Production 512: Cooking Up a Winning Promo

Prod512 Logo 2016By Dave Foxx

I’ve been captivated of late by Gordon Ramsay’s online tutorials on cooking. Some days I’ll see five or six videos, each more delectable looking than the last. Today I watched him prepare Eggs Benedict with crispy Parma Ham, some amazing custom blended burgers on the grill, a perfect steak sandwich and I watched him actually harvest some beautiful diver scallops from the ocean floor and prepare Scallops Tartare within minutes of having collected them. When you watch these lessons on glorious food preparation, he doesn’t really give you recipes, but rather just explains while he prepares. You watch him drizzle olive oil into a skillet, sear the steak and add garlic and butter, brush it with bundles of tarragon or thyme and you get a sense of the rhythm and grace he incorporates into his cooking. I think most people would agree that he is perhaps the foremost chef in the world today.

I took two opportunities to actually sample some of his work at his restaurant in New York, the Gordon Ramsay at The London, before it closed in 2014. And although I am certain he did not personally prepare the food I ate, I can say without hesitation that it completely lived up to his reputation. It was exquisitely delicious and served with all the decorum of a Rembrandt at the Louvre. Both evenings were an indulgence I will never forget.

After I watched the spate of tutorials this morning, I was feeling a bit hungry, so while I was out running some errands, I stopped at Taco Bell and ordered a Double Chalupa. 

Now…you might think I am going to talk about a huge letdown after watching Gordon Ramsay’s artistry, but you would be wrong. I love the Double Chalupa. Fact is, I’ve watched one being prepared and I can assure you that it was nothing like the near religious experience of watching Mr. Ramsay prepare a magnificent Beef Wellington. In fact, ever since I stood at the TB counter and watched that one time, I make it a point to NOT watch any food preparation at Taco Bell, as it’s really not very appetizing. I still find the Double Chalupa tasty, filling and most times, very satisfying, but I highly recommend the drive-thru for, perhaps obvious reasons.

I mentioned that Chef Ramsay doesn’t give you a recipe, he just makes his magic while you watch. I think too many cooks believe that a dish can be reduced to a chemical formula; a Tablespoon of this, a teaspoon of that, 2 cups of broth and a chicken carcass and vóila, instant masterpiece dish! But when a chain has hundreds or even thousands of places people can go to buy their wares, they pretty much have to work by chemical formula. Invariably, some work and some don’t. Like my Daddy used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad pie. Some are just better than others.”

So why go totally foodie in this column? It occurred to me that the very best imaging and commercial producers in this business are a lot like Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck…legendary to fans of culinary wizardry. So many of the rest of us are a lot more like Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, and McDonalds…perhaps not the most elegant in preparation, but most times very tasty, filling and satisfying anyway. When there’s a crush of production, we often rely on formulas that we know will work just about every time. BUT, when we have the time, we’ll experiment a little; and thanks to a bit of inspiration or even stupid, blind luck, we’ll come up with something that’s truly fresh and new that’s worthy of praise.

Also, not every job we take on requires the finesse and artistry of a Gordon Ramsay. Sometimes it’s more efficient and every bit as effective if you take a low-brow approach. But knowing HOW to make the Gordon Ramsay method work will forever guide you when you’re getting some of the meat and potato work cranked out.

What IS the Gordon Ramsay method? How can it help you be a better chef or producer?

The one thing I constantly notice on his tutorials is the way he takes care to make the various tastes blend well. The spices he chooses always complement each other without overpowering the flavor of the meat, fish or poultry he is preparing. A master producer takes care to have the music, effects and voice track support (complement) each other, all blending together to support a single idea, your main course, or Unique Selling Proposition (USP). In a culinary masterpiece, the appeal is in the taste, aroma and texture of every bite, not to mention the visual presentation. In a production masterpiece, the appeal is in the sound, and through Broca’s area of the brain, to a single emotion.

One of the most often used emotions in CHR is envy, without a doubt, one of the most powerful emotions we humans have. “Win your tickets before anyone else,” “Be the first,” “Win ‘em before you can buy them,” “Hear your favorite artist LIVE tomorrow morning,” all play around the green emotion. FOMO is the operative acronym here…fear of missing out. Your listener does not want to be left on the outside looking in, filled with envy over those who got in. Every listener, at some level, wants more than anything else to be one of the cool kids, an “it” girl or part of the “In” crowd.

Of course, it can be one of several other emotions like love, vindication, superiority and even hate or greed. Regardless of your choice of emotion, your Gordon Ramsay moment comes early on as you think about your message and start deciding how the music should sound and what kind of effects will help accent the message without overdoing it. You might comb through the script and swap out a few words that will emphasize the emotion or draw a sharp contrast. And if you have a choice of voices, decide which can deliver the strongest performance, given the emotion involved.

One of the comments I’ve heard from dozens of people after watching me produce a promo is, “You do the same things I do!” Of course! There are only a certain number of ways you can do some things. The difference between the way I produce something and the way you produce the same kind of thing isn’t in the workstation. It’s in the head, which is exactly why I keep writing about the thought process over the purely mechanical. The advantage Gordon Ramsay has over every lesser chef in the world is what goes on in his head before he lights the first burner. Fast food joints do exactly the same thing in a slightly different way. The Double-Chalupa has an exacting recipe that all Taco Bell employees must follow. That recipe has been tested six ways from Sunday before it’s ever introduced. The corporate folks have dozens of people make that recipe dozens of times to test it for consistency to insure that no matter which store you visit, it will always taste the same. It might not be the fabulous cuisine of a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, but it’s filling and tasty.

The upshot of this column is that the game we play every day is a mental one, not physical. No two people will get the same results because no two people have the same life experience that colors the way we think. We all know to add compression to a greater or less extent, and so most of us know how to do that. Each of us has our own approach to things like EQ, reverb and spatial manipulation, but the methodology is largely the same; you open a plug-in, make some adjustments and call it good. The big difference between what you produce and what I produce has almost nothing to do with the bells and whistles in your workstation, and everything to do with the way we design our work in our heads. 

If I have the luxury of time, I will often just sit down and think about what I want to accomplish, determine what kind of parts I have to work with and then turn everything over to the boys and girls who live in the back of my head, or as I call them, the “kids.” Then I’ll go do something that is as far removed from production as I can imagine. It might be flying a plane, rebuilding a chair or even…heavens forbid…cook something. I’ve gotten pretty adept at making bread, tamale pie and I can make a mean smoked pork loin on my grill. I might check in with the “kids” to see if they have something for me, but I honestly try not to get in the way. Later, when I sit down in front of my trusty Mac, I know they’ll deliver something pretty much finished in my mind’s ear. All I have to do then, is make it come to life in Pro Tools.

If I don’t have the time…I’ve got a few formulas tucked away that I know will work. But, the nice thing for me is, they’re all formulas that I developed on my own…well, with help from the “kids.”

For my sound this month, a piece from the Z100 archive dated January of 2015. This is a combination of a tried and true formula and a Gordon Ramsay entree effort. The formula revolves around the myriad of concert promos I’ve produced over the years, completely substituting drops from the previous year’s Grammy Awards for the hooks, in an attempt to capture the excitement and pageantry of the Grammys.

Dave welcomes your correspondence at Dave@DaveFoxx.com.

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