R.A.P. Interview: Jeff Thomas

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Jeff Thomas, Jeff Thomas Productions, Newport Beach, NSW, Australia

Jeff-Thomas-PicBy Jerry Vigil

Jeff Thomas is easily one of the best imaging producers in the world. When we last checked in with him ten years ago [RAP Interview, October 1995], he had just left 2 Triple M in Sydney to launch Virgin Radio FM in London. After that, KIIS in LA lured the imaging master to the US. After several years with KIIS, Jeff finally went out on his own, taking his Killer Hertz libraries to the next level with Killer Hertz 5, an online imaging service at www.killerhertz.com. This month, Jeff talks about Virgin, about KIIS, about Killer Hertz, about imaging and more. Be sure to check out Jeff’s production sampler on the RAP CD for a tasty collection of some of Jeff’s best work over the years.

JV: When we last talked with you ten years ago, you had just left 2 Triple M in Australia and has just started imaging Virgin Radio in London. How long were you there?
Jeff: That lasted two and a half to three years. When I got there, Virgin Radio was already on the air in the UK as a national AM broadcaster. The job I was brought over to do was to launch it on the FM in London. They received an FM license for London only. That was pretty much the job at hand. When I got there they wanted to start with a series of test transmissions to start broadcasting on the FM band before they started putting programming through it. I pretty much hit the ground running. There was everything to do from the FM processing through to the station sound and audio brand for Virgin. The fun started from there, and there was a lot of work to be done.

JV: What’s one of the more memorable tasks of your tenure at Virgin?
Jeff: Part of the deal-making of getting the FM license for London was that they had to have a show which went for about 45 minutes that was purely dedicated to London, and part of that included having to have a band play live to air everyday. Being London, the kind of musicians and people that were coming in was pretty staggering. It was everybody from Robert Plant to Jimmy Page to The Stranglers, Gallagher, Elvis Costello, Sting, these kinds of people. I was there for three years and we did one a day, Monday to Friday. So in the end, I had clocked up mixing credits for about 300-odd sessions.

And in the end, it started to bring everything crashing down, because every afternoon at a certain time, no matter what you were doing, you would have to stop and prepare for this. What started out as being simple vocal and acoustic guitar kind of performances quickly became sessions where we were closing off the entire floor. We’d have drums set up in the boardroom, guitar amps running up and down the corridors all mic’d separately, singers in one room, brass in another sometimes. So in the end, it was simply too much to tackle. But the great thing about it was that having to work with these people and get these mixes ready to go to air in a short amount of time was a great experience for me, and it taught me that mixing properly is something that has a lot more to do with frequencies than just levels alone, and it really helped my work.

I’m a big fan of Mix magazine because of some of the articles that come out regarding mixing, and I think whether your first passion is music or radio, there’s a lot to be learned from just dabbling in mixing music. And now, with the Internet, you can download the latest Pro Tools session of the last Nine Inch Nails single for you to try your hand at remixing. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s all good experience.

JV: Your next stop was KIIS in LA. Tell us how that came about.
Jeff: After the FM had launched and the station was pretty much up and running, I was looking at making the next move. Living in London had been a bit of a shell-shock after coming from Sydney, and I never really had planned to spend a long time there. It was a great experience and I definitely had a good time, but it was always going to be a temporary move.

At that stage, there were a couple of offers from the US on the table that were kind of half offers, but for all intents and purposes, I had planned to move back to Australia. But that didn’t happen. As I was on the plane flying out of London for the last time, I stopped over for a weekend at KIIS in LA to talk to them about moving there. After about four days there, I headed back to Australia just to get organized, and four weeks later, we were living in Los Angeles.

I had no idea at the time what kind of hoops and hurdles I was going to need to get through regarding immigration, and that was a long, drawn-out process. I think at one stage, Jacor had two or three legal firms working on it. The premise was that it was an “01 visa.” I don’t know if it’s different these days, but back then, an 01 visa meant that you basically had to prove that there was nobody living in the United States that could do your job better than you, which is a ridiculous concept. After arriving in LA and working for a few months there, we found ourselves in between a temporary visa and waiting for a permanent visa, so we had to vacate the premises, as it were. We had to get out of the country for a while. So the only thing I could work out in a hurry to keep the work for KIIS happening was for my wife and I to come back down to Sydney and do a deal with the radio station that I used to work at that would allow me to use their production studios overnight. So, when their guys finished at 9:00 or whatever it was at night, I would move in with my Pro Tools kit and Zephyr that I had shipped back down, and I would start making promos and doing the imaging for KIIS through the night. I would finish at about 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, and their production guys from Triple M would come in and start their day.

