Chris Cunnold, Sound Designer, Beijing, China
By Jerry Vigil
When the RAP Interview visits a producer, this person is usually in radio or at least has a radio background. Chris Cunnold has never worked at a radio station, never interviewed for a job at a radio station. But his work can be heard on hundreds of stations worldwide. Chris currently produces for Jeff Thomas and Killer Hertz, and his background has lots to teach us about being an independent producer and putting that home studio to work. Even if that home studio is in Beijing! If you are an independent producer, or plan to be one day, Chris offers some valuable insights to help you get your feet wet or expand your current business. Be sure to check out this month’s RAP CD for some awesome audio from Chris.
JV: Tell us how you started in the business.
Chris: With my family, there was music always around when I was growing up. My father was actually a fitness instructor, quite popular back in Australia, and there’s a lot of music used for that. Probably back in the late ’90s, a production company called the Music & Motion Studio -- which was pretty much the first studio in Australia to start making music for the fitness industry -- they got in contact with my dad and wanted his help with formatting these 45-minute programs. They got so busy that the owner and music director, a gentleman by the name of Sakis Anastopoulos, needed an assistant. This is back in 1994, I believe. I went over there and started working for him, and that was the first time I ever saw anything to do with digital audio. The first time I ever saw audio as a wave form that you could cut and edit was on a two-track program called Editor Plus. That was my introduction to digital audio, and we would format aerobic music as well as do editing for competitions -- aerobic competitions, body-building, gymnastic, all these sort of programs. He actually now beta tests software for such companies as Waves plug-ins and such. His website is digisoundmastering.com.
JV: So you skipped analog audio recording and editing completely!
Chris: I did. However, when I was about 14, through a family friend, I went into Fox FM, which is in Melbourne. I only spent a couple of days doing work experience there, but that’s when I saw the analog desk being used and reel-to-reel and things like that. But I pretty much came straight into the digital world, and that was with just a two-track editor. I think we were using Windows 3.1 and The Card D sound cards, which were pretty expensive back then. I think they were about $15,000 a card.
So that was my training, just learning where to edit and what a beat looks like. We had to do a lot of beat matching and a lot of deejay mixing, and that helped my understanding of how music works, especially dance music and up-tempo music, and how to mix like a deejay would with two turntables.
That was pretty much the start for me there. It was my first paying job. I came on as a full-time assistant at this production house. They had a studio and offices in Melbourne, and we would distribute tapes and CDs Australia- and New Zealand-wide. I believe it might have gone overseas as well, but with the whole music copyright thing, I think the license that they had to sell music was just within Australia and New Zealand, because we were using commercial music, so they had to pay royalty fees and the license they had was just for the Australian and New Zealand market.
JV: How long did you stay with this company?
Chris: For a couple of years I did that, and after I left I didn’t work with music at all. I went to work at a hotel. But I knew I wanted to work with music. I just wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do as yet, and I hadn’t really gone into radio at all. But I had my own equipment. I had my own PC, and I was just editing my own cuts by putting montages of music together with Cool Edit Pro, which is what I was using at the time, and that was fun. I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. Then a friend of our family’s said, “I know this guy. He’s doing some great stuff with radio if you want to meet him.” And I was like, “Yeah, this would be great.”
That was Craig Jansson. At the time, his company was called Primal Media. So they set up a meeting, I met him, and he was a great guy. He is a great guy. He played me some radio imaging. It was the first time I really knew what it was about, and I was just blown away. I was like, “Wow, I want to do this.” And that was the first time I actually saw a multi-track editor, and this was Pro Tools. It was the first time I had ever seen this and I was hooked. So from then I would ring him up and say, “Can I come over and see what you’re doing?” He was very nice and gracious to let me come over during his busy time because at the time, he was actually doing Net2Nite, which was a national program aired in the States on the Citadel Network. He was doing that all from Melbourne on a weekly basis, and I got to see how the show was put together. And his imaging was fantastic and really sort of cutting edge.
