Q It Up: Are you a musician, or at least musically inclined or educated in music basics? How often do you use your musical skills in your work? What kinds of projects do you apply your musical skills most often to, and how do you do that specifically? If someone asked you what first steps they should take to become a musician or to learn how to apply music skills to production, what direction would you point them in? Basic piano lessons? College classes? Books you’ve read? Online resources you’re familiar with?
John Pellegrini <pellegrinijohn[at]gmail.com>: I was a semi-professional musician back in the early 1980s. In other words I played bass in bar bands for beer money. I also played in middle school and high school band. Having a musical background helps, especially when you’re called upon to do concert spots and promos. I can always tell when a music track for a promo or concert spot was edited by someone without a music background, because it’s jarring to listen to. Beats don’t match, song segue cues range from abruptly discomforting to downright painful.
You don’t have to be a virtuoso or prodigy, but at the minimum some knowledge of rhythm and song key structure is definitely helpful. Basic classes in music theory are even better. Learning the circle of fifths and rudiments of composition structure will set you ahead of many of your peers, and your production will definitely sound better.
Ty Ford <tyreeford[at]comcast.net>, www.tyford.com: Yes, I consider myself a musician. I’ve been playing guitar and singing since I was 16. I do some keyboard work. I have one five-song music CD and several sound therapy CDs. They’re not music but they are musical. I’ve played on other people’s recorded music projects. I have created music beds with bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. I’ve engineered and produced about 30 album projects and have mastered another dozen or so.
I never took music lessons and can’t read music very well. I’ve been playing and learning by ear all this time and a lot of that has merged together into something that resembles theory. Some folks say that theory is the result of you analyzing what you made up or composed and then wrote down. But theory can come in very handy when you’re working on a piece and you’re stuck without a way to get from one place to another. Knowing theory can fill in the gaps. The more theory you know, the more interestingly you can fill in the gaps. I discover things all the time while playing music that increases my understanding of music. I guess that’s experiential theory.
I didn’t have music lessons, but I did have guitar lessons to get me started. They consisted of finger pick and flat pick techniques for the right hand and chords for the left hand. Invaluable. And, that guy on PBS who shows you how to play the piano is fun and unintimidating, www.scotthouston.com/store/TV-Shows.html
Music seeps through most of what I do. Even a simple line read has a melody and a rhythm; a beat and a tone. It’s the same with dialog. Music training also comes into play when editing music for spots when adding or removing music sections. I also record and mix my and other people’s music. I don’t think I could do that very well without an understanding of music.
I think there are probably a lot of closet musicians working in music radio; folks that use music knowledge or intuition at some level.
I think learning to play an instrument is a good idea as a meditational exercise. You can’t really concentrate -- I can’t concentrate -- on much else when I’m playing music. But learning to play an instrument isn’t necessarily required. People compose all the time without playing. Take Garage Band for Mac or Mix Wizard for PC. They come with a nice complement of loops and samples. It’s like working a jig saw puzzle. Of course, there’s mixing and that’s a different skill set, but I think both are worthwhile pursuits.
I’ve learned a lot about music by playing it; especially playing music with others - even playing along with my favorite records and CDs. Music lessons? College classes? Books? Yes, to whatever appeals to you, including shooting and editing video.
Craig Jackman <CJackman[at]Loyalistc.on.ca>, Loyalist College – School of Media, Arts, and Design, Belleville, ON, Canada: I’ve been a musician on some level since grade 4, and when doing Production I use those skills every day. It can be somewhat format dependent, but understanding the rhythm and editing on beat has always been important. Knowing why you can’t edit a 4/4 song to a 6/8 song. As production skills get more advanced and you get into complementary keys when editing songs together, using the Circle of Fifths/Circle of Fourths can make a huge difference. Applying musical skills is almost essential to Production, but you don’t have to be classically trained to understand what you need. Basic music training, even something like learning recorder will help. Understanding time signatures would be most important to follow rhythm. While I started with formal training for about 4 years, I followed that with another 6 years of informal garage bands in high school. I learned many times more there than in all the formal training I had.
