Front Row Seat
I had the best seat in the house – right behind a gleaming 48-channel Neve mixing console.
I was sitting in the control room of the Warehouse recording studio on West 46th Street. Don’t look for it today. Like many of New York’s recording havens, it’s long gone, a victim to rising rents, laptop recording and a seismic shift in advertising tastes.
This morning, however, the Warehouse was in its full glory – a spectacular state-of-the-art recording facility.
No better place to record a silly soundtrack for a Chef Boyardee kids’ commercial.
This studio did a lot of advertising business. It was run by Lucas/McFaul, two renowned composers and producers. (In fact, David Lucas produced Blue Oyster Cult’s hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – and played the infamous cowbell on the song.)
Today’s session was trickier than most. We needed to record music that matched cartoon animation. So instead of playing to a steady musical tempo, the timing would be dictated by the visual action.
Like most kids’ commercials, the audio track was bombastic, loaded with vocalists, a backing band, kids’ dialogue and sound effects. (Listen for yourself. Watch the commercial below.)
Now comes the moment of truth. How would the music composer arrange all these audio elements to perfectly match the cartoon animation?
What’s the Score?
In the control room, I asked to see the musical score we’d be recording.
Yipes, just as I feared. It was a musical obstacle course. There were “split bars,” where musical measures change abruptly, not to mention key modulations and tempo shifts.
I braced myself for a long morning of trying to get a perfect take – or having to settle for one that was close enough. Back then, there was no digital editing, just reel-to-reel tape.
Beat of a Different Drummer
At every recording session, the drummer is critical. Here’s why. The drummer lays down the rhythmic foundation. All the other musicians follow the drummer’s timing.
Today’s session would require a well-versed, highly skilled drummer who could fearlessly navigate this musical maze.
I turned to Nick DiMinno, the studio producer, and asked who was booked on drums.
“Oh, we got lucky,” he replied. “Steve Gadd was available.”
Steve Gadd’s musical credits are legendary. (Listen to his drum work on Steely Dan’s “Aja.”) He’s also played with Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and so on.
In other words, Gadd is the consummate studio drummer. So what’s he doing at a West side studio this morning playing on a kids’ commercial?
Hey, Must Be the Money!
Top Musicians Like to Jingle
For union musicians, playing on TV commercials is extremely lucrative. You get paid your session fee, then get paid residuals every 13 weeks that the commercial airs. If it’s a national spot that runs for a year, you end up with a hefty paycheck for about 90 minutes of work.
During the jingle music heyday of advertising, in-demand studio musicians would play two to three different recording sessions a day. You’d see the same first-call players again and again at different studios across town.
On this particular session, I remember two other familiar faces on the other side of the glass in the tracking room: Will Lee on bass and Paul Shaffer on keyboards, both from The Late Show band with David Letterman.
Hearing Super Power
The first time you hear playback in a recording studio, it’s a mind-blowing experience. Imagine the world’s greatest stereo on steroids. You’re overwhelmed by the sparkling clarity and powerful depth.
And at today’s session, I was listening to a room full of world-class musicians playing on a TV commercial I wrote. Talk about your golden ticket to a private concert.
The Run Down
Finally, the band was ready for a run-through. The composer gave last minute instructions. And the cartoon animation was cued up on a large video monitor in the studio.
Steve Gadd concentrated on the TV countdown. He clicked his drum sticks together, setting a tempo.
With a decisive thump of the bass drum, the band launched into the music.
Thirty seconds later, it was over. In the control room and recording room, everyone looked at each other, astonished. It sounded surprisingly tight, no major mistakes.
The recording engineer seized the momentum. He quickly hit the talkback mic on the mixing board.
“Okay everybody, sounded good. Let’s record one.”
For the Record
The tall 24-track recording deck behind us whirled to life, its 2” tape reels spinning smoothly.
Again, Steve Gadd watched the start of the video monitor and clacked his drum sticks to set the beat.
I stared at the TV screen and listened intently. Again, the band roared through the music, the drums nailing the cartoon action with pinpoint precision.
In the control room, we sat motionless as the last downbeat faded away.
Was it possible? Did I just hear what I think I heard?
Proof Is in the Playback
Nick DiMinno turned to me and asked, “Check the playback?” I nodded.
The audio tape recorder was rewound and synched to the video deck. We watched the playback.
It was perfect. I mean perfect. Steve Gadd had read that musical chart as easily as a Sunday newspaper. Absolutely flawless.
Nick and I looked at each other, stunned.
“Play it back one more time” I requested, just to be sure. Again, I could find nothing wrong.
“Do another take?” asked Nick.
“No need,” I answered. “This is the one.” The first take was a perfect take.
One and Done
Nick hit the talkback button on the mix board to speak to the musicians.
“Okay, thanks everybody. You’re done. Turn in your union session forms before you go.”
King of the Drum Throne
Steve Gadd leaped off the drum set and headed to the control room.
Unlike the other session musicians, Gadd carried a personalized tear-off pad that had his union payment information pre-printed – all he added was the session date and location. (Which shows you how much he’s in demand.)
In the control room, Gadd handed Nick DiMinno his form. The studio producer had one more request for the renowned rhythm king.
“Steve, before you go, we have a new electronic drum machine called LinnDrums. Would you mind recording a few extra tom-tom fills on it?”
Gadd looked curiously at the black finger touch-pads framed in a wooden case that was set up on the mix console.
“Sure, no problem,” he said.
The engineer cued up the tape deck and I sat next to Gadd as he joyfully overdubbed tom-tom accents with his forefingers, like a small boy pretending to be a drummer. Absolutely, utterly, surreal.
Three passes later, he was done and out the door.
The Mix Doesn’t Do Justice
Unfortunately, the commercial below was transferred from video tape that had deteriorated over many years. The aging affected the picture as well as the audio track.
Also, when this music was recorded, audio for TV commercials was never mixed at full fidelity. During that time, most TV sets had a tiny 6″ speaker with a limited range for sound. Vocals and dialogue were considered the priority, so they were pushed louder than the band.
Long story, short, you’re not going to get the full, thunderous impact I felt that day. But the thrill of hearing a perfect take – on the very first take – is a feeling I will never forget.
Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Mary Ellen Cohen. ACD: Nick Pronovitch. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: Chef Boyardee (American Home Foods). Music Production Company: Lucas/McFaul (David Lucas, Tom McFaul). Studio Producer: Nick DiMinno. Recording Studio: Warehouse
This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary video history.