Production 212: Putting the Horse Before the Cart… (or vice versa)

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

After last month’s article, I got quite a few emails saying “thanks,” for the snapshot of how I build my templates. I actually got several that said, “I never thought of that,” which still surprises the heck out of me. But one email in particular really got my juices going on a question I’d never thought to address in this space. Doc Adams, down in Houston wrote to ask how I go about building a session content-wise. His question was, “Do you lay down the VO and do all of your funky gyrations to IT first and THEN start picking out workparts?” The short answer is, “it depends.” This article will address the long answer.

Let me start by explaining that I hate the idea of doing anything by rote. It drives me crazy when I see an expert explain the way to do something without allowing for any variations. OK, the bicycle that I assemble might not look like everybody else’s bicycle, but I guarantee you it’ll work. (My kids hate that whenever they get a bicycle for Christmas.) Likewise, I’m not gonna sit here and outline the methods I use to assemble a session and then tell you it’s the only way to do it. These are a couple of paths I’ve discovered to get where I’m going. If they work for you, so much the better; if they don’t, thanks for listening.

To me, the entire production process has to begin in your brain. You have to develop a thought that you want to implant in the listener’s mind. This is Communications 101, folks. This is the basic premise of everything we do. You want to open the listener’s mind with emotions, by far the easiest door to open… then, once the door is open and the listener is ready to receive, you can neatly deposit the thought and be on your merry way. Ten times out of ten, this thought will come directly from whatever the promotion is. If the finished piece is an appeal for aid to disaster victims, the thought in the listener’s mind will be “I need to make a donation.” If you’re building a promo for a contest, that thought will be “I need to win,” or “I need that prize.” Commercially, the thought will always be, “I need to buy that.”

On the heels of the thought will come the emotion you’ll use to wedge the thought into the listener’s mind. This is usually self-evident, but not always. This emotion will be the empathy the listener feels coming out of their speakers. In the examples cited above, the aid to disaster victims piece would tap into the sorrow we all feel when we see someone in need. In the contest promo, you want the listener to feel like the prize is something they really want or need, spurred by a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality or perhaps it will be something that will “save money” or “promote good health or safety.” Commercially, these can be any one of a dozen emotional trip points, depending on the goods or services rendered.

Once you’ve come up with the thought and emotion, write it out. I’ve known a lot of producers who will start throwing effects and music beds together before they’ve given any thought to exactly how they’re going to express the thought. This kind of production becomes a thought in search of an emotion. This is somewhat like cooking up a dish without really knowing what you want it to be. Is it chili or a stew? Is it a side dish or a main course? The thinking behind doing it this way is, “I’ll throw some stuff in the pot and see where it goes. Then, I’ll make adjustments with spices and other ingredients to make it perfect.” Oddly, this method will work many times, but too often to suit my taste, it won’t. If you start with a recipe (a script), you can always adjust it – I don’t know a really good cook who doesn’t do that, but when you start throwing ingredients without some kind of road map, you’re too likely to end up with disposal fodder.

So, now we’ve laid the groundwork and Doc’s question comes into play. Do we start with the VO track and build the music and effects around it, or do we start with the music and effects? OR… in a third scenario, do we build it as we go? Well… it depends on the emotion.

If the emotion is serious, I always start with the VO track. While the wedge I’m going to use to sneak past the listener’s thinking defenses is always an emotion, sometimes I want to make it seem like I’m making an intellectual appeal. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to make an actual intellectual appeal because that will almost never work. The listener is too busy thinking about driving, typing, cleaning or doing what ever it is they’re doing. They’re not going to voluntarily give up their thinking process unless you open that emotional door first. In the case of soliciting aid for disaster victims, put the listener in the place of a victim for a moment. Have them imagine what it feels like to be without food, water or any of the myriad daily necessities. Turn the emotional doorknob with some sound effects of a baby crying or a dog mewling, and you’ve captured their mind for just a second. Then drop in the call to action, like “you can help by calling.” Because you’re making it sound like an intellectual appeal, you want the VO to be perfect. It should have all the right pauses, the emphasized phrases and words laid out exactly the way it would be in a speech, without music or effects from the beginning. Then, as you add effects and music, you can maximize them for their emotional impact.

In a contest promotion, I will most often start by building the music and effects tracks first, then adjusting the script as needed. This allows me to control the flow and tempo of the entire piece so that it remains entertaining from start to finish and the musicality keeps things rolling. I make sure the track has a couple of nice impacts where I’ll add emphasis for major points, all according to what I wrote in stage two of the production process.

This month’s audio track is a promo I did for the Z100 Pays Your Bills promotion that we’re conducting throughout the fall book. It begins with a bit of misdirection as the character in the background is obviously suffering from gas pains, while I ask if the listener is likewise suffering from gas pains. Then the character “enlightens” us with the question “85 dollars?” making us realize that we’re talking about gasoline pains. The emotional door gets cracked open because it’s a pain we’re all feeling right now and the listener gets the message which immediately follows, “Let Z100 take care of that.”

The third path of production we can take after the writing stage is where I’ll go when it’s a kind of “standard” message we’re trying to get across on a regular basis. Most of Z100’s music image promos will fall into this category, because the thought and emotion are both always the same. The thought is “Z100 plays more variety.” The emotion is a sense of superiority because they feel validated in their choice of radio stations. In the case of doing a beat mix style promo, I will often do the beat mix itself, then record the VO, add some effects, lace in the VO over the beat mix, add some more effects and/or music and finish it out with the last bit of voice track.

Obviously, the actual short answer should be, “Choose the way that works best for the situation, based on the emotional lever you need to use.” For me, building the tracks before I even crack the mic is my modus operandi about 99% of the time. Thankfully, the need to do ‘thought-provoking’ promos is rare. I don’t think I could stand having disasters like the recent devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina going on any more than they do.

Now, I’m gonna go out and ride my bicycle with the handlebars under the seat.

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