by Andy Capp
There are worse parts of my job.
Our station has made a practice of sponsoring buses to Minneapolis/St. Paul for the various concerts and Broadway shows that play the Twin Cities. Although I've heard Sioux Falls described as a "cultural island in a sea of agriculture," calling it an entertainment Mecca would be something of an overstatement, so these trips have become quite popular with our listeners.
These excursions also are popular at the station as both a promotional tool (we get to give away a trip for two to a listener) and a perk (a station announcer and significant other also get the trip free as "hosts").
My short straw came up this past weekend. The feature attraction was Disney's Beauty and the Beast and, though I'm no critic, it was by far the most technically ambitious stage show I have ever seen...it had to be, it's Disney! The production included illusions designed by the miracle worker behind the stage spectacles of David Copperfield and Doug Henning, bringing much of the magic of the animated Beauty and the Beast to the live stage. When Chip the cup sits on a table with no tablecloth, the face of the actor playing Chip is part of the cup, sans body. When the Beast dies and Beauty finally declares her love, the body levitates, spins, and in an instant transforms into the Prince, again, live on stage (those seconds alone were worth the four hour, butt numbing bus ride!)
The show would have been incredible without the bag of tricks; without question the acting, the music, the costumes, the sets all would have transported us to that Toontown world where all things are possible. Still, it was the touches of illusion that truly allowed the audience to suspend its disbelief, to stare open mouthed at the act of something we know is not possible in the real world, to make fantasy come to life.
There was a time when I wanted to be a miracle worker. It began as it does with many kids, the magic set with twenty-five "easy to do" tricks, bought with eight thousand cereal box tops. From there came the catalogs from magic companies, addresses courtesy of the back of Boys Life, the small section of magic books in the library, and the Scholastic book order containing the biography of Houdini that cemented my eight-year-old desire to make magic my career. As time went on, I discovered and joined several organizations for magicians (and wanna bes), and even put an act together playing kids' birthday parties for more money to support my "trick habit" (it can be a spendy hobby).
As most grade school career choices do, this one eventually was replaced with ten or twenty more before I landed in radio, but I continued to pursue magic as a serious hobby into my college years, then doing shows from time to time for beer money. Even today, though my trunk full of tricks has become a table for my drum machine, and the closest thing to a deck of cards I've played with in years is my computer Hearts game, magic still holds me in its spell, and many of its lessons creep into my approach to production. In fact, whether you know it or not, there's a lot of magic in what we all do in the production room.
Without revealing any secrets (a good Magician never does) here are some of the most basic "tricks of the trade" that we share with Conjurers.
Misdirection, the act of making the audience look one place while things are manipulated to make the trick happen somewhere else. For the Audio Magician this might be an explosion over a music edit, the sound of a child's laughter and gentle piano music followed by a car crash effect and an announcer urging you not to drink and drive.
Surprise makes the audience believe one thing is happening when something completely different is actually taking place. For the "slight-of-ear" artist, the easiest way to describe this technique comes from several of the ads that have appeared on the RAP Cassette this past year. I'm speaking of the woman/man dialogue spots that begin sounding like a bedroom romp but turn out to be a couple climbing a mountain.
Then there are the Smoke and Mirrors, the mechanical apparatus the audience never sees that often makes the magic happen. Production Hocus Pocus includes EQ, compressors, multi-tracking, Harmonizers, MIDI sequencing, and all the other gear that enhances our performance.
There are many people who call themselves Magicians who never really get beyond the Smoke and Mirrors. These people rely on the easy-to-do tricks their entire life, allowing the trick deck of cards to do the magic for them. The problem is, many times the audience can't examine the cards before or after the trick and won't really suspend their disbelief, won't really believe in the magic if it appears to be a string of "mechanical marvels." A true Magician knows that to be believable, the act also must include feats of Misdirection and Surprise, feats that only come with long hours of hard work, whether it is a coin disappearing and reappearing right under someone's nose or a Lear jet disappearing and reappearing in front of thousands. There is nothing wrong with relying on mechanics to make the magic happen, as long as it's only part of the act instead of "the act."
The same applies in our world. There are many people who know the exact compression settings, which patch on the SPX 90 will "phone filter" their voice, how to redraw all the pops and clicks out of an old piece of vinyl recording, all the mechanical tricks. Now I'm not saying that these people are letting the machines do the work for them, learning the techniques of these machines also takes lots of practice and hard work. I do wonder, however, if we sometimes get too caught up in the mechanics of it all and end up producing spots with style, but little substance.
There are Audio Magicians out there. The Joel Mosses and the John Frosts are pushing the boundaries of the Smoke and Mirrors, while still surprising us, still misdirecting us with well-written scripts, using all the tricks of the trade to produce really amazing radio.
The magic is inside all of us. The trick is to let it out.