism at all, but it can be frustrating to get told I don’t understand my own life. Just because you don’t see what you consider to be discrimination, doesn’t mean it never happens. It can be particularly disappointing when young women are outspoken about how sexism isn’t a problem, ignoring the groundwork set by the tough women who came before them.

I have also struggled a lot with a lack of self-confidence, which can really put you at a disadvantage when you’re a freelancer. You need to be able to sell yourself and reassure your client they’re in safe hands, so I’m sure the self-deprecation that comes naturally to me has held me back.

How have you dealt with them?

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. Whether I misunderstood their intentions or they’re honestly mistaken, or they genuinely don’t want to work with a woman, all I can do is remain professional and courteous and do my job to the best of my ability. A lot of the time we get past it and have a good gig, and if we don’t I know I did all I could. I take people’s denial of sexism as a good sign, in a way. It shows it is becoming less pervasive and I hope the young women who are so adamant it doesn’t happen are never proven wrong.

I’m still working on my self-confidence. I try to remember that the client needs to trust me to relax and have a good gig themselves. I aim to keep a realistic assessment of my skill level. I used to turn jobs down if I wasn’t 100% sure I knew everything about every bit of equipment, for the good of the gig. I then realised that a lot of the time the client wouldn’t find someone better, they’d just find someone more cocksure who was happy to give it a go. Now I’m experienced enough to know whether I can take a job on and make it work even if it means learning some new skills, or whether I should leave it to someone more suitable.

The advice you have for other women and young women who wish to enter the field?

Be specific when looking for help. If you want to tour, please don’t ask people “to go on tour”. Pick a specialism, work at it, get really good, then you might go on tour doing that job. When I see posts online looking for “opportunities in sound”, I ignore them. What area? Live music? Theatre? Studio? Film? Game audio? What country, even? Saying “I don’t mind” will make people switch off. People looking to tour when they don’t even know which department they want to work in makes me think they just want a paid holiday hanging out with a band.

Most jobs in this field are given by word of mouth and personal recommendations. Networking is an essential skill, but it doesn’t have to mean being fake and obsequious. The best way to network is to be genuinely happy to see your colleagues, and interested in them as people. And always remember you’re only as good as your last gig. You never know where each one will lead, so make the effort every time.

People who run hire companies are incredibly busy, and constantly dealing with disorganised clients and/or very disorganised themselves. Don’t be disheartened if they don’t reply when you contact them. Keep trying, or get a friend who already knows them to introduce you so you stand out from the dozens of CVs they get sent every week. Make it easy for employers. You are not a project they want to work on. Training takes time and money. They don’t want to know you’re inexperienced but eager to learn. Show them how you can already do the basic jobs, and have the right attitude to progress on your own.

Must have skills?

Number one is a good work ethic. You can learn everything else as you go along, but if you aren’t motivated to constantly pester employers until they give you a chance, turn up, work hard and help the other techs, all the academic knowledge in the world won’t help you.

Being easy to get on with is also essential. We can spend 24 hours a day with our colleagues, often on little sleep, working to tight schedules and people can get grumpy. Someone who can remember all the Dante IP addresses by heart but is arrogant and rude won’t go as far as someone who can admit they don’t know things, but is willing to ask questions or just Google it, then laugh at themselves later.

Staying calm under pressure, communicating clearly and being able to think logically are all needed for troubleshooting.

Anyone who tells you that having a musical ear is determined at birth is just patting themselves on the back. Listen to music, practise picking certain instruments out and think about how it’s put together. Critical listening can be learned and improved, even if you have to work at it more than some others.

Favorite gear?

Gadget wise, I love my dbBox2. It’s a signal generator and headphone amp in one and produces analog, AES and midi signals so it helps with so many troubleshooting situations and saves so much time.

I use my RF Explorer a lot to get a better idea of the RF throughout a venue and can use it to track down problem areas or equipment.

As far as desks go, I don’t have loyalty to a particular brand. They all have their advantages. I still have a soft spot for the Soundcraft Vi6 because that’s what I used in house for years. DiGiCo seems pretty intuitive to me and has a lot of convenient features. I spent most of the last year using an SSL L500. It sounds fantastic and has a lot of cool stuff to explore.

