By Dave Foxx
I got the most bizarre piece of email recently, asking what kind of criteria I use to judge other people’s production. I thought it bizarre because I had a difficult time coming up with a simple answer. This column (I hope) will be the result.
It’s a pretty complex bit of work and explaining it in as few words as possible is like trying to explain why The Thinker by Auguste Rodin is a masterpiece. This is the essence of radio production. We use science to create art, but trying to quantify art in scientific terms is nearly impossible. There is a certain something that makes it work which completely resists explanation. However, here is a simple checklist you can use to make sure all the components are there.
Bear in mind one thing, a good producer knows all the rules… a great producer knows when to break them. The entire era of modern pop music might never have happened if four Brits from Liverpool had listened to the executives at Decca Records. They said that drums, bass and two guitars would never make a viable popular music ensemble. It’s a good thing that the executives at Capitol/EMI Records were too dumb to know that. We might never have known the Beatles.
Narrow the Focus and Broaden the Appeal
Make a poster of this phrase and hang it in your studio. How many times have you gotten a shopping list of copy points from a client that must all be included? Great price, easy terms, fantastic selection, convenient locations, excellent service are all excellent selling points by themselves, but combining them all into one spot means that none of them get heard. What you want is a single Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
The reason for this is incredibly simple: radio is a linear medium. If you graze through the ads in a newspaper, you’ll see all kinds of junked up layouts that feature price/item sales. Car dealers and grocery stores that want to advertise pricing specials should advertise in a newspaper because it is a block medium. The reader can go through all the minute details at their leisure, even circling the parts that appeal most to them. You can’t do that in radio. It all comes out one word at a time and once the word is out, it’s gone. The listener could never go back and ‘circle’ the car model number with the great price. And if anyone thinks the listener is sitting there, poised and ready to jot down a phone number, that “anyone” needs a dose of reality. People just don’t listen to radio that way.
If you want to penetrate the mind of the listener, you’ll have much more success with a laser than you will with a flashlight. They both shine a light where you want it to go, but the laser’s light is coherent and focused, while the flashlight is well… not. Sharpen the focus to one, and only one USP, and you will always have more success.
I Give It a 90 Because It’s Easy to Dance To
The flow helps you sharpen the focus. I’m not just talking about musical flow, although that counts too. There is a rhythm to speech, one that helps convey meaning to every word and phrase. You could read the phrase, “What’s that in the road ahead?” and have it make perfect sense, but if you add a couple of short pauses in the wrong place, it comes out as, “What’s that in the road… a head?” They’re the same words, but with totally different meaning.
I have written at length in this space about the importance of making the music flow. The reason is sublimely simple: if the listener feels a hiccup in the rhythm, they stop listening to the important stuff because their brain is trying to figure out what happened. Never give their brain a chance to question anything because once that happens, it’s over before you even get to the good part.
The speech patterns, musical phrases and even sound effects all need to have a natural rhythm or they won’t ring true, and you can never underestimate the power of the listener’s BS meter. Once that goes off, your message is toast because they’re simply not listening any more.
I said, “Oversexed People Are Hard Of Hearing!”
Miguel de Cervantes used the phrase, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” in his comic tale Don Quixote. The origin of that phrase is somewhat in dispute, but everyone agrees that it basically means, “Results are what counts.” The results of your production skills are in the mix. Unless the music in the background is supposed to be natural, or a part of the scene like Muzak in a store, the vocal tracks should swim along in the top of the music, allowing the music to punch through from time to time to add emphasis to what is going on in the copy. If the music is too far back, it becomes more of an irritant than help and if it’s too far forward, you drown out what’s being said.
I’ve found that when it comes to mixing, bold is better. Rookies tend to push the music way back because they don’t want it to be distracting. I have news for anyone who thinks like that: if the music is distracting, it’s the wrong music. If the music is right, it works just like the music in a movie. You don’t really hear it because it’s an integral part of the message. It adds mood and substance that will support your USP. This is one area that’s really difficult to quantify in a magazine column. Suffice it to say that when it’s right, you will know it. It’s when you don’t know if it’s right that you become a danger.
Aside from licensing issues that go with using a popular song in a commercial, these choices are almost always automatically wrong because popular songs have their own message. The only time you should ever dip into the station library for music is if you’re doing a promo about the music you play. You should even think twice about using some songs in concert promos for that particular artist because that song’s message might conflict with your USP.
So, Your Stores Are “Conveniently Located?”
I was going to launch into a long list of “never do this” bits, but having looked over what I have, I’ve decided that telling you all one more time to take the words convenient locations or located at out of your vocabulary is not needed. I hope. Not putting un-natural phrases into a natural setting probably ought to be a rule all its own, but let’s just stick with the idea that you want the phrasing to sound natural, just to keep the rhythm and flow going in a positive direction.
That’s It? Where’s The Rest?
It’s a short list, true, but like a good piece of production, it’s very focused. Find a single USP and build everything else around it. If you’re using humor, the punch line must support it. If you’re using dialogue, it must sound real and push the listener to understanding your USP. Sound effects and music should add emphasis to your message and never be a distraction. The entire piece should flow out of the speakers, like a finely crafted piece of music.
For my CD contribution this month, I’ve chosen a promo that uses something I’ve come to really love for promos, movie trailer music. My good friend Robert Dudzic designs the Trynity HD/FX library, as well as a number of other libraries in use by TV networks and more recently producers of movie trailers. He very graciously gave me some of his movie trailer library and allowed me limited use on the air at Z100. For sheer drama and excitement, this stuff is hard to resist. So much so, that he’s now decided to add a whole new expansion to his Trynity HD/FX library, consisting of mainly movie trailer material. He’s working on it now so hopefully, it will be available in a few months. My only regret in presenting this particular piece is that there is, by necessity, a lot of other effects and WAY too much talking. (I’m laughing here.) Think of the possibilities.