by Craig Rogers
The Producer's VU spotlights a promo, commercial, or other piece of production that is on the current RAP Cassette. Listening to the spot before reading can help you follow along as you read the step by step process. On the other hand, it's fun to listen after reading to see if what you heard in your head is close to what's on The Cassette! Hey, it's like Burger King; have it your way!
Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. If you've ever participated in (or watched or listened to) any sport, you've heard someone talk about the importance of fundamentals, of mastering the basics. You can't be Michael Jordan without being able to hit a jump shot, and you can't be (INSERT NAME OF YOUR PRODUCTION IDOL HERE) unless you know the basics of production. Things like: record as hot as possible at as fast a tape speed as possible to keep the noise down; always clean the tape heads before starting; use good quality tape, not an old agency dub. There's very little you can do later to correct a mistake made in the fundamentals. You can hear the difference that mastering the fundamentals can make in this month's spotlight on a concert spot from "Tuna" Jon Rose of WBYR, Ft. Wayne, IN.
In his 20 years in this business, Jon's heard his share of concert spots from all the big production houses. He studied those spots closely to find what it was that gave them that "sound." Now he's taken what he's learned and applied it to a solid foundation to make spots from his 2-track room as good as any production house. Let's let the student become teacher.
First, the tour of Tuna's studio. (If you're wondering about the nickname, call Jon. He can explain it...I think.): (2) Tascam CD-501 CD players, Urei 535 10 band graphic EQ, Eventide H3000 Harmonizer, Auditronics 14 channel board, 2 Otari MX 5050 reels, NEC stereo VCR, ITC 99B cart record deck, ITC 99B cart playback deck, Nakamichi MR2 cassette deck, Gentner SPH-4 phone hybrid, Technics SL1200 MK2 turntable, (2) Shure SM5B mics, Valley 440 mike processor (compression ratio set at 2.5:1, attack at 3, release at .2, threshold at -25, limiter threshold at +12).
Being a musician isn't a requirement for producing a good concert spot, but a working knowledge of music fundamentals helps. Jon plays bass guitar and says he "dabbles" at guitar and drums. He has also absorbed some music theory during high school and college classes. Knowing a bit of music theory helps Jon understand why a particular crossfade doesn't sound right or why the tempo between two cuts doesn't match and thus what it takes to correct it. That makes his concert spots flow smoothly.
Most spots get written first, then produced. With concert spots, the copy is dependent on the flow of the music bed. So Jon starts with a basic skeletal script: location, date, bands appearing. This allows him to flesh out the script as he assembles the bed, making the copy fit the available windows.
A key to producing a professional sounding bed is watching where edits fall. If a couple of beds aren't matching, Jon says, "Be willing to try it a couple different ways. If an edit just doesn't quite sound satisfying, blow it off. Try a different edit. Choose a different piece of music."
To put the bed together, Jon generally ping-pongs cuts from track 1 to track 2 on a reel. This means a mono music bed, but some stereo effects can be added later on mixdown. Most listeners will never hear the difference. On Jon's board, each channel of the Otari's has its own pan pot, so he can control crossfades and balance between tracks when he plays back his bed. You'll see how important that is as we follow Jon through this production.
The first cut is "I Want You to Want Me." Jon recorded the vocal open of the bed ("I want you to want me") to track 1. He then wanted to use a shortened piece of the instrumental before the opening lyrics. This would be used for the opening copy. He recorded that portion to a second reel and cued it to the guitar chord where he wanted it to start. He rolled the first reel in play only, monitoring in cue. Just before he heard the place where he wanted the instrumental to start, he pressed record on reel one and rolled the second reel. The audience screams just before the guitar chord help mask the edit. Result: a punch-in right on the beat. This technique takes some practice, but is very useful in any 2-track analog studio.
The third cut is "Surrender." This was laid down from CD directly to track 2. The Tascam CD players don't have a scrub wheel, so he hit the pause button j-u-s-t before the beat where he wanted to start. He then backed up the reel a bit, took track 1 off record, made track 2 record ready, and rolled the tape in play, again listening in cue. When the appropriate spot approaches, Jon hits the record button and starts the CD. Now the second bed is on track 2. Jon continues back and forth until his bed is assembled.
The advantage to this ping-ponging over editing the beds together with a blade is the short crossfade time between each cut on different tracks. This blends the music together. Using a blade to make butt edits results in more abrupt transitions.
Some tricks he's learned about editing music beds:
1) To help blend songs in clashing keys, Jon sometimes will slow down or speed up the tape to change the pitch. If the pitch change is drastic, a combination of slowing down one bed, while speeding up the other is sometimes best. That will minimize the change in tempo for each cut.
