Q It Up: "The music too loud in my commercial!"

Q It Up Logo 4Q It Up: Do you ever have sales account reps or clients inform you that you mixed the music too loud in a commercial and request that you remix it? How do you typically react to this analysis of your mix? Do you stand your ground and try to explain to the untrained critic that you know what you’re doing? Or do you take the path of least resistance and remix the commercial to their liking? Or are they sometimes right? We’re not talking about concert spots where the music should be hot because it is the “star”. We’re talking about commercials where the music is something generic from your production library. Please add any other thoughts and comments on the subject!

Norm Kelly, Cox Media Group, Dayton, OH: Ahh yes… have definitely had that feedback before. I used to stand my ground a lot more on it and tell the AE to trust the fact that I mix everything in the best interest of the client, but the AEs usually don’t want to push back to the client the majority of the time. Therefore, unless I feel very strongly about a particular spot, I usually just do what they want and drop the levels a bit. There are other things I save really standing my ground on, like spot content.

JJ McKay, JJ McKay Productions, Dallas, TX: Back in the “olden days”, asking for a remix because the music is too loud would probably have set me off. Looking back, I would guess that the client/account exec may have been right about 50% of the time. I learned a trick about alleviating that problem by listening to the spot in mono on a smaller speaker, and NOT in the prod room on those awesome sounding speakers. I was able to determine if the music was mixed right based on how well I could hear the voice track.

Now, things are much easier. Using digital and saving the session of everything that is produced, what could have taken forever to completely reconstruct the spot just to turn the music down a “tad”, now takes a matter of minutes.

What I was able to do way back then, was to bring the account exec in and have him/her listen to my “mono speaker test” so they can make a better informed decision. Once I did that, most didn’t question my final product for the music levels. The one thing that helped me in those situations, was never to react negatively. Give the “untrained ear” the benefit of the doubt. Simply put, they listen like a listener, and the whole idea is to sell the client’s product to the “listener”, right?

Fuzzy Summers, Cumulus: I usually bite the bullet and tone down the music a tad. That’s why I save the session in Adobe or have a copy of the music saved in the prod file just in case. This happens a lot, especially with first time clients.

Kate Day, Bell Media, Calgary, AB: In the beginning of my career, I got this A LOT. Small town radio and my lack of experience led me to remix a lot of spots. Over the years, I’ve learned a couple tricks that really help!

First: There’s the obvious trick of turning down your speakers and listening to the spot over the head phones sitting on your desk... this way you’re experiencing your spot as a typical listener would, hearing it in the background.

Another trick is so simple... I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner! While you’re piecing together your spot, play with the EQ of your music bed track. I typically pump up the VO at the 8k region, so I pump the music’s EQ down in that range. That way the music is not competing with the VO and it can still be heard, no matter the stereo quality or volume. This is also really good on the AM dial in particular. Some music beds can sound a little more annoying on the frequency and get distracting.

I feel like since I’ve learned this trick, I’ve only had this complaint once. I remixed the spot lowering the volume a smidgeon and played with the EQ of the music a little more and the client was much happier.

Chuck Taylor, KHYI 95.3 The Range, Dallas, TX: I've never had this happen to me per se, but I have had to tell one of our older air talents that a client complained that their message was covered up by his effects and music. He was a little put out with me but after 3 revisions finally got the vocals over the background enough that the client ended up being happy. The way I look at it as a Program Director and a Producer is, it's my job to get the client's message out there, and while I can add cool music and/or effects to make the spot really sweet, if it doesn't get the message out there, what's the point?

That being said, I have from time to time stood my ground when I believed that what I produced was the most effective spot to get results for the client.

Joan Bishop: I usually turn down the music for them by 3db... or bump up the Vox a hair at around 2-3K. It depends on the bed/mix. If the commercial's produced by another producer, and I'm asked to re-mix it, I first look to see that there's not a bed with a main instrument playing in the same freq. spectrum a VO should sit. I also check if their bed has a strong melody... as melody trumps the ear's attention over spoken words. Always. If it's a bed with a strong melody/lead inst., I'll either ask if they want to try another bed, like for example one playing chord changes rather than an attention getting lead line, or attenuate the main frequency spectrum of the instrument that's playing the melody, to make it less obtrusive.

