Tips & Techniques - February 1990

by Dave Oliwa

For a Big Sound

What is the difference between a spot or promo that sounds like it was produced for national distribution and one that sounds like it was produced for local broadcast? The answer may simply be the methodology used in the recording process. Sometimes, the load on the Production Director can make us neglect a few basics. Here are a few of them that always work, without taking forever to set up. This simple approach can be used in any studio and I guarantee success if you try it.

Most likely, you've sat in or are still sitting in the DJ chair and are familiar with the effects of the transmitter chain processing. The FCC requires a limiter that does not allow the modulation level of the transmitter to surpass 100%, making sure the signal doesn't splatter onto other frequencies. Oddly enough, the General Manager requires a compressor that does not allow the modulation level of the transmitter to go below 99.99%, making sure his radio station is the loudest damn station on the dial. Some stations even have a little black box or two creating frequency responses that liken your audio signal to that of a low-flying solid rocket booster. All of these things allow the DJ to be heard over the music even when the levels of the two aren't exactly within the limits of the meters. You can also "hear" the processing working when your headphones are up a bit too high and feedback occurs the moment you stop talking. The transmitter chain processing pulls everything up to that 99.99% level if it's too low, and pushes everything down to the 100% level if it's too high. This knowledge can be the Holy Grail for the production guy or gal that knows how to work it in their favor.

As you may have guessed, it's all centered around the VU meter. It can be your best friend and most competent colleague in the production room. It supersedes the ear most of the time if used correctly, especially when you're suffering from a cold or fatigued from working with headphones all day.

"Four out of five recording studio engineers agree," the voice level on any piece should be set dry (by itself) to peak (the highest meter movement if only for a moment) on the VU meter at "0" or in the +1 range (in the red). This means the voice will average below zero, in the -3 range. It will be the loudest signal on the meter as a rule. The only exception is a voice level from a telephone line. Although sophisticated metering systems like the Dorrough loudness meter show the true nature of the telephone beast, the standard VU meter will not. A VU meter with a peak indicator (an LED that flashes on instantaneous peaks too fast for the mechanical needle to physically indicate) will show more of the true, unbalanced, narrow bandwidth telephone feeds, but can still fall far short of showing you what the ear reveals. Phone levels should be considerably less, in the -10 range on the average, peaking at -5 or less.

Once again, set music levels and SFX levels by themselves, without the voice tracks for interference. The music levels will be below the levels of the voice and slightly above a telephone feed. Aim for music peaks in the -3 range with music averaging in the -7 range. Notice the music peaks are about the same level as the average voice so no matter how loud musical posts (or EFX) get, the voice will be on top.

Producing this way covers all of the bases: The voice is the winner; the music is only 3-4 dB lower than the voice, allowing the transmitter processing to do a better job, making the discrepancy between the two sound like far less; both the voice and the music remain bright and crisp; the total VU meter reading after combining the separate levels will total somewhere in the +1 or +2 range, well under any equipment's ability to distort; and finally, a whole realm of complaints from others will cease to exist.

This method will work just as well in the full or 2-track studio going to tape, or mixing down in the 24 track suite. Believe it or don't, this technique is one of the reasons ad agencies go to $80 an hour recording studios instead of radio stations to cut their spots. Now that you know their little, and we mean little, secret, you might be able to put some of their money where it belongs -- in your pocket!

Making Music Beds the Perfect Length With Reverb

There's nothing like a promo that says what it has to say, makes its point, then ends cold. Most of the time, though, music beds are never the perfect length. Well, you can backtime to the cold ending. You can fade out under the last two words. You can pull out a new blade and chop it up. Or, you can patch in the reverb. "The reverb?" you say. It works somewhat like laying rubber with a manual transmission; hit the gas and pop the clutch. In this case, hit the reverb at the last second and dump out of the music. The results can be amazing, but there are two tricks to this. First, the reverb level has to be just right...and that is a skill (you're aiming for the same amount of reverb you hear at the end of any record that ends cold). Secondly, the dump has to be "between the beats" of the music. The reverb has to hear a complete beat or note so it can extend it just a bit. It really doesn't have to be at the end of anything musically -- the middle of a drum solo or the wail of a lead guitar will work. Although it is an abrupt ending, the reverb will make it sound like it was supposed to be that way -- after all, you may know, but listeners have no idea that it wasn't the last note. Suddenly, it's a lot easier to make cold endings. If you're feeling truly adventurous, try adding a delay from your effects box simultaneously with the reverb. Adjust the delay to match the beat of the music! With a little practice, you can master it. But you won't thank us until then.


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