Production 212: Easy-Bake Oven Production

Prod212-Logo 2014 webBy Dave Foxx

It is the season of the awards shows. The Grammys, The Oscars, CMA Awards, SAG Awards, iHeartRadio Music Awards, The People’s Choice Awards and The Tony Awards… just to mention a few, seem to pop up on one of the networks just about every weekend. I’m pretty sure that Jerry Vigil is planning some kind of awards show for the RAP Awards soon. I can almost hear Ellen Degeneris announcing, “The Best Major Market Promo goes to….” But, I digress. While some of these and other award soirees are of passing interest to our audience, the really big ones in the radio world revolve around music. Last month, the Grammy Awards, hosted by LL Cool J were all over the entertainment TV shows and the main event was carried by CBS. The two weeks or so before the show and the week after called for some production of sweepers for many of you. Now that the 57th Annual Grammy Awards is in the history books, I thought it might be instructive to talk about “cookie cutter” production, especially to some of our younger, less experienced production brothers and sisters. This is one of the few places I think it is ever warranted.

Cookie cutters are wonderful little gadgets that allow bakers to bake dozens of perfectly shaped gingerbread men or Christmas stars. They make up a big batch of cookie dough, roll it out and then use the cutter to make shaped cookies appropriate to the season or event. Once baked and decorated, every kid and adult delights in eating these treats.

Cookie cutter production allows the producer to knock out dozens of sweepers or stagers that introduce artists they normally play as nominees or winners of the various award categories. “Z100 with a 2015 nominee for Song Of The Year at the Grammys… Shake It Off by Taylor Swift.” “Kiss-FM presents another iHeartRadio Music Awards nominee for Best Fan Army… 5 Seconds Of Summer.” “96-3 KSCS with CMA Award nominated Album Of The Year… Platinum by Miranda Lambert.” If you’ve been doing this for a while, I’m sure you’ve produced a few of these, as have I. This column will outline my basic ‘recipe’ for creating these little gems, the hope being that it will prove useful the next time you’re called upon to cater your stations “Awards Party.”

The secret to good cookie cutter production is in the ingredients. Start by doing some research into which categories are pertinent to your operation. Since the Grammys are still fresh in my mind; we’ll stick with those as we did them on Z100 for this recipe. While we DO play some Hip Hop and R&B, there were only a couple of nominees that we play. The categories we were most interested in were:

  1. Song Of The Year
  2. Album Of The Year
  3. Record Of The Year
  4. Best New Artist Of The Year
  5. Best POP Solo Performance Of The Year
  6. Best POP Duo/Group Performance Of The Year
  7. Best POP Vocal Album Of The Year

Not all of the nominees in all of these categories were pertinent to Z100’s playlist. For example, the Best New Artist category only had three artists played on Z100 this year. So, I only had to make a stager for those three: Bastille, Iggy Azalea and Sam Smith.

Writing the copy for these stagers begins the recipe. The station, the categories and the nominees are the three main ingredients. First, I wrote three station lead-ins: “Z100 presents…”, “Now, on Z100…” and a simple “Z100…”. I usually go with an odd number of these to help keep it different each time. Whatever the case, I make sure it’s fewer than the number of categories to give horizontal as well as vertical rotation. (This will make more sense in the mixing phase.) By the way, avoid making the mistake of writing, “Z100 with…” as this is almost impossible to make it sound natural. If you must use the word “with”, put it at the beginning of the second part.

Then, I write the categories with a couple of different twists. “2015 Grammy Award nominee for Song Of The Year…” would be one. The next could be, “Nominated for Album Of The Year at the 2015 Grammy Awards…”. A third example would be, “The Best New Artist Of The Year Grammy nominee…”. Then you can write them all out again, but substitute the word “winner” for “nominee.”

Finally, you write out all the pertinent nominees. If it’s for the song, performance or album, write, “Fancy by Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX,” otherwise just the artist name will suffice.

Send it off for voice work (or voice it yourself) and once you have the tracks in hand, you’re ready to begin actual production.

Once your tracks are edited, start with effects. At Z100, we try to make all stagers and sweepers work with the music we’re playing, so I stay away from musical effects like orchestral hits or full music tracks. When one of these pieces plays, the music will almost always be the intro of the song itself, so the effect cannot fight with that music. No rhythm and no ‘key’ should come into play or you will create a train wreck every time it plays back. A basic BANG into a white noise sweep effect that lasts the duration of the stager works best every time. That white noise effect keeps it from being dry when the following song has little or no intro, but when the intro IS there, your effect won’t be fighting it. I will pull in or create more than the number of station intros written, but fewer than the number of categories, again to keep it fresh each time.

In the case of the Grammys, I created 5 stager effects, each 20 seconds long, placed them on my timeline at 20-second intervals and then duplicated that track horizontally several times, giving myself 45 or so stager bases. If you’re making a larger batch, by all means, keep duplicating.

Place your station intros over the first 3 stager bases, either matching the beginning of the effect, or offsetting by 100 to 300 milliseconds. Once they are placed, select them all and duplicate that track horizontally as many times as needed to match all the stager bases. (Remember, they all start at 20-second intervals, so this part is ridiculously easy.)

Add your category lines on a different track. If there are 5 nominees in the first category, you need to the duplicate that track horizontally five times. Add the second category on the same track over the sixth stager base and duplicate just that line as many times as needed for the second category. Continue that way until all the category lines are laid out.

The last layout step of course, is adding the various nominees to each stager on another track and making sure each stager’s three vocal components are going to play back the way you want them to. Then, trim the effect to each stager’s end of VO. This insures that when the deejay on-duty grabs it to play into the nominated song or artist, he or she will know precisely how long it is and can back-time to the song’s vocal. The jock sounds like a genius, YOU sound like a genius and your PD can brag, “I’m a genius,” to anyone gullible enough to believe it. (Well, your PD did hire you, right?) Everybody is happy.

Now, you can add another dimension to your absolute genius by copying the entire session and then substitute the “winner” versions of the VO category lines for the “nominee” lines. As soon as the winner is announced, you can simply drop the winning nominee version into your system and you are good to go. This past Grammy night, I had all of the stagers already in my archive at work. Once a winner was announced, I jumped into the system remotely, dragged the winning version into the system and sent out an email to the PD, MD and deejay on-duty. The winning Song Of The Year was on the air 2 minutes after it was announced. Sadly, for me, I could probably have just done one congratulatory stager for Sam Smith and called it a night, since he walked away with the lion’s share of the little golden gramophones. Who didn’t see that coming?

For my audio this month [click here to listen], I’m posting a few of the congratulatory stagers that did NOT air, just because it hurts my feelings to know I worked on these to no avail. Nobody else will ever hear them. Note that I made two completely different batches of these because we wanted to make them a little more personalized for the station. The female voice is the ubiquitous Kelly Kelly Kelly, and the male VO is our (relatively) new PD, Mark Medina, who was dragged into the studio, mostly kicking and screaming.

Dave Foxx is the Director of Creative Services for Clear Channel New York. He welcomes your comments and questions at davefoxx@clearchannel.com.

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