R.A.P. Interview: Dave Cockram

Dave Cockram, Production Manager, Indie 88, Toronto, Ontario

Dave-Cockram-1By Jerry Vigil

This month’s interview is another one that’s been long overdue. If you’ve been keeping up with the audio on the R.A.P. CD over the years, you’ve no doubt heard some pretty good work coming from Rogers Radio in Vancouver, going all the way back to 2006. That was coming from Dave. He’s no longer with Rogers Radio. Dave recently moved to Toronto to take on the imaging for a brand new station, Indie 88, an indie formatted station with all the potential to let Dave’s creative side really shine, and it has already, as you’ll hear on this month’s CD. So plug it in, crank it up, and read on!

JV: Tell us how you got into the business and some of the highlights along the way to where you are now.
Dave: Well I started at a not for profit religious station in Barrie, Ontario right out of high school. I was doing a full day co-op program, which meant I’d go to work for free just to see if I’d like it or not. I was doing light production like recording talk shows off of satellite. Then eventually a producer position became available, and I stayed there for five years.

Then I got a job as a junior producer out in Vancouver. I moved out there, and was there for nine years -- kind of stayed there forever, went from junior to senior producer. Then I moved, literally three months ago, back home to Toronto -- which isn’t too far from my actual hometown -- to work for a hometown company, an independent company, Central Ontario Broadcasting. They also had radio stations in Barrie.

I grew up listening to Rock 95, which is their station, and they started this new thing called Indie 88, which is like a new format. You probably know that we have to play a certain amount of Canadian content to help out the Canadian music industry, so it’s always been one of those things that’s sometimes a pain in programmers’ sides because everyone is like, no more Bare Naked Ladies and Nickelback. Everyone’s got to play the Canadian music, but there’s so much on tap, stuff that’s not even hitting the airwaves. So this format really excited me. The independent rock music was very exciting, plus the fact the company was from Barrie. So I jumped on it and it all just seemed to work out. I’ve been there a few months now, we had our launch about two weeks ago and here we are.

JV: That launch audio you sent was great. We’ll put that on the CD for everyone to hear. You spent nine years in Vancouver, and a lot of that was imaging Jack FM. Have you been doing imaging for the majority of your time in production?
Dave: I started as a junior commercial producer, but I was given the Jack FM features like the concert updates and “what’s going on” or whatever. Then I’d take the odd promo from my boss, and eventually after a few years they just made me the imaging guy. Then when they flipped 104.9 to Sonic, which is Top 40, they moved me from Jack to Sonic. Then the guy who took over Jack left, and then I was doing Jack and Sonic. So it was pretty hairy close to the end, doing two stations and trying to split my brain like that. But it was definitely exciting and I really liked the Jack format; I just think I was doing it too long. I was excited for the change, to do something different. Nine years is a long time just to be doing the same sort of thing. It was good, though. I always liked Jack. Obviously there’s the attitude, and Howard is a hilarious voice talent. I could make the material very simple; it didn’t need much because the writing was so good. Oftentimes it was just cutting backgrounds, not even any music. I didn’t need to overkill it like CHR. It is what it is, and you can let it breathe and say what it needs to say without bombarding people with sound effects.

JV: Your title at Indie 88 is Production Manager. Are your responsibilities solely imaging that one station now?
Dave: Right now it’s just imaging the station. Eventually we have to start running commercials, so I’m going to have to find a commercial producer and a writer. That will be next on the list. It’s fun being a part of a startup, definitely interesting. It’s the first time I’ve ever really been in charge of something. Making decisions is always a challenge. It’s definitely a stretch but a good stretch.

JV: What format was the station before switched?
Dave: I believe it was Ryerson University’s radio license, and it got revoked by the CRTC for some time. It was like a college station. Once that license got revoked, I think there were 20 applications for it, and the hometown guys got it. Getting a license like that is really like winning the lottery.

JV: Tell us a bit more about the company, Central Ontario Broadcasting. How many stations do they have?
Dave: Now they’ve got three -- Rock 95 in Barrie, Kool FM in Barrie, and Indie 88 in Toronto. And I know this will sound totally crazy but I believe they own part of a station in Russia.

