Among the trends and technology of film and video production, we sometimes discover that much simpler is much better.
Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ) produces high-quality performances of modern songs arranged and performed in 1930s-ish style. This should be entertaining enough, and broadens the songs’ market by appealing to a new audience, but the double whammy that hooks PMJ’s growing fan base is the simple production style: The camera is always a locked-off wide shot recording one continuous take — no close-ups, no artsy moves, no coverage, no edits … always a real “one-er.” And the sound is always recorded live with the picture (no prerecord, playback, and lip sync). With the natural imperfections of the set giving credibility to the impeccable performances, the audience appreciates that they are actually seeing — and hearing — the performers perform.
Classically trained in music at the Hartt School and self-taught in jazz, Postmodern Jukebox founder, arranger, and piano wizard Scott Bradlee produces videos of music performances that have earned a large international following. But it all started with him shooting cell phone videos of performances in his Astoria, New York apartment. Bradlee originally made the videos to convince people to hire him for live performances, but when his YouTube posts surprised him by going viral, he realized he had something unique with commercial potential. My first exposure to Postmodern Jukebox, and still one of my favorites, was the unlikely performance of Puddles the Clown (Mike Geier) singing “Chandelier”. An earlier example from 2014 is a sensational rendition of “Maps” by Morgan James, also featured in the more polished 2015 favorite “All About the Bass”.
Bradlee says this production style was not planned originally, but simply due to necessity: at the time his only video device was a cell phone on a stand, and his audio equipment was limited to eight channels. As his videos gained in popularity, he realized from the comments that much of the videos’ appeal lay in their simple realism; the performance was only by the performers, not the technology. Because there are no attempts to enhance the performance by manipulating the audience’s attention with camera moves, focus pulls, or edits (there are none), the audience gets to decide for themselves who to watch, where to focus, and what to listen to. Whether the fans realize it or not, a major reason they connect to Postmodern Jukebox videos is because it’s like being at a private performance in someone’s home. With the videos still recorded live in one continuous take, it’s now by design that fewer microphones are used than in a typical recording studio session, intentionally allowing acoustical bleed and reflections that give the sense of sitting on a couch in front of the performers.
With the success of Postmodern Jukebox, Bradlee replaced his cell phone camera long ago with a Canon DSLR, and now a RED camera, and there is now plenty of budget to have whatever audio equipment he wants. But Bradlee remains loyal to the simple production style that Postmodern Jukebox is rooted in, and stands his ground when explaining it to his crew.
The two audio engineers who have recorded videos for Postmodern Jukebox did not come from a film/video sound background. They came from the music recording studio world, where mic’ing everything close is the norm, to minimize acoustic bleed and to have plenty of isolated options for mixing and processing. The problem with this technique for video production, as Bradlee observed, is that the “perfect” sound of recording studio methods does not have the natural acoustic character that is the PMJ style.
Engineer Matt “Rook” Telford recorded sound for PMJ videos from the early years in New York through about 2017, after their home base moved to Los Angeles. As budget allowed, Telford advanced the microphones, recording, and mixing equipment considerably. But Bradlee remained firm that the character of the PMJ sound be natural and a bit “roomy.” Telford recalls that his challenge was to stay true to the established PMJ natural sound while still considering what younger audiences were accustomed to.
Engineer Thai Long Ly started recording for PMJ videos in Los Angeles in 2017. Like Telford, Long Ly came from the recording studio environment, where room ambience and microphone bleed were the enemy. Bradlee instilled in him the PMJ concept of a more natural sound to match the picture. Long Ly found it uncomfortable at first to intentionally allow ambience and acoustic reflections to be part of the recording.
However, both engineers concede that they have come to appreciate the results of using fewer microphones placed further from the sources to create a sound that better matches the picture, and they sometimes now use similar techniques in their sound-only recordings.
Part of the reason for this article is to draw well-deserved attention to Scott Bradlee’s success — the result of his artistic originality. But I confess to having the ulterior motive of proving the benefit of recording acoustic music performances live, on the set, reviving the lost art of camera perspective. The common assumption that an actor’s voice should be prerecorded for playback and lip sync just because rhythm and pitch are involved is, in my opinion, misguided, but a hard habit to break. The most convincing evidence that the status quo should change often comes in the form of an entertaining surprise. For that, we should not only congratulate Scott Bradlee, but also thank him.
GLEN TREW is a Production Sound Mixer with 40 years of experience in film and video production. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, he is the president of Trew Audio (a US and Canadian leader in sales, rental, and service of film and video sound equipment), the president of Remote Audio (a manufacturer of specialty audio products for film and video), and a member of the Hollywood IATSE Union Local 695 (active, retired).
Images courtesy of Postmodern Jukebox