Study Hall

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On Being Bilingual: Speaking The Languages Of Sound And Music

Remember, it's not “us versus them" but rather “we're working together for the best result."

The story goes that while recording the song “Eleanor Rigby” for the Beatles’ album Revolver, the classical string musicians were very put off by how close the microphones were to their instruments – this was not how it was done, after all.

Normally, zone mics were positioned above orchestras or chamber ensembles to capture the blend of these professional players and their priceless instruments.

But that’s not what the Beatles and producer/arranger George Martin wanted. Since the song was about loneliness, they were looking for a starker, dryer sound to help tell the story of the song, and the mic technique derived from that vision.

I got to thinking about this recently when revisiting Jonah Altrove’s article on prosody, where he covered the concept of using the musical arrangement and the quality of sound itself to underscore (so to speak) the message of the lyrics. Interestingly enough, many people who know “Eleanor Rigby” have never stopped to notice that only strings are under the voices, and how it separates that song from nearly anything else in the pop genre from the 1960s. (It was, after all, the decade of the guitar!)

Clearly, though, Martin and the Beatles were able to get the musicians on board, and the result is one of the best songs from that – or any – era. It’s well known that Martin was classically trained and did many of the innovative arrangements found on the group’s recordings. Ponder, though, that he was able to converse fluently to three different distinct groups: the technical team at Abbey Road Studios, the classical musicians hired for session work, and the Beatles themselves. This could have been no small task.

Seeing Both Sides

Any of us that spend time around stages and musical events, or just peruse the various forums and/or groups on Facebook where musicians cross with technical people, will notice that there is often animosity between these breeds.

Musicians often complain that “the techs just don’t get it” and the techs often consider the musicians as “divas” who are demanding but unable to communicate their needs in a way that techs can understand. As someone who has been on both sides of the stage, I’d like to largely dispel both of these viewpoints, although I will admit that there’s sometimes a grain of truth to the generalizations.

Musicians are not necessarily divas, but they do know what they want and need to play or sing at their best. For instance, “I can’t hear myself” can mean a wide range of things. The techs may wonder “What’s changed since last night? We’re on the same stage, with the same system, and now suddenly some of the players say they can’t hear themselves.” Instead of focusing on how the musicians must be crazy or demanding, how about trying to figure out what has changed?

At the same time, it can certainly be frustrating for techs when musicians don’t seem to care what they go through to make the gig happen, often exhibited via seemingly petty requests. The main way to improve relations across the lip of the stage, in my opinion, is to share or develop a common language.

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This might be a little easier to achieve with certain musicians. For example, guitar players are often the most technical, but singers are often the least. Classical musicians are often (but not always) out of touch with technology, although this is slowly changing. Up until very recently, opera singers were loath to wear a wireless microphone transmitter. Today, though, many younger singers accept it as normal, since modern productions often involve reinforcement for a variety of reasons.

Crossing The Divide

As techs, though, how to we help to bridge this gap? For starters, if we expect musicians to change to suit our needs, we’re likely to be disappointed. They have their own issues to worry about and our concerns usually aren’t on their radar.

However, just like when in a foreign country, if we display even the smallest amount of effort toward learning the local language, we’re rewarded with a much richer experience. For example, nothing breaks down the “lazy Americans” stereotype faster than speaking a few works of Czech while in Prague.

So if our goal is to pick up a few words of the native language of musicians, what do we need to know? In my view, the best place to start is bridging the gap between music and technology. For instance, we should all know the audible ranges of instruments and voices in terms of frequencies and notes.

Example: the lowest fundamental frequency of a violin is the open G string (insert joke here) at 196 Hz. Now, orchestras tune to A=440 Hz, and the open G is one whole step below A, an octave below that tuning note. As a result, even without knowing it’s 196 Hz, we should have a sense that it’s “somewhere around 200 Hz.”

Translating this to the technical side, it means that any mics close to a violin can/should be low cut at 175 Hz or so. So if I told you that the lowest fundamental on a guitar with standard tuning is E at 82 Hz, what would be your technical translation of this information?

Inclusive Or Exclusive

The next step in bridging the gap is understanding the basics of musical vocabulary, such as forte (loud), piano (soft), diminuendo (get softer), and crescendo (get louder), as well as note values like whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth and triplets. A bit of music theory won’t hurt either: understanding the basics of harmony so we don’t create inversions by emphasizing the wrong note/s in a chord within our mixes.

Articulation indicators like staccato (short), legato (long) are important to know as well. Circling back to the “Eleanor Rigby” example, the strings play in a staccato style, which gives the song a crispness and urgency. The opposite can be heard in the song “Yesterday,” also with strings but played legato.

The bottom line is that diplomacy and tact matter a great deal and can go a long way towards being inclusive rather than exclusive. If we can put ourselves in the shoes of the musicians, or at least find common language, it will make a positive difference, often significantly so.

Remember, it’s not “us versus them” but rather “we’re working together for the best result.” If we focus on that desired result and work backwards, we can all find many more solutions.

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