Images are important but let's not forget the power of audio, especially when trying to sell or promote a product or service. (Ever wake up in the middle of the night with a song you heard in a commercial earlier that day playing over and over again in your head? Damn you Kohl's department store!) Obviously it takes an equally strong mixture of audio and visual to push a spot from ignored to admired, but on the sound side of things the job of audio post mixers, sound designers and musicians has become more crucial as viewers have many more distractions these days.
Another challenge for audio houses that have made advertising clients a substantial portion of their business is the ongoing tightening of budgets. That simple fact, which isn't news, has caused some facilities to look for different ways to bill clients and work within budgets. To deal with some of these challenges, advertisers, and by default audio post facilities, have found new avenues of business through commercial airings in movie theaters and the Internet. The theater market, as well as the continuing growth of the home surround market, offers all involved on the audio side of things greater opportunity for creativity.
COMPOSING FOR COMMERCIALS
Although it's not an entirely new fad, more and more well-known original songs are being placed in national spots (think Cadillac and its campaign that featured Led Zeppelin's "Rock And Roll"), and that impacts composers such as Andrew Hollander, who works out of Sugarbox (www.sugarbox.tv/) in New York City. "For certain things [getting a well-known song] is going to be the best thing for the spot," Hollander concedes.
For this Dasani spot, Sugarboxs Andrew Hollander wrote music that "did not get in the way" of the bears dialogue.
Then again, there are times when Hollander has been called on to re-interpret a song for a client who wants a different feel on a well-known track. "We did some spots a while ago for a client who wanted to license 'The Times They Are A Changin'' by [Bob] Dylan, but they wanted a more 'up' version," he explains. "At the end of the day we ended up with an REM kind of take on it. We brought in two artists that I had produced [Steve Conte and Dana Parish] and we did this whole new version. It was great because lyrically it was the right vibe for the spot, but they wanted a version that was a different take."
In addition to that type of work, Hollander and the crew at Sugar-box have been called on to provide original music for spots. One of the company's more recent credits was a pair of Dasani commercials out of Anomaly in New York. "Those were really fun spots because they were quirky and they were a little more film-like. [One of them is] a guy dressed up in a bear costume who is walking around talking about water. The biggest thing was writing something that didn't get in the way of his dialogue," he says. "[The music] was really something that was supporting the character this guy was playing, so I was approaching it like a character in a movie."
Hollander's studio includes a handful of real instruments - a Wurlitzer piano, a couple acoustic pianos, an array of guitars and amps - as well as a Roland S-760 sampler that's stocked with many custom samples. On the software side of things, he has a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system for recording and also works in Propellerhead's Reason for samples and loops.
For a series of Mercedes spots, out of London agency CCD, Wave Sound used its Fairlight DAW to give each commercial its own audio feel while using the same core composition.
COLLABORATING FOR LESS
The old adage of finding a need and then filling it comes to life at Buzzy's Recording (www.buzzysrecording.com/) in Los Angeles, considering the company specializes in recording voiceovers. "Our primary focus has been on recording the voice, so we don't do the final mix most of the time," explains chief engineer Andy Morris. "Half of our clients are recording studios throughout the world for national and regional spots."
While the company boasts expansive ISDN capabilities, Morris is impressed with the new Source Elements Source Connect software that enables studios to connect to each other via the Internet without the cost of ISDN charges. "It's just like ISDN, but the producer's aren't getting into pocket money lag," Morris reports. "They don't have to worry about that anymore. That kind of thing is going to create a whole new era of how we collaborate."
Meanwhile, in the studio, Morris has used some more standard technology to help him through tough voiceover sessions. "There was one person who was the mother of a celebrity and she was rather monotonic and it wasn't happening," he recalls of one session. "I ended up putting a little bit of echo in her headphones, which seems like a silly thing, but she wasn't articulating and she was kind of mumbling. So, I said to her, 'I need you to articulate a little more so I can understand you.' She started to articulate, but she was still [talking like] a run on sentence. So, I started delaying the echo." It then felt, he adds, like she was talking over a PA system, and that did the trick.
HSR/NY's Glenn Navia incorporated music from a toy into his composition for a recent Fisher Price spot.
Morris believes that the most important part of any session is not technology but how the Buzzy's staff handles the talent walking through the door. "When somebody starts to talk about technology, respectfully, in many cases they are misguided as to the focus of how the work gets done," he says. "Anybody can talk to you about equipment and technology, but what they forget about is the humanity." So, he explains, the staff concentrates on making people feel comfortable. "That means that they can get in touch with their humanity and that means they can go to that vulnerable place that, frankly, since we're all concentrating on delivering the message to the audience, is one of the most important things."
As an example of how that relationship builds successful sessions, Morris recalls a session that he had with actor Billy West for an M&Ms spot, via Grey Advertising, that played off of Star Wars.
"Billy is a great player and he really likes to play, but you have to give him a permission slip sometimes," Morris says. "We were going through a lot of different kinds of performances and I knew that Billy could do a cute Obi-Wan Kenobi. The guys from Grey started laughing, but then Billy started getting into it. He's the red M&M impersonating Obi-Wan. That wouldn't have come up unless we had a relationship with him. He got into it and they ended up using that particular performance."
One Union's Joaby Deal worked on the recent Rhythm spot for Fox Sports.
THE SOUND OF BLING
There are the straight ahead sound design days - a door slam or car skid, for example - and then there are the days when you have to come up with something a bit more nebulous. For instance, Glenn Navia, sound mixer/editor at HSR/NY had to create the sound bed for an animated SpaghettiOs spot out of Young & Rubicam. "There was a lot of action in it and there was a character, an animated O, that was wearing a lot of bling," he recalls. "We had to get that to sound right. In that particular spot it was a real battle for just the little detail of the chains and medallions rattling on the O's chest to sound right."
