by Dave Foxx
Some days, I picture myself walking down the rolling deck of an aircraft carrier, past an impressive line of F-14 Tomcats, helmet in hand as they take off, one by one, and climb up into the wild blue. I’m ready for combat and stoked to be up there myself, ripping along at Mach 1 with a full complement of ordinance, just aching to be given a reason to deploy. Of course, since Tom Cruise thrilled the world in Top Gun, the US Navy has moved onto FA/18 Hornets, but the feeling remains every time I walk down the halls to my studio, loaded with ideas.
Whenever a prod-newbie asks how he or she can improve their production, there are several answers (depending on how new they are), but the first answer is almost always speed. Speed IS the name of the game. The pertinent question of course, is how. One could simply crank up the speed on the final playback, but that’s just wrong on so many levels. I’m guessing your PD is paying a lotta dough for his VO guy or gal, and would likely not appreciate you making the promo sound like an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Any hooks you include would also sound WAY wrong, so don’t do that… ever.
If you’ve spent any time at all reading Production 212 over the last several years, you know how keen I am to get everyone to use less verbiage, with more focus on sharp delivery. Cut out all the stupid connector words and get to the meat of the matter faster. Make every word add to the impact of an emotional connection to the listener so the message is dynamic and powerful.
Here’s a practical example: I was recently asked to read some copy for a station that specializes in throwbacks. To paraphrase, it read, “XXXX-FM is gonna take you back to a time when the A-Team was kicking butt, Michael Jackson was considered the epitome of cool and Bananarama was steaming up the airwaves.” It’s not awful, but it could be so much better. I did an alt take for them that simply said, “XXXX-FM. The A-Team was kicking butt. MJ was cool and Bananarama was hot.” Fast, simple and easier to digest. The PD actually picked up the phone and told me that anytime I wanted to do some alt takes, she would LOVE it.
If the design (writing) of the piece is just right, you are well over half the way to the goal of supersonic production. Your skill as a producer then comes into play, and it is time to jam the thrusters into military afterburner for maximum thrust.
Whether you’re reading the copy or having someone else do it, remember the need for speed. Tell your VO (even if it is you) to pick up the pace. Clip the words a bit so you don’t draw out the last syllable. Doing that sounds dramatic, but it will kill your speed. Remember, if the words are right, the emotion will already be there. You really don’t need to dramatize the read too much. (A little goes a long way, believe me.) Hopefully, if you’re paying someone to do the VO, they know to parse things into shorter phrases as well. If you are the VO, this is a valuable lesson. Shorter phrases with nice pregnant pauses between help keep the pace up without blurring any of the words. It makes for much better editing as well, especially when you get to the final VO phase I’ll describe below.
An entire forest of trees has been killed by people arguing over whether to cut out all the breaths or not. Those in the NOT camp would have you believe that it makes the read sound unnatural. I am in the other camp. The breaths are distracting. If you want to keep a natural cadence, leave the space, but lose the breath.
At this point, some of you are thinking, these are all microscopic efforts, and you’re right. Use fewer words, pick up the pace, clip the phrasing, cut out the breaths… all of these combined might make a difference of a few seconds, but my point here is NOT to save time; my point is to jack up the speed without making it sound like you’re doing one of those ridiculous auto advertising disclaimers. There is purpose to my madness here; that will be more obvious when you see someone hear if for the first time.
When a person hears something that is blazing along, they listen more carefully. If the words you are using pique their curiosity at all, they will instinctually focus on what you’re saying. WOW, now there’s a concept for you. Assuming your music and effects are just as right as the words you are presenting, you’re about to hit the stratosphere.
There is one last component of speed we need to add to your ordinance pods: Checker-boarding. It’s not a new concept at all. Movie editors have been doing it for decades, and I’ve brought it up in this space more than once. If you don’t know, checker-boarding is taking two audio tracks and alternating from one track to the other with your VO files. Remember I mentioned how nice it is to have your VO broken up into phrases? When you spread them across two tracks, they resemble a checker board. Now, you can slide the tracks so they overlap, just slightly. 1 to 2-hundred milliseconds should do. Adjust as needed. Obviously, the more overlap there is, the quicker it all flies by. But this is where it gets really interesting.
Sometimes, the music and VO don’t quite match up the way you want them to, sometimes it’s off by a little, sometimes a lot. If the VO track is a lot longer, you can sometimes loop the music an extra measure, then fine-tune the overlaps to make it just right. I find that I’m usually in the ballpark though, and can adjust the overlap to hit the sweet spot.
You don’t HAVE to make it trip along at breakneck speed all the time. In fact, that would probably be a bad idea. Even F-14 Tomcats didn’t often fly on Military Afterburner, only when that incredible burst of speed was needed in combat. But the engineers at Grumman were smart enough to make sure that extra boost was there, whenever the pilot needed it. Likewise, you need to give yourself the flexibility to jam the thrusters all the way to the stops when you need it.
Get in the habit of making your copy as tight and right as you can make it. (If you aren’t doing the writing, I urge you to rewrite a new version and get the VO to record both.) If you’re not getting the pace on the read that you want, don’t be shy about going back for pickups. If there’s a breath in the session, clip it out and use that point for an overlap. Give yourself the option of speeding things up later when you’re in the throes of production. You’ll make smoother transitions, always hit the posts and generate a lot of electricity that will directly crank up the interest from your listeners.
Do that and I’ll say, “You can be my wingman anytime,” to which you say, “BS! You can be mine!” Thank you Iceman and Maverick.
My sound on the Soundstage this month is the Z100 Labor Day Weekend promo. If you listen carefully, you’ll spot the places where I overlapped VO. In one spot, it was almost 500-milliseconds. In other places, I let it air out a bit to keep pace with the music.
Conceptually, I’ve been waiting for the weekend that we would promote The Weeknd with absolute glee. With a little help from one of our station producers (the confused sounding guy near the beginning) and some really tight music editing, my anticipation was richly rewarded.