Recording the Soundtrack for TV Commercials
David Mellor looks at the world of advertising, and how music is created and mated with the visuals in a TV commercial.
David Mellor looks at the world of advertising, and how music is created and mated with the visuals in a TV commercial.
It is becoming a cliche to say that the commercials on ITV and Channel 4 are better than the programmes. There is usually a grain of truth in such sayings, but I don't know of anyone who specifically switches on TV to watch the ads and ignore the programmes - at least not yet.
But there is at least one good reason why commercials should be the best things on TV, and that is because so much care and attention is lavished on their production. The budget for a 30 second commercial can easily outstrip the money available for the 30 minute show that surrounds it. Not that money always makes for success, but it certainly helps provide the motivation.
Basically, there are two types of commercial. The one that says 'Buy this product quick!' in the most intelligence-insulting manner possible, and the other sort, where the next day you are saying to your friends, 'Did you see..?'.
Sometimes music is used in the form of a 'jingle', where the advertiser's message is sung rather than spoken. An example is the 'Wonder Of Woolworth', which does little to stimulate the intellect. But there are some advertising agencies who are very much at the creative edge, building an awareness of a product by using images and sounds which excite the viewer, and which hopefully will leave a lingering memory of the product they want us to buy.
A TV commercial starts life in the marketing department of a company that makes a product or offers a service. Perhaps they are regular TV advertisers, or maybe they have something new to offer that they want everyone to know about. This company is known as the Client - who pays all the bills.
Since TV advertising is expensive, the Client will want to hire an expert in the field and will go to an advertising agency (henceforth known as the Agency), who will hopefully be able to present the product in its best light. Agencies tend to specialise, some in straightforward sock-them-straight-between-the-eyes type advertising, and some that are more experimental. The Agency's 'creatives' will think up an idea for the ad, or series of ads, and make up a storyboard which they show to the Client for approval.
After that, it is a matter of filling in the details - subject always to the Client's approval. Finding music, sound effects, and putting them all together with the voice-over are parts of this process.
Most TV commercial work goes on in a very small part of the country, an area of less than a square mile - London's Soho. Since TV advertising requires such a gathering of creative skills, the hot-house environment seems to be conducive to good work. If you wish to set up a music production company (specialising in commercials) or a post-production studio, then you had better do it within walking distance from here - or be left out in the cold.
Situated in trendy Carnaby Street is MCASSO Music Productions, run by Mike Connaris and Toby Jarvis. They specialise in music tracks for commercials, both TV and radio, together with the occasional TV programme or film.
MCASSO is one of the new breed of music production companies to capitalise on the recent availability of high quality, but low cost, equipment such as the Fostex E16 tape recorder and Soundtracs CP6800 mixing desk. Mike and Toby not only write the music, they can make a finished track quickly and efficiently in their own studio and still have the option to use other studios as and when necessary.
The first step in creating a soundtrack is a contact from the Agency. They may have a finished film or video of the commercial that needs a music track, or they may have only a vague idea of what the commercial will be like - waiting for the music to supply the inspiration. One recent MCASSO job was for an ad for Wrangler jeans, where the Agency had the line, 'The fit is Wrangler, the style is all your own', and the idea that they wanted a leather jacket and jeans type guy to jump a London bus over a load of motorbikes. (How did they do it - invisible cables, perspex ramps, aero engines? My lips are sealed!).
Although the Agency wanted the line they had invented to be sung, they didn't want a run-of-the-mill jingle. They wanted something that sounded like a proper song. Mike and Toby went away and recorded a three minute demo, which was approved. Out of that they made the 29 second version that we hear in the ad in an afternoon. The Agency took that away with them, shot the film and cut it so that it matched the music. The result is a memorable piece of film, memorable music, and a memorable product - London Transport... sorry, Wrangler jeans.
Alternatively, if the Agency have finished shooting and editing their film before thinking about the music, then MCASSO will receive a video and have to produce music that fits the action exactly. And when it all happens in 30 seconds, it has to be exact. The final pack shot may only last a second and a half, and it may have to be emphasised with a musical flourish.
The video that the motorbike courier hands over to the studio won't be the original master, which will be on one-inch videotape and locked up in a vault somewhere. It will be a copy on U-matic cassette, with timecode on audio track 2 and burnt-in timecode in the picture. Burnt-in timecode is where the timecode numbers are displayed on-screen, in the picture area, so that you can see exactly how many seconds and frames you are into the advert. What's more, you can pause the video and still see the code in picture. Timecode readers which look at the code on the audio track cannot read code when the tape is stopped. So-called longitudinal timecode is there so that the Fostex E16 multitrack can sync up while the video is running (MCASSO use the Fostex 4030/4035 synchroniser system).