JV: It’s interesting they would try an independent format like that. I mean they’re not expecting to take the city by storm and be number one in six months or anything with an independent format, I would guess.
Dave: Who knows? I’m not sure where they want to be in ratings. What I think they want to do is run an organic kind of business; something that isn’t caught up in the machine. We’ll still play Mumford and Sons and those indie sounding bands that are breaking through, but I think what they really want to do is be able to play things without having to worry about it. Radio has become very reactive and not progressive in regards to music. Everyone plays the same songs, and all the stations compete with each other. If no one else is playing it, nobody is going to add it. We just want to do something different, and if there’s a good Canadian band in Toronto --  there’s one band I really like now called July Talk that we play all the time -- the station is going to let you know we’re going the help break music, and that’s what’s exciting about it.

The name throws a lot of people off I think because everyone’s like, Indie? Well how Indie is it and what is Indie? Well no one can ever really explain that because there are so many different definitions, but I think the main thing is we’re not a big company. We’re not a conglomerate. This was created by people who love music and hopefully that comes through in what people hear. We’ll see what happens. Who knows?

JV: That sounds like a special place to be.
Dave: For sure.

JV: The submissions you’ve sent for the CD are consistently some of the best material we get. What is it about your approach to imaging that you feel sets you apart from the norm out there?
Dave: I don’t really know. I’ve been doing it forever. I’d say I’ve been doing it almost my whole life. Even before I worked in radio or even knew that that position existed, I was making mix tapes from CDs or records and finding weird clips of audio from other CDs and other sources and putting those between songs. When I started at the radio station I’m like, oh, there’s an actual job where people put things between songs. I just sort of knew that was for me.

And radio was great because I think I have ADD and I like working with sound. I went back to film school in 2008 because I thought I wanted to do something different, but the reality is, I could do so many small projects in a day in radio, and in film you’re on the same project for three months. At the end of the day, I have a pile of work I did and I really enjoy that.

But as far as what sets me apart, I just take something that’s been done before and I try to expand on it. It’s as simple as that. Every session I make, it’s a template from before, but I’ll always try to add something different, whether it is a piece of processing or something else where I can always see progress as I go. Now my sessions are getting so crazy that I always have to delete tracks and watch my CPU load just because I’m always trying to add to stuff.

I don’t know. I wish I could tell you. I think my stuff has a particular style. I always try to beat match everything as much as I can. I try to use organic sounds, nothing too harsh. I try to avoid library as much as possible -- not that libraries are bad or not necessary. I just think that after a while everything is going to start sounding the same. When you’re taking somebody else’s work and putting it in there, there’s not as much craft I guess.

JV: Yes, I noticed on one of your profile pages that you said you didn’t use an imaging library at Indie 88.
Dave: What I suggested to them is to consider that they spend, say four grand a year on an imaging library, and I’m like, just buy me plug-ins. Buy me a $50 drum machine. If you just want to run beats we can make our own that won’t sound like anybody else’s, and it’s a one-time thing. They got me some plug-ins.

I had a couple of months to think about how I wanted to put that station together, so I got all the music from their library and I skimmed every song. I think it was about 1200 songs to start. I then sorted through them all, sorted them by tempo, then sorted them by the ones I wanted to take samples from. Every splitter right now, and every ID, has been built from the Indie 88 music library. Sometimes it’s just a one-loop sample over the drum beat, and if there are any effects, that’s from the sound effects library I built when I was in Vancouver.

I just wanted to do something where it was totally mine. It was definitely hard work, and to be totally honest, once we start running commercials and such, I don’t know if I’m going to have time to keep that up, but it’s definitely something I wanted to do and experiment with. Hopefully it sounds different and unique. That’s the goal, and it’s definitely a lot of work. I just don’t want it to sound like anything else. I don’t want it to sound out of a box; I want it to sound organic and like an Indie station. Sometimes it’s rock, sometimes it’s a weird synth bed and sometimes it’s just drums. It’s kind of all over the place. Hopefully they like it.

