A Little More About Les Misérables

I just wanted to post a quick follow-up to my previous post after finding a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes on YouTube. I’ll make it quick, I promise.

I captured a few images from the videos to illustrate some of the points I made in the other post. First, we have this, a shot of the off-stage pianist/accompanist encased in her little soundproof box. The box allowed the pianist to play and move without fear of the sounds being captured by the on-set microphones that were recording the cast’s singing.

This closer shot is really interesting because it shows the reflections of the video monitors in the glass. The pianist has to be able not just to hear the singing, but to be able to interpret an actor’s body language, watch their eyes and lips and breathing in order for the accompaniment to blend seamlessly with the singing performance. Remember, what the pianist played was recorded and used as the basis for the orchestra recordings yet-to-come.

Finally, this shot of the orchestra during one of the recording sessions. This is one of the smaller groups in the score, made up of strings, woodwinds and what looks like two or three French Horns at the upper-right of the photo.

At the lower-right you can see the short walls placed in front of the empty chairs. These are called “baffles” in recording studio language and they are used for absorbing sound as much as possible so that the instruments being played behind the baffles don’t “leak” or “bleed” as much into the other microphones. I wrote in the other post about the difficulty the musicians face hearing each other in a recording studio; baffles are one of the leading causes of this difficulty. Lastly, you’ll note a video monitor behind the conductor at the far left edge of the photo. There is a green vertical line visible on the screen. This line is called a “streamer”. The edited film is run during a scoring session so that everyone can watch the film as the music is recorded to see if everything fits as expected. This is done at all scoring sessions for films and TV shows, not just blockbuster musicals. At a pre-determined point during the running of the film the streamer appears at the left edge of the video screen and “travels” left-to-right across the screen. When it reaches the right edge it disappears in a sudden burst of light known as a “punch”. This “punch” is a “sync point” where something in the music should match something happening on the screen. In an action film it could be a car crash. In a romance film it could be when the two lovers kiss. In “Les Misérables” I’m sure it was used most often to cue the conductor to be right on a certain bar of the music just as an actor would reach a certain word in the song. The green streamer (there are other colors – choice of which color means what is unique to each conductor) takes two seconds to travel across the screen before the punch. So, the conductor needs to keep one eye on the orchestra, one eye on the musical score and one eye on the video screen (!) When the conductor sees the streamer appear at the left edge s/he knows s/he has two seconds to prepare for the big moment. When the punch appears on the screen the conductor should cue the orchestra at the just the right instant, then continue conducting through the piece until the next streamer appears, and so on.

OK, enough already! Below are the two videos and you can enjoy them at your leisure.


6 thoughts on “A Little More About Les Misérables

  1. Hey Chris,
    Happy New Year!!
    After watching the first posted YouTube link (2:13), it seems that actors were NOT singing to a click but just a live piano accompaniment and were able to speed up and down tempo at their own discretion.
    So your suggested theory, that a click track was built AFTER the live vocals were recorded, must be true.

    My question, hopefully not too technical(!), is how do you normally build click tracks AFTER the vocal performance is recorded?

    Do you use software (something like Beat Detective) that analysis’s the vocal waveforms in Pro Tools and calculates the variations in tempo, or is it a more tedious process where you know the original Tempo(BPM) and then manually map out the tempo variations for each bar by ear?!
    That could take a long long time!!

    Thanks for all your wonderfully informative and interesting posts!


    • It’s certainly easier to do “variable clicks” these days with computer tools, but a computer can only “beat detect” a tempo if there is a very sharp, strong, identifiable “beat” in the track (e.g. a kick drum, a snare drum that constantly hits on the beat, etc.). Otherwise, it is still a job that has to be done “by hand”, beat-to-beat, bar-to-bar. Another challenge is deciding whether the click should speed up and slow down with the singing or remain constant (as much as possible) while adding or subtracting beats per bar to imitate slowing down or speeding up. I’ll assume you “speak” music – say a song is sailing along at a pretty constant tempo at 4 beats-per-bar. Then at a particular bar the song slows down. At this point the editor can program the click to also slow down and try to mimic the singer’s tempo as much as possible. The other option is to have the slower bar contain 5 or 6 or 7 beats (depending on how much slower the tempo is), then return to the usual 4 beats-per-bar when the song returns to “normal” tempo. I personally prefer the 2nd option whenever possible because it’s much easier for instrumentalists to play along at a (nearly) fixed tempo and just add beats per bar than it is to suddenly slow, then speed, up, etc. Sometimes, though, the click has to change speed to create the most musical tempo.

      Check out this video of “Logomania” from a recent episode of THE SIMPSONS. We recorded our own version of Dean Martin’s hit “That’s Amore” for this sequence. The music meter is 3 beats-to-the-bar at a pretty constant tempo. But listen at 0:28 where the tempo feels like it slows down when the singer sings ” …vita bella!” In reality, the click track I built for the song changed to 5 beats for that one bar. To the listener – who doesn’t get to hear the click – it feels slower, but it’s not. Count along with it and you’ll see. After that it goes back to 3 beats-per-bar.

      Thanks for asking and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      • Wow, thanks for the incredibly informative and insightful reply Chris,
        The Logomania video was a great illustration.

        I spoke with a composer friend who also suggested using a drum machine in Pro Tools, tapping along on a midi snare pad in time with the Vocal/Piano that was recorded WITHOUT any click and then tweaking the recorded midi snare until it felt like it was in time with the Vocal / Piano
        Once it felt like it was ‘in the pocket’, you could map out a tempo grid from the midi snare information.

        I guess if there is a ‘will’ there is always a ‘way’ to get it done but its always good to know it works before jumping in blind!

        Thanks again, Im going to go experimenting with midi drum pads and tempo maps in Pro Tools now 🙂


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