By Dave Foxx
I got a really interesting request from a reader a few weeks ago to critique his demo and provide suggestions for improvement. Being my usual brain-dead self after putting in several hours sweating over a hot console, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what his demo needed at first. I knew it didn’t sound right even though the VO was strong, and the music and effects all sounded first rate. He complained that his production just didn’t have the power of most of what he was hearing on the RAP CD. I was in agreement, but couldn’t figure out why.
I listened to his demo several times over the next few days. I even played it for a couple of my production gurus. (What? You think I don’t consult with anyone? Get real.) Finally, one of them said, “It’s all too dramatic.” Then it hit me. If someone is sitting directly in the flow of a river all the time, the river doesn’t seem particularly powerful. If you or I were to jump into that same river, we’d get bowled over. Our friend’s demo was all power, all the time. I had an epiphany.
I finally wrote back and gave him some advice; advice that I have since taken to heart, which I share now with you. The key… is contrast. You need to leave some dramatic headroom through most of a piece so that when it comes time to really crank up the wattage, you have somewhere to go.
I’ve preached many times from these pages that each promo or commercial needs to have one Unique Selling Proposition, and that everything in your production needs to support that USP. By treating the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a piece as a baseline, I can get really dramatic with the USP. Case in point: We’re in the throes of promoting our annual Christmas concert, Z100 Jingle Ball 2004. The USP for this event is four hours of live hits. The real drama is the lineup itself.
The Production 212 audio this month is a couple of the promos for this year’s show, plus a PSA we cut with Vanessa Carlton in support of the Z100 Jingle Ball 2004 charity, Musicians On Call. Notice how, in the promos, the date and venue, ticket sales information and the sponsor all move along at a pretty fast clip. In both promos, the drama starts with the hooks from the performing artists. The second promo only has three hooks (Less Is More, remember?), but the litany of artist names is equally dramatic in tempo and delivery. (Other versions of these promos used different hooks.)
The PSA is a little different. The USP is a call to become a part of the charity. The drama for this PSA comes from a song Vanessa wrote about a little girl who is deathly ill from leukemia. Everyone who hears this PSA while I’m sitting in the room gets choked up when Vanessa breaks into the chorus of this song. Immediately after the chorus, she makes her appeal for everyone to get involved. She tees up with the chorus and then drives the message home. (For those of you who will undoubtedly notice, the PSA runs 60 seconds, but it’s not coming out of Promotional Inventory. Less is still more.) Also, because I know some of you will be curious, we got Vanessa’s song Annie from an advance copy we got of her new CD. It’s in stores now.
Drama can be created with a change in tempo, a really touching piece of music, a moment of silence, a change in texture or a simple choice of words. By keeping the dramatic profile of the overall piece a little lower and letting it really bloom around the USP, you can create an irresistible landscape that screams your message. The stuff that’s supposed to be powerful is powerful in contrast to the rest of the piece. With all due respect to my friends in Wichita – the scenery around Denver is much more powerful because of the mountains.
To my reader who asked for the critique, it’s not that you lacked power. You had too much power. Dial it back a few notches so that when you are ready to drop “the bomb,” you can throw it open and make the USP stand out like a beacon.
To the rest of you reading this, remember that you’re probably already doing it. Don’t forget, my email writer was comparing his work with yours on the RAP CD. However, by becoming aware of it, you can really tweak it up. I mean I discovered that I instinctively knew this previously because as I went back and listened to my own archive, I found that I had been doing it all along. Now I’m aware of it and I feel just that much more in control of the results my production achieves. Now, every time I sit down to make more noise, I make sure I save a little room for dessert.
When the boss walks in and catches you reading this magazine, forcing you to get back to the work at hand, try tweaking the ‘dramatic headroom.’ When you get the accolades for a job well done, you can tell the boss it was a tip you got from reading RAP, and won’t he or she “please make sure to renew the subscription?”