Parting Words

It can take a long time to break into this industry. I had been doing sound for nine years before I went on a tour, and then didn’t do much touring again for a couple of years after that. You have to be tenacious and patient. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t progressing, or the work environment is toxic, leave. As a freelancer, you shouldn’t rely too heavily on one client anyway. And that’s what they are: clients. When a friend pointed out these people aren’t your bosses, they’re your clients, it really helped me to change my approach. I now rely less on them for support, but I’m also free to prioritise favoured clients over others. Live sound can be rough around the edges, but there’s a difference between joking around and bullying. There’s a difference between paying your dues and stagnating. If you’ve been in a few negative crews it can be easy to believe that everywhere is like that, but it isn’t. Keep looking for the good ones, because they do exist.

The SoundGirls Podcast – Beth O’Leary: Freelancing, blogs, and sexism

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How to Make Tech Easier: Be Prepared

 

In my last blog, I talked about what goes into mixing a Broadway-style musical, and there’s a lot to do. For almost every production you work on, you’ll be expected to mix the show mostly line-by-line with some dynamics and (hopefully) few mistakes from day one. Having a smart layout for your DCAs and a clear script can be the difference between an incredibly stressful or a delightfully smooth tech process.

Once you have the script, first things first: read it. The entire way through. If you don’t have a good idea of what’s going on from the beginning, the rest of the process is going to be guesswork at best. Next, go through the script again, this time with an eye out for where scenes might go; either where a natural scene change happens in the script, or where there are more actors talking than you have faders. (The number of DCAs you’ll have is usually 8 or 12, determined by the console you’re using. DCAs are faders in a programmable bank that can change per scene so you only have the mics you need or can consolidate a group, like a chorus, down to one or two faders.)

There are two common ways of programming DCA’s. The first is a “typewriter” style where you move down the faders in order for each line and if you run out of faders, you take a cue and go back to the first fader, then repeat (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, CUE, 1, 2, 3, etc). This is very useful in larger scenes where characters have shorter one-off lines and you quickly move from one character to the next. The second approach is where each principal actress and actor is assigned to a constant fader (Dorothy is always on 1, Scarecrow on 2, Tin Man on 3, Lion on 4, etc), and will always be on that fader when they have dialogue. In shows where you mostly deal with a handful of reoccurring characters, this is friendlier to your brain as muscle memory brings you back to the same place for the same person each time.

As an example, let’s say we have 8 faders for dialogue and take a look at “The Attack on Rue Plumet” from Les Mis (if you want to listen along, it’s the dialogue from the 2010 Cast album for the 25th Anniversary production):

 

A typewriter approach to mixing would assign DCAs in increasing order each time a new character speaks (first lines are highlighted):

By the time we get to Marius, we’re almost out of faders, and there’s a natural change in the scene when Thenardier’s gang runs off and Valjean enters, so it works to take a cue between those two lines and start over with the DCAs.

But Les Mis is an ensemble show that’s centered around a core group of principals, so assigning characters to designated fader numbers is another option. If we’re mapping out the entire show, we find that Valjean, as the protagonist, ends up on (1), Marius, the main love interest, on (2),  and Cosette and Eponine can alternate on (3) as they interact with Marius most frequently, but usually aren’t in scenes together. Thenardier could go a couple of places: he leads in scenes like “Master of the House” and “Dog Eats Dog,” but in scenes with the other principals, he typically takes a secondary role, so we’ll put him on (4) in this scene. The chorus parts, Montparnasse, Claquesous, Brujon, and Babet (first lines are still highlighted below), are easiest to put in typewriter style after Thenardier since they only appear once or twice in the show, so don’t have a designated fader number.

The mix script for this approach would look like this:

 

Here, Thenardier (4) is still right next to his cronies (5), (6), (7), and (8), but is also right next to Eponine (3) for their bits of back-and-forth. The scene change still ends up after Marius’s line, as it’s a natural place to take it, and Cosette replaces Eponine on (3), getting ready for the next scene “One Day More,” where Marius (2) and Cosette (3) will be singing a duet, with Eponine (4) separated, singing her own part.

With this particular scene, neither approach is perfect, as all the characters have multiple lines (and not in the same order every time), but either one would be a legitimate way to set it up.

