We’re a Hit – Even Tony Bennett Thinks So!

Although THE SIMPSONS aired its first-ever episode in December, 1989, it wasn’t really considered the premier episode. It was classified as a “special”. (Remember specials? Don’t see much of them on television any more.) So our second episode, 7G02 “Bart the Genius” would be the official start of the series (the first time we would use the Main Title sequence with the chalkboard gag, Lisa playing her sax and, of course, the couch gag), debuting on Sunday, January 14, 1990. BUT when counting episodes on the road to 500, “Bart the Genius” is episode #2.

The show was a huge hit with fans and critics. Richard Gibbs and I were on a scoring stage in Burbank on Monday, January 15, recording the music for a future episode when we were interrupted by a phone call from someone at Gracie Films informing us that FOX had renewed the show for three more years! Everyone in the room was ecstatic and there were hugs and handshakes all around. I had previously worked on two series in my short professional career and both shows had lasted only one season.

As you’ll recall from a previous post, I was  pulling double-duty as the music editor on both THE SIMPSONS and THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW. Some weeks during the winter and spring of that year I’d work seven days, 12-14 hours per day. THE SIMPSONS, being a new show, was trying to establish a regular work flow, but so much about the show was new – The FOX network was relatively new, there hadn’t been a prime time animated network series since THE FLINTSTONES in the 1960s, the style of animation and humor, composing so much original music every week. TRACEY required a regular scoring session for the cues in the show, but also the occasional musical production number that required my attendance at filming. All that and more added up to a lot of long days and nights as we all tried to find our way.

The good news about the SIMSPONS pick-up was soon followed by the sad news that TRACEY would not be renewed. I had mixed feelings. I loved the TRACEY show and the excitement of the live musical numbers, but I also looked forward to a lighter load the next season. We still had quite a bit of work to do to get through the spring and finish everything.

The final SIMPSONS episode to air that first season was 7G01 “Some Enchanted Evening”. As you can see from the production number, it was the first 30-minute SIMPSONS episode to be produced … and from what I’ve gathered from some of the stories I’ve heard over the years, it was nearly the last. Some Enchanted EveningBeing as far down the chain of command as I am, I’m not always privy to some details, but the short of it was that the animation for that first episode was largely despised by everyone in charge, starting with Matt Groening. The episode was sent back for a major overhaul and much 0f it was re-animated. Apparently, whatever they did to fix it was satisfactory to everyone and the show finally aired as the season 1 finalé. Watching it today, I certainly agree that it was very crude and rough around the edges (especially compared to the quality of the animation in 2011), but I also have a soft spot in my memory for the peculiar charm the show had in its look and sound way back then.

In early June, just after the first season of THE SIMSPONS wrapped, I got a call to appear at Evergreen Studios in Burbank. Evergreen was a fixture in the recording and scoring biz for many years. We recorded many SIMPSONS scores there until it closed its doors in the mid-90s. We were going to record our first big musical guest star for an episode in season 2: Tony Bennett. The music scene in the 90s was not very receptive to the type of music Bennett was best known for. Tony’s son Danny believed his dad just needed more exposure to a younger audience, so he started booking him on shows like LATE NIGHT with DAVID LETTERMAN, THE MUPPETS, MTV UNPLUGGED and, THE SIMPSONS. He didn’t change his musical style, he just updated it a bit and brought it to a wider audience. The new audience embraced and loved Tony Bennett.

The song written for Tony was “Capital City”, a clever parody of “New York, New York” that Frank Sinatra had made famous ten years earlier. The song would appear in 7F05 “Dancin’ Homer” during season 2. It was very exciting to be in the studio with Tony, his long-time music director Ralph Sharon, and the Ralph Sharon Trio. The session was cool, hip, and a big highlight for the very young show. (And for me!)

Tony Bennett in Capital City

Tony Bennett

Sidebar: This was our first studio pre-record session for a musical number. In the early years of the show, the songs were written by Jeff Martin. The “Capital City” session went off without a technical hitch. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t always be the case going forward. On many of the future songs that Jeff would write, he’d record his scratch track on a portable cassette player, then play that for the cast to learn and sing their parts. The problem with a cassette player is there is no guarantee that it will play at the same speed every time you hit “play”. Even a 0.5% change in speed could result in a time error (we call that “drift” in my biz) of about 1/3 second for a 1-minute song. Doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, that’s huge when you have to be frame-accurate. The singing performances were all recorded separately (as they still are today) but with no timecode or scratch track reference. The singing was then cut by the dialog editor working without a click track. Needless to say, I ended up giving and taking a frame here and there for all these songs until we established a regular pre-recording method after Jeff left the show and Alf took over the song-writing duties.

I am very sad to report that over the years I haven’t taken many photos during special sessions such as these. It may be my only regret working on this landmark show. So, it’s with special fondness that I share with you something that arrived in the mail later that summer. I was still working at Music Design Group in Hollywood when I received this envelope.

