Willie Wells, Creative Services Director, WKLH-FM/WLZR-AM/WLZR-FM, Milwaukee, WI
by Jerry Vigil
Each year, as the RAP Awards get bigger, the competition gets tougher. Even so, Willie Wells made RAP Awards history and swept an entire category with three award winning promos. What kind of producer churns out promos of this caliber? We find out in this month's interview, and we get a ton of tips from the man responsible for some of the best sounding work on the airwaves in Milwaukee.
R.A.P.: Tell us about your background in radio.
Willie: I grew up in Chicago and used to listen to WCFL and WLS duke it out with each other. That made me a radio geek. And in high school, I was the sound effects guy for all the theater folks. I went to college at the University of Illinois but got real side-tracked. They have a great setup there with a station called WPGU which is run by students, but it's owned by a sub-corporation of the university. It's not an educational station; it's a commercial station. So they had to make money. They had to worry about ratings. I ended up being an evening jock and Production Director there. From there I became a Program Director at a little station in Urbana, Illinois called WKIO and then went to Champaign, Illinois and started doing mornings and was kind of a production guy for several years.
Some of these stations I'd been working with, particularly WPGU, had at that time, real grand plans. They would do a dance marathon every year with live bands. Some of them were bigger name bands and more famous folks. Harry Chapin is one that comes to mind. The station would do live broadcasts, and we'd get in there and get a chance to get our hands on expensive consoles and start mixing. That started me doing live sound for bands, along with working the radio. That was in '72 when I started doing that, and I ended up quitting school in '75. From '75 through '78 I was at WPGU. In '78 and '79 I was at WKIO. Then from '79 through '83 I did mornings and production at WLRW. At that time, because of all this other music stuff I'd been doing, I ended up doing a lot of work for bands, and I eventually quit radio and started doing the rock and roll thing.
I eventually built a studio. I first had an 8-track studio, then a 16-track studio, and I made a living just doing independent albums. I've produced hundreds of albums. I've no idea how many I've done. And I also toured with some folks. I'd tour with nobody you've ever heard of--a lot of local and regional acts all over the place. I did tour with some better known artists like Adrian Belew who is currently the lead singer and guitarist for King Crimson. In '85 and '86, he had a band called The Bears, which was touring around. I was their front-of-house sound mixer.
Then, in '87 I found out we were going to have kids, and you just don't go out on the road and leave your wife at home at that point. So, I started concentrating more on the studio, and at that time, Saga Communications had purchased WLRW and made it a much more professional place. They made radio attractive for me again. So I went back to work there as their Production Director, even though it was a smaller market. Saga was really into quality. I got there just before they did some remodeling, and we were able to get an 8-track and some basic effects stuff. We started doing real good. A lot of the spec spots were working real well, and they were into the quality. The owner of the company, or the CEO now, Ed Christian, is a big radio nut, and that's great. He can sell quality, and they value the packaging. They'll get you the equipment you need to give them quality. Not everything you want, but if you have a need and you show them you can do something better and faster, they'll get it. If sales can translate that into a few more spec spots, a couple more sound effects on the spec spots, a few more clever lines, they'll get it. Quality begets a little more on the bottom line, and it was very nice that they were into that. I didn't have to pull an air shift and I worked a five-day week. It was just amazing, and I was into radio again.
R.A.P.: How did you wind up at WKLH?
Willie: Saga Communications also owns WKLH and WLZR, and they do a lot of interesting things to help boost quality and let their people shine. They have about 23 stations now, and one of the things they were doing at the time, and still do, is have an inter-company monthly promo competition. We all send off tapes and reports at the end of each month to the corporate headquarters, and Steve Goldstein, the corporate Program Director, would either judge them or pass them around to some of our peers to judge them. So, you'd get some recognition and a hundred bucks, which didn't hurt. All of a sudden, promos started getting real good, and all these guys would call each other. It promoted a little networking through the stations. We'd all rip each other's ideas off. The corporate was feeding on itself, and it was great. Because of that, I won a few awards down at WLRW, and the guys at 'KLH were going, "Jeez, who is this guy?" At that time they had a need for a Production Director. So they gave me a call. I got to change jobs, but really not change companies. My last day at WLRW was the end of 1991, and my first day at 'KLH was January 2, 1992. So I've been here just over three years now.
