Apple.com Pro Feature - Passionate Podcasting:
Joseph Vella, Podcaster & Multimedia Guru
By Dustin Driver
All hardcore fans dream of meeting their musical heroes. “What is more beautiful than being able to listen to the behind-the-scenes workings of your favorite artist?” asks Joseph Vella. “Or listening to your favorite artist talking about what they do, learning about another side of that artist?” For Vella, not much. He’s a frontline fan, an entrenched aficionado who lives to pick the brains of world-class musicians. The drummer-turned-media-magician is a mobile music journalist, traveling the world to interview legends like Brian Wilson, McCoy Tyner, Pat Metheny, Yo-Yo Ma and Chick Corea for major record labels and music publications. But unlike other music journalists, who pen their experiences on the page, Vella crafts podcasts.
“My job is to tell stories, whether it be through music, spoken word or a combination of both,” he says. “I’m really trying to paint a picture with my podcasts and offer something of value that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Vella asks the greats to spill it all: their history, motivation, inspiration, even the nitty-gritty of the creative process. He records it on location using a MacBook Pro running GarageBand or Soundtrack Pro. Then he distills the audio into potent podcasts, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and uploads it to the iTunes store for distribution. “There’s an art to the edit and to the podcast,” he says. “I listen to the raw footage like a possessed person and I view my MacBook Pro as my instrument. I listen, learn and practice it every day. I work at editing and creating podcasts all the time.”
Vella has been cultivating his fandom for years. The Northern California native grew up playing drums, devouring old jazz LPs and studying great musicians. “I’ve always liked listening to the players,” he says. “Listening to what they do, listening to textures and timbre, deconstructing it and hopefully recreating it in my own playing. That experience really prepared me for what I do now.” That careful attention to detail made Vella a natural aficionado. He hung on every note, delved into playing techniques and, eventually, started writing about it.
In 1991, he built JazzOnline.com, a website crammed with reviews and articles. It grabbed the attention of a few major record labels, which hired Vella to build or revise their sites. Within a few years, the drummer was the go-to guy for jazz and music site design. He streamed live jazz concerts over the web, created new audio and video content for distribution and wrote reviews and profiles. Then, after a few years of pioneering new media techniques, he hit a brick wall.
“I was bored with doing everything,” he says. “I could not stand to work on PCs anymore. It was not inspiring. I felt like I had learned a million tricks to use advance applications. Then I got a Mac and it just blew me away. It was like a bell rang. I felt like a kid again. I thought, here’s the tool to do all the cool stuff.”
Podcasts became one of the cool things that Vella could create. “I realized that podcasts were a way to revive something that modern radio had lost: intimacy,” he says. “More mainstream radio DJs used to really love the music, they were passionate about it and that really added a lot of emotional weight to the broadcasts. They talked about technique, about history and about the musicians themselves. Podcasts allow us to do that kind of retro-style radio, yet we can modernize it and use all these great tools to create something that goes beyond that.”
Instead of simply talking about his favorite musicians, Vella goes to them directly to get the inside scoop. He uses a combination of GarageBand, Soundtrack Pro and Sound Studio to splice interview clips with recorded music, sound effects and live performances. His podcasts are cinematic audio documentaries or as he calls them “podumentaries” that illustrate with sound. “I want to close my eyes and just listen to the story,” he says. “Podcasting is at its best when you can close your eyes and you can see the story while you listen. That’s really what I try to do.”
Vella’s first foray into audio storytelling involved trans-Atlantic file transfers, poetry and a British rock band. “I had been asked to do a piece for The Real Tuesday Weld, an eclectic band from London,” says Vella. “I knew that the lead singer, Stephen Coates, wrote poetry in addition to music and I wanted to do something really different.” Different, in this case, meant a somewhat bizarre fusion of narrative styles. “I thought, let’s do one part American mystery theater, one part BBC Theater, one part The Real Tuesday Weld and one part some crazy stuff.” The resulting podcast series, entitled “Radio Clerkenwell,” gave fans a porthole into the inner creative workings of The Real Tuesday Weld and propelled Vella’s podcasting career into the stratosphere.
One of Vella’s recent projects was, in part, composed at 30,000 feet. In 2006 he and a colleague Michael DeMartin were commissioned by EMI Records to do a series of podcasts to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Beach Boys’ breakthrough album “Pet Sounds.” Vella and deMartin interviewed Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston about each one of the album’s tracks. In many cases, Vella had only a few hours to pull an episode together. “We would speak with Brian, record it, then get on the plane,” he says. “I knew I had three hours and I took full advantage of it. I would edit small segments of the episodes and then pass my Mac three rows behind me to Michael and he would listen, comment and then pass it back up to me. We had this mobile systematic collaboration going on.”
Using GarageBand, Vella cut the musical backing tracks for the series en route to interview Wilson and the Boys. On the way home, he composed and edited several drafts of each episode. “I have found GarageBand to be the most valuable application that I use,” he says. “It’s just so easy and yet it allows you to do so much. During the Pet Sounds project, I used every available track in GarageBand to layer audio and used the application to adjust levels and get everything just right.”
GarageBand is Vella’s favorite on-the-road tool. “I do a lot of commuting between my home in Connecticut and a few offices in New York,” he says. “I use my commute to review and edit my pod productions, sometimes immediately after recording. In addition, I use my iPod a lot with pod episode drafts to test the mix, levels and overall content flow. I am constantly trying to perfect my content to work with a mobile lifestyle.”
Vella isn’t always mobile. His latest and largest project, in fact, has pulled him into a semi-permanent recording space. “Right now I’m working on a series about John Coltrane, called the Traneumentary,” he says. “It’s really a big project. I’m speaking with people who knew Coltrane, people who worked with him and people who played with him as well as a cast of contemporary artists. It’s a celebration of Coltrane’s artistry as told through personal interviews and Trane’s music.”
The journalist conducts nearly all of the Traneumentary interviews within the relatively controlled setting of a New York office building. Armed with his MacBook Pro, GarageBand, Soundtrack Pro and a good mic, he’s able to capture the odd threads that ultimately make up Coltrane’s musical legacy. “I was able to sit down with Jimmy Cobb, one of the few surviving musicians who played with Coltrane,” says Vella. “I had an idea, I wanted to have Jimmy talk us through a performance. So I whipped up an old bootleg track of a 1960 recording of Coltrane with Miles and Jimmy on drums. I started up the track and Jimmy started talking over it, telling us the story of that night. It was amazing.”
Technically, the commentary presented some challenges. “I needed to clean the voice track up without affecting the timing,” says Vella. “So I dragged the track into Soundtrack and edited it so it was cleaner, taking out the ‘ums’ and ‘uhs.’ I was actually able to clean it up without changing the timing.”
Vella is technically adept, but to him, podcasting is more than just getting the levels right. “The experience with Jimmy is really what I’m after for pod work,” he says. “I pursue that kind of feeling in my work. Whether it’s Steve Reich or Bebel Gilberto or the cast of A Chorus Line, I think the goal of great podcasts is to produce quality content that moves people.”