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Studio Commercial Potential?

Or, at least some extra income...


by Craig Anderton


There’s nothing quite like generating some extra income from your studio—it not only pays for cool toys but may qualify you for some tax deductions if your studio is a legitimate business concern.


Now, before you go “Clearly he’s not talking about me, I don’t know how to do commercials,” hear me out. There are lots of ways to make money in music, but they sometimes aren’t all that obvious. Over the years I’ve done mastering, soundtracks, and narration for industrial videos, radio commercials, sonic logos, web music adaptations, music for trade show kiosks, manufacturer demo tapes, tutorials (Fig, 1) and other projects. These may not deliver killer income, but help maintain a steady income stream.


Fig. 1: A tutorial video project, with a video track, three lanes of recorded narration, and three tracks of music loops.


And, there’s an easy way to get started in commercials. Listen to some local ads. At some point, you’ll hear one that’s okay but not great. Go to the advertiser, and offer to do a free commercial for them. Say they’re under no obligation to like it or use it, but you’re hoping they will like it and come back for more. Very few companies will say no because they have nothing to lose...but you have a lot to gain. If they use it, then you have the start of a “reel” you can take to other advertisers; and then you can start charging for your work.


However, I advise not going to a company whose commercials are really bad. If they don’t care enough, they probably don’t care enough to hire you.


So, let’s look at what’s involved in doing a radio spot because, in a lot of smaller markets, that’s low-hanging fruit. Or as the old saying goes, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king.”




The best program I’ve found for doing radio commercials is something that handles loops really well. Ableton Live, Cakewalk SONAR, Logic Pro X, and Sony Acid are some of my favorites. I know they’re designed for creating loop-based music but are great for commercials because:


  • Using loops is a fast way to get a music bed happening
  • You can easily “stretch” or “shrink” the tempo to fit timings to the available length
  • They all have video windows if you graduate to TV commercials
  • Multitrack recording lets you do composite narration
  • Pitch transposition comes in handy for processing voice


Of course, other hard disk recording programs will work too.




Discussing copy may not seem very musical, but I feel the most effective commercials have the copy and music flow together as naturally as possible.


Most longer radio commercials are divided into sections. For example, for a radio spot promoting a web site's contest, there was an introduction announcing the contest, a middle section promoting the site itself, a final call to action, and a “boilerplate” tag. I believe that when people hear 4/4 music, they anticipate hearing changes every four measures. So, I wanted to arrange the copy so that the sections fell into natural musical divisions.


There are several ways to tweak copy to fit in with the music.


  • Edit the copy (with the client’s permission of course) to fit better
  • Alter tempo within the music. For example, if some copy runs just a little bit long for a section, slow down the tempo.
  • If the copy runs a little bit short, don’t worry too much as you may be able to fit in some cool sonic effect. For example, in one part, there was a little space left over, so I inserted a sampled voice saying “yeah!”
  • If you can’t get sections to fall within exact 4-measure boundaries, try using transposition after, for example, 2 measures. This also alerts the listener that a change is happening.
  • Change instrumentation where you want to emphasize a transition. Alter drum patterns, morph piano into organ, double an acoustic guitar...you get the idea.


Before actually starting the commercial, I collected a bunch of loops that seemed like they would be useful. I prefer having everything together before starting the narration; it interrupts the flow too much to go looking for sounds in the middle of recording the voice.




Composite recording, where you record a bunch of takes and assemble the best bits from each one, is ideal for recording narration. The basic idea behind composite recording is:


  • Record-enable a track and do a pass of narration
  • That track mutes automatically, and then you can record another track
  • Keep recording new tracks. I typically do about a half dozen tracks before stopping.


It’s very important to cut all these tracks at the same time, with the same mic, and the same mixer/processor settings. When you cut and paste the best parts of the various tracks to end up with the ultimate composite track, you want each track to be identical in terms of tone and level. If you have to go back a week later and make fixes, you may find yourself having to re-record from scratch if you can’t get everything to match.




Hopefully, somewhere in that half-dozen or so narration tracks, you have what you need for a complete take. Here’s how to create that take manually, although note that some DAWs have a streamlined comping process that simplifies matters considerably.


  • Set loop locators (if available) around the first phrase of the narration. Make this loop fairly short – comparing sentences is much more difficult than comparing phrases.
  • Compare two tracks at a time. Pick one “winner” and one “loser.” Once you decide which is the loser, cut at the loop locator boundaries, and erase it.
  • Now compare two more tracks and pick the best one.
  • Continue this “round robin” process until you’ve chosen the best phrase.
  • Now move the loop locators on to the next phrase, and start picking the best version.


At this point, you have a bunch of little segments of audio. I prefer to bounce these down to a single track so that if it’s necessary to add compression or other processing, it affects the entire track.


When bouncing, mute all other tracks, and make sure the levels for all the segments are balanced. You may need to tweak a few levels prior to bouncing.




When it comes to vocal talent, I’m no James Earl Jones (then again...who is?). But I make do with what I have, and a few vocal tricks can really help.


This is where digital signal processing really shines, as you can transpose a loop or track downward in pitch while retaining the same duration (in other words, transposing down doesn’t lengthen the audio, and transposing up doesn’t shorten it). Of course, the intention is to use this with loop-based music to match loops that are in different keys, but shifting my voice down one or two semitones gives a deep, “FM-DJ-late-at-night” vocal quality. This technique is so effective that with one particular commercial, many people didn’t realize it was me.


I started off by shifting the entire track down 1 semitone, but there were some phrases I really wanted to accent. I cut these into separate segments and transposed them down 2 semitones. The effect was very cool.


Here are some other vocal tricks that work for me:


  • Delay. I copied the main track to a second track, dropped the second track’s volume, and shifted it about a 16th note later. The echo gave the effect you would hear from an announcer talking over a PA in a medium size venue. (After hearing the commercial, one friend commented that if my current gig tanked, I could always become a monster truck pull announcer. I think that was a compliment. Maybe.)
  • Compression. Compression is great for cutting off the tips of peaks, allowing a higher average level.
  • Limiting. This makes the level just a little bit hotter and increases intelligibility.




From here, the rest of the path is straightforward. With most commercials I've done, mixing simply involved putting the music bed well behind the voice (the narration had virtually no space between words, so there was no point in trying to use “ducking” to keep the music bed up during narrative pauses). Because the music is often so limited—just rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and a few little fills—mixing is a lot easier compared to mixing a song with lots of tracks. The final step is creating a 2-track master WAV file for the client to approve, typically with a little limiting so the commercial “pops” over the radio. At that point, all that's left is providing the commercial on the desired playback medium...and of course, cashing the check.  -HC-




 Craig Anderton is a contributing Senior Editor for Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.


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