R.A.P.: What's the format at WKLH?
Willie: Well, they call it classic hits. I think it's a little different from classic rock. I don't know if the playlist is necessarily tighter. It's a little more selective, I would think, because it isn't like all Led Zeppelin. There's an awful lot of Elton and Billy Joel and Eagles.... They're almost always number one in 25-54, and roughly eighty percent of the ad dollars lately have been targeted 25-54 in Milwaukee. So they're sittin' in the catbird seat right now. Last year they were the top billing station in the Milwaukee market.
R.A.P.: When did Saga acquire WLZR?
Willie: Saga Communications purchased WLZR-AM and FM in Milwaukee last year. We moved in early August of last year. WKLH had been renting or leasing a suite downtown, and WLZR actually had property in a building. So they made life hell for all the jocks as they ripped almost every wall out of the building other than the air studio. I guess it was pretty hellish to find a bathroom for a while because you were literally outside when you were walking to it. But, they knocked the whole thing apart and built a new facility, and now the two stations are in one building and things are really starting to click. WLZR-FM simulcasts with the AM, so we're basically two stations. They're an AOR station. They rock a little bit harder than some AORs, but they do pretty well.
R.A.P.: Tell us more about the studio you built before you got back into radio.
Willie: Like I mentioned, I had been doing sound for bands, and there were a couple of companies in town that had been doing live sound. One was a company called C.V. Lloyde's. C.V.'s was basically a music store, but he started doing PA stuff. It was his company that did the first Boston tour. At the time I started working there, I think they were still doing all the PA for Bon Jovi. They used to do the Guess Who and Sly and the Family Stone. I'd be sitting in his office talking to him, and the sound man from Jefferson Starship would call up and have microphone questions. So, by meeting all these sound guys who had done sound through the sixties and seventies, I started getting exposed to the way music engineers do stuff. I ended up in the studio more and more, and pretty soon we were making records. I was able to secure a loan and purchase an 8-track. I had a 20-channel live mix board that we adapted. Luckily, I have some electrical engineering training from college, so I can go in and wire a studio. All of a sudden, for not too much money, we had a little 8-track studio. We were sounding okay, and we had bands coming in, even down from Chicago and all through the region, to make 8-track demos. A few of them were making records.
R.A.P.: Did you set this up in some office space somewhere?
Willie: It actually started out in my apartment, and then we moved it over to C.V. Lloyde's. C.V. Lloyde started noticing the recordings we were doing, and he offered space in a building he owned. His music store was in there, and he also had his warehouse there where all of his PA was kept. He let us have the space, and it worked out great. I would actually use some of his equipment and demo things for musicians while they were making the records, and, boy, they really liked that synthesizer or whatever we were using, and they had to have it. So I'd be selling stuff for C.V. while recording bands and making money for me. We kind of worked it on a percentage basis because he valued the sales and he valued having all these musicians traipsing through the store to the studio, buying picks and strings and things like that which they forgot. So it was a good deal. If I didn't make any money, I didn't have any overhead because the equipment was paid for.
Things just kept happening, and we made more money. So we went 16-track. Then I ended up selling off all that equipment when I went to 'KLH. That was in '91, and the studio was very active until then. Some of my old engineers are doing various things. One old assistant engineer is now the house monitor mixer for Bonnie Raitt, so he got trained well. Another guy, Adam Schmidt, now has a record contract with Warner Brothers Records and has two CDs out. He gave me a little credit on the first one. There are a few bands right now coming up that I see on the charts like Poster Children, which are out of the Champaign-Urbana scene. A lot of this new rock stuff that's coming up...I was doing the underground form of that from about '83 through '91.
R.A.P.: Which do you like more, doing the music mixing or radio production?
Willie: I think I enjoy radio more now because, as a music producer or engineer, you're more of a filter. You are creative in how you help capture the sound and create the sound, but you're not the person writing the stuff or voicing the stuff. I'm not a musician. The creativity is not as involved as it is with radio. In radio, I get to hook the equipment up and get the sound, but I also get to use my voice and write a little bit.
