Monday, October 29, 2012

Audio Engineers: Between Musicians and Producers

Popping on your favourite album, you might begin to revel in the history of how that music was made.
This is how the normal daydream can sometimes go: A couple of friends decide to form a band. They practice in a basement or garage a couple of their favourite tunes before starting to write their own music. They get their first gig, then a few more, and maybe open for a much bigger name. They rent out proper jam space, beef up their gear, and begin to develop their sound. One night, they make a contact of someone who wants to produce their music and make an album.
After several months in the studio, with the band rocking their hearts out and the producer shaping their sound, style and image, the much-anticipated album is released. Now it's got a permanent spot on your mp3 player.
This formula is most likely an over-simplification; although there must be some cases in musical history that somewhat resemble this story. But there is one player missing from this equation.
We've mentioned the musicians, and we've talked a bit about the producer, but the figure who brings together the band's sound and the producer's vision is the audio engineer.
During that time spent in the recording studio, the audio engineer is indispensable. These people are highly trained and skilled individuals who have spent years learning their crafts in audio engineering school and beyond. But what exactly is the role of the audio engineer as opposed to the producer?
The biggest distinction is that, while the producer, along with the musicians, agrees on how they want their music to sound, it is up to the audio engineer to achieve that specific sound. For this, one must have a much larger technical expertise than the producer. While both need a good ear, and imagination, for sound, the audio engineer knows how to tweak the analog, digital, and other recording parameters to turn the audio into that sound.
Some of an audio engineer's areas of expertise surrounding a recording session are:
- Microphones: what kind of microphones, how to position the microphones, the use of microphone filters, shields and screens, etc. 
- Space: the size and shape of the room, the level of padding on the walls, how many musicians can play together in the same room, etc? 
- Instruments: knowing the difference between digital and analog instruments, recording them with microphones or running the signal through wires, etc. 
- Performer: style of singing and style of playing, setting up monitors for the performers to hear themselves while recording, capturing the specifics of their unique sound, etc.

These four things form the basic setup for the audio engineer before going into much more technical work throughout the recording and post-mixing processes. Learning these fundamentals are some of the first things taught in audio engineering classes.
While everything still starts and ends with the musicians, and the producer certainly does have a very important role, it is up to the audio engineer to truly bring together all that talent, technique and professionalism that results in a fantastic sound and amazing music.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Look Inside Music Recording Through MIDI Technology

How and when music first came to be part of our culture is a long and lengthy discipline. What was the first distinction between noise and music? When did poems begin to be recited to melodies and become transformed into songs? How has music been preserved and passed on beginning with oral traditions, then written score, and finally, to the more technologically-dependent medium of sound recording? From the rhythmic and repetitive pounding of percussion of more primitive music styles, to the theoretically complex arrangements of full orchestras in classical music, to the lo-fi raw energy of garage rock, music has a complex and diverse evolution.
One of the most recent developments in music technology is MIDI, which stands for musical instrument digital interface. It is first a tool for of both music composition and recording. It is simultaneously an instrument in itself as well as a device for controlling other instruments. It is part of the digital medium of using information about sounds instead of actual analog sounds. Finally, it is an interface connecting instruments with computers. Because of this final point, MIDI is very prevalent in today's electronic music scene, such as house and techno music, but can also be used as a tool to compose and experiment with broader classical arrangements.
In today's music recording scene, MIDI provides many new advantages that were previously unheard of. One advantage is that it allows a single person, or very few people, to simultaneously play and control many instruments. This is possible because a MIDI controller operates in a daisy-chain, meaning that one controlling device can link through many other slave devices in a long series of information exchange. This gives the individual the chance to compose multi-instrumental music without needing other musicians or pre-recorded tracks. This creates the possibility for expanding the live performance of a single individual.
Stage for Experiments
Another advantage with MIDI is the ability to experiment with different sounds in the early composition stages. A musician can write the melodies and chord progressions with one instrument and sound, and then instantly shift those notes onto other sounds. Doing this over and over can let the musician hear the melody played through many different sounds and instruments in a short time so as to help him hear and decide which sounds best.
Extended Reach
A third advantage of MIDI is that it creates new opportunities for musicians to share music and collaborate regardless of proximity. A MIDI musician can send the digital information of his MIDI track to a collaborator via the internet. This is not sending a recording, but information that is easily replicated and manipulated while always preserving the core values of a musical track, like the melody, notation and time signature.
Learning about music still requires an understanding of the basics of theory and much practice for performance. But music production training has certainly expanded its scope with the advent of MIDI technology.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Beginner's Guide to Audio Engineering Lingo

