Some Things That Make a Difference – Part 3

by Marshall Such

Here are final thoughts on some of the little things, that to me, differentiate great production from slap ‘n go. An article like this is maybe more for the “beginner-intermediate” Prod Pros. But hopefully, even those of you who are maxed to the hilt, will find at least a couple of things you’ve never thought of. Also, I appreciate you guys/gals who have called/e-mailed to tell me that you’ve benefited from this series.

Recording Voices

This has to be the biggest snafu on the road to creating great product. Radio Potato gets voice tracks from all over the country (actually the world, come to think of it) and the differences in quality from one announcer to the next is sometimes simply frightening.

While you can take a voice track that’s a little dull and spritz it with judicious EQ, a track that is overly compressed or distorted leaves you few options.

I’ve noticed that most radio engineers (hopefully they’re old school now) like to set up mike processors in the production room and then bolt and lock the processor so no one can adjust it. And this one-size-fits-all setting is usually set to “maximum squash” with the compressor/limiter and “spritz before distortion” with EQ.

To get a great voice track, you need a good mike, a good pair of ears, and access to the voice processor after you record the track. Having owned and worked in professional recording studios, the goal of every engineer I know is to record any sound source virtually flat. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t kick in a low cut filter if there is too much rumble, or to use light compression as they lay down a voice track to keep levels consistent.

But to record a voice with a ton of processing leaves you with exactly that: a track with a ton of processing. If you can convince your engineer that you’d like to patch the processor into the audio chain at any point, he may grudgingly acquiesce. Or he may give you the downside: Jocks who pop into the production room to lay down voice tracks.

I know that if some air personalities don’t see the levels dancing in the red and hear their voices slammed and squeezed to the max, they may overcompensate and gobble the mike and generally talk louder. That leads to everything from extraneous mouth noises to distorted tracks.

The answer? Hate to say it, but if you get control over the mike processor, you may have to actually engineer the jocks’ sessions. Or, you could patch the processor into the mike channel set to solid, minimum range settings where the jock gets the sound he expects. Or better yet, patch the mike directly to the DAT/reel/computer and record flat. Use the processor post the source so the jock is hearing the sound after it has gone to tape.

Spending just a little time with your mike(s) and processor can bring the quality of your voice tracks up to Big Time Agency standards. Yeah, it takes a little extra effort, but again, this is where great production begins. (Actually, as I’ve stated before, you need a great script. But the actual hands-on production begins with the voice tracks.) And with the advent of trading tracks within big broadcast groups, it’s muy importante to make this a top priority.

Consider this: With the internet now the de facto exchange marketplace, recording high fidelity voice tracks is absolutely imperative. To keep transfer times to a minimum, we’re compressing our .wav or .aiff files to .mp2 or .mp3. While these programs provide excellent quality, they are only as good as the original source. And since these programs “slice” little slivers out of the original sound file, a poorly recorded track will only sound worse when compressed.

Sound Effects

I decided to count up the sound effects CDs I’ve got. Counting the Hanna Barbara and Warner Bros (from Sound Ideas), I have 30 disks. Now I know a lot of you guys enjoy the luxury of having Sound Ideas 1000-4000 series, which is what… 100+ CD’s?

And if you do have this many CD’s, do you find that you still can’t find exactly what you’re looking for? As has been mentioned many times before in RAP, the best way to get the perfect effect is to record it yourself. A portable DAT machine or MiniDisc with a good stereo mike is all you really need. In many cases, you can use your studio and bring the desired sound source into your room.