This was supposed to be just for a couple of weeks. Five months later, I was still down here working overnights, making promos at 3:00 in the morning, which is not the best time to be making a promo. After about five months of that — and we’d been in LA initially before that for about six months — we shipped everything back to Los Angeles, but still couldn’t get our furniture or belongings or anything into America, waiting for Social Security numbers and for legal documents. We were told that if we shipped any furniture to America before that paperwork was ready, then they had the option of simply burning our stuff when it arrived, basically.

It ended up that my wife and I lived out of one suitcase for somewhere between 12 and 18 months, getting from London to LA, then LA to Sydney, and then back again. So it really wasn’t a great way to start working at a radio station, to be honest. We’d gone through a hell of a lot in a short amount of time, and it definitely made life tough.

It wasn’t the best plan, but funnily enough, it really helped develop what was going to be my style or take on the KIIS sound, because when I first got to LA, everything was very different. I’d been to LA before and was in awe of Hollywood and all of the big LA radio stations and everything, but the radio station was different — equipment, people, just the way they did things. But it only took a couple of weeks to get things going back in the studio in Sydney, the same studio I had previously worked in for eight years. That allowed me to kind of take out some of the unknowns. I was very familiar with the studio, so it meant that I could concentrate just on how these promos were going to sound, what was going to be the next sound for KIIS. And I still remember the night – or the morning at 3:00 or 4:00, just experimenting with different sounds and stuff like that. Then at one point, I just kind of hit on it and all of the sudden had this realization or picture of what I could do and what the sound could be. So in the end, being back in that old studio really helped me.

JV: But you eventually got back into the U.S. and stayed in LA for a while, right?
Jeff: Yeah, we lived there for about two and a half years.

JV: What kind of a task was it, imaging a monster station like KIIS?
Jeff: Well, I came in on the back of a bit of a void, as far as KIIS production. They had been without a full-time imaging guy for I think it was at least six months. They were getting Eric Chase to help out from Florida. I think he was already over in Tampa at that stage. It was about his fifth station as far as his list of duties goes, and he did a great job; but he was snowed under and had a lot of things going on at once, so it wasn’t something that he could devote his full attention to. When I arrived and they showed me the imaging studio, it had basically been turned into a storeroom There were carousels of  carts and old masters, and they had all just been dumped into that room because nobody was there working to say, “No, go and put that shit somewhere else.” So I wasn’t walking into a place that was, production-wise or imaging-wise, very well-organized. There was no, “here are our promo masters of what we’ve been doing, and here are our voice tracks,” or “here are some good KIIS shouts” or “here are the sounds we use.” There was pretty much nothing, because it had all been done off-site. So initially, it was kind of starting from scratch, even though KIIS had this amazing heritage that even lowly producers like myself from Australia had heard about.

So the task was in front of me and luckily, at the same time, a new PD, Dan Kieley, had just started at the station. Dan and I hit it off quickly and were singing from the same hymn book pretty much off the bat. Dan was the first PD that I had ever come across that would sit me down each morning, or we’d go out and get a coffee or something, and he’d basically say, “What problems do you have today that I need to fix so that you can spend the day in the studio and make me sound good?” And this is coming off the back of me having my suspicions that most other PDs would wake up in the morning and think of ways to kind of screw my life up. So having Dan there at that time was a blessing. I guess the only problem I had for him at the time was the immigration thing, but we got through that and started to look at ways of setting a mark and raising the bar.

I think whenever you’ve got a PD and an idea within the radio station that we don’t want to just be the best in this market, we want to be the best in the world and we want to set a new benchmark for the format and for imaging, I think that’s the kind of thing that I’ve always appreciated. From there, we started to develop what the philosophy was going to be.

JV: Did you use other imaging libraries while you were imaging KIIS, or did you create all of the effects that you used?
Jeff: From memory, when I arrived at KIIS, I don’t believe they had licensed any packages except for Killer Hertz 1, my first CD, and that’s kind of how the initial connection started. And when I got there, they were using Sandy Thomas as the voice.

