Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Geoffrey Holder's Inspiration

Recently, the Tony Award-winning Dancer, Choreographer, Set Designer, Director, Costume Designer, Painter, Lecturer, Composer, Writer, Singer, and Actor Geoffrey Holder passed away at the age of 84.  Yes, that’s a rather long list of titles, and these are only the ones I had direct experience with. 

I was fortunate to have spent many years working with Geoffrey, both in music and in the written word.  Geoffrey and I had completely opposite creative processes, which is probably why we made such a good team.  I tend to have a more linear and logical approach to creativity (often to a fault) whereas Geoffrey had…well…I would describe it as more of the “butterfly” approach – grabbing little bits of ideas here, there, and everywhere, and throwing them into a pot to come up with a good stew. 

Generally speaking, my contribution to the process was to take these disconnected pieces out of the stratosphere and impart at least some kind of order to them so the end product wouldn’t be too incoherent to the audience.  It made me realize that while he needed some of my order, I certainly needed some of his “butterfly” so my creations wouldn’t be too rigid, structured, and ultimately flat.

You never knew what was going to happen when you were around Geoffrey.  I once even found myself dining with him, Pierre Cardin, and the heir to the French Throne, Louis Bourbon, at the U.S. Consulate in Paris.  Geoffrey was so beloved there that we couldn’t even walk down the Champs-Elysees without being stopped every few feet by admirers telling him how much they loved his work.

But mostly I remember spending time with him while he painted.  It’s not often you get to watch a painter practice his or her craft, as it tends to be done under solitary circumstances, but he said he liked to paint with people around because it inspired him. 

Inspiration – that’s what his life was all about.  There were very few (if any) areas of the arts in which he didn’t participate at some point.  Everything he saw, read, heard, or experienced was for him a source of inspiration to be stored in a bottomless repository and one day drawn upon in some way to create something.

In every lecture I heard him give, he stressed that we should never lose our ability to see the world as if through the eyes of a child, because to a child everything is new, interesting, and inspiring.

Too often, those of us who make a living in the arts forget this.  We forget that it is inspiration that drives the art, and that inspiration is all around us all the time.

Geoffrey never forgot this, and his endless inspiration inspired everyone around him.

-Dave Hab

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lipstick on a Musical Pig

It's easy to be seduced by technology, especially when it involves creating music. After all, almost every new computer comes with some program for combining sounds into patterns. I can't dispute that fooling around with sounds is fun, in fact, I've done it all my life. But confusing patterns of sound with actual music is a mistake that media professionals would do well to avoid.

We get lots of demos at Omnimusic. There are thousands of people - perhaps tens of thousands - who aspire to write music for film and television, and that number grows with each new computer sold. As a major supplier to the industry and one of the few production music companies that shares royalties with our composers, we are besieged with requests from new composers to include their music in our catalogs. 

We listen to everything, of course, because as a composer who started out knocking on doors looking for work, I feel an obligation to give everyone a chance. And we do find some extraordinary talents, as our customers know. But more and more we find ourselves listening to tracks that lack a creative underlying musical idea.

It's that core idea - that musical "seed" or "motif" or "hook" or whatever you want to call it - that's is absolutely essential to make a piece of music work. It's the foundation on which the entire piece is constructed. So if the original idea isn't really that good, no amount of technological wizardry or bells and whistles will make it better, more interesting, or, most important - have any impact on an audience.
And that's where it counts. Great music can make an good video better. But combinations of beats and sounds that lack a creative underlying musical idea can make a good video mediocre. It's that simple.  Patterns of sounds may fill the spaces in your voice-over, but you're cheating yourself out of the most powerful and cost-effective production tools you have: real music that touches your audience.
A note to composers: The easiest test to find out if you've actually got a piece of music or not is Can you play it on the piano?  If the answer is no, then it may be premature to put on the musical lipstick.

 - Doug Wood

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Repetition Repetition

When my daughter was younger, if I said or did anything cool or interesting she would yell, “Again again again!”  You had to be really careful what you said and did, as you’d better be prepared to repeat it 87 times in a row.  Now that my kids are teenagers, I’m no longer cool or interesting, so this is no longer a problem.

The Teletubbies tapped into this brilliantly in their TV show by showing their video pieces twice.  They’d play a video about something, and all the Teletubbies, just like my daughter, would scream “again!” and they’d play it again.  Of course, this meant you only had to make half a TV show (smart move,) but the kids loved it.  I’m guessing they couldn’t quite process the whole thing the first time around and wanted to see it again.

