It’s a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools

The title of this post refers to an old adage that’s pretty self-explanatory: when someone falls short of doing their job well and claims, “I didn’t have the latest widget (or doo-dad, or thingamajig),” or “I have the latest widget (or doo-dad, or thingamajig) but it’s broken (or the batteries died, or running last year’s software),” it often means that their skills are weak and it’s easier to blame their tools than accept responsibility for their own shortcomings.

This week, I had a pretty formidable challenge thrown my way and I believe I did a pretty good job of meeting and beating that challenge.

About 3:00PM Thursday afternoon I got a phone call from Larina Adamson alerting me to the fact that the couch gag for RABF03 “A Test Before Trying” was being replaced with a new couch gag. I was surprised that if we needed to replace a couch gag so close to air that we’d go with a new one. Why not just rerun an older one? Well, the decision was made to go with the new one and Larina let me know that the new picture would be available for download shortly. I was concerned with the clock because I was due to be at SONY Studios at 6:00PM for the final dub and playback of RABF03. I live an hour’s drive away from SONY and it takes about an hour for me to download an entire episode of the show for editing work. As it turns out, it wasn’t ready for download until about 4:00PM. I called Larina back and asked her if I should stay at my home studio and edit or come down to SONY and do my editing on the dub stage. She told me to “come on down!”

So I headed for SONY having not seen one frame of the new couch gag. I arrived at the dubbing stage about 5:30PM and the dubbing mixers had already downloaded the picture so it was easier and faster for me to just get a copy off of their computer rather than downloading off the Internet. I loaded the picture into my music session, watched it, and then sat staring at my screen for a few seconds before I could say anything. I turned to Larina and asked, “Are you serious?! You expect me to score this one-minute long couch gag totally from scratch using library music and deliver it tonight (we usually wrap a dubbing session by 9:00PM)?!” She said she knew it was a very tall order and that she had posed the same questions to Al Jean but, in a very sneaky, motivating-the-troops sort of way, he told her he believed that I could do it. Hmph … hard to let the boss down when he believes in you.

I took a deep breath, watched the couch gag a few more times, then asked Al a barrage of questions about style, tempos, moods, etc. I also had to let him know that I didn’t think that I could use music from our SIMPSONS library of music composed by Alf because the music goes through a number of moods in a short time plus there were a number of “hits” that the music had to “catch” or “accent”. I requested permission to use outside music libraries as needed to find the music. This meant that there would be licensing to deal with and that the music would come at a cost. He said, “Don’t go crazy, but do what you need to do.”

Cutting to the chase, two hours later I told Al to come down to my computer and listen to what I had done. In my job on this show the sound that is music to my ears (besides music) is the sound of a producer/writer laughing as he watches a scene. Al laughed all through the playback of what I was showing him. Then I played it for Matt Groening and he laughed, too. Both of them praised and thanked me for my work and didn’t ask for any changes. Then I gave the tracks to music mixer Mark Linden so he could dub it into the episode. Everyone else in the room got to hear it and I got a lot of nice congratulations from the crew.

That’s my story. You may be wondering what the opening of this post has to do with my adventure? Well, while I’m happy to accept the appreciation and gratitude from my bosses and peers, I’m acutely aware that I could not have done my job without a slew of high-tech tools at my disposal that were the stuff of dreams only a handful of years ago. I blame my tools for my success on this particular assignment. Thank you Pro Tools for allowing me to experiment, edit and, most importantly, undo all my work to my heart’s content in a fraction of the time that this type of work used to take. Thank you Apple Computer for making a laptop computer powerful enough to do the type of digital audio workstation editing that only a high-powered desktop computer could do in the 1990s. And thank you Associated Production Music for producing music in a variety of styles that suited my needs, and for digitizing your entire library and making it available for Internet download.

When I first became a music editor in the late 80s, APM’s library was only available on LPs and analog audio tape. We had a card catalog (like the kind you’d use in a public library) to look up the album you’d need, then you’d put the LP on a turntable and transfer the audio to tape or film for editing after you had lifted and dropped the needle numerous times to find just the section of the cue you wanted. Then you’d have to apply razor blade to tape and physically cut and splice your editing work. If it was wrong, you’d have to peel the sticky tape off the edit point, reassemble the audio tape to its original form, and re-edit. You could only do this so many times before the audio tape was unusable and you’d have to transfer from LP again and start over. Now I can scan APMs entire library using a search engine and I can sample dozens of cues in the same time it would have taken me to find just one LP years ago.

