by Andy Capp
So you're blasting down the highway on your retro 57 Harley fitted with rocket thrusters, checking out the countryside and the thousands of off-ramps, when your eye catches a billboard that says, "Hey, I'm here! Ditch the bike and we'll talk." You pop the chute, jerking to a stop in front of an old diner. In the window a neon light blinks, "About time you got here!" You kick open the door, weapon drawn. A purple shaft of light singes off your left earlobe and the wall beside you. Blinded by pain and smoke, you aim where instinct tells you the laser came from and fire. Another implosion and a voice says, "Player two terminated." "Damn! Reset," your friend yells at his computer some 500 miles away. "What do you say," you chuckle, watching his computer generated body reassemble in your visor, "another round, or should we finish mixing down that spot?" You opt for the latter, "walking" to a door marked "virtual studio."
This is the type of scenario that's on its way if you believe the virtual reality and information super highway prophets. While the possibilities are exciting and seemingly endless, I can't help but feel just a little smug being part of a medium that has been specializing in "virtual reality" from its inception. The combination of spoken words, music, and sound effects can paint a vision in a listener's mind more real (or unreal) than any current computer programmer can generate on a super VGA. I'm not picking on computers. Visual mediums in general have never had the "visual" impact of radio. Case in point: an old friend obsessed with the golden age of radio recently complained that Alec Baldwin didn't come near the image of The Shadow that Orsen Wells had planted in his mind through the radio years ago.
Why does radio flip the switch on our original virtual reality, imagination? Paul Levinson may have had the answer in a recent Omni magazine article, "Picking Ripe: There are just some things you can't do in cyberspace." Paul writes, "Sound only radio flourishes...why? Because hearing without seeing is a mode literally hardwired into our specieshood: We have eyelids not earlids. The world grows dark every night but not necessarily silent, and so on." Little wonder that our business continues to pack 'em in -- audio is our never-ending brain food. We don't have a choice!
So pop the corks. All is right with the world. Radio is forever, right? Maybe, maybe not. Just because we have a dandy little medium that just happens to touch an important place in the mind no one else can touch doesn't mean they won't try. Don't think for a minute that Bill Gates and his contemporaries haven't considered finding a more direct route to true individual imagination. Those cheesy speakers that came with your PC clone are just dixie cups and string of things to come.
To continue our stronghold on the expressway to the mind, radio must continue to exploit those things that put us on the fast lane: words, music, and sound effects. I babbled a bit about words last month. Let's see what we can do with those last two elements this month.
And a Roadrunner Shall Lead Them: Music is the great mood maker in our trio of tricks. The opening notes of a piece of music can establish the mood faster than you can name that tune. You don't have to be a great composer or know a lick about music theory to know what kind of music invokes what kind of emotion. You also don't have to be Mozart or have a doctorate in bass clef to know that certain music transports us to other times and places. A Scott Joplin tune spins back the clock to the turn of the century, a Polka jets us to an Oktoberfest in Berlin (or the Nordic Hall where I DJ'd a wedding dance last weekend).
Yes, everyone understands what music does what, right? Then why are there so many commercials where the music sounds like an afterthought? It could be laziness, it could be too much work and too little time, it could be the producer just doesn't give a rip! Don't fall into those traps! The music you choose for a commercial can tell the story as much as the copy itself!
My favorite master of music fitting place and mood is the late Carl Stalling of Looney Tunes fame. Carl established a language of musical emotions and destinations that I've learned all sorts of tricks from. Just watch a Roadrunner cartoon with your eyes closed and you'll hear what I mean. Wiley E.'s thought processes, his silly contraptions, the Roadrunner's inevitable victory -- it's all there in the music. If you get the chance, give The Carl Stalling Project CD a listen. You'll hear the master hammering home the message with music. Now doesn't your work deserve more than cut one on the first CD that's handy?
Shhhh! What the Heck Was That?! In Ogilvy On Advertising, David Ogilvy had this to say about (and yes, this will apply to us...) photographs. "The kind of photographs which work the hardest are those which arouse the reader's curiosity. He glances at the photograph and says to himself, 'What goes on here?' Then he reads your copy to find out. Harold Randolph called this magic element 'Story Appeal,' and demonstrated that the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people look at your advertisements."
In our world, sound effects add the story appeal. Effective use of sound effects will pique the listener's curiosity and make them listen to the message. Of course, to be really effective, sound effects should be chosen to enhance the message, not just be a come on.
By the way, have you ever noticed all those two-headed "conversation" spots where the voices sound like they're coming from thin air? There is a lack of atmosphere or location -- a problem that is so easy to solve with sound effects. All the producer had to do was decide when and where the conversation was taking place and add the appropriate sound effects to create the location. Of course, the producer was probably in a hurry to get home and play Mortal Kombat on his PC.
One Step Up Means Two Steps Back: Nothing I've said here is new (so what else is new?). The point is, we can't afford to forget to use these techniques that made us the first brokers of "virtual reality" if we expect to continue to thrive in a future where the sky (and memory capacity) is the limit.
Imagine, after all these years, a technology so advanced it might actually catch up with radio.