Things By Simon

The 480-Minute Blank Track

480 Minute Blank Track

Ten years ago when CDs were the most efficient way to play music in a show, it was common to have a 10 second blank track between the actual music tracks. This was to reduce the risk of the next track starting accidentally if the sound operator missed the stop button by a few seconds. Sometimes the extra-zealous performer would spring for 30 second blank tracks, but that was often considered excessive.

Then two things changed, for me in particular. One was that mp3 players became more available with higher and higher storage capacities, and I started to experiment with self-controlled music. Many other performers do the same; if you have a discreet way of controlling your own sound cues on stage, you A) remove that hassle from the sound tech person, and B) gain more flexibility to experiment with your show by changing around the order of things more frequently.

For various reasons to do with usability, I designed a system that worked by never actually pausing the playback. Instead it kept playing, with sufficiently long 30 minute blank tracks between the music tracks to proved ample buffer space. The benefit of doing it this way was that rather than hitting “play” and “stop” throughout the show, you can control everything just by hitting the “next track” button. If a track is playing, the button cuts to the next track, and if a blank track is playing, it starts the next track. It’s much easier and simpler from a user interface perspective, and worked brilliantly until one particular night.

Specifically a night where, due to an unexpected delay in the show, a wacky upbeat track started playing during a quiet and (supposedly) dramatic moment. The delay had used up most of the 30 minute buffer track, causing the wrong cue to unexpectedly burst into life and the worst possible moment.

I then met a fellow performer in Melbourne who had made the far more intelligent move of using a 90 minute blank track. This made perfect sense until one night in Fitzroy, during an otherwise excellent variety show, I saw him struck by the same blank-track-rolling-over-to-a-hilariously-wrong-music-cue issue I’d had myself. You see, the show was just under two hours long with an interval. Since he was MC-ing the show, his only two music cues were sufficiently spaced out (right at the start and right at the end) for the 90-minute track to expire and cause amusing awkwardness.

So finally I made myself a 180 minute blank track. That’s three hours of empty silence, long enough to outlast even the most drawn-out show. Problem solved.

Except it wasn’t.

One night when opening at The Magic Castle, I set up my sound system early in the evening and happened to leave the opening blank track playing. I was foolishly lulled into a false sense of security by the vast three hours of blank buffer time.

The result wasn’t as bad as either of the previous incidents, but my first track bursting into life during the show’s intro dialogue wasn’t exactly a professional moment.

So I said “screw this” and created the 480 minute blank buffer track that I now use in all my shows. By encoding it at only 8kbps and 8khz I also managed to get the file size down to a relatively tiny 29mb. Mp3 tracks that actually need to sound good (due to not being, you know, completely silent) are usually a minimum of 128kpbs and 44khz, which for a 480-min track would be roughly an ipod-crushing 2.5gb. Trust me; 29mb is a bargain for eight hours of silence in mp3 form.

(If you like, you can download a copy here.)

So far, my 480 minutes of silence has been a thoroughly effective buffer track. I’m sure that it will fail eventually, Murphy’s law being what it is. But when it does, at least I’ll be secure in the knowledge that I took all reasonable steps (and arguably several unreasonable ones) to avoid that failure. And besides, said failure will no doubt involve some kind of amusing story.

So until then, may you be ever blessed with flawlessly accurate sound cues.




4 Responses

  1. Jay says:

    Fun fact: John Cage was an American composer famous for the composition 4’33”, which was (creatively enough) four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. You two could have been friends.

  2. Pingback: Blank tracks | Cheapart

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