Often, Mike and Toby will work on the same project independently for perhaps a day, generating ideas. It's not always the first idea that is the best, but if they can come up with three or four each, then they are in a position to choose which they will send to the client as a demo.
Sometimes work comes in with a very tight deadline. Mike recalls the occasion when they had a 7.30 am meeting with the Agency and they wanted a finished track to play to the client at 9.30 am. It makes the point that not only does the music have to be up to a high standard, it has to be up to that standard very quickly.
For many commercials, music production can take place completely in-house. MCASSO have two Emulator II sampling keyboards and the Optical Media CD ROM system, which gives access to a wide variety of samples very quickly. But when variety is called for, there are other options. One TV commercial for - would you believe - factory washroom systems needed a string octet playing that old masterpiece 'In An English Country Garden'. For this, an arranger was hired and the track was recorded in a larger studio.
Another interesting ad is the one that the Daily Express runs every so often, when they want to remind us what a 'fun' paper it is. This ad is compiled from old films of sporting mishaps and was produced by the picture cut to music method. The brief called for a solo piano playing in a bright, jazzy style. The demo was done using an Emulator piano sample, and after approval, Mike called in piano player Simon Chamberlain to perform the track on a proper grand piano. Simon heard the demo a few times and was able to add his own embellishments. If you ever see the ad, it's certainly a terrific piece of ivory-tinkling with just a few handclaps and a tambourine to spice it up.
Finding superb musicians to add an extra gloss to music tracks could be a difficult business, but fortunately Mike made a lot of contacts in his previous job as a studio engineer. You only need to know one really good person for each instrument. If they can't make it on a particular day, they will recommend someone else, and then you have another name and phone number in your little black book.
One essential item for MCASSO, probably something that earns them more commissions than anything else, is their show-reel. 'What's a show-reel?' you ask. A show-reel, or reel as it is simply known, is a video of a selection of your best work. The concept applies to directors, cameramen, scenic artists, model-makers - they all have to have their reel. In fact, the reason why I became interested in MCASSO in the first place was because I happened to see their reel.
'WOW!', I thought when I saw it. It helps that the photography is superb, but you can't help but notice the music. There are no voice-overs on the reel, so you can concentrate on the visual and musical imagery. It really is very good, I'm surprised they don't sell it to the public. (I don't think ad agencies have thought of selling their ads to the public on VHS, yet. But I bet they will eventually - some of the best are real collectors' items) To persuade an agency to ask you to provide the music for one of their commercials, your work has to be brilliant. A campaign may cost hundreds of thousands, or indeed millions of pounds. Imagine a meeting with the Client, and you are about to play a demo of your music for his latest ad. He will be sitting there thinking, 'Come on, impress me'. And you had better do it.
Taking a walk around the corner into Great Marlborough Street, it was not far before I came across The Bridge (of the Starship Enterprise?) studio. To call The Bridge up-market would be an understatement. The Bridge is one of the small number of top post-production studios in London.
A post-production studio is where all the elements of a soundtrack come together to form the end product - the soundtrack of the one-inch master video that will be shown on TV. Although music recording sometimes takes place here, it is not the prime concern. Usually, the music will be produced elsewhere - by companies similar to MCASSO - and a tape will come here for final 'sweetening' and marriage with sound effects and voice-over.
I don't envy Stephen Kennedy's job as one of The Bridge's engineers, working under the direction of Managing Director, Robbie Weston. The layout of The Bridge is designed from the Agency's and from the Client's point of view. The two studios each have a wrap-around table, with room for about six people and their paperwork. This looks down on the engineer's position and directly through to the studio area, where the voice-over artist sits facing. I can't imagine anything more like the Spanish Inquisition for an engineer, under the gaze of as many as seven or eight demanding people, but apparently it seems to work to everyone's satisfaction. Stephen feels that as long as he is on top of the job, he isn't likely to be intimidated by all the faces looking down on him, expecting him to deliver engineering brilliance.
Here, a job often comes in as a master videotape, rather than cassette. Between the two studios is the Engine Room, where sit a couple of 24-tracks, the SSL computers, synchronisers, and the all-important one-inch video machine. The first job is to transfer the one-inch video to U-matic, along with the necessary timecode. This U-matic cassette is then used as a work tape, rather than the precious master. Alternatively, the Agency could have this transfer done at their video facilities house. As long as the timecode comes in the correct variety, all is well.
