Christmas has come alive in Federation Square with a huge illuminated tree and an intriguing soundscape project involving Melbourne Polytechnic teacher Michael Costa.
He's 'the audio mixing guy' of the team that every year blends the sounds and songs of Christmas with a dazzling light display and puts them all together in a giant dancing Christmas tree.
Michael has been bringing his complex sound design expertise to the project since 2008 and this year there's a 16 metre tall tree, adorned with thousands of fully programmable LEDs. Inside the tree are 40 speakers, mapped across 20 different audio channels and four height levels and the lights have been meticulously programmed to dance beautifully with the music.
'I'm the one who programs the music to go into different speakers and mixes the music,' Michael says. 'I do most of my work in the home studio and prepare the files and they put them into this special machine so it plays back in the tree – it's quite a complicated path.'
'Most of my work here is all about surround sound because this tree has 40 speakers in it. It's configured in a certain way, circles going up the tree, so you get a sense of height, of the sound going higher.
'Something different is coming out of all the speakers so you get a real sense of space when you stand in one spot and then move to another spot you're hearing different stuff, it's like different parts of an orchestra.'
All the music is Christmas themed, with some originals, some classics and film score-style music. There are short shows every 15 minutes, with daytime shows (which play softer and without any lighting) and the night time displays are generally much louder and with the full light show.
'This year we did something pretty exciting,' Michael says. 'We have taken some traditional carols like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby and some Diana Krall carols, just normal CDs. I've run them into this special software that I've got to break them up into their little separate bits. I can make the voice different to the drums different to the strings, and then put that into different speakers. You can have Frank Sinatra coming out of one speaker and his drums coming out of another. It's incredible.'
Michael has a music and audio engineering background. He's worked on big records and major movies in sound mixing, and says he 'got in on the ground floor of computer editing before it was in vogue'.
Michael started teaching in 2012 to teach in the inaugural Melbourne Polytechnic Diploma of Sound Production course. An old uni mate, who was the course co-ordinator, saw his work on a website that provided audio production tutorials and his teaching career began. There are now three courses - Certificate IV, Diploma and Advanced Diploma – all based at Melbourne Polytechnic’s Fairfield campus. His subjects include post-production and studio production and now he says teaching is 'very rewarding, being able to empower the next generation'.
'I like it when you come across a number of students and you can see a glimmer in their eye that they're really getting something and they're really excited about something. This person wants to really get into it and they're showing some talent and I want to help if I can because they are the next breed of this job.'
Michael says sound production is an ever-changing job as well: 'When I first started it wasn't computer-based entirely and now it very much is. It's important that we pass on the skills that we have and then these guys will evolve into whatever the industry evolves into from now.'
And he's at the forefront of that evolution, having been a beta tester for the software companies for many years. 'I'm in a lucky position that I get to play with these new toys and then I can bring them in and show the students sometimes as well: "This is what's coming out in a little while, check out how cool this is?"
'I'm a bit of a geek like that. I love that stuff, I want to be in the future.'
If you like to see the Federation Square Christmas Tree, head to the City of Melbourne website for more information.