By Dave Foxx
I recently had the distinct pleasure of travelling down under to Sydney, Australia to speak with the producers and programmers of Southern Cross Austereo. What a great collection of people! Not just friendly, but genuinely interested in stepping up their game. There was a tangible energy in the room, buzzing and zapping with some really terrific questions. I’d been in contact with several via email so it was great to put faces to names. Equally fun was meeting some new people whose work I had heard and really enjoyed.
As I usually do in forums like this, I suggested they keep the conversation going via email from time to time. Allison Rasmussen in Queensland wrote and re-introduced herself:
We spoke about my weakness of getting a good mix that bursts out of the radio! I just can’t achieve it! Plus I struggle to get the voices to cut through! I have attached a few Promos I have made not my best but not my worst! I produce for 2 different formats CHR and Rock! I’ve included work from both! Love to get your feedback and some great tips!
As I sent my response, I thought about how many people are in the same boat today; one imaging producer dealing with two or more – distinctly different formats. So, I thought it might be helpful to share here in Production 212.
Frankly Allison, I think you’re being a little hard on yourself regarding getting the VO to cut through. I’m pretty sure I managed to catch every syllable of every word on every promo, even though the accent often throws me. (And you say, “Accent? What accent?” LOL)
The mixes are, however, a bit problematic. I suspect part of your problem is having to deal with two distinctly different formats all the time. I know several producers who have that same issue and have had to resort to limiting the work they do for one format to two days a week, allowing two days for the other format, with the fifth day consigned to ironing out issues with either or both. They sort of come in one day with a CHR mindset, wearing a Lady Gaga see-through slicker. The next they’ll be wearing the baddest AC/DC t-shirt and thinking nothing but rock. But really, what it all comes down to is compression. Rock requires more S/N (Signal to Noise), while CHR needs hardly any.
When doing a rock promo, you need to roll through and find the LOUDEST part of the music you’ll be using and set the output of everything else accordingly. The loudest hit/bang/chord or crescendo in a Led Zeppelin track, would be the loudest thing in the production… but a whisper must still be a whisper – in comparison. With rock, it’s the contrast between the two that give it the unique “ROCK” sound. CHR is just the opposite. Once you find the loudest point in the David Guetta track you’re using, everything else needs to be at or near the same level. In CHR, the only way to really differentiate between a whisper and a hit is almost always going to be with EQ.
To simplify, the difference is compression. Your rock work is pretty much right in the pitch (NOTE TO READERS: a pitch is what they call the playing field in Aussie Rules Football) as the music is breathing nicely and the VO is tucked in where it needs to be. Your CHR work is more sketchy in this respect. You really need to compress the living hell out of the VO and then reduce the overall gain as much as –6db. Then with very little, if any, compression on the music to that point, add some light compression to the overall mix, mainly for peak control. If the VO is not cutting through, add some high end EQ, say +6db at 5kHz before your über-compression. You will find the VO much easier to regulate in the final mix and it will always cut through. Once you find a really comfortable place for the VOs you regularly work with, stick to those formulas. This is NOT a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Do you use a template for your promos? If not… that might be a good start. Design one for rock and one for CHR. The CHR session would start with that +6db boost on the VO high end and a ton of compression. Then, as you start working on the mix, you can make adjustments in tiny incremental amounts.
I hope this makes sense. It’s a fairly easy thing to comprehend, but another thing entirely to execute.
One other thing before I close. Have you trained your ears? You need to spend most of your time doing the mix at what some would call a frightful level. Mainly, it’s the only way you can really detect how your VO is interacting with the music. Clearly, you need to bring the level down substantially before you commit to the mix, just to make sure the big picture is right. Think of it like photography. To get the absolute sharpest focus, you need to zoom in on the subject as tightly as you can, set the focus and then zoom out again. This assures you that the subject is where the focus belongs. Same deal here; mix at loud levels… really loud, then back off and listen again.
I’ve found that many young producers tend to work at lower levels than their older counterparts. Many times, the young producer will think the old guy has lost some of his hearing, but as they gain more experience they discover the benefits of higher gain and mixing skills kick into high gear. I don’t know where you are on this timeline, but I’ll just say, “Turn it up!” You’ll start hearing things you didn’t even know were there.
Think about it. Play with it. I think in pretty short order you’ll start controlling your mixes with much more authority.
I am happy to report that Allison wrote back just a day later, ecstatic about her new CHR sound that’s hammering through the radio, complete with big compliments from her PD.
The SCA Production Workshop happened to be on the same day as the Australian Commercial Radio Awards, which are a pretty big deal in Oz, attended by what seemed like everybody in Australian radio. Joan Osborne was one of the hosts for the gala that night, which saw dozens and dozens of awards going to the very people I spoke to that day. Understand, they were getting awards for work they had long before completed, but as silly as it might sound, I felt a touch of pride that for 3 or 4 hours that day, they had been my pupils.
For my sound on this month’s CD I had hoped to have some “before and after” promos from Allison, but the timing was all wrong, so you’ll have to deal with hearing something I did. (Just suffer, OK?) Let’s go back a few weeks to October when Pink announced her world tour and Z100 gave away tickets, “before you can buy them.” I hope you like it!