R.A.P. Interview: J.R. Nelson

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R.A.P.: You're cutting a jingle package for some rich kid named Waldo?
J.R.: Yeah. His name is Waldo. I have no idea what his last name is, you know, but he and a bunch of his buddies got six thousand pounds and got themselves a station. Actually, they're spending more on production stuff than they are the damn license! I'm cutting drops, too, but they're buying a ten cut jingle package, and that's like eighteen hundred or something like that. In one of the jingles they want us to sing, "Fuck the Beeb" which is the BBC. I said, "Okay, fine. I don't give a shit." But it's little things like that which you never hear about, and I've turned that on to a couple of friends of mine. Hey, there's a market out there. Go for it. Have fun. Andy Capp, who writes for you people, is a friend of mine. I called him right away and said, "You've got some good beds and effects. Call this guy." He did, and he's selling stuff!

R.A.P.: Did you have a lot of formal musical education?
J.R.: Yes. I was one of these kids who was sitting at the piano at the age of four playing by ear. I had fifteen years of actual lessons. In fact, I was going to be a concert pianist. Now, because of technology, you can sit there and do your own beds. For somebody like me who has practiced and worked at it for years, it pisses you off at times, but you go, "Okay, I'll just make mine a little slicker." That's what has made it nice for the average person in the industry. With a Macintosh, you can drive anything.

This is the only thing that bothers me about radio now, as far as production is concerned, because the people who are going to come up and know how to run computer studios, are going to be going to the advertising agencies and recording studios after a couple of years because the agencies and studios can afford to pay them more money than the radio stations can. In fact, I've seen a couple of really good production assistants leave radio stations and go with studios just for that reason. It's a different animal now, and managers are going to look at that differently. Of course, it's going to take them a while to educate themselves, but after they lose about their third or fourth Production Director to a recording studio, they're going to go, "Oh yeah, maybe I should pay them more." I think that is what's going to happen, basically because of digital technology.

When I grew up, digital technology was huge, and you had to have a degree from MIT to even run a computer. Now it's so simple. Even Scott Shannon can run it! The thing is, there are no more excuses. I used to say, "Oh man, I can't do it. I've only got a 4-track," or, "I've only got an 8-track." Well, you don't have those excuses anymore. I've seen whole Macintosh systems going for $7,000. All you need is a board, and there you are. You don't have an excuse anymore.

R.A.P.: You're right. And the digital revolution also means we can't be as sloppy in the studio anymore.
J.R.: Hey, there used to be a lot of jocks who could get away with doing sloppy production because it sounded all right once it hit the air. But now, because of digital technology, it has to be very, very clean. You're going to notice every breath. You're going to notice every little mistake you make, which is good on one hand. On the other hand, you create a situation where people are going to expect that. Twenty years ago you wouldn't expect cleanliness as part of the package. Nowadays, people expect that clean sound. But that digital sound can also make you sound sterile, and I think it's important to know how to warm that digital sound up. When I do voice work, I EQ the hell out of all the processing just to get whatever warmth I want, especially in reverbs. I must have fifteen or twenty different reverb settings for the various types of attitude. On some of this stuff you'll never hear any high end. On others I'll run it with a delay. Even now, when I do original music scores, I've got an old 8-track hooked up that I forward all the drums to just because I want that good, fat, analog sound on the snare that you can't get on digital. What we're used to hearing, and what it really sounds like are two different things.

R.A.P.: You mention having various settings for voice processing. What's different about how you process your voice for a CHR format versus a news format, both on FM?
J.R.: Here's what I do for WIP in Philadelphia and CNN in Atlanta and stations like that. In the Eventide H3000, there's a chorus that I really EQ the hell out of to bring out more low end and mid range. I'll run that, say twenty-five percent of the mix with the voice track. Then I will run a warm hall reverb but EQ out all the low end and just have the high end present. What that does is give you a more bright, attentive sound as opposed to a relaxing sound.

Now, for CHR. On one CHR setting I've got an SPX90-II that I've got set on a chorus that I've EQ'd the hell out of. Then, out of that is a delay, a real quick delay from channel to channel. Then, on top of that I've got two flangers because for CHR I'll use two different mikes. I'll use one mike for news/talk and light rock and that kind of stuff, but for CHR and AOR I have two different mikes that I run simultaneously just to give a different edge to it. One is an old ribbon mike, a terribly old ribbon mike from back in the '50s. The other mike is one of those super two thousand dollar, fancy-smanshy, clean-as-a-bell things. Now, you don't compress the good mike a lot, but you compress the shit out of the bad mike. Then you add flangers and whatever else you like, and when you get to the finished product, you've got something that is standing out about two hundredths of a second between channels. It's coming out voice first, with the effects about two hundredths of a second later, so it's one of those bigger than life kinds of sounds.

There are a lot of tricks like that. It all depends on what you want it to sound like. I'll tell you a classic story. Scott Shannon came in one time and said, "Hey man, I want you to make this sound digital." I said, "Scott, look, there's analog or there's digital. It's like a kind of system, see? It isn't sound. Now, what the hell do you mean make it sound digital?" Scott and I are the best of friends, we really are. "Man, just make it sound digital." And what he wanted was a metal sound to his voice. It took me about a week, but I did it.

R.A.P.: What are some general thoughts on production in today's radio?
J.R.: Radio is boring. Nobody experiments anymore. When I was young, of course that was back in the dark ages, I would go into work on my day off and just run a voice track through every piece of processing I had just to see what it would do. Nobody does that anymore because there's no motivation from the top. You don't take the time to be creative because you're too concerned with covering your butt. Plus, there's nobody out there teaching. I can count on one hand how many programmers are out there that can actually teach a young talent how to be a personality. They're just not out there. The same thing with production people. I've been very lucky. I've had a lot of good assistants. And really, I would prefer someone right out of college so I could say, "Listen, here's what not to do. Do it this way. Go play. Go have fun." The industry lacks that.

You also have the LMAs and the duopolies where you've got a poor production guy sitting there all of a sudden doing two or three radio stations and trying to write copy and everything else. Well, the best advice I can give him in a situation like that is to keep it simple. I heard the greatest concert spot in the world about three or four months ago when I was driving down to Florida. Some tiny radio station in Tennessee had a concert spot for 38 Special, I believe, and all you heard was the very last sting of a song by the group recorded live. Then the crowd would come up, and then there would be a sting from another song and the crowd would come up again. And the tag line was, "If you want to hear the rest of it, be at the Wherever Civic Center." That, to me, was so simple, but it was the neatest spot. You've heard the music, so you knew that was 38 Special. It was so simple, and yet it was right to the point. That's the kind of production we need. We've lasered ourselves to death. I mean, I quit sampling years ago, and I've still got stations who want me to sample stuff. Please, get a life already. Realize that this is 1993. Sampling was invented in '76, you know?

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