JV: You have a great voice. Are you using it for the imaging on the station?
Dave: No. We use Alan Cross, who is a big Toronto broadcaster who’s worked in the industry for years. We call him our guidance counselor. He’s a voice that’s familiar to Toronto. He gives us a sense of credibility because people know him, and it seems to work. I don’t do much voice work on imaging for the station. It’s all him and another girl, Ami Amato, who works in Barrie, at our Barrie station.

JV: You said Alan is real familiar in the market. How is that? From other stations?
Dave: He did a show, “The Ongoing History of New Music”, for a long time on The Edge, which was a groundbreaking alternative station in Toronto for a long time. He remains relevant as a music guru guy. A lot of people in the beginning were actually worried about using him. Alan has never done imaging before, and we were not sure how it was going to sound. But it sounds like Alan; he’s really processed but that’s definitely the sound we want. I think it’s familiar to Toronto, that voice, and I think it sounds definitely revitalized.

JV: That’s kind of odd that a station would say we want the voice of this guy that’s most associated with this other radio station.
Dave: I think that was a move made on purpose. I think that was a strategic move just to be able to say, we’ve got this guy now. It wasn’t my idea but I think it was a good one.

JV: Does he use his name on the imaging or on the station? Does he say, “This is Alan Cross”?
Dave: No he doesn’t. Not unless he’s doing his own show. He did one show through us. We’re running a feature right now called “The Throne of Glory”, which is where different artists or music industry people come in for a couple of hours and play whatever songs they want. He did one of those, and I think everyone saw that it was Alan -- nice to hear Alan back on the radio, all that sort of stuff. He doesn’t do any endorsements or anything when he reads promos or IDs. He’s the voice of God.

Dave-Cockram-3

JV: That session template that keeps growing, is that a Pro Tools session template?
Dave: Yes. I love Pro Tools. It’s a love hate thing because it’s so finicky and temperamental. I just like the precision editing. I swear by Pro Tools.

JV: Has that always been your DAW of choice?
Dave: No, I started on the 4-channel SAW way back when, 13-14 years ago. Then it was Cool Edit, then it was Adobe Audition, then I went to Vancouver and we went to something called Soundscape, which was very similar to Pro Tools and it was actually the most rock solid audio editor I ever used. It would never crash and it was fast, and I could really work it. But it was very limited in regards to plugins and things like that. So we upgraded to Pro Tools in 2010 or thereabouts. We all got it in Vancouver. It’s been a life changer. You can really do whatever you want with Pro Tools; if you want to do a song or whatever, I just find it easier. We also use Adobe Audition for light editing and mastering a few things.

I’m not super picky. I prefer Pro Tools, but I think heck, as long as you’re doing good work, just work with whatever you’ve got.

JV: You’ve only been using it then for three years right?
Dave: Yes. When I went to film school, they taught it pretty extensively there. That was one of the reasons I went. That really helped my technical ability. Voice over music and coaching talent and adding sound effects wasn’t a problem, but I just wanted to go a little deeper. I had been doing it for about eight years at that point, and I was like okay, I need to be challenged again. It was a good time.

JV: How much freedom are you given with the imaging? Are you writing most of the material?
Dave: Adam Thompson the PD, and Raina the Music Director, usually do all the writing. But as far as the sound of it, I’ve never been asked to change anything yet, other than things like, can you make the music off the top just a little tighter. There would be a few small changes, but they’re letting me go crazy.

JV: You’re also doing some post-production audio for the online video content, is that right?
Dave: Yes, which is kind of fun actually because I haven’t posted a video probably since film school. We had a couple of TV ads. One for Rock 95 came through and they wanted some enhancements on the sound, and so I did that. And when they showed me the 15 second launch piece video for Indie, I’m like you should give that to me because I’ve got ideas. There’s streetcars going past, there’s a girl putting her headphones on, and I just know there are ways we can add specifics to this video. Sometimes it was just backgrounds with bikes going by and stuff, but that’s one thing I learned in film school -- anything you see you should hear when you cut for video. That’s been fun.

