By Dave Foxx
Instead of trying to instruct you on one single, monumental, arcane, “how-to-do-it” subject in this space, I’m scaling things back a bit for the next few months. Simple solutions to little problems we all deal with every day will be the topics I’ll write about. If something really big pops up, I’ll change gears, but I think this kind of column will be far more useful to more people. Even grizzled veterans will find a few nuggets here, I think.
Give Yourself Some Distance
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “He can’t see the forest for the trees.” (If you haven’t, you really need to get out more.) What it means is; he, whomever “he” is, is so involved in the details, he doesn’t see that the details combine to make a much bigger picture. When you’re deep in the throes of creation, every little detail becomes a small barrier that you must overcome. The EQ on the vocal needs a tweak or an effect needs to cover a small musical glitch and finally, the mix has to be just so. Once you get past all those little speed bumps, get up and take a walk, maybe grab a cup of coffee or see the lady in bookkeeping about last month’s expenses. While you are out of the studio, engage someone in a conversation that has nothing to do with what you’ve been working on. Don’t be long about it, they’re probably just as busy as you are, but let your brain completely shift gears. Now, walk into your studio and press PLAY. I can almost guarantee you will find something wrong. Fix it. Get up and walk again. No brain shifting this time, just take a quick “potty” break or check on the weather.
When you come back the second time and hit PLAY, you will probably be completely satisfied with the finished product. (If not, rinse and repeat.) The little problem you fix after the mini-walkabout would have been that one nagging little mistake that would drive you crazy every time you hear it on the air. Problem solved… happy client or PD… all is right in the cosmos.
One of the most noticeable differences between a broadcast studio and a recording studio, besides the enormity of the console, is something that usually sits on top of the recording studio mixer; a very tiny, extra set of monitors. With the touch of a button, the mixing producer can shut off the main speakers and pump all of what they’re doing through the diminutive monitors sitting on their board. With the touch of another button, left, right and center channels are summed into one monaural source. This allows the producer to listen like a listener. (Sound familiar?)
While you’re sitting there, pounding out the stellar spots or promos on a system that sounds like a million bucks, or even a few thousand bucks, most of your audience is sitting in their car, or at home doing homework or the dishes, listening on something that costs considerably less. Before you let your sound loose on the world, you need to know how it presents on a considerably smaller system. If you don’t have a small set of monitors, run down to Radio Shack, Best Buy or wherever and grab a small (inexpensive) pair of computer speakers. Get them hooked up to your system and before you run the final mix, try listening like a listener. It will definitely make a difference in your EQ, compression and mixing. Be sure you listen to a mono sum mix too. While the odds of having an out-of-phase stereo file have been greatly reduced by today’s tech, it still happens. The last thing you want is to have the vocal on a hook simply disappear when it’s played in mono.
Do Your VO Without Headphones
My agent recently called and asked me to record another of his talents VO session for a West Coast client. It was a promo for one of the cable networks that this fellow regularly voices. He was in town for some network meetings and just needed a decent place to lay down his tracks. Of course, I was happy to oblige and it turned out that I was really glad. I don’t have a booth, per se, so I usually record my tracks with a pair of headphones, right in front of my own console. He stepped up to the mic and gave me a test read, asked if it sounded OK and then proceeded to read the script in earnest. When I asked him if he wanted a pair of headphones, he tilted his head to the side, like a dog questioning the sanity of his owner, and asked, “What for?”
When I suggested he might want to make sure it sounded right, he said, “That’s your job.”
What an eye-opener. After we wrapped up and he was gone, I started thinking about what he’d said and came to a small epiphany. There is nothing natural about listening to your own voice coming back through a system as you record it. How in the world am I going to sound natural under those circumstances?
Since then, I’ve been checking the sound briefly and then taking the headphones OFF before I lay down any tracks. What a difference! One of the people at my agency noticed immediately on my next audition. She emailed me immediately with the comment that I, “sound more natural than usual,” and that I was sure to get the gig. Well, at least she was right about the first part. My reads have been much better, more natural sounding and less “announcer-ish.” If you do your own VO, give it a shot. I think you’ll like the difference.
Whenever Possible, Use Sound Effects To Sell the Setting
Whenever we use theatre of the mind in our work, I have learned over the years that it really helps the scenario if you can add a little something to the aural setting that completes the scene in the listener’s mind. This all came home when I recently produced an ad that was set in a family kitchen. As it happens, I didn’t write this little play and the writer kept slipping in verbal references to what was going on in the kitchen, like, “Oops, you want to grab that toast?” This made the whole scene very “wordy” I thought, so I proceeded to cut out those phrases and created sounds that told the story. In this case, I added the sound of a toaster popping up, and someone grabbing the toast and buttering it. At first, the writer was a little uptight about the changes I made. After a few times through though, he warmed to what I had done and even complimented me. He said that I told the whole story while I had simplified the message, which made it much stronger. Bonus points! Since then, that writer has insisted I produce everything he writes. Now, instead of writing in all those non-sequiter phrases, he writes direction for the sound effects, allowing the VO to sound more natural and doing a much better job of selling the USP.
Sometimes, I’ll create a setting that’s not specified. Once I was doing a spot that was straight announce with no music or other production. I was not the writer on this rather serious piece either. I’m sure the writer intended that I simply drop the voice track onto a bed and let it fly, which is what I did, initially. It was dreadful. The gist of the spot was, “time is running out,” so I pulled the bed out and added the sound of a grandfather clock, gently ticking. I also added a bit of room noise and a touch of small room reverb to the VO. What a HUGE difference! The client reported a much stronger response to this spot than anything he had done before. I got a free lunch from the AE for that one! (OK, it was a dirty-water hot dog from the corner vendor, but hey… lunch is lunch, right?)
Try Your Punch Line on a Live Audience
A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about a PD who insisted on using humor centered on man-junk in his promos. The producer had contacted me, knowing full well that this kind of humor does not sit well with the CHR demo. I suggested he ask the PD to try the joke out on someone who actually fits the demo. After getting a disgusted response from several of the assistants in the building, the PD relented.
That got me to thinking about the humor I use in my promos. Instead of guessing at what kind of jokes/stories our target demo appreciates, I started telling jokes to a few of our younger employees (male and female), to find out. One thing I discovered early on was, there is no “standard” kind of humor that works all the time. It can vary widely, according to what’s going on in the world. Some days, a play on words is very much appreciated. Other days, a silly goof on someone works best, never really being mean to any one person or group.
The big takeaway on this is simple. Humor can make a promo fabulous. Humor can make a promo awful. Try it out whenever possible, before you commit to recording.
For my sound this month, a promo that ran the weekend AFTER Z100’s Jingle Ball, back in December. If you have a production service like Production Vault, Chasecuts, or Frostbytes, be sure you look for the generic artist liners. You will no doubt find some things that will really help you sell a promo, like the lines I got from PV from Miley Cyrus. Her “listen to win” and “check it out” lines made it sound personalized. Throw in some actual concert audio and you’ve got a pretty rockin’ bit of imaging going on.