Lure of the Jingle
There's more than one way to a living out of music. Nicholas Rowland talks to the Pync Brothers about writing and recording music specifically for use in TV and radio advertising jingles.
Fancy writing radio jingles? If you're interested in getting into commercial music that isn't pop the Pync Brothers have a few friendly words of advice.
COULD YOU HUM Sabrena's latest single? Or repeat the important bits in Maggie's latest speech to the nation? Chances are you couldn't. Chances are you wouldn't want to. But if I'd said the words "Coca-Cola", "Carling" or "Cadbury's Fruit and Nut", then I bet a tune, a lyric and/or a set of catch-phrases would instantly have sprung to mind.
You've just proved yourself a dupe of the subliminal tyranny of Advertising, that big bad wolf of modern culture which seems to control just about every opinion we hold and every decision we make. Like it or lump it, it seems you just can't avoid it. Perhaps in many ways we regard it just as another form of entertainment. Certainly, in its various forms, it encompasses all the same devices: lights, camera, action, appealing music and the full emotive range of the human voice.
That's why we've seen a number of individuals cross over to the art world, having learnt their craft in advertising, because, essentially the tools are the same. Similarly we've seen people jumping the other way, from Art to Advert. But while it's the apocalyptic state of the art TV ads which provoke the biggest grunts during pub conversations, it's in the medium of radio that some interesting developments are currently taking place and where outlets for new talent are opening up.
Over the last few years, local commercial radio stations have become an increasingly important focus of the local community, often taking over from the local daily as the most important source of regional news. Hence radio advertising is making increasing sense for the local businessman. And with deregulation of the air waves upon us, advertising time is going to get cheaper, as new stations cut the price of airtime in order to attract custom. But as the volume of advertising increases, so does the need for better commercials, simply to make each new campaign stand out from the others.
This is certainly the experience of the Pync Brothers Ltd, a commercial music company based in Brighton, who today are acting as our interpreters of the law and language of the jingle jungle. In fact, the two "brothers" prove related only by Christian name - their full identities being Chris Moore and Chris Mansbridge.
Their company is a fairly new one, although they have worked together in various capacities for over seven years. Pync Brothers originally set up as a complete "tailor-made" music production service.
"'Bespoke Sonic Haberdashers' best sums us up", says Mansbridge.
Moore and Mansbridge both turn out to have a long history of professional involvement in a variety of musical disciplines: Moore as a composer for theatre and dance, Mansbridge as an engineer and freelance producer for companies such as Decca, Polygram and Polydor.
"We've done everything from estate agents to alternative planes of existence", says Moore with a grin.
However, most of their current work involves writing and producing commercials for radio. For this they work in conjunction with an advertising agency also based in Brighton.
Though relatively new to this game, their comments on jingles and general radio production techniques are derived from more familiar musical areas and methods. Without their diverse background they claim they wouldn't have been able to make the transition to jingle writing as easily. It's also a case of having acquired enough business nous along the way to chase the paperwork.
This latter point may seem unimportant, but the message is that if you run your side of the business efficiently, then you'll be able to cope with the factors over which you can never have complete control - in particular, the ever-unpredictable deadline.
"People have very sophisticated memories - they can distinguish between the Top 40 singles even though many of them sound remarkably similar."
"Most advertising agencies seem to work on this peculiar calendar which bears no relation to the rest of us", explains Mansbridge. "And they change their minds about deadlines an awful lot. Most of the time they want things done yesterday. Other times they might give you a month, then ring up after a week and say 'We want it tomorrow'". Occasionally, when we've been given a long deadline, we've fallen into the trap of saying 'Oh, we can do it in a few days'. Then, for certain reasons, we haven't finished it, but in the meantime the advertising agency has suddenly restructured their timetable around us."
THE SCRIPT - OR if it's a visual piece, the story board - is the starting point for any radio or TV jingle. That's usually the responsibility of the copywriter at the advertising agency, but often, the Pync Brothers find themselves called in to offer their opinion too. And in the instances where there's a follow-up campaign, they might well just be given the details of the new offer or the latest update and told to come up with a script themselves.
"The agency we work with seem to appreciate our opinion on texts", says Moore, "Which is how it should be, since we're the ones who end up translating the script into a finished recording, directing the actors, editing voice-overs and creating the music."
