Is Your Feedback Hitting The Right Note?
By Alison Cole, composer, Groove Q
Sound is always present and we all find connection and universal truths within it. It’s our warning signal and our emotional driver. Being a better communicator about this important element is crucial to any project involving music or sound. The perfect soundtrack should feel seamless with your pictures, hone into your message and tap into an instinctive, emotional side to unconsciously move us. It’s the perfect shortcut to emotions.
Communicating your ideas about sound can feel a bit intimidating, especially if you’re not sure how to describe what you’re thinking. Language is a bridge between you and your composer and effective feedback can elevate a project from great to amazing, Here are some tips that will help communicate what you need with people who are a little more expert in the technicalities of sound and get them delivering your perfect soundtrack.
To start with, a glossary with helpful terminology.
1. BE FOCUSED
Identify your feedback with time code. It sounds obvious, but giving vague critique can feel like the elusive needle in a haystack. Seriously, time-code is a massive time saver for everyone! Focus your language around music elements. Graphic designers talk in fonts, colour, layout etc. This is same deal. Here are the main musical elements that you can look out for and some ways to get the conversation started. It can seem complicated, especially as these elements are so interconnected.
FORM/STRUCTURE: Identify any moments in your pictures that really need to hit with the music. Identify if you need clear distinctive sections in the music track and make sure the music and narrative work well and are in sync.
DYNAMICS: Identify any build-ups or any peaks or sections that needs to be louder/more intense or softer/less intense. Identify any dramatic pauses or even silence in the music/sound track.
HARMONY: Be clear about the type of emotion you’re looking for. This informs your composer about the type of harmony needed. Identify if there’s a moment where the harmony can intensify the emotions and create moments where there is some tension and then resolution. In case your composer drops the word ‘key’: Minor keys sound ‘sad’ and major keys sound ‘happy’
MELODY: Discuss whether your soundtrack needs a main melody or if it needs to be more of a background track. Be aware of how any melodies are working with the tempo and cut of your pictures. Make sure the melody feels natural and has a great emotional fit with your pictures and your client’s message.
RHYTHM: Rhythm can really affect the impression of pace in your pictures. Identify the kind of rhythm energy you want in your music track and if it’s feeling natural with the emotion and cut of the pictures. Listen out for any beats that might be fighting with the VO or sound design in any way. This can happen if the drum track is too busy or complicated.
WAYS TO TALK ABOUT THE MIX
Be aware of the sonic colours in a mix. Dark, bright, dirty, top end (high sounds) or bottom end (low sounds) Musicians use the word timbre (tam-ber) to talk about the different tone/sound colours of particular instruments.
Let your composer know if any particular sounds or samples stick out to you or change the perception of the music track.
2. BE QUICK
Listening to music is an instinctively emotional experience, and we tend to react to music viscerally. Be aware of your gut reactions and what sounds or instruments stick out at you when you’re listening. What’s working and what’s not? Have a couple of listens to confirm your impressions. Try to have a listen without the pictures just so you can hear how the track works independently and if the structure feels right. Fast feedback is good for the ‘needy composer’ and keeps the creative momentum going!
3. TRY TO BE UNBIASED
Music is so subjective and we all have personal tastes in the kind of genres/styles that we love and hate. (Hello bagpipes) If you’re really not into a genre of music, let your composer know! Try not to mix biased opinions with general healthy industry practices as it can slow up the process and steer your feedback off track.
4. DON’T OVERWHELM
Pages of feedback can feel a bit uncreative! For sound design, a list is completely understandable. Believe me, composers love bullet points! Prioritize your critique points from big to small. Focus on the big issues you hear in the soundtrack. Sometimes when you solve the bigger issues, the smaller, less pressing problems will also get solved.
5. GUIDE TRACK - WHAT’S WORKING FOR YOU
Also a good tool for when you’re briefing. Think about what’s actually working or not working in your guide track. It’s a great way to get a positive vibe going from the start of the feedback process and avoids the ‘I’ll know what I like when I hear it!’ It also avoids a slavish copy of your guide/reference music. (Hello copyright infringement!) People fall in love with a track because there are elements in it that are working really well. Is it the instruments? The tempo? The build (dynamics)? The harmony (major or minor key)? The melody? Once these are identified your feedback and brief becomes actionable and it’s an effective and helpful shortcut for your composer.
Alison Cole is a former graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music who went on to study at AFTRS and now works as a multi award winning composer and sound designer in the film and TV industry here, and around the globe. Her film score composition work has featured at Cannes Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival. She’s been a Tropfest winner, Best Composition Awards winner (ProMax ANZ) and People’s Choice Award (B&T 2017). Alison established Groove Q music & sound with Dave Smith in 2003.