Radio helped me learn enough to get into the music stuff, and all the stuff I did in music has now really helped me come back into radio. It has helped me especially in sound design.
R.A.P.: What are some of the things you picked up about audio production that you probably would not have picked up had you just stayed in radio?
Willie: I did a lot of reading about human hearing, and I learned a lot about EQ. All of a sudden, you've got twenty-four or forty-eight, fifty-six, eighty-four channels in front of you that automate and do your bidding, and you can go in and start experimenting with stuff. When mixing music, you have a little bit more leisure time to experiment because that happens to be your job. In radio, you don't always get that luxury of the extra couple of minutes to spend tweaking the EQ. The very first thing I started learning about was equalization, getting rid of feedback, and how to create a sound. These guys who were doing sound for Guess Who and Sly Stone taught me that it's not what you add with EQ, it's what you take away. They taught me to first look for the problem areas. If something sounds dull, does it sound dull because there's not enough high end, or does it sound dull because the bottom end's real boomy? What should you do? No, don't turn up the high end. Take the problem area away first. Try and get it back to where it's more natural sounding. That's the first thing I learned about EQ. It's more what you take away than what you add half the time, especially in music. Once you take away some of the problem areas, then you can go to other areas and maybe juice it up. You definitely want to juice up radio voices and things, but, oftentimes for singers and stuff, you want to keep things very flat and as smooth as you can. If you start making it too unsmooth, then the esses are louder than the notes, and it becomes very annoying, especially at high decibel levels, and so on and so forth.
Each sound has its own area, and it almost takes on a color in your mind. Things are darker or lighter, and you need a certain amount of each for your recipe so it tastes right at the end. Use the EQ to shape it so that things take their place and so the fundamentals of what you want that sound to do are there. You don't have to make everything big and fat. Get rid of the stuff around it that's not desirable, and all of a sudden, things start sounding real clear and clean. EQ is real interesting.
I also learned a lot just sitting in that music store, particularly in the mid-eighties as the keyboards and digital processing started going nuts and getting cheaper. I was sitting in that music store, and all the latest products were coming in for us to demo. I could just pick up the newest, greatest thing for the studio, plug it in, and start playing with it. And it was my job to do that. The more I played with it, the cooler I could make sounds, and the easier I could sell it. And as I did better in the studio, that attracted more business. So the guys in the music store were just handing me this stuff to try out. It was just tremendous. I learned how to sequence via MIDI because of that music store. I can sit there and plug in all sorts of elaborate MIDI systems and use them. I learned how to program synthesizers, program various effects boxes, program drum machines, and it also got me going on computers because that's when computers started getting used for sequencing. It was the late eighties when I started going, "Hey, I can do something with this box that I like to do, not just sit there and crunch numbers on a spread sheet!"
Saga has come up with this policy now that I think is great. They try to arrange for their Production Directors to get some play time. Maybe they've got some standard patches in their SPX-1000 or their SPX-90, but they really haven't explored some of the other stuff because, day in and day out, you've just got to crank the stuff out. You don't always have time to play. And play time is really very important because if you're going to do more and better effects or better edits or learn how to paint the picture, you've got to learn how to hold the brush, how to get the paint out of the tube in the first place. So you've got to have a little play time. That's one big difference between radio production and music production. In studio work they let you work on a sound for ten or fifteen minutes because they want you to get this thumping kick drum sound. You get to play with the sound. You get to play with EQ. You start knowing what all your devices can do, and you have a much better command of your equipment.
R.A.P.: How is Saga incorporating this play time for production people?
