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.