The second incoming element is the music track. This would usually come in the form of a reel of quarter-inch tape, with a centre track timecode referenced to the picture. If everyone has done their job properly, the timecode numbers on the tape will be exactly the same as those on the video. Either this or there will be an offset, of minutes, seconds and frames, logged in the documentation that accompanies the video reel. Sometimes a tape comes in without any record of the required timecode offset, or sometimes without any timecode at all. Even so, all things are possible.
Although many music production studios work locked to timecode, it is still possible to work to picture without it. If a tape recorder is up to standard, and doesn't drift in speed (it would have to be bad to drift significantly over 30 seconds!), then it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to sync it up properly. Sometimes there are disagreements whether it should sync plus one frame or minus one frame, but it usually works out OK.
The music track, once it is synced up properly, is transferred to the multitrack tape recorder... but wait a minute. Isn't that the old-fashioned way of doing things? A new gadget which is becoming extremely popular in post-production studios, and which contains technology that is bound to filter through to the music recording domain very soon, is the AMS AudioFile.
The AudioFile is a digital recorder, but one which records directly to a computer-type hard disk rather than to tape. At The Bridge, the control panel of the AudioFile is fitted into the surface of the mixing desk. The works of the unit, and the hard disk, are located in the Engine Room. AudioFile has eight tracks, which you could think of as the eight tracks of a digital tape recorder - except that the tracks can be slid forwards and backwards in time with respect to each other. The importance of that will become apparent in a moment.
Alternatively, you could think of it as a sort of sampler. You don't play it from a keyboard, it's the way you can edit the samples - or 'cues' as they are known - that is important.
When you edit tape, you are physically cutting into and altering your recording. Sometimes, there can be no going back. With AudioFile, your original cue is always left as it was first recorded on the hard disk. But it can be read out in different ways. Let's say I had a voice cue: 'Chunky dog food is very good'. AudioFile could be instructed to repeat a small section so that 'Chunky dog food is very, very good'.
That's a tiny example, but to do it with tape would mean copying across twice to a 2-track tape recorder, splicing the extra 'very' into the phrase, then copying it back - all with reference to timecode if you wanted to be precise. That would be long-winded. The AudioFile method is a task on a level with joining a couple of samples together.
So now the stereo music track is in the AudioFile, let's assume the voice-over is in there too. That just leaves the sound effects. Interesting? Very.
It's funny how we tend to take things for granted. The sound that goes with our TV pictures, for example. But many of the things you see on TV will have been filmed with no sound - everything has been added in post-production as a sound effect. I have it from a reliable source that they even use sound effects on news film. You can't believe anything these days, can you?
The Bridge, like any good post-production studio, keeps a large sound effects library. Any sound you can think of, virtually, is available off-the-shelf. Even things as seemingly trivial as footsteps and doors closing. But we hear those sounds in real life, so we need to hear them on TV too - and they have to be put there, they don't get there by accident.
It is amazing how quickly a piece of mute film can come to life with the addition of a few effects. First, a background ambience to suit the scene. Next, more specific spot effects.
Effects have to last as long as the action takes on the screen. It's obvious when you think about it. Using the AMS AudioFile, an effect - say a vacuum cleaner - can be loaded in and then trimmed accurately. First, the timecode value for the first frame of the vacuum cleaner scene is loaded, then the value for the last frame. By magic, the effect ties in with the visual perfectly. Shorter effects like footsteps are simply 'played' in while watching the video. They can be trimmed to precise timings later.
The final component of the finished ad is the voice-over, where a well known actor or actress will come in and provide the sincerity that convinces us that the product is worth buying. The AudioFile again scores because, even though it only has eight tracks, that simply means that it is limited to eight simultaneous outputs - a bit like an 8-voice sampler. There could be several takes of the voice-over stored on one track, but all with the same starting cue. The engineer can switch between them so that the Agency and Client can decide which is best.
When you're used to thinking about music as the sound coming out of two speakers, to start to include the visual dimension is a real - dare I say it - eye opener. Neither the music nor the picture has to say it all, but together, and with a few sound effects, the result can be very powerful.
Far from being an invention of the Devil (or was it Peter Cook?), advertising is one of the key motive forces that keep the wheels of industry turning. And music is playing an important part in that process. If you have seen TV commercials in other parts of the world, you will know that Britain is in the forefront when it comes to imagination.
Maybe not all ads are miniature musical masterpieces but tonight, instead of watching the programmes, tune in to the ads on ITV and Channel 4. You will hear some of the best musical and recording craftsmanship around.
Feature by David Mellor
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