But oftentimes you can create great effects or ambiances by combining various effects or a combo of your own sound(s) along with prerecorded sound(s). Here’s a cool effect that I picked up from Dan Osborne (WNAP, Indianapolis). Dan needed to create the sound/ambiance of sitting outside at night listening to a transistor radio. The way I would have created the “transistor radio” effect would have been to do an “AM EQ.” What Dan did was dub “Up On The Roof” to cassette. Then, using a portable cassette deck from the newsroom, he rerecorded the song playing from the portable deck, placing the mike about 4 feet away from the source. That went to one track of the multi-track. (We’re talkin’ 4-track analog here by the way!) Then, on a stereo track, Dan added crickets/night sfx. I believe he also used the sound of a light breeze (in mono) on track 4. Talk about actually “being there!” What made it so convincing was the song playing—it sounded like a transistor radio outside at night, which is exactly what it was suppose to be!

Sure, this took a little extra time, but the end result was incredible. How long does it take to dub part of a song to cassette, run to the newsroom to grab a portable player, then rerecord the piece? Maybe 10 minutes?

Another sound effect tip comes from Lonnie Perkins of Perkins & Company in Louisville. This is more of a pet peeve with Lonnie, but I’ll put it in the “tips” category.

When you’re using a prerecorded sound effect, don’t just cue up to the first effect, or the first part of a longer effect. Believe it or not, there are a finite number of prerecorded sound effects out there. And when everyone is using the same basic libraries (e.g. Sound Ideas), these sounds do get overused. A lot of times there will be 2 or 3 takes of an effect. Go a little deeper and use an alternate version. Or if it’s something like traffic, let the track run a few seconds and find a good spot to fade up the track. Or create your own version by combining a couple of sources. It may seem like a small matter, but after all, this article is entitled “Things That Make A Difference.”

Electronic Effects

I need to mention electronic effects (E-efx) as well. Did you know you can create your own whooshes, blasts, skoinks, etc. in your production room? Yeah, it takes time, but you can create your own “signature series” of sounds that can make your station sweepers sound tres cool.

One of the ways I create new sounds is to start with a source that is similar to my final effect. For example, let’s say you need a real neat “whoosh.” By starting with a good wind sfx, you’ve got the backbone to create your whoosh.

Now, I know some of you guys have Pro Tools with every conceivable plug-in and that you can manipulate the sound in your computers. But for those with a minimal set-up, here’s how to process that wind sound into a cool efx.

Depending on what you’re hearing in your head, you may want to roll off the bottom end of the wind sfx. Then again, if you’re looking for a balls-to-the-wall sound, you may want to boost the bottom end for added punch. Once you’ve got the basic sound EQ’d the way you want it, route it to one of your effects processors. If you’re fortunate enough to have a box that allows for multiple effects at once, then use a “flange/reverb” or “chorus/reverb” patch. If you don’t have a multi-efx processor, you may have to dub once for flange or chorus, then re-dub with the reverb.

Set up your board/recorder so that you’re recording only the output of your processor. (Occasionally, you may want to mix in the “live” sound as well, but most often the processed sound is what you’re after.) If your processor allows you to adjust the parameters, try messing around with the depth of the flange or chorus. If there’s a “feedback” adjustment (like on most of the Yamaha boxes), try goosing that a bit for a more radical effect. Adjust the reverb for the amount of decay desired.

Once you’re happy with your handiwork, you’re ready to make your whoosh. Close down the fader(s) with the wind sfx. Start your recorder, then play the wind sfx. Fairly quickly, fade up the wind sfx. Either stop the CD player, or quickly close the fader. Voliá! Instant whoosh! You may want to repeat this 5 or 6 times because the intensity of the wind will vary throughout the effect, providing a series of slightly different whooshes.

You can also create a cache of other effects just messin’ with your processor and EQ. The operative word is “experiment.” If you enjoy creating madness, making new E-efx can be very rewarding. And your sounds can become a trademark signature for you and the station.

Using Production Music

My biggest peeve—and I know it’s the same with a lot of you—is a 60 second commercial with the same weenie track under the entire spot. Sure, with advertiser jingles you’re kinda stuck with the music in the doughnut hole, but at least there is some ear candy with the vocals. And occasionally, you’ll find a track that you will actually inspire a script.

