Ron Tarrant, Imaging Producer, Kiss 92.5, Toronto, Ontario
By Jerry Vigil
Even after 24 years of RAP Awards, you can still count on one hand the number of people that have picked up two trophies in the same competition. Ron Tarrant is the latest. Barely 6 years into his young radio career, Ron has moved quickly from the halls of the radio program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary to Imaging Producer at Rogers’ Kiss 92.5 in Toronto. This month’s RAP Interview picks things up at the beginning for Ron as he outlines his career path -- including his career in music -- gives us the inside scoop on his winning Promo and Feature Production, and offers up some tips you can use in the studio today. We get some awesome audio for the CD from Ron, and a special treat at the end of the CD, one of Ron’s latest songs!
JV: How did you got started in radio?
Ron: I went to the SAIT open house, which is the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, Alberta. My dad took me. He was like, “All right, you should probably do something with your life,” because at the time I was just a skateboarding punk. We did the open house tour and I saw a radio program being done and thought, “You should check that out. That might be kind of neat.” We went down the hall and saw all the radio rooms and the studios.
At that time, I was hugely into music, and I had been dabbling in the recording studios with my dad. But this showed me a different side of the music life, and this had to do with radio. As soon as I did the two-hour tour and asked some questions, I knew right then: “I’ve got to get into this. This looks like way too much fun, and hell, it beats working for a living.”
JV: You said your dad was in studios?
Ron: My dad was a country musician. He put out an album a year before I was born, and did a little touring across Canada and won a competition. He did quite well for himself back in the day. I grew up with studio gear all around the house all the time – guitars and other musical instruments everywhere. That’s kind of what got me into it. So I was thinking, “If I can’t make it as a professional musician, what’s the second best thing?” I was like, “Radio plays music.” So it came together. My dad was encouraging me to go into the radio program, and I thought, “This seems like way too much fun,” and that’s how I got into it.
JV: When did you graduate from SAIT?
Ron: I believe it was 2008 when I graduated from radio school.
JV: So what are some of the highlights on your resume along the way to Toronto?
Ron: I was really lucky because usually when you start out, you’ve got to move to a small town, leave your family and all your friends and everything you’re doing. You just focus on your career. I was really lucky because I got an internship at a station in Airdrie, Alberta. I think its population is 60,000 or something, quite small, but it was about half an hour, 40 minutes just outside of Calgary. So I was able to still live in Calgary and keep my life going, and I would just commute every day. It was 100 K -- kilometers for us Canadians -- that I would drive out and head to the station and then come back every single day.
I was hired on after a month of doing an internship with those guys, because their producer had just left. It’s a small station, and the producer did about four different things. The job was traffic manager, production manager; it was all imaging, all commercials, a little bit of writing and also the midday shift. I loved the on-air side of things, and I was really pumped up for that more than the production side of things, at the time. That was my first gig, and I stayed there for a year and a half and dabbled in everything. I had so many great times and learned so much about the industry. It’s kind of cool when you’re at a small station like that. You’re so involved in everything, so you learn way more about the entire radio industry, everything from the sale coming in, to the writing, to scheduling it, then voicing it yourself, producing it yourself, and then talking about it on the air if you’re doing a remote.
Our signal bled into Calgary. There was a guy by the name of Jesse Simon, who was at Rogers in Calgary, and he had gone to SAIT as well and had come and talked to my class when I was in school. I always looked up to him and would send my imaging and commercials to him every chance I could get. I think I bugged the guy to hell, and I didn’t really know Jesse back then. He would critique me all the time, and eventually, after a year and a half, he gave me a call and said, “Hey, this commercial job came up in Calgary. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Oh, man, this is like a dream to go back to Calgary and actually work in my own city.” So I made the move to Rogers, and I’m now coming up on my fifth year with Rogers.
I started to do commercials there, but I really fell in love with the imaging side of things. I was plugging out as many commercials as I could in the daytime. There weren’t enough studios, and I was the junior commercial producer, so I would come in from about noon until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. Most of the people left at 5:00 PM, so any time after 5:00 I would say, “Hey, can you throw me any imaging to do?” We had four stations at the time, a news station, a sports radio station, and two FMs that were Jack FM and a hot AC station. Any time I could get my hands on a promo I’d say, “Hey, I’d love to do this, and I’ll spend 20 hours, whatever it takes. I just want to get into imaging because I love it so much.”
