They Call This “Work”?

By Steve Wein

I was digging thru my boxes of reel-to-reel airchecks and “best of” production reels last month, looking for a commercial to use as an example in an upcoming sales meeting when I discovered what I consider the first “good spot” in my career, way back in 1973. And one of the remarkable things about it was the crude way we did production back in the pre-digital, pre-multi-track age when AM radio ruled.

The copy was a typical laundry list of prices and items, but the trick was to make it sound like it was anything BUT a laundry list of prices and items.

The movie “Ben Hur” was recently on TV (Yes, we did have TV way back then!), so I wrote a take-off on it, called The Adventures Of “Ben-Him.”

To produce it back in those days was a very different process, complicated by the fact I had to do all the voices. I wrote it for The Narrator, “Ben-Him,” The Announcer Guy, and various voices going: “Row! Row! Row!” for background.

I had one single-track Otari reel-to-reel and a cart machine in the production room. That’s it! So I had to start by building from the bottom up.

I took a tympani “boom boom boom boom” off the old Pepper Tanner sound effects library (Yes, we did have sound effects libraries then, but they were on things called “records,” sort of like big CD’s, but played on turntables, complete with scratches and cue burns!), and dubbed it to the reel-to-reel a few times, then edited it together with grease pencil, razor blade, and splicing tape, and dubbed it to cart. That’s how we looped elements to create the basic bed in those days.

I then dubbed it over to reel-to-reel while I recorded myself saying “Row! Row! Row!” I then played back that recording from the reel-to-reel while dubbing it to cart while recording myself saying “Row! Row! Row!” making it sound like two people rowing. I then took that recording on cart and dubbed it back to reel-to-reel adding another “Row! Row! Row!” voice.

I did that enough times to make it sound like a large group of galley slaves rowing. That was the basic bed. Since it was AM, I wasn’t much worried about losing quality in the third, fourth, or fifth generation as I went back and forth. I then voiced the Narrator open and close announcer over the “Row Row Row!” bed, then played that back while the “Galley Slaves” played back on reel-to-reel to allow me to record the “Ben-Him” part to cart.

But wait there’s more!

I still had to cut the mid section in a different style as The Announcer to get the actual Murphy’s Market copy content in over a different music bed. I then spliced that part (using an actual grease pencil, razor blade, and splicing tape!) in between the open and close on reel-to-reel, then dubbed it all back to cart so that I could add the opening “heroic” music.

Each time I dubbed to cart, I had to bulk erase what was on the cart, then make sure it was “clean” before hitting the record button.

All that for a sixty second spot! And with no such thing as Time Compression, it really had to be sixty seconds. Period.

Since this spot was lifted off an old aircheck, it’s a bit muddy by today’s standards, but for those of you who missed the fun of grease pencils, razor blades, splicing tape, and a trash can filled with pieces/parts of reel-to-reel tape, it’s a look back to what we used to have to do to achieve the same results we get from ProTools or Adobe.

The first multi-track reel-to-reels in the ‘80s, then the digital explosion in the ‘90s gave us the ability to achieve a better end product with a whole lot less effort. But then, as well as now, it all begins with an idea.