Production 212: Radio Voodoo

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

Part of my workday, nearly every day, is critiquing someone’s promo or commercial via email. They’re mostly readers of this fine publication, although a few simply send an email out of the blue. They all want to know what they can do to improve whatever it is they’ve sent. Clearly, some are beyond help. Those will get a nice letter back suggesting they look into alternate careers. (Kidding!) Most of the time, they’re sending their best work, and it shows. Their work generally doesn’t need much of anything, however I’ll usually end up suggesting more texture. So, to short-circuit this entire conversation, here’s what I’m talking about.

Everybody knows the word “texture” as it’s most commonly used. Silk has a smooth texture. Denim is rougher. Cotton is soft, while burlap is harsh. When it comes to production, the meaning is similar. Assuming your voiceover is smooth and the delivery flows nicely, adding texture is a pretty straightforward proposition. Most copy includes a few parenthetical phrases, explaining what was just said for the feeble-minded listener. Throw those into a high pass filter, making them sound almost like the private thought of the announcer. Adding a flange effect to the voice on a particular point will make it stand out. Changing the pitch of a well-known word will make it more interesting. (Particularly useful on your call sign, after having said it 42 times in the promo.) Adding reverb to a phrase makes it sound really huge.

There are bunches of other effects that will dramatically change the way your production sounds. The key, naturally, is to make sure it doesn’t make the voice illegible. All you want to do is add texture to the voice track, not make your VO guy/gal sound like an alien. (Well…okay, sometimes that’s cool too.) But it still has to print. Otherwise, the message is lost and you’ve just wasted everybody’s time, especially your own.

If you listen to my track on this month’s CD, you’ll hear a lot of textures. We recently revamped the sound of Z100, again. Using three voices, Anne DeWig, Dave Kampel and mine, I gave every piece we did a ton of texture. Most of what you’ll hear revolves around presenting 3 commercial free hours every day. To imply a lot of music without talk, I produced the sweepers so they can play over the intro of a song. No musical notes, no funky rhythms or anything that will fight with the music is the rule. This allows the station to flow better and seem like we really are playing more music, even if we’re not. The problem for me, as a producer, is it also sounds pretty plain–jane. I have a hard time NOT being the hot-rockin’, flame–throwin’ producer I always strive to be. So, the answer is texture.

You’ll hear a lot of the high pass filter and open flange on my track, as well as the occasional reverb and sampling. You’ll also hear the odd pitch shift, some inverse–masking and a killer pulse–gate. You don’t know what the last two are? You’ll probably know then when you hear them. The pulse–gate seems to cut the words into tiny pieces, kind of like talking into a big fan when you were a kid. The inverse–mask adds a very short reverb before the word is spoken, smearing the word out but resolving to the clearly spoken word.

Finding these little “tricks” is one thing I spend at least a couple of hours doing every time I get a new plug–in. Most of them come with some pre–sets which I’ll try first. If I hear something really interesting, I’ll futz with the settings to see how far I can stretch it. Sometimes, I’ll find something truly mind–boggling just by making one small adjustment. Once I find something I really like, I’ll save the settings and the very next time I’m in the throes of making some image magic, I’ll try it out. Then, I’ll listen to it on the air. The last part is critical because there are plenty of settings that sound awesome in the studio but just don’t print on the air. Remember, I just want to push the envelope, not burst out of it completely.

Okay. You ask, “Why should I go to all this effort?” Even in the promos at the end of my audio, you’ll hear clearly, that I always use textures. Once the track is secure and understandable, I add texture to make it more interesting and even challenging. My job is to communicate with two–and–a–half million people every time something of mine plays. I need to break out of the clutter of all the commercials and jock–chatter to impact the listeners with an important message. Maybe it’s something as simple as reinforcing our slogan, “Z100 is New York’s number one hit music station,” or it could be as complex as explaining how to win a contest. Whatever the message is, I have to make sure the word gets out. Textures challenge the listener, and oh boy, is that the key to success! Radio, by its nature, tends to be a rather passive medium for the listener. (Witness the large number of people who listen while they do something else like driving.) Textures test the little place in their brain that insists that they have to listen more closely for fear of missing a vital piece of information. Adding texture “tricks” their mind into becoming more active for those few seconds so they listen closely. And that, boys and girls, is exactly why we do the voodoo that we do.

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