Yes, I brought my skills to the party, but I couldn’t have done the job without a fantastic toolbox. My feelings about this whole experience take me back to my first blog post – “Luck is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”. I had the opportunity to rise to an occasion and really contribute creatively to the show I’ve worked on and loved for so many years; I was prepared by keeping up-to-date with current technology; I was lucky to have a show-runner who believed in me and gave me the creative freedom to do my best work.

The episode airs tonight, Sunday, January 13, 2013 on FOX. I’d love to hear what you think after you hear the couch gag score.

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14 thoughts on “It’s a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools

  1. Hey Chris, I stumbled upon this blog from another blog. I’m very well-versed in production music (see my blog, where I and others have made music breakdowns for Ren & Stimpy), and I know that while it’s rare, The Simpsons has also used stock music in episodes other than this one (see http://www.toonzone.net/forums/showwiki.php?title=Simpsons+Stock+Music+LIst ). Which leads me to my question: Were the instances in the past of using stock music also due to time constraints, or were they conscious decisions to add a different “flavor” than Alf’s scores?

    • Hello Ian,

      It’s a little bit of both. There are rare occasions when a producer will request using a cue from a music library for just the reason you cited: seeking a slightly different musical flavor. Also, once in awhile I just can’t seem to find the right cue from amongst all of our original recordings when searching for a replacement on the dub stage. So I search a few music libraries to hopefully find what it is the producer wants.

      Thanks for asking.

  2. Excellent post! I am a first time reader, long time Simpsons lover, and I am enthralled to hear your side of the work that goes into the show. I loved this couch gag, especially the score. You did a great job eliciting the emotional responses necessary for a “trailer”, and it’s neat to read how you did it in so little time, with the belief (pressure) of a boss behind you. Is there any way to find out the title of the first song used? I have not been able to place or find it. The one over which “five heroes…” is spoken. I look forward to keeping up with your blog and hearing your work in the future. Thank you!

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Amber. I glad you found and are enjoying the blog. Always nice to hear from a SIMPSONS fan.

      As I mentioned in the post, the music came from Associated Production Music. The company exists solely for the purpose of licensing affordable music to TV shows, movies, commercials, radio, the Internet, etc. I used two cues for the “trailer” – first was a piece called “Cold War” (from beginning to when Homer says: “Let’s sit on that couch.”; then I used “Battlefield: Milky Way” as the family runs toward the couch up until the house explodes behind Homer; finally, I returned to “Cold War” for the final scene up until they all sit on the couch. You won’t find the music “out there” anywhere because it’s licensed through APM and is not available to the general public.

      Thanks for the comment. Stop by and ask something again any time.

  3. Particularly great read this time. Pressure like that actually creates better work sometime. I was editing movies a/b style tape to tape before EVERYBODY started doing it with youtube etc so I remember the old school. FLYING ERASE HEAD! 🙂

    • Ah yes, I edited the music for THE SIMPSONS tape-to-tape style for the first six years of the show – we called that style of editing “prelay” back then (not sure of the origin of that term). Then we started recording to digital on DA-88 tapes, then transferring the tracks into a Sonic Solutions workstation for editing. Next came recording AND editing in a digital hard disk system made by AKAI. Made the change to Pro Tools in season 16.

  4. Good goin’ kid, sounds like you’re going places.

    You’re right, computers & software have made some of the workload so much less time-consuming and more efficient. As much as I love drawing & inking on paper, I also just love having the option of doing some fast animation work on my iMac + Cintiq setup. And thank Jebus I never had to do analog editing or film a bunch of cels.

    I’ll try to catch up on the couch gag ASAP (I’m having deadline fever THIS week! Thanks again, technology!), but did you ever find out why the old couch gag was replaced? Was kinda looking forward to that one & then heard it was pulled 😉

    Oh, and a happy 2013!

    • While I’m very grateful to have all the great new digital tools at my disposal, I’m also glad that I had a chance to do analog film and tape editing early in my career. I think it has made me a better editor.

      At this time I can’t reveal why the couch gag was pulled because that would give away some of the elements of the couch gag itself which will be a nice surprise when fans finally do get to see it.

      Thanks for the kind words and for reading my blog.

      • I agree, working in analog makes you better. Digital inking & painting for example improves when you have experience with the way real ink and paint ‘behaves’. I also once had to work with a giant animation camera setup in college, but man was that a lot of work!

        I know which couch gag was originally going to air, that’s why I was eager to see it 😉

      • I’m looking forward to the day when that couch gag finally airs. It’s really cool and has great music. Rumor has it that it will air sometime in March.

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