After July’s column, The Magic Of The Perfect Mix, I got the usual handful of notes and emails from producers, asking about certain things I said or just “cool column” quickies. One I got from a fellow I’ve been chatting with off and on for a couple of years, reminded me that sometimes I’ll say something that really requires more explanation than I have room for in my monthly exposition. My personal weak conceit is I tend to think that everyone has read everything I’ve written. Not too intellectually bright, but there it is.
A couple of questions if I may… I was reading the archives, and in last month’s column (The Magic of the perfect mix), you gave two tips that I don’t think I’ve ever heard of before. Number three is the one I have no idea about…
3. SHAPE the music to the contours of the VO track. This can get a little complicated but is SO worth the effort. Music has phrasing just like the spoken word. When the phrasing of the music matches the phrasing of the VO, it’s almost magic. The music sucks the listeners mind into the voice and what the voice is saying.
4. Use effects to emphasize the musical phrasing. When a new phrase begins, use a ramp of white noise, add a minimal pop to the downbeat. This insures that the musical phrasing is as strong as the VO track.
Number 4 I THINK I can figure out, but could you share an example of an obvious music to voice contour? Is it volume control on the music, or making the downbeats match the phrasing?
I’ve been a little slow to answer, mainly because your first question is difficult to answer in a simple email. BUT, I’m gonna try.
Yes, shaping the music includes volume control, but that’s really only the end of it. The beginning gets a bit more complicated. Beat-matching DOES play into it too, but to do that properly, you really do have to pay attention to the musical phrasing.
If you take away all the lyrics, the music itself has phrasing, just like speech…the only difference being musical phrasing is a bit more rigid in its’ structure. Typically, the music you play on the radio is in 4/4 time. 4 beats in each measure, each beat is one-quarter in length, so the measure has one whole count of 1-2-3-4 for each beat. The next measure is exactly the same, as is the next and next. USUALLY, four measures will make a bar which is basically a musical “sentence” or “phrase.” Lyrically, the bar will contain one stanza like:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
But neither as lovely
As little ol’ you.
THAT is a lyrical stanza. It’s a complete thought, just like a sentence is a complete thought. The music for that stanza is most often one full bar. See the connection?
If that bit of poetic doggerel were put to music, each line would go over a measure, the entire stanza would go over 4 measures. When you can beat match from bar to bar, you’re creating a strong bit of musical magic. That said, seldom do you want to use the entire stanza (lyrics), then you use half, or even 1-quarter of the lyrics, but you DO want to use the entire bar of music if possible. Having the instrumental of a song makes this infinitely easier. That way, you can sync them up and then just use one or two lines from the lyric track, but keep the music going…when it’s time to transition to a different song, it becomes VERY magical, an easy, EASY transition.
This is the core of music shaping. Fitting the lyrics around the VO and keeping the integrity of the music. The VO takes the place of some of the lyrics and the whole piece becomes integrated to really SELL the message.
I’m attaching a recent Most Requested Live promo for a trip to see the Backstreet Boys in Las Vegas as an example (on the Soundstage). The opening music bed is one bar, beat-matched (on the 4) to their current hit Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which has its phrasing start on the 2 beat (it’s unusual, but happens often enough). The entire bar with lyrics from their current hit is there, and then beat-matched to I Want It My Way. After a half-bar, Back Streets Back cuts in on the 4 (the downbeats are perfectly matched). After one measure of music there’s one measure of lyric, followed by instrumental to the end of the bar.
Well…I DID say it got complicated. LOL
In this particular promo, you can’t really hear the ramps I used to accentuate the transitions, but they’re there, buried somewhere under my VO or made a little more subtle so they don’t stand out too much. The idea is to strengthen the transition, not to blow it out of proportion.
NOW…here’s the caveat: I had to say, most often, usually and other wishy-washy words because artists take great delight in doing weird things to the phrasing, both musical and lyrical. Several years ago, the Goo Goo Dolls had a big hit called Iris that kept switching from 3/4 to 4/4 and then back again. It made it impossible to dance to, unless you were a professional jazz dancer, and nearly impossible to use in a promo without some major music theory engineering. However…most of the time, this direction works.
A couple of notes NOT included in the email:
While it’s true that most popular music is in 4/4 time, there are exceptions. A few come in a 3/4 flavor. Jay-Z’s My 1st Song, Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters, and Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway all swung to the waltz rhythm, as did Seal’s Kiss From A Rose. A lot of dance music is in 8/8 time which, as you might guess, is double the 4/4 motif in half the time. Then things can get really weird. Tom Sawyer by Rush is in 7/8 time. Pink Floyd’s anthem Money is in 7/4 time. Remember Hey Ya! by Outkast? – 11/4 time. Lalo Schifrin’s original Theme from Mission Impossible is in 5/4 time, but Adam Clayton and Larry Mullin (both of U2) reworked it into a more dance friendly 4/4 for Mission Impossible 2. The sequels after that have all reverted to 5/4.
Here’s the thing, regardless of the time signatures: the phrasing works exactly the same way, and it all works regardless of lyrics. If you have a hard time finding the downbeat from one measure to the next, it’s probably because the time signature is whacked. Just be grateful that you don’t have to deal with jazz icon John Coltrane’s music. On his My Favorite Things album, every musician plays in a different time signature and the phrasing gets mixed throughout the bar, only coming together on the new bar.
I added a few extras to the promo I sent Dan, to hopefully make the process even more clear. The first part is the full promo, as heard on MRL affiliates all over North America. The second is the music/ramps without any ducking so you can hear the blend points…then, just for giggles, I added the music/ramps track with ducking. Finally, the ramp only track so you can compare and hear them better on the actual promo.
Some of you might be wondering about getting instrumental versions of songs that you’re using in a promo. When your music/production service doesn’t provide one for a song you need, look into Karaoke versions on line; YouTube is a great place to look. Some of them use almost exactly the same instrumentation, and actually take care to match the original song as precisely as possible, both in timing and pitch, making them almost indistinguishable from the original track. Just grab the complete URL, pop open the Downie app, paste the URL and a few seconds later, you have a video you can import the sound from directly. Problem solved.
One final note I’d like to add this week: Thank you to everyone who responded to last month’s column, both on the site and via email. Considering the fact that it was all about networking, it proved to me that people are paying attention. Validation! Yay!
Dave welcomes your correspondence at