Behind the Scenes at DEMO Spring 2011

During the VMAs, The Technology Behind the Magic

Written by Paul Oehlers, Audio technology professor

Behind Every Celebrity Lies Technicians and Technology

Beyond Miley and Taylor, the Video Music Awards will provide a new batch of case studies to dissect and analyze. More opportunities to delve into the art and science of audio technology.


I’ll watch the MTV Video Music Awards on August 30—but I’ll be watching a different show than most people. It’s just part of being an audio technician.

I’ve been this way since I was a little kid. My memories of Disneyworld are much different than my sister’s. While she enjoyed the magic of the rides, I was looking under the seat, trying to find the air hose, and leaning over the edge to find the mirror that created the illusion.

I was a magician’s worst nightmare. To me, there is no such thing as magic, just technology I haven’t figured out. I’m not afraid of Oz. I see the man behind the curtain.

When the VMAs appear on television this week, I expect it will be more of the same for me. Most people are content to enjoy the illusion that the music industry creates. They will watch the VMAs and be interested in the “who” and “what” of the evening:

  • What did Miley Cyrus say?
  • Who performed better “live,” Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez?
  • Who looked more like a hipster, Bruno Mars, or Mark Ronson?
  • Did Kanye West rush the stage and rage on a fellow musician?

For those of us who are interested in the “How did they do that?” it will be a much different evening. The VMAs will provide a new batch of case studies to dissect and analyze. More opportunities to delve into the art and science of audio technology.

At events like the VMAs, the technology evolves and expands while the talent seems pretty similar from year to year. Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Selena Gomez aren’t much different than Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Ashlee Simpson a decade ago. This generation’s One Direction is simply New Kids on the Block.

The technology has improved to make the illusion seem more real, but reality remains the same: the songwriters, musicians, and audio and video technicians behind the camera play a huge role in making those celebrities look great in front of the camera. Between these well-trained professionals and rapidly emerging industry tools, many of the “stars” that the media promotes are rather interchangeable. It’s the “machine” that keeps churning out one platinum hit after another.

I’m not saying that there won’t be enjoyable moments during the VMAs. After all, people eat hamburgers because they taste good, not because they are good for them. I’ll just be watching a different show than most people. My satisfaction comes from knowing “how,” not “who.” I appreciate the techniques these audio and video engineers use to create a spectacle worth watching.

Will there be twerking? Probably. But I won’t care. I’ll be too busy figuring out how they used the video screens to turn a virtual Donald Trump into Batman.



Interested in the “how” of the entertainment industry? Click to learn more about the MA in audio technology program at American University.

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