R.A.P. Interview: Chris Neave

Chris Neave, Digital Radio Production Manager, Southern Cross Austereo, Sydney, Australia

Chris Neave 2018 400pxChris’s job title recently caught my eye: “Digital Radio Production Manager” -- the first one I had heard of. Digital radio stations in Australia utilize the DAB+ standard, which is similar to HD radio here in the US. But I am unaware of any group of HD stations in the US who have their own “Production Director”. It was no surprise to discover the company who gave this much attention to its digital stations was Southern Cross Austereo. SCA currently has eight digital stations, for which Chris handles the imaging and more. We take a peek at Chris’s busy day and find out how he manages to turn out so much quality imaging for so many stations. We get into detail on his Pro Tools templates, plug-ins and more. Check out this sampler on the Soundstage for some of Chris’s recent imaging work.

JV: Tell us how you got into radio, and what were some of the stops along the way before landing at Austereo?

Chris: I was completing a Diploma in Audio Engineering at SAE in Brisbane in 1997. I became good friends with the manager there at the time because I was always in there recording, mixing or just hanging around. Austereo rang him regarding a carting position that was available at 104.5 Triple M, and they asked him whether he could recommend anybody there for the gig. He recommended me. I had an interview and then 2 days trial and then the rest as they say, is history. I learnt my trade on ¼” 2-track tapes and actual carts and also learnt to make commercials on an 8-track Tascam multitrack. Then along came Pro Tools.

I spent some time as a Show Producer for a couple of breakfast shows, where I also wrote comedy scripts and performed as characters on air. I also ended up on air myself doing breakfast radio and launched a new FM station in the Spencer Gulf in South Australia as Program Director and breakfast show host. By this stage I knew the on air / PD thing wasn’t for me and I got back into production where I have remained to this day.

Since then I spent 2 and a half years as Production Manager in Darwin for the 2 commercial stations there and then 5 years as Nights Imaging Producer at Nova 106.9, Brisbane. It was a great time at Nova being #1 in every day part and overall for the best part of 4 of those years, and I was nominated twice as an ACRA finalist in “Best Achievement In Production – Metro” for my work on Nova’s night show.

I’ve worked for every major network in Australia in one capacity or another but I’ve been back at what’s now known as Southern Cross Austereo since 2014.

JV: Elaborate a bit on your time as the Imaging Producer for Nights at Nova 106.9. What did the job entail, and what did you learn about Imaging during that time? And from your perspective, what was Nova 106.9 doing that made them so dominant for those four years?

Chris: The job of Imaging Producer at Nova 106.9 involved writing, recording, producing and sometimes voicing all the imaging involved with the local night show. In the years since it has become a National show based out of Sydney.

I had come from a provincial station where I was producing up to 30 commercials a day plus imaging for weekly promotions plus client credit changes and other elements for 2 commercial stations. So, I had very little time to spend being as creative as I would have liked.

When I came to Nova, I had to adjust my mentality of just churning everything out as quickly as possible to being able to sit and be creative and write irreverent and topical imaging for the show, and having a lot more time to spend on the quality of my production. I also now had access to great mics, voices, and the latest Pro Tools, which made a massive difference from working on Adobe Audition with a sound desk I sometimes had to hit in the right spot like “The Fonz” -- showing my age -- to get it working. It was like heaven for an Audio Producer. I also learnt that less is more with my imaging. My imaging previously had been quite loud and busy, but it was quickly pared back to a minimum, and most of what I produced was “semi-produced” so it could run over the intro of the next song. It was all about forward momentum and limited stop downs. So my VO, EQ and compression became REALLY important.

The thing that made the Nova brand and Nova 106.9 Brisbane in particular so successful were a number of things. Firstly, the “no more than 2 ads in a row” tactic was a real game changer in Australian radio along with the branding of “Sounds Different.” The station was all about imaging being topical, comical and irreverent. It was led by Production Manager Ben Ryan who is one of the best Imaging Producers in Australia without exception. His work is some of the best stuff getting about, to this day. He’s still in the position and is still a guru. Yes, he’s a buddy but hasn’t paid me any money… as yet.

