What Makes Dialogue Dance? Rhythm.

Our prediction: The winner of this weekend’s big bowl game will be the Coen Brothers. (What’s that? There are football teams playing? Who knew?)

Like you, we watch for the commercials, like this one:

That was really good. Why?

What makes the Coen brothers work unique? Well, it’s a combination of things—memorable characters, wide lenses, deep focus, camera placement, and rhythm. Serious rhythm. To get a sense of their rhythm, watch this again with the sound off. Count the beats. You could almost dance to it.

Here’s a full explanation of their techniques. If you have 7 minutes, it’s really interesting. Use it to impress your friends. We won’t tell. (Or you could just skip down to “What does all this have to do with audio?”)

What does all this have to do with audio?

Glad you asked. Plenty, when you’re Soundscapes. We’ve shown clients for years that mic placement and processing—like camera placement—can create a sense of either intimacy or distance. That’s why our first question about any dialogue script is “where are these people?”

But the level of intimacy is just one facet. The most important thing in dialogue—just like in a Coen brothers film—is rhythm. Especially if you’re doing comedy. Just listen to this spot for Advance Document Solutions.

It’s beautifully written. But when put into the hands of Tommy Sanders (who voiced both characters) and edited together rhythmically by Soundscapes’ David Greaves, it takes on a whole new life. Here’s another from that series:

Hear how the rhythm of the editing keeps the spot interesting? Of course, since one voice did all the characters, it was up to the Soundscapes editor to create the comic timing. But when you’re doing live dialogue, it’s more a question of talent direction than editing. Like in this spot for Ozone Action Days.


But how do you direct the rhythm?

Directing voice actors in a read like this requires that you spell out the beats throughout the script: where to take it easy, where to pause, where to begin building the tempo, when to use silence effectively—that’s all part of good talent direction.

We’ve been directing actors in comedy dialogue for nearly 40 years now. So next time you write a piece of humor—or anything else—send it to Soundscapes. Everyone here knows exactly how to make your script dance.

—Brent Walker

Music for Voiceover—A Different Animal Altogether

GuitarHandsRecently, we were given a piece of advertising music composed and mixed for a client by a local musician in their town. He writes pretty good music…edgy, fresh, listenable—apparently he packs the bars. But there’s a problem. Not being a media professional, he doesn’t understand a thing about the intricacies of creating music for advertising—which is a very different animal.

Breaking Down the Pitfalls

The piece of music he did was all guitar, keyboards & honked-up filtered drums. The voicing of every instrument was in the midrange—the same frequency range that the human voice occupies. Which is terrific if you’re just listening to the music. But it’s perfectly horrible if you’re trying to mix it with voice. And this music will always be mixed with voice.

As you might imagine, mixing it was a nightmare We ended up having to carve a sizable EQ hole in the jangly midrange, widen the stereo to create a space for the voice, and bring up the low and high frequencies so that when mixed, the music would still be present enough to hear without blocking the message. Oh…and it was 34 seconds long. Nice.

This is happening a lot in these budget-conscious DIY days. Local musicians are being called on to create music for advertising. They’ll typically do it for cheap, and after all, everyone has some kind of software on their computer that can mix multiple tracks of music. From Garage Band to hacked copies of ProTools, people have copped the attitude that software makes production easy. But easy and professional have never been good roommates.


  • When arranging the music, leave frequency space for the human voice.
  • Depending on your time signature, only a few tempos will land you in the proper time. Learn them.
  • Never use trumpets or saxophones in the space where the voice goes.
  • When doing the final mix, lay in a voice track to make sure the mix works with voice. Mix, remove voice track, and master.
  • Reverb should end at :29.5 or :59.5.

Quality matters. Knowledge of our industry matters. Budget the few extra bucks it takes to get real media professionals to compose your brand music, then call Soundscapes. You’ll get far more than you expected, because we know that solid brand music for your client is very different than 34-second rock tune.


Never Leave the Talent Hanging…

Session Notes squareI’ve seen this happen a lot: The session begins, everyone has script in hand, the engineer’s finger is on the stop watch, he calls “Take one” and 63 seconds later, the first read is down. What happens next is critical.

In the control room (or conference room, with phone muted) everyone begins a conversation about cuts that need to be made in the script, what needs to be stressed, the performance, etc.  But in the talent’s headphones…Silence.  Crickets. For a very long time.

During this time, the voice talent begins to experience Flop Sweat—that dread that comes from worrying about what they did wrong to elicit such silence. As time marches on, their imagination goes wild—and none of it is good.

Here’s the point: Always, ALWAYS give your voice talent immediate feedback after every take, even if it’s just “that was great, we need to talk about the script for a minute.”

Voice talent runs the human emotional gamut, from solid self-confidence to crushing self-doubt—and this scale is severely lopsided. If you leave your talent hanging after a take, the next take will not turn out well.

Give immediate feedback after every take, and you create a team member who will always deliver for you.

Great Writing—More than just Words

Session Notes square

Words matter. And when writing a TV or Radio script, the vast majority of copywriters concentrate on words alone. But your final production will contain much more than just words. Those elements—Sound Effects & Music—should be strongly considered before the words begin to hit the screen.

When you consider SFX and Music in the conceptual phase, it will have a strong effect on how you write. It opens new doors to creativity. It’s like storyboarding for the ear. This is especially true when you’re writing for Radio, because great Radio triggers the imagination.

Having SFX and Music figured out in the beginning will also have an effect on how your talent performs. For example, actors will deliver your copy one way if they know that they’re in a small coffee shop, and quite another way if they’re walking and talking on the street.

By the same token, if a single-voice announcer knows in the beginning the pacing and energy of the music she’ll be reading against, it will shape her delivery.

Simply stated, SFX and Music should never be an afterthought. But what happens when you actively make these elements a forethought? Great things, that’s what.

For example, when you write a Radio spot centering around a berserk hamster on the loose, wrecking everything in sight, then the SFX become as much a character in the spot as any human being or even the copy.

Or perhaps your ears perk up at gardening advice. Here’s a spot that was written around SFX that move the story forward and give it great mental images.

Interesting note: That spot was so effective in creating mental images that a local woman tried to start a public boycott of the garden center because of their cruelty to cows. It was that real to her. Or maybe she was drunk—who can say?

It boils down to this: The non-voice elements in your advertising can be the strongest things about a spot. But only if you include SFX and music ideas in the conceptual phase of any writing.

We help people come up with great ideas every day. Next time you sit down to write, give us a quick call and we’ll help you weave SFX into your writing. That way, your listeners will see your spot and not just hear it.


Morgan’s Voice

Morgan-FreemanThere’s something about Morgan Freeman’s voice that just makes us all feel better. (Now, go back and re-read that in Morgan Freeman’s voice…you’ll feel better.)

At Soundscapes, we field a lot of requests for a voice that sounds like him, or Sam Elliott, or James Earl Jones. (Oddly enough, no requests for a Steve Buscemi style voice.) Why is that? What is it about these voices that draws people in?

Researchers at the Royal Society wondered about this too. So they conducted research on the factors of these voices that appealed to different age groups & different sexes. It was published by the University of Miami. As it turns out, the answers are more rooted in evolution than in personal preference. A summary of the findings can be found here, from Time magazine.

If you want to read the whole report, you can access the PDF of the findings here. One warning: this may cause you to re-think casting the Everyman-from-next-door types on your next project.