Willie: This is something from Keith Masters who is the Program Director now at WLZR here in Milwaukee. He'd been talking about this at one of the earlier meetings when he used to be with WAQY, another Saga station. They have a yearly manager's meeting at Saga and various managers would speak on various subjects. One of Keith's subjects one year was production. They were just disseminating this information to all these various Program Directors about how they should make some time for the production guys. See if you can figure out a way so that once in a while they get a little play time, so that if they have sounds or things they want to try, they can. Or maybe there is a piece of equipment they want to demo. A lot of the Saga folks have discovered that if you want to go demo some equipment, your local music store half the time has a lot of these newer mid-line effects units and stuff in stock. They're happy to let you demo it. Go grab a few boxes on a day where they've given you an hour or two to play. Then you don't feel guilty about sitting there and playing with the stuff. If you're not encouraged to do that, you might get paranoid. You know, people just seeing you sitting in the studio doing nothing--kind of tweaking this one sound for a half-hour and your GM walks by. He's going to go, "What are you doing?! Where are those spec spots?"
R.A.P.: After all you learned about mixing music, what do you apply to radio that you did not apply before?
Willie: A lot of it is techniques and ways to speed up production, particularly with multi-track techniques. I started getting pretty good at doing punch-ins and assembly editing. I use that an awful lot. I use my abilities with EQ. I have a few little processors I like to keep around for punching up signals and cleaning things up. All of a sudden, the production here is no longer distorted. Because I've owned my own studio, I also had to learn how to tweak my own tape decks or pay through the nose. If you've got something that's a pretty straightforward machine and you've got a couple of engineers who will tolerate your calling them up and picking their brains once in a while, do it. I was fortunate to have a long list of engineers like that. All of a sudden, we've gone from stuff that sounds pretty dinky to, "God, this is full, and it's big, and it's not distorted!" In fact, I had one Program Director who came driving into WLRW, and he couldn't tell my spots from the agency spots. Of course, I could tell, but we had a big, robust sound.
Doing good punch-ins really helped with clients who do their own spots. Clients were amazed when I'd say, "Well, just do that part of the line. Okay, just do this part." Guys who were always deathly afraid of voicing their own spots now have no problem doing it. If they blew it, no problem. We'd pick it up. We'd punch it in. It takes two seconds. It's a lot faster than a blade. They're relaxed, their spots get better, and people start responding to that. The spot sounds more honest because he's more relaxed. There's more honesty coming across with the sell. There's more people in his store telling him how good he sounds. The guy's happy. I do an awful lot of stuff with punch-in edits on multi-tracks. That's a technique that's used all the time to fix music tracks. You know, the bass player's plunkin' along and he blows a note. You back it up a couple of measures, he starts playing along with what he did, and just in between two notes, boom, you go into record, and he just keeps on playing until he blows it again. You can do that with anything. You can do that with music beds. You can do that with your client talking.
R.A.P.: And now, with the digital workstations, the punch-ins and punch-outs are even more accurate and even easier to do!
Willie: Yeah, that's just a quantum leap. It has changed the way I work. You start realizing you can do stuff you couldn't even dream of with analog multi-track, particularly in being able to keep large amounts of things all around you. Sometimes with some of these promos, these guys don't give me anything. You know, I just get a couple of wild lines. Well, you get all this stuff up here, and you start throwing paint at the wall. You can do that with the digital stuff because you can keep a lot of stuff on line. Let's try this. Now let's try this. Now let's try it like this. Well, those three tries took me fifteen seconds and would have taken twenty minutes without a workstation.
R.A.P.: What workstation are you using?
Willie: We've got several. And I also have a workstation and studio at home now. At the station, the main production studio is based around an 8-track ProTools system. We have the new little Mackie 24-channel, 8-buss board, which is basically a production board. It's not a radio board, but the pre-amps in the thing are just outstanding, the EQ is wonderful, and the price is so low. It's very, very powerful. And there are only one or two of us using it, so that's great. We still have a 2-track, a typical CD player, and the MacIntosh that's running ProTools also has tape backup which is tremendous. I can be doing one session while restoring the next session that I'm going to need in fifteen minutes when the client shows up.
That's another reason that the workstations are so powerful. You know you've only got ten minutes until the client's coming in. Usually you just say, "I can't get anything done in ten minutes," and you sit and wait. With a workstation, you just click it and in three or four seconds you're up with one session and editing away. When the client shows up, you click on "save" and everything's saved, all your fade moves, everything. Double click and four or five seconds later you're into the client's session. You're replacing his lines from last month. That's done. Boom, back to your promo. You can suck up these ten, fifteen, twenty minute little intervals you couldn't use before, and if you do that on a regular basis, you can almost create another work day for yourself every week or two.