Typically, you’ll use a combination of both approaches over the course of a show, with one that you default to for scenes that could go either way, like the example. Personally, I like to use a spreadsheet where I can see the entire show and get an overview of what the mix will look like. This makes it easier to spot patterns or adjust potentially awkward changes in assignments. (The colors for major characters in the examples are just visual aids that I added for this blog.)

For example, here’s a layout that’s mostly typewriter. Characters may stay on the same fader for connected scenes, but overall the assignments go in order of lines in a scene:

 

As another example, there is a core group of four actors that are in almost the entire show and a couple of reoccurring supporting roles, so using a designated fader for those characters works much better. There are times that the pattern breaks for a scene or two to switch to typewriter, but largely everyone stays in the same place:

 

Once you have the DCAs planned out, you can start to format a mixing script. The first example from Les Misérables gives a basic version of that: putting numbers next to lines for the DCA assignments, notes for where cues will go, but you will also eventually add in-band moves, effect levels, and other notes.

Personally, I like the majority of my information to be in the left margin, and if I have enough time I’ll retype the script into my own format so I can mess with it as much as I want. My scripts look like this (I thoroughly enjoy color coding!):

 

Each show might have slight differences, but the broad strokes are always the same: cues are in lavender boxes with a blue border (for cues taken off a cue light, the colors are inverted, so blue box with lavender border), band moves are in purple, vocal verb is green, red are mic notes as well as DCA numbers, and yellow is anything that I need to pay attention to or should check.

Here’s another example and an explanation from Allison Ebling from her script for The Bodyguard tour (she’s currently the Head Audio on the 1st National Tour of Anastasia):

 

“One is the top of show sequence which had to be verbally called and on Qlite due to the fact that it was a bit jarring for audiences. (LOUD gunshots and all the lights went off without warning, our preshow announce was played at the scheduled start and downbeat was 5 [minutes] after.) 

The other is a sequence in the second act where I took one cue with the SM, and the rest were on visual. It also has my favorite Q name ever… ‘Jesus Loves a Gunshot.’

I also like reading my script left to right, so I usually end up reformatting them that way.”

And another example and explanation from Mackenzie Ellis (currently the Head Audio on the 1st National Tour of Dear Evan Hansen):

“Here are some from my DEH tour script [Left], and some from the Something Rotten [Right] first national tour, both of which I am/was the A1 for. Both scripts were adapted from the Broadway versions, created by Jarrett Krauss and Cassy Givens, respectively. 

Notes on my formatting:

 

As you can see, there are different styles and endless ways to customize a mixing script. How you arrange or put notations in your script is purely a personal preference, and will constantly evolve as you continue to work on shows. As a note: not only should you be able to read your script, but to be truly functional, it should be clear enough that an emergency cover can execute a passable show in a pinch.

At this point, you have your script ready and a solid plan for how the show will run. If there’s still time before tech, you can start practicing. Practice boards are becoming more and more popular and are incredibly helpful to work out the choreography of a mix. Casecraft makes one that is modeled after the DiGiCo SD7 fader bank. Scott Kuker (most recently the mixer for Be More Chill on Broadway) made a custom, travel-size board for me a couple of years ago that I absolutely love. It immediately became an integral part of learning the mix for both me and my assistants!

I highly recommend getting one if you’re career plans involve mixing theatrical shows, but if you don’t have one, there’s the tried and true option of setting up coins to push as makeshift faders (pennies tend to be a good size, but some prefer quarters). Whatever method you use, the point is to start getting a sense of muscle memory and timing as you work through the show. It also gives you an opportunity to work through complicated or quick scenes, so you get a feel for the choreography or can even look at adjusting the DCA programming to make it easier.

After prepping a script and getting in some practice, walking up to the console in tech doesn’t seem as daunting. If you’re well prepared, you’re able to keep up and adapt to changes faster. Plus, if you’re self-sufficient at the board, your designers can trust you to mix the show and take more time to focus on their job of getting the system and the show the way they want it, which will help you in the long run.

 

Gain Without the Pain:  Gain Structure for Live Sound Part 2

 

In my last blog, I outlined the basics of gain structure, and how to get to a good starting point for your mix. This time I want to discuss a few situations where you might take different approaches to how you set your gain, and why.