The other aspect was the people. We really had some of the best people in radio all working together in their roles to achieve the continued success we had. Not just on air but EVERYONE. I never really felt part of the station or its success for over 12 months. I felt like a bit of a Johnny come lately, but after I earned an ACRA nomination for my production, I thought maybe I had earned my stripes. I guess the final part of the puzzle was communication between all the working parts of the station. Everybody was on the same page, all working towards the continued success of the station. We also worked hard… and partied hard. That helped too.

JV: How did your job as Digital Radio Production Manager at SCA come about? Were they looking for someone to fill that position, or was the position created after you had already joined SCA? And what are your responsibilities as Digital Radio Production Manager?

Chris: In 2015 there wasn’t a great need for an Audio Producer for SCA’s digital stations yet. They were all basically music and sweepers. That changed when it was decided to have “Nights With Alice Cooper” air every night on Triple M Classic Rock. I had worked for MCM (then Authentic Entertainment) who supplied the show, so I was familiar with it. It’s a 5 hour show with 30+ segments, so I was asked if I could start taking care of that.

Around about the same time, my current boss, Adam Williscroft, was employed as the new Content Director for the digital stations. From that moment onwards a lot more content was created for the stations, whether that be through other syndicated shows being added or locally produced elements created to really improve the sound and structure of all the DAB+ stations. The workload continued to grow. I was only meant to be there up to a certain date and then that was it, but when it came to the Friday I finished up, Adam said, “Just come in Monday.” And I just kept coming in.

There were a couple of false starts. A number of stations were closed down, and I thought that maybe my job would either be reduced significantly in hours, which is was for a period, or be extinguished altogether. But then decisions were made to launch new stations and bring back Triple M Classic Rock, which had been a favourite among listeners. From there my job grew exponentially. I was basically a full time casual for 2 years, and then with the monetisation of the stations as commercials were added, I was given the full time role as Digital Radio Production Manager. That was in October of last year.

So now in 2018 there are 8 SCA digital stations. They’re divided between the “Hit” brand and the “MMM” brand. On the “Hit” side there is Buddha Hits, Easy Hits, Old Skool Hits and the newly launched Urban Hits. On the “MMM” side there’s Triple M Classic Rock, Triple M Greatest Hits, Triple M Modern Digital and the reasonably new Triple M Country. I probably produce about 90% of the imaging for all these stations other than Modern Digital, which “Sideshow” Michael Andersen takes care of. I do get assistance from other Producers in the network for particular elements. I certainly couldn’t do it all without their assistance of which I’m grateful for.

The rest of my duties include loading syndicated shows and producing local shows every week, adding tracks to our extensive music library and just keeping everything running as smoothly as possible. There’s definitely no down time. If I’m not working on one station then it’s another. But the variety of work is actually a positive because my weeks are never the same.

JV: It sounds like you’re doing a TON of work every day. You’re not alone in that respect. How do you maintain such a high quality of work and still turn out so much material on top of your other duties? What techniques and strategies do you use to be efficient with your time?

Chris: I generally plan my day in my Microsoft calendar. I have blocks of time located for every show and replay that goes to air, and I also have blocks where the emails will arrive for syndicated shows and I’ll load the upcoming week’s segments and tag promos, etc. So every week there’s already set tasks, and I then fill in my time around those with other jobs according to priority. It’s imperative that you’re organised, not just with workflow, but with things like Pro Tools templates, individual station folders for sessions, and I also have an external hard drive with is super organised in years, stations, monthly, and weekly show folders as well as individual imaging folders, music loaded folders, Imaging FX and SFX, etc., etc.

But then, like all producers will know, some days that all gets thrown out the window because something has happened like a rock star death for instance, where you put everything down and start sourcing content to cover that. Then at the end of the day you mop everything up and finish the jobs you thought you’d get out of the way by lunch time. I don’t like going home with stuff hanging over my head, so generally I’d rather stay and finish stuff just for peace of mind.

As far as quality of work goes, my ethos has been for years that every piece of audio I produce is just as important as the last, whether that be a large promo or a cold ID. It’s still my work and it represents me and the effort I put in. When I’ve lectured at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), I’ve often told the students learning audio production that it’s the 1-percenters that make the difference between wanting to be a good Producer and a great one. You’ve got to take the time to make stuff exactly right. Not just kinda right. Also, when I’m under the pump, I remind myself that I can only do one thing at a time. If you’re anxious about all the other stuff you’ve got to do instead of concentrating on the task at hand, you’ll start making mistakes or taking short cuts where near enough is good enough… and it isn’t.

