Blog: Music to your eyes

Blog, Captioning 1 Dec 2017

I once had a gig as a content editor for a local music rag. It was a lot of writing (obviously), but also a lot of very interesting interviews with musicians. One of the more memorable chats was with the former drummer of a world-class rock band. He was about to release a solo album (the following day, in fact) and wasn’t happy with its marketing campaign.

The conversation went everywhere and nowhere. My subject grunted through the interview, sang snippets of unreleased songs, tapped drum fills on the table or his knees. I had to transcribe this all – for music journalism’s sake. Once he’d decided the talk was done, I looked at my recorder – 22 minutes of transcription. Urgh.

I’m a now a caption editor at Able, and I still find myself making sense of rock stars. Music shows occasionally pop up on our schedule, and being a complete music geek, I try and grab them for myself. You learn stuff every day through watching these shows. One of the best is AC/DC singer Brian Johnson’s excellent new series on Prime, Life On The Road (8.35pm Tuesday).

Life On The Road follows Johnson around the globe as he catches up with his old rock and roll mates, whether it be Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin or Sting from The Police. It’s part interview, part documentary, tracing way back to the subject’s birth place and what music they’d listen to growing up, eventually reaching their zeitgeist musical moment. If you’re a rock fan, it’s a great watch.

Listening to music – easy. But to caption it isn’t as simple as it, well, sounds. It’s not just always transcription or copying and pasting lyrics. It’s getting creative and using that back catalogue in your brain. It’s identifying a three-second snippet of ‘Apache’ by The Shadows or Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Man of the World’ for a small montage, or knowing all nine parts of Pink Floyd’s epic ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’.

Brian Johnson hails from Tyneside in the northeast of England, and is known for a gravelly singing voice, as well as a very thick Geordie accent. I mean, who actually knows the lyrics to the second verse of ‘Back in Black’? Sometimes you have to listen carefully – he speaks in a cool rhythmic tone, punctuated by chuckles and wheezes.

Sometimes you have to replay Johnson’s dialogue multiple times just to be sure. He mentions a random ‘70s pub in Dunston, with long sentences peppered with Geordie-isms. It’s usually ‘me son’, ‘young lad’, ‘ae gosh’ and ‘jeez!’ He is a very effective interviewer, guiding his rock god mates into a walk (maybe shuffle) down memory lane, or what’s left of it. But transcribing Brian correctly is important. We don’t have a script for this stuff.

You really do learn a bit on this show. I didn’t know the extent of Brian Johnson’s hearing loss until captioning this series. It is well known that Johnson suffers from extreme tinnitus from his own hectic life on the road with AC/DC, and he nearly experienced a complete loss of his hearing in 2015, causing him to leave the band. This has also affected Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend from The Who, who, along with Johnson, now wear permanent hearing aids. There’s a good chance Brian could use captions himself at home.

That is another thing – as a producer of captions, you can’t take for granted that our audience knows all the music, so you have to do your best to describe the actual sound. What does it really sound like? A twangy descending guitar scale? A crashing cymbal? An exploding rocket via David Gilmour’s whammy bar and delay pedal? It’s up to you. You have to factor in how a hard-of-hearing or Deaf viewer would interpret what’s being played on screen. The aim is for the captions to make that whole viewing experience clearer, and quite often a music or soundtrack caption can disclose more information than the normal audio would. Oh, and I actually learned all the lyrics to ‘Back in Black’ because of captions after 20 years of thinking I knew the song.

If at least one viewer gets a good experience, or even learns something from what we do, that’s a positive. So, Life on the Road continues for Brian Johnson, as does the captioning at Able. And if you’re wondering what the lyrics for the second verse are for ‘Back in Black’, here they are – all correctly punctuated too. Rock and roll!

Back in the back of a Cadillac.

Number one with a bullet.

I'm a power pack.

Yes, I'm in a band with a gang.

They've got to catch me if they want me to hang.

Cos I'm back on the track, and I'm beatin' the flack.

Nobody's gonna get me on another rap.

So look at me now - I'm just makin' my play.

Don't try to push your luck; just get out of my way.

Jake, Able Caption Editor

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