By Dave Foxx
As I sit down to write this, I am still exhausted from my two week Imaging Production Show tour to Florida and Holland. I know, it sounds like real hardship duty, but somebody had to do it and well… damn it, it was my turn.
September 28 and 29 I was in Miami for the ReelMIX 2016 conference. The following Monday and Tuesday it was Haarlem (about 20 km outside of Amsterdam) for The Imaging Days 2016. The only presenter beside myself who was at both shows was the man who ultimately (finally, some say) got my gig at Z100: Staxx.
A couple of times during this “Imaging Marathon Dance,” Staxx and I had a chance to break bread, once in Miami and a couple of times in Holland. I had the opportunity to get to know him a bit better and it gave him a chance to pick my brain about the job and potential land-mines he might face. (Not that there are a lot, but I think it helped him relax a bit more.) In that time and while I watched him perform, I came to really appreciate the wisdom of his being hired to replace me.
When I announced my departure from Z100, certain people very graciously asked about who I thought would be a good fit. I didn’t really know Staxx then, except by reputation. He was not one of my picks at all. Looking back now, had I known him then as well as I do now, he would have been my absolute top pick. He’s steady, humble, creative, thinks around the corner, and while he is new to Pro Tools, he is absolutely not afraid to seek advice. He is everything I was NOT when I got the gig almost 30 years ago.
So, what did I learn on this trip? In Miami, watching Andy Jackson from Production Vault take apart and reconstruct a full beat mixing session was extremely informative. After he was done, I laughingly called him “plug-in boy.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many plug-ins on so many channels for one project… ever.
When the first presentation began Monday morning in Haarlem with Denzil Lacey (RTÉ 2FM/Dublin) carrying two beers up to the stage, I knew it was gonna be a fun conference. After downing a beer and mentioning the all-nighter he’d just survived, he started to take apart and reconstruct a session that rivaled Andy’s in the sheer number of plug-ins involved.
Contrast those two sessions to mine, in which I had exactly SEVEN plug-ins and the obvious question comes up, “Which way is better?” The answer is neither or both, depending on your approach. Plus, there are a couple of other differences that impact this question. One, I bus all the VO, which I’ll explain in a moment. I didn’t see much (if any) bussing on either of these sessions. The other reason, if I’m being honest with myself, is that I pre-package a lot of what I use, long before I open the session. Any VO I use, whether it is mine, another voice, like Kelly’s or drops from movies and TV shows and such, gets SOME treatment before I drop it on a track. To get a true count of plug-ins, I should probably count any that I use in this pre-packaging.
The pre-packaging consists mainly of getting all VO to sound equally loud, with very similar EQ. I do this to literally cut down on the amount of ‘fiddling’ I’ll have to do in a session so I can concentrate on the message instead of the medium. Anyone who has read much of my ramblings or seen me speak knows that my entire focus is on the message.
If ’why’ is not obvious to you, let me explain a panel I did in Miami about VO and how to get the most out of your station’s voice. Rachel McGrath and Dr. Dave Ferguson joined me on stage with host Jason Garte of the Mix Group. I’ve been a big fan of both Rachel and Dave for some time, so it pleased me no end to discover that their pet peeves matched mine almost exactly. Dave complained about copy that comes in with different fonts and sizes, sometimes color which is a complete distraction to the VO. Rachel complained about grammar, verbs not agreeing with nouns and a LOT of incomplete sentences. My gripe was poor punctuation and ridiculously long, run-on sentences. All of these problems, which might seem trivial, distract us from the message… the most important part of what we do. When the grammar is messed up, or we’re jumping from one font to another, we’re reading with a technical, intellectual frame of mind, instead of thinking about what we’re saying on an emotional level. Sure, we’re pros, we CAN do it, but it really makes a difference to us when we can simply glide through the message without thinking about what it looks like on the page.
When I pre-package VO for a session, I make a real effort to make each bit of VO sound like it was recorded in the same studio/session as all the others. This not only smoothes out my work by being able to simply checkerboard the tracks, it also smoothes the message out for the listener. I really doubt that any listener would hear two tracks put together and say, “Hey! Those were recorded in different studios or different sessions.” I really DO believe that they sense a difference and consciously or not, know that someone (me) has manipulated the tracks to make them say whatever I want them to say. In other words, it simply doesn’t sound natural. If it doesn’t sound natural, your credibility goes flying out the window and the hype factor starts taking over. It’s paying attention to that kind of detail that makes what we do truly work.
Both Andy and Denzil quickly pointed out that all of those plug-ins they use are very subtly ‘shaping’ the sound of their work. Slamming a track repeatedly with compression would just make it sound harsh and sometimes downright nasty. But by using a combination of very slight EQ changes with gentle compression, they can make a track add just the right nuance to a larger mix. By adding a hint of stereo ‘spread’ to a track, they can expand the instruments to a wider image without fundamentally changing the music. In both of these sessions, centered on beat mixing, they are dealing with music… trying to stretch and pull or shrink and condense music so that the different songs they’re working with flow together. My sessions come after everything has been musically tailored to flow. While I often use Elastic Audio™ to do some stretching or condensing to give my VO perfect little nests to sit in, I never add any kind of plug-in to any music track. It’s extremely important to me that the music sounds the same as when the song is played on the air.
The VO track is another story. While I pre-package my VO tracks a bit, it’s only to get them into the same stadium. The processing I do in the master session is where they are corralled into the same set of box seats. I accomplish that by using bussing.
Every session I make has two sub-masters. The first one adds a PHAT factor, using a stereo Delay plug-in. The left channel gets a 20 ms delay, while the right channel gets 40 ms. Then I pull the overall wetness back to something between 12% and 24%. This adds a bit of stereo spread to the VO, giving it more body and strength, while only minimally adding gain. Only the main VO gets this treatment because it is the main VO that carries the bulk of the message. The output of the PHAT track is then dumped into the second sub-master, along with all the other VO tracks.
The second sub-master adds a fair amount of raw compression to ALL of the VO. This rounds off all the rough edges in the VO, controls those pesky spikes and generally smoothes out the VO tracks so they ride gently on top of the music and effects without a lot of ducking. At this point there are a few things I can do that make my job of mastering supremely simpler. If the music is particularly bright and noisy, I can add a touch of presence to ALL of the VO by dropping in a single seven-band EQ and adding 6 dB gain with a wide Q-factor at 5 kHz and adjust as needed. I can also add some side-chain processing on the VO that will automatically duck my music and effects by a pre-determined amount every time VO is hot.
My sound this month is actually a full-blown video of most of my main presentation in Haarlem. The topic is BRANDING, and in it I give up some closely held secrets of my success in production. This includes an A to Z walk-through of the plug-ins I typically use, including the pre-packaging I’ve been talking about. You’ll want to carve out about 30 minutes to watch the whole thing. I hope you find it useful.
Dave welcomes your correspondence at