Dave Spiker <davespiker[at]aol.com>: A basic musical understanding is extremely helpful. For me, many times I find a piece of production music that works perfectly... almost. It will have the right feel and pacing, the posts fall in the right places, and then the last chord is some kind of augmented A-minor catatonic no human should ever hear. What were they thinking? I can usually fix it -- if not through editing or borrowing the final note from another song, out comes the keyboard and Logic Pro and I’ll just do it myself. Or, as happened last week, the spot started with someone’s personal story of heartache, but then transitioned to a message of hope. It’s surprisingly difficult to find production music that starts in a minor key then transitions to a major key. So the first part ended up being production music, the second part was a bed I created to complement. Thank you, Mrs. Lloyd, for my piano lessons all those years ago.
John Masecar <John.Masecar[at]vancouverradio.rogers.com>, Rogers Radio, BC, Canada: I’ve played guitar in bands for a lot of years, written songs, and produced albums. Rudimentary musical knowledge is an incredibly valuable skill as it applies to radio production. Musical knowledge helps us understand rhythm and timing, the use of space, inflection and dynamics, key, pitch and timbre.
A spot or promo is a composition in itself. Voice, effects and pre-recorded (or original) music are our instruments. Choosing the right “instruments” will influence the emotional impact of our piece. Having a smooth, lower pitched male voice reading at a relaxed pace could be likened to a lightly-bowed cello - the results can be calm and soothing. Conversely a higher pitched female voice reading at a quicker pace is akin to a piccolo playing staccato - the results can be playful, or perhaps even nerve-wracking, depending on inflection, pacing, and innumerable other variables.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. An understanding of rhythm and tempo helps us with pacing and editing. Knowing when to use music that’s in a major or minor key influences emotion.
This is not to suggest that folks with a musical background make better Producers, they simply make different Producers.
Two of my favorite books on the subject are Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music” and David Byrne’s “How Music Works”. It never hurts to go back and listen to Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and The Wolf” either. While these may seem like a stretch (“Hey, it’s just a commercial”) there’s no denying the benefits of understanding music when it comes to radio production.
Mitch Todd <Mitch.Todd[at]siriusxm.com>: In my opinion the more musical knowledge AND musical talent you have, the better your production will flow and it will come more naturally and intuitively to you. I was never formally trained in music theory, however I was fortunate enough that both my parents were talented singers and my father was a musician as well (mostly in theatre) so I was exposed to making music at an early age. I got my first (4 string) guitar at 8 years old or so and have always been at least an ok “plucker” and strummer, then a better picker on 6 strings by 11 and learned all the “pop/rock” tunes of the late ‘60s early ‘70s by ear.
I also was exceptionally fortunate to have worked as an assistant audio engineer in a couple of major studios in the ‘80s. That’s when I began to realize how important not only being a musician was to the process of creating music (and broadcast production), but knowing how to read music… speak the formal language of music so one can effectively communicate to other musicians and professionals in the business.
My personal musical skills are rudimentary at best, and since I’ve worked with truly great musicians over the years, I would never play in front of any of them! But having a good ear and some natural ability are key to being a good audio producer, and I’d highly recommend to any aspiring audio producer or even seasoned pro (whether it’s radio, audio for video, musical recording, etc.) to take some musical theory classes. You won’t regret it.
Ron Tarrant <pureproduction[at]live.ca>, KISS 92.5, Toronto, Ontario, Canada: I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be in radio today without growing up as a musician. My father was a country musician, and I grew up in a house full of gear surrounded by albums/guitars. When I realized my chances of becoming a famous rock star was about 9 zillion to 1, I thought... “hey the radio plays music, I should check that out”. Long story short, it was my musical background that eventually brought me into the production side of things. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14 and had some decent success touring North America and radio play to my current years now. But let’s start a few years earlier... After I cut my first EP at age 17 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I quickly learned how crappy production can sound when you don’t spend a lot of money on the project, hire a local engineer, spend 1 day mixing the entire record to save money, and your playmanship on the recordings is sloppy. Upon completion and first listen I said, “ummm why doesn’t this sound like a Foo Fighters record??!!! I came to the studio and spent a few grand didn’t I?!?! Haha. It sucked, but it was also the biggest push I ever got in the right direction.