Getting back to equipment in the studio, we have the SPX-1000, and we have an older Eventide Harmonizer. We have a couple of the Urei LA-3A compressors. I have a BBE 402 Sonic Maximizer, and I have an E-Max sampler. It's something I kind of keep standard with me. I've got a keyboard in both studios I work in, my studio at the radio station and my studio at home. We also have VCRs in every studio. I have a CD recorder now. Actually, it's marketed as a data archiver. It's the Pinnacle 2000, I think. It's a data archiver, but if you plug it into the MacIntosh scuzzy buss and use it with the basic software that comes with it, you've got a CD recorder, too. Now we're actually creating our own CDs.
All of our sweepers are going to CD. Most of the sweepers that are on 'KLH and 'LZR are all coming off CD right now as well as a lot of montages and things that live for about six months or longer. It really does pay for itself, too, because the media is down to about ten bucks a pop. And you figure you've got over an hour, so that's like fifty or sixty carts. So, are you gonna pay ten bucks, or are you gonna pay two hundred and fifty, three hundred bucks for fifty or sixty carts? It helps having the CDs because it helps free up more carts. The more carts we have, the more stuff gets on the air. The more stuff that gets on, the more entertainment value we have. Then people feel like if they're not tuned to 'KLH, they might be missing something. You never quite know what our evening jock, Dan, is going to pull, or the afternoon guy, Jeff Bell, and especially the morning show. There's all sorts of little things going on in between the music. The CD recorder helps out a lot with that.
And since the CD recorder is a data archiver, we plan to begin authoring our own CD ROMs. One of the things we do--a lot of stations do this--is we have this thing we call "Classic Quotes." I've got a bank of carts. It's probably five or six hundred strong at this point and will probably be a thousand in the next week or so. But it's basically some rock stars talking about some song we play. I used a piece of shareware and created a database. We keep a computer available for the jocks, and we also have printouts of the database. You can go into the computer, look it up, grab the cart, and you can put it on the air. We want to take it so the database and the audio are tied together on a CD ROM, so you're looking at your on-air computer, and you've got your CD ROM in there. You're looking through your database and you see Mick Jagger talking about Keith playing on this particular tune from Sticky Fingers. You double click on the sound icon and, boom, it's cued up and ready to go.
After we get that done, we want to take that to include even our drop-ins. So if something topical happens in the news like another presidential faux pas of some kind, you look on your CD ROM and sort by "presidential" and you find some presidential drops. You can cue the drop up and can get it on the air that quick. Again, it goes back to more, better, faster. If you've got more stuff available for the jocks to use for entertainment, they'll use it and things will be better. If you don't have more stuff available, they won't, and it won't.
R.A.P.: Are commercials still on cart?
Willie: Yes. One of our engineers is out at the NAB checking stuff out. We want to take it to a hard disk commercial delivery system. Everything at both stations is still on cart, which is okay for now. It sounds awful, but that will change later.
R.A.P.: How many production studios are there?
Willie: There are five. The two new air studios double as production studios later in the day. Then we have the 'KLH archive room which is a production studio and is used by the morning show producer through the morning show and up until about one in the afternoon. The afternoon jock, evening jock, and midday jock will also use the archive room or will have assistants in there doing various functions for us like getting things on tape or carting things up throughout the rest of the day.
There is the WKLH news room which is used as the news room up until about ten. Then after ten o'clock it's used for assembling spots. It also has a small digital workstation. The Software Audio Workshop is what's in a couple of these other studios. And then there's the Lazer news room which is just a very basic 2-track with a cart machine and cassette deck. We do have DAT machines everywhere now.
R.A.P.: Tell us more about this "archive room."
Willie: I talked them into doing this studio. When we moved, they let me look at the blueprints. We came up with this idea and they went along with it. I think it's great and I think the jocks like it. It's a little studio for the jocks. Two walls of it are nothing but cart racks and it's full of stuff, the Classic Quotes, all their drop-ins, and things like that. We have all of our comedy disks in there and all of our syndication that we might pull drops and interviews from. They have a board in there and a digital workstation and a little computer for the Classic Quotes database. And you don't have to be that elaborate with a room like this, but anything you can do to help the jocks out is a plus.
