By Dave Foxx
I have often told people who want to “pick my brain” that they are welcome to, as long as they promise not to take the last piece. I keep thinking, “If I give up 5 simple tips in every column, I’m going to run out of tips pretty quickly.” Then I sit down to write the next column and, what do you know… there are 5 MORE tips. We’ll keep riding this donkey until I do give up my last tip. Hopefully, that’s still a ways off.
Do What Inspires You
Several years ago, when I was doing imaging and middays at WPGC in Washington, DC, my wife and I took a road trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania to catch a minor league hockey game with one of my morning show partners and his wife. I was driving, Scott rode shotgun while our spouses sat in the back. As the ladies chatted, we scanned the radio dial, listening for promos for me, and possible bits for Scott. We would listen to a break then, when the music would start up, we’d jump to a new frequency. This went on for several miles until suddenly, Cindy piped up, “Hey! I like that song!” Scott turned and looked at her like she had suddenly sprouted a Mike Tyson facial tattoo.
Then he said something I’ve never forgotten: “Life is all show prep.”
If you have read just about anything I’ve ever written, you know that I am a huge proponent of getting out of the studio at every opportunity. Experiencing life the way your listeners (or potential listeners) do is key to doing work that is relatable. That road trip with Scott and Cindy provided more inspiration to me than I can begin to express.
These days, when I need inspiration, I do things that clear out the clutter that builds up in my head. I go flying, I read, I watch movies or television, just about anything that will wash through my mind like taking a mental high colonic. Once I’m done, I make connections I couldn’t see before and the creative energy surges through me like a tidal wave.
Here’s the takeaway: find some things you like to do other than radio. It can be something physical like yoga or martial arts. It can be something mental like reading a bestseller or watching an award-winning movie. Do one or all of those things as often as you can. Don’t wait until you have a bad case of writer’s block. Be pre-emptive and constantly keep your mind clear. You’ll not only be much more creative, you’ll have a never-ending supply of ideas your audience can relate to, because you’re doing the same things they’re doing.
Get A Home Rig
Whether you’re just doing production, or want to be a VO Artist, you will eventually need to set up some kind of system at home. You really should consider being completely mobile. Today’s laptops, regardless of flavor combined with today’s software will give you all the tools you need to keep up with your massive skills. Is it cheap? Compared to the amount it would’ve cost just a few years ago, absolutely. But it’s still something you’ll need to plan in advance. If you’re wondering if it’s something you can afford, let me ask you this: “Can you afford not to?”
With VPN and remote access, you never have to take a sick day again… unless you want to. If your PD is anything like mine, he or she probably gets really mad when someone shows up for work coughing and wheezing from the flu, because soon the whole staff is likely going to be out. Instead of going in and spreading the viral joy, do your work at home and phone it in. Your boss will LOVE you. I take mine on vacation too, so if an emergency pops up, I can handle it with minimal fuss. Do that and your boss will love you even MORE. Shoot, the next time a salary increase comes up in conversation, well… you get the idea.
Fuel Your Passion
Now that you have that portable rig, take it on the road to a convention. If you can, try to get your boss to pay for a convention trip. If not, make an investment in yourself and just take some time and go. There are a few conventions really worth attending. If you’re a gear-head, like many of my friends, the NAB Show in Las Vegas must be high on your list. This year’s show is gearing up as I write this for April 5-10. Bring some good walking shoes because this show is spread all over the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is HUGE. If you are a musician or just want to know more about the music industry, you should make it a point to visit the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim next January. You’ll need a contact in the music industry to gain access. One of my favorite shows is the AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention this October in New York. And finally, if you want to stay focused on radio, NAB and RAB are putting on the 2014 Radio Show in Indianapolis this September.
WARNING: A lot of managers will hesitate to fund a convention trip because their experience tells them most conventions are an excuse to get together with friends and drink. Don’t follow their lead. These shows can be very beneficial. Just remember you’re there to fuel your passion, not kill your liver.
Pre-Process Your Voicetracks
There are some audio engineers out there who, as they read this are screaming, “No, no, no!” It’s a kind of rule many of them live by, to bring everything into a session as flat as flat can be. This does allow them the ultimate in flexibility within the session to change things, to create and possibly re-create a voice track to shift the way they want the design to shift. I get that. If it’s an unusual project that requires a great deal of finesse and artful placement, that totally makes sense; but let’s face it, most of what we do doesn’t fall into that category. Week after week, month after month, 99% of what we do uses the same processing, hitting that ‘sweet’ spot in the station processing, allowing our work to slice through the clutter. While you don’t want your production to become formulaic, there are some things that will be the same in session after session. VO processing should be one.
Most sessions I do for 103.5KTU here in New York go down like this. There’s a male voice (Mark Maurer) and a female voice (Vanessa James) that pretty much always alternate through the promo. I’ll take both of their tracks and apply a high-end boost to make them a little brighter. Then, I apply a good deal of compression to them both. The amount depends on the levels each starts with. Then, I edit both tracks down to the takes I like and assemble them into a new track, save it and discard all the rest. After doing this, I have a pretty fair idea what kind of holes I need to place in the music/effects tracks and start to build those up with matching beats and effects for emphasis. Once the music/effects tracks are ready, I distribute the VO on alternating tracks, which allows me to slide and overlap. If one of the music/effects ‘holes’ is a bit tight, I will time compress the VO to fit. (It’s usually pretty close already, but this caulks up the margins of sound nicely.) I’ll play it through a few times to make sure I’m happy with the result, make some minor adjustments to levels and I’m done. By pre-processing the VO, I level the playing field between the voices. If I want to add any plug-in effects, it’s stupid easy.
Don’t Fear Splitting a Promotion
One of the biggest issues I have every year with Z100’s Jingle Ball, our annual holiday concert at MSG, is the size of the lineup. When you have 12 acts in one show, each wanting the star treatment, your promo length can get out of hand almost immediately. Twelve hooks makes for a mighty long promo, and while an act like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis certainly needs a big splash, an act like Fifth Harmony wants a splash too. Instead of doing one gigantic promo with all the acts, I do four. Three of the acts get hooks, while the rest get mentioned. In each promo, the first hook is a major act, the second is big, but not superstar status and the third hook is one of the new acts. To keep things equitable, I stick the ‘listed only’ names between the hooks. This way, every act gets a promo that features their hook and every promo gets a superstar. The labels and management teams are happy, the listeners get excited and my PD is getting maximum impact with every promo. There’s even an upside for me. My promos have legs because they sound completely different every time they play.
The other headache with this show is the sheer number of sponsors. The “presenting” sponsor gets mentioned in every promo. Last year it was presented by Aéropostale so the opening line was always, “Z100 and Aéropostale present Z100’s Jingle Ball 2013.” Near the end of each promo is a line like, “Sponsored by State Farm,” but only ONE sponsor is mentioned. I then alternate the 4 versions of the promo I produced earlier across the entire sponsor list. Each promo is labeled by sponsor and is rotated according to the number of mentions promised by the Sales Department. (You want to tell me again how you never need math in this career?) Beginning in week 2, we had 45 cuts rotating. Yes, that’s a lot, but now that Pro Tools can bounce each one in mere seconds, the entire process took a fraction of the time it normally would have.
This month’s sound [on the RAP CD] is a bit unusual; it contains double the number of hooks I usually do. Research came back suggesting most listeners learn about new music from Z100, so we decided to play that up a bit with 3 hooks from bona fide hits plus 3 hooks from up-and-comers. I hope you like it!