So I would watch for quite a bit, and then it got to a point where he said, “You should get your own equipment.” I was using a PC, and he was using a Mac, so I decided to get a Mac. I got my first 001 Pro Tools and some plug-ins. He would give me voice tracks and he’d say, “Come up with something.” I would do this and then send it over to him. He would critique it, and that was kind of my schooling. He was great as someone to look up to at that time. He taught me a lot – the tricks of the trade -- and I was very, very lucky to fall into that.
JV: His company, Primal Media, was this a radio imaging company?
Chris: Yeah. It was his own company, and his main source was radio imaging, but he would do anything. He is a very diversified producer. He’s a musician as well, but at that time radio imaging was his thing. He was also doing commercials.
JV: So where did this career stop take you next?
Chris: It got to a point where his company was moving from doing radio to doing DVD games, and these games were quite big to do and he needed assistance. So I started doing freelance for him with each game that would come in. There would be days of a lot of voice track editing. These were DVD games, trivia games that would have a thousand questions, and these thousand questions needed a thousand answers, if not 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 answers. So each question had to be bounced down, and you can imagine bouncing down a thousand questions and so many answers. That was a big project. After some time I ended up moving into doing that fulltime with him.
JV: How long did you work with Craig at Primal Media?
Chris: I met him in 2001. That was Primal Media back then, and then he joined up with Imagination Entertainment, and his department became Imagination Sound Design. He has since parted with them and is now the Magic Sound Company owner/director. I worked freelance/fulltime with him for a couple of years. That was really good because when we were working on the games they ended up wanting us to do our own music rather than using music library work. That’s when I got into doing and assisting with making our own music beds.
I did that for a few years actually, and that was fun. Again, I’m not a musician as such. I’m just a guy who loves music. So when we had to do our own music beds, Craig had a lot of loops and samples. We put that into Pro Tools, and I was coming up with beats and drum patterns. Having the dance background and the aerobic background, I had a feel for it and that came quite naturally to me. Then he would get his guitar out and his bass guitar and lay his bass lines down. Then he would do all the final mixing. That was a lot of fun, and that’s when I really discovered the enjoyment of putting pieces of loops and samples together.
JV: What came next after Imagination Sound Design?
Chris: Along with the DVD games we were also working with the Australian Traffic Network. We were doing ten-second ads on a daily basis, which were aired at that time on the Austereo Network -- on the Triple M and the Today Network in Australia. They were aired between the news and weather, and we would do 100, 200 spots a week, 10-second ads. I enjoyed that as well. It was good to be working on the games and doing the music beds and the sound design and assisting Craig on that, and then managing these spots as well. It was busy. It was definitely pretty full on.
JV: So this must have been your introduction to Austereo.
Chris: It was. After working with Craig, I went out freelance on my own. I wanted to change and assess what I was doing. So I sent my CD and my email out to radio stations, production houses, as many people as possible, and I got a call back from Matt Dower, who is radio imaging producer at Triple M in Melbourne. He asked me if I was interested in doing some promos and openers for Triple M Football, for the Australian football here, and I was like, “Yeah, that’d be great.” He said, “When can you come into the studio in the city?” I was living 50 kilometers out from Melbourne at the time, and I already had my setup at home, so I said, “Is it okay if I do it from home? You just send me the voice tracks and the script.” They were happy with that, so I did that for a couple of years and really enjoyed it. I found sports and doing those drama and action promos fun to do. I really enjoyed working with that.
JV: Where did that take you?
Chris: Well, I just kept sending my emails out and my CD out to get more work. Then I was doing some work for a radio show called Cybershack here in Australia, and that was also a TV show as well. I would just do ads. It was a show about the latest games or latest gadgets, the latest in technology, so most of the ads were like a Samsung ad or the latest PlayStation game ad. I helped with commercials on that. They would supply me with the voice, the script, some sound elements from the game, and then I would put that all together for them. And if they didn’t have any music, I would say, “Okay, I’ve got some tracks here. If you like, we can use these.” That’s something I was doing in my spare time as well, teaching myself how to use MIDI and building a library and practicing. So when these opportunities came up I would say, “Hey, I’ve got a few tracks here. If you want to use something like this track, let me know and we can work something out.”