At 'KLH, the jocks do not do production. It's hard to talk them into it. Besides, jocks don't do that good of a job. What we have them do is come in and voice the stuff, and then they're off into the archive room. They use the time for show prep. When they go to work at 'KLH, most of the jocks go, "I've never done so much show prep in my life," but they get into the routine eventually. The more stuff you make available, the more ends up on the air, and the better your package. With 'KLH, we're just playing the same old stuff, but a very finely tuned same old stuff with a lot of neat icing on the top. Our Program Director, Bob Bellini, does acknowledge that. He thinks the production helps keep it fresh, helps keep it topical, along with the jocks. The jocks are just tremendous. And Bob does a real good job with the music. But they do acknowledge keeping things topical and a little sideways and a little bit bent and a little bit unexpected. You know, anything that just kind of geeks it a little bit so that people never quite know what to expect from 'KLH.
R.A.P.: What help do you have with production?
Willie: It's kind of hard to say because a lot of the part-timers at 'KLH who might be part-time air folks will also come in and do a little bit of part-time dubbing for us. Basically, there are the two full-time guys doing stuff, and Jeff Young who is one of our main part-time guys. Then we have three other part-timers for 'KLH and 'LZR who just kind of circulate through, and they might do dubs for us once a week in the evening or something. So, basically, I'm the Creative Services Director. I kind of oversee the retail, but Rick Ehlert is the retail Production Director. He's real good and has a great voice. He has the other main production studio. The two radio stations are situated across the hall from each other upstairs, then we have our two production studios downstairs. Rick's studio has the Orban DSE-7000 workstation.
All these guys pretty much free me up to be at the mercy of the two Program Directors, just cranking out promos. Now that they have their hooks in me, we just do a lot more than we've ever done before. I'm cranking out promos, and I just got done nuking a good part of 'KLH's old sweeps and doing a bunch of new ones. We completely switched voices on WLZR at the end of the year, so I ended up doing everything for 'LZR. They're keeping me busy.
R.A.P.: Who are the voice people for the stations?
Willie: For WLZR it's currently Sandy Thomas. He's doing a real nice job. On 'KLH, we're utilizing three voices right now. Our main voice guy is Dick Ervasti. He's great because he can sound big and powerful but still sound like a human being. He's perfect for 'KLH. Another guy I just can't say enough about who just does a tremendous job for us is Jim Cutler. Jim does a lot of our lighter and more cartoon-type stuff. The guy is just a wonderful nut. He's the Production Director at 'HDH in Boston, I think. Jim and I have talked a lot. We'll call him up once in a while when we're stuck for ideas and bounce stuff off of him. I really like what Jim does for us. He's a voice guy who's bringing a lot to the table, a really creative individual.
The third voice is a local gal named Kate West. We use her for our female voice stuff and she sounds wonderful. We found her because she does agency work, and you'll hear her occasionally on national radio stuff. She'll come in once or twice a month and do some stuff for us. I end up doing a little bit of stuff, but since I've been so prevalent in the retail end, what I end up doing is more the effected stuff or occasional bits or character voices, something that's heavily EQ'd or processed or very short lines. For instance, I was the sheep that was rolling end over end in the promo in the RAP Awards, Dave and Carol Combined, the one with the sheep's head bowling. That's my claim to fame.
R.A.P.: The visual of a sheep's head rolling down a bowling lane really stuck in my head. How did you create the effect?
Willie: I had a sound effect of a bowling ball and ran it through a compressor and compressed the heck out of it so you could hear every last nuance of that ball just rolling down the lane. You can hear how a ball rolls. It kind of goes up and down in pitch very slightly. So, I listened for that and I put the headphones on and, in time with the bowling ball, sat there and just went "Baa-aa-aa-aa" along with the ball and then used the power of the computer. I just grabbed the two of them, put them together on the track and panned them from left to right.
