Production 212: OK… So Who Is “Grasshopper” Here?

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

It has been said many times that the teacher often learns much more than the student. Two months into having you ask specific questions, and I’m still getting some real posers. More than once, I’ve been forced to do some research of my own because although I might know generally what a good answer would be, I want to make sure that I’m not operating on any false assumptions or old, out-dated information. This is really turning out to be a great learning experience for me.

One such question came from VO artist, Rick Andrews who wrote:

When listening to Network Promo’s and Movie Trailers, the audio processing sounds so “Larger than Life.” I understand listening to something in a movie theater with a great sound system can make it that way (to an extent), but even when listening to it on a DVD at home it still sounds so “sweet.”

What do they do to make it sound so good?

I was pretty sure it has a lot to do with dynamic range, but discovered it’s actually a little more complex. In any case, it’s something radio peeps will probably not encounter too often, given the way most radio stations are processed. The possible exceptions will be classical or jazz music format stations and some satellite channels. I say some of the satellite channels because many of them don’t have the bandwidth to handle truly epic sound. (It’s a tactical decision on their part, which gives them a LOT more channels to utilize and after all, if it’s all talk or sports, dynamic range becomes moot.)

Stations that opt for a bigger, broader sound will use as little compression/limiting as possible, without endangering the control broadcasters need over their transmissions. (There are limits.) We’ll call these “loose” stations. On the other end are what we’ll call “tight” stations. Coming from the CHR School of Pressed Ham, I am quite used to dealing with a dynamic range of say ±3db. (OK… kidding. Maybe ±25db.) Most music formats do this to give their signal a perceived boost in loudness over their competition. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, I’m just pointing out a fact. This will almost always preclude creating truly epic sound design.

Compressing the audio will “flatten” the dynamic range and will thus make it sound smaller than life. For popular music, this usually isn’t an issue, but pump the 1812 Overture through an FM transmitter (with something around ±70db signal-to-noise ratio) and it becomes much smaller than life. Push it through an Orban set for CHR and it becomes even smaller. Listen to it on a tiny 4-inch speaker and it becomes almost microscopic. Conversely, put it on a state-of-the-art Dolby theater system and it will make your eyes bleed.

But, as I said, it’s a little more complex than dynamic range. The actual frequency response comes into play as well. Add a lot of real bass, as opposed to psychoacoustic bass, and you begin to truly feel it in your chest. Witness the advent of Sensurround in 1974 when Universal Studios showed the world how truly big sound can be when you use extended low frequency sound in the movie Earthquake. Using special speakers developed by Cerwin Vega, they pumped out an incredible 110db of random noise in the 40-120Hz range in the center of the theater during earthquake scenes, which the audience not only heard but felt, giving the sensation of a real earthquake. Four feature films later they gave up on the technology because of the numerous lawsuits from theaters for actual damage and audience members who got physically ill.

In a letter I got from a budding voice artist, comes the question:

What should I put on my demo reel? How long should it be? What’s the best strategy for building it?

Considering that many producers have asked me the same question about their demo reels, I’ll answer that here because it’s all the same.

Like we should do with everything we produce (or voice), think about the end use. Who is the audience? Under what circumstances are they going to use it? How busy are they? What do they need to know about your work? What will the final reel say about you as a person and your work habits? Get all that figured out and the reel almost builds itself.

Most Program Directors (your audience) are going to hear your work as part of a series of reels by several other producers or voices. They will be listening almost under duress as many won’t even want to listen but feel compelled. If your demo is longer than 90 seconds, you are wasting your time. Most programmers will not sit still for it unless you are presenting one amazing piece after another. Let’s face it, the best of us would be hard pressed to come up with that much material that is so outstanding that it’ll keep your potential employer glued to his or her seat for the full 90 seconds. Most of the time, you’ll be lucky to get 15-30 seconds of their undivided attention, so you’d better front load your reel with your most devastating work. Knock it out of the park immediately or you won’t get a second listen. Whatever you do, do NOT include complete pieces. Your 90 seconds should include pieces of 6 or more tracks. The longest any one piece should run is 20 seconds, and it better be amazing. If you want to post your full length work somewhere and refer to the URL in your Bio, that should suffice.

One final bit of DEMO advice, do something different with the way it’s presented. Don’t put it on a reel for Pete’s sake. Make it a CD, or even better, put it on a thumb drive. I know you hope they’ll hang on to your CD for future reference, but I can almost guarantee it’ll end up as a coaster on their desk. If you use a thumb drive, get it printed with your name and maybe a tiny logo, but make the drive itself erasable. That way, if they opt to erase your demo (horrors!) and use the drive for other stuff, they’ll still see your name and logo every time they get it out.

For my audio piece this month, I present my own voice demo. I’m sure Jerry chuckled when he read this, thinking, “great way to get a free demo out to everyone,” but that’s not the point here. I happen to think this demo is as close to perfect as I can make it. I’ve had a number of PDs comment that they listened to the whole thing, more than once. To paraphrase one line in the demo, “Now that’s a bad-ass demo!”

I bow before you dear readers, secure in the knowledge that my higher education will continue next month with your questions. I am grasshopper to your Mastery of the unknown… or something.

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