I know that some of you are working ball breaking schedules and cranking out a jillion spots a week. And finding the time and the mass of music to create an interesting commercial may seem impossible. But making music changes to accentuate copy points or to subliminally suggest a particular mood will make your spot or promo more exciting and less of a tune-out to your listeners.

Learning About Cross Fading

You can create an interesting musical underscore in two ways. The first is to butt splice selections of music you’ve picked and have the announcer read over this track. Like recording a vocal, you could “punch in” the voice to hit the music changes.

Or you could use cross fading. If you’re not familiar with the term “cross fading,” here’s a simple explanation: Begin one track of music under your announcer that runs to a certain point, then quickly fade it out. Then, another track of music either hits in hard, or fades in, just as the first track fades out.

A friend of mine who runs a small ad agency is amazed by this little trick. And I’m beginning to think it is somewhat of an art form. But cross fading is something that you can learn—trust me.

When I first moved to Big D and was going to be the John Williams of Jingles, I took a detour and worked with one of my mentors, Dick Starr. Dick, an Executive Producer for Toby Arnold & Associates, taught me some very valuable production lessons, the most important being cross fading.

Coming from a musical background (with some dazed and confused futzing around time in radio during the early ‘70s), I was a “wait for a down beat or the tonic chord” kinda guy when it came to cross fading music. Dick’s warm words of encouragement still ring in my ears today: “Screw it! Hit the next track in and make it tight.”

My pleadings that it wasn’t musically kosher fell on deaf ears. And as I began to grok (from Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein) what Dick was teaching me, I began to appreciate and love the challenge of this new audio art form.

The challenge of cross fading music became: make the transition inaudible. Sure, if you stripped away the announcer the result would be less than musically pleasing. But by learning how to “duck” music at just the right time and bringing in the next track exactly where it should be, can really be spectacular.

Now, with the advent of software like Acid , making perfect cross fades, with perfect tempo and key matching, is possible. The problem of course, is making/finding the time to utilize a tool like this. But the result of combining a well written, well acted script with some killer cross fades is something to behold.

Conclude This

I talk to a lot of you prod people every week. And I know many of you are either itching to get out of the day-to-day grind of radio production or set up your own hacienda studio to do free-lance work. Whatever you do, please, please, PLEASE make your mark by taking your conceptualizations, writing, recording, choice of voice talent(s), musical selections, use of sound effects and everything else that goes into creating a stellar product, to incredible heights. Heights at least 25%-40% better than the best local radio production in your market.

Remember, if you’re going on your own as a free-lancer, there’s some stiff competition out there, and your reel has to really grab prospective clients. You may want to approach local ad agencies. Those are the folks with real budgets and are generally open to checking out outside sources. How do you think they’ll react if your demo is furniture store/car dealer/bar spots with local jocks? And if every spot is straight copy with one music bed throughout? And worst, what if you’ve dubbed all the spots from carts?

(A quick aside. When I was working at 94.5 The Edge here in Dallas, we got an “air check” from a DJ at a local topless bar. He wanted a job as a jock. Instead of creating a “radio demo,” he had telescoped clips from one of his shows. “Put your hands together for the hottest little lady this side of Sin City—give it up you guys for Angel!!” The funniest air check we ever heard.)

For you guys who have to produce 7-10 spots a day, do a shift, and then go out on sales call with Biff The Sales Manager, my heart goes out to you. I know the thought of doing anything other than slapping together voice and a :60 music track seems impossible. But if you can get the gumption and energy, you can create some outstanding spots/promos. With great voices that are well recorded, superb production with your own sfx or electronic fx, and utilizing cross fading techniques, you will reap the rewards of better sounding production. And that translates to a great sounding radio station. (It never fails to amaze me how programming, or more often, management, can’t fathom the impact their in-house produced product has on their listeners. But that’s a bitch session for another time.) Over and out, Potato lovers.

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