Words have meaning. Words are also first formed with sounds, before writing and other visual representations of words. The exact relationship between sounds and the words we use to define and describe them is sometimes very straight-forward, other times a bit more obscure.
Nobody would hesitate to understand my meaning if I describe an ambulance siren as loud, or a bass line in a techno track as deep. These are easy because adjectives like "loud" or "deep" refer to easily assignable parameters like volume and pitch.
Other sounds can be described through adjectives that refer to the way we process them-in other words, our attitudes towards them.
For example, I could describe a lone trumpet as sounding sad or the continuous yelp of a little dng as annoying. These adjectives are mostly subjective, and requires the human capacity of symbolic interpretation to give them relevant meaning.
But what about adjectives that attempt to give more objective definitions of sounds beyond the basics of loudness or tone that most of us readily understand?
Experts in sound design have a language of their own to give meaning to sounds that are somewhat above our everyday understanding of these adjectives. Since audio engineers need to get much more specific when communicating the qualities of sounds, they have their own special lingo.
Here is a beginners list of some sound adjectives that one would become familiar with in audio production college. How many of them do you already know?
- Bright: High frequency sounds that are also very clear. They are perceived as being lighter and happier in mood.
- Cold: This sound lacks a certain completeness in terms of a wide range between high and low frequencies-in other words, without much middle range. It is very sibilant (hissy). It is perceived as edgier, and not very comforting.
- Dark: Like cold, but lacking the hissing quality. It produces an effect as if the sound is distant, and can be quite melancholy or even foreboding.
- Dry: Technically, this sound has no decay, meaning it cuts out abruptly without any trace of reverb or echo. I sounds like it is played in a very small, padded room.
- Fat: Somewhat the opposite of a dry sound, this quality lets the sound expand (fatten) after it is initially heard.
- Punchy: A sound with a high level of attack, meaning its full force is heard instantly with no delay. It is also a bit dark.
- Tight: It is opposed to a fat sound in that it does not expand much before or after it hits (no attack or delay).
- Warm: Strong in the mid-range, thus not too high or low. It has a reverb to it as if being played in a larger, and more natural room.
- Wet: A good deal of a sibilant quality and lots of reverb. This sound has a strong decay, which means it dies away slowly.
With thorough ear and audio training, these words describing sound can easily become a second language.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Film School in Canada Versus DIY Productions

Technology is such today that it is possible to shoot a feature-length film on one's cellphone, as one Montreal-based independent filmmaker, Christos Sourligas, recently did. But if filmmaking is becoming more accessible, do aspiring filmmakers still have to bother with film school in Canada? (This is a question that could also be posed for other related fields of study, such as audio school and DJ courses in Canada.)
1) At film school, students can experiment with the school equipment before investing in their own.
Not all graduates of film school in Canada will be following in Sourligas's low-tech footsteps and shooting films on their phones. Many will want access to more sophisticated equipment, of the kind that it is hard to afford at the beginning of one's career. It can be a wise decision to start one's career with student films, while one has unfettered access to school facilities.
2) Film school in Canada can help aspiring filmmakers navigate the tricky public sector financing system with potentially greater ease.
If you are even considering attending film school in Canada, then chances are that you are going to need to get a handle on the public funding available to aspiring filmmakers in this great country of ours.
Even more so than for students destined for audio school or for DJ courses in Canada, students seeking to attend film school in Canada need to understand the ins-and-outs of such public sector initiatives as:
- the Canadian Feature Film Fund, which helped bring Bon Cop, Bad Cop to the big screen. 
- the Canadian Film of Video Production Tax Credit (CPTC), which is a labour force tax break for Canadian-made productions.

3) Film school can help prospective Canadian filmmakers identify public sector funding sources earlier in the game.
Yes, graduates of film school in Canada who go on to make movies need to know how to navigate the public sector. But that is not all. They will also likely need to know how to secure private sector funding. Who can they turn to when they need capital? This is the kind of question that cinema professors, who have experience in the industry, may be able to answer.
4) Make connections within the industry.
Most graduates of audio school or film school in Canada come to realize that, to a certain extent, it really does matter who you know. Film is a collaborative art form, and an expensive one at that. It takes teamwork, and you want to be sure that you have a strong professional network with members with whom you would be proud to collaborate. This may even be all the more true in Canada, where our film industry has to constantly fight for its continued existence, faced with stiff competition from the south.
5) For easy access to information about festivals.
At any film in school in Canada, students are provided with information on the festival circuit, student competitions, etc. Although one can access this information on one's own, it is nice to have it provided!
Whether you choose to go it on your own, or to apply to film school in Canada, bon cinema!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Canadian Teens Prepare for Careers in Audio and Film Production

Career counseling often starts in high school. In career orientation sessions, students are asked to reflect on their future careers, and the choices that they will have to make to get where they want in life. Students aiming for sound technology, cinema or film school in Canada are well advised to start this reflection as early as in their high school years to take full advantage of all of the related courses and activities that their secondary schools offer.
Knowing that you are headed for audio school, for example, can even influence your choice of high school. Some schools offer introductory sound engineering classes and clubs, where students can discover the field, while helping the school community, for instance, by working for the student radio station or helping with sound in the auditorium for talks and for theatrical or musical performances.
Music rooms in today's schools no longer contain only the tambourines of yesteryear. They are rigged up with microphones and sound systems that require student involvement. A good way to prepare for audio school is to get involved in your high school's music or drama department.
Students aiming to take DJ courses in Canada may want to make their choice of high school accordingly. Does their high school have an in-house radio station, like École St-Louis and Westmount High School in Montreal? Does it have a tradition of sparking school spirit by participating in move dub competitions, like Collège Regina Assumpta in Montreal? Are students invited to DJ at school dances? These are important questions for students headed for audio school in any province.
Similarly, students aiming to attend film school in Canada may want to start their cinematic explorations while still at the high school level. Some schools, like the Etobicoke School of Arts in Toronto, have entire programs and curricula dedicated to film and film production.
Aspiring filmmakers may want to find out if their high school encourages students to participate in the same competitions that they might eventually contemplate at film school in Canada, for example Montreal's M60 60 second film festival or Toronto's YoungCuts.
But in the case where your high school does not have an audio school club, or any film or DJ possibilities, it may be possible to create them. Students can consult with teachers in the music and drama department, or with members of student counsel. They may be able to create partnerships with other institutions that do have the necessary equipment or facilities (for example, partner with a local theatre or drama school as Montreal's École St-Louis does with Le Gésu and the National Theatre School).
There is more than one way for a high schooler to prepare for audio school or other specialized multimedia studies. All it takes is a willingness to do the research and to propose changes, where necessary.