So I started doing that, and I think I was there for about two and a half years. Eventually they gave me the duties of taking over Sportsnet Radio, which is the Calgary Flames radio. I’m a huge hockey fan, so that was kind of like a dream come true.
I did that for the next two years, as well as my original commercial gig. They wouldn’t give me an imaging gig because I didn’t have the experience and there were no positions. I just loved doing it for the sake of doing it. There was no extra pay, but I’d put in extra hours just to keep doing it and getting critiqued on it, and it was a great way to get my head in that door.
So eventually I had the conversation with my boss that I wanted to get into imaging, and he said, “Okay, something may come up down the road, but you’ve got to be prepared to move because you’re kind of starting all over again when you get into the imagine side.”
A job came up in Edmonton, which is about three hours north of Calgary, and it was for a CHR station, which was one of my ultimate goals. I was just fascinated with contemporary hit music production and anything to do with CHR radio, the Top 40 kind of the fun stuff, if you will. So he said, “Do you want to apply for this job?” My boss was the one hiring for it, so I think he was basically saying, “You’ve still got to apply like everyone else, but I think you’re the right guy for the job if you want it.” He had me put together a little demo reel, gave me a couple of voice tracks and said, “Let’s see what you can do.”
I worked on that all night until 3:00 in the morning. I wanted to get it to him first thing in the morning, right away, so that no one else had a chance to even give him audio before me. I did that and went up to Edmonton for an interview, and then the job was mine. It was a matter of just moving up there and doing my first station.
I got to Edmonton and didn’t know anyone up there really, aside from a couple of music guys I knew that I had done some touring with. When I got there they asked me to reimage the station as we had a new Program Director coming in and new station voices. I just sunk myself into it. I was listening to radio all over the world because at this time I was 23 years old and they said, “Okay, here’s a station. Go. Make it however you want to make it.” It was my first imaging gig. I was all by myself and didn’t have my bosses or Jesse to back me up if I was in a pinch. It was very nerve-racking.
I just did as much as I could and listened to BBC Radio 1 over in London, and a lot of Mike Andersen stuff I had heard from the RAP CDs. I’d always admired his work. So I started bugging Mike over the Internet, asking him for a couple of tips here and there. I actually met with Mike in Australia last year, and I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s amazing.
From there I just sunk myself into the imaging and probably worked 80 hour weeks for about three months straight. I slept at the station, ate there, did whatever I could just to make sure I got the station off the ground and sounding like what I thought was a cool CHR station.
I had a great time in Edmonton. I was there for nine months and then I finally got the call from a guy named Chris Pottage in Toronto, who I was also sending my stuff to all the time to get critiqued. He said, “We love what you’re doing with The Bounce. Why don’t you come up to Toronto and do that for Kiss?” That was kind of the ultimate goal, to be working in Toronto. I moved out here when I was 24 years old, and I’ve been here for a year and a half.
JV: That’s a great story! Any other responsibilities at the station, or is it just imaging Kiss?
Ron: Rogers Radio has 55 stations across Canada, so any time they do a major facelift or they want to launch a new station, there are a few core guys that do it. Just in the last year and a half I’ve kind of been brought into that loop of reimaging the national stations as well. So it’s kind of an imaging/part-time-national imaging gig.
JV: How many stations does Rogers have there in Toronto?
Ron: We’ve got a rule with the CRTC that says we can only have four stations per company. So you’re allowed two FMs and two AMs in one major city, but no more than that. That kind of keeps major companies from having a monopoly on the radio market.
JV: Imagine that.
Ron: Right, no major companies just towering over us, kind of like Clear Channel in the States. I’m not sure with US regulations if it’s the same sort of deal.
JV: No, I think anything goes here. Grab all you can.
Ron: Yeah, exactly.
JV: So do you do voiceover on the imaging for any of these stations?
Ron: Not for a lot of Rogers stations actually, but I do freelance voice work for a couple of stations in Australia these days and lots of Internet radio stations, mainly commercial voice work. I don’t voice a lot of imaging for any commercial stations.
