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Political Machine

On the busiest days I was mixing five TV and radio spots, with only two of those already in my schedule book when the day began.

Cranking out election season messages pumped an unprecedented amount of money into television and radio advertising production coffers—quite a boon for those who found themselves well positioned and in demand. For me, this positioning was in part happenstance—that several of my existing video production clients became attached to national campaigns and campaign committees, and that I am based in political ground zero, DC—but also in big part to doing good, reliable work and having the flexibility to accommodate the short lead and turnaround times and crazy schedules inherent in the work. On the busiest days I was mixing five TV and radio spots, with only two of those already in my schedule book when the day began.

Don’t Shoot Me…

Ad mixing often requires an engineer to call on a wide range of creative mixing tools, tricks and skills and cram them into a mix that lasts 30 or 60 seconds. In the case of mixing political ads in high season, proficiency in the above is magnified because mix turnaround time—from OMF download and session creation to final mix output and FTP upload—can be as little as an hour.

Whether mixing political ads or longerform film and video productions, the general goals remain the same: to support the story or message; and to provide tonal/level continuity and intelligibility across the range of microphones, locations and talent used.

A typical political ad will have many audio sources. For efficiency, having a ready-to-receive project template—complete with pre-assigned tracks for video, VOs, Nat Sound, Music and SFX, all associated output groups, and typical EQ and processing plug-in chains instantiated and bypassed – is essential. Optional but highly recommended is SSL’s ProConvert, which flawlessly shepherded all project imports from a myriad of NLE video platforms, versions and export settings. After importing the project into the template, all unique sources are split out to appropriate track types and timeline positions are locked down.

Before turning to EQ and plug-ins, I manually go through the timeline events and evaluate/fix fades, x-fades handles, breaths, pops and inter-track levels (standout/swallowed phrases and words, etc.). Treating the various sound bites is pretty standard mix fare: process as needed using EQ, compression and, more often than not, some amount of noise reduction (Waves X-Noise is one of my regulars).

Ironically, the VO track – usually the focal point of the ad and the only of the sources recorded in a “controlled environment”—can be the most problematic. Instead of a decent recording of a voice that can be evaluated in the full mix and then treated appropriately, I’ve spent quite a bit of precious mix time digging out of the overuse of “radioready” voice processing (over-excited, overcompressed, over-sibilant and/or over-modulated) printed on the takes.

…I’m Only the Piano Player

The music bed and its relative positioning is, of course, critical to the overall mix. Moreover, experience has shown that it is often the critical aspect to getting mix approval from my client, and in turn, their getting approval from the campaign.

The first step is to pre-process the music tracks on the timeline by manually evening out dynamic changes in musical sections, turnarounds, hits etc. I do this by splitting the sections, adjusting the clip levels and applying generous x-fades to smooth the changes. I also insert a Waves L2 (or similar smooth-leveling limiter) to aid in the dynamic consistency of the bed.

Second, carve out a healthy EQ scoop across the music tracks centered around the VO range (typically spanning 700 to 1500 Hz and down about 3 or 4 dB)—this does wonders to free up space for the voice elements while retaining a good perceived music level.

Third, very gently duck the music (2 or 3 dB) with a sidechain from the voice subgroup. Subtly is the key—this duck is a building block, not the means to an end. Lastly, some automation of the music track will always be necessary, but by employing the above (with all plug-ins, EQ and the side-chain already set up in the template, of course), an effective voice-tomusic mix can be reached quickly and the amount of time spent on automation can be drastically reduced.

I’ll wrap it up for now with fairly frequent occurrence from where I sit—one or more helicopters from the Presidential “Marine One” squadron flying by, low and directly across from my studio windows—that turned a bit surreal if I’d happen to be mixing political ads. Kinda shakes (literally and figuratively) a little perspective into the work…

I’m PAR Contributor Steve Murphy, and I approved this column.