Art Hadley: When the statement is something like, “I can hear it just fine, but I think some people may have trouble hearing the words because the music (or SFX) is too loud,” my take-away is “I can hear it just fine.”

When the rest of that sentence comes out, there were too many people invited to the meeting.

It’s like when you come into the studio to record a voice track (talent OR engineer) and you see six people sitting behind their Apple laptops. You know each one will need to delay the process at some point to prove their presence was useful.

Of course, if it comes from the producer who has final say over everything, then he’s probably right.

Gord Williams: Music too loud, announcer not loud enough? Depends on whether they are looking to have another one of those very unique spots you never hear. GET IN HERE NOW, OR THE EARTH WILL BEGIN TO SPIN OFF ACCESS! (FFX: Big bass boom) YOU WILL DIE WITHOUT IT!

This could be the beginning of the end for the relationship depending on how they react. Personally I don't care if they think the music is too loud. It doesn't bother me so much to adjust the mix a little. If it gets to the point of 'everything in bold' then I will thank them for their consideration and tell them I am not for them.

'Everything in bold' is someone a print client wanted and got from the rep before me for their daily advertisement at a newspaper I worked at. The ad would have been more dynamic if there was some subtle tones to it for a number of reasons, and not just artistic.

There was bleed through to consider as they typically went on or near a colour page. A bold black and white ad could look funny from time to time when that happened. Of course the art department or editorial would not give a heads up about that and the client would complain that 'it didn't look right'. Explain bleed through all you want and it was a foreign concept or an excuse.

My reaction is more about if it’s one of those. I explain that they hired me to make a difference and if I am allowed to, even if it’s just a matter of faith, things will be better than they expect.

If they don't buy that concept they never will, as often it’s a control issue. They consider it theirs more than my work. The lynch pin is always whether they want to turn my good read into a KTel commercial, or make me sound like a used car salesman on a romantic spot.

My reaction is reasonable when approached with reason. There is a difference between asking to turn down the music a little to getting an angry email, phone call or voice message. Sometimes a third party you will never know has rained on the parade with their expert opinion.

You can't answer all the critics can you? You can do what you can do right? If it turns out you’re associated with shmultz as a result of doing it, you have to take that in consideration and act accordingly.

Frank Alberts, Evanov Radio Group, Toronto, ON: This is an issue I run into quite a bit. I will always mix the music hotter knowing that the broadcast processing will favour the voice track and often pull it out of the mix more than intended. If the client raises a concern about the mix, I will just create what is affectionately known as the "client mix" where I deliver whatever the client likes best. The first mix is the one getting dubbed, and will ultimately sound right over the air. Shhhh! Don't tell anyone! ;). Oh wait, yeah you're totally going to tell everyone.

I've always found that once you hear it on the air, sitting in your car or whatnot, the music seems to take a backseat. And having chatted about it at length with many a broadcast engineer, my understanding, or at least what I've been told, is that the processors play with things quite a bit. But aside from that, most are listening to their creative on laptop speakers, so of course they're not getting a true representation of anything.

Dennis Mattern, WAYZ WBHB WNUZ WCBG: Take the path of least resistance, remix it! It takes less than 30 seconds. Even if it’s a minor volume adjustment, the goodwill generated by demonstrating your willingness to work with the client will pay benefits the next time you work with that client. (usually) Sometimes it can be a pain… but there are more important things to stand firm on. (content)

CJ Goodearl: I will remix to make the client happy. No time for egos. I've already given them my best mix the first time, if they want to change it, fine with me.

Dennis Daniel, Cameron Advertising, Hauppauge, NY: I hear this ALL THE TIME!!!! My first explanation is... “You aren’t hearing it with compression. When it goes on air, the compression from the station will even it all out.” I truly believe and know this to be true, but it doesn’t always work. It’s really all in the ear of the beholder. “BEHOLD! YOU’RE WRONG F-WAD IT’S MIXED JUST FINE!”

