Today’s Office: Charles Van Kirk on making music for brands without leaving the house
Composer and audio engineer Charles Van Kirk, who has worked with brands including ESPN, Sony and Google, tells us how he has been embracing the limitations of lockdown, including creating a track purely from household items.
I am one of those fortunate freelancers who has not had to deal with much change in my working environment due to the pandemic. With the exception of traveling for recording sessions and environmental sound gathering, I‘ve primarily worked from my home studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for the past five years.
It‘s a small studio, but it’s a wonderful composition and mixing setup relative to the scope of New York City real estate. In it, I have a few carefully chosen items: acoustic treatments, a studio desk with outboard audio gear, speakers, computer and several instruments such as an upright piano, electric bass, synthesizers and drums.
And I am grateful for a pair of enormous west-facing windows which look out over adjacent apartment buildings and lots of open sky. My apartment is situated so that I get to watch, but not hear, planes flying north to LaGuardia in the distance.
My days can vary quite a bit depending on what projects are happening. I like to work for a block of hours in the morning and for another block in the evening, with a break for exercise in the middle of the afternoon. This often gets recalibrated depending on deadlines which, as we know in advertising, tend to move quickly and fluctuate!
I work with brands such as Google, Facebook and Sony, in collaboration with different agencies and production companies based in New York, Europe and Japan. And depending on the continent of my collaborator and the deadline, I’ll often be up working on a piece of music until the wee hours of the morning so it will be finished by the time folks wake up in Europe, for example.
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I recently finished a job doing live audio mixing for ESPN’s broadcast of the tennis US Open, which was wild and exciting. Those days were obviously quite full-on: 14 hours or so every day for two weeks.
Before the pandemic, I used to enjoy the occasional foray out into the world for an immersive experience, such as when I went to Iceland earlier in the year for the audio company Splice to make music from the sounds of glaciers, or when I recorded the tequila making process for a Patrón commercial in Mexico. More recently, and closer to home, I created a piece of music using only household objects for the launch of Sparks, a company that makes bespoke music and sound for TV and advertising.
I loved the assignment because it forced me to embrace what was right in front of me in the apartment during the early stages of the lockdown. I spent days and days carefully recording things from around the house – kitchen utensils, furniture, fogged-up glass squeaking – and ended up with hundreds of individual sounds. I took some of my favorites and created ‘instruments’ out of them that I could control with MIDI keyboards and drum sensors. Once I finished the track, I had a blast making a music video to tell the visual story of the audio sampling process.
I am extremely fortunate that I get to make music and play with sounds for a living, so the work/life balance question is probably more blurred for me than if I was doing something else to make money. One side of the coin is that I am obsessed with sounds. If I am in the middle of an exciting project, all I want to do is listen back to what I have and keep improving it, to keep tinkering. The other side is that it’s critical to take breaks from listening and to make sure that my ears aren’t too fatigued. So, it is necessary that I spend some time away from the music at various points throughout the day.
So, in the morning I head up to the roof of my building and stretch for 15 minutes and do a few pushups or pull-ups. It feels great to jump around outside and breathe some fresh air before making coffee and eating breakfast, and I try to keep this going rain or shine, winter or summer.
And as much as my work schedule allows, I‘ll soak up a lot of vitamin D in the afternoons without feeling too much freelancer’s guilt about being away from my desk. I have spent more time outside this summer playing sports (in a socially distanced manner) than I have since I was a teenager, going for long bike rides, practicing lots of tennis, playing golf.
The early restaurant closures meant there was also time to pursue some more elaborate projects in the kitchen, so I’ve enjoyed working on a couple of techniques lately: making molé poblano from scratch, inspired by a trip to Mexico City early this year, and making béarnaise sauce, which I had no choice but to try after reading Bill Buford’s latest book about French cooking in Lyon.
In terms of going back to ‘normal’, I’m trying not to worry too much about things that are outside of my control. I absolutely miss practicing and performing with my band, Tuarrah, and it will be wonderful to resume traveling and recording with friends in the same room once it is safe to do so, but until then I am focusing mostly on solo projects at home.