I like to think of gain as a tennis ball growing out of the mic if it’s omnidirectional, or a peach for cardioid mics, with the stalk-socket (is there a word for that?) at the point of most rejection. Bidirectional/figure eight mics always remind me of Princess Leia’s famous hair buns in Star Wars. Whatever you imagine it as don’t forget that the pick-up pattern is three-dimensional. There can be a bit of a subconscious tendency to think of pick-up patterns as the flat discs you see in polar plots, so don’t fall into that trap! The main thing to remember is that as you increase the gain, you’re expanding the area in which the mic will pick noise up in every dimension, not just in the direction of what you want to amplify. This will be more of an issue in some circumstances than others, so they can benefit from different approaches.

Quiet singer, noisey stage

My first example is the one I encounter most often and causes me the most issues. You have a loud band on a reverberant, noisey stage, and you’re trying to get the vocals audible, or even nice! This can be a bit of a challenge even with a strong singer, but a quiet vocalist can seem impossibly lost in the mix. Thinking back to my previous post, the problem in this situation is that the other instruments, the crowd and everything reflecting back off the walls is keeping the noise high in the signal-to-noise ratio. Turning the gain up will just bring more of that noise into your board and muddy the mix. Upping the gain for monitors will increase the likelihood of frequencies in the monitor mix being picked up by the mic, which feeds back to the monitor, which feeds back to the mic… which creates feedback!

In an ideal world, the other players would set their instruments at reasonable levels, and the vocalist would sing loudly, close to the mic. This would increase the signal-to-noise ratio naturally. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t happen for one reason or another, and you need to fix it at the board. In these situations I try to keep the gain as low as possible while still picking the vocalist up. I use high and low pass filters to get rid of the unnecessary noise in ranges away from the vocalist’s frequencies. I might EQ a few bits out of the vocal channel where other instruments are being picked up more than the singer, and might EQ out some vocal frequencies from other channels to give them some more space to be heard. I then try to have the fader as high as possible while still leaving some headroom. Setting your master fader or monitor mixes at +5 instead of 0 can give you the extra volume you need, while keeping the gain as tight as possible. I very rarely find myself needing to turn an entire mix-up mid-show, and if it comes to it I can just turn up all the sends from the channels instead. There are plenty of other tricks to get vocals to stand out in your mix, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Wandering keynote speaker

On the other end of the noisey gig spectrum is the classic corporate speaker who won’t stay near the lectern mic. I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of live sound by people outside our industry is that the mics pick everything in their field up, in every direction, whether the sound is intentional or not. For example, I had someone loudly shuffle their notes and bang them on the lectern, cough and say something privately to an assistant right by the mics as they were supposed to start their speech. They then fully wandered the 20 metre (roughly 60 feet) wide stage, talking at normal conversational volume, expecting the mics to pick them up perfectly, no matter where they were. Quickly muting the channel when it’s apparent the speaker is still preparing solves the first issues, but there’s not much you can do about audibility when they’re metres away from the mics. This is an extreme example. However, it is very common for people to stand at a lectern but talk quite far away from the mics, turning their heads repeatedly to gesture towards their presentation.

Hopefully, the stage at a conference isn’t as noisy as a rock band in a club, and the audience are mostly quietly paying attention rather than screaming and cheering. It’s less common to have stage monitors, and with any luck, the PA is quite far away from the mics. In this case, you can get away with turning the gain up, to catch more of what they’re saying. Just remember to add a pretty strong compressor for when they inevitably lean in and suddenly talk loudly, directly into the mics. This can also help if you have several people using the lectern without soundchecking. You can set the mics to as high a gain as is stable, so even if they’re quiet you’re covered. If they’re loud you can always turn them down.

Popping lavalier or headset mics

You don’t always want your sound source as close to the mic as possible. Plosives in speech; the consonant sounds made with a burst of air, like p’s and b’s, can sound horrible on sensitive mics like lavaliers or headsets. These mics can also pick up too much sibilance. In these cases, it’s best to move them slightly further away or off-axis (by a matter of millimeters) so they aren’t in the firing line of the speaker’s breath, then turn the gain up to compensate. You might have noticed that lavaliers are often attached completely upside down for recording or TV. This stops the mic capsule being battered by those plosives and reduces sibilance, and the recording engineer can turn the gain up as much as needed without worrying about feedback because there are no speakers in the room.

