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Producing Music for Commercial Gigs: TV Shows, Radio Ads, and More
So you’ve been hired to write a jingle for an ad, website, or podcast. Congratulations! This is an exciting milestone, since it means you are getting paid to make music.
Once you get in front of your DAW though, you may find the process challenging. You’re not jamming with friends or bouncing ideas off a vocalist. Plus, there’s a deadline a week away, and a big need to deliver. If you’re wondering where to start when producing commercial music, this blog is for you.
In this article, we’ll cover five tips for producing music for commercial gigs and how to streamline the process.
How to get started after you land your first gig writing commercial music.
Tricks for saving time with tight deadlines.
How to create a quick master and avoid having your final product sound like a demo.
1. Listen to your client’s ideas
Regardless of what medium your jingle is being made for—a beauty tutorial on YouTube, a podcast about motorcycles, a TV spot to sell cereal—your job is to help tell the story of a product or company. Yes, even cereal has a backstory.
To do this, it's important to listen to the client so you can understand the message they want to get out to the masses, and then produce music to support or enhance it. This means reading the notes you get about creative direction, asking for clarification if you need it, and listening to any references provided.
You may get some confusing instructions (e.g. “I want it to sound purple”), but part of the commercial music producer’s skillset is the ability to interpret these instructions using the references. This interpretation process also gets easier with time and experience.
Above all, be open—very open—to their feedback. You want the client to be happy with your work so you get hired again. If they don’t like a part, be ready to compromise and change things to fit their vision. At this early stage in your commercial career, there is little value in going to battle with a client over creative differences.
2. Get close to the reference
Chances are good that you were given a few track references to guide the sonic direction of your work. If you weren’t, be sure to ask. This is one of the best ways to ensure that you’re making something the client likes.
In a perfect world, your client would have just licensed the reference, such as a Billboard Hot 100 hit or a viral YouTube jam. But since this would cost many thousands of dollars, they have come to you instead. For this reason, don’t be afraid to get as close as possible to the reference.
I am by no means advocating that you copy the reference and land yourself in a copyright pickle. Instead, study the reference to pick out the unique elements that help make it sound the way it does. Are the instruments used acoustic or electronic? Are the vocals low- or high-pitched? Does the song have a sense of urgency or is it laid-back? Using these cues as a guide will help you deliver something that sounds like the reference, without ripping it off.
Beyond these kinds of questions, you may want to use a tool like Tonal Balance Control—included with Ozone 9 Advanced and Neutron 3 Advanced—to get a sense of how your jingle’s spectral profile compares with the reference’s. Tonal Balance Control will analyze the frequency content of a reference, then measure your session against it, revealing where you need to boost or cut across the spectrum. You can even adjust the EQs in Ozone, Neutron, and Nectar 3 directly from the Tonal Balance Control plug-in window to save time.
3. Adopt these time-saving tricks
In general, your client will expect a fast turnaround time. You may get creative feedback in the morning and be required to send in a new draft by the end of the afternoon, or you may only have three days in total to write the whole thing.
To move at this brisk pace without making mistakes, it's important to adopt a few time-saving tricks.
Retaining early versions of your work is crucial, as is naming them accordingly. You may need to return to these versions due to your client’s feedback. We’ve listed a number of organizational tips for your DAW sessions here and here, which I suggest you check into.
The biggest time-saver, and what will become your best friend in commercial music production, is a powerful sample library. This is how the majority of commercial music is made today.
If your client wants a Carribean vibe for their cruise tours website, there’s no use in trying to learn the steelpan before the end of the week. If they want cinematic strings for a movie trailer, don’t dig into your own paycheck by hiring a violinist.
Instead, use sample databases like Splice and samplers like Native Instruments’ Kontakt, which offer a wide range of authentic sounds for just about every occasion. They aren’t free, but you will find that they pay themselves off as you complete more and more commissioned ad music. Additionally, you’ll start to build up a personal library of go-to sounds over time, which you can quickly pull from to meet your deadlines.
4. It’s smarter to blend in
For the producers who send their beats to vocalists and labels, we often suggest doing things to stand out. Use unconventional sounds, design hard-to-replicate synth patches and effects, sample your own music—whatever does the trick.
When it comes to commercial music, you will often serve the accompanying placement best by blending in. What do I mean by this? Unless you’re producing a jingle in the classic sing-along sense—you know, like this or this—which serves as the focal point of the ad, the music you create shouldn’t get in the way of dialogue or draw too much attention to itself.
Your job is to support the story and enhance the emotional impact of the commercial, not to drive people to check out your Soundcloud or buy a ticket to your next concert. Busy, complex arrangements and esoteric sound design (that may very well be of interest in an album format) will almost certainly make it more difficult for mass audiences to connect with an ad. Clients know this, and they decide if you get the gig.
5. Be broadcast-ready
Last year, we asked the question “What Seperates a Demo from a Polished Mix?” In today's world of inexpensive gear, self-released music, and assistive mixing, the answer, it turns out, is “not much.” The days of demos—those charming, but ultimately sloppy takes of what your song could be—are over, and demos that sound like the finished record are now the expectation for labels.
This concept applies to commercial music too. The music you send to a client should sound like it’s ready to go right onto TV, radio, or whatever digital channel for which it’s intended. There are plenty of valuable tips in both Part 1 and Part 2 of the article mentioned on how to do this, as well as literally hundreds of other tips across iZotope Learn.
A tool like Ozone is invaluable in this situation like this. Once your mix is finished, use one of the presets for the final touches. Small amounts of compression, level adjustment, and EQ to the master output can make a huge difference in the final sound of your jingle. Also, remember to check your finished product on whatever system it will be experienced on—most definitely laptop speakers, smartphones, and maybe even TVs or car radios, etc.
In some ways, it is easier to make tunes for ads than for labels or for fun, in that you have a specific message you are trying to impart to the listener, and often a rigid guideline for what the final results should sound like.
If you just got your first contract to produce a song for commercial purposes, the tips in this article should help get you started. Good luck and happy writing!