Production 512: The Magic Of The Perfect Mix

Prod512 Logo 400pxI’ve been writing this column for a solid 15 years now. I mentioned this to a friend last week and she asked me a great question: “Haven’t you pretty much covered everything by now?” I had to admit that I’ve probably covered everything several times over. I often get a sense of deja vu as I write and have to do an archive search to make sure I’m not plagiarizing myself. (Who the heck do I sue?)

Then I get a piece of production from someone for a critique and wonder if they’ve ever read anything I’ve written. One I got a few days ago had all the right elements like rhythm, great music, excellent effects, a perfect VO (I did it, LOL) and yet it just didn’t hang together at all. This promo’s problems were primarily in the mix. The elements were all good, and the timing was pretty sharp, but it just didn’t work. I noticed a strange parallel to the music industry that happens far too often.

In 1967, blues guitarist/singer Albert King released a song written by William Bell and legendary Staxx bandleader Booker T. Jones, called Born Under a Bad Sign. As is usually the case with Albert King’s work, it was received well within the music industry, but didn’t see much chart action at all. One year later, Eric Clapton’s band Cream did a cover on their third album Wheels Of Fire. Critics (notably, Robert Palmer…yeah, THAT Robert Palmer) actually faulted Clapton for almost slavishly copying Albert’s guitar work, so both recordings had very nearly identical elements, and yet the Cream version rocked. I’ve always maintained that the mix was the difference.

This sort of thing happens in the music world a lot more often than music execs would like to admit. That’s why certain names keep popping up in the role of producer. For example, Timbaland had a pretty decent performing career, but his producing career is legendary. Bryan Adams had a few hits on his own, but he produced dozens and dozens of mega-hit records for other performers. Back in the golden age of CHR, Peter and Gordon had a couple of decent sized hits, but Peter Asher is still regarded as one of the all-time great producers. Say the names Bob Clearmountain, Shep Pettibone or Quincy Jones and artists practically swoon. The reason is because these producers knew how to MIX -- to take all of the elements and blend and coax the best out of each to make a masterpiece of listening pleasure. There are some who ardently believe that the Beatles without George Martin would never have had the influence on music and society they ultimately did. I am one.

Many radio producers spend the bulk of their energy on the vocal track, both content and presentation-wise. The words MUST be right. The way they are read and edited MUST be perfect, else the promo or commercial will not have a salient message. However, that is only a quarter of the job of the producer. 

The news side of radio has a phrase, “rip and read,” that does something similar. The presenter looks at the news feed, reads the words out loud into a mic with almost zero thought about what the words really mean. In other words, there is no effort given on the ‘presentation’ side…it’s only about the information. Serious journalists deride the entire “rip and read” concept as being non-professional. They are correct. 

Sadly, many imaging and commercial producers fall into the same trap. Maybe they don’t feel they have the time to invest in a first-class promo or commercial. Maybe they just feel it’s all in the words and that should make the client or PD feel like the job is getting done. Maybe they should look into doing something else. Anything else. Harsh? Not at all. Producing commercials and promos is a sacred trust between you and your client that you will communicate a very special message to the listeners. If all you’re throwing at listeners is a string of words, no matter how erudite, they are tuning out as fast as they can, looking for something more entertaining. That breaks your trust, whether it’s between you and a commercial client or your Program Director. The last thing they want is tune-out. That’s a fact. 

So, how do you perfect the mix? Five suggestions:

1. Brighten and compress the VO track so the words cut through everything. I always suggest a nice +5db boost at 3k with a fairly wide Q-factor, then flatten the waveform just a bit with a clipping compressor like the WAVES +L1 Ultramaximizer. 

2. Remember that you don’t need much of the VO track below 500Hz, so don’t boost the bass thinking it’ll make it sound more macho. It won’t, it’ll sound muddy.

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.

5. Pump up the music. Make the music AS LOUD as the verbiage, then back it off slowly until you can understand the message. (Do NOT compress the music. You need the dynamic range to offset what you’ve stolen from the VO track.)

Now, I have to admit that a lot of these points might not make sense unless you truly understand the ‘language’ of music. It’s a lot like parsing a French sentence using English rules. If you don’t speak French, you’re going to get hopelessly lost within a few words. If you don’t speak ‘music,’ you’re fighting a losing battle when you try to do a complete mix.

There are some people who have a natural, instinctive relationship with music. They are usually former musicians (regardless of skill). They are often really terrific dancers, even though they might not play an instrument. The problem is, there really aren’t very many people like that. If you’re NOT one of those people, you need to educate yourself a little. Treat music like any other language. My stock advice is take piano lessons for a few months. (There’s that deja vu feeling again.) Guitar lessons will do nicely. Get down to the Guitar Center and sign up! You don’t have to be the next Eric Clapton. It will honestly not take very long for you to figure out the basic structure of music. You don’t have to speak French like a native Parisian, just enough to get by in a restaurant.

There are some people who believe that I make too much of the music and effects we use, especially in ‘everyday’ production. They are full of crap. You’re working in a medium that primarily attracts people with what? Music. Every song your radio station plays was built by a master producer who spent weeks, at a minimum, putting the mix together. Something like 48 to 50 minutes out of every hour is devoted to something that is designed to entertain. What you produce should compete with that level of interest.

One final point in support of this thesis: How does music engage and entertain? With emotions. The most powerful commercial and image work will NEVER be based on intellect alone. Oh, you should have some serious intellect involved with your verbiage, but that is not ever going to carry the weight of what you’re attempting to do. It will never successfully compete with your station’s primary programming tool unless you pack it with emotional content, and the one thing that WILL add the emotion is perfectly crafted music and effects.

I DO realize that it might appear that I am completely ignoring the News/Talk/Sports format. Stations who use speech as their primary medium are the lone exception to this line of thought, sort of. Even a casual observer will notice that sports fans can get incredibly emotional about their favorite teams. Political peeps get downright crazy emotional, especially today, when the country is so divided along the red/blue line. That merely indicates that music is STILL the key for communicating on an emotional level. If you’re producing for a talk format, all the same rules apply. The quickest way into your listeners hearts is music. And the way to maximize the effect music has, is with the mix!

My Soundstage submission this month is another promo for Most Requested Live, Worldwide With Romeo. In a way, this is kind of cheating, only because almost every promo I do for MRL is music intensive, but this one makes the case for a good mix. Note that the music and VO constantly fight for dominance. That fight is where the emotion lives. It’s the spark that captures the heart of the listener and makes them susceptible to the gentle message you’re trying to convey. I hope you like!

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