JV: So most everything you used, you created?
Jeff: Yeah. I started developing some new effects and sound design. In a lot of ways, Killer Hertz 2 was kind of designed around the music that was happening on KIIS at the time and also the processing that was happening on KIIS at the time. We were getting very much into this concept of even if we played a sweeper in between two songs, we didn’t want the music to stop. We started to develop ways of letting the jocks know what part of the sweeper or production piece was fully produced and what part wasn’t. As a result, in the production studio, they didn’t sound like necessarily completed pieces, but when you heard them on the air – and because the jocks at the time were so good at this at KIIS – it kind of became a completed piece when it was played out. As a really basic example, as the music was fading out, we might start the ID either dry or at the very least, in a neutral key. Then in the middle of the sweeper, where it was fully produced, the jock would know to have the previous song gone by then. Then on the cart label, he would also know when the fully produced part of the sweeper stopped to know when to bring in the next song.

We spent a lot of time looking at that and ways of making that work, and I learned pretty soon that because of the processing and with tracks like “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and fully-produced intros like that, any kind of  big impact or crushing kind of starts to IDs or promos would freak out the on-air processing to the point where it would more often than not completely duck the previous song. So with a lot of the sounds, that’s when we started getting into things that used different frequencies, higher frequencies, and short-wave stuff that would cut through that fading song without killing it.

JV: Is everything in the Killer Hertz collection produced solely by you, or have you brought in a partner or two along the way?
Jeff: On CD 3 and a little bit on 4, I had my assistant at the time at KIIS, Chuck P, help out. And now that we’re doing it full-time, I’ve brought a guy on here, Alex Mills. He’s a young guy. He was born the year I started in radio, which is something we don’t talk about. But he’s a great guy and he’s got a really good ear. So, between the two of us now, we’re working on stuff for 5, which isn’t a CD anymore; it’s online delivery and it’s full-time.

JV: Your tenure at KIIS, you said it was about two and a half years after you finally got situated there. How long did that gig last?
Jeff: Well, two and a half years was how long I lived there. Basically, at the end of ’99, my wife had given birth to our first daughter and we were still, believe it or not, even in our third year, jumping through hoops and hurdles for immigration. It was the end of ‘99, and I had just finished making Killer Hertz 2. My wife and I talked, and when you consider that the LA gig had come off the back of a three-year stint in the UK, we had been away from home, away from Australia, for about six years at that point. And I could see that this was going to be tough to keep my wife and daughter comfortable living in the valley in LA, and still do the KIIS job properly. So I basically started devising a plan to take the work off-site. At that point in time, I had been in radio for a long time, even though I hadn’t been in America for a long time. And in all honesty, I was really getting to the end of my tether as far as working at a radio station. I still really loved the work, but I hated the way – and it wasn’t malicious or anything – but I hated the way that my time would be wasted for me in meetings or whatever happens at a radio station that takes your eye off the ball. So I developed a plan to see if they would consider at least the idea of me producing for KIIS and imaging for KIIS back down from Sydney. And I guess to some extent, the fact that I had done it for those five months at the beginning kind of made it a little bit easier for me to convince the PD that this could work, and not only could it work, but by me being in more of a sheltered environment, with my family happy and not on my case, that I could take the work to a new level.

So I sold the PD. I then had to throw myself at the feet of Tom Owens and go through the same thing with him and say look, “I guarantee you that this will improve our sound rather than hurt it,” and he said yes, eventually. I think this was about October of ’99. I had 30 days to find somebody and get them up to speed to act as my LA ears and eyes, which was Chuck P. So I hired him in the beginning of November and we had the 30 day intensive training period. Then I think it was New Year’s Day 2000, I got on a plane and came back to Sydney. They’d allowed me 60 days to find a studio and get set up and start working again, but also, in the meantime, be on the phone ready to hold Chuck’s hand with anything that came up in the first few weeks of the year. And finding a studio from scratch down here was no easy task, but we eventually found something just to get us up and going and put my gear in, and I had to buy a bit more gear. Then two months in, we were up and running, and that lasted full-time up until the end of last year. So in all, it was seven and a half years full-time at KIIS. I’m still doing some stuff for them now on a monthly basis, but out of that seven and a half years, five of them were done from Sydney.


JV: What are your imaging tools? What gear and software do you need to work your magic?
Jeff: Well, the number one thing is Pro Tools. I’ve got a Pro Tools Mix Plus system here with one of the old DSP Farm cards in it.

I’m not really plug-in based. I mean, when I say that, I use them all the time, and more often than not will max out a session from bringing in plug-ins, but they’re more often EQ – a lot of EQ, a lot of compression and filters, a little bit of reverb, a little bit of chorus sometimes. But I’m not a big fan of the plug-ins that basically try and replicate an Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer or something. And to be honest, even when I was using tape back in the analog days, I was never even a really huge fan of the Eventide as far as putting vocal effects on voice tracks and stuff like that, because at the time it just would never seem to sound as good on the air as it did in the studio. There were just issues with the on-air processing that would always kind of alter it.

