Audio and music engineering instructor describes his work on Super Bowl ads

February 18, 2016


Two Medical Center television ads -- Your Are My Sunshine, at left, and 3,000 Researchers – debuted during the Super Bowl. Rob LaVaque, instructor in audio and music engineering, did the audio and music for both.

The two University Medical Center television ads that debuted during the Super Bowl are as different as night and day.

One tugs at heart strings as images of pediatric patients, their families and caregivers flash across the screen, while “You Are My Sunshine” is sung touchingly to a simple accompaniment.

The other ad manages to condense the voices and images of more than a dozen UR researchers describing their work to cure diseases that still remain beyond our reach.

lavaque Each posed unique challenges for Rob LaVaque, an instructor of audio and music engineering, who did the audio and music for both ads.

During an interview, LaVaque, who is also a NY Emmy award-winning professional musician and audio engineer, described how he and his Medical Center marketing colleagues tackled those challenges. He also talked about how his professional work informs his teaching, and vice versa.

Here are excerpts:

Question: How did you get involved in this project?

I’ve been doing audio post work at my own studio, Gravity Pool, for many years now. Actually, I did the audio and music for the Super Bowl spot last year for the Medical Center as well.

For these two ads I worked with the highly talented UR Medical Center marketing group, specifically Karl Withers, Associate Vice President and Director of Marketing; Jim LaHue, Associate Director of Marketing; and Ami Eisenschmid, Marketing Manager.

Q. When did you start on this?

For the current spots we started kicking around the ideas back in August. I began working on the You Are My Sunshine spot in September.

 Q. How long did it take to complete both of these?

Right up until the week before the Super Bowl!

Q. These are totally different ads. In You Are My Sunshine, you have a vocalist and some visuals. To the untrained eye that would seem to be fairly easy to put together, whereas with 3,000 Researchers you have to coordinate all of those voices with the visuals and then also have music underneath. It seemed like there was a lot more going on in that one.

It is a busier spot, but I’m glad we started on Your Are My Sunshine earlier, because as simple as that spot might appear to be, it really wasn’t. Anytime you’re working to picture, especially when working to broadcast, you have a fixed length. So we had to figure out first how can we arrange this song so its does its thing and fits within a 60-second framework.  The first step was to do several roughs and versions to see what worked musically and what fit physically.

Once we got that done, we had to deal with the lyrics. We didn’t want to use the exact lyrics all the way through, because they get a little dark. The message behind the spot is that these children are experiencing some serious medical difficulties, and they and their parents come to the U of R medical Center, where the hospital works very closely with them towards a positive outcome. We needed the lyrics to do that as well. We used the original lyrics for the first verse, but for second verse Jim (LaHue) came up with two alternate lines at the end that gave us that positive ending.

Q. Who is the vocalist?

She is a singer from Rochester named Claudia Hoyser. I actually had several vocalists record it. That’s one reason it took so long. I had one person in and worked with her on the roughs, and it didn’t look like it would be a fit. So I had Claudia come in. I knew of her and had heard her sing, but I hadn’t worked with her before.

She did a great job. I had another singer in Nashville who was my expected ace in the hole, and she recorded it as well and did an amazing job. So we ended up in the best situation, where we had a tough choice between two fantastic performances.

I put together a bed track ahead of time, going back to when we figured out how the song would be structured, and that also gave us the tempo. Once we locked down the tempo, I could do reference tracks, bed tracks, for Claudia to sing to and then I could fill things out later.  I also sent the bed tracks to the singer in Nashville. And as long as everybody was singing to the same tracks I could easily move things around.

Q. How about the accompaniment?

We did a number of different iterations. I had different guitarists come in and do some different guitar tracks over three sessions. I also had a cellist come in who did some amazingly brilliant work, a student named Ben Baker from the Eastman School.

Q. Who shot the footage you see of the patients and caregivers?

That was shot by Tim Wainwright, the principal cinematographer. He spent a great deal of time shooting at the hospital. It is obviously a tricky thing because you have to worry about HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act safeguards for patient confidentiality).  Getting permission is time consuming, and once that’s done you’re still trying to be spontaneous and get candid shots of people. It takes a long time and great deal of work just to get those fantastic images. Then they went to NXT Media Group, in Fairport, which does the video editing, taking all images and producing what you actually see, doing other things like color correction as the finishing touch.

 Q. “3,000 Researchers” manages to condense 40 clips of Medical Center and River Campus researchers describing the diseases they are attempting to find cures for, all within a 60-second ad. Who shot all that footage?

Tim (Wainwright) also shot those; Chuck Munier (owner/editor at NXT Media) edited them. That’s where things really come together. You have to get a pace, you have to be telling a story and you have to be selecting shots that work together. And they’re so fast, but it can’t seem jumpy.

