This month, I want to turn that on its head and focus on your USP. What one thing stands out, making you unique over ALL other producers in the world? What makes you the one ideal person to fill your shoes in your place of employment? There is no right answer to this question – it will vary with the individual, so… I lied; there is no pop quiz at the end. However, by the time we finish here, if you don’t already, you should have a pretty clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses. You should precisely know the things you need to improve to make yourself invaluable to your present and all future employers.
To begin, here’s a quick questionnaire. You don’t have to show it to anyone… it’s purely for your own evaluation. A score of 0 would mean the words look like a foreign language… a score of 10 indicates you’ve got that one down pat.
Creative Production Skills
Give yourself a 10 if you…
- Are able to write dialogue clearly and succinctly.
- Can fully parse a sentence and know all the working parts.
- Are able to find a musical downbeat and keep track of “the count”.
- Know when a note is flat or sharp and can adjust it to key.
- Can quickly execute an edit that is accurate to the millisecond.
- Are able to adjust the dynamic range of any recording.
- Can carry on a conversation about harmonic distortion.
- Fully comprehend dynamic compression and expansion.
- Can build a functional gate using any native or add-on plug-in.
- Are fully conversant with current pop culture.
If you score a 100, I’m pretty sure my employers would like to have a chat with you fairly soon. I don’t get a score that high. Sure, I know what all of them mean, but “fully conversant with current pop culture” would be a stretch. I am constantly trying on that one… but fall short just about every time. Then there’s the whole grammar thing. I keep relying on my computer to point out my errors. My constant goal is to write a complete paragraph without any green underlines.
If you have a few 2 and 3 scores in there, you’re hitting the peak of the bell curve, so don’t let it worry you. Again, this is just a bit of self-evaluation you’re doing. The lower scores are areas I think you might need to strengthen.
Why do I need to be able to write dialogue at all?
Good question. Almost every piece of copy you deal with, whether you are writing it or not, is a monologue, one person extolling the benefits of a particular client or radio station. Even when you do use multiple voices, most of the time, they’re not talking to each other; they’re talking in successive copy points, to the audience. And THAT is the point. The audience is the second party in a dialogue. The differences in monologues and dialogues can be subtle, so if you are capable of writing good, breezy dialogue, you can make a subtle shift without changing the substance of the copy provided.
In one of my truly great life experiences, I had a chance to sit outside the booth while the late Ernie Anderson did a session. As one of the premier VO people of the late 20th century, he dazzled me with his pinpoint execution and effortless inflection skills, personalizing every word in the copy. I asked the rookie question, “Does it ever phase you to think about the millions of people who hear this?” He looked at me evenly and said, “I never, EVER think about millions of anything listening to my voice. I concentrate on one person. My life depends on talking to that one person like he is my best friend. I can’t have a dialogue with millions of people, nobody can. I CAN have a dialogue with one person though. And it IS a dialogue, even though he doesn’t talk back.” While that is perhaps not an exact quote, it is the essence of what he said. That’s something that has stuck with me ever since. When I come across a piece of copy that feels stiff, I remember that day, and if I’m the VO, I start using contractions and break up the lines into smaller phrases. When I’m coaching someone else, I tell him or her to picture a friend sitting across the desk and ask him or her to simply tell the friend a story, using the words on the paper or screen.
Being able to write good dialogue automatically opens that door. Whether some hack sales person writes the copy or you do… you can immediately personalize it and make it sing with some very simple adjustments… unless it’s filled with bad grammar.
So, what’s up with “parsing” a sentence? What does that even mean?
I am constantly handed copy that is written in “street.” I get that. Unfortunately, it’s almost always a garbled message, because in the effort to make it sound “street”, the writers tend to throw out the rules of grammar. If you want to make the message come through, every sentence needs at least one noun and one verb. If you can throw in a couple of adjectives and adverbs, it’s usually a good thing. Being able to parse a sentence means you know what all those things are and how they must relate to each other to have the sentence make sense. Not everyone speaks fluent “street.”
Why do I need to know so much about music?
