The Half Million Dollar Audio Glitch

by John Pellegrini

You would think that when a client hires an agency to produce their commercials that the agency would do everything possible to ensure great work. After all, the client is spending anywhere between three to ten times as much money to have an agency produce their spot as they would with a radio station. You would think in light of the fact that they also hired a famous national celebrity to voice their commercials, that they would take care to make the spots sound great. You would think that spending all that money in a big time recording studio would mean that they would get a quality audio product for their dollar. You would think so, but you would be wrong.

I give you the saga of the Half Million Dollar Audio Glitch, a sad tale for the client and the agency, and a lesson for all of us in radio: Always Clean The Tape Deck Heads! I won't mention the name of the client, or the agency involved, or the big name celebrity (a former cast member of Newhart ought to clue you as to who it is) who did the voice work. I will tell you that it's a National client whose product is sold in numerous hardware and lumber companies around the United States.

Our story goes back a few weeks from whence I first began writing this summary. The agency sends a large reel of eight cuts (high grade audio tape, fifteen inches per second, tails out, no less). Each cut is tagged with a local store where you can get the product. The local stores are paying some money, the rest is co-op from the client. Therefore, local store rotation is essential.

Except that there's a problem. A big problem. The audio on most of the cuts, in fact all of the cuts, is in poor quality. There's crackling, popping and noises like someone is wrinkling Saran Wrap all over the audio. Dirty tape heads. Not on our deck, but on the recording studio's deck. In fact, the noise probably came from the original recording session and is on the master tape. Why? Because the noise only appears on the commercials themselves. Not on the rest of the tape, not even on the slate audio.

Our sister station's (WLAV) Production Director, Rob Brandt, is the one who first catches the noise. Because we're in the same building but on different floors, most agencies think that they can send one dub for all three of our stations. (That really helps on Fridays when all three are running the same dub, and there's only one copy, but I digress.) He flags me and our Traffic Director to play it for us. After hearing it, we decide that only the first cut is suitable for airing, and the Traffic Director notifies the agency. Their classic response: "Well, there must be something wrong with your equipment, because no other radio stations have complained."

You see, their attitude was, "Since the recording studio had all this expensive equipment, and since we paid a ton of money to use it, plus since we pay our engineers and producers so much more money than you guys do, obviously there's something wrong with your equipment, especially since it couldn't possibly be better than the equipment in the recording studio."

Guess again. Because it wasn't just one tape deck in our station that picked up the audio problems. It was EVERY 2-track tape deck we have in our station that picked up the audio problem. And we have seven different ones among the three stations from Ampex to Otari to Teac to Tascam to Panasonic to MCI.

The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is that the expensive recording studio engineer, during the expensive recording session, forgot to clean the heads on the expensive 2-track deck that they used to record the expensive master tapes. Every subsequent dub we received to replace the bad audio dub still had the same problems, even though they were "Guaranteed" to be perfect by the agency.

My reasons for relating this sad little tale to all of you RAP readers are twofold:

1. Do not ever think that just because a recording studio has high tech expensive equipment it means their audio is automatically better than what you can create on your little 2-track and big knob Gates board. As I've mentioned in other articles before, recording studios seldom use their high tech expensive equipment rooms for radio commercials. They've usually got a separate studio with equipment that's about on par or even below par with the average top 100 market radio station's equipment. I know this because I used to do voice work in many of the recording studios that the big time agencies use. And the other reason is:

2. No matter how "big time" your job and your salary get, do not forget the basic techniques. The expensive engineer forgot to clean the heads on the expensive tape deck. Many of the big time recording studios that employ the big time engineers usually have low paid flunkys (actually they're college students and recording studio school students) who do the menial tasks such as cleaning the tape deck heads. The screw-up came when the big deal engineer either (a) didn't check to see if the heads had been cleaned; (b) didn't ask the flunky if they cleaned the heads or (c) just plain didn't care. Yes, option (c) is legitimate because many big time recording studio engineers prefer to record music or film soundtracks, and consider commercial work as "Whoring Out Their Art." I've had several "big time" recording studio engineers say those exact words (and other similar words) to me while the agency producer wasn't in the room. You can bet that they were concerned about job quality. (HA!)

For those of you who might point out the question, "What about when the agency told you that no other radio stations complained about the sound quality?" There are two (yes, another two) theories about that point.

1. Most radio stations on the buy were AM stations. Sound quality is not exactly the hallmark of AM. (For those of you who are engineers at AM stations and want to challenge me on that statement, pipe down! When AM digital goes on line, then we'll talk.) Also, and I hate to bring out this can of worms but, most radio stations are simply interested in commercials from a revenue standpoint and not from an audio quality standpoint. I can usually tell judging by the sound quality of the spots that are produced at these stations. That's all I'm going to say about that, because it could be the basis of a whole new article, along with potential slander law suits. The other theory that I have is:

2. The agency is lying its head off. This seems more plausible, although I cannot prove it. If they were to admit that they received a lot of complaints (or even a couple) about the poor audio quality, that would mean that they would have to go back and re-record the original master. Bring back the expensive voice talent and expensive everyone else involved, and pay for it out of their own pocket because the client sure as hell isn't going to pay for the agency to correct a mistake the agency made. It's far cheaper to blame it on the radio station (after all, they couldn't possibly have equipment as good as the half million dollar recording studio has) and force the stations to play the spots as they are. No play, no pay.

Which is pretty much what happened as we close our story. The spots aired, and sounded horrible. The local stores complained, the air staff complained, the sales staff complained, the client complained, the agency complained, and everybody argued happily ever after. Proving once again that money shall always defeat quality. The moral of the story is best taken from that immortal sage and philosopher, Popeye The Sailor, who said: "Them What Has, Gets."

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