The voices were already synched with the footage that was shot.  But a lot of times they’ll be shot in different places. They may shoot footage in a room where there’s a lot of noise from a fan, for example. So what you get is a montage of different voices where the overall sound quality can really vary. My job was to go back and make sure everything sounded contiguous.

That took a long time, and it was not like the first cut was what we lived with. There often were times they changed out a shot, so then you have to go back and rearrange everything.

Q, What tools did you use to filter out the extraneous noises?

I used a lot of DSP plug-ins in Pro Tools, which is exactly the same system that our students in audio and music engineering use here at the UR.  For You Are My Sunshine, I used Logic Pro X, which our students also use here and that I teach.  I also used Pro Tools on that one, so it was a combination of software.

Q. Did you compose the music that you hear in the background on 3,000 Researchers?

Yes. You Are My Sunshine obviously is a classic tune, so that had to be licensed, and once that was done we created our version of it. For 3,000 Researchers the client indicated the style and direction to go in. So then you take that and kind of make it your own.

Q. How do you do that?

First you have to sit down and do the math. You have to figure out how is this going to be structured. With 3,000 Researchers, we had three distinct sections to the commercial. Initially we talk about symptoms and the problems, and then we go into the fact there is no cure, and then we get into the fact this is why they do research. So we developed something that would have a front part, middle part, and an ending.

Musically you have to figure out what will work and make sense, and hope it times out with the visuals, which it didn’t, so we had to make a couple of adjustments here and there.

Q. Did you write the music using Pro Tools?

I did that track with Logic, and it was all done pretty much in the box -- other than the guitar parts, which I played. All the other instruments are done right on the computers. Again, all the instruments that I used are pretty much the exact same instruments that we have right here for students to use in the audio and music engineering program.

Q. How often do you do projects like this?

Other than being here (teaching at UR), that’s my livelihood, so I do it on a regular basis. I have a number of clients. And it’s always a challenge because I never know what they are going to want stylistically.

Q, So are you happy with how this project turned out?

Yes, very much so. We’ve done several things throughout the year for the University. These two ads were particularly challenging because of the obvious exposure. They are Super Bowl ads. They are expensive to air, and they are going to be seen. We released them on the intranet at UR Med Center beforehand, and they apparently went viral. People were just blown away at how much feedback we were getting right away. It was extremely positive. I couldn’t be prouder to be able to work with the group of people that I did on this project.  They’re just phenomenally talented.

Q, What was your reaction, seeing these ads during the Super Bowl itself?

It was twofold. The first reaction is technical. I wanted to see how loud it was compared to the spots on either side of it, and how does it sound sonically compared to the spots around it.

The other is to just sit back and enjoy it, to realize this is the culmination, and see how people (family and friends) around the room react to it. I thought it played very, very well. I had just gotten a new flat panel TV. I hadn’t even dialed in the audio yet, which you would expect of an audio guy, so it was pretty much the factory setup, but it sounded great. My question for the people in the room about 3,000 Researchers was, can you understand what they’re saying because it’s really rapid fire, and they said absolutely, they could hear it all.

Q. How long have you been teaching audio and music engineering here?

I’ve been here since 2012.

Q, To teach this I would think you would have stand back and think objectively about what it is you do. Has that helped you do a better job doing this kind of creative work?

Absolutely.  It helps you reevaluate your process, when you’re trying to convey to someone how do I do this. You have to make it understandable and implementable, so students will say ‘oh I see what you’re doing’ and they can make it their own and do a similar task. By doing that, I’ve found that it has absolutely benefited me as well.

One of the beauties of the AME 194 program (LaVaque’s class on Audio for Visual Media), is we have friends and colleagues of mine and business associates from throughout the industry who come in and give their perspective, which is often quite different from mine. That was very much the intent, so the students would get a broad-based input on how to do this. 

(This year’s series starts Wednesday, Feb. 24, with an open forum lecture by Stacey Hersh,  owner of Staceland Music, who has been scoring films for Hallmark, Lifetime, and other networks for a good part of his career. The lecture starts at 6:30 p.m. in CSB 523)

Q, So how about the flip side: Did you experience anything during this project specifically that you can take back to the classes you teach?

Absolutely. In these spots there were things that I have specifically talked about in class – ‘okay, here’s an issue; how do we solve it?’ Because this was something the students have seen on TV, they can pick my brain directly. ‘Tell us about how you did this or that,’ and I can talk directly to that and give the definitive answer. So that’s a lot of fun.

I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to do this and I’m glad to share it with the students. They have such great tools to work with in this program. I try and instill in the students,  ‘you are not working on a dialed-down, dumbed -down student version of what you would use in the industry. You can do exactly what I did with these tools.’ That’s quite impressive, and that is such a great opportunity for these students.