by John Pellegrini
Not too long ago, I became one of the already thousands of Production Directors who learned how to use the digital domain of radio production. WKLQ, the station that I was working for at the time, purchased a Roland DM-800 DAW. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I laughed. I cried. I wet my pants. Using digital production equipment has been a serious boon to my production. Here at WLS, we have an Orban DSE 7000. It’s