AES Section Meeting Reports

Pacific Northwest - April 25, 2018

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In April, the PNW section was hosted by Dr. Michael Matesky at Opus 4 Studios in Bothell, WA for a look at a real-world recording project. 22 attendees including 14 AES members gathered for the meeting.

Once a year, warehouse retailer Costco holds a Manager's Conference in Seattle, WA. A segment of the conference program is a memorial to Costco employees who have passed away during the previous year. The memorial takes the form of video images of those who have passed, along with an audio track that underscores the video. The main stipulation from the client is that all the music must be performed by Costco employees.

For this year's project two songs were to be used; a popular spiritual named "Going Home" and "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. Both songs would play against a video track that would be created at Costco HQ in Issaquah WA. One immediate complication - it would not be clear how long the video track needed to be until very close to the actual meeting date.
"Going Home" was to be recorded in English, French, Spanish, and Korean. The vocal would be added as an overdub in the home country of each language; e.g. here in the U.S., in France, in Spain, and in Korea. Grant Crawford of Costco recorded a basic piano track at Opus 4 Studios, without knowing the final tempo or key, and sent it around to each country. Everyone got instructions about parameters such as microphone choice, processing, etc. Each country's representative would sing the entire song through, and the production team here would pick and choose what parts to use in the final version.

"Hallelujah" was to be sung by yet another singer with a small studio band. After some searching, a Costco employee with an expressive ability and a willingness to take musical direction was found locally, BUT she had NEVER so much as walked into a recording studio. The singer was excited to participate, but had no training as a vocalist and a lack of familiarity with studio practice or microphone technique. Happily, she was a quick and eager learner and willing to do as many takes as were required. Nevertheless, the absence of a professional vocalist would expand the workload for editing enormously. The band was to include guitar, bass, synth/keyboard, and background vocals. With the exception of Grant (synth/keys), everyone was an amateur performer albeit, of course, a Costco employee. Enormous, varied editing, perhaps several hundred pitch adjustments, time adjustments, vocal fades, etc. were required.

To give a sense of the complex editing involved, several screenshots of the Pro Tools session were shown. There were more than 100 pitch-shifted segments alone, all of which had to be carefully placed and blended into the completed project. At some point in the process the lack of time meant a line needed to be drawn - go this far and no further. In the end the result was very satisfying, fit the needs of the project well, and was well received during the event.

The video was being produced elsewhere in Costco and the video team wouldn't be able to hear the music nor would the studio team see the video. Adding to the excitement, a Senior VP at Costco was the overall project director so the audio and video teams needed to produce work in parallel (although without reference to each other's efforts) and submit that work to the director independently. So, on the audio side there would be frequent requests for a particular change to occur at a specific time point with little context for how that might wind up fitting in with the video. While these changes might be as simple as a fader move, it was not uncommon for them to involve arrangement changes on the fly. While the deadline for the project was extremely tight, the final length needed to remain flexible up to the very last moment (it was difficult to declare that someone who passed on this date would be included, but someone a day later would have to wait until next year to be part of the project.)

Grant became connected to the project when a friend at the office asked him if he was a singer since they "needed a singer for the mangers' conference" coming up in July. Curious as to why they would need a singer, he asked for more details and before he knew what happened he found himself in office of the Senior VP in charge of the project talking about music selection. One thing led to another and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mike and Grant walked us through the details with the chance to hear bits and pieces of the project along the way, including the intricate process of combining non-professional performers with a minimum number of takes, many of them working remotely. Most of the evening was devoted to describing the process of the second song, and we had the chance to hear the final product for that song but not to see the complete project. In fact, Dr. Matesky noted that he never got to see the completed project because the audio and video were combined by the video team and only Costco Managers were present to see the final result at the conference.
Grant pointed out that because of the preference of the director, the playback level of the final piece during the event was so low that it was somewhat lost under the sound of cell phones and cutlery during the banquet dessert. Nevertheless, it was surprising and reassuring that the audio wound up aligning well with the video, and certainly, this kind of memorial is not intended to highlight the performance, rather the employees who had passed away.

Audio and screen shots are available in the unabridged report at the AES-PNW Section site,

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