Whenever I write one of these columns, I get questions. Lots of questions. Some of them are technical, like “Do you produce the track first or edit the VO first?” Technical questions always seem to require an ‘it depends’ kind of answer. In this case, it depends on whether the music or the verbiage is the main point of the piece, although I do have a preference I’ll explain later.
Most of the questions though, are not about technical things, perhaps because there are several really top-notch DAWs out there, and that fact colors every answer differently. The vast majority of questions have to do with style and presentation, which are affected by technical things, but are really more a product of imagination and creativity. Timing and placement of the various elements is where the rubber meets the road. It is the very essence of what we do. Good judgement on these distinguish an ordinary producer from the extraordinary one.
Beat-mixing and beat-matching is one subject I have written about on this site extensively. (Check the archives.) I have produced a couple of short online video tutorials on the subject and am planning to do a big one in the new year. They make up one of the giant pillars of production prowess. If you can master their use, beat-mixing and matching will give you a tremendous boost in your skillset that could absolutely take you to the top of, not just your game, but to the top to THE game. We’re talking major market, if you’re interested.
The key to truly brilliant production however, is rhythm and flow. The reason is simple: Rhythm and flow will hold your audience’s attention. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling blue jeans or candy bars, a flyaway or your station’s cool new personality lineup, if you don’t hold their attention the message is going everywhere except your listener’s minds.
DEFINITIONS (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language – 4th Edition)
- n. Movement or variation characterized by the regular recurrence or alternation of different quantities or conditions: the rhythm of the tides.
- n. The patterned, recurring alternations of contrasting elements of sound or speech.
- n. Music The pattern of musical movement through time.
- v. To move or run smoothly with unbroken continuity, as in the manner characteristic of a fluid.
- v. To issue in a stream; pour forth: Sap flowed from the gash in the tree.
- v. To circulate, as the blood in the body.
As you can see, rhythm and flow are respectively noun and verb. Think of them as your right and left hand. You cannot wash one without the other, however they are not the same thing. Your left and right hands are generally mirror images of each other.
Rhythm has 3 definitions, as does flow. ALL of these definitions apply to every aspect of production. The verbiage has a natural, regular occurrence or alternation of different quantities and conditions. This is the human speech pattern, whether you’re speaking English or Mandarin, Swahili or Spanish. Pitch and volume fluctuate constantly, but predictably. In English, you expect a statement to pitch down at the end, questions pitch up. In Vietnamese, one word can have five or more definitions, depending on pitch. For example, the word for church and house of prostitution are exactly the same, depending on pitch.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking we’re getting pretty deep in the weeds, and you’re right. My apologies. I just need to point out that there are a LOT of elements that impact your commercial for a pizza joint. For real. Just know that there isn’t an aspect of what you produce that does not involve rhythm and flow. The better you understand these two words, the better you will be at your craft. The more rhythm and flow you build into your work, the stronger your work will be and thus the impact will be magnified on your listener.
Rhythm and flow will open the door to the listener’s heart. The human heart is the single most vulnerable point. The brain has huge, concrete bunkers built around it because the listener has seen and heard it all before. If you can touch the heart, you’re in the system. Any student of battle will tell you that your first order of business is to find the weak spot in the armor of your opponent. In our case, our opponent is the listener, and the heart is most definitely the most vulnerable place in their defense. Cue the puppy dog eyes.
THIS is where rhythm and flow come into play. Rhythm and flow create a synchronicity with the human heart, quite literally. The mind numbs a little bit, because the heart is enjoying the stimulation of your words and music. If you can make an emotional appeal, you will strike pay dirt every time. It can be any emotion from fear to happiness, envy to love, but IF the emotion is there, you’ll open the door to the listener’s mind. All you have to do is then tuck a little message inside and move on. The harder you strum that emotional wire, the bigger the message you can leave.
There is a sales technique I learned when I sold encyclopedias door to door while I was in school, that parallels this perfectly. (There’s something about me I’ll bet you didn’t know.) My sales instructor had us prepare a list of questions that we knew the person listening would answer with a ‘yes’ every time. “You LOVE your kids, right? You want your kids to learn, right? You want your kids to have an advantage over the other kids, right?” and so on for a few minutes. The idea is to get them nodding their head, or better, saying yes, over and over again for a period of time. Then, when you ask for the sale, they will almost always continue to say yes. I’ve seen it work countless times. Getting the potential client to say yes, over and over again, puts them in a positive place, a happy place. Humans are wired to please and if they’ve been in agreement for a time, it’s much easier for them to continue in that agreement. They WANT to say yes.
Now, when you’re producing your spot or promo, you’re not going to ask a series of questions, but you ARE going to put them in a very positive space with your rhythm and flow. They LIKE the music. They LIKE the feel. They FEEL an emotion. When it comes to the actual moment of a call to action, they are MUCH more inclined to accept it. They will remember the message, and because they are in a positive frame of mind, they will be glad to have heard your production. End of story. You win.
Every ‘good’ spot and promo is a conversation. Yes, it’s a one-way conversation, but when the rhythm and flow are on the money, it has a very natural feel to it and you can begin to assume the listener’s response to what you’re trying to convey so it almost becomes a real dialogue.
Going back to my earlier ‘technical’ conversation about the order of production, the music MUST flow, so I almost always begin there. Even when the music comes up to a big crescendo and stops for a moment, I continue counting the beat to make sure that when the downbeat comes back, it’s right on the same rhythm, in exactly the right place. I dance to the music. If I ever falter, I know that something’s amiss and I go back and fix it before I do anything else. Bear in mind that I am completely aware of what the verbiage is going to be, so I constantly ‘time’ things out so there is room for every word, even if it’s not in the mix just yet.
Then, I add effects to compliment the music track. Each effect, whether it’s an electronic slam or a natural door slam, must hit right ON a beat, preferably a downbeat, or if the music is stopping, right on the LAST beat. The sound effects, natural or otherwise are best used when they accent the music, rather than being the cornerstone of the piece.
I move on then and add the voice elements. I use several methods to make certain that the voice flows WITH the music. The first is to overlap segments of the VO by 100, 200 or sometimes 300 milliseconds. By “checker boarding” the voice track, I can very easily move the various parts to make them FIT the music track. Sometimes though, there’s just too much or too little copy to make it sound natural, so my second choice is to amend the copy by either adding or deleting phrases. If I have to keep the writer or client in the loop, I make sure they know what I’m doing and most importantly KNOW why I’m doing it.
When the production flows and keeps a natural rhythm, the music and effects serve to emphasize the message. If you can dance to it, the listener can too. If the listener can dance to it, there’s a good chance they will. If they’re dancing, even in their heads, they’re listening on an emotional level and YOU are suddenly… a genius.
My offering on the Sound Stage this time around is another MRL promo that has great rhythm and flow. Transitions between songs and having the VO tucked into the music track all run seamlessly and flow from one end to the other. I hope you enjoy it!
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Kwanza and, for those who don’t fit in any of those holidays, Good Solstice. I hope you take some time to spend with people you care most deeply about and recharge your batteries. I’m looking forward to a great 2019. I gotta run now. I mean run, literally. My last New Year’s Resolution was to lose 15 pounds and I have 25 to go.