When I first started talking to Steve Goldstein, our chain Program Director, about promos, he always kept telling me to make it cinematic. It took me a long time to figure out what the hell he was talking about. What you've got to do is visualize what it would look like, as silly as it is. And, then, try and come up with that. Again, I think the power of the computer helps and so does having the extra keyboards and samplers because you can quickly combine several sounds and build something up. You know, I wasn't quite sure how we'd make that sound, but I got up three or four different bowling balls and went through them very quickly. With the computer, where you're not stuck with the multi-track limitations, you can slide your tracks back and forth. That makes such a difference because you can play with your timing and play with a few possibilities. After that was all laid in there and we got all the tracks in, we backed it up and ran it through the compressor again. And we EQ'd things so you could hear the detail. I spent about as much time as I could. That was done very quickly, as most promos are.
R.A.P.: The multi-tracks and digital workstations are enabling more producers to do in-house jingles and music. These are mostly individuals who don't have any experience mixing bands. What tips could you provide that would help them produce these in-house jingles?
Willie: Well, a problem I hear most is clipping, and a lot of times it's not the guy's fault. Clipping is when things exceed levels somewhere, and things come out as a square wave instead of a nice, smooth sine wave. This will happen especially if you're singing or starting to mic loud guitars, and you're stuck in a radio studio. The first thing that microphone sees is a thing called the mic pre-amp, and that microphone is set pretty much for voice level. Sometimes it's set a little bit too high, and that means that microphone can start putting too much juice into the mic pre-amp that it overdrives it. That's the source of a lot of the clipping that you might get in your standard radio studio. You can have your levels on your meters set just fine, but it doesn't make a bit of difference because you're distorting it well before it ever gets to that stage. On all production consoles you see a little gain control or a thing called "trim" at the top. Well, that just means that you know you're going to deal with a whole variance in dynamic range, and you need to be able to set that because the energy levels you're talking about from the pin dropping to the roar of a guitar, which is what you've got to be able to capture, vary tremendously. If you've got distortion and stuff, if you're singing loud, if you've got a mic in front of a guitar, if you're doing spots where you've got to shout and you notice you are getting distortion even though your levels are all there, nine times out of ten, it's just because the input levels need to be adjusted or trimmed a little bit.
R.A.P.: Compressors are very easy to use incorrectly. What are some basic rules about using compressors?
Willie: You just have to remember to use it sparingly. It just depends on what you're trying to do. Our ears are natural compressors. Our ears automatically change volume like a compressor does from a pin drop to a jet going over. It's a logarithmic scale, thousands and thousands of energy units in difference. We deal with it because we have a little muscle that tightens up the bones and makes it so the eardrum doesn't vibrate as much. It turns the energy down. It's a compressor. If you're standing in front of a loud guitar, and the guy starts playing a little softer, it doesn't sound that much softer. It all sounds pretty even. If you stick a mic in front of that, and you put it on tape and turn that volume down upon playback, now there seems to be a much bigger difference between the loudest and softest parts. It doesn't sound as full any more. What's going on? It's because you don't have it turned up as loud, and your ear is not compressing it. So, that's why you would use a compressor. You can average a sound out a little bit more.
Compressors vary widely, but I could try and give some general settings. You do have to remember that on radio there is going to be a significant amount of processing after the fact, so you don't want to do too much, but you do want to do some stuff to where you just fatten things up and smooth things out and make your voice sound fuller. Typically, a lot of the metering on compressors will show you how much gain reduction is going on. The compressor is nothing but an engineer with a super fast hand on the volume control. Gain reduction is showing how many dB this guy is turning it down when you hit your peaks. I'll tend to set my compressor for voice with a very fast attack. I'll slow the release a little bit, if I have those controls. I'll set it with a fast attack and maybe a third of a second release. The compression ratio would be set at four to one. Compression ratio is a measure of how many dB the output will go up as compared to the input after you get above the threshold setting. Let's say you set it at your nominal level of zero. Your voice will now have to go up four dB past zero on the input for your output to be allowed to go up one dB. That's four to one compression there. That's not bad if you want four to one compression and limit yourself to maybe six to eight dB of gain reduction on your compressor. That should fatten your voice up a little bit, but you don't want breath starting to sound as loud as your voice because it is only going to get worse by the time you get on the air. I'll compress my voice at about four to one and set the threshold so I see it giving me about eight dB or so gain reduction. That seems to be okay for my voice and, again, it depends on the type of compressor you're using.
