Friday, November 30, 2007

hearing voices

Today, I go to a sound studio to re-record voiceover for a commercial. The redo is a request from one of the drug clients. He wants a "however" in the copy where now there's a "but". He also wants the voiceover to slow down the read. He worries that the announcer reads the drug's side effects too fast. A prescription drug that advertises on network TV is required to list the drug's possible adverse effects. Speed-reading through "fair balance" was an old trick of drug advertisers when they first went on air in the 1980s. Now, it's illegal. If network lawyers catch this, they pull a spot from the air.

The sound studio is a site of contradictions. Fancy uptown address (Fifth Avenue) but hip downtown decor. Poured cement floors covered with Oriental runners. Elevator doors stripped down to pockmarked steel. The receptionist is a sweet-looking, baby faced guy. But when he reaches for the phone to announce our arrival, I see his arms are black with tattoos, like an old sailor's. "You'll be working in Ben's room today," he says. " It's the one with the giant glass eye on the door." (What is it with glass eyes in this business?) Ben's room is so dimly lit, I barely find my way to the soft leather sofa. Ben isn't there, but I know by the challenging lighting that he must be young. The decor is cowboy: longhorn coat rack, found wood coffee table. A baseball cap hangs over the fire alarm box. A collection of action figures stand poised for battle by the computer.

"Hi, I'm Ben, wassup." Ben extends a pudgy hand: he is a round, friendly guy who looks about twenty. His youth is emphasized by facial hair which is shaved into careful geometric shapes. We make small talk for a minute and my gaze shifts to a collection of children's art on the wall. "You have kids?" I ask, regretting the question immediately. Surely this guy is too young to have kids. The crayoned turkey is possibly his. Ben grins broadly, his facial hair leaps. "My daughter," he says proudly. "She's three. Going on twenty." He shows me a series of photos of her on his computer and the tenderness in his voice is touching. "It's the first Christmas she gets it about presents," he says. "I'm on the lookout for a Disney Princess Cash Register." He closes the program and we get down to work.

"You there?" he calls into space. We both look at the sound booth, though nobody's in it. The voiceover we're using is in California.

"Good morning," we hear through invisible speakers. I check my watch, it is 2 pm. We have the voiceover booked for an hour. The copy she's reading is sixty seconds, but it takes over an hour to get it right, for her to trip quickly, though not too quickly over side effects which for this drug (for a relatively benign condition) includes risk of falling asleep at the wheel and sudden onset of gambling or sexual urges.

To direct, I press a button on a remote which I must remember to keep pointed to an LED light on a box linking us to the studio in LA where the voiceover is. I think how different this is from my first voice record session which also took place in a studio in California. I was a secretary in a shop in San Francisco and some stout-hearted writer let me tag along and observe a session. How surprised I was that the woman in the sound booth, large and decidedly unattractive, could have the voice of a sultry goddess. As soon as she started reading the copy extolling the virtues of a certain corn chip, the studio shook. Our chairs vibrated, the knobs on the electronic panels trembled. "Quake," said the writer and engineer in unison. "Earthquake?" I asked and started to panic. No one made a move. "We're underground," shrugged the writer. Even before the vibrating stopped, the session proceeded, and I thought what a brave, brazen crew were people in advertising. Now, I know it was deadline pressure.

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