I always felt one of the important steps in producing a TV commercial, albeit one of the least time consuming, was the post-production audio mix.
Maybe it was because I wrote the words and the lyrics and helped develop the music that I had such a vested interest in the intricacies of the final sound track: voice levels between scenes, volume of the music, and lip sync with the sound track (an art that seems to have eluded a lot of commercials and TV programming these days).
So I thought I would relate some of my experiences while mixing sound tracks. But before I do and to put it into perspective, you should understand that I’m about ninety percent deaf in my left ear, and have been that way since I was six years old. But rather than being a hindrance, I believe it had helped because for some reason I was able to distinguish between audio level changes that most people with normal hearing would have difficulty detecting.
My funniest experience, which happened to involve my hearing problem, was during the production of a Kentucky Fried Chicken TV commercial with Steve Kelly, a producer at Leo Burnett. It was probably sometime during the middle of the filming when I discovered Steve was stone deaf in his right ear.
Great. You couldn’t find better comedy fodder: a partially deaf writer and a partially deaf producer trying to do an audio mix. I don’t remember the name of the mixing studio, but I do remember Steve and I sitting together with our deaf ears facing each other. As each scene would roll, our conversation went something like: “How did it sound in your good ear?” “Great. How about yours?” “Great. Next scene.” And we continued mixing the TV spot.
Once, while mixing audio at the Todd-AO Sound Studio in Hollywood, I kept hearing a chirping. I was sitting up front watching and listening to the commercial on the theater-sized screen. The producer, art director and sound engineer were in back at the mixing console. At first, I thought the chirping was a glitch in the sound track or in the electronics and couldn’t understand why they continued the mix without first correcting the problem. Finally, I asked about the chirping sound. They played it again and said they didn’t hear anything. And on that occasion, neither did I. We continued mixing and suddenly I heard it again. Of course, no one else did. Finally the art director walked to the front and sat with me. Then he heard it. In disbelief, both the producer and engineer joined us. Suddenly: a chirp, then another. We all looked at each other and began to laugh. Somehow, a cricket got into the room and was simply doing what crickets do.
On still another occasion, I was part of the team pitching a piece of new business for Foote, Cone & Belding. We were producing audio tracks in Los Angeles for the presentation and were down to the wire with last minute delays, okays and changes. It meant we would be recording and mixing into the wee hours of the morning to meet the deadline. To accomplish this feat, we split up. Chuck Sheldon, the executive producer and Ken Sale, one of the creative directors, were recording the voices of different men and women at Buzzy’s Recording studio, while I went off to another studio to record variations of the announcer track. When I finished, I headed back to Buzzy’s where we would edit the voice tracks with the announcer tracks and do our final audio mix.
It was well after midnight when I arrived. Ken and Chuck had just finished recording the last talent track. Over the next few hours, we mixed and matched and edited several variations for the presentation. At some point, the audio engineer told everyone to take a break while he cleaned up the sound tracks and edited for time, which entailed removing pauses, breaths, etc. There was a comfortable couch in front of the mixing console, so I mentioned to Chuck that I was going to grab a quick 15-minute snooze.
Sometime after I nodded off, the engineer began experiencing interference with his audio equipment, which manifested itself as some kind of buzzing sound. He kept fiddling with the levers and dials trying to determine the source of the interference, but to no avail. This went on for about a half hour. Everyone in the booth could hear the sound coming through the large studio speakers. The engineer was beside himself until Ken Sale walked around to the front of the console and found me, mouth agape, peacefully snoring away on the couch.
This obviously had nothing to do with my deaf ear, but not wanting to lose the humor of the situation, I quickly quipped, “So why do you guys think they call this place Buzzy’s?”
I immediately exited the booth and headed to the kitchen area for a cup of coffee amidst the booing, hissing and cries of “off with his head” from the others.
Thoughts on the Super Bowl commercials
Maybe I’m too cynical but on a scale of one to ten when comparing this year’s commercials to really funny, unique and memorable commercials of past years, I’d give what I saw on Super Bowl Sunday a “one.” I forced myself to sit through bathroom humor, badly written contrived comedy, and endless network promotions of its own shows. (I guess they didn’t have a sell out.) Did I hear that it cost 3 million for a 30-second spot? Wow, a lot of advertisers wasted a lot of money because I saw nothing there that would make me want to buy their product or even remember their name. But that’s just my opinion.
What do you think about this year’s dog and pony show? Just go to the top of this page, click comments and let me know.