By Dave Foxx
I know, it’s not even close to Halloween, but I like that title better than "Tricks of the Trade." Yeah, I know… finally, some actual hints at how to do stuff!
Well gang, the last several columns have been very non-technical. I guess I’ve had a lot to get off my chest about USPs and clarifying your message. This month, we’ll just assume you got the message and delve into some more meaty questions of style and presentation from a technical point of view, a sort of “how-to-do” what I do in my work. Just remember, as I have often said here, my method is not THE method. It works well for me and delivers the kind of sound I like. There ARE other ways to do it. Your results may vary.
Just so you understand the “why” of what I do, let me list a few things that will help you pick and choose your methodology.
Item 1: Know the end-use of your product. I cannot imagine that someone would ever carry around a gigantic pair of Klipschorn Monitors so they could get better fidelity radio. These days, they’re either listening on a mediocre car stereo system or, perhaps just as often, through two tiny ear buds that came with whatever audio device they’re using. Knowing how the audience hears what you do makes a big difference in how you choose dynamics, EQ and other effects.
Item 2: You can fool most of the people some of the time. The human mind is far more capable of discerning things than we generally give it credit for. It is also susceptible to a number of little quirks that we can use to our advantage. Just knowing this can empower your work to be far more persuasive than you might think.
Item 3: The best rides go faster and faster. Nothing builds excitement better and faster than turning up the speed a notch. Turn it up another notch a few moments later and watch the excitement really bubble up. Do it again… well, you get the idea.
When I am preparing a voicetrack that I want to really sizzle, before I edit it to the essential phrases, I speed it up by as much as 8%. Anything more than that just sounds stupid and most likely will give you a lot of digital ‘artifacts,’ which are very annoying. Then I edit the tracks and make a master file containing only the good takes. But that’s only step one in the speed equation. I’ll come back to that later.
Knowing that an extremely small minority of listeners would ever take issue with fidelity issues, let’s get over the whole “natural always sounds better” thing. For Classical and Jazz music or long form programs, high-end audio is important, but we’re not dealing with anything approaching long form. It’s a commercial (or a special kind of commercial called a promo), so you’re main object is to punch through the other stuff and stand out. I know I’ve written about making your work “blend” in with your station’s programming, especially if you’re in a PPM market. You still have to temper what you’re doing with that in mind, but don’t confuse the words blend and bland.
With that in mind, compression is almost always your friend. Reduce the dynamic range to about -10db and you will always cut through. Run all of your VO tracks through a sub-master that will add a uniform amount of compression across the board. Don’t compress the music and effects, at least not initially. Then, in your final mix, add a touch of compression, just to control peaks and make sure that the dominant audio (VO or music) in any part of your piece actually takes control.
Add some texture to your voicetracks by “checkerboarding” the VO and adding a different effect to each track. My max is usually 3, but I’ve been known to reduce even that to 2. If you’re not sure what I mean by the term “checkerboarding,” believe me, it is NOT a form of torture. Just imagine a checkerboard superimposed on your editing screen and you only put VO on the black squares, one phrase at a time. So now, as the playback progresses, you’ll get audio from track 1, then track 2, back to track 1 and then possibly track 3. On one track you drop a hi-pass EQ, on another a light flange…leaving one track clear. Adding this kind of texture makes the voice more “interesting” to the human ear without being too disruptive. It’s a subtle thing, true, but one that keeps the listener’s mind focused on the voice on a technical level. Provided you’re copy is clear and concise, it will then easily stay interested on an intellectual level.
One little trick that I also use is to make sure that the frequencies of the VO never dip below 400hz. I’ve taken a great deal of criticism for advocating this, especially from audio purists. However, knowing that item 1 (see above) is always in effect means I don’t really care what the purists say. If you listen to one of my VO tracks alone, it does sound harsh, but once blended and mixed with music and effects, it sounds perfectly fine albeit a touch bright. That is exactly what I want. Remember, we want to make the message stand out, not like a sore thumb, but definitely apart from the rest of the broadcast. You can put the hi-pass filter on as you record (as I do) or give yourself a little more flexibility and add it on the compression sub-master.
This also allows for a rather elegant mixing solution that I really love. Because the VO is not getting in the way of anything below 400hz, I don’t have to duck music tracks -10db to -12db to hear the voice. I can get away with much shallower ducking (say -3db to -6db) and let it all blend on its own. There are some tracks I don’t duck at all, primarily bass driven music, which always adds a lot of excitement to a commercial or promo.
Now, everything is coming together and it’s time to add some real speed. Because your VO is checkerboarded you can easily ‘nudge’ all of the audio regions to overlap each other by as much as 300msec. I usually stop at 200 unless I’m really jamming. Obviously, I have to watch where my musical transitions are falling, because they should coincide with where the VO transitions are to give the whole piece the sense of flow I’m so crazy about. So I will often mix and match the amount of overlap as needed. Sometimes, the music just doesn’t last long enough, so I’ll add a measure or, if it’s a drone, I’ll simply stretch it a bit to cover. Oh, and once in awhile, if my VO is too short and changing the music would sound bad, I’ll do a little sampling effect, which is usually good for another 500msec or so.
This month’s Production 212 audio uses pretty much all of these little “tricks,” at one point or another. See if you can pick them out. Any Pro Tools™ users who send me an email requesting it, will get a link to download the session file for this promo, along with all the attendant audio so you can see for yourself how it’s laid out. Obviously, there will almost always be some inconsistencies due to mismatched plug-ins or other technical stupidity, but you should be able to get the gist. (Also, please remember that there are some licensing issues you will need to address before you use any of this material on your own station.)
That’s it: my day-to-day tricks of the trade. I hope you get something out of it. And if you think you see a better way to do something, I hope you’ll get in touch and let me know what you think.