While repetition has its place in the musical pantheon, we try to avoid too much of it.  Psycho-acoustically speaking, if something repeats long enough without change, the brain tends to ignore it as silence.  Take, for instance, white noise.  Various machines are sold which produce white noise to help block out background noise and enable people to sleep in noisy environments.  This works because the brain treats the constant sound as if it were silence, and the white noise (being, in theory, a combination of all sonic frequencies in the way white light is a combination of all light frequencies) covers a wide variety of sounds.

The problem is, this works in music too.  Without some kind of changes in the music, the brain gets bored and tunes it out.  I suppose that in some applications, this might be desirable, but it doesn’t seem to be what most of our clients are looking for.

Many video editors like to cut their video to music, rather than adding music in after the video is done.  In order to do this, you’re going to want to have some music that shifts gears throughout, or your video is probably going to end up a bit flat.

Since we come from video backgrounds, it’s an issue we’re well aware of here, and one we try to avoid when producing our music tracks.  Also, I bore (sonically) very easily, which turns out to be an asset as a producer.

When my daughter was younger…wait, I already said that…

-Dave Hab

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Future is Immobile

In the not-too-distant future, the idea of spinning a piece of plastic around while shining a light on it to play music will seem as ridiculous as the idea of records does to the current generation of youths who, when presented with the idea of how that works, responds with “You did WHAT?” accompanied by a blank stare that indicates a complete lack of comprehension as to why anyone would do something so utterly silly as scratch a piece of plastic with a needle to listen to music.

The technology trend today is toward non-moving parts (which seems to be the case with most of us humans as well.)  Not only music players, but complete hard drives are being made of memory chips instead of spinning discs.  This evolution toward the non-moving is inevitable, of course, as there is less to wear out, no problems with skipping or crashing the reading head into the disk, etc.

Ironically, this immobility has led to increased mobility of devices, as you can now work out on your trampoline while juggling your iDevices, and you won’t have any problems, where in the early days of portable CD players, if you so much as looked at them the wrong way, they would skip to a completely random place on the disc.

In the production music library business, the move is also away from CDs and toward searching and downloading online tracks.  The benefits of this are obvious - being able to search for the track you need and download it immediately is a huge savings in time and energy, for one thing.  No longer do you have to dig through mountains of CDs to find what you're looking for.

To pull this off, though, you need a good search system.  Of course, in order to make this search system effective, you need good metadata.  Metadata is what we call all of the information associated with a track of music: title, composer, description, tempo, keywords, etc. 

Here at Omni, we’ve seen this trend coming for quite some time now, and have spent the last few years completely overhauling our metadata system accordingly.  The more complete (and more relevant) the keywords and descriptions associated with the tracks are, the better your search results will be.

So one somewhat-hidden element to watch out for when choosing a library is how good their metadata is.  Unfortunately, you may not find out until the deadline looms and you just can’t find that track you’re looking for.

Non-moving parts is a great concept for a machine, but a non-moving project is generally frowned upon by those paying for it.

-Dave Hab

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Happy Trails, Pete!

I had never met Pete Seeger before the day he came into my studio to do some recording - an unassuming man with his signature banjo, but with a presence that couldn’t be missed.  He was quiet and humble, but deeply interested in everyone.  Pete loved people and believed in people.  He also believed that music had the power to change the world, and in his case, it did.  Songs like “Turn Turn Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” were messages for peace, and “We Shall Overcome” remains, to this day, the anthem of the civil rights movement.  Indeed, he changed the world through his music.

I had the honor of performing with Pete once.  Backstage, while we were warming up, Pete couldn’t stop playing. He just loved jamming with us, and it didn’t matter whether anyone was there to listen or not – he genuinely loved music, even after all those years of being deeply immersed in it.  But to watch this quiet man take control of the stage and interact with the audience was quite something.  He loved nothing more than getting the audience to participate.  I guess he felt this was an essential ingredient to music’s power to change – engaging the listener on more than a superficial level.

No one involved in music can deny its power – it’s part of the reason we got into the music business to begin with.  Its power can be used for many things, but in Pete’s case, he used it for making the world a better place.  The world could use a lot more people like him, and he will be dearly missed.

So long, Pete.  You did what you set out to do.

-Dave Hab