I hope these examples have helped you to see how gain structure is just another tool in your mixing bag of tricks. There are good rules of thumb to follow for getting a decent signal-to-noise ratio quickly, but they aren’t written in stone. If you need to move the balance around or adjust different aspects of the channel strip to make your particular situation work, just try it (gradually if the show is already live!). It’s easy to talk about what the correct approach is in a textbook situation, but real life is very rarely ideal. Do what you need to do to get it working. If it sounds good in the end, that’s all that matters.

Girl Boss

To be a woman in our industry it takes a lot. A lot of power, energy, skill, leadership, determination, drive, patience, compassion, emotion, and strength.  I was recently given a card that I feel sums up the entire kind of woman it takes to stand tall through all the experiences we encounter in this career and in our daily lives.  The card said:

~ Girl Boss ~

A woman in control, taking charge of her own circumstances in work & life. Someone who knows her worth and won’t accept anything less. She is not a “mean girl” in fact, she hates “mean girls.” She is empowering and inspiring those around her.

A girlboss knows that if you don’t have big dreams and goals, that you’ll end up working really hard for someone who does.

This speaks volumes to me. It is so true! It doesn’t focus on the differences that we are often compared with by society such a girly, sporty, glam, or butch. Those names are set aside and we’re allowed to be our individual selves and no matter if we like makeup or not, tight clothes or not, dresses and heels, or t-shirts and converse; we go after our goals, reach for the stars, and breakdown walls that do not belong.  We are Girl Bosses. This statement shuts down the stereotypes and lets us be accepting and empowering of all. It sets aside the Hollywood idea of the mean girl that puts others down in exchange for empowerment and support. It lets us be who we want and need to be to excel, find our happiness, and meet our goals.

Be this woman, make friends with this woman, support this woman. Be the Girl Boss and build other Girl Bosses around you because Girl Bosses are awesome and we need more of them just like you!

Find the card here: https://www.etsy.com/listing/526187802/girl-boss-card-boss-babe-boss-lady?ga_search_query=girl%2Bboss&ref=shop_items_search_4&crt=1

 

Women in Audio Engineering

During the first week of November, my alma mater, the DePaul University School of Music, held an 11-day music festival with numerous masterclasses, panel discussions, and concerts to commemorate the unveiling of its new Holtschneider Performance Center.  I was asked to take part in the panel discussion sponsored by the Sound Recording Technology department titled Women in Audio Engineering. The panel sought to bring to light the fact that although women are a minority in music production and audio engineering (according to Women’s Audio Mission, women make up five percent of all audio professions), there are many notable women contributing in these fields. In addition to highlighting the professional hurdles and triumphs faced by the all-female panel, the moderator, Tom Miller, Director of Sound Recording Technology at DePaul, also posed several important questions regarding how we, as an audio community, can strive to achieve parity in the future.

Highlighting a Few Amazing Women

Although women from every generation continue to forge ahead in our field, the hard reality of being only five percent of the industry means that women rarely have the privilege of meeting one another.  My hope with this post is that the accomplishments of the women I recently met at this panel can inspire and invigorate fellow female (as well as male and non-binary!) audio professionals from afar.

The women listed below are not affiliated with Boom Box Post or the opinions expressed in this blog post. The following bios were supplied to DePaul University by the panelists themselves:

Christine Schyvinck

Chris Schyvinck is Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer at Shure Incorporated, the world’s leading manufacturer of microphones and audio electronics. As the highest-ranking officer at the Company, she is one of a few women to hold an executive position in the pro audio industry. Her leadership has been integral to the steady growth and profitability of Shure.

During her tenure, Chris has led critical initiatives for the Company, including reducing material costs without sacrificing product quality, dramatically improving on-time delivery, and globalizing manufacturing operations. She joined Shure in 1989 as Quality Control Engineer. After several promotions, she moved into Process Engineering, becoming manager in 1997. In 1998, she was made Vice President of Corporate Quality.

Two years later, Chris was named Vice President of Operations, responsible for Corporate Quality, Procurement, Supply Chain, and the Company’s manufacturing facilities in Mexico and China. She was promoted to Executive Vice President in 2004 and directed the opening of Shure’s first manufacturing facility in China one year later.