If you ever want to be able to do a beatmix promo, or even beatmatch, you must be able to find the downbeat. If you want to do a really masterful beatmix, you have to know when a note is flat or sharp, and even more, how to adjust for it. These concepts are really quite simple, but they are not something the average person would have a reason to know unless he or she is a musician. If you ARE a musician, you already have this down pat. If not, you must learn. You cannot avoid the need to at least beatmatch in today’s production world.
Editing to the millisecond is easy with the tech we use, isn’t it?
The physical act of editing truly is stupid easy, down to the microscopic level. I kind of included this point to make sure everyone had a “gimme” score. However, there is also a larger point that relates back to the music question; knowing precisely where to make the edit.
Back when I was a baby deejay in Washington, DC, I walked into a studio once where two of the greats in this business had been struggling for the better part of an hour to make a music edit. Don Geronimo and Bruce Kelly were trying to make a “clean” version of a song by cutting a word out and replacing it with a clean beat from elsewhere in the song. Keep in mind this was long before the concept of a DAW even existed. They had copied the song onto an open reel of tape several times and subsequently butchered it with grease pencil and razor blade over and over again. By the time I walked in they had gotten very frustrated. Bruce saw me and said, “You know how to do this… help us out.” I sat down, listened to the song, made a couple of cuts, slapped it back together and it was done in about 20-seconds. Don then politely informed me that he hated my guts. Being a musician of sorts (15 years of piano), I knew immediately what needed to go where. It was stupid simple to do.
There are plug-ins for all that stuff. Can’t I just fiddle with them until it sounds right?
Too true, there are plug-ins for the next four items on the list. If you’ve been doing this for more than a minute, you probably have some good settings that have worked for you before. My real question is, do you know what they do? The reason I ask is you might not want to always use the same settings. What happens when Taylor Swift records some station liners for you in her dressing room on opening night of her tour? It’s noisy, every “P” is popped and there is a definite echo coming back from the walls of that room. Do you really want to sit there for a couple of hours with 40 or 50 plug-ins, experimenting with all the settings trying to make it sound studio quality? I don’t know about you, but I have a LOT more important things to do. I would much rather pop open a couple of plug-ins, make a few adjustments and then get on with the business of making the promo pop out of the radio. Honestly, I seldom want to spend more than 20 minutes on a project… ever, and playing around with the processing is not going to thrill me. My job is not just about turning out quality work, but turning out a LOT of quality work.
Do I really need to know everything about the new heir to the throne of the United Kingdom? Do I even want to know about Rihanna’s quest to trademark her real name?
Probably not, however if you ask the most successful jocks in the world about the new Princess, I’d wager they know an awful lot. The most successful jocks are constantly combing the tabloids, watching every e-news broadcast and keeping up with the top 3 or 4 TV shows every week. Pop culture is the common ground they share with their audience. Even if they NEVER talk about some of that stuff, they have it at the ready for any on-air situation. They will use a good portion of that information every day. You should be equally prepared, again not because you will use it all, but because some of it WILL be needed… even if it’s just to understand why a line in your copy is funny.
Look, I sincerely doubt many of you will have a score above 90. Chances are good that most of you are hitting around 60. That’s not awful… it’s just average. Most readers of this column have been doing this for a while. If you’re in market 289 but would like to move up to a top 10 market, you need to step up your game. What you’re doing now is clearly sufficient to work where you are, and if you’re happy, then go in peace. Join the PTA, get yourself a nice place to call home, but try to step up your game anyway. Your boss will love what you’re doing and you can stay there for as long as you like. If you ARE anxious to get to the next level… well, you know what to do.
For my sound this month (on the Soundstage), a fun promo that involved the entire air staff at Z100. Everybody but the morning show recorded their various parts at different times and places -- Ryan Seacrest at his studios in Los Angeles, JJ in the on-air studio and Mo Bounce at his home studio in New Jersey. To make it hang together, I first recorded the morning show and sent the edited track to Ryan, JJ and Mo, so they could try to catch the vibe that Elvis and his crew laid down. I think it played out very nicely, making it almost sound… spontaneous.
Dave Foxx is the Director of Creative Services for iHeartMedia New York. He welcomes your comments and questions at