After that, I got contact from Jeff Thomas. He liked my deejay edits and montages. There were some hip-hop dance crews in Melbourne and they would be in competitions. They would need music and their performances were 2 minutes maximum. They would have maybe 10, 15 songs within this 2 minutes, so I would edit and mix it up and use samples, and he liked that. He said to me, “How would you feel about doing something like that in a 30-second montage?” And I’m like, “Yeah! Jeff Thomas? Hello! Let’s do this!” So we went back and forth quite a few times trying to get it right. Jeff was very particular about what he wanted, and that was a good start and good training for me because it really lifts you up. I wanted to get the gig, and eventually he liked what I did and we went from there.
JV: So that brings us to the present, and you’re still working with Jeff, is that correct?
Chris: Yes, I’m still working with Jeff. I would say it’s freelance, but it’s pretty much all my time, which I don’t mind at all. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s very, very challenging. From the initial meeting with Jeff, he would come up and say, “I’m looking at this idea,” and we would talk about it and then I would try and understand what he wanted and then we’d would work on it and then just nail it.
He also knew I was doing production music beds, so he said, “I kind of like this style. This is what I’m looking for, something that will fit the Killer Hertz family.” Then I would trial and error again until he was happy with something. Once I got into his head, once I got what he was after – and that took a while -- it got to a point where we had a few set options for Killer Hertz. We had the deejay montages. We had the deejay mashes. We had production music beds, jock beds, and we knew what we wanted from that. And all I had to do as well to get an idea of what he wanted was listen to the Killer Hertz library that he already had. I loved that stuff, and it was right up my alley.
JV: Well, something a lot of us would like to do is get inside the head of Jeff Thomas. You have had this opportunity to work closely with Jeff. What is it that makes him tick, that makes his product so unique and outstanding? It’s probably a difficult question, but how did he teach you his philosophy or his style with regards to creating elements for Killer Hertz?
Chris: It’s a very difficult question actually. He’s always after fresh and exciting pieces. After our initial meeting via email and telephone, I actually went up to Sidney and went to his studio and spent a day with him. We just had a talk and he played me some of his work again, and the stuff that he did for Howard Stern. It was just so edgy and so cool and so fresh. To me, that sort of work doesn’t date. I guess it’s work that is just so… it’s just clever. We have so many plug-ins. We have so many processes that we can use. I think using that in a clever way without overproducing is probably his philosophy. Sorry, Jeff, if that’s wrong, but he never settles for being complacent. We have our chats on the phone – he rings every couple of weeks or so – and he will say, “Let’s set the bar higher.” He’ll say, “Have a listen to this track” or “This station is really hot. Check them out.” I can get online here and have a listen and get a feel, and sometimes all I need is to listen to five seconds of something, and then I just go away with an idea and mess with it. Then it’s up to me to try and make it a part of the Killer Hertz family, an extension of his sound, his style. And I love it -- hard, edgy, cool and most important, fresh.
After working with Jeff now for almost three years, I’ll send work over, and sometimes my work will go straight through. He goes, “Yep, love it. Let’s upload it.” Or he’ll go, “Let’s change this. Let’s change that.” So it’s awesome to have his direction put on it for his product. But he’s always coming up with new things and fresh ideas, and keeping up to date. Always listening to see what is out there I think is the main key, and don’t get complacent.
A good example of the new and fresh ideas he’s always coming up with -- he and a few other guys have come up with Phantom Producer at phantomproducer.com. It’s an online desktop radio imager. Basically, the elements and parts that they work on go online, and it gives the producer three choices. They can have an intro to whatever they are producing -- a promo or sweeper -- they can have a middle, whether it’s a listener or a deejay montage, and then they can have a tail. They can pick and choose from so many different parts and elements, and it’s fast. Whoever signs onto it, they can pretty much have a promo done within 15 seconds because it’s all fully produced work parts.
