Smile – You’re on camera!

The year 2012 has already been full of new experiences and ventures. The annual Christmas lull in my work calendar spurred me to finally start promoting my songs online. With that came plans. Plans to sort out a decent set of photos. And maybe some live videos. And of course to finish my new album. I am the kind of guy that could tweak and layer my music forever, but at some point a line has to be drawn.

Well, if you’ll excuse a momentary self-congratulatory tone, I am feeling rather proud this week. In less than 6 months I have ticked all the check boxes above. My online profiles are gathering followers week by week – thank you all so very much! My photo-shoot was awesome and the feedback has been just as positive. The videos were shot last week; read on for more details about this. And the album is ready to trickle onto the internet, in streaming form only for the time being. I need to look into publishing options, but this is on the check list for the second half of 2012.

My ramblings today will focus on the photo and video shoot.

The photo shoot:

My experiences in front of a camera had until recently extended no further than the norm. Namely, holiday shots, drunken nights out, family events and so forth. None professional, almost as few aesthetically pleasing! So for time to be dedicated to taking pictures of me and only me was an odd experience to say the least.

Luckily, the photo-shoot was being conducted by a long term friend of mine, so nerves were lessened and the whole event felt comfortable and casual. My studio was used as the venue, so again one fewer abnormality to deal with. In spite of the friendly faces and setting, it was a ropey start. The first run of pictures came out either completely black, or black with a ghostly, inhuman presence lurking mid-frame, all because of technical “acclimatisation”. This would have unsettled me were it not a hidden blessing. The occasional picture that did coalesce revealed a face that had been struck with a severe case of rigor mortis, immediately after some unexplained but worrying trauma. I was taken aback by the lifeless demon that had taken residence. The creature was smiling, but the smile was not of this earth, nor were his intentions clear. Like the fears of a remote African tribe, my incongruous, camera shy soul had been stolen. And I didn’t want him back, thank you very much!

But time is a healer, as they say. Or more to the point, after an while I somewhat eased into the whole thing and became less aware of the camera click-click-clicking away at odd angles around my light-box-lit visage. And from this point onwards I started looking human again. A victory for relaxation or perhaps apathy, either way we were getting results.

Reviewing the raw hi-def photos was akin to hearing the guide vocal on an audio recording. With no effects or editing to smooth out those human edges, they were a little hard to view. Especially the bad ones. Those where I was caught mid-speaking, with eyes-half-closed. Pictures that make even the most sober moments look like I have been partying like it was 1999. But there were good shots in there, and fortunately my cameraman needed only a few waves of the Photoshop magic wand to make the chosen few shine. Or so he says. I have very little idea how these things work.

The Video Shoot:

Same setup, same place, only this time we were there to shoot videos of me playing some songs, live and acoustic. Not only was this my first time being filmed, it was in fact the first time I had recorded live to tape in years. As a producer I have grown accustomed to multi-tracking my work and all the inherent securities this entails, so the audio side of the recording was perhaps providing me more nerves than the visual side. This of course may have played to my advantage.  I wasn’t thinking too much about the camera from the start and instead focused on what I was doing, looking at my guitar or straight ahead.

The setup was fun, surrounding myself with a large comfort blanket of paraphernalia, also known as my guitars, amps and miscellaneous musical toys. I tried not to be too picky about what was in shot, leaving that to the cameraman. My perfectionist nature is all consuming it would seem!

Indeed, I had to fight this predisposition throughout the day. Our recording setup was spartan. One camera and a few mics, recorded to separate channels on the computer, so at least I have editing options on the sound to ensure a decent level between guitar and vocal. The plan was to shoot each song in full, then use cutaways to mask jolty sections in the video when the cameraman moved to another angle. I wanted a full take of each song, so the audio syncs up perfectly with the performance. Whether this works as planned is yet to be seen, but the signs are promising from the raw video.

Hearing the takes back, my producer ear was burning. The songs are live, with me playing guitar and singing simultaneously. As such, they are not ‘perfect’. Of course they aren’t. I strive for perfect takes when recording tracks from the ground up as full productions, so I had to quell my desire for “one more take”. Such an option does not exist at a live venue, so I should get used to this and naturally use it as a boot-up-the-backside to get better and better performing this way. On the plus side, a couple of friends have heard the audio already and had nothing but good things to say. Perhaps I am being unduly critical – what am I saying – of course I am being unduly critical, it is my M.O.!

The first of the videos should be sorted in the next few weeks. Assuming they come out well enough, I hope to post them online over the summer to expand the portfolio. Fingers well and truly crossed!