JV: Are you still lecturing regularly at AFTRS?

Chris: I haven’t really done much stuff with AFTRS for a while due to my workload preventing me, but last year there were a couple of things I did with them.

Firstly, everybody studying the full time AFTRS radio course would have to do a production session whether they liked it or not, so as to get a solid grounding in all aspects of commercial radio. That session was a lecture where I explained to them what went into building promos and sweepers, etc. and teaching them about EQ, compression and different effects you could use on voices and such.

There is a mentor side of the course for students who had a particular interest in production. They had to make promos and other production for the in-house station that AFTRS runs every year. They build it from scratch. So I was there to just let them go building the stuff they needed to build and be a sounding board for any problems or questions they might have as they were making the audio.

JV: One thing I’ve noticed about your imaging work is intricate use of EQ on the voice tracks, with judicious use of delays, distortion and flanging. Do you apply these effects on the fly like a jazz musician improvising as he plays, or is there a conscious, methodical application there? What’s your philosophy and/or strategy when applying EQ and effects to voice tracks?

Chris: That’s a good question. I’ve never really had to explain this before. So, I use a similar template for every station. I have 8 mono voice tracks which have a 7-band EQ, Renaissance Compressor and UAD Precision Limiter on them. They all get bussed to a reverb, and I turn down the input to the reverb via the automation on every track. The reverb length stays the same, but the mix of it on my individual tracks will vary from maybe 50% to totally off, just depending on what I want. I also have 8 stereo tracks below my VO tracks for music and fx. I mostly don’t use them all, but they’re there for big projects. On my master track I’ve got the UAD limiter to get everything nice and level and loud, but I don’t like smashing it. I don’t believe you have to, to get a great sounding mix.

BUT, that’s where it ends… or begins, depending upon how you look at it. Every station obviously has a different sound, so I’m not going to make something loud and crazy for Buddha Hits, which is a chill station, like I would for Classic Rock for instance. I like to make sure that each station has its own “personality” that suits the music and vibe of what’s happening on air.

So yeah, to answer your question I decide what I’m going to do with EQ and fx after I’ve edited the VO and it’s ready to go. I know this might sound a little weird but I kinda think of it like a painting but with sound. What’s the promo? What is it about? What am I trying to convey? So on some of the VO tracks I might delete the 7-band and put on the 1-band EQ and use a high pass filter of differing frequencies, or I’ll add other plugins to the chain on the track. I very rarely audio suite pieces of audio. I used to but now I tend to have everything on the track itself -- except for plugins that don’t lend themselves well to being on a track because of noise and such.

Some people might think it’s the long way round, but all my EQ settings are saved, and every time I’ve hit on something with other plugins, I save the settings and the tracks come together pretty quickly once I get going. But the bottom line is: EVERY VO has EQ, compression and limiting. No matter what. Every Producer I know uses Pro Tools differently to the next, and every iteration seems to be just a reflection of each individual. I’m also always listening to imaging from around the world on Soundcloud and what’s put up on the RAP website. I don’t think you can stop learning, and I certainly don’t rate myself as being up there with some of the producers on the planet, but I’m trying. The ultimate goal for me is to have my production sound different to anybody else’s but still be of the highest quality.

JV: Your use and placement of the various imaging FX in your work is excellent. What imaging libraries and/or services do you use? Do you dabble in making your own, or perhaps combine and/or modify those in your libraries?

Chris: At SCA I have access to the Reelworld production site so I predominately use those. They have pretty good sounds across the board. Over my 21 years I’ve collected a lot and used a lot of other FX from different places. At Nova I mostly used Killerhertz, and back in the day in Darwin I’d get the Rocket Science CDs and raid them.

The thing with some FX libraries is they date and go out of fashion, and sometimes I go back and use old wipes and things like that, but I generally like to stay as contemporary as possible and use what’s current.

I don’t make my own but I definitely cut FX up and just use different portions. I also combine pieces from different FX as well. Sometimes I’ll time compress or expand them to suit what I’m using them for, so in the end it might not sound anything like the original.

I think you’ve just got to be careful with imaging FX. I think a lot of younger producers who are still developing their craft sometimes tend to use them because they’re there and they feel like they have to, but I still make promos now with none or only one or two FX in them. Not all the time, but my point is, you don’t need to fill everything you make with every breaker, impact and segue to make your production sound good. But in saying that, they do sound great when used in the right way.