So going back to your question, he’s a guy that is always trying to up the ante. Something like Phantom Producer has never been done before. Something like that, as a tool for a radio producer, gives you so much more flexibility and saves time because you’ve got all of these work parts that you can combine and download quickly. Then you can spend all the time you want putting your own style to it. It’s crazy cool. When I first heard the idea I was like, “Wow.” Then I actually saw a prototype of the idea and these three parts were joined together incredibly. I was blown away that you could actually have all of these fully produced parts and download the finished promo within, 15, 20 seconds. So he just keeps upping the ante and changes the way we work at that level.
JV: What took you to Beijing?
Chris: My girlfriend from back in Australia. She’s a design director for an Australian graphic design company. They basically gave her the opportunity to come and work in China, which was pretty cool. We had actually just finished building a house and were pretty much settled in Melbourne when this came up. But we thought we’d give it a try, so we came to Shanghai for a week. Her company sent us over to see if we liked it basically. I’d never been to any Asian country at all. I’d only been to the States as far as going overseas, so it was very different for both of us but so exciting. There’s such a buzz. So we decided to take it on, and we moved to China, to Shanghai in 2009. We stayed in Shanghai for three months and then we got moved up to Beijing, and we’ve been in Beijing for almost two years now.
JV: How do you like it?
Chris: I love it. Initially for the first six months, there’s obviously that transition. It is a different culture, a different way of living, but there’s such a buzz in China. It’s as though it’s progressing so fast.
JV: Are you learning Chinese?
Chris: I learn enough to get me by. I’ve been a little bit slack with the Chinese lessons, but I get by.
JV: Are you getting involved in any of the radio there or anything in the recording industry in China?
Chris: At the moment I have met a few people in radio here. As far as commercial or Top 40 hit radio stations, there’s not a lot here, probably just a handful. There’s one I do like. They play the latest tracks that you would hear back home, and they also play like old Chinese comedy acts. It’s a good station to listen to. Their imaging is not too bad either. They’ve got a lot of room to move, so I would like to eventually meet up with them and maybe help them out. Seeing that I’m here in China, I would be crazy not to do that.
I’d also like to meet people within the Asian region. Where I am there are so many different countries nearby. There are the Philippines and Malaysia and Japan and Korea all within five hours of flying. So it would be good to meet more people and network and just see how they work because actually listening to the Chinese voices and some of the really good voice guys here, and combining that, say with a Killer Hertz kind of design, I think it’ll sound pretty wild.
JV: Where do you get your inspiration for sound design?
Chris: Well, I listen to radio online. I love listening to new music and the trends, where new music is going. That inspires me. Sometimes I will just listen to something that’s fresh for five seconds or so and have an idea. Then I will quickly lay it down, like a baseline perhaps. If I’m doing a production bed, I will quickly record it because if I say, “Oh, I’ll do it in the morning,” I’ll wake up in the morning and I will have completely forgotten it.
JV: You’ve done a lot of audio for video games. We’ve never covered this much in RAP, but I’ve often wondered how large the audio for video game market is and how decent the money is for producers, let’s say, compared to producing library tracks for radio, television and that type thing. Do you have a sense of that from your experience?
Chris: From my experience with music for video games, if you are doing that full-time, I think there definitely is more money with that. For radio, definitely there is money to be made, but I think you have to be diversified. It would be great to do radio imaging, but can you do production music beds as well, and can you do so many other things? Can you do mixes? Can you do montages and mashes?
The more diverse, I think, the more money you can make. It’s really up to you how hard you push it, and it is actually good to build a music library as well if you can do that because then you always have that in your pocket; and if people want to use tracks, you’ve got a selection and they just pick one and pay you a fee. That’s a good thing to have, so I would recommend to people doing production music to build up your library. It’s kind of like saving for a rainy day because you’ll always have that there.
