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Put time on your side — calibrate your internal VO clock

Edge Studio

How long does a minute take? We mean, in your head, not looking at a clock or stopwatch? Various research suggests that someone 60 years old will take longer to estimate when a minute is up than a 25-year-old will. There are explanations for that, but we don’t know if anyone has an absolutely rock-solid answer, and in fact, we’ve seen research that observed just the opposite. Studies also suggest that the discrepancy is greater in the morning than in the evening and that how you’re doing on time depends on what you’re doing. Time sense may also be affected by hormones and all sorts of other medical, biological and chemical stuff. (We love clinical terminology.)

But the key observation, from our vantage, is that the ability to estimate time depends very much on experience. The more you practice, the better you get at it. And if you stop practicing, your ability to know when 10, 20, 30, or even 60 seconds are up begins to fade away.

Why is this even important anymore? After all, with digital editing, it’s pretty easy to cleanly remove a split-second here and there, adding up to several seconds’ leeway when recording a 30-second spot. (In the tape-days of yore, splicing tape was a laborious, imprecise process, making a well-timed read very important.) Digital editing also makes it easy to combine parts of two takes, so the overall length of the takes may be irrelevant. And as we all know, it’s also possible to digitally speed up and slow down a recording overall.

Well, the ability to “feel” time remains important for various reasons.

  • Reading precisely to time makes it easier on the engineer. Talent who are known for making life easy for the client tend to land more repeat work. Or, if you’re the engineer, a perfectly timed take makes more efficient use of your time – you don’t have to spend so much of it editing.
  • Getting the read down to time quickly may reduce the number of takes required. Although using up disk space is not the issue that precious magnetic tape once presented, time still is. Professional talent is efficient talent.
  • Digitally speeding up or slowing down a recording degrades it if the speed changes more than 6% or so. (The borderline depend on various factors.) It’s a good, reliable tool, but don’t rely on it for excessive changes.
  • It gives you a mental edge as you read. You have a sense of where you can play with a word, or that you need to speed up – before you get to the point where you need to speed up suddenly – which by then is all too apparent. Knowing where you stand on time enables you to make the best use of it.
  • There’s a certain professional pride in knowing you’ve finished on the mark. If nothing else, it just means you’re … special.

How to practice estimating time:

  • Got a smartphone? Get a stopwatch app. Ideally, it should include the option of a sweep second-hand, not just a numerical reading. While you can get used to noting the digital readout, it’s still easier to catch the second hand out of the corner of your eye.
  • If you have an old-style electronic or mechanical stopwatch or timer, it’s okay for practice, but clicks and beeps are of course not good for recording, so either get used to starting the watch a few seconds before you start speaking, or find a silent replacement. Your wrist watch is also suitable, whether or not it has a stop-watch mode.
  • Practice reading scripts to time, and after a few tries, don’t look at the watch. How close do you come? Try this with scripts of various lengths, even up to two minutes (if only for laughs). You’ll find yourself getting better.
  • Read a long script (e.g. 30-seconds) and stop at a certain time, (say 10 or 15 seconds). Did you estimate it right?
  • While watching TV, and using a stopwatch, estimate the length of various commercials. Don’t look at the watch until you’ve guessed. Did your inner clock tag it correctly as a 10-second, 20, 30 or whatever?
  • Read a 30, to perfect time. Now do it in 29 or 28 seconds. Even 25, without looking at the watch. Also try it longer. Get a sense of what is required of you to shorten or lengthen by a second or three, while still sounding natural and unrushed (when speeding up), and without sounding bored, choppy or lacking in energy (when reading longer).
  • Remember that if you remove breaths and shorten pauses in your recording, you may wind up several seconds short. This isn’t a big deal in some genres, but in others, very. You may want to allow for this in setting your time target.
  • Time yourself in various standard “life situations.” For example, how long does it take you to walk up two flights of apartment-house stairs? (About 26 seconds?) To walk a city block (1/20 mile may be about 45 seconds). To launch a rocket (10-9-8-etc.) To play your favorite pop tune (about 3 minutes?) To briskly cross a four-lane street (10 seconds?). Incidentally, when gauging time by using a pedestrian walk signal, check to be sure it’s accurate. Our spot check of several pedestrian countdowns in New York City showed them to be on the nose, but your city or other streets might vary. If you have a sense of these operations ingrained in your psyche, you have a sense of their duration as well.

Keep your mind chronologically tuned, and you’ll be able to stay pretty close to the mark, whatever your age.