Even with experience, coming up with a creative script for local radio proves to be a difficult juggling act, especially when it involves trying to build up an image for a local company.
"It's very different from tackling a campaign for a major national", continues Moore. "As we all know from TV, a high profile company can afford to take liberties with their corporate identity and base their advertising on enigma and humour with a very small amount of actual information. With a small business, first of all you have to try and compete with that approach by providing all the comedy and characterisation, but you've also got to get across their name, what they do, how long they've been doing it and what time their branches open on alternate Thursdays. Try getting all those facts into 30 seconds and you're inevitably going to be faced with problems."
Compromise is the operative word here, but it can't always be made to work. In a recent script involving loadsacomedy, pauses which were essential to the humour were gradually squeezed out, simply to make room elsewhere for a long list of facts. While the client kept all his vital statistics intact, the humour of the ad fell flat.
"People just don't appreciate that with a lot of words, you've got to work harder to make it sound exciting and yet still comprehensible. Often it can come down to the fact that they resent paying the extra ten pounds they'd need to buy themselves another ten seconds on air", says Mansbridge. "But the net result is that when the script arrives it's totally impossible, and we're left with the job of whittling it down until it's just impossible."
It's only as the final script is emerging that ideas for music and sound effects begin to present themselves.
"Radio is a literal medium and music should be used in a literal way", says Moore. "If it's not helping, then it shouldn't be used. Obviously it's very effective to turn the name of the company into a jingle because that's how people will most easily remember it. People have very sophisticated musical memories. After all they can distinguish between the current Top 40 singles, even though many of them sound remarkably similar.
"You have to really think about the product, who you 're selling it to and perhaps even in what situation they are likely to be receiving the 'message'."
"I think one of the more common mistakes is to slap library music on top just to give the impression of sophistication or of lots of things going on, but it often just clutters things up. Generally we find beginnings and endings are important and certain high points in between, but if otherwise it doesn't enhance the overall message, forget it."
Mansbridge: "Plus the fact that there are more subtle ways to approach it. Like one thing we did where we were given a script of two girls talking about a company. We thought very hard about who and where those girls might be and then set the whole thing in a works canteen with all the appropriate sound effects. It conceptualised the ad and made it much more effective when heard among a whole bunch of others."
WHEN IT COMES to writing that ear grabbing jingle for "Plug Ugly - the local plumbers", how's it done?
Mansbridge: "We always start with the name of the shop or product or a phrase built around it - 'Butlin's Holiday World', 'See You at the Picture Shop' - and construct a melody from that. That may seem obvious, but remember that in some cases there isn't going to be a sung lyric in the final ad, you're just going to have a tune. But if that tune is based around the rhythm of the words, then it will help to carry the name of the company by association."
Moore: "The length of a jingle can most often be determined simply by the space available. We lay down a guide voice-over then see where the gaps are, so we can see where there's room for highpoints in the music, and then we try and match the dynamics of the music with the dynamics of the voice.
"Sometimes, though, it can work the other way round. We did a whole lot of successive ads for someone recently and decided that the best way to hold them all together was to use the same backing throughout. So we found ourselves taking each new script and moving the words around slightly to fit the rhythm of the words to the music."
The piece of gadgetry which is wheeled out at this point is the Hybrid Arts SMPTE Track sequencer.
"We always use SMPTE because it's one hundred percent accurate, whether you're timing music, or just cueing and triggering sound effects", explains Mansbridge. "In musical ads, we start by working out how many choruses we're going to have to fit in at the beginning and end or how many musical 'hit points' there are going to be. We find a bar length which is best going to accomodate all those things, then jiggle around with tempos to fit that number of bars into the number of seconds we've got. The SMPTE Track gives us a lot of control, because we can do very precise edits in step time. We also have a MIDI mutable desk, so if we have difficult cut-in or cut-out points on any or all of its channels we can program those in step time from the sequencer."
