Jon Patrick Fobes is the night picture editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer/cleveland.com. He’s also a musician who creates music for the website. He estimates he’s created as many as 70 compositions used for the newspaper’s multimedia projects.
Jon graciously agreed to share some of his tips as well as samples of his work with us. Here’s an edited version of our “interview” via email. Enjoy!
Q: Ok Jon, let’s start with a little background about you. What are your experiences in journalism and in music?
A: Music has been in my life and in my head as far back as I can remember. I think it was in my feet, too. One good example is that I NEVER set out on my paper route without a transistor radio blasting rock and roll. And I suppose I sang along with every song. No wonder dogs would attack!
I was fascinated with guitars long before I ever dreamed of playing. Then one afternoon in 9th grade I heard two girls gushing over a local band, and I decided to learn. By 11th grade I was lead guitar player in that group. Later on I became a lead singer, too, back in the days when groups actually played musical music. You remember how it was: The Beatles, Neil Young, CSN, Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Moody Blues. Later on I taught myself some piano from Joni Mitchell records. That was back in the day when if you wanted to sound like the artist, you had to figure things out from the record.
Once I got serious about college, I gave up playing music. I went from being an every-day guitar player to once a week or even once a month. I found that literature, psychology and philosophy filled the gap. I should add that I am a journalist only by accident.
I had a renewed interest in music 1990-1996, when I got an 8-track recorder and tried some cover songs. But I lost interest. Then I fired up Garage Band in March 2007 and was totally floored by the possibilities. My head almost exploded! I immediately moved up to Logic and my current music project got started – working with Plain Dealer photographers on photo galleries and videos. I also wanted music for my own floral slide shows. Maybe I should mention that I have worked nights and weekends for 23 years, thus killing any chance playing in a band.
My journalism experience has been mostly at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Before becoming night picture editor I was an assistant news editor and page designer for about 20 years. Before that I did years of duty on the copy desk. And now there’s the Web, of course.
Q: When you set out to compose a piece of music for a multimedia project, where do you start? Are you trying to reflect the meaning of the visuals? Are you inspired by their emotion? Please take us through your typical compositional process.
A: I spend a lot of time just making music. The projects come along later. If I get the chance to participate early in the process, I certainly try to match music to image emotionally. Oddly enough, lots of the stuff I do fits pretty well with projects that crop up fast. I would say I have about 60 to 70 pieces of music on cleveland.com., but I only got in on the ground floor of about ten percent of the projects. Of course, I would prefer to see the images first, and I would love to be able to score directly to the video, but that doesn’t happen very much. Maybe in time.
I like the idea from Terry O’Gara’s Critical Noise blog, which I found by reading your Web site, that songs used to be created with melody first, which he calls top-down. Now, with the our new tools, songs are often created bottom-up, with percussion and bass tracks; or center-out, with a riff or even a loop. I use the last two approaches most often. You have to be something of an improvisational composer, riffing off yourself, varying your ideas, taking chances. Sort of like playing lead guitar in a rock band that’s cooking along in the middle of a long jam.
Here’s a good example of bottom-up composition.
Let me explain:
I had done a few floral galleries with very quiet music and was looking for a change. I started with some fast percussion tracks and then added a couple of bass parts with the MIDI keyboard. Then I remembered something I had stumbled on the week before, some “orchestra accent” loops. Once I put in the first loop, I knew what I was going to do, but before that I was just tinkering. The moral: Don’t be afraid to take chances, and always remember to have fun!
Q: What tools do you use to create the music?
A: I recently updated my music Web site and included a “gear” page. That was fun! I use so much stuff that it might be easier for people to simply click the link and look around. Having said that, I will drop a few names: Logic Studio, EastWest/Quantum Leap, GForce, Taylor, Valley Arts, M-Audio, IK Multimedia.
Q: What tips do you have for multimedia designers who are seeking to put music with video or slideshow images?
A: Most basically, have a sense of composition! Have a beginning, middle and end. Vary the instrument voices. Don’t be afraid to change gears. And don’t be afraid to go minimal. Let the music serve the visuals, not overpower them. Don’t be afraid of silence! Put in some drama. A lot of the composition techniques I use for macro photography carry over into music. And maybe it helps that I taught the basic English composition course at OSU for two years and that I read books and watch all sorts of documentaries about music making, film production, photography … even architecture! All those things rely on basic composition!
Q: What composition or project are you most proud of?
A: I really like this Miracle Marine project. It is very minimal. For example, we didn’t really have enough images for a show, so I had to resort to copy slides to tell the story. Aside from a few guitar strums, all the music was done on the MIDI keyboard with GForce’s impOSCar virtual synth in just a couple hours. The whole project was turned around in 24 hours. I think it packs lots of power for as spare as it is. I love the little melody line about half way through and the slide that says simply, “He was 24 years old.” That came to me almost in my sleep! This show is a good study in composition, if we may return to that idea for a moment. As a very little kid I realized that if I asked for something – a new toy, perhaps – in the right way, I was more likely to get it then if I just blurted it out. Just getting things in the right order is so dreadfully crucial! I tried to do that here: photos, copy slides, music … and saving that crucial photo to the very end.
Also, I like this dog show gallery because even though the time-lapse part of the project turned out to be a nightmare, the music came together in only about two hours. I found some percussion loops I liked then turned to the MIDI keyboard to create the music. Even the guitar was played on MIDI keyboard, which I call “keytar.” And playing the organ fills was a blast! By the way, the images pulse by design, and the dogs are supposed to morph from breed to breed at the end of the show.
I also really like this show using four pieces of music done months apart. Our Web genius and master videographer Dale Omori always does a superb job matching music to image. He’s also wonderfully supportive, and if not for him, I doubt I would be doing music. The only regret about this music is that some of it was created early in the project and features too many loops, though much of the soloing is me playing over top of those loops. All the synth passages come from MIDI keyboard and GForce products and my own feeble mind and fingers.
Finally, I like this floral gallery because it shows, about half way through, that you can drastically change a person’s emotional feeling just with the music: subject matter stays the same but viewer experience changes drastically. There’s a lesson there.