by Craig Rogers
NOTE: This month's column deals with a production that may be offensive to some listeners. At the very least, your mom would probably consider it a bit rude. It is very well produced, however, and pretty darn funny. You'll find the audio that accompanies the column on The Cassette.
You've heard spoof conversation spots from Joel Moss of WEBN, Cincinnati on The Cassette. He takes real conversations and outtakes from celebrities like Jack Palance, Rush Limbaugh or Bart Simpson and twists them into a sales pitch for station apparel or a comedy element.
To help understand what it takes to make these pieces sound convincing, let's conduct a demonstration. Take a moment to close your eyes. Listen. (Okay, you can open them now.) Did you hear all the subtle sounds that make up the world around you? Did you hear the A/C noise, the hum of fluorescent lights, the footsteps and conversation down the hall? Now, eavesdrop on a conversation, not for the juicy gossip you might pick up, but to hear the way people converse. People change thoughts midstream. One person interrupts the other. One completes the sentence for another. Both talk at once. We speak in sentence fragments tied together with "ya knows," "uhs" and "ands."
Now, can you go into the studio and recreate a realistic conversation in a realistic space? Joel has mastered this and has some tricks to share on how to do it. We're going to spotlight a piece Joel did for the WEBN Fools Day Parade. It's an imaginary parade where anything can happen and anyone could drop by the broadcast booth to be interviewed by Al Vitale, a character Joel has developed. The parade is more than theater of the mind, Joel says, it's circus of the mind.
First, here's what Joel has in his studio: Sennheiser MD-421 mike, Yamaha SPX-1000, Eventide H949 Harmonizer, Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer 3000B, Aphex Compellor, Roland DM-80 using Mac interface (allows hookup of video monitor and keyboard and mouse manipulation of audio), Wheatstone SP-6 console, Panasonic SV-3200 DAT player, Tascam RC-7 CD player, Denon CD players, Otari MTR-10 2-track, RCS Digital storage Common Cart wall system, Nakamichi cassette deck, JBL-4412 main monitors, and Realistic Minimus 7 near-field monitors.
Joel has an acquaintance who, in the course of his regular work, interviews Hollywood celebrities. We'll call this individual "D. Throat." Occasionally, Throat will supply Joel with a DAT dub of the audio from a 3/4" video tape of interviews Throat has conducted. This time it was of an interview with Jim Carrey around the time of Batman Forever. After listening to the tape three or four times, Joel has come up with the hook for the spoof interview. A line in which Carrey is talking about using the Riddler's wand in the movie Batman Forever trips the light in Joel's head. The line: "It's like a sheleighleh; it's a weapon...it goes through windows, takes chunks out of the ceiling." The wand became a phallic image and suddenly, Jim Carrey was about to be the first Hollywood star (that we know about) to have a penile reduction!
Joel has about eight minutes of audio from the Jim Carrey interview. To make the editing and transcription process easier, Joel loads the entire Carrey interview into the RCS storage system. In this system he can cut and label up to twenty-one pieces of the interview that he has selected for use. He can give each of these pieces a 25-character description and assign a key to each piece. Having these markers allows him to jump easily from phrase to phrase.
Joel transcribes the tape, word for word, including noting where coughs, yawns, laughs and other such sounds occur. Adding these elements in under Al's questions can make all the difference in how real the interview sounds. He'll then mark up that transcription to note where pauses occur and inflections that indicate an edit could be made. Next he forms the questions for Al and types a script with Al's questions and Jim's responses.
Joel records the Carrey pieces from the RCS into the DM-80. With the DM-80, each time you start recording, a "take" is laid down. "Takes" can be broken up into "phrases." On the Macintosh display, each take is a particular color. All phrases from that take are the same color. To help distinguish the different elements of Carrey's responses, Joel records each as an individual "take." Thus, they each have different color codes.
It's important to match Al's sound to his subject so that it sounds as if he's actually with the subject. Since the original interviews are shot on video, lavalier mikes were used. This gives a thinner sound to the voice than studio miking. To make Al's sound as if he were miked with a lav, Joel may use a cheaper mike, record his part to a cassette first, or roll off some low end to make things more intense in the mid-range. For this piece, Joel used the 421 set one click off the "speech" setting. He used a customized tight plate reverb on his voice from the SPX-1000 to help match the "space" in which the Carrey interview took place.
Al's lines are all recorded in one take. Now when he starts to divide that take into the individual phrases, they are all the same color. During this take, Joel may do several versions of each line to get the appropriate inflections or to add ad-libs that pop into his head. Later, if he's got a line from Al that needs to be revised, he'll record it over the old one. He makes the performance authentic. He'll bump the mike occasionally, pop a "p" or make other "mistakes" you would hear on a live remote. In fact, when Al turns around and unzips his pants, guess what Joel did? Yep, authenticity down to the last detail.
Now Joel assembles the pieces, bouncing the conversation back and forth on tracks 1 and 2. Track 3 is what he calls a "hot" track. If he has a response from the subject that has too low a level, he will copy it to track 3 and play back both to get more gain on that response. On occasion though, "Al" will simply incorporate that low level into the conversation by asking the subject to move closer to the mike! Note that this piece is produced in mono, just like an on-location interview would sound.
To add to the authenticity of a remote broadcast, the piece begins in the middle of an exchange between Al and Carrey, as if the studio has thrown it to Al at the parade and he's not paying attention. (The Madonna reference refers to another fake interview Al had done with Madonna. She's now stalking him.)
The background ambience for this piece was some material Joel had the foresight to archive when 'EBN was broadcasting backstage from the Grammy's. He rolled tape on the satellite link between LA and Cincinnati while no one was broadcasting and captured several minutes of ambience, including voices, footsteps, room tone and the cell phone you hear ringing towards the end of the piece. Next time you've got a remote or a ball game, roll tape on the down time for instant ambience!
For other productions like this, Joel may have to find three to five seconds of "room tone" (what you were hearing above when you closed your eyes) and loop it for the background ambience. For added touches of realism he might occasionally roll a chair around, tap a pencil on the counter, swirl some ice water in a glass, kick the desk, etc., etc.. These are added on what Joel calls "the embellishment track."
Track 4 would be used for the "embellishments;" in this case, the coughs, laughs and reactions from Carrey. Track 5 is the room tone. The only library sound effects used were the farts from the Sound Ideas 4000 series.
The entire production is run through the Aphex Compellor on mixdown to assist Joel with level control.
Some excellent work, as usual, from one of the best in the business. If you don't have an inside pipeline to Hollywood for this type of material, you might be able to strip pieces from interview programs, sports broadcasts or a presidential or local politician's press conference.
If you've got a production you'd like to have highlighted in Producer's VU, give me a call or e-mail me. If you've got a piece you've poured heart and soul into, share your techniques with the rest of the RAP members. We all look forward to hearing one of your best!