It consumed me to now learn how these Record Producers make their stuff sound so amazing. When I got into radio school, I was already about 10 steps ahead of the other kids from my music background which really helped. It came natural to me. Where to make an edit, and how something should “feel” in my eyes.
One of my favourite things I like to do on KISS-Toronto, is create music montages for our Top Of Hours. It’s complete freedom on which songs I want to use, how to execute transitions, structure and the keys. I get quite a few younger guys in the country sending me their stuff to critique, and most of them have little or no music background. These guys stand out like sore thumbs. The basic Idea is there, but the “feel” is not. And to a listener, I believe that is the most important part. My personal opinion... focus on your keys and tempo’s. There is a reason why songs are in keys... it makes them different. Therefore if your keys/tempos in a beatmatch piece are all over the place, it’s not going to flow naturally.
In my spare time, I produce bands all over Canada, and it keeps me involved and learning. After spending my earlier twenties chasing my rock and roll dream, I had the opportunity to record my music with Nickleback’s producer and learn some stuff along the way. I now record all my own bands’ stuff with another RAP member, Jesse Simon. The project called “Lost In Film” we have been working on for the last 2 years, will finally be released in 3 weeks with a showcase performance at Canadian Music Week in Toronto this May.
I’d love to produce music full time, but as the technology allows so many people to “be a producer” and a market flooded with average recordings, making a living off starving musicians just isn’t viable.
Radio prod is my gateway for creative release :)
I wish I could thank the guy for the shitty recording 8 years ago :) Best few dollars I spent.
Gene Wooten <gwooten1207[at]aol.com>: I am a musician and that has been one of the two most important factors in my career as a radio imaging and production guy. My mother was a piano teacher and I was fortunate to be raised in that atmosphere. Musical training in invaluable in doing music editing that makes musical sense. I have been able to produce and even sing my own jingles and song parodies and have written jingle packages with one of the foremost jingle writers in Dallas. To learn some good fundamentals of music, I suggest a few years of piano lessons. Piano will acquaint one with basic music theory as well as with melodies and harmonies on both the treble and bass clefts. BTW... the other most important factor for me has been a trade school education in electronics engineering. (Yes... I was a MAJOR nerd growing up. Probably still am!)
Kyle Whitford <kyleprod[at]gmail.com>, www.KyleWhitford.com, Charlotte, North Carolina: In all my decades in radio I have also been a working musician. Radio and music work very well together.
I started out playing professionally at age 11 in local community centers and VFW dances. I also played drums in High School Band - marching and orchestra.
Friends and I started a rock band in high school and we stayed together for 10 years. This was pretty serious music. I played guitar with lots a great players including Ed King right before Ronnie Van Zandt drove up to get him to join Lynyrd Skynyrd.
All this time I was also working at the local radio station as a DJ and produced spots.
While other people cringe at commercials, I think of music, voice, sound effects, production as a way to communicate. It all runs together for me.
Jingles were a natural but production was very difficult in those days. A single track machine was all I had. So I rigged up my own multitrack using cart machines and mono reel-to-reels. I literally had to start them all at once to get them to sync. I did this thousands of times and got good at it.
When multi track became affordable I was in heaven but was so busy in basic radio and raising kids I had to wait a full year to mess around with music on my first Ampex 4-track.
I briefly attended the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts in music composition.
College for music would be OK but not always needed, especially in today’s web world. But social interaction is vital.
Patience paid off. I sang and played multi instruments on many local jingles. One jingle for the UNC Tarheels National Championship games was played by Coach Dean Smith for the team in the locker room as a unifier and team inspiration. It was a jingle about the team to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar. UNC won the championship that year. (1977?)
I later wrote / arranged the theme that would open all Carolina basketball and football broadcasts, plus did the same on the Duke Radio broadcasts. My buddy Gerry Diamond , a graduate of Berklee School of Music, helped in those days.