In 2006, Chris was tapped to head the Global Marketing and Sales Division, assuming management of the Company’s Business Units in the Americas, Europe, Middle East/Africa, and Asia/Pacific regions as well as the strategic integration, marketing, sales, artist and public relations, technical support, and customer service functions. Sales increased by more than 78 percent during her ten-year period as Executive Vice President of GMS.

In 2015, she was designated Chief Operating Officer, and, in 2016, was appointed Shure President and CEO, becoming only the fourth such officer in the Company’s 90-year history.

Currently, Chris leads the Company’s eight divisions: Administration, Finance, Global Legal Services, Global Marketing and Sales, Human Resources, Information Technology, Operations, and Product Development.

She has a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the former Chairman of the Industrial Advisory Board for the School of Mechanical Engineering at UW-Madison. Chris recognized Shure as the perfect blend of her two passions (music and engineering) and rejected employment offers from larger manufacturers. While working at Shure, she completed her Master’s degree in Engineering Management from the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University and is currently seated on the Board of Industrial Advisors for that program.

Mary Mazurek

Mary Mazurek is an audio engineer, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and PhD candidate. Her audio broadcasts and recordings are regularly heard on WFMT, Chicago. She has worked with: the European Broadcast Union, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Steward Copland of the Police, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to name a few. She is a practicing media artist whose works have been exhibited in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. She is also a sought-after educator and is currently writing her Ph.D. dissertation, which concerns developing an epistemology of noise in music and art.

You may also read more about Mary’s journey in this adaptation of a speech she gave on September 12, 2018 at the Recording Academy Task Force On Diversity and Inclusion at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Marina Killion

Marina Killion is an accomplished audio engineer based in Chicago. She is currently the Senior Audio Engineer at Optimus, where she has worked since 2009. She does everything from sound design, dialog editing, Foley, ADR, to final mix. Marina has a background in classical music performance, and studied Sound Recording Technology at DePaul University. She has worked on many notable campaigns such as Chicago Blackhawks, UPS, Reebok, Always, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Invesco, and Olive Garden. She is currently mixing her third feature length independent film, and has previously mixed three documentaries, two web series, a television pilot, and many short films in addition to her commercial projects. Her work has been shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, Chicago Comedy Festival, Midwest Independent Film Festival, and many more. She also won a Silver Addy Award in 2014 for her work with the Eastern Board of Cherokee Indians.

Kate Finan

You all know me!  But, if you don’t, feel free to check out my bio here on our website.

Starting the Conversation

Because I found the panel’s questions to be incredibly thought-provoking, I wanted to share them with all of you so that you might think about your own answers and possibly engage with your peers on this important topic:

What can we do to attract women to the audio profession?

How can we support women in our industry?

What can we do to break down the “good old boy” perception of recording?

Resources

Finally, I am supplying a list of my favorite resources for women in the audio industry or for those who would like to support their female or non-binary peers.  Most of my suggestions are geared toward women in STEM, post-production, or animation since those are the areas in which I work. So please feel free to comment with any of your own suggestions for other areas of the audio industry.  Here they are in no particular order.

And don’t forget to join your professional organizations so that your voice can be heard at the highest levels of our industry!

 

Inspire the Next Generation

Why is it so weird for men to see women working in technical jobs in entertainment? Perhaps it’s the same weirdness as seeing a woman as a plumber or construction worker. Plain ol’ sexism. Beckie Campbell, owner of B4 Media Productions and Orlando Chapter head of SoundGirls, recently returned to Central Florida after being out on tour. We caught up at a local SG Social. Beckie observed that only 1 in 19 venues she visited had a woman in a position of power. Most venues had women working as techs in various positions, which she felt was becoming the norm. What is stopping women from taking the next step into a leadership position?

Women in entertainment have made some amazing headway, Audio Engineering Society announced Nadja Wallaszkovits as their President last year and Christine Schyvinck has been the CEO for Shure since 2016. The accomplishments of these women were based on dedication to their careers and support from their peers. Without that support, many women fall flat when trying to advance.

According to a study of Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television conducted by Dr. Martha Lauzen, “Overall, women accounted for 31% of individuals working in key behind-the- scenes positions. This represents a recent historic high, besting the previous high of 28% set in 2016-17.” The numbers for women working in audio-related positions on the top 250 grossing films of last year were far lower.