Jay Rose CAS, www.jayrose.com: You think this is bad in radio spots? You should see what we go through with TV and film mixing, where scoring has to be mixed with on-screen dialog (i.e., with reverb and noise) as well as booth voice-over. And the scoring has to carry emotional content as well as a motivational rhythm — often it’s the primary emotional content, when the director discovers a scene wasn't as strong as hoped.

But the answer is, and always has been, the same: trust.

Of course there’s personal trust. They have to trust you as an experienced professional. And you have to trust their unique knowledge of product and market. This can take some negotiation. You get better at it with experience and reputation, so if you approach things reasonably it can be a win-win. But ultimately, their name is on the film's title (or advertising checkbook)… so their win will be slightly bigger than yours.

But there’s also technical trust. YOU HAVE TO TRUST YOUR MONITORS! Music-centric speakers, which are most of the ones sold at big-box stores, often hype the extreme ends of the band. This is great for music, but can hurt intelligibility on voice and force you to mix voices louder. If you mix for a good balance on these boxes, the music actually might be too soft. If you mix on accurate speakers but the client listens on their mini-satellites-with-sub, there's no midrange and the music will appear too loud. Even the listening volume is critical: too loud or too soft, and your ears distort the balance.

Our solution in film and big-budget TV was to standardize the listening specs — that’s a lot of what “THX” is about. Even the acoustic loudness is specified for particular digital levels on the master.

But back when I was doing nothing but radio, the solution had to be “we’ll all gather in the same studio, and make adjustments we can all live with”. A good account executive could convince their client to do this, because it improved the ad’s results. A mediocre account executive would at least let you talk directly to the client, so you could make your case and refine exactly what they thought objectionable.

A bad account executive would just take a message: “Make the music softer, period. The Client has Spoken!” In that case, all you can do is shrug and let them win. (A mentor had a great mantra for these cases. He’d say to himself, “Sure, we'll do it your way. I’ve already got my Clios.”)

None of this addresses the effects of a station's airchain processing, which can make what you broadcast very different from what you and the client mixed. But that's a subject for another Q It Up...

Don Elliot, Levine/Schwab Broadcasting, Hollywood, CA: If anyone thinks the mix is too hot, they are usually right, even if it's an idiot making the comment. If you can't hear the message, neither can anybody else, even if they can, I can hear it but it's enough to be distracting. The analogy I use is like an anchorman necktie being crooked… It's so distracting that you're not going to hear what he has to say! We don't want to make them struggle to get the message. Period.

But for a PROMO... I RUN THE SHOW. Thank u!

Danny Zamarrón, La Mejor, Atlanta, GA: I haven't had feedback like that in a while. As you said, usually in the concert spots is where you blare the sound along with the effects, but before I put them on the air I have two or three people listen to some of my spots to make sure I'm not missing anything, and that's how I create a safety zone for the audio spot. This has helped me build the spot correctly along the way, receiving constructive criticism before I throw it on the air. I had a good handful of them when I started production though in my earlier years but not anything recently. It is important to have creative liberty, but that does not mean the liberty to create a sloppy product.

Kyle Whitford: The key here is to see the situation with curiosity instead of trying to be right or make another person wrong.

I once did a study of award winning radio spots -- big time well done Clios, Mercury, and Addys. I wanted to find out about music in radio ads and was surprised when I listened to about 50 top award winners. The top ten did not use much music at all. Why? Because when every sound in a spot is purpose directed, music becomes a carefully used tool, not a constant backdrop. A quick way to describe it is the way music is used at most NBA basketball games. A quick burst of inspiration, up and out (on and gone). Danger - a few measures of the theme from Jaws. Funny - a slapstick rim shot. Inspiration- Intro from Eye of The Tiger. A quick Katy Perry Hook or Beyonce motiff. These work because they are the proper use of sound, and music should be considered a tool in the art of sound.

But in good old meat and potatoes local production, if a client wants less backdrop music, I am happy to drop it down. I don't argue... much.

Production is endlessly subjective.

Archer and Valerie Productions: This issue comes up frequently. Various clients have various preferences, so I produce to their preferences and don't try to defend a mix; the client is "always right."