JV: You said you didn’t have any formal music training, but you’ve put together a lot of tracks from beats and loops and that type thing. There are a lot of producers like myself who don’t have musical training but would like to be able to create their own beds. What are a couple of tips you could give us that would speed us along the way?
Chris: If you’ve already got a setup, I would say get loops. There are some good companies out there like Big Fish Audio or Loopmasters who sell license-free samples, so you can use that in your work and then you can sell that off if you like. Get these loops and just practice. Practice with different tempos, and listen to what is popular at the moment, and if you can do something similar like that, give it a try. Then just keep AB-ing your work to see how you’re coming along. If you wanted to do something with a bit of an 808 Black Eyed Peas kind of style, do something like that and then listen to a Black Eyed Peas song and go, “Okay, I’m starting to get there” or just practice and trial and error until you get it.
To change the subject a little bit, I got the program Stylus RMX and with Stylus RMX came a video tutorial. I think video tutorials are fantastic because I’m not so much one to read manuals. I would rather see how it’s done visually. That’s where YouTube is handy as well because people put up all kinds of things -- “Hey, I’ve got this new software or new MIDI controller” -- whatever, and they show you how to use it. That can be a good tool to use as well.
So I would watch the video tutorials and then practice. If I listen to my stuff when I first started using say Stylus RMX, it’s quite basic. But you just build from that, and then you put more layers in and you keep pushing yourself and adding more virtual instruments and such. Then if I was playing a keyboard I would just sort of go by ear. Nothing too complicated. Just kind of simple, but then layer it and build it up. With the latest beds that go on the Killer Hertz sites, I’ve been using Killer Hertz sound effects so it sounds really powerful and in your face and suits the Killer Hertz family. So just keep practicing and pushing yourself.
JV: How far do you push yourself? Are you putting in long hours in the studio?
Chris: No. When I was working with Craig, because it was so busy, crazy busy, we would start at 7:00 in the morning and pretty much work to about 7:00 at night. Sometimes the hours were a lot longer than that, but that was great. I mean it was hard work, but it was such a learning experience and it was so busy. But now I’m pretty much Monday to Friday, start at roughly 9:00 in the morning and go till 6:00. But because I’ve got my gear in the next bedroom, if I feel inspired, there are no set hours as such. I will just go in there and try something. If it’s late at night and I’ve got an idea, I’ll just quickly put it down so I don’t forget, and then the next morning I’ll jump onto it and work on it.
JV: What’s in the studio at home?
Chris: I have a Mac Pro running Pro Tools 8 with the Pro Tools instrument expansion pack. It consists of Structure, Strike, Velvet, Transfuser and Hybrid. I have the Waves Platinum Bundle, Stylus RMX Xpanded, Native Instruments Komplete 7 virtual instruments, Kore 2, Genelec monitors, an Akai MPK88 MIDI controller -- which has the MPC style drum pads which are awesome – an M Audio Axion 25 Midi controller, and of course access to Killer Hertz V.
JV: Any last bit of advice you could offer to producers looking to expand?
Chris: Do what I did. I sent emails out. I believed in what I could do. I thought I had something, and then I sent hundreds of emails out saying, “Hey, I’m available if anyone needs me.” And I was lucky enough to get some cool people to call me, like Triple M, Cybershack, and then Jeff Thomas with Killer Hertz and now Phantom Producer. So that’s the advice, just keep doing that and be as diverse as you can. I think at the time when I was sending emails out I was like, “Well, the worst thing that a radio station or a production house could say is, ‘Sorry, we don’t need any help at this time.’” So you just push on to the next one and then hopefully something will happen. I have had good support from family and friends. And my thing is, to be able to do your craft that you love and get paid for it, is a very cool thing. Just keep pushing it.
Finally, I would like to add that without these three gentlemen -- Sakis, Craig and Jeff -- l wouldn’t be where I am today in the world of radio, sound design and production music. So I owe a big, huge thanks to them for letting me in and giving me a chance.