Recording for Commercials – The Dictatorship of the Clock
Commercials are also known as “spots,” short for “spot announcement,” and I will use both “commercials” and “spots” interchangeably throughout this discussion. The major difference between recording for most other forms of medium and recording spots is, of course, the commercial has a time limit that must be adhered to. Commercials most typically are recorded in 15-, 30-, or 60-second increments, and this is a function of the airtime that broadcasters make available for advertising messages during their programming.
There are 10- or 120-second blocks available, but they are not as common as the 15-, 30-, or 60-second spots. Regardless of the time limit of the individual commercial that you are recording, these times must be rigorously adhered to. One-tenth of a second too long, and your finished work will be cut off on the air, and too short is equally bad. It all comes down to broadcasting schedules: If a number of spots run short, by the end of an hour, the broadcaster has time on its hands that it hadn’t planned on, and no way to fill it. With a live host (a DJ, for instance), the host can ad-lib and fill the time, but, with television programs where everything is prerecorded (both the program and the spots, as well as promos, bumpers, and so on), there is no way to kill this extra time except for dead air (that is, nothing being broadcast). And dead air is the broadcaster’s worst nightmare.
As I mentioned, keeping the session running smoothly and on time is one of your responsibilities, and this is often a struggle. I’ve had six commercial sessions booked back to back in a day, and, if one runs long, everything in the schedule starts to slip behind. You have to learn how to say, “Sorry, you’re out of time—we’ll have to pick this back up again in three hours.” There are a couple of problems if this situation happens: The airtime may have already been bought, and what you are recording has to be on the air immediately. Second, if the voice talent has to return to the studio at a later time, he may now cost more than was budgeted, or the actor may not be available at the later time. So keep things moving! This is where your experience comes into play—you have to keep in mind how long the editing, sound effect selection, and mixing are going to take and factor that into the session schedule. And, once all that is completed, you will still have to prepare materials for delivery to either the producer or to the broadcasting stations.
You can see that we have two problems with commercial recording: First, the spot has to be the exact length; and second, the individual recording session must not go over its scheduled allotted time. We’ll take a look at some strategies to get the spot to proper timing; session timing is up to you. Because time is of the essence, have a game plan going into the session. You should have already taken a look at the script(s) and timed yourself reading it. You probably have an idea of what sound effects you’ll need and what style of music you might have to find, if the commercial isn’t using a prerecorded piece of music. Of course, you should have a game plan for any session, but, because commercial sessions can be quite short, you’ll have to have a good mental roadmap of where you are going before you begin the session.
As for your session management, my only advice is to keep a close eye on the clock and know when to begin moving things along—remember that you will probably need time for more than just the recording (editing, SFX selection, mixing, duplicating, and so on). For each individual read of the script, it’s essential to have a stopwatch in hand so that you can give an accurate reporting of the time of the read to the VO talent and the producer immediately. Don’t slow the session down by having to stop and then measure the length of the read in your DAW program. By using a stopwatch, you can call out the timing in tenths of a second, and not frame counts; it’s much easier for most people to understand, “that’s three-tenths too long,” as opposed to, “that’s ten frames too long.” An important skill to master is accurately timing the read; you can’t be sloppy with your stopwatch and you have to start and stop it exactly with the talent’s performance. If the actor takes an unusually long breath or pauses during the read, you should be prepared to stop and then start your clock accordingly. Most experienced voice actors, as well as producers and engineers, have a clock running in their head and can tell when 30 seconds is about to expire and make adjustments in the read.
An important consideration in choosing a stopwatch is that it doesn’t make an electronic beep when activated. This is especially true if you are going to be the one recording your voice—the mic will pick up the sound of the beep, and you wouldn’t want that in your recording. For this reason, many voice talents choose a watch with a sweep hand—that’s right, the old-fashioned analog stopwatch. Smart phones almost always have a stopwatch function, either counting up or counting down, and the audio of the phone can be muted to silence the activation beep. I think that another thing to consider is for the watch to have a “split time” function. With this function, you can time individual sections of a read, as well as get an overall timing of the whole read. This can come in handy for recording television spots, which at times are to be added to an already edited picture. This would be the case if we were not watching the picture while we recorded the voiceover. In this case, instead of simply making sure that the read comes in at 30 seconds, we want to have each section of the read match an existing timing from the picture. So, sentence 1 might be 5.5 seconds, lines 2 and 3 together might be 8.7 seconds, and so on. To ensure that the timing of the read matches the picture, we need to know the timing of each of these sections, and this is where the split times come in handy.
An alternative to the hand-held stopwatch is the studio timer. Studio timers are manufactured by a number of companies, but most have the same features: Large numeric displays, the option to count up or count down, and a remote function, so that the person operating the clock doesn’t have to be right next to it (at the recording console, for instance). The timer can be mounted on the studio wall, and the voice talent gets an immediate readout of how many seconds remain for her to finish the reading. Most studio timers do not have split-time functions.
Excerpt from Recording Voiceover by Tom Blakemore © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author
Tom Blakemore has been an active audio engineer for over thirty years, working in film, television, commercial, and corporate communications as a supervising sound editor and mixer. His film work includes Emmy Award winning documentaries, Academy Award nominees, Directors Guild of America Best Documentary winners, and Audience Award winners at the Toronto, Chicago and Amsterdam Film Festivals. Tom lives in Chicago, where he is an adjunct professor at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy teaching film sound, and is a member of the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and the Audio Engineering Society (AES).