Production 212: Killing Ants With Sledgehammers

By Dave Production-212-Logo-1Foxx

It occurred to me the other day that I, and by extension this magazine, have been doing you a disservice that needs to be addressed, before you get called into the principal’s office. It’s not a huge thing, but something you definitely need to think about before you produce your next “slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am” promo.

What brought it to mind is a friend who’s been getting some mixed signals from his boss lately. Up until a few months ago, he felt very secure in his position, as well he should. His production is as good as it gets on many different levels, but his recently new boss was complaining that his imaging was off. When he tried to pin the boss down on what he meant by off, he couldn’t really articulate it well enough to understand what the problem was. You can only imagine the kinds of frustration my friend was feeling. He began to believe that his new PD was working around to letting him go to bring in some other person. It happens all the time. A PD has a winning crew that he or she has gotten used to and trusts, then moves to a new station. First thing you know, two or three of his/her trusted confidantes from the previous station show up on the payroll, meaning somebody has lost their job. It’s not unusual at all. In fact, it’s completely understandable.

I happen to be close enough to visit once in awhile, so when he asked me to come by and help him figure out what was going on I said I would within a week or so, but in the meantime, he should send me copies of everything he does. The MP3 files started showing up 2 or 3 at a time and I’d dutifully listen to each piece for fatal flaws. There weren’t any. It all had great rhythm and flow, the message was always clear… by every criterion I use to judge production, his was hitting high marks every time. I was just as mystified as my friend.

A week later, I took my rig and hopped in the plane and headed for my friend’s local airport. We had a nice dinner at a Mexican place and over drinks afterward, we tried again to figure out what the PD wasn’t getting. We gave up after a bit and started swapping old radio stories. Saturday morning, I got up and turned on my friend’s station, hoping I could hear it “in context,” since neither of us could figure it out in the abstract. Within 10 minutes, I knew what the problem was.

My friend was killing ants with sledgehammers. Picture a shot of Earth at sunrise, taken from orbit. This high up, you don’t see the waves in the ocean, you just see a glass smooth surface, with white puffy clouds casting long shadows across the sphere of water. Beautiful, isn’t it? Now imagine a nuclear explosion in the middle of all that smooth beauty. That’s what my friend’s station sounded like. The sweepers that ran between the songs stuck WAY out from the mix. His PD was right. It was OFF.

It turns out that the new PD had spent several weeks fine-tuning the music to give the urban format station a much smoother sound, leaning more to the R&B side and away from Hip Hop. Like many producers I know, my friend was isolated from the day-to-day operations of the station, sitting in a sound proof room every day, laboring over a hot console. He had lost touch with what the station was trying to project.

Thus I came to the conclusion that I have been doing you a disservice, in a sense, as has RAP magazine. The production you’re hearing on the monthly CD is completely isolated from its environment. Not hearing it in context could prove to be dangerous, especially when considering imitating it for your station. OK… it’s not a huge thing. You undoubtedly have brains enough to know what will and what won’t fit… provided you know exactly what your station is trying to project.

My friend now has his computer set up to stream his station whenever he’s not actually producing something and his number one radio button in his car is programmed for his own station. He was able to save the day by producing a lot of scaled back ‘whispers’ and minimally produced pieces that played over intros without fighting the music. His boss is quite happy and I’m sure my friend is secure in his job again.

So, the real lesson here is to stay in touch with what your station is doing. If you’re not sure, grab a copy of one hour of the log, sit down and listen to all of the songs listed, in order, without anything else playing. At the end of that 50 or so minutes, you should have a really good take on what your PD is trying to do with the station’s music and a fresh blueprint of where you need to be.

I know a lot of us think that the creative part of what we do is in how we stack and mix all the sounds we have at our disposal, but it really is NOT. The creative part of our job is finding the most direct way into our audience’s collective mind to deliver the message du jour. If you succumb to the temptation of making ear candy out of everything you put your hand to, you’ll end up killing ants with sledgehammers. Oh, it’ll sound great on this month’s RAP CD, but on your station… not so much.

Speaking of this month’s CD, my own contribution is a bit of a sledgehammer. When I was given the title for the weekend, the first thing that popped into my head was the old Doublemint Gum commercials; “…double your pleasure, double your fun,” and before you could say gorgeous twins, I was done.

Ever had a specific question about production you wanted to ask me? Here’s your chance. Log on at AskDaveFoxx.com and ask away. Yeah, it’s a sales gimmick, I won’t lie to you, but we’re talking about pocket change, I promise… and I will answer your question along with a lot of others!