By Trent Rentsch
It was war, make no mistake. None of this “living in harmony with nature” nonsense. My nemesis had been standing there, taunting me, for several years... no more. Armed with what I was certain were my weapons of victory, I marched to the battlefield. Confidence was high as I moved into position.
This really was long over-due. The willow tree had survived more than one ice storm the past couple of winters, but there were scars. Dead branches hung askew, low to the ground. In addition, the darned thing needed a haircut — mowing around it last summer felt more like a struggle through an overgrown rainforest. Yes, long over-due, confidence was high... at least, until I stood beside it. Looking up I could see the vines that had grown up the trunk, twisting around and around to the very top. Tugging at the thickest vine, I realized that this was more than a simple “Search and Destroy the Over-Growth” mission. This was a war with multiple enemies of mass forestation. My hacksaw and pruning shears suddenly felt like pea shooters in a tank fight. I needed a bigger gun.
What little I knew about chainsaws was anecdotal information from my Father. “Don’t even think about picking up that saw!! You’ll cut your leg off!” This was his advice for most tools when I was a kid, now that I think about it. But looking at the rows of chainsaws at the hardware store made me wish he had at least told me which horsepower not to pick up. I settled on the smallest electric unit they had, A: because the tree I was attacking was a willow, not a redwood, and, B: if my Father was right, at least this one didn’t seem like it would do much self-inflicted damage.
After getting it home and glancing at the “quick start” guide, the amateur handyman’s best friend (or worst enemy, if you listen to my wife), I headed out back to do battle. The chainsaw did the job perfectly, and soon I had a pile of long branches at the base of the tree. Now all I had to do was cut them all into manageable pieces for the city — no sweat, they came off the tree without a hitch, just some more trimming on the ground, V for Victory!! Little did I know that the tree had planned a counter attack.
Seems like I read something about the term “Kick Back” in the quick start guide, but it really didn’t mean anything until the chainsaw bounced off the green branch I was cutting and hit my tennis shoe. My first thought was, “Oh, so THAT’S what they meant.” My second thought was, “I hate it when my Dad is right.” As it turned out, he may have been right, but I had also been lucky. The saw had taken a chunk out of my tennis shoe, but had stopped a good half inch from my big toe. At that point I decided it was time to put the saw away (carefully) and fight another day, perhaps after I had read the full manual and quit shaking.
If there’s any lesson here I suppose it’s that I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to using tools unwisely. Not long ago I destroyed the last evidence of the first month I learned how to apply tape echo. Every one of my voice-overs that month swam in it, as did the background music… as did the MIX, I’m sad to admit. It didn’t take long for my Program Director to take me aside and ask me to knock it off, and thank goodness he did! I was abusing an effect, turning off our listeners, and stifling my own progress as a Producer.
I can only imagine how crappy my work would be if I were starting out today. My main tool has, what, over 50 built-in effects, plus the ability to tweak them all. I figure I would have at least several thousand ways to make my sound suck. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong when sound sucks, it’s a great way to learn what not to do. The problem comes when we present the sucking sound to the public.
I hear literal examples of that everyday. Somebody has a new compressor and they’ve got to crank it up on their voice… and on the mix. THEN, it hits the signal chain of the station, which means more compression, so by the time I’m hearing the spot on my car radio it produces a sensation not unlike having my eardrums pulled inside out. Now THAT’S suction!
I could drone on with countless examples — mixes swimming in enough ‘verb to reproduce a concert hall, voices left muddy and unintelligible in an effort to EQ them to a “ballsy” level, music “excited” so crispy that it sounds like the high hat is a pan of frying bacon. Abuse of an effect is not Creative; it’s at best a distraction. I find that the most Creative use of effects in a piece of production are the ones that I don’t notice at all, the ones that enhance the piece, not detract from it.
So what are the magic settings? Beats me. It’s your station, your equipment, your sound. I joked earlier about the quick start guide, but honestly I am surprised how many people don’t really learn the tools they are using. I know, busy, deadlines… but when all is said and done, knowing the tools is part of the job too. And when it comes to “fine tuning” tools like EQ and compression, even if you understand the concepts, it never hurts to talk to your head engineer to find out what’s going on when your audio hits the signal chain, and how to avoid audio suckage.
Make no mistake, it’s a war out there, and the battle is “Cut Through” but still sound natural. Be careful with that audio arsenal, you could blow somebody’s eardrums out.