For mixing the spot, I'll use a stereo compressor and tend to do the same thing, maybe about four to one but less gain reduction, maybe four or five dB gain reduction. So, I'll print my voice with just a little bit of compression to fatten it up, print the music with no compression, put the sound effects in there with no compression, apply EQ where I see fit, then start mixing it. I will mix it through a compressor, and then, oftentimes, I'll go to the Sonic Maximizer after that and then on to whatever I'm using to master, whether it be my DAT or my reel.
R.A.P.: What free-lancing are you doing?
Willie: Well, since I began doing work for the programming department only, I've lost a lot of my free-lance commercial business because I'm not in the mix of it. But now that I have a studio at home, I'm getting back into doing a little bit more music on the side. I'm working on one project with a guy who's actually the afternoon jock on 'KLH, Jeff Bell. We're working on a CD right now, and I'm producing that for him. I'm also working with Joe Kelly. Joe is changing the name of his company to The Creative Group, and he's got a lot of folks starting to work with him. I do a little bit of agency work out of the house here, too. In fact, this morning I spent two hours with an agency doing some Milwaukee area spots. One was with talent we brought in, and one was with me voicing it.
That's about all I'm doing. I'm not touring. I'm not doing any live sound for folks right now. My ears can't take that anymore. I've escaped with minimum damage. You've got to be careful with that stuff. Even with the headphones you've got to be careful. If you're in anything more than ninety dB for an hour and a half a day, you're toasting it, and you will sustain hearing loss.
R.A.P.: What's the home studio like?
Willie: The home studio is starting to be real interesting. It's a great playground. I've got an 8-track ADAT with a 24-channel Allen & Heath GS 3 console with MIDI mute automation. I have the Software Audio Workshop by Quality Innovative Software. We run it on a PC. I also have a second PC that's running Cakewalk sequencing software, and then I have an E-Max II sampling keyboard. Samplers are something else I have a lot of fun with in the studio. I use them not necessarily to play music parts, but actually for sound design. And there are a lot of effects you can do with the voice just having a sampler around. And you can pick up these things now for fourteen or fifteen hundred bucks. They're a lot cheaper than they used to be. You can put anything you want in these keyboards. It can be like eighty-eight cart machines that instantly recue, all ready to fire. So I have banks of keyboard sounds, but I also have banks of Dick Ervasti going, "96.5 WKLH" on my sampler that I can call up instantly. I'm really into having lots of things that will give me random access to audio in as easy a fashion as I can get. That way I have more paint to throw against the wall.
R.A.P.: Well, whatever you're doing, it's working. You made history and were the first person to sweep a RAP Awards category. That's not easy to do.
Willie: I've really got to say thanks to the guys who write a lot of this promo stuff. I do write it and help write it, but a lot of the spark comes from our Program Director, Bob Bellini, our morning guy, Dave Luczak, even our promotions guy, Brad Wallace, and Jim Cutler really helps out to some extent. And the way they write is great. It's never one person. It's always at least two or three people. They'll get halfway through a promo and call me up. "Hey, we're working on this and we're stuck. Come help us." It's like Lennon and McCartney used to do. They'd do half a song and get stuck and pass it off. So literally, a promo will start in the Program Director's office, then we'll go to the morning show's office, then we're down in the production studio for a while, and it kind of walks around gathering the moss as it rolls. So, I've got to say thanks to those guys because they're definitely the big spark there in the writing. And, again, thanks to Saga, especially Tom Joerres, the GM at 'KLH and 'LZR. Tom seems to know how to foster a creative environment, and they value that. I feel very lucky. Tom makes me want to do this stuff. If it wasn't for him and Saga, I'd probably still be out of radio. I'd be doing something else because I was just toasted on it before.
And one final thanks to Joel Moss at WEBN for personally arranging to have his market bumped up in the rankings so it is now in the large market category. Thanks to Joel for getting the hell out of my way because he is competition!