Monday, January 02, 2006

Bumps, Bugs, Beats and Brands

Between 1994 and 1996 I was lucky enough to be participate in a producer capacity in the development of several network launches or re-launches, –ESPN2, Comedy Central, PBS and SCI FI among them. This work can be summed up as enhancing animation with thematic material. The common commission required everything from three minute themes to three second logo 'bugs'.

Although well experienced producing :30s and :60s for TV commercials, we were all relatively new to the process of creating network packaging and therefore treated each individual promo, bump, etc –whatever the length– as unique asset, requiring that it be composed from scratch. Once we gained experience composing packages for ESPN and ESPN 2, we were able to modify our process by creating long format works from which we might extract a multitude of smaller assets.

Our creative director, Alex Lasarenko, was first to suggest that each five second sting (the memorable end of the track, often used as a sonic logo) should be constructed as an extractable tag from a longer asset, perhaps a :30 or :60.

I was responsible for budget control, and so it fell on me to maximize our profit. And that being the case, I picked up on Lasarenko's idea and expanded on it, suggesting further that it would be exponentially more efficient to produce everything from one long masterwork –when possible.

Understand that in those days we were still dumping Synclavier sub-mixes to 2" tape. It was an arduous task and it fell on production to plan well ahead and make sure every individual asset and version could be accounted for as we went to tape, even within the limitations of of 23 tracks (+1 for Time code), with the core masterwork being the longest version of the theme required by the cable channel or network (a minute to 3 minutes in length).

But as we were wrapping up a package for Comedy Central, Larry Alexander, the engineer famous for mixing everybody, happen to tell me about this new portable ProTools rig he had. He explained to me what he could do with it, and that since it was relatively new, he was pretty excited to use it. So, we hired Larry to mix and edit entire audio portfolios, and it turned out he could do in a day with that rig what it might have once taken us a week to do.

Mind you, his 'portable' rig was not a simple single laptop. The rig arrived by truck and just about doubled the amount of equipment stuffed into her our studios.

Larry's the first person I knew that had what was a full-on Pro Tools set up in those days. So, whenever I specifically hired him to do a session with the rig, it was considered a specialty request only few could accomplish, and we had to have a pretty decent budget to afford it.

But all worth it!

Larry is the type of engineer who will mix down an orchestra with a conductor's score splayed out across the console, like Leonard Bernstein, except instead of holding a baton; he wields massive amounts of technology at his fingertips. I know that all of us who stepped within five feet of Larry's work space would always try to look over his shoulder and pick up a tip or two, compression settings, for instance –always the man's coveted compression settings– that sort of thing.

From the perspective of pure communication, I found the five-second units –the 'bumps'– most interesting because, in practice, a five-second edit generally necessitated the inclusion of a two-second reverb tail and fade, meaning that only three seconds of actual music could be allotted to actual communication of the network logo –the 'sting'.

As it turned out, Larry, who was famous for working the epic song cycles of the some the world's most baroque pop stars, also proved exceptional at whittling the fat off sixty second main themes and carving out terse, tasteful, three-second stings.

The final results provided by producing network packaging impressed upon me the power for audio beyond its ability enhance a story line. In fact, it was with such small deliverables as bumps and bugs that I was beginning to realize, that (in contrast to scoring for film) sound just might be the most efficient means -barring a graphic symbol– to convey a MESSAGE, and so, here I was beginning to evolve my thinking of music production not merely as a means to enhance story, but to deliver a message, and how that philosophy might be applied to the construction of sonified signification and brand asset portfolios.

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