JV: You received two trophies in the 24th RAP Awards. The first one was for the Kiss 102.7 station launch piece, which is, as you say, some of the work that you were doing for other stations in the chain. Tell us a bit about how that piece came together.
Ron: It was an interesting idea because we make these top hours on Kiss that are about 30 to 40 seconds. We get new music and we try and make them into a branded top hour piece. We throw in some little subliminal Kiss messages in there to make it sound like it’s our in-house music.
One of those things, a 30-second piece, can take anywhere from two to three hours of just trying out different beatmix stuff, seeing what flows together. They’re really time consuming little pieces. I had just made a batch of about six or seven of these guys. My boss -- Chris Pottage, the Production Director in Toronto -- said, “Hey, we’ve got this new station that we’re going to be launching. We should do a launch piece.”
For a smaller station like that, to do a launch piece that’s going to run once, it’s really hard to find the time to do something that we’d want to do for a station. We just don’t have the time or the resources to make a really cool launch for that situation when we’re outsourcing it and doing it from our studios in Toronto, and still have to look after all the other stations we’re doing as well. So he had this idea. “Why don’t we take your top hour montages that kind of highlight all this music, and that will be the body of it. And why don’t we weave some stuff in around that?” So Chris actually made the intro of the piece leading up, and then from the music on, that’s when I kind of took over. So we tag teamed that.
I had no idea how it was going to turn out, but Chris has a great vision for stuff like that and it was a neat piece. It didn’t take us too long. It was maybe one full day’s work of putting it together and seeing how different pieces and elements fit together. But the majority of the work I had done already for our Kiss 92.5 station in Toronto. We just put all those pieces together.
JV: Do you have any idea how many song clips were in that launch piece?
Ron: I’d say probably close to maybe 40 or 45 different hooks in there.
JV: The other trophy was for a promo for Kiss 92.5, the “Wham Bam Wrap-Up” promo, which also stated in the title, “On Scene Produced”. I couldn’t imagine that you actually produced it on the scene after hearing the promo, so I’ve been wondering what those words meant.
Ron: It was actually produced at the scene, the entire thing. We set up a little makeshift studio backstage at the Molson Canadian Amphitheater. It was just me and a guy I work with in Toronto here, another producer for CHFI. His name is Chris Shapcotte. He’s one of my best friends here. I think he’s on the co-credits for this award.
Anyway, we had this idea. In previous years, before I moved here, there would always be one guy at the station during the day of the event, and he would have to sit at the station all day -- like a gorgeous Saturday and you’re there from pretty much noon until 2:00 in the morning, just waiting for clips to come in all day. You’re starting to build a promo as it comes in, and you have another guy recording clips down at the amphitheater and sending them back via Internet or FTP.
So I talked to my boss, Chris, and I said, “With the technology we have these days,” -- me and Chris Shapcotte have Pro Tools that we run on our laptops -- “everything can be done right from the scene, and I bet you we can have it done even quicker.” Chris was very skeptical and he goes, “A million things could go wrong, and this is a really important promo for us.” So I had to convince him, tooth, leg and arms, and he eventually said, “Okay. If you guys can promise me nothing will go wrong, and you will get the promo done and get all these clips because it’s so crucial and you only have one crack at it.”
So Chris and I built this little studio in the back, and Chris was grabbing clips all day at the event while I was sitting there on my laptop building the promo as we went. As the clips came in, I was editing them up. About 15 minutes after the entire concert had ended, we had the promo built and sent back to the station, and it was already on-air for people while they were driving home.
JV: Oh my gosh. I think you just raised the bar.
Ron: I don’t know about that. It was something that we’d never done before, but I think we scored a few points with the bosses that way, and they were kind of blown away at just what we were able to do from our laptops, sitting there with headphones on like nerds all day in the back.
The technology, it’s unbelievable what you can do these days. I was like, “We’ve got to try this.” That way you get to enjoy the concert, and when you’re there seeing it you already know what you can use. You can write down times like, “At 2:33, Avril Lavigne said this and that. We’ve got to use that. She’s screaming out ‘Toronto.’ It’s perfect.” When you’re doing this back at the station, you’re editing up a 50 minute file, searching for that one clip. It’s so much more efficient to do it on-scene when you can.