JV: If you were mentoring someone and they asked you to describe the best way to mix all those tracks once you have them all laid out with their elements, what would you say?

Chris: If I was making a promo and I was working to a script that had what music was required and where it was to sit in the promo, I’d firstly get my VO and music tracks loaded into my session. Any imaging FX I’d grab later as I was building it.

Then I’d edit my VO and EQ, compress it and limit it on track one. That’s the base VO that I’ll be using. I’ll also put the limiter on my master on the settings I want it to be. Then I just build from left to right following my script. I’ll basically build the promo and not worry about volume changes to music or anything like that. I just look to get the music edits in the right spots and the beats to match so everything sounds flawless. If I decide to create a stop down somewhere, which I like to do for effect, I’ll do that as I’m going as well.

Alternatively I might create another VO track with a different EQ on it as I’m building the promo too, or wait until everything is set and go back and start fine tuning it. I might end up with 5 or 6 different VO tracks all sounding different. I’m just thinking while I type this that I produce things in many different ways now that I’ve got to give it some thought.

Many times I double up VO lines with two different EQs and blend the volumes down to create a sharper or fuller sound as well.

When I’m happy with the overall sound of everything I’ll then pull the music volume down using the automation. I don’t gain it down on the track itself. I want both the VO AND the music to be as loud as possible together while also not sounding like a muddy mess or distorted in any way. So I make nice volume ramps taking the volume down and up again so it can be almost indistinguishable there’s been a volume change. If I can hear the music drop under my VO, I’m doing it wrong. Then as I’m going through getting the volume levels correct, I might feel as though I could use some image FX here or there and that’s when I’ll grab something to see if it works. I tend to use wipes a lot because they create a nice wash in places without being too intrusive. I also might use an impact coming out of the stop down where the music kicks in again, just to give it a bit more. It really just depends on what I’m making that dictates how I’ll do it and what I’ll use.

I mix using Yamaha HS8 powered monitors. If it’s right through them, it’s right on the air. I don’t listen through anything else until I get home and play stuff through my stereo speakers.

I’ve just realised how difficult it is to explain a process. Haha.

JV: What advice would you offer a newcomer to our industry who wants to pursue imaging?

Chris: It’s a difficult question to answer. If you get in at a small station then you’re going to probably learn the basics of production by building a lot of commercials as well as doing station imaging. Most productions jobs aren’t divided until you get to capital city stations where there are dedicated Image and Commercial Producers.

But if you’re in a position where you’re doing everything then it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that you might not get to produce what you’re passionate about every day. Nevertheless, I mentioned earlier that you’ve got to treat everything you produce like it’s the most important thing you’ve done. I saw this quote on Avid’s Facebook page I think it was, “Make excellent recordings. Nobody else will know how much you cared, but you will.” I think that sums it up for me.

While you’re doing this, always be looking to hear what other Image Producers are doing. Soundcloud is a great source for that and even when you’re visiting a new city, try and tune into a station and have a listen to what that producer is doing. Then just try and copy the stuff you like. Everybody gets influences from everybody else. It’s not a bad thing because you’re not stealing anybody’s content, you’re just learning how to put a certain effect or processor on your work. But it’ll have your individual stamp on it.

Try and make contact with an Image Producer whose work you like and get them to give you some feedback on your current crop of stuff. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst they can do is say they don’t have time. But you’ll find most people in those positions remember what it was like trying to get better and will help you out.

In 2005 I was given a CD by the Music Director of Mix 104.9 in Darwin which contained a bunch of imaging from Z100 by Dave Foxx. At that point I could hear what I wanted to make in my head but I couldn’t transfer it into my actual production. But when I heard this CD, it was like the heavens opened up and a ray of light shone down on me. It was like, shit this is IT. This is what I’ve been waiting to hear. And from that moment on my production immediately lifted because I had something to reference that was the absolute best. I still think I’m nowhere near the great man, but I’d like to think I’ve made some ground in the 13 years since. But that CD… man, that was a huge thing for me. Then it’s just produce, produce, produce. Learn stuff, produce. Learn more, produce. You’ll make a lot of shit along the way, but eventually, EVENTUALLY stuff will start to shine and you’ll be like, yeah I think I can do this ok.

Chris welcomes your correspondence at Chris.Neave@sca.com.au and here in the RAP Community.

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