 

In other “non-traditional” professions, women still represent a larger portion of the workforce than in entertainment. Forty-five percent of all union members are women, according to the Teamsters Union (2016). Women as construction workers rank only 9.1% (Connley, 2019), and women as truck drivers come in at 6.2% (2018). Schillivia Baptiste emphasizes a strong point, similar to Christine Schyvinck’s keynote presentation at last year’s AVIXA Women’s Council Networking Breakfast.

“I think there is not enough introduction at the elementary and middle school grade age of what young girls can be,” says Baptiste, who links the industry’s scant female workforce to a lack of early exposure. “I think it starts there, and before you get to high school you’re choosing a high school that has something you want to study and then by the time you get to college you’re able to make a decision and say, ‘OK, this is what I want to do ’” (Connley, 2019).

Clearly it starts young. Girls are dressed in pink and boys in blue, and we give our children a predetermined place in life. Most of the women that I’ve met in audio and tech positions across the world have felt they existed outside the expectation that women should be homemakers and nurses, occupations that society accepts as female-appropriate. Empower your daughters, sisters, and nieces so they can have opportunities to learn and research whatever excites them.

Here are some great places to start educated the young women in your lives:

SoundGirls

SoundGirls Women in the Music Industry

Girls in STEM 2020 – NASA

National Girls Collaborative Project 

Girls Rock Camp Alliance

Women In Film Scholarship

References

Connley, Courtney. (2019, January 29). Just 9.1% of America’s construction workers are women—here’s what it’s like to be one of them. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/28/heres-what-its-like-to-be-a-woman-construction-worker.html.

Connley, Courtney. (2018, June 18). Just 6 percent of America’s truck drivers are women—here’s what it’s like. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/13/heres-what-its-like-to-be-a-woman-truck-driver.html.

Dr Lauzen, Martha. (2019, September). Boxed In 2018-19: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television. Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, San Diego State University.

Women In Unions, By The Numbers. (2016, March 29). Teamsters Union. Retrieved from https://teamster.org/news/2016/03/women-unions-numbers

 

 

How to Push your Sound Design to the Max

While Not Stepping on your Mixer’s Toes

We get a lot of questions about how much you should do in your sound design pass versus how much to leave to your mixer. So, although I’ve written a few posts on this topic (such as Whose Job Is It: When Plugin Effects Sound Design vs Mix Choices and Five Things I’ve Learned about Editing from Mixing), I thought it was time for another brush-up.

As some of you may know, I’m a long-time sound designer and supervising sound editor, but I just started mixing a few years ago. While attending mixes as a supervisor definitely gave me a window into best practices for sound design success (aka how to make sure your work actually gets played…audibly), I got a whole new vantage point for what to do (and not do) once I started having to dig through sound design sessions myself! So, while I am a fledgling mixer and you should always speak directly to the mixer working on your project before making decisions or altering your workflow, I feel that I am qualified to share my personal preferences and experiences. Take this as the starting point for a conversation—a window into one mixer’s mind, and hopefully, it will spark great communication with your own mixer.

Below, I’m sharing a few key concepts that there seems to be confusion surrounding in the “who does what” debate. I’ve personally come across these questions or situations, and I’m hoping to spare you the headache of doing any work over due to a lack of communication. Here they are!


EQ

What Not to Do

I was recently the supervisor and mixer on an episode that was almost entirely underwater. My sound effects editor EQ’ed every single water movement, splash, drip, etc. that occurred underwater with a very aggressive low-pass filter. While this made total sense from a realistic sound point of view, it completely demolished any clarity that we might have had and muddied up the entire episode. It was very hard to locate the sound effects in the space and even harder to get them to cut through the dialogue, more or less the music! Unfortunately, this was done destructively with audio-suite on every single file (and there were thousands of them probably). Every single one had to be recut by hand from the library, which was an insanely arduous task.

What to Do Instead

I’m going to say this once, and then please just assume that this is step one for everything below (I’ll spare you the boredom of reading it over and over): STEP ONE IS ALWAYS ASK YOUR MIXER BEFORE YOU START APPLYING ANY EQ.