2) Editing on the beats helps blend the cuts by keeping the meter of the music moving ahead smoothly. Line up the drum kicks (or other "hits" such as bass notes, guitar chords, etc.) and the transition from one song to the next is close to seamless. An excellent example in this spot is the overlap of "Slow Ride" and "I Just Wanna Make Love to You." Now it's not always possible to have beats that line up for almost a full measure, but it's sure cool when you find them! (Remember, Jon flies in the second music bed while listening to the first, so it's not uncommon to make more than one attempt to get each transition synced up.)
3) Avoid overlapping or butting together vocals. Instrumental crossfades will blend much better.
4) One of the keys to that big league sound is to have the music bed end cold instead of fading.
When the music bed is completely assembled, Jon bounces this over to both channels on another reel on the other machine. (We'll refer to this as Reel 2.) Having a fader for each track allows him to keep the levels even between each cut. Before bouncing these over, he literally opens up his board (chief engineers will want to skip ahead to the next paragraph) and rearranges a couple of plugs to route the reels through the Valley 440 for compression to even out levels and add punch. (Please note: I'm no legal expert, but doing this to your board may void your warranty...Tuna's chief is aware of this practice. He doesn't condone it, but is aware of it).
This compression is another trick Jon learned by studying spots from production houses. When he was once asked to make a correction in a spot produced by a house, he recut the incorrect portion over the same song used in the original spot. When he spliced it in, he noticed the difference in the way his bed sounded next to the original. It didn't have the punch, the "in-your-face" element. Compression on the bed from the house was the difference.
At this point the music is mostly second generation, some of it third. This is why the fundamentals of recording are so important in Jon's productions. A too low level on a music bed or dirty heads in the first generation adds hiss or muddiness that will only be compounded by the final mix.
Jon's music is now done. Reel 2 is set aside. He'll add his voice to it later. Now he starts writing the actual copy to fit the bed. Nothing fancy here. He flips over the production order to use as a copy form. Here's where Jon has learned another trick that gives him that "production house" sound. Instead of talking over just instrumental portions, he'll talk right over some of the lyrics. This makes the spot "denser" and keeps the energy level high. Another benefit is a voice-over can help mask an edit that is less than perfect.
When the copy is done, Jon strings up a third reel to record his voice tracks. (We'll refer to this as Reel 3.) The Auditronics board allows Jon to listen to cue in his headphones. (If your board doesn't have this feature, you can plug your phones right into the tape deck.) He plays back the original music reel in cue and while listening to it through his phones, records his voice tracks to Reel 3.
Jon records the voice tracks using the same technique used for the music beds. He ping-pongs between tracks 1 and 2 to allow him to overlap his own voice. When doing this, you'll hear your voice delayed slightly as you start recording. You can either take the voice reel out of cue when you start talking, turn down your phones or, like Jon, just get used to it.
Jon records his voice dry, with no reverb. Since some of the punch-ins occur so quickly after the previous line, he would risk recording over the last bit of the reverb decay. Reverb is added when he dumps the completed voice track over to one track of Reel 2. Jon used program #41 Small Room from the Harmonizer for this reverb. Since the voice track is going to just one track, he sums the return of the Harmonizer to mono so that he has the full reverb effect, not just part of it. Having a fader on the board for each track allows him to keep levels between them even.
When the voice is striped to Reel 2, he now has a split mix, music on 1, voice on 2. Again, since each track has its own input on the board, he can control the level of each independently. As he dubs it to cart and his archive master reel, he runs the entire production through Harmonizer patch #29-Big Sweep to add back some of the stereo presence. If you're counting generations, that's four for the final product that hits the air. Again, paying attention to the basics at the beginning makes all the difference!
With concert spots, there are almost always updates: Tickets on sale Saturday; on sale now; still available. Jon's ping-ponging of voice tracks makes these easy to handle. He'll do the "This Saturday" version and dub the voice track to the music master, and cart it up. Then, on his voice master, he'll update just the line with the date to say "on sale now." Then he'll again dub that completed voice track to the music master, over the "Saturday version." He'll cart that version up, and then do the "still available" update in the same way.
Wow! That's a ton of work, and well worth it. This is a top notch spot. It shows Jon is obviously the master of his production domain. As he says, "Even without a million dollar studio, you can get pretty decent sounding production if you make the equipment work in your favor."
I'd love to talk with you about one of your production gems in a future Producers VU. Drop a tape in the mail to my attention at WHO/KLYF, 1801 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309. I look forward to hearing your work and then sharing your techniques with other RAP members.