Application of musical skills: Jingles, writing my own and writing new lyrics with TM Dallas. Tim Marburger
on my site was done this way, in Dallas.
I like to find a jingle and rewrite it and often use the original singer or a studio singer in production. Sometimes I have others produce the entire thing. Some jingle projects I will do from scratch. The Kannapolis Intimidators jingle on my website was written for Charlie Daniels to record -- fail. So what you hear is my demo for him. It worked OK. I played all the instruments, sang all the parts. I often end up doing work this way. In the ‘7’s I wrote an acoustic demo jingle for Ivys Department stores. George Ivy loved it ‘as is’ so I never got to orchestrate it -- the simple mono radio station demo acoustic aired all over the place. (Ivys became Dillards Depatment Stores.)
I try to play music daily to stay disciplined on guitar. If any music is used on productions, my general understanding of it plays a big role in selection.
First steps someone should take: Learn an instrument - piano, guitar. Immerse in music. Just do it. Take a year or two and discipline yourself to know music basics. I play by ear but some theory understanding is needed.
To quote Bob Seger, “today’s music ain’t go the same soul.” Electronic DJ music is so often a drone that it doesn’t really take musical skill to build. It is more production than musical and that gets weird. But I guess Mozart could say that about Little Richard, The Beatles...
Some cool sites online help you make beds Garage Band style.
Wished for books to help me years ago, never found them. Figured it out myself and took much longer through trial and error.
If you can find a good teacher who knows about this… absolutely priceless.
I like to apply music to anything. Once took a Hooked On Phonics spot and changed it to Hooked On James -- using James Brown grunts and yells. Funny. Satellite Comedy Network in NYC picked it up and made it one of their top ten for the year (but didn’t use my production -- somebody re-did it). That’s a good example of music, radio comedy, morning prep, and topical that worked well -- only it was lifted from me and I never really got credit. Oh well, that’s showbiz.
Alan Peterson <apeterson[at]radioamerica.org>, Radio America Network, Washington, DC: My college degree was in music, actually! Classical guitar with a secondary interest in synthesizer programming, back when they were gigantic analog behemoths with patchcords and hundreds of knobs. That skill hasn’t helped me as an in-demand studio musician, but it taught me the anatomy of radio laser-zaps and effect bursts to the point where I’ve created my own as needed.
In talk radio, I’m not called upon a lot for major musical projects -- maybe the occasional song parody based on a news item, and I once played the ukulele live on the syndicated “Doug Stephan’s Good Day” show. But when themes and imaging elements are needed for new talk shows, it is helpful to understand styles and arrangements when strolling through the music library. The theme to a health talk show is going to be very different from a motor sports or financial talk show, and knowing when to go mining for the sweet piano-and-flute combination versus the gladiator horns saves time and makes for a happy host.
Same with chord structure: the death of an important world figure calls for a somber musical signature in a minor key. Something tense calls for an augmented, dissonant sound. Something happy and upbeat gets major chords with a simple hummable melody. Something ultra-modern gets the Techno or House treatment at full tempo with bluesy intervals. Knowing what these are and how to find them are immensely helpful.
For production people who have never studied an instrument in their lifetime, I suggest finding a used Craigslist musical keyboard that does auto-chords. It’s an ear-training course unto itself. Find the “Circle of Fifths” on the Internet and discover how most popular songs are chorded. Explore the MIDI soundset on your PC’s soundcard. Google some free VSTi synthesizers from the web: I recommend the SuperWave P8 and the Synth1. Grab a random copy of Computer Music (UK) at a book/magazine store. It comes with a CD or DVD filled with audio samples and tutorials worth exploring.
My experiences will be very different from a CHR or Urban production director who needs to beat-match and do cue-point layering, among other details. This is just what works for my own situation, but we all get great by learning from each other, right?