I think you can safely assume that there’s, at best, an 80% chance that your mixer does not want you to EQ anything. Ever. So always ask before you destructively alter your work. With EQ’ing it’s especially important that the right amount is added given what else is happening in the scene, and clients often have opinions about how much is too much for their sense of clarity in the mix.

The better way to approach EQ is to ask your mixer (again, asking because this may require a change to their mix template which requires their approval) if it would work to place any FX that you think should be EQ’ed on a separate food group with no other FX mixed in. Having all underwater movements on one set of tracks clearly labeled UNDERWATER FX gives your mixer the ability to quickly EQ all of them with just a few keystrokes and knob turns. And then he or she can also very easily change that EQ to mesh well with the music and dialogue or to satisfy a client note. It also means that he or she can put all of those lovely water effects on one VCA and ride that if the clients ask for any global changes to the volume of water FX. Win-win!

The same is true for any batch EQ’ing of FX. I like the “split onto a separate food group of clearly labeled tracks” method for other things, too, like: action happening on the other side of a door or wall, sound effects coming from a TV or radio, or any other time that you would imagine EQ should be applied to a large selection of files. So yes, split it out to make it easy and obvious for your mixer, but no, don’t do it yourself.


Reverb

What Not to Do

Don’t add any environmental reverb. Just don’t do it. Keep in mind that your sound design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s layered on top of dialogue, music, BGs, ambiances, and probably more! What sounds right as a reverb setting to you while working only on your FX definitely won’t be the right choice once everything else has been placed in the mix.

What to Do Instead

Let your mixer decide. If you do it as an effect for one singular moment (I’m thinking something like a hawk screech to establish distance), only process individual files and also provide a clearly marked clean version in the track below. That way, your mixer has the option to use your version, or take it as an indication of what the clients like and redo it with the clean one. But before you go ahead and use reverb as an effect in your sound design, always check in with your supervisor first. He or she will be able to draw on all of their experience on the mix stage, and will be able to let you know if it’s a good idea or not. From my experience, the answer is that it’s almost always NOT a good idea.


Trippy FX

What Not to Do

Say you’re designing the sound for a super trippy sequence like the POV shot for a drugged up character. You may be tempted to add a phaser, some crazy modulation, or any other trippy overall effect to the whole sequence. Don’t do it! That takes all of the fun out of your mixer’s job, and furthermore really ties his or her hands. They need the ability to adjust any effects to also achieve mix clarity when the music and dialogue are added. So it’s always best to let them choose any overall effects!

What to Do Instead

Go for it with weird ambiences, off-the-wall sound choices, and totally different BGs to make it feel like you’re really inside the character’s head. Feel free to process individual files if you think it really adds something—just be sure to also supply the original muted below and named something obvious like “unprocessed.”


Panning

What Not to Do

Don’t spend hours panning all of your work without first speaking to your mixer. Your understanding of panning may be wildly different from what he or she can actually use in the mix. I’ve seen a lot of editors pan things 100% off-screen to the right or left, and I just have to redo all of it. Panning isn’t too difficult or complicated, but it’s really best to be on the same page as your mixer before you start.

What to Do Instead

Some mixers love it if you help out with panning, especially if they’re really under the gun time-wise. Others prefer you leave it to them—so always ask first. If you want to be sure that your spaceship chase sequence zooms in and around your clients during your FX preview, just make sure to ask your mixer first about his/her panning preferences. How far to the L/R do they prefer that you pan things? What about how much into the rears? Do they mind if you do it with the panning bars, or will they only keep it if you use the 5.1 panner/stereo pot?


LFE Tracks

What Not to Do

Don’t cut your LFE tracks while listening on headphones. You may not realize that what you’re putting in the LFE should actually go in our SFX track because it is low in pitch, but not in that rumble-only range. It’s nearly impossible to cut your LFE track without a subwoofer, since true LFE sweeteners in your library will look like they have a standard-sized waveform, but will sound like almost nothing in headphones!

What to Do Instead

Keep in mind that any files that live on the LFE tracks are going to be bused directly to the low-frequency effects generator which can output approximately 3- 120 Hz. That is super low!  So only cut sound effects that have only that frequency information in them, or that you only care to hear that part. Any other mid-range “meat” to the sound will be lost in the mix.