Adding to the challenge for Navia was having the agency people in the control room. "One of the people thought it sounded too tinkly," he says, "because it was a sound effect that was built out of three or four different things, so I took a couple of those elements and pitched them way down. It gave it more of a clanky sound rather than a jingly sound. That created the compromise, and everyone was happy."
For another recent :20 spot Navia completed for Fisher Price and Y&R, titled Visit, the challenge was to incorporate the real sound from a Fisher Price toy, which included its own music, with the music soundtrack of the spot. Using the separated elements of the musical score, some light time-compression and pitch shifting of the toy's sound, and adding various musical transition effects, Navia was able to seamlessly incorporate the toy's own sound with the rest of the track."
Rich Macar, who works on Pro Tools|HD Accel, used 25 pieces of stock music on this Health Net spot. Part of the job included voiceover casting.
Navia's room at HSR/NY (www.hsrny.com/) boasts a Fairlight QDC DAW and a Soundtracs DS-3 console, but to make this spot work he turned to Vegas, a piece of audio software by Sony. "I absolutely love this piece of software. It's relatively inexpensive and it does about 97 percent of what I need it to do. It's really flexible and it has all the benefits of Pro Tools in that you can use plug-in effects, reverbs and delays," he says. "So, I highlighted a couple of the files that I wanted to pitch down and there's a key on my keyboard that's for pitching down and I just hit it. I popped it down about six tones and I was good to go."
Buttons Sound (www.buttonsny.com/) in New York City has been around for 20 years servicing the advertising, television and film communities. About a year ago, owner/ sound designer/mixer Rich Macar began to offer clients an alternative to the traditional hourly rate with a creative fee where the facility would handle and co-produce different aspects of the project.
"For example, if they are not going to use a custom music house, they will hire us to handle the music searching and music editing as well as the voiceover casting," he explains. "The reason it's good for the client is because the production company is able to delegate for a set fee so they can stay on budget when it comes to these heavily creative things." Macar came up with a fee that worked for both his company and their clients by doing some homework on how music houses charge.
Macar worked just that way on a recent set of spots for Health Net (creative was done in-house) with a Digidesign Pro Tools HD Accel rig and Final Cut Pro 4.5. "It involved voiceover casting as well as music casting and sound design and mix," he explains. "It was a big challenge coming up with a piece of music that everyone was happy with. I went through a good 100 pieces of music and we narrowed it down to 25 pieces of stock music."
Final selections are made on the client side via QuickTime movies that Macar provides them as part of the creative fee service. "By using the QuickTimes I could do some edits to give [the client] a good beginning and a good ending; it helps a person feel the emotional curve of the music," he says. "I was also able to edit the music as part of the search so they could feel a good beginning and a good ending."
ONE DONE, 41 TO GO
It's one thing to mix a campaign of three spots, but quite another to find yourself staring at a work order for 42 :20 spots. Yet that's what engineer Jack Sedgwick found when he came to work at the London-based Wave Sound Recording Studio (www.wavestudios.co.uk/). The campaign, out of agency CCD, was designed to introduce the new Mercedes B Class to European audiences, and each spot aired for one day only. "It's an interesting take," says Wave creative director Warren Hamilton. "We had to piece together all the sound effects and music."
While the music was fairly consistent from spot to spot, Sedgwick had other challenges while working on the commercials. "A big challenge for commercials like that is giving each of the 42 a slightly different personality than the others and just getting the job done in time," Hamilton explains. "It all had to be done in two to three weeks."
The spots featured the Mercedes B Class moving through a number of scenes, helping a variety of people (a canoeist, a traveler, some rock climbers and a musician) get through their everyday lives. For the Musician spot, the classically-trained Sedgwick added some cello strings into the core composition that echoed the flicking pages of sheet music.
Currently there are five rooms running at Wave that are stocked with Fairlight QDC and Soundtracs/Digico D4 consoles. The majority of the spots that Wave works on are mixed in stereo, Hamilton says, but they have outfitted Studio Three to be able to mix in 5.1 or 7.1. "We'll mix in either," he adds, "depending on the client's request."
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
There's no doubt that in most instances mixers will be looking at a :60 commercial as longform work, but when faced with trying to make a half-dozen tracks fit and make sense within a :15 spot, they must yearn for the extra time. That's just how Joaby Deal, senior engineer at the San Francisco-based One Union Recording Studios (www.oneunionrecording.com/) must have felt when he got to work on the Rhythm spot promoting NFL on Fox via Chiat Day.
"The four Fox Sports News guys were up on stage doing percussion with car parts. The challenge of it was that they had the stand-ins play a percussive rhythm and they recorded it that day," Deal recalls. "Then they cut together a bunch of different takes which weren't necessarily meshing musically. So, I had to sweeten the audio to make it sound a bit more realistic and then make sure the rhythms match. Then I had to cut it down to 15 seconds and have it make sense."
Rhythm was just one of four spots in the campaign. Andy Greenberg, another senior engineer at One Union, mixed the other three: Globe of Death, Colt and Taking Care of Business.
One Union's Deal used Digidesign Pro Tools|HD Accel 6.7 and the S-1 plug-in to make the audio feel right. "It's an imaging enhancer that spreads out the stereo image. I set it up so that when you were tight on [one of the four anchors] the stereo image was very narrow and the drums felt like they were coming from the center," Deal recalls. "Then when the shot backed up I used the S-1 to open up the space and make it feel like a big auditorium."