They want the radio station to be an extension of the brand, and they’re pretty committed to doing online content. So I’m making playlists, video interviews… We have Indie TV on the website, and they definitely want to build content. That’s something that in my experience wasn’t really done before; it was all about making content for the radio, and the website was just the place to get information and stuff. Now they really want to do cool things for music in general so it’s exciting.

JV: How do you compare the two, doing strictly audio versus doing video post?
Dave: One of the reasons I didn’t want to get into film is because you have to work crazy hours. You work with an entire team when you work on a film. There are background editors who just cut background sounds for scenes, and then there’s the sound effects editors, and then you have the special effects editor, then you have the dialogue guy, the guy who has to rerecord all the voice parts and sync that back up to video if they’re not right or they don’t sound good. And there’s the Foley guy.

There are really a million things you could do in film. There are a lot of different jobs and a lot of different opportunities, but what I didn’t like about it was it was very literal in the sense that, for example, when working on a student film, what kind of room are they in? You have to use your eyes and your ears, right? So find the right reverbs. And what kind of doorknob did he just touch? Is it metal? So I have to find a metal doorknob sound. Then you just line it up. I found it very tedious and monotonous. And like I said before, I like radio because it’s just me and the PD. It’s a lot easier to keep one person happy than an entire team.

And when you really think about it, you can do whatever you want. You can make your pieces for radio as simple or as insane as you want. But with film -- unless you’re doing like a sci-fi movie or a horror movie or a cartoon or something where you can really bend the rules -- you’re pretty much tied to maintaining realistic. There’s not as many ways you can branch out and get out there. That’s when radio really started opening up for me. I can do whatever I want. I can make this as loud as I want and use whatever music I want. I try to think of every piece as almost like a movie or something. This is my soundtrack to my creation, and you can have a lot of creative control in it. I never really appreciated that until much later in my career.

JV: It’s the old saying about theater of the mind. Radio offers that theater of the mind, and you pretty much explained how that gets taken away when you have to deal with video.
Dave: Yes. It’s very literal for sure.

JV: Where do you go for creative inspiration? Or does it just flow on demand like out of a faucet?
Dave: No, there are some days I don’t produce anything. Some days I’ve got a lot of menial tasks to do, so if I need to cut hooks or something, I’ll do that on the days I know I’ve got nothing upstairs. And then other days like the last two for me were super productive. I just built a million shells because I know there’s going to be more imaging coming down the pike. Announcers are going to start soon, so I just had two afternoons where I was able to crank out the work.

When I look for specialty pieces of music, I try to find pieces that I really enjoy listening to. It’s the same as when I was doing stuff for Sonic -- I’d try and find the coolest electro rock song or whatever song that would really psych me up, and then it’s not as much of a pain to listen to it 50, 60 times while you’re mixing something because it’s got a piece of you in it. It’s like, this is awesome because the song is awesome, and now this imaging is going to be awesome. Sometimes it actually starts with a good song for me, taking pieces of the library, ripping cool parts and flipping them around. Just basically rebuilding things is something I guess I do well.

JV: I’ve done the exact same thing -- look for music that’s not on the playlist but would fit in a promo, something with a kick ass intro or a riff in the middle that was just so cool. Maybe from a song that’s deep in an album. I know what you’re talking about.
Dave: For sure. And there are so many breaks everywhere in songs. I find I’m constantly re-listening for things I can use somewhere. Every time I watch a movie it’s like I’m always running a sub-filter -- should I download this soundtrack? Or listening to any song on the radio or songs my friends are playing for me or songs and sound effects from video games; it’s like I can’t turn it off. I’m always saving things for later. It’s really weird and almost obsessive.

