By Dave Foxx
I recently got back from Los Angeles and the Dan O’Day International Production Summit. Dan very graciously asked me to come out and do some live production sessions on the stage while the attendees all gawked at a projection screen, eyeballing everything I did, as I did it. Honestly, it was a little un-nerving to sit up there and just do what I normally do, while explaining the entire process, all while keeping track of the time. I don’t normally talk while I’m producing and I never look at the clock, so I felt a little like I was trying to chew gum and walk at the same time, something I never really mastered.
Obviously, I know how I do things, so by far, the most interesting part of my presentation to me were the Q&A periods. (I did them as I moved from one area to another so the questions would be fresh and relevant.) The truly fascinating thing for me was the kind of questions I got. I can only assume that Dan only attracts top-of-the-line producers because very few of the questions were technical issues. They almost all had to do with style and presentation. Well, I should also point out that I did my presentation on a fabulous Pro Tools™ set-up provided by the Digidesign™ office in Los Angeles, and a lot of people there normally use Audition™ by Adobe (formerly known as Cool Edit or Cool Edit Pro.) Most of the questions were really about timing and placement of the various elements, which frankly is the heart and soul of good production.
Last month, I used this space to write about beat mixing and matching in promos, so this month I’d like to take my cue from the Summit and extend the discussion to include timing and placement to give an overall view of any promo or commercial’s rhythm and flow. If you’ve been reading this column for a while, I’m sure you’ll recognize that this is a theme I come back to a lot. The reason is simple: Rhythm and flow are the key to holding your audience’s attention. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling hot tubs or peanut oil, a cash giveaway or your station’s cool new website, if you don’t hold their attention the message is going everywhere except your listener’s minds.
Here’s the thing. If you want impact, you cannot sell whatever you’re selling on an intellectual basis. Facts and figures are BORING. Nobody cares. That is one reason that car dealers and grocery stores should never advertise on the radio unless they’re willing to try a non-traditional approach. Until a car dealer starts selling his stock for a dollar per car, your audience will never get excited about great financing, high trade-in allowances and a big selection. Every dealer in the world offers those features. When the local grocer starts offering free food, they might get a good response, but until that day, price-item advertising should be off of any radio station’s menu. Instead, this kind of client should be advertising in a newspaper. If the consumer is in the market for a car or trying to reduce their weekly grocery bill, they’ll definitely go to a paper and check out the advertisements.
However, if you make an emotional appeal, you will strike pay dirt every time. It can be any emotion from fear to happiness, envy to a sense of wellbeing, but IF the emotion is there, you’ll open the door to the listener’s mind. All you have to do is then tuck a little message inside and move on. The harder you strum that emotional wire, the bigger the message you can leave. THIS is where rhythm and flow come into play.
When Dan O’Day was addressing the troops at the Summit about copy writing, he described every ‘good’ spot and promo as a conversation, which I thought was very apt. Yes, it’s a one-way conversation, but when the rhythm and flow are on the money, it has a very natural feel to it, and you can begin to assume the listener’s response to what you’re trying to convey, so it almost becomes a dialogue.
I always begin with the music. It MUST flow. Even when the music comes up to a big crescendo and stops for a moment, I continue counting the beat to make sure that when the downbeat comes back, it’s right on the same rhythm, in exactly the right place. Borrowing from last month’s article, I dance to the music. If I ever falter, I know that something’s amiss and I go back and fix it before I do anything else.
Then, I add effects to compliment the music track. Each effect, whether it’s an electronic slam or a natural door slam, must hit right ON a beat, preferably a downbeat, or if the music is stopping, right on the LAST beat. The sound effects, natural or otherwise are best used when they accent the music, rather than being the cornerstone of the piece.
I move on then and add the voice elements. I use several methods to make certain that the voice flows WITH the music. The first is to overlap segments of the VO by 100, 200 or sometimes 300 milliseconds. By “checker boarding” the voice track, I can very easily move the various parts to make them FIT the music track. Sometimes though, there’s just too much or too little copy to make it sound natural, so my second choice is to amend the copy by either adding or deleting phrases. If I have to keep the writer or client in the loop, I make sure they know what I’m doing and most importantly KNOW why I’m doing it.
The first thing I cut, if they’re there, is telephone numbers. Phone numbers are non-emotional baggage that has nothing to do with the message. If the client insists on keeping them, I make sure they understand that they’re cutting the effectiveness of the spot by half. I know, you’ve probably gone round and round with clients or salespeople over this, but it’s simple reality. The phone number is a FACT that the listener has no interest in at all. Remember that our appeal HAS to be on an emotional level. (The one thing I do that usually stops the argument is ask them when was the last time they wrote down a phone number from an ad they were interested in following up on. The answer is almost always, “never.” End of argument.)
Next, I delete locations. HORRORS! Look… if I’m doing my job correctly, the listeners will be motivated to look them up! My job is NOT to make it easier for the listener… my job is to interest the listener. My job is NOT to sell the product or service… my job is to spark an interest in the listener. The client still has to do the actual selling, no matter where they are located.
Now, back to the production session, my LAST choice is to use time compression/expansion. I always hesitate to do this because if I overdo it, I’ve got a spot or promo that sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk hawking on the air. Bad move. NOT natural. But, a little is OK.
Finally, I make whatever adjustments I need to make with the music again. If the bed ends right in the middle of a VO section and I can’t edit/bend/stretch the copy to fit, I’ll add a measure and make the adjustment so that the end of the musical phrase coincides with the period at the end of a sentence.
On the CD this month are three sample promos. Each of them demonstrates excellent rhythm and flow. Of course, you’re not getting to hear how they came together, so you’re already missing the real tutorial value, but you DO get to hear finished product that conforms to the standards I’ve been talking about this AND last month. The first one is actually a promo that Kelly Kelly Kelly produced for KIIS-FM/Los Angeles, promoting the return of their Pays Your Bills contest. The brief pause between Chris Corley (the VO guy) guessing that you (the listener) have been saving his/her bills just for this contest – and the listener’s response is dead on! The second promo is one that really demonstrates how the music tracks help guide the overall flow of the spot. This particular promo about Z100’s Video On Demand might have actually already been featured in this space (I DO lose track once in awhile), but it is truly, a perfect example. The last one is for a new service Z100 is offering listeners with cell phones that really shows how a VO can be wrapped around the music.
When the production flows and keeps a natural rhythm, the music and effects serve to emphasize the message. If you can dance to it, the listener can too. If the listener can dance to it, there’s a good chance they will. If they’re dancing, they’re listening on an emotional level and YOU are suddenly… a genius.