Mystery Envelope (Wow! Postage for a large envelope was only 45 cents and
FOX still had a 213 area code!)

Then I opened the envelope and was delighted to find this inside.

Tony Bennett Recording Session

Front L-R: Me, Al Jean, Bonnie Pietila, Larina Adamson; Rear L-R: Jay Kogen, Tony Bennett, Wallace Wolodarsky, Mike Reiss, Sam Simon, Jeff Martin, Richard Gibbs, Michael Mendel

Jumping ahead to November 2, 1990, the night I nearly had my first heart attack working in this crazy biz! (Not really but boy, it sure felt like it.) We had completed the scoring session for “Dancin’ Homer” and had replaced the Ralph Sharon Trio with the full orchestra for “Capital City”. Now it was time to go back to the editing room and put the orchestra track into the show and match it up to the singing (for which, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have the master tapes because the singing was handled by the dialog/picture editors back in those days). You also have to remember that the show was edited on analog tape. We were still years away from digital and computers. I put up the newly recorded orchestra track, lined up the start of the cue with the point in the video where it would start, “locked” the music to the video with my timecode synchronizer, hit play, and within just a few seconds of playing, the orchestra was lagging way behind the singing. No problem, I thought, just advance the start of the orchestra. I thought maybe I had missed the start point. I realigned the start, “locked” the music, hit play, same result. I repeated my method maybe a half-dozen times with no better success. What was going on? Then a thought occurred to me. If I listened to the new orchestra track, then separately listened to the singing in the video, could I figure out the problem? I did just that and it all became frighteningly clear. The singing in the video seemed faster then the orchestra track we had just recorded! How could this happen?? We used the same click track for the orchestra that we had used for the Tony Bennett session all those months ago. What was going on?

Two huge lessons were learned that night. Two major items had been overlooked and I made sure that they were never overlooked again. First, the reason that the singing seemed faster than the orchestra was because it was faster. The scene had been animated at the original tempo that we had delivered back in June, but then the scene had been sped up 7% after animation so that the action wouldn’t drag. Problem was, no one had told me during all the months between June and November. I had to discover it on my own. Second, when we recorded the orchestra track, we did not score it to picture, nor play it back to picture. We had assumed (we all know where that gets us) that everything was the same as in June, so we just recorded to the original click track and to Tony’s original vocal. Of course the orchestra performance was perfectly timed to Tony’s singing on the tape, but had we played it back to the video in the studio we would have made the same discovery I had made in my editing room. We could have recalculated a 7% faster click and had the orchestra play at the new, corrected tempo.

Well, alone in my editing room, well past midnight, orchestra session finished with no chance to redo it, what could I do? There was only one, very dicey solution. I would have to speed up the orchestra tape by 7%. This would solve the tempo problem but it introduced two new problems: 1) I couldn’t “lock” the music to the video using timecode with the tape running 7% faster. The synchronizer just would not lock. 2) The orchestra sounded like it was being played by Alvin and the Chipmunks (which, by the way, is precisely how they achieved that effect in the 50s and 60s and still do it for the movies today – the actors talk slower and pitch their voices down a little bit, then they speed up the tape to give them that “chipmunky” quality) plus the pitch was now 7% higher than Tony’s singing. Apparently, when they sped up the scene our video post facility had some multi-thousand dollar digital device that could speed up a scene without affecting the pitch (lucky them). So Tony’s singing was faster, but still in the original key. Nice trick, but I had no such tools at my disposal.

Not being able to lock the music to the video meant a lot of trial & error because I had to manually start the orchestra tape at just the precise moment to line it up with Tony’s singing. After I don’t know how many tries, I got it. But the orchestra sounded goofy. As early as possible the next morning I called our music mixer, Jim Fitzpatrick, on the dubbing stage to tell him about the problem.  He said we could run the orchestra track through a device called a “harmonizer” and pitch it back down to the original key. It worked, but truthfully, the orchestra track sounds a little “wobbly” in the show due to the harmonizer. Well, at least we solved the problem, but it was far from perfect. This event set two major precedents – 1) NO speeding up of scenes are allowed without notifying me in enough time to make the necessary corrections in advance. 2) ALWAYS record and playback orchestra song tracks to the picture.

Sidebar: For you über fans out there who would like to hear the difference between the original and what went on the air, listen to the show on the Second Season DVD set, then to the track on the CD,  SONGS IN THE KEY OF SPRINGFIELD. For the CD, we went back to the original master tape from the June, 1990 recording of Tony Bennett and the added orchestra track from November, 1990 without any speeding up or pitch manipulation.

All in all a good workaround solution, a decent (but less-than-perfect) result, and many lessons learned.

Coming soon: the search for a new composer and breaking out on my own.

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