JV: Amazing. And I see you also recently won the Canadian Music Week Gold Crystal Award for “creative use of sound and music” for those top hours you were talking about, right?
Ron: Yes. Those are the ones. They’ve been multipurpose this year.
JV: Excellent. That kind of validates the judges on both sides. How did your music career get its start?
Ron: It goes back quite a ways. I was always enthused with music. I loved listening to albums and deconstructing production within the albums thinking, “How did they make that guitar sound? That is so neat.” That’s kind of what got me infatuated with music and production.
But it was really around age 14, and this is going to sound so clichéd, but when I found out, hey, girls like guys who play guitar, it was a pretty easy no-brainer for me. I go, “Hey, all these things are starting to add up. Maybe there’s something here I should spend my time doing instead of skateboarding at night.” When I was about 14, guys were starting to put bands together in junior high and high school and starting to play shows and battle of the bands. I was like, “Yes, I want to try doing something like that.”
So I started to pick up and play the guitar at 14, and I’ve been in bands ever since I was 16. I’ve just been recording and learning how to do my own stuff since then. I’ve got some pretty awful sounding stuff that I recorded when I was 14. You’re just basically sticking a microphone in a live room trying to pick up every single instrument and singing into a PA at the same time. It’s funny to hear over the years what you’ve progressed to.
JV: Did you take any music classes or lessons, or did you just learn on your own?
Ron: I just picked it up all by ear. People will probably kill me for saying this, but I don’t know how to read music. I just remember everything by ear. I’ve got a good memory that way. Sometimes I can’t remember what movie I watched last week, but when it comes to music, for some reason it sticks with me a lot better.
JV: I also saw on Wikipedia that you’ve played with several bands and are still with a band. Several albums have been released from the various bands over the years. I’m wondering how you have the time to do all the radio stuff and still chase the music.
Ron: That’s interesting you bring that up, because even nowadays I still wonder, “What if I just chose music,” or, “What if I was just doing radio.” I love both equally, and radio is really great because it’s brought me to Toronto. I have a lot of great friends who have done some amazing things in music. Over the years they’ve been on record deals and toured the world with really big bands and extremely talented guys. Now it’s been six years since they were on tour, and they are still looking for work.
That’s the part that really kind of scares the shit out of me about just taking the music route. There’s so much stuff out there these days, and everyone expects it to all be free. When we used to go on tours as a five piece band, we would lose money at the end of a tour, and that was with government help. We were able to get some government funding for our music. They saw, “Okay, they’ve got one or two songs on the radio. We’re going to give them a FACTOR grant,” which is what they call it. For our second album we got $15,000 to put towards that recording. At that time you go, “Okay, we’ve made it. This is great. This is going to be fantastic,” but that money goes away extremely quickly and it doesn’t feed you when you’re on the road.
On our last tour, when I was living in Calgary, we came out to play the Canadian Music Week Festival. Traveling in the dead of winter, minus 35, sleeping on a tour bus for three weeks, we would spend $10,000 just in gas to keep the bus up and running. Never mind eating along the way, going out at nighttime, having a few beers after the show.
It’s a crazy industry. It’s cool to have lived a little bit of it and to play with some of your favorite bands and play these big shows, but some nights you would play to a room of seven people in a small town like Kenora, Ontario, and then a week later you get to play with a band called Seether at an outdoor rock fest in front of 7,000 people. So it goes from extreme highs to lows and it’s very sketchy work; and you’re only as good as your last album or tour, and “where’s the money coming from next?”. That’s kind of how I feel about the music industry. It was really tough. That was with the band I was with called Broken Ride.
JV: Tell us about your current band.
Ron: The current one I’m with is called Lost in Film. It came about after I realized that the rock bands weren’t working out and we had broken up after the years. Trying to struggle on the road while trying to balance a radio career wasn’t working, and I just wanted to do my own solo record. So I’ve been working on it for the last two and a half years, recording it on my spare time at night when I come home.