Steve Stone <SteveStone[at]clearchannel.com>, Creative Services Group, Clear Channel Media + Entertainment, Atlanta, GA: I’ve been a musician since I was sporting a cloth diaper and a bib, (I think I was 7). When I stumbled into radio in 2001, I right away found that I could apply the things I learned in the seediest of honky-tonks in Iowa and the recording studios of Nashville to radio. Today I arrived at work with a Gretsch in my hand and a smile on my face. A car dealership in L.A. needs a jingle. Here at CSG in Atlanta, my main job is writer. We have a brilliant music director, Jason Phelps, who cranks out a ton of killer jingles. Sometimes, Jason gets too busy and I take his overflow projects. Today’s groove is fast and funky, with lots of horns. I’m building it in Pro Tools 10 HD, with drums from EZ Drummer, 5 tracks of horns and a B-3 from Komplete 8 Ultimate, P bass, and Gretschen for the rhythm. Jason will pull in a singer and wrap it up. Musician is what I am at the core, and I consider myself fortunate to be able to use it at work. On the side, I write and produce my own songs and I’m working toward getting some stuff on TV. For the record, I don’t wear cloth diapers anymore, except at parties.
Terry Grant <Terry.Grant[at]rci.rogers.com>, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Are you a musician, or at least musically inclined or educated in music basics?Yes, as well as my regular job in radio, I’ve been a professional musician for 30 years.
How often do you use your musical skills in your work? Every day.
What kinds of projects do you apply your musical skills most often to, and how do you do that specifically? As a commercial producer, I work with music beds so I’m constantly using my experience to choose the appropriate music for any given script. Not to mention beat mixing and mixing music & vocals in general. I also voice coach; teaching and emphasizing inflection recognition to our voice talent. A producer needs to have a good ear in doing any of this. My years of writing and performing music have certainly provided the foundation for what I do in production.
If someone asked you what first steps they should take to become a musician or to learn how to apply music skills to production, what direction would you point them in? Basic piano lessons? College classes? Books you’ve read? Online resources you’re familiar with? As far as being a musician, I would always recommend basic lessons to train the ear and perhaps learn some theory. Or just pick up tips from musicians you know and who knows... join a band or do karaoke... get active and network with other musos. College courses if you’re super serious. It’s all good!
Joan Bishop <jbishop[at]siriusxm.com>, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, New York: From a basic edit of pre-fabricated music beds to creating one from scratch, I’m always referencing my musical knowledge base every day in my work creating radio commercials and imaging. When editing pre-fabricated music beds, sometimes the edits won’t transition very well into another, so I create extra musical parts to layer beneath the edits so that the new change flows seamlessly and either builds musical momentum, exposition or resolution. Plus, it helps to inform mixing choices if thinking compositionally. If you’re wanting to learn more about music, pick up an instrument and start learning the scales and common chord progressions. They really are the keys to the kingdom. You don’t have to be Liberace, just get familiar.
Fun resources for self-study are the Abersold music book series or the Berklee College of Music theory and beginning piano course texts. Another great literary find is “The Shaping Forces in Music”, by Ernst Toch. It’s fantastic because Toch teaches the fundamental principles behind composition and allows the reader to create their own form as they see fit. Toch’s information can be used in any genera of music. Online, aside from MusicTheory.net, other fun and free resources include: HookTheory.com and various music and songwriting courses offered in Coursera.org. If solo study is too much to take on at first, find someone to help you.
Basic piano classes are nice, just make sure to find a teacher who understands you are wanting to learn composition. If they slap you down with a book solely concentrating on sight reading, run away very quickly. They need to incorporate real life applications of the scales and chords you are learning, into take home solutions for your productions. Can they teach improvisation? Audition private teachers until you find one that does all the above. I learned that lesson the hard way and spent years wasting time memorizing recital pieces and finger technique rather than learning how to apply musical knowledge in order to create. As an audio producer, you also need instructors who are open minded and will teach contemporary composition methods without scorn or disdain. Often, group classes help to open up a dialogue concerning contemporary composition.
College classes are great because you’re instantly nestled in a support group to facilitate your learning process. Who knows, you might find a new production buddy to bounce ideas off of. It’s fun to remain a student in order to keep upping our own game. I can’t think of a better playground to get lost in, than audio and sound.