Music is Not Wallpaper
Music is, you know, you're thinking like okay, music will help make this better. Music will make this boring thing more interesting. Music will, you know give me pace where there is none. Or will help magically resolve my writing issues. And it's just, we know that that's not the case, right? We know that ultimately music working in service of the story, you know, you can work wonders with it. But music where you're hoping for it to fix everything is... you've skipped several problems that should have been resolved before you got to that point. So what is music's role in the podcast? I mean it can impart a rhythm to the story. It can lend gravitas, it can manipulate the listener. Think about a favorite song of yours and what a shortcut that song is to certain emotions for you, right? So it does create that emotional relationship, but it's something to be aware of that you're creating it right? It's got this kind of background, dialogue with the listener, it's playing on their tastes an...
d prejudices, if they don't like a certain kind of music, you can be sure that they might not feel like, this story is for them. And then, you know, it also gives us, and this is one thing that I really like to do, is kind of creates this concept of like motifs. Or of, you know, if you're thinking back to opera and, you know, this music associated with this voice or, you know, or this idea. You know I don't always hit on that as much as I'd like to. You know, give me another week to do every mix and I will nail it. But, you know at the same time it is something that's great to strive for. And it's just great to think of your music as like, okay, this is really helping me out when we're talking about the theme of injustice or we're talking about the theme of, you know this kid growing up and living in a certain situation, right? So we can kind of associate it with them. It can also be easy to paste music into the timeline and add a sense of pace that wasn't there before. I like the metaphor of it can be like steroids. It can artificially pump up something in a way that just is incongruent with the work. And the challenge is to really use it as purposefully as possible. I say as judiciously and maybe as sparingly as possible when the opportunity arises. I'm hoping that the writing is so good, that it's left spaces for the music. And that, you know the music can rise to those occasions. So let's do, I just want to, in Pro Tools do a little demo. Okay, you can hear this music that I used. You've heard a little bit already.
Jim was nine years old when his dad and four other black families bought 80 acres in the flood way. Jim's dad was a sharecropper and a tenant farmer. He'd moved around the south looking for a place with more opportunity and less racism. In most places no white landowners would sell
And one thing I'm gonna do here, too, is just you're hearing these voices kind of unmixed. I mean I've done that ballpark leveling with the clip game bringing it up from it's static original point. But I did a little bit of EQ, a little bit of compression on every voice. We're also using something called a de-esser to remove, you know, extremely sibilant, takes out the S's. If you overuse it, it can turn someone into someone with a lisp. (snickers) So you want to avoid that, too much de-ething. (class laughs) And...
How does a town wind up in the middle of a flood way? Deborah's dad, Jim Robinson, was there when it happened. It was early in the 1940s.
So if you do an A/B listen, it's gonna be a subtle change, but it's gonna be this kind of like subtle regulation of the levels. Getting things in a nice dynamic range. Nice level zone and, you know possibly some corrective EQ. I'm really taking out a minimal amount of what, you know, we call that kind of nasal area in Patrick, but I also felt like this mic was a really good match for him. He's kind of a soft spoken guy, so I thought, okay, that mic that we used, which is a KSM-32 from Shure, just works great for him. The other voice in the story, the other reporter voice, I thought I've got two different mics to choose, I use the one for her that's a little less sensitive. She's got kind of more of a mid-rangey voice. So maybe living a little bit higher than Patrick's of course because it's a woman's voice versus a man's voice. So that microphone just partnered really nicely with her and again that microphone was my EQ choice to some extent. So I didn't have to do as much equalization because of what I knew the microphone would handle. So let's pull these up. Okay, so you've heard it with this sort of double base section music that I created.
Families bought 80 acres in the flood way. Jim's dad was a...
Okay, let's try it with a, just something different. (string music)
How does a town wind up in the middle of a flood way? Deborah's dad, Jim Robinson, was there when it happened. It was early in the 1940s. He told the story to a traveling state historian 20 years ago.
This is what you would call virgin land. It'd be three big timber giants.
So, you know this music kind of worked well for me in sort of explaining the hardship. But he's going off into this place talking about the timber and what the land was like at this specific time. And it just, while I made this music for the piece I felt like it responded much better to, okay, that you know, government injustice and this kind of broader theme that's in the story. As opposed to the people of Pinhook, you know? So I was just thinking what's something that's a little more delicate, a little more inviting, and that's kinda how I landed on the string music. Now let me see if I can pull up another, you know this is mostly music composed for this show, so it's not, you know it's not diverse in terms of its instrumentation. I mean I think more so than it could be, but it's not like I've got some electronic music happening here. Even though it's all happening in the electronic realm and a lot of it is synthesized. You know, and going for the feel of like real instruments. And I don't want people to think of it as like a synthesized thing. Where often would reveal I am kind of edging toward that more contemporary sound. This is... (dramatic music)
How does a town wind up in the middle of a flood way? Deborah's dad, Jim Robinson, was there when it happened. It was early in the 1940s, he told the story to a traveling state historian 20 years...
I also feel like if I were going to use music like this. I would probably want to stretch Patrick out a little like break up his narration a little bit because there are beats and rhythms in the music that are fighting with him the whole time. So again like that's another thing where the music that's like do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do like there is built in space into that. Where this type of music is, okay, more of a punctuation to something that was just said. Which is a way that I love to use music on the show. We're doing journalism, so with that in mind, I don't want the listener to feel super manipulated through the experience and like the music is leading them into places that certainly not into places that I don't want them to go, but also just places that aren't true to the story. Sometimes we've underscored some of the actualities and just decide, okay you know what, we're just going to push this later, it's gonna respond to what you've just heard. Or you know another thing that can work really well is for you to, you know, basically like creep up the music underneath. This American Life does this a lot. And they'll land on what's called a post You know some phrase that's going to take the lead. It's almost like a relay race, right? Like this track is done, it hands it off to the next one. It's like something, for them it can often be like a like a cheeky commentary on what you just heard or it can be something highly emotional and they do it really well. But they're very fixated on when does music start and enter. When does a phrase happen? When does music disappear, too? Like that's such a powerful tool as well because what you do, when you take music out, works a lot better with a like a clear ending, clear cadence as opposed to fading out. But what you can do then is you place so much importance on the next thing that's gonna be said. Cause the listener is like, okay, the music's gone, what's next? Or the music dropped out and we hear another phrase from somebody, like, that's when the shark ate me. You're staying around for the rest of that podcast. (class laughs) So when music works, the tempo can be a match. I think we heard how the tempo wasn't really a match In a couple of those other queues. It's not too busy, it imagines a place for the voice. That we go somewhere with this material. You know I think that that's... If it's just static, like think about how long you can rest on a certain phrase without it getting repetitive, annoying, you know and identifiable to the listener, right? So I'm, we tend to think in musical phrases all the time. You know, you, how many people here are, I'm a musician or I've played music, I've done music in my life? Gosh, most of you, that's awesome. So, you know what it is to tap along with something. To hear a four bar phrase and then to know that after those four bars, something new can happen, right? Or there's a change in the music or there's an addition. So one of the things that I'll kind of move towards here is looking at how you can create that in the material. But also we'll look at, kinda how you can tear apart you know, music if it's produced for you in a certain way. But it's, when it works it's kind of relying on a number of these different kind of ideas.