At which stage we dive into the basement and have a quick butcher's at the Pync production suite. At the centre of operations is the aforementioned desk, a 32-channel, 16-group, Studiomaster Series 2. In the corner you'll find a Fostex E16, Revox B77 and Sony PCM 501, plus a Ferguson Videostar VHS machine with audio dub, useful for recording soundtracks direct to video to give clients an idea of how the final version will work. The racks tell a familiar story: sound sources are Yamaha TX802 and TX16W, along with their "mother", a Roland JX8P, while effects consist of a Midiverb 2, SPX90II, Nomad Axxeman, Drawmer gates and LX20 compressor.
Mansbridge again: "We've gone for equipment which is either tried and tested and we like, or things which are new and to a certain extent limitless. We've deliberately kept sound sources to a minimum because we've always found necessity has been the mother of invention. So we haven't bought a D50, because we don't want to get into cliches, although we've sampled D50 sounds for advertising."
"With a small business you have to get across their name, what they do and what time their branches open on alternate Thursdays."
In any musical situation, it's easy to get bogged down by simply having too much choice, or to make the mistake of believing that every idea can automatically be made stronger by playing it with three sounds MIDI'd together. But if you're producing material for radio, there are frequency limitations which make the grand production totally redundant.
Moore: "You have to remember that TV and radio are very low-definition media, though obviously FM is fairly good. A few years ago, when we were first doing some pieces for TV, we made the huge mistake of arranging and mixing them like a pop single. So we had these beautifully orchestrated pieces, really full-bodied, and were shocked to discover that most of it completely disappeared. Now we can achieve the same effect using a quarter or even a fifth of the instrumentation, because we now know just exactly which frequencies are relevant."
Mansbridge: "Our instrumentation involves what you might call a 'frequency collage' principle where different sound timbres are slotted together to build up a complete picture. In that respect, we've found with a lot of the TX16W factory disks, while the sounds are very beautiful and complex, they have so many layers that you just can't use anything else with them.
"We all know that digital sounds are very transparent and hi-fidelity, which makes them good for the top ends, while analogues are much smoother for low and mid-low. But mix low digital and low analogue sounds together, and you find that the phase differences mean that certain frequencies are cancelled out, so that gives you room to put in something else without it interfering with what's around it."
When deciding instrumentation for a jingle, one of the greatest determining factors is the frequency range of the actor's voice. As engineer, Mansbridge is able to work in and around this to make sure the final effect remains uncluttered. The music tends to be kept low in the mix too. Invaluable for keeping a check on things is monitoring, both through the ubiquitous Yamaha NS10M's and the speaker of the wall-mounted television set.
"Very close miking always works best for radio.", says Moore, "And the actors we deal with are professionals with good mic technique. We sometimes apply an effect similar to an aural exciter, which involves mild compression and extra treble, but beyond that there really are no special technical tricks."
Et voilà. The voice-over is first digitally mastered and from there transferred to quarter-inch tape for any editing or cutting, which often proves to be the case. The digital master is always kept though, since, as happened recently, the client then decided to pay for extra airtime, and the ad had to be re-recorded with the voice-over restored to its original length. Where clients are concerned always be prepared for the unexpected.
"You just have to learn to accept what comes with the territory", comments Moore. "At this local level you can run into the 'big fish in a small pond' syndrome: businessmen who think they can do everything themselves and don't trust you to know your job. If we get a tape back saying that the clients want it remixed, but later discover that they've been listening to it on a telephone answering machine or, as on one occasion, on a stereo with only one speaker working in a jeep in a concrete multistorey car-park. No wonder the comment was 'Well, it's a bit reverby!'"
This and the 30-day invoice seem to be the main occupational hazards of the jingle trade. On the other hand, it is one of those currently expanding areas which offers increasing creative opportunities. It's a medium which is ultimately limited, but as Moore points out it brings this should bring its own challenges.
"The main thing that we've discovered from all our work is that you have to be interested in the intellectual process behind the medium you're dealing with - and that goes as much for advertising as for theatre, dance or commercial pop. Just as in theatre you have to know about the way that sound can say something more about what's going on, on stage, how it combines with the visual element. With advertising you have to really think about the product, who you're selling it to and perhaps even in what situation they are likely to be receiving the 'message'. So for all budding composers out there, it's not enough just to get the gear, record sounds and noises and make money."
A comment which could be applied to a few other areas too. Now how does that Sabrena song go again?
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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