Oddly enough, one of the guys who hired me in Calgary, Jesse Simon, he’s one of my best friends now. He’s also one of the RAP Award winners this year and I believe last year as well. He plays drums in that band for me. So we share Pro Tools sessions back and forth. I’ll write the song and sing the lyrics and everything, and I’ll send the whole session to him, and he’ll play drums in his home studio and send it right back to me. That’s how we made that album.
JV: Aside from knowing where to make edits on the beat, where else in radio production do you feel your musical skills are being used?
Ron: When I write and produce songs for other artists across Canada, I experiment with a lot of different plug-ins. I’m using the Waves programs a lot. They offer a lot of cool music production stuff that you can actually use in radio. People just don’t think about it, or most people go, “I only need my one compressor and my one EQ and I’m good. I can do everything I need with those.” I think a lot of people should really open up the door to some of the new technology that’s out there, because some of the programs and plug-ins that are being designed to make your life easier are really cool. iZotope is a great company that offers a lot of neat mastering plug-ins.
I feel like that’s kind of where the music side of things helps with production, when you can explore and try different stuff at home, and then bring it in and say, “Well, I used this effect on this music bed at home. Why don’t I use that in the music bed instead of just the voices on this promo?” That’s how I’ve been getting a lot of my little tricks of music production into my radio stuff.
JV: Do you bring the guitar into the studio at work a lot?
Ron: I don’t here, only because I live about ten blocks away from the station, and in my living room I have a full-blown music studio. So I can do anything I need to here, and it saves me from lugging all the gear up the streets in Toronto. It’s pretty great. I’ve got a good setup here at home, and my neighbors are pretty lenient about me making noise at all hours of the night. Anytime I need to do something, I’ll do it here and then just bring it in on a flash drive.
JV: Are you doing sound design, just FX stuff on a synth or anything like that that you would use on your promos and imaging?
Ron: Absolutely. I’ve just started doing that more and more. It’s funny because I’ve been talking about this with more producers. With the imaging services that are out there for producers to kind of make your life easier -- whether it be Production Vault or Benztown or whatever everyone is using these days -- first off, if you don’t have access to it then you’re kind of shot.
We used a company called Benztown last year, when I first moved to Toronto. A lot of the workparts and beds just were not where I wanted them to be and not where I had thought cutting edge CHR radio was going. So I would come home, and if I was working on a tune for myself, I would make a CHR bed at home and say, “I’m going to save this for a promo that I think it will sound good in.” I actually make a lot of my own music from scratch at home and then bring it into the station and use them on Kiss promos.
JV: Any plans to put those on the market some day?
Ron: I’ve thought about it. I don’t know how to go about it yet. When you start up a service or if you’re outsourcing to a service, you’ve got to have hundreds and thousands of these beds, and right now I’m only at about 70 really solid beds that I’m into. I think you need a team behind you, and I think I would go crazy if I was having to pump out beds as often as people need them in the radio business.
JV: I wouldn’t expect you to have the time to take on the full-blown thing, but certainly there are probably some services out there that would pay you for some of that stuff.
Ron: That’s true and I have been approached by a couple of companies, but it’s also hard when you throw in 70 hours of work into one song and they go, “Well, we’ll give you 15 bucks for that song and we own all the rights.” I can’t justify doing all that work for 15 bucks and then you guys own it. That’s that fine line of finding out what the next step is, doing it yourself or doing a deal. It’s still a business and I know guys are in there to make money or whatnot, but for the actual producers themselves, I think that’s probably going to change. I don’t think a lot of guys are having the time to do that stuff for the amount of cash that they’re offering anymore.
JV: So Pro Tools is your DAW. You like the Ozone stuff and the Waves plugs…
Ron: Yeah, the Waves plugs are a big thing for me. I really like the Enigma settings. A lot of people I think go to the default. They’ll try a different plug-in and just go to the pre-sets and go, “Oh, I like this sound,” but not many people like to create their own. I like to go on a pre-set and get close to something, and then I’ll mess with it from there. Likewise, I think a lot of people will hear a sound and not instantly fall in love with it and disregard that effect completely. But I like to spend time with it and mess around. It’s all about experimenting with those plugs because they’re all meant for a different purpose. I think a lot of the stuff with Enigma is meant for music production. So when you’re using it on a voice it’s not quite close, but if you tinker with it enough, you can get some really cool stuff out of it.
