By Dave Foxx
Back to the syllabus! Our last few installments have been about writing, music and the creative process. This time, we discuss another power tool in your production toolbox, sound effects, both electronic and natural.
If I had to rank the tools available to the producer in order of importance, writing would definitely come first. Having the right words in the right order will ultimately mean success or failure. Having them read well comes in a close second. Making the music right with rhythm and flow helps reinforce the strength of the copy and delivery. Having it wrong can wreck everything else, so in one sense, music can really hurt you more than help. Effects can likewise hurt your efforts, probably more than they ever help, so pay close attention to what kinds of effects you use and even closer attention to how you use them.
Let’s start with electronic effects. An amazing amount of time and effort go into both the making of effects and the choosing of the right effects library. These are the pieces that many producers go crazy with because they sound so amazing. In fact, I would say that the term ear candy would be best described as the effects we all love to use, sometimes to the detriment of our work. Far too often, I hear promos that are simply jam-packed with zings, zaps, laser-fire and precious little else. I’m always a little puzzled as to why a producer would do this, but I hear it a lot. To a listener, there’s no real rhythm to it, no emotional impact and the message might float by at one point, but I’d be hard pressed to say what it was, so other than wasting 30 seconds of my example listener’s life, what’s the point?
Once you get the perfect bit of copy, it’s delivered with just the right style and emotion, you craft a music bed that supports the messaging and then add a few strategic effects that add to the musical impact. A ramp here, an impact there, perhaps a trail effect through a gap in the track and the music really starts to bring everything to life so the emotions can flow.
There are a LOT of effects libraries out there. Some are small, some galactic in scale, some are mostly hits and others are mostly ambience. Like any kind of producer or service, most of them are really good at a few things. Some try too hard, to be the ultimate effects library by doing everything like ramps, hits, stagers, drones and even music beds, and end up not being all that good at any of it. So as you’re shopping around, look for one that has a good balance and proven track record. Get really picky about how sharp the hits are and how smooth the drones. The services I use are premium services that almost always deliver exactly what I need without requiring me to “bend” the sounds to my purpose. I can almost always just lay the sound in, adjust the gain and move on.
I’m sure more than a few of you are willing me to name names at this point, but I am going to resist by pointing out that whichever library you use, it must fit your style of production. If you’re really strong with the whiz-bang effects end, you’ll want to have a library that is more music intensive. If you’re somewhat of a musician, the opposite is true. Here is one truism when it comes to selecting a library to fit your needs. The library seldom will live up to the demo. That’s not always true, but nearly. The demo, by design, showcases the absolute best parts of the library and is no doubt put together by an ace producer. If the library’s owners really go all out, they’ll hire a top-drawer VO and groom the script for weeks before committing anything to final recorded form. If you hear a demo and think, “That’s what my production will sound like,” you really need to slap yourself.
Natural sound effects are an extremely easy and quick way to help set the stage for a great commercial or promo. Sizzling bacon, a coffee maker percolating and perhaps a toaster popping up sets the place for your listener at your breakfast table, and you can start right in with dialogue. The sound of a car interior with a turn signal and maybe some windshield wipers banging away and your listener is sitting in the passenger seat as you drive your point home. The one caveat is simply this: it must sound real. With as many people listening on headphones as there are, you also need to pay attention to spatial relationships. Picture your kitchen in your head and place each sound effect within that room. Envision your car interior and make sure your turn signal is on the left and wipers across the stereo image. Once placed, don’t move them. Leave the room in a static place so the listener isn’t trying to figure out the “camera angle,” when they should be concentrating on the dialogue. If the listener is in a car, the car can move, but the listener’s perspective of the car never changes. If the spot happens in an automotive garage, the guy in the corner using the impact wrench needs to stay put. If the spot takes place in a gigantic warehouse, the listener’s aural view of the room must remain static. The reason for this is the same reason we try to make the music track smooth and flowing. If you add any confusion to the effects by changing perspectives without an incredibly compelling reason, you are going to take the listener’s mind off the message. Once you’ve established their perspective on the situation at hand, don’t change it unless it helps deliver the message. Honestly, I cannot think of one instance where that would be true.
When constructing your room, it’s also very important to add a touch of ambience. An early reflection reverb gives the above kitchen substance and creates a firmer base from which your fiction can spring. Make sure that each effect feeds a send to your reverb bus with the same placement in the stereo spectrum to avoid making the “picture” muddy. Car interiors, by design, have a more muted ambience, almost muffling some sounds, especially those from outside the window. EQ that rolls off the high end a touch would make a passing car horn feel very real. If you choose to roll down the window, a sliding EQ from a high-end roll off to flat as the horn goes by adds another layer of reality. Don’t forget that the dialogue also takes place within your “room,” so it must be included with any technical treatment. However, the VO will not normally be within your room, so any reverb or EQ you use for the environment should not be used on the VO track.
Most of the time, about the only “room” you will use will be a concert venue. To give a concert spot or promo a dose of reality, you need some reverb, echo and an appropriately sized crowd applauding. The music and the applause get the room treatment. The VO does not. Oh, and when I say appropriately size crowd, if you’re promoting a show at Madison Square Garden, the capacity is 18.5+ thousand. The audience must sound at least that large. If it’s an intimate nightclub, the size shrinks considerably to a couple hundred at most. And remember that except for the first number in a set, the applause swells after the first few notes of a song and dies out pretty much by the time the vocal starts. In other words, don’t stick an applause track beneath the whole concert spot. That would sound stupid. If you really want to make it sound real, remember that during a concert, you can hear the people around you clapping and cheering a little better than the entire venue, so layer some smaller applause on top of the main applause track.
Once in a while, you need to place the action inside a vault, a big warehouse or cave. This is when reverb becomes a “must” effect, and it “must” be done perfectly if you want any chance of getting your message across. Too often, I hear promos/spots in which the reverb effect has been put on everything, on the entire piece. Use your sends/returns for the reverb. That is what those are for.
For this month’s sound, I’ve chosen a JT/JZ Weekend promo from early June. Having Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z performing at Yankee stadium is a pretty big deal. Because I voiced their promos, I know a lot of radio stations across the country are sending winners to that show. I hope you like it.