 

Holy Volume, Batman!

I finally got round to watching Inception, the big budget film from Christopher Nolan that was to prove to the world his isn’t Batman’s Bitch.

Well, first and foremost, point made and then some – bravo Mr Nolan! A fantastic film which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am a Hollywood sceptic of recent years. I actually cannot remember the last time went to the cinema. Not without reason and like many others, I begrudge paying the going rate for tickets when the DVD/Bluray will cost roughly the same and can sit on my shelf forever. Yes – The cinema is infinitely better for screen size, audio hit and that “X” factor that comes from making a film the centre of one’s evening. Alas, I was stung one too many times by films whose trailers promised so very much, yet on the day delivered so very little.

I’ll take content over pizzazz please. Both is also fine. You can CGI the crap out of a badly acted, badly scripted film. It will still want to make me throw my popcorn in rage. I never do, of course, having just spent half a month’s rent on the oversized box of sugar-coated naughtiness.

But sticking to the positive, I was truly enamoured by all aspects of this film. It was original. It was slick, but remained human. The acting was balanced and believable, despite the premise’s grandeur and unashamed sci-fi silliness. Heck, I bought it hook line and sinker and came away with that glow one gets from a really good piece of art.

I also liked it because I won my own little game. The game where I guess the film music composer without looking. It wasn’t too obvious, but the militaristic rumblings and horns were enough to give it away. Mr Hans Zimmer, on fine form, with a playful, minimalist bent in place, perfectly complimenting the oddness on screen.

Sound was on my mind that night. I was watching the film late. 2am late (“Nighthawk” wasn’t chosen just because it makes me sound like a naff 60’s superhero!) As such, my daywalker flatmate was sound asleep. He is a heavy sleeper, but even so I had to watch the film with the amplifier controller close to hand. It appears that film soundtracks are getting more and more dynamic. The explosions are getting louder, while the whispery dialogue and accompanying soft-strings are getting softer. (Side note: I always want to offer Christian Bale a lozenge ever time he speaks in “Batman voice”… the poor chap.) This is no bad thing; dynamics are good! Assuming of course one isn’t concerned about waking one’s flatmate, the neighbours, and half the local populace when shit goes down of a sudden on screen.

It is both odd and interesting how the mastering of audio in popular music is getting louder and less dynamic year on year, while conversely film audio is becoming more dynamic. There is something called the “loudness race” which us geeky music producer types reference whenever sound levels on mastered audio is brought up. There is plenty on google to feast upon if this is of interest to you, and it really should be. Ignorance of this issue is a large part of why it managed to get so bad in the first place. But the gist of the issue is thus: Commercial music is getting louder, as the available digital headroom is getting soaked up by more and more compression and limiting, to use up every last decibel. But this is not better – just louder. Louder music “kicks” more from speakers and so sounds “bigger” than its peers, side by side. It is a sonic slap round the chops. Until of course the next record comes out and is louder still. This is to the detriment of dynamics. If everything is loud, nothing is.

As you can imagine, audiophiles are not fans. We like dynamics. Loud to be loud, soft to be soft, and everything in between having its rightful place. Music is not just about the notes. It is about the attack, sustain and decay of these notes. Pianissimo is little more than a quaint notion in modern pop music.

Here is a good quote from the interwebs, from a rather decent article worth your attention:

“This dynamic limiting both tires the ears and makes instruments sound worse, turning bright drums into dull thuds and letting small details get lost in a blaring wash of sound. But because of the need to stand out on radio and other platforms, there’s a strategic advantage to having a new song sound just a little louder than every other song. As a result, for a period, each new release came out a little louder than the last, and the average level of loudness on CDs crept up to such a degree that albums actually sounded distorted, as if they were being played through broken speakers.”

(Source : www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/07/the-loudness-wars-is-musics-noisy-arms-race-over/242293/#)

And yet, in the world of film, dynamics are winning the race.

I feel it is largely due to methods of consumption. Music is more and more consumed in the car, on a tube train, via Youtube on laptop speakers… (excuse me while I go scream in anger out the window!!) Whereas film will forever be primarily a sit down and focus exercise. It demands our attention aurally and visually. Furthermore a direct side by side is not of concern with film. Our iTunes playlists are (too often) set to random, so bands want to stand out when their song is selected by the gods of the algorithm. One doesn’t tend to watch films on “shuffle”. But let’s not get into the topic of shuffle; that is one for a future rant no doubt!

I haven’t put anything to rights here. I do hope I have raised a few eyebrows about some audio topics that effect us all.  That would be enough for now.