JV: What are some of the skills you’ve picked up along the way that you would say are key to your style of production? What do you think you tap into most often?
Dave: I think it was definitely film school. That’s sort of where things really started to sound better for me, and it’s kind of where my brain got cracked open. I had always been interested in sound and stuff. I remember having just total mental blocks. Like if I wanted it to sound a certain way or if I wanted to make a song, I would want to do it but I just didn’t know how. When I went to film school, I learned a ton there. I learned about synthesis and Pro Tools. I learned how to use Reason. We learned portable recording, music production, audio restoration, music theory. There were a lot of things that I can pull from now after going back, so I think that was a big one for me.

And I think this is just something that I’ve always just done like I mentioned before: before I even knew it was a job, I was recording TV show theme songs from VHS and onto cassette. I’ve been sampling stuff forever. I think part of it is natural; it’s something I like to do naturally. I don’t know if I was born with it or what. And then it’s just something I was able to refine a little later.

JV: So what’s your favorite kind of production to do? What do you look forward to the most?
Dave: I like things that are musical. I haven’t done many, but I’ve done a few parody songs, and those are always interesting and hard to do. And making a song is not like making a promo. There’s definitely more work involved in that. So that’s exciting. I like doing interesting pieces like the launch piece. I’ve never gotten to do one before, so when I was getting interviewed at Indie they wanted some specs, and I was like, well I’m going to make you a spec launch piece because I think that’s probably what you want to hear because you’re launching a station, and I’ve never gotten to make one, so it’s a win-win.

I like doing things that aren’t things we do just because we do them. Radio does these things like legal IDs and montages and stuff like that. I think at the end of the day the average listener doesn’t know the difference between a promo and a commercial; it’s very similar to their ears right? I’d really like to branch out and do more branding within the songs, like building our own custom intros like you would get on an imaging library. That’s something that very much interests me.

And helping the playlist flow much better… Sometimes I think we shouldn’t run splitters between songs. Everyone looks at me like, you’re crazy! You need to know what you’re listening to, and blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, you know, I think IDs in general are from a different time where people had to slam the station call letters over people’s heads so they would remember to write it down in a diary. Now no one has to write anything down; it’s all PPM and people can look at their dashboard and see what the frequency is. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I think there are smarter ways that we can run imaging that is less intrusive to the ear. That’s something I would like to explore more, and hopefully they’ll let me take a few chances here. I don’t know but we’ll see.

JV: You’re talking my language there. If you are allowed to forget about the call letters and the positioning statement when you cut an ID, all of a sudden you have the opportunity to image the station based upon other things. I mean fashion or food or movies or anything. You can connect the station to that in new ways.
Dave: We’ll see if it works or how far we can take it. It’s just something to think about. And I always like asking questions like, are we doing this because we should do it because it’s a good idea or are we doing it just because we’ve always done it this way. After doing it for so long, you’ve got to start asking those questions.

JV: Aside from film school, what advice would you give to newcomers to radio production that would like to follow your footsteps to the major markets?
Dave: I would say always experiment, always try things. And you’ve really got to stick it out. I’ve had a fairly long career, and there have been a few times along the road where I was pretty close to throwing in the towel. You’ve got to trust yourself, knowing what you’re doing sounds good. You’re going to have to eat a lot of poop sometimes and do work you don’t want to do -- who knows what sort of situations you’ll get in, but it’s hard to make a living in audio. It took me a long time and a lot of effort, and now it’s sort of paid off almost. I’m back home, I’m close to my family, and it’s been kind of a wild ride.

I would say the biggest thing is stick to it for as long as you can. There are a lot of people here, they get into radio for a year or two and then they don’t like it. They get out; they can’t make any money. That’s a whole other topic that I think is sad. I think if you stick with something, you do it well, and then people won’t have a choice but to seek you out and find you.

And secondly, there’s attitude. I can tell you right now my attitude has gotten me further than my technical skill ever has. Always try to be positive. I don’t mean play the game trying to get along with everybody. I mean just don’t whine all the time. And when stuff gets rough, sometimes you just have to take it and do it because that’s the job and it’s hard. Before my technical skill really got better, it was more about attitude. I was a guy who maybe wasn’t the best but could definitely move the work and do it with a smile. Sometimes at the end of the day, that’s all people want. That’s probably a good thing.

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