Using Music: The Kitchen Sisters
As ever, the essay is illustrated with audio examples and you can talk it over with Nikki and Davia.
A Small Case Study: An Unexpected Kitchen: The George Foreman Grill
An Unexpected Kitchen was one of the first stories in the Hidden Kitchens series on Morning Edition. As we began to score it (which happens at almost the same moment we get the idea for a story, start to cast it and do the interviews), we decided to give ourselves some rules for creating the score. We don’t usually work that way, but here we were, starting a new series and it seemed time for new rules and a challenge. Because George Foreman grew up in the Fifth Ward in Houston, Texas, we decided all the music in the story would emanate from there.
We listened to everything we could get our hands on. But after hours of hearing some great, and not-so-great music, we couldn’t find one piece that really worked with the story we were telling. We’re usually looking for instrumentals. Or something with a long musical intro, an instrumental solo in the middle, and a long tail of instrumental music at the end — no lyrics. We graft beginnings, middles and ends (the instrumental bits) together to use as beds for our stories to lie on. We like it when the music pops at the top and changes rhythms and builds, moving the story forward — a strong drum beat, a deep guitar chord, a startling saxophone — like Moondog’s Symphonique and Bird’s Lament, or Thelonius Monk’s Misterioso, or a cut from Kronos Quartet’s Nuevo… We’re looking for something that moves the story somewhere new and sets a mood and a tone.
When the Fifth Ward concept didn’t quite pan out, we decided to expand the search to “music recorded in Houston.” We sifted through dozens and dozens of songs — still couldn’t find it. There was great music, but not music that would tuck into this piece. All right, how about “music from Texas?” That’s when we found Robert Shaw, “The Ma Grinder,” on Arhoolie Records. We loved the driving piano, but suddenly came upon these lyrics: “My name is Piggly Wiggly, I’ve Got Groceries on my Shelf…” Mostly we tend to steer away from lyrics in our stories because they can get too literal if you don’t watch out. But these were so great. And his style of piano playing lay in perfectly under George’s story.
Robert Shaw played Texas piano in the “Santa Fe” style, named after the Santa Fe Railroad that ran through the state and the barrelhouse bars along its route. Piano players there favored music that mirrored the rhythm of the train. Shaw was one of the best. When he retired he moved outside of Austin and opened an icehouse, and sold barbeque. He felt like a hidden kitchen in his own right and his music was mixed into the story.
Okay, the Texas music angle was working. But suddenly, when we were working on the part of the piece where George Foreman says, “I learned how to disguise my not having any food…” and Jeffrey Newton, a homeless man from Chicago, starts talking about “trailblazing” (“When you’re homeless, you’ve got to blaze a trail to find food…”), Booker T and the MG’s “Hang ‘Em High” jumped in our heads and suddenly Booker T jumped into the mix, and fit. Booker T is Memphis music, not Texas music. Oh well, you’ve got to make rules and break rules.
What We Look For and How We Add It To The Mix
When we’re working with music, we’re often looking for something that isn’t too dense, maybe even spare, but has a strong rhythm and pulse, unless we’re trying to make an emphatic point. We don’t want to drown out the storyteller, or create something so busy that the music competes with the story. Sometimes we use EQ or add a bit of reverb to find a way that the voice notches into the music just so, so they’re working together and are not in competition.
We do the final mix of nearly all our stories with the brilliant sound designer, Jim McKee. We asked him to share his “secret EQ sauce” for this Transom case study. Jim said:
With human speech, much of the acoustical information comes to us in vowels and consonants. Vowels tend to fall in the 120 – 140 Hz range, but how we distinguish different vowels at various pitches, falls around 2,760 Hz, or 2.76 kHz. Consonants reside around 5,630 Hz, or 5.6 kHz. I use EQ to help clarify the vowels and consonants, a decibel or two, plus or minus, goes a long way at these frequencies.
Typically, I put a corresponding set of notch EQ filters with these same frequencies on the music and duck them down 2 to 6 decibels (depending on the voice and content of the music). What that allows you to do is to have the music remain more present; rather than pulling the entire music track down 2 – 6 decibels, you just pull back the frequencies that are making it difficult to hear what is being said.
Got it? There you go. Your pieces are never going to sound the same now that you’ve got this arrow in your quiver.
Other Music Tips
We often cut music to fit our tracks. And loop sections of it too. We sometimes add a little pause, or take a bit away to have the voice nestle onto an instrument or a beat. Sometimes we spread out a story so it really flies with the music. We’ll often graft the end of a piece of music to another section to create more drama, or give a story, or the whole piece, an end. We often use the same piece of music at the open and close of a piece, as a sort of bookend or frame, a repeating theme. Once we choose a piece of music we edit the voice track so it aligns with the rise and fall and rhythm of the music. The music is the driver of the scene, and the story becomes the lyrics of the song.
When we interview people we always ask them to tell us about their own “soundtrack,” the music that captured the time and place they are telling us about. These songs probably make it into about 20% of the stories we do. A lot of times the literal music of a story doesn’t work as well as something on a more intuitive level, but when it does, it’s something we love. We also ask people to sing for us. We’ll try to score mixing the sound of the person we’re interviewing, singing, cross fading with the recording from the era. When it works it’s cool. But it doesn’t always work.
Music, it can’t be too thick or busy or textured. It can’t compete or it swallows up and drowns out a voice. You don’t want it too low or too high under the story. We experiment with the levels every time. Sometimes we like to have the person disappear into the music — their voice fades slowly as the music is rising slowly and they are swallowed and gone. We use music, but we also use sound to score our stories. The beeps from listener phone messages that we use to launch many stories are some of our favorite sonic elements to work with, and we drop them like pixie dust into the mix whenever we can.
About The Kitchen Sisters
The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva), along with Jay Allison, are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning NPR series Hidden Kitchens, two Peabody Award-winning NPR collaborations, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. They also produced the NPR series, The Hidden World of Girls, hosted by Tiny Fey. Their most recent series, The Making Of… [what people make in the Bay Area and why] was a Localore Project with KQED, Zeega and AIR. They are the authors of Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. They are currently working on a new season of Hidden Kitchens stories that will be heard on Morning Edition this fall, as well as a Broadway musical based on their story, WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts, about the first all-girl radio station in the nation, and a new book, and teaching at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The Kitchen Sisters are known for their nationwide collaborations that bring thousands of listeners into the public media storytelling process.