By Jennifer Walden
New York audio post house Heard City put their collaborative workflow design to work on the Super Bowl ad campaign for Tide. Philip Loeb, partner/president of Heard City, reports that their facility is set up so that several sound artists can work on the same project simultaneously.
Loeb also helped to mix and sound design many of the other Super Bowl ads that came to Heard City, including ads for Budweiser, Pizza Hut, Blacture, Tourism Australia and the NFL.
Here, Loeb and mixer/sound designer Michael Vitacco discuss the approach and the tools that their team used on these standout Super Bowl spots.
Tide’s It’s a Tide Ad campaign via Saatchi & Saatchi New York
Is every Super Bowl ad really a Tide ad in disguise? A string of commercials touting products from beer to diamonds, and even a local ad for insurance, are interrupted by David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame). He declares that those ads are actually just Tide commercials, as everyone is wearing such clean clothes.
Sonically, what’s unique about this spot?
Loeb: These spots, four in total, involved sound design and mixing, as well as ADR. One of our mixers, Evan Mangiamele, conducted an ADR session with David Harbour, who was in Hawaii, and we integrated that into the commercial. In addition, we recorded a handful of different characters for the lead-ins for each of the different vignettes because we were treating each of those as different commercials. We had to be mindful of a male voiceover starting one and then a female voiceover starting another so that they were staggered.
There was one vignette for Old Spice, and since the ads were for P&G, we did get the Old Spice pneumonic and we did try something different at the end — with one version featuring the character singing the pneumonic and one of him whistling it. There were many different variations and we just wanted, in the end, to get part of the pneumonic into the joke at the end.
The challenge with the Tide campaign, in particular, was to make each of these vignettes feel like it was a different commercial and to treat each one as such. There’s an overall mix level that goes into that but we wanted certain ones to have a little bit more dynamic range than the others. For example, there is a cola vignette that’s set on a beach with people taking a selfie. David interrupts them by saying, “No, it’s a Tide ad.”
For that spot, we had to record a voiceover that was very loud and energetic to go along with a loud and energetic music track. That vignette cuts into the “personal digital assistant” (think Amazon’s Alexa) spot. We had to be very mindful of these ads flowing into each other while making it clear to the viewer that these were different commercials with different products, not one linear ad. Each commercial required its own voiceover, its own sound design, its own music track, and its own tone.
One vignette was about car insurance featuring a mechanic in a white shirt under a car. That spot isn’t letterbox like the others; it’s 4:3 because it’s supposed to be a local ad. We made that vignette sound more like a local ad; it’s a little over-compressed, a little over-equalized and a little videotape sounding. The music is mixed a little low. We wanted it to sound like the dialogue is really up front so as to get the message across, like a local advertisement.
What’s your workflow like?
Loeb: At Heard City, our workflow is unique in that we can have multiple mixers working on the same project simultaneously. This collaborative process makes our work much more efficient, and that was our original intent when we opened the company six years ago. The model came to us by watching the way that the bigger VFX companies work. Each artist takes a different piece of the project and then all of the work is combined at the end.
We did that on the Tide campaign, and there was no other way we could have done it due to the schedule. Also, we believe this workflow provides a much better product. One sound artist can be working specifically on the sound design while another can be mixing. So as I was working on mixing, Evan was flying in his sound design to me. It was a lot of fun working on it like that.
What tools helped you to create the sound?
One plug-in we’re finding to be very helpful is the iZotope Neutron. We put that on the master bus and we have found many settings that work very well on broadcast projects. It’s a very flexible tool.
Vitacco: The Neutron has been incredibly helpful overall in balancing out the mix. There are some very helpful custom settings that have helped to create a dynamic mix for air.
Tourism Australia Dundee via Droga5 New York
Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth star in this movie-trailer-turned-tourism-ad for Australia. It starts out as a movie trailer for a new addition to the Crocodile Dundee film franchise — well, rather, a spoof of it. There’s epic music featuring a didgeridoo and title cards introducing the actors and setting up the premise for the “film.” Then there’s talk of miles of beaches and fine wine and dining. It all seems a bit fishy, but finally Danny McBride confirms that this is, in fact, actually a tourism ad.
Sonically, what’s unique about this spot?
Vitacco: In this case, we were creating a fake movie trailer that’s a misdirect for the audience, so we aimed to create sound design that was both in the vein of being big and epic and also authentic to the location of the “film.”
One of the things that movie trailers often draw upon is a consistent mnemonic to drive home a message. So I helped to sound design a consistent mnemonic for each of the title cards that come up.
For this I used some Native Instruments toolkits, like “Rise & Hit” and “Gravity,” and Tonsturm’s Whoosh software to supplement some existing sound design to create that consistent and branded mnemonic.
In addition, we wanted to create an authentic sonic palette for the Australian outback where a lot of the footage was shot. I had to be very aware of the species of animals and insects that were around. I drew upon sound effects that were specifically from Australia. All sound effects were authentic to that entire continent.
Another factor that came into play was that anytime you are dealing with a spot that has a lot of soundbites, especially ones recorded outside, there tends to be a lot of noise reduction taking place. I didn’t have to hit it too hard because everything was recorded very well. For cleanup, I used the iZotope RX 6 — both the RX Connect and the RX Denoiser. I relied on that heavily, as well as the Waves WNS plug-in, just to make sure that things were crisp and clear. That allowed me the flexibility to add my own ambient sound and have more control over the mix.
In RX, I really like to use the Denoiser instead of the Dialogue Denoiser tool when possible. I’ll pull out the handles of the production sound and grab a long sample of noise. Then I’ll use the Denoiser because I find that works better than the Dialogue Denoiser.
Budweiser Stand By You via David Miami
The phone rings in the middle of the night. A man gets out of bed, prepares to leave and kisses his wife good-bye. His car radio announces that a natural disaster is affecting thousands of families who are in desperate need of aid. The man arrives at a Budweiser factory and helps to organize the production of canned water instead of beer.
Sonically, what’s unique about this spot?
Loeb: For this spot, I did a preliminary mix where I handled the effects, the dialogue and the music. We set the preliminary tone for that as to how we were going to play the effects throughout it.
The spot starts with a husband and wife asleep in bed and they’re awakened by a phone call. Our sound focused on the dialogue and effects upfront, and also the song. I worked on this with another fantastic mixer here at Heard City, Elizabeth McClanahan, who comes from a music background. She put her ears to the track and did an amazing job of remixing the stems.
On the master track in the Pro Tools session, she used iZotope’s Neutron, as well as the FabFilter Pro-L limiter, which helps to contain the mix. One of the tricks on a dynamic mix like that — which starts off with that quiet moment in the morning and then builds with the music in the end — is to keep it within the restrictions of the CALM Act and other specifications that stipulate dynamic range and not just average loudness. We had to be mindful of how we were treating those quiet portions and the lower portions so that we still had some dynamic range but we weren’t out of spec.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @AudioJeney.