Production 212: Remembering My Roots

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

A few days ago, I got a package from former PD and long-time friend, Steve Kingston. In it was a cassette tape he’d found, filled with all the promos I did for The Ramblin’ Raft Race, an annual promotion we did when we were both at Washington powerhouse station WPGC. In those days, WPGC was a purebred CHR station that absolutely rocked our nation’s capital. Fast-forward to today and you’ll hear a purebred URBAN station that’s still rocking the District of Columbia, albeit with a lot more funk.

At the risk of dating myself (even more than I have), I’ll tell you that I did these promos without benefit of a digital workstation. They simply had not been invented yet. The only computers in the station were big old clunky IBM AT model computers with 56k of RAM and gigantic 512k hard drives, and they were reserved for keeping logs and writing letters. A gigabyte of RAM was simply unheard of, at least in our operation. All the production was done with a broadcast console, two turntables, a single triple-stack of cart machines and two big reel-to-reel tape machines. We were fortunate in that we also had a graphic equalizer and a Yamaha SP-90 effects box. Editing supplies consisted of a stack of razor blades, a reel or two of special sticky editing tape and a yellow china marker. To most of you, this probably all sounds foreign, even alien, but we did some pretty cool work with this collection of what would be considered antique junk these days.

Part one of this month’s Production 212 audio selection is one of those promos. Please pardon the excruciating quality, but it has been sitting on an audio–cassette for a long time. If you have the CD, go ahead and listen to the promo and then hit pause before you continue.

As I recall, these promos took a ton of time to put together, as much as 4 or 5 hours. Today, I could probably knock one out in 20 to 25 minutes on my DAW.

The third part of the audio (I’ll get to the middle in a minute) is something I produced more recently, that has as much or more overall production quality in spite of the fact that it only took one-eighth of the time. One of the primary reasons it takes so much less time is bussing, which you may recall was one of the central themes of last month’s column.

Last month, I talked about creating sub-masters, which treat all the audio that goes through them with various processing plug-ins. The audio from each track (or group of tracks) was sent to a sub-master for treatment before it is sent to the Master Fader. It’s a fairly linear path for the audio that gives you a lot of flexibility in the mix. (Track –> Sub-Master –> Master) In this edition, I want to introduce you to sends and returns. On the face of it, this will sound very similar to our processing bussing, but it is actually quite distinct in that it makes a copy of whatever is being sent, which is then mixed with the original signal. Depending on where you return the copied signal, it can either go to the same sub-master as the original or directly to the master fader. Now that I’ve laid it out, let me explain why you would want to do this.

Let’s say you’re creating a piece in which two people, recorded on separate tracks, are discussing something in a huge vault. You need reverb. You could insert a reverb plug-in on each track, match the settings and be done with it. However, in an effort to make it sound real, you pan the tracks left and right (say 40%). When you insert the reverb this way, the reverberation will pan with the voice. If you have the CD, listen to the next part of the track and I think you’ll understand what I mean.

That isn’t how reverberation works in real life. Natural reverb has a stereo ambience that you need to create. When you pan the voice tracks, you want the source to come from one side and the reverb to come from both sides.

So, create a new Sub-Master in your session and call it “Ambience.” Insert a reverb plug-in on the new Sub and set it for a room size that makes sense to the situation you’re trying to produce. Set the input to come from any unused buss. Set the output of this sub-master to your mix buss. Now, back on the original voice track, click on one of the send buttons and select the same buss as the input of the “Ambience” fader and give it parity gain (+/-0db). Do the same thing again with the other track you want to have reverb on. Now, when you hit playback, it sounds very different. Once more, if you have the CD, let it play through the next part.

Now you can hear the reverb in both channels from each of the voices, while they present a stereo image. The Sub-Master is your return, which in this example is going to the Master. However, you can also return to one of the other Sub-Masters. If the source track is stereo, rather than two mono tracks as we have here, you can even send it back to the original track (using another buss) to be mixed there.

The real beauty of using send and return setups like this is the control you have over the mix. You can grab the “Ambience” fader and adjust the wetness of the reverb for the entire piece, or you can change the room size in the plug-in and the new sound is now universal. You can also grab the fader of each send and make adjustments if you want different degrees of wetness using the same envelope, giving one track more ‘distance.’ And in case you’re wondering, yes…you can do this with ANY effect, although reverb is the one you will most probably use the most often.

One extra bonus feature is automation. You can set it all up to turn on or off at any point in the promo. In my last piece on the audio track, you hear an excellent example of this in the transition from Pink’s song U & Ur Hand to the promo bed. It’s subtle, but definitely there. I added reverb to the last note of Pink’s song, while matching the beats of both. It gives me a very smooth transition, which actually makes it hard to know where one ends and the other begins.

If I had wanted to add just that little tiny bit of reverb doing the Ramblin’ Raft Race promo, it probably would have added another 20 minutes to the production. {sigh} I am SO glad those days are gone.

Hopefully, you now have a basic grasp of the importance of bussing. While it won’t revolutionize the way you produce, it will make things smoother and simpler for you, while giving it an extra-lustrous gloss that will make it stand out from everything else on your local radio dial. Fold all of this into a standard template that works for you, and you’ll be screaming down the audio highway as soon as you start a session for your next promo or commercial.

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