Production 212: Downbeat Down

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

One item of business before we return to the Production 212 Syllabus: Some of you noticed that I was absent from the May issue. Just about the time my last deadline popped up, I got a call from Idaho, telling me that my daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. There’s no need to get into all the gory details now. She has since been declared cancer free (which by any standard, qualifies as a bona fide miracle) and everything is slowly getting back to what passes for normal in my life. I do want to publicly thank everyone who knew about it for the prayers, good wishes and warm Karma-filled thoughts sent my way. If a person’s wealth were measured only in the quality of friendships one has, I would be very wealthy indeed.

I hesitate to get into the next section of this syllabus, because it’s a topic I have written about extensively here, music from a technical point of view. But I kind of enjoy beating dead horses. (It’s a strange hobby I know, but oddly fulfilling.) If you don’t understand the inner workings of music and have read the previous articles, I sincerely hope you will finally take my advice and sign up for some piano lessons. In all the promos and commercials people have sent me over the years for a critique, it’s THE standout flaw. I sincerely believe it’s the one thing you can do that will have the biggest impact on your production career.

Having said that, here is the next installment.

MetronomeWe’ve been discussing your power tools the last few issues, things you need to know and understand about each, the loose hierarchy that exists between them and some of the pitfalls each will present. None are so important, or dangerous as music. If you have the perfect script and read, but the wrong music or combination of music pieces, your production will ultimately fail. If you have a decent script and/or read and the perfect music, you will absolutely win. It might not be the grand slam you hope for, but it will get the message across and that, in just about every case, is always a win.

Unfortunately, this discipline is the single most neglected by most producers. There are some who have a natural feel for what’s right and wrong with music choices, though they might not know the technical reasons. They actually do quite well, most of the time. Producers who have given up the battle against nature and learned how to use music through nurture (simple piano lessons) are quite often the superstars we all aspire to be. Their message always has the perfect vessel that will torpedo through the clutter and open that little door in Broca’s area, dropping the message off in perfect condition. Those who do not have the knack, or have not seriously trained in music are strictly hit and miss.

This is really not the place to teach music theory, so much of it must have example after example to make sense, but I can tell you what you need to know about to keep this tool sharp and reliable. If you seriously want to improve your production skills, find a piano teacher in your neighborhood who will give you the basics in weekly lessons for about six months. Honestly, it’s not hard to learn at all and can boost your success rate (in production) by a huge margin. It won’t cost much in time or money, but it will pay big, big dividends in the end. Guitar lessons can help too, but for the basics, you can’t beat piano. And hey, if you’re embarrassed by having to play Mary Had A Little Lamb or Row, Row, Row Your Boat, don’t worry about it. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

I guess the most fundamental thing you can learn is how to find the downbeat. The downbeat is the beginning of every measure, but not always the beginning of every song, and that is what confuses most people. Most of the time, time signatures are even – 2/2, 4/4, 8/8, 2/4, 4/8 or even 16/16 –notice that all of these are evenly divisible by 2. MOST pop music and almost all production music is written in 4/4 time, which means there are 4 quarter notes in each measure. (The first number tells you how many, the second number tells you whether it’s being measured with half-notes, quarter-notes, eighth-notes or sixteenth-notes, thus 4/8 time would be 4 eighth-notes per measure.) Regardless, 99% of the time you are going to be dealing with 4/4 time. The first quarter-note is the down-beat. The third quarter-note is the back-beat, often getting heavy emphasis in rock music. Once you find the down-beat, you can count aloud to the music, “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4” and so on throughout the song, knowing that every note that falls on 1 is the downbeat for that measure. If you make certain that every edit cuts to the downbeat, you will be beat “matched.” It doesn’t have to be the downbeat, but the cut must always be on the same beat, so cutting from 3 to 3 will accomplish the same thing.

Are you feeling a little lost? I completely understand, but if you want to achieve the flow and rhythm that is crucial to making your promo or commercial rise above the mundane, you really need to know this. I have found that even if you don’t know the first thing about music theory, BUT are a good dancer, you probably are doing this automatically. You are the natural I wrote about earlier.

If you’ve ever been to a club where the deejay accidentally bumped the turntable, the record or CD jumped ahead and everybody got momentarily confused about where the beat is, I’ll bet that included you. So why do you stumble about for a moment until you find the beat again? After the first measure or so, a pattern is established, one that the brain receives and translates automatically. That pattern IS the time signature. The pattern is how our brain tells our feet where to go next.

If you skip a beat in any measure of the song, it throws everything that follows out of whack. When the music skips, the brain stumbles because it’s expecting beat 2 to follow beat 1, beat 3 to follow 2 and beat 4 to follow 3. If the brain doesn’t hear the right beat, it gets confused and people’s feet are zigging when they’re supposed to zag. The brain then has to wait another measure to figure out where the time signature is to get back “in the groove.”

What happens when you, the producer, cut from one piece of music to another in a commercial or promo? If you don’t cut to the right beat, the brain acts exactly the same way. There’s the listener’s brain, just grooving along to the music in the background, minding its own business and soaking in what your VO is saying. Your transition pops up and BANG… it’s confused about what the time signature is and spends a moment trying to figure out what went wrong. It’s NOT listening to your message any more. OOPS! That is a problem. Whatever the copy is at that moment, chances are the audience will not hear, comprehend or even care what it is because their brain is busy doing something else. You’ve interrupted the flow of the piece sufficiently to render it pointless.

Two other aspects to music that you also need to understand are rhythm and tempo. Tempo is the easier of the two to grasp, mainly because it’s something you’ve dealt with before. Tempo is roughly equivalent to Beats Per Minute. (BPM) If you are producing a beat–mix promo, you need to have all the tempos of the various songs be about the same, so you’ll speed some up and slow some down so they can play at the same time. If you are simply beat-matching your promo, you almost always want to make sure the slower piece plays first. (It’s a lot easier for the human brain to speed up than it is to slow down.)

The other musical component is a bit trickier. Rhythm is the emphasis each beat of a measure gets. This is especially important when you are matching through a transition. To the untrained ear, the two and four beats of a measure sound similar. Try to match them and your dance steps are looking goofy again.

So what does this have to do with creative imaging on a radio station? Everything. Remember, your first goal is to deliver your message. If the music you use interferes with that goal, you’re defeated right out of the box. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Knowing where to cut a track is as vital as knowing which track to use. If you MATCH the beats, one to one or four to four, you tear down a roadblock to understanding. And the cool thing is, it doesn’t matter what format you’re working in, it always works. Whether you’re dealing with a pounding urban track, a soulful country track, a polished orchestral classical track or the raging back beat of pure rock… it’s ALL music. It all follows the same rules.

While you’re taking those piano lessons, you will also become familiar with keys and scales. The key is basically the actual note the song keeps coming back to throughout the piece, the prime note, if you will. If the two songs you’re cutting from and to are in the same key, THAT’S a bonus! They almost sound like the same song! Try mixing Stay by Rihanna and Mikki Ekko, with When I Was Your Man by Bruno Mars and you’ll hear what I mean. Their tempos AND keys are nearly identical. Add the fact that their lyrics fit together so well and you’ve hit the trifecta!

For my sound this month, I offer up my rendition of a concert promo I know a LOT of people are doing right now, Pitbull & Ke$ha. It’s a huge tour, touching down in dozens of cities this year and the excitement level is incredible. Two very high-powered acts certainly make it a fun promo to produce. Note the transitions between songs are very danceable, with effects accenting the changes while letting the artist IDs and VO work hand in glove with everything. I hope you like it.

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