JV: What activities spark the most creative energy for you, for your imaging work and for your music?
Ron: I really like to play hockey. I’ve been playing hockey since I was four. I play a couple times a week with the guys who actually run Universal Music in Toronto, which is pretty crazy. We play soccer together as well. So if I feel like it’s been a long day in the studio or something, I’ll go out for a run and go play some hockey or something like that. Then I come back mentally energized and ready to sit down because I’m physically tired at that point.
JV: Do you get a free hand in the imaging there or do programmers pretty much dictate the copy and the structure of the promos and the ideas? How much freedom do you get?
Ron: It’s definitely been different since coming to Toronto. Before, at my old stations, I would throw anything I want on the air, and I would only hear about it if they didn’t like it on the air. Here in Toronto, it’s very hands-on, and everyone likes to have their caution before anything goes to air. So I have to go through two people before any of my production hits the air. If they aren’t crazy about an idea or something, I’ll try and rework it as close to my idea as possible, but knowing I can also make them happy. Sometimes they’re all for some of the ideas and sometimes they’re, “That’s way too crazy. That’s never going to work.” But I think if you don’t get that pushback then you’re not trying to be innovative. So I don’t mind the pushback.
JV: How much like making music, creating a song, is making a promo?
Ron: Actually, I think you nailed it on the head. It is making a promo. You have your intro. You’ve got the main hook. You’ve got stop downs throughout. You’ve got all the little ear candy that separates it from just a guitar playing. I think in a song you’ve got this harmonica going here in the left speaker, you’ve got this synthesizer over here. You do that with voices and layering. So I think it’s exactly like you just said, it is basically making a promo. Then you’ve got your ending and all that kind of stuff. But the structure I think is very much the same. It basically all has the same elements throughout it.
JV: You’re having some pretty good success for a relatively young career. What do you contribute that success to?
Ron: Honestly, I’ve just had some amazing people take the time to actually spend time with me and show me a lot of cool stuff along the way. But I’m a pretty big nerd, too, so I love to sit down and work at it. If I don’t get something right, I’ll keep working on it until it is right or until I feel it’s right, and I’ll bump it off 20 different people.
I’ve met some amazing people in this industry, all over the world, Chris Pottage in Toronto, Jesse Simon in Calgary, Dave Lloyd in Calgary and Mike Andersen all the way across in Australia. I was over visiting him recently. I sent him a note and said, “Mike, I’ve been reading and listening to your stuff in the RAP mags for six years now. I would love to come in and spend an afternoon with you in studio.” He didn’t even hesitate. He’s like, “Come on in, man. Here’s my studio. We’re in downtown Sydney.” Me and Mike have kept in contact ever since. He’s done some production for a couple of my stations in Canada, and I’ve done some rock stuff for him on Triple M. It was just super-cool. We don’t really tell anyone we’re doing it, but we just love to produce, and we’ve remained great friends since then.
I think that’s the coolest part about radio is everyone is there to help you and help you get better. They’re you’re friends automatically, without even having to say anything, which is really neat.
JV: What advice would you give to a brand new graduate of the RTBN program there at SAIT, who would like to work his way up to imaging in a large market?
Ron: I think the kind of the steps I took really benefitted me, going to a small market, getting as much experience as you can, working for free as much as you can, because that’s where you’re going to get the opportunities to meet people and also get your experience. Connections are a huge thing in this business.
Another thing that really helped me along my way that I can recommend is sending your production off to some of the guys that you look up to, at stations across the world that you idolize. It’s great to have your stuff ripped apart. If you can handle the critical feedback and take that and make your stuff better, I think you’re only going to grow and get noticed by these guys who are going to be hiring for these positions that you want in five or ten years.
JV: Anything we left out, Ron?
Ron: No. I’d just like to say RAP magazine has been a huge inspiration to me. I was 17 when I first got my first copy. I sent in a spot to you guys and my teacher, Richard Stroobant at SAIT, was like, “Hey, man, you made the magazine!” It was so cool. So to be talking to you today and able to pick up two trophies has been really neat.