I do offer the client guidance occasionally about some technical issues behind this. First of all, once a spot hits a radio or TV station's processing, the music will always sound louder due to the added compression. Also, many computers use fake stereo effects on their soundcards that very inconveniently remix the spots as clients listen to them, bringing up the levels of discrete audio in the mix in a fake "surround" effect, for example. I have found an effective solution for "problem clients" that have this issue and refuse to listen to the spot the way it really is: produce it in mono, which most computer surround effects ignore. Then, what they hear on their computer is what they'll hear on TV or radio, except for the added processing.

Steve Wein, KTRS, Reel BIG Productions, St. Louis, MO: I get a production order with copy points that the A/E says the client wants in the spot. I write a compelling, entertaining spot that gets the core message across, voice it, edit, then mix it with music and SFX. When I am done I am proud. A great spot. Worthy of saving it for next years' RAP Awards.

The client, usually through the A/E, comes back and wants to include things you know are superfluous and will muddy the message, like two different phone numbers, a numbered street address and some other totally unrelated copy to add to the original concept. They thought of it at the last minute to include in a revision.

The point being: just about every spot is a tug of war between the creative and the client, and if we have thin skins, we should be doing something else for a living.

So how do I deal with it? To keep everything harmonious between sales, the client, and production, the name of the game is compromise. I usually state my case as to why I feel their additions, corrections, and basic changes are diluting their message, based upon my many years of creating successful and award winning spots. I do it with a smile and if they still insist on changes, I do it their way.

That is also true about music levels. I explain that what the client hears when they play the mp3 is raw audio. They're not hearing it through the on-air audio chain the way the audience hears it when it's actually on the air. But again if they insist on a remix, I do it with a smile. 

It is not worth jeopardizing the relationship the station has the client to do it any other way.

Rod Kittleman, SquareOne Communications, Springfield, MO: I say I'll see what I can do. If my trained ear thinks it’s ok... then I do nothing. If it does need to be brought down, I will.

Bill Carroll, WBQB/WFVA, Fredericksburg, VA: Occasionally, I do get that “email” from the Sales Rep stating that they heard back from the client and they thought that either a sound effect or music should be lowered. I’ve noticed that 9 out of 10 times, it’s a client whom they themselves have voiced and want to “hear themselves” a bit more. What I usually do in a situation like this is basically educate them on the technical and psychological side of the spot itself. For instance, I had a haunted attraction client recently ask to have their music and sound effects lowered. They voiced only about 15 seconds of the :60. What I did was explain to them why that particular music track and sound effects were chosen (in which we already have gotten their approval for), having it at the level it is gives it more energy and allows the listener to subliminally enjoy the spot more because it had that type of music for his product and was appealing to a broader audience (closely matching that type of business and also our format of course), it blended well with all the voices and elements used and it painted a picture in the listeners’ mind that they would want to go to such a scary yet very fun place this Halloween season.

Of course every once in a while we have a client who’s insistent and I would always grant their request (just slightly), but I actually enjoy educating people as to “why” the spot was created how it was and actually explain to them how the layering goes and of course hearing the feedback of your masterpiece when the actual product comes across their speakers. I LOVE WHAT I DO!

Joe Meinecke, Saga Communications, Milwaukee, WI: This happens a lot with me. Not just with salespeople, but even the PDs. While I am always temped to reply with "You need to get your hearing checked", I always go back and bring the requested music and/or element down... which often [to me] ruins the spot you took time to create. I've noticed in the PPM world, that first reaction to spots/promos by salespeople and clients is getting to the point of hyper-critical as everyone is so worried their message isn't being heard. When producing though, I always do one final step that I call the "Clock-radio" test. I listen to the whole spot in mono through my cue speaker. If the music/effect sounds over powering that way, yes it is indeed too loud. I've also noticed that sometimes the client blames it on loudness when they in fact just don't like the bed, and have trouble verbalizing that as such... but that is a whole 'nuther production pet peeve of mine.  

Dave Spiker: Yes, it's happened to me a few times. I usually try to explain that many listeners will hear the spot in a car with an ambient noise level that's very high... blah, blah, blah. If they get it, I leave it. If they say, "Yeah, but still..." then I remix. Not worth squabbling over. Then, for fun, I sometimes go listen to my VO demo -- which was mixed in Hollywood by a studio that does audio for major network TV and radio -- and hear how their music beds were even hotter. It's cathartic.

