I remember listening to Subspace Radio a few years back and laughing at the creative commercials they played. I wrote a few of my own, such as Tarm’s Ferengi Pawn Shop, but others actually turned them into completed audio files. As time went on, I began to wonder about how to turn a script into an actual commercial. I have since learned how to do that and have made many commercials of my own. I thought it would be fun to give an overview of the process in case anyone else had the same question: How do you make a commercial?
On my show, the Audio Arcade, you may have heard a commercial for a fictitious company named Ultranet. I had this article in mind as I was re-editing that commercial, so I will use it as an example as we go along.
This is not intended to be a full tutorial about how to use sound editing software, but I will show some examples in Adobe Audition, as that is what I use. The same concepts would apply in other software, such as Pro Tools or Audacity.
Equipment I use
This is some of the equipment I use when making recordings. Use whatever you have available and whatever works best for you.
Script writing: Microsoft OneNote
Audio editing: Adobe Audition CC 2015
Microphone: Shure PG42-USB (home), Shure SM7B (studio)
- Historical footnote: The SM7 series became famous when Michael Jackson used it to record his Thriller album.
Headset: Sony MDR-V6
The first thing you’ll need is an idea. Sounds simple enough, right? Except that creative Muse is an elusive creature. It seems whenever you are ready to sit down and work, she’s out on a coffee break. Then when she finally decides to visit, it’s at the most inconvenient time, such as when you’re driving or in the middle of taking a shower.
One of the easier things to do is to think of commercials you see/hear consistently on TV or radio. This can give you an idea for a spoof, or perhaps a genre of commercials (ex. – drug commercials).
In the case of Ultranet, I honestly don’t remember how the idea popped into my head. A few months ago I was taking a course in broadcasting, and I needed to make a commercial for one of my assignments. On the drive home from the school, I had an idea for a drug commercial spoof. Somewhere in the process of brainstorming through that, the idea for Ultranet popped into my head and I just went with it.
I ended up liking the commercial so much that I decided to re-record the lines and re-edit it for Subspace Radio. I tried to plan out each of the steps along the way so I could write this article about it.
Great, so you have an idea now! So what exactly are you going to say during the commercial? Just start brainstorming and jot down any ideas that pop into your head. I like to use Microsoft OneNote to organize all my commercials and other show related information.
Just keep writing down your ideas until something clicks. You’ll be surprised how the words start to flow once you’ve stumbled upon a good idea. If you’re stuck, take a break, but keep a notebook nearby. The Muse is watching and will stop by when you’re right in the middle of other things. Wave that notebook under her nose and say, “Ha! I was ready for you this time!”
Once you have your script, you’ll need to record the lines… but then, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. You’ll want a decent microphone and some place quiet to do your recording. Don’t get too hung up on the “decent” part, as a good gaming headset will work just fine. You don’t need a full-blown recording studio or anything like that (even though I show an example of that below).
Check your microphone levels before recording. Most software has a meter for this which will fluctuate as it picks up sound. You want your voice to be hitting between -9dB to -3dB. When you do a microphone check, try to avoid the standard, “check, check, test 1, 2, 3” and just read your script as you plan to do when you actually record it. That will help you get your levels correct and save you some editing work later.
Think about how you want to handle your editing. By that I mean do you want to do everything in one giant recording and do all the editing later, or do you want to make minor edits as you go? For example, if you are two lines into the recording and mess up, you could just keep recording, or you could wipe out what you did and record it fresh. It’s all a matter of how you prefer to work, how well you know your editing software, and how quickly you can make adjustments on the fly.
For the Ultranet commercial, I did my editing on the fly. If I messed something up, I just deleted it right then and there to save myself some time later. As I’ve become more familiar with Adobe Audition, it has become much easier to make these edits immediately.
Remember to sit up straight (or stand if you can) and project your voice! Enunciate and do all that fun stuff your teachers used to yell at you about back in school.
Phew, you finally got the lines recorded after about 50 billion takes, and now it’s time to get down to doing the initial editing on your voice. This involves assembling the lines, removing breaths, removing mouth noises, and removing miscellaneous noises.
Assembling the lines
Cut out any bloopers and paste the lines together in the right order. For example, if you did one giant recording, you may have multiple readings of the script. Perhaps you liked the first few lines of one reading, but the last lines of a different one. You can chop things up and rearrange them the way you want until you’re left with one complete reading of the script.
In the case of the Ultranet commercial, I did this type of editing as I was recording, so I left the studio with a fully assembled reading of the lines.
Breathing – it’s one of those things you need to do if you want to keep living. Unfortunately, it can sound bad in a recording, so you’ll want to do something about that. Some people prefer to remove the breaths entirely, while others like to just reduce the volume of them a bit to keep a more natural feeling.
Personally, I think it depends on the situation. For an announcer type of recording, I prefer to remove the breaths entirely. For more conversational recordings, I’ll just reduce their volume slightly so they aren’t distracting. In some cases, I’ll leave them alone entirely, such as when I have a voice that’s supposed to sound creepy, like a Ferengi from Star Trek. For the Ultranet commercial, I tried to remove the breaths completely.
To remove the breaths, you’d need to find them in the recording, highlight them, and reduce their volume to the point where they can’t be heard anymore.
Have you ever noticed how your saliva sticks together after you drink something like milk, orange juice, or lemonade? Now think about how that would sound if you stuck a microphone right in front of it – yuck! The hidden message in there is to be mindful of what you eat or drink before you do a recording. One trick to avoid that in the first place is to eat an apple (or a few bites of one). For some reason, that helps dry up your mouth enough to reduce extraneous noises.
Even still, you will probably have a few mouth noises pop up, since putting a microphone right in front of your mouth is going to pick up more sounds than you would hear in a normal conversation. You can get rid of those noises by following the same process mentioned previously for breaths.
Sometimes you’ll hear other stuff in the recording, such a background humming or perhaps you bumped the microphone during the recording. You can follow the same process outlined above to remove those noises.
I won’t spend too much time on this part, but once you have a cleaned-up voice recording, you can apply filters to it if you want. For example, you may want an echo or a robotic distortion depending on what you’re doing.
For the Ultranet commercial, I applied what is known as a Soft Filter in Adobe Audition, which just gives it a bit more “pop”. It has the side effect of also boosting the voice volume, so I needed to readjust that afterwards.
Now that you have your voice track ready, you’ll probably want to add a music bed in the background. You may also want some sound FX at certain points of the commercial. In Adobe Audition, this can be done in what is known as the Multitrack view. This allows you to layer many different pieces of audio into one.
You can split up the voice track if needed to create pauses, and you’ll want to adjust the volume of each of the tracks so they can be heard clearly without drowning each other out.
Once you are satisfied that everything sounds right, you can export the multitrack session to a final output. For radio, you’ll want it to be in mp3 format, and 16-bit stereo.
This may look like a lot of work, but it becomes much quicker once you've done it a few times. A lot of the work is up-front in just coming up with the idea and the script itself. Depending on the day, the recording can go smoothly, or you could end up wanting to strangle the microphone. The important part is to have fun with it. If you’re ticked off and angry, take a break, because you’ll just end up rushing through things and making something less than ideal.
Hopefully this shed a little light on how to make a commercial and gave you an idea of what goes into the process. So the next time you hear the Ultranet commercial play, you can think about that time you fell asleep reading about how it was made!