Everyone thinks of me as strictly a techie guy.  I work alone a lot of the time being that “guy”, but once upon a time my full time work was writing and producing radio spots and following that up with an on-air show.
I am an audio tape pack-rat (slowly converting everything to digital).  I have copies of most of the work I did throughout my career.  

Once in a while I’ll discover something that is astonishing. 
“Wow, I produced that WHOLE THING by cutting and splicing reel to reel tape!”

How did I get that level of quality using such primitive equipment?
I was very detail oriented.  I made sure the heads of the audio equipment were meticulously clean (that was important in the analog days).  But I also always made available as much time as required to get the results I wanted. 

I remember many nights I would spend four, five or maybe six HOURS producing something that ran for 10 minutes or less.  The end result was a natural “high.”  I would pull whomever was on-air at the time into Production studio, and they would want to be a part of whatever I did next.  Thus began a long running 5 minute feature, “The Misadventures of Fred Heller, Boy DJ,” a just-for-fun bit that was the culmination of a friendly on-air feud I had with our drive time guy.  I wrote speaking parts for most of our on-air staff, Chief Engineer, Operations Manager, sales and office staff – and every one of them had fun doing it!  But I had the MOST fun, because I put the sound effects, music, and all the right edits in all the right places.  Producing these bits was not a job requirement, but let me tell you, with all that editing practice, after a while, I could nail down complex spots in half the time of most others….and that SOUNDED better.  I wanted to be The Best on staff at what my title was: Production Director. 
There were no digital editors of any kind.  Most Production studios at that time consisted of two Ampex 2-track reel to reel decks, some cart machines, two turntables and maybe a cassette deck.  That’s it!  CD’s had not yet been invented.  When you cut your spots, you would usually cut them live to tape – I would usually have the music running at the same time and mix it in one process. 

There’s a big advantage to that because you can shape to delivery to the tempo and emphasis in the music.  Sometimes I would knock out a spot in one take, music and all!  After you gain vocal experience and practice, you never stumble. 

So doing a multi-voiced production, especially back then, it was literally like being a circus ringleader AND performer.  Certain things you could build in modules then tighten up with editing. But when the tape rolled, YOU ROLL!

To an extent, this applies today, but too many people would prefer to edit together multiple takes, add the music as an afterthought, and electronically adjust the levels afterward.

I have actually heard spots on the air that are WAY OVER-PRODUCED.  They will have a million little distracting sound effects, voice filters, over-bearing music that is not even appropriate.  The spot is actually annoying to hear.  

One thing I taught myself in the reel-to-reel days was to produce high energy but TASTEFUL spots. Nobody and I mean NOBODY in the general listening audience is going to be impressed to hear your voice bounce from left to right, sounding like a telephone or a big echo chamber, then with an explosion at the end.  But if you use your voice inflection ALONE to determine the whole attitude of your spot – perhaps even do multiple versions – (then LET OTHERS HEAR IT – if you can’t decide which one is best) you will have a commercial that WILL SELL for the client.  Better still, that client will want YOU to cut their next spot. 

Delivery is another thing I worked very hard at besides editing – to be The Best.  Having a deep voice doesn’t matter as much especially today. It’s how you use what you have, and being natural, down-to-earth or whatever suits the mood of the spot. 

A final note is to be detail oriented.  The most common mistake I see students at Specs Howard making is rushing through the work and being sloppy.  Levels are either too high (which ruins the spot), or too low (which may make it hard to listen to), or poorly balanced.  The spot should average at the same level from beginning to end (never clipping).  Every part of the spot MUST be equally balanced as to levels, and that is best accomplished by manually making sure the levels are perfect going in.

I have helped people “fix” demos who will say “Well, I didn’t have time to re-do this or that…” and the levels are SLAMMED into the red, then next segment, the level may peak at minus six. There is no excuse for this.  There is no way to “fix” over-modulated spots.  Harmonic distortion or digital clipping (whichever comes first or both) can never be fully removed, and even when they are “improved” it is impossible to make it sound as good as if the levels were set correctly in the first place.  Furthermore, in some cases, it takes more time to improve sloppy work than simply re-doing the spot from scratch.  If the equipment is not cooperating, or working the way you expect it (such as preventing you from loading ‘perfect’ levels), then you must ask someone who has more experience with it.
We have saved students of today from learning the obscure art of cutting and splicing – editing “old-school.” In return students must become familiar with the demands of digital editing…. That is if the want their work to be The Best…  or at least not sloppy and the final product is as good as they are capable.  

There are too many spots on the air today that are poorly done. Quick reads or multi-voicers that sound like they are from a bored person reading a script are waaaaay too common.  By putting some ZING into YOUR delivery WITHOUT sounding phony or forced, you can cut spots that are far more effective.  With enough practice, it may actually help land you that next job. 
I am grateful for the many people I worked for and with who let me “do my thing,” back then and now, whom I consider the best in the business.  You can’t do YOUR best without being surrounded by people to lend morale support who have an equal or better non-compromising attitude.  Sometimes it’s a tough-love situation, but no one said life was necessarily easy in such high profile fields.     

You can learn radio, television, film and graphics from many different sources.  If you want the best, come to Specs Howard where I hang out every day.  You can even pick my brain in person if you want.  If you go radio, I might even show you a few audio tricks I have up my sleeve.  Just don’t bring me your over-modulated spots!
                 -Bob Burnham
                   July 31, 2009


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