by Andy Capp
The house lights dim, the projector grinds to life. The screen lights up with the latest keystone cops comedy, and the suspenseful strains of the Phantom of the Opera theme reverberate through the theatre. Uh oh, the wrong sheet music -- the occupational hazard of the keyboardist in silent picture houses. The audience roars as the organ somberly underscores a massive pie fight, yet the organist plays on, seemingly oblivious to this mistake...or is he? Is the musician wrong? Is there only one right way to use music? Maestro, if you please....
Facing The Music: There has been much discussion in these pages regarding the use of unlicensed music in commercials, but one crime committed by these "Tune Thieves" that has been overlooked is the under-utilizing or ignoring of the music that's legally theirs to abuse... the production music library.
I hear it from friends at other stations all the time, "Our library is ancient!" "I've used all the decent stuff!" "There are a few good cuts; the rest of it sucks!" Granted, some libraries are 10 to 20 years old and could use updates for "today's sound," but on the subject of depth, I wonder if the library is becoming a scapegoat when the real problem is laziness and lack of creative thought. Perhaps it comes from working at micro-sized market stations in the past that had no production music, but I have no problem getting ex-cited about everything I hear in our libraries. Yes, some tracks may be a challenge to find a home for, but what a great creative feeling when you do find the perfect script/client for those "ugly ducklings." If you've found yourself griping about the "rotten cuts" on your current library, do a little soul searching and see if you've given it a fair chance. That said, let me hop off the soap box and share a few notes on using music creatively.
Everything Old Is New Again: For those of us that lived through the musical dark ages of the '70s, there was a collective sigh of relief when the phrase "Disco Is Dead" became a battle cry across the country. But, just when you thought the polyester plague had perished, here come a bunch of kids that don't know any better, drudging disco up again. Which means that a lot of stuff on the old vinyl libraries is hip again! Time to dust off the turntable (you remember, that thing rappers still use to scratch with...), and dig up some disco dance beats. Any production library pre-CD has a ton! Many clubs are doing disco nights again, and these beds are a great way to build "custom" music for your client without exposing them to a possible visit from (organ stab!) ASCAP or BMI.
While you're digging through the LP graveyard, be on the look-out for specialty cuts. I don't know about you, but I can always use more music from other countries, cartoon wild tracks and period pieces. Although my current library has some of these, I find myself going back to the trusty turntable for "fresh" specialty music.
In light of the NICK AT NITE classic TV revival, one library the station bought out in the '60s has been a godsend. It's full of those old Dobie Gillis-like music themes that you can't find anymore, with the advantage that it was pressed when vinyl was still good and heavy, so most of it is still clean. You may want to find out where your station stores the really old stuff and do some excavating of your own...and you thought buy-outs were silly!
I Can't Drive 55: A little rule breaking and bending the music to your will.... Take a tip from our organist at the top and use something really dramatic to move the listener in one direction, then blow them away with a funny punch line. Or take it the other way and use a funny piece to lure them in, then hit them with a serious message. The 180 effect can have a lot more impact than the obvious music choices.
Run a piece of music backwards and see if the results are useable. Remember, the Get Smart theme came from playing the sheet music to the James Bond theme backwards. Backwards music is really effective with Halloween tracks, making them even more creepy.
If you have a magic box that does it, start a pleasant sounding bed, then gradually feed it through a warped program, an effect that tells the listener that things are falling apart. If you don't have a black box that does this, go back to the turntable and use your finger on the edge of the record, varying the pressure for the warped effect.
Make a ragtime or big band piece sound really old by turning up the pitch slightly, then playing with the EQ to get that tinny, hollow sound old recordings have. (By the way, if you have a Harmonizer and are interested, I have a custom patch that reproduces this effect.) Run a frying food SFX through the same EQ setting and lightly under, and you've got instant gramophone!
Make Your Own Kind Of Music: Many of you have studios full of keyboards, sound modules, drum machines, and sequencers that enable you to be the orchestral equivalent of a one person band, but even the most meager studios can come up with some fun music. Listen to Bobby McFerran -- there's no reason why you can't bounce a few tracks between the cart machine and the reel and come up with some wild "organic" music beds yourself.
Make a list of familiar songs in your production library (i.e. Pop Goes The Weasel, The William Tell Overture...) and write new lyrics for your clients. Even if you don't sing, odds are someone on staff does. Suddenly, you're coming up with custom "jingles" for nothing!
Speaking of singing talent, how about impersonations? Find a bed that sounds like something a popular artist might do, write lyrics that fit the tune and client, and do a singing impersonation. For example, I once did a spot for a video store that wanted to stress Sunday rentals. I found a blues piece and wrote "The Sunday Blues," singing it in my best Leon Redbone. Now, my best Leon may not sound like Leon on his worst day, but the client liked it and got lots of positive comments, and increased Sunday rentals!
The Leader Of The Band: We wear many hats when we sit down with a piece of copy -- artist, arranger, producer, engineer. Finding, adapting, or creating the perfect music underscore can mean the difference between a good commercial and a memorable one. In the production room, you are the conductor. Make those spots sing!