Al Peterson, Radio America Network, Washington DC: HA! Yep, back in another lifetime whenever I used to hear that from some AE, my inner Doctor Smith ("Lost in Space") would bellow, *"How dare you, you ninny!" * Well, you know, sometimes they're right.

Back in the days of tape and under-equipped studios, the only variable we had under our fingertips was volume. Turn it up, turn it down. It was often common for a quiet part of the copy to get lost under a piece of the music, and those sales maggots (or their clients) would hear it right away and they would be right. Today, any capable DAW software, even the free ones, can apply a little squish to a voice recording so it jumps out above the copy -- especially necessary today, since the 'resting' level of most produced music in general is about -1 dBFS which is already louder than hell.

What is also helpful is a bit of complementary EQ: dig a gentle slope of a few dB under the music in the frequency range of the announcer's voice. The music stays loud, but there's a comfy little pocket for the copy to be heard.

I have always thought a helpful tool in the production room would be an old retired air processor -- like an Orban, set roughly to the cluster's signature sound -- so the finished spot can be played back under similar conditions as the on-air signal. Only then would the mix be vindicated or sent back for a re-do. If a hardware box isn't feasible or available, there are some free multiband programs for computers that can duplicate the action of an air processor, but they are the devil to set properly, or even adequately.

Among them: MULTIMAX, STEREOTOOL, BREAKAWAY BROADCAST PROCESSOR, and BROADCAST. There are others, but these are the ones that have been on my radar screen the most in recent times.

Austin Michael, NRG Media, Lincoln, NE: Clients asking for the music to come down happens about once in a blue moon here. When it does, I’ll notch it down a few decibels then send the new version back with a note explaining that “I’ve turned down the music 3 decibels”. Most people don’t have any idea exactly what that means or how to quantify it. Therefore they don’t have a proper response to it. Ergo, 99.99999% of the time I hear back, “Sounds great now. Thanks.” Almost every time a client has asked for the music to come down, it’s because they’re listening on cheap computer speakers.

Steve Mitchell:  I have had a couple of sales guys and a PD or two call me on a mix. I simply remind them that I record and mix without the aid of 25dB of on air processing. Yes, I use a tad of side-chain leveling on the mike and little or no EQ on anything. I tell them to listen to the CD or mp3 I sent them and put it side-by-side  with their memory of how it sounds on their air. More often than not, that's all I have to do.

 I have had to re-do a spot or promo here and there, but I just bill 'em again and move on.

Jay Sawyer, VoiceMaster LTD: 99% of the time we don't have this issue, as we have audiophiles on staff, especially in the production room. That one percent that may slip through will always be remixed by the run date.

Michael Shishido, KUMU / KDDB / KPOI / KQMQ, Honolulu, HI: It's a mix of responses. I'll always listen to the spot again to hear what the mix sounds like. Assuming the mix was ok, I'll go back to the AE (especially if it's a new or very green one) and explain that what they hear on their computer will sound different from what they hear on the radio. And I'll go back and remix the spot to make the music softer.

Many times, it's an ongoing education process for both AEs and clients. I try to educate along the way. But so few people come back and say "you were right, I like the music louder." In fact, I can't think of any time that's happened. The softer remix nearly always wins out. And because I cherish my sanity, I never get into it with an AE or a client when it comes to music volume.

This discussion goes along with my policy on copy writing. If I write a spot, I put my best effort into the writing. But once a client changes the tone or the direction of the spot, it's theirs. I back off and let them do what they want.

The other classic response from clients when it comes to music is that they don't like the music altogether. I don't know any production person who's going to purposely choose inappropriate music for a spot. It'll be close, spot on, or inconsequential to the message. That said, unless you're producing a complex, emotive, dramatic commercial, the music is important but secondary to the message. You can get by with a nondescript piece of music and the message will still stick. But you can choose music that's absolutely perfect, and it won't matter if your words are completely off the mark.