And it’s the same with plug-ins now. I tend to stick to EQs. I’ve got one of the early Waves bundles. I really like the Bomb Factory low-pass filters; I use that all the time. And the Urie compressors I use all the time. Apart from that, I have a couple of Akai samplers, a Nord and a Korg keyboard, some old short-wave radios and things like that. And that’s pretty much the studio. I monitor through NS10s but also have Genelec 1032As for monitoring, and it all works well.

JV: Did you use a lot of sounds from the short-wave radios for the libraries?
Jeff: Well, initially, especially with some of the CD stuff. I would be playing around with the short-wave radios and find a nice sound, which often was the easy part, and then you’d start playing around with noise reduction plug-ins and things like this, and cutting and pasting to get rid of all of the crackling and static distortion that goes along with it. But it was good experience.

JV: What’s your imaging philosophy? What goals do you try to reach with your imaging for a radio station?
Jeff: I pretty much put everything down to an equation between fashion and function. It’s something that we used to talk a lot about at KIIS and it was a really good way, I found, of getting a clear idea of what the PD was looking for. With Dan, he’d give me a promo and I’d say, okay, what percentage fashion, what percentage function, and more often than not, it would be 90, 95 percent fashion and five percent function. So I think it’s good from that point of view. Nowadays, with everyone’s bullshit meters wound up as tight as they are, they can smell a sale from a mile away.

I think my philosophy with any promo is to make the promo for the moment more so than make it for what it’s talking about. So if you’re making a promo for a weekend countdown show or a flashback lunch or something along those lines, really, when you give the time and the day that this is happening, the chances of anybody making a mental note and actually tuning in to hear a collection of songs at that time are pretty slim. But if you treat the promo for the moment and use your fashion skills to brand these songs with the station name and to also get across the station personality and to put some fashion in there, then that’s really what the promo is about. It’s more for the feel and more for the fashion of the moment. And also, it’s about exercising your skills and trying to make it so that when the radio station talks to a listener, it has the same kind of thought and skills and expertise that’s gone into the music that’s played.

Jeff-Thomas-KillerHertz-LogoJV: Tell us about Killer Hertz 5.
Jeff: Well, for a long time, while I was working for the radio stations full-time, they would take 95 percent of my time and poor Killer Hertz would get the remaining five percent. Then last year, I hit a couple of milestones at the same time. I hit 25 years in radio and turned 40, and just decided that it was time to turn that equation around and really give Killer Hertz a good go. We spent a lot of time working on it early, making sure that we had a lot of material. Then we had to go through the process of designing a website and designing the software infrastructure that would allow me to do it the way I wanted to do it and for it to work the way I wanted it to work. The man-hours that have gone into it since is quite staggering. But I’m very proud of it. I’m very happy with how it’s turned out and the fact that we’ve managed to raise the bar again and endeavor to come up with stuff that’s not continuing on a theme, as such, and to find original material and original sounds and basically as much fashion as we can possibly put in there.

Obviously, the situation with a lot of stations around the world at the moment – especially in the US – is that there’s not many producers making promos from component form up, simply because they don’t have the time. They have too many radio stations to deal with all at once. So we’ve tried to combine Killer Hertz 5 with sound design that stands alone, whether it’s radio sound design or trailer sound design. But also, we’ve incorporated a lot more material that you simply couldn’t publish on a CD. There’s a lot of completed imaging parts and work shells. We’re doing a lot more beds, a lot more music, which is good. We’re bringing in guitars and things like that. I’m really enjoying that.

The offshoot of this too is that because it’s online, there’s a much better connection between me and the people using it. I’m in contact with them more often. It’s not simply a situation of selling somebody a CD and then never talking to them again.

So all of those things have made it a great experience, and if we can develop on this community aspect of it, i.e. the relationship between me and the people that use it, then all the better.

JV: It must be a challenge to keep coming up with different sounds. What do you do? Where do you go to keep your work fresh?
Jeff: We basically have started just doing weirder and weirder things as far as generating the noise. It’s funny. Sometimes you hear a sound that may be part of a piece, and you can hear it and just go, I haven’t heard any of the components before – it’s all pretty fresh – but it just doesn’t really excite me. And other times, you can hear something that’s put together with maybe one or two pieces that you have heard before and you just know. If something’s right, if it’s got the right vibe, you just know it. You can’t really put your finger on it, but if it works, it works. I think that’s part of the fun.

