Our Captions Are Alive With the Sound of Music


VITAC captioners are Jacks (and Jills) of all trades. They routinely handle an array of programming — from reality to religious, sports to cartoons, comedies to horror. Let’s just say, they do it all. Here, our Cartoon Sound Effect King, none other than Brendan McLaughlin describes the process captioners use to approach musical programming.

By: Brendan McLaughlin

One aspect of closed captioning that a lot of people probably don’t think about too much is music. We do a fair amount of rock videos, concerts, and sometimes entire series devoted to musical performances. I always tell my trainees that their main objective is to transmit the hearing experience to the hard of hearing viewer. With music, that can obviously be challenging, but it’s always a fun and rewarding experience.

One time-consuming genre of music to caption is doo-wop. The music is always great in the specials that we do, but it can take a while because to accurately capture the flavor of the performance, we try to include as many of the background singers’ instances of “Bom ba-ba bom” and “Shoo-be-doo-be-doo-wop-wop” as possible. Sure, we could cut corners and not include all of that, but I feel like our audience would be missing out if we went that route.

Another challenging genre to caption is rap — not only because the lyrics are hard to find sometimes, but because the performers rap so quickly that the software sometimes has trouble displaying all of these captions. OutKast’s “The Way You Move” lasted for only five minutes, but because of all the overlapping lines, it took over an hour to caption it. Great fun, though.

This brings up another aspect of captioning music: finding lyrics. Sometimes we have to scour to find reliable lyrics. An example of unreliable lyrics were ones we found for Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama.” They interpreted the line “She’s heavenly/ A treat for the eye to see,” as “She’s heavenly/ A tree full of odyssey.” Uh… what, now?

On the other side of the spectrum, we sometimes caption instrumental concerts. You might think that this would be easy — just list which song the artist is playing — but that’s not always the case. Again, you try to approximate the experience so that the hard of hearingviewer doesn’t feel left out, so we use captions like [MUSIC SWELLS ], [ TEMPO QUICKENS ], [ TRUMPETS BURST ], and the like. I’ve been tempted to use [ BLISTERING GUITAR SOLO ] and [ MOST RIGHTEOUSLY FUNKY ORGAN SOLO ], but I thought better of it. Eh, maybe I should have used them. Rats.

All kinds of sound effects and descriptors can come into play when captioning singers. For the movie “Sister Act,” when the nuns sang badly, we added [ Off-key ]. We also have tricks at our disposal, like extending letters when the performer prolongs a note. In a Clay Aiken performance, “Solitaire” became [ SOLITA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-IRE ].

Whenever I’m working on a music project, I transform into a captioning conductor. It’s probably best that my trainees don’t watch me while I’m reviewing videos and concerts, because my hands actually do sort of sway like a conductor’s, with me pointing at the screen each time I want the new caption display. And each caption has to display exactly when I want it to. In a weird way, even though I had nothing to do with creating this great music, by providing the captions, I feel like I’m connected to it and am, in some way, helping the artists interpret the songs to a special demographic of viewer.

I’d like to think that the hard of hearing audience gets something out of the extra effort that VITAC puts into these performances. I also fantasize sometimes that these artists are impressed with the work we do captioning their classic hits. Hey, a conductor can dream, can’t he?