J. Boles, KCTX AM/FM, KCHT FM, KOLJ AM: This is something I struggled with when I was starting in production. My father trained me and it drove him crazy that I thought the music should be as loud as I had purposely left it. Now that I'm conducting the training, it drives me crazy that everyone seems to want the music extremely loud. If they crunch the voiceover enough they can get away with it, but that's the problem; they're not heavily processing the dry vocal. If the production music is too loud it distracts from the message, and if a client or colleague tells me it's too loud, I fix it.

Too loud production music, in my experience, is a mistake made by less experienced producers. To keep it simple for them I've made a rule that production music cannot be louder than -12 dB under the voiceover. When they get more experience I give them a little more leeway to make the call.

Andrew Frame, BAFSoundWorks: If something comes back for any kind of change, there's a change, as soon as possible.

Many reps do listen, and do try to "get it", but in the end, someone upstream from them - the person signing off on the ad buy - wants something changed, so it just gets done up front on the first request and everyone moves on.

There was a day when I'd put up a fight, but I have more important things to do now than dispute the artistic merit of a commercial. The customer either likes it or they do not. It's my job to make something they will like so they will sign the deal. Sometimes, that includes a revision. Or three.

Colin McGinness: Quiet often it's a case of acknowledging that you've spent too long in a sound proof studio, mixing a piece of production that you've gotten too comfortable with. You can hear the voice clearly over the music, but only because you've heard it on a loop and see the script in front of you. 

DJ Mike, Chris-Mar Studios: If a client comes back and says the mix is not right (ie...) to loud, I don't close my work session out until I get the final approval. Sometimes it is hard redoing the mix again and it's time consuming.

John Pellegrini: Interesting topic. I think the question that really needs to be asked is this: Is music important to the commercial message?

Or, to put it bluntly: When was the last time you were convinced to act on a commercial message based on the music bed?

If your answer is, as most people would answer, "never", then the answer is obvious.

I don't care what music PDs think. Music beds just for the sake of not interrupting the music during commercial breaks, are worthless.

Now if the music helps to enhance the emotion of the message, then it could serve a purpose.

However, more often than not, music beds distract from the message. In some cases a poorly mixed music bed can overwhelm the message.

That's fine if you want to be a commercial free radio station.

But if you want happy clients who are getting results from their commercials and will continue to purchase air time from your station, then the LEAST important item in your commercial production is the music bed.

And should be dropped if necessary.

Considering some of the commercials I've heard over the years, it's very necessary.

Andy Berkowitz, Forever Media, Altoona, PA: This comes up from time to time just about everywhere, and it's been my experience that the complaint is often unfounded. Very often, I'll ask how the client or rep was listening to the spot, and they'll reply that they heard it on their cellphone or laptop. I have asked people to take a second listen with better speakers (at least as good as a half-decent radio), and most of the time they've been surprised to discover that there was nothing wrong with the spot. Of course, I have had some clients (including some who admitted to having hearing loss) who would not be convinced that their assessment could be wrong, and we had to lower the music level to keep them happy. The kicker is, we've had situations where once we lowered the music to the client's satisfaction, the on-air processing swallowed it so it could be barely be heard at all... which they of course, complained about.

Have there ever been situations where the client was right? Certainly... but more often than not, it's a case of either listening on poor equipment, or the dreaded "people who aren't satisfied unless they're complaining about something". I think we all know someone in the biz who has responded to this complaint by pretending they made a change, but sent the exact same mix a second time... and getting a "Perfect!" as a response. My overactive conscience won't let me try that one... but I think it proves the point.

Dave Stalker, Combined Communications, Bend, OR: Given that most people hear their new commercials on their low-tech phone speakers, my first take is to say, "I mixed the levels using my studio monitor speakers, and it sounds perfect in the studio."

Sometimes they don't appreciate my attempt to DRIVE the message a bit harder with a bit louder music. But my guiding principle is something I learned years ago from a fellow name Ben Tracy, the voice of Les Schwab Tires, the dynasty of tire stores in the West. He always cautioned that to hear the mix as listeners would hear it, turn down your studio monitors, so they're not loud, and see how the mix sounds at a much lower level. If you like it when it's loud on your speakers, see if it's still OK at lower volume. It IS A FINE LINE, but by reviewing the mix Loud and Soft and striking a balance between the two, it will likely sound good to everyone, in the studio and on the air.

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