The great thing, too, of working for KIIS away from KIIS, is that you can set your own time agendas. You can spend a day on a bed if you want. You could spend a week on a bed if you want.

I think the thing which made me decide that I wanted to stay involved in radio, but not within a particular radio station, was the fact that you can end up just being on that treadmill doing the same stuff all the time, and that’s what I find taxing and draining.

JV: Sounds like with Killer Hertz 5 getting all your attention, this is going to well be your best product ever.
Jeff: I have no doubt it is. We’re working on other projects too, which is good. We’ve done some sound design and radio stuff this year for South Park and Dr. Phil and some others, as well as some sound design work for 20th Century Fox. I think it’s good to bring in those projects, too. I’ve also done a little bit of consultancy work and a little bit of training work, which I enjoy. I’m not looking at anything that keeps me in the studio 12 hours a day. I like the fact that I can be doing other things.

JV: You mentioned how people’s bullshit meters are wound up pretty tight these days. How else have you seen the world of imaging change over the last ten years?
Jeff: Well, I think the obvious thing has been the advent of the computer and digital workstations. I managed to get a hold of a Revox 2-track machine in here a few months back and I was explaining to Alex why they call loops loops. Back in the day, we had to record a loop onto a bit of tape and then splice it out, join it back to the front, put it around your finger and through the head chassis of the reel-to-reel machine, and hit play and record it onto something else. I turned around, and his jaw was on the ground. At Triple M, if we wanted to do some beat-mixing or more intricate stuff like that, with a multi-track, you had to fly it in in real time, which for that kind of stuff is pretty tricky. What I was doing then was sampling it all. Then if I played it and recorded it back into the multi-track on its lowest vari-speed, it was exactly an octave down. So I would record stuff in from the sampler, playing an octave down on the keyboard, do everything kind of in slow motion so that when you played it back, it would be the way you wanted it.

I think that’s the fundamental difference; nowadays, you really don’t need to think so much about how you’re going to do something, and you can concentrate pretty much on a creative presentation. You don’t have to worry about the logistics of actually trying to make that happen in an audio sense. That’s really changed everything. Ten years ago, when I put out the first Killer Hertz CD, people wanted things as simple as individual touch-tone tones. Nowadays, that’s just so far off the radar and so hard to comprehend because you can generate noise within Pro Tools. You don’t need to be a musician anymore with loop-generating software like ACID. These have brought on huge changes.

JV: What mistakes do you think many programmers make with regards to imaging their stations.
Jeff: (chuckling) What mistakes do programmers make? It depends who you’re talking about. I think some of them maybe want to crowd up production with too much information. They see promos as being these things with a little bit of fashion, so they’ll load up the information that they need to get out and think that that sticks. And like I said before, I just simply don’t think it does.

I think the other mistake is probably that they don’t empower their production people. They don’t sit down with them at the beginning and share the vision and share the dream. They’re kind of too hands-on on a daily basis and don’t give out enough leash. I think if you sit down with somebody at the beginning and explain to them the reasons why you want it to be done this way and share that with them, the chances of you coming up with a better product are much greater.

JV: Besides obviously acquiring Killer Hertz 5 and the entire Killer Hertz collection, for that matter, what other advice would you offer to imaging producers who want to take their work to the next level?
Jeff: I think it’s become very competitive again. There was a time a few years back where it didn’t feel like there was a lot of up-and-coming engineers, and I think that’s turning around again. And because of that, I think you have to be 110 percent committed. I hate to use a cliché, but there are people out there now that can practice in their bedrooms, which was never the case when I was working in a production studio with a big board and a two-inch 24-track. But now they can, and there are people out there that will do it for nothing. I think you’ve really got to be committed. I think you’ve got to be extremely passionate about it.

And also, I think you’ve got to try and carve out your own identity. I don’t think you’re going to be around for a hell of a long time if you’re trying to mimic a style or mimic a sound. I’m not saying that I haven’t borrowed from people, and people have borrowed from me. That happens all the time. But I think you need to map out what is your playing field from a sound point of view and then explore every inch of that playing field.

But I think the bottom line is commitment. And then, at a certain point in your career you’re going to say, okay, well, I’ve moved a certain amount of times for radio. I’ve lived in all these different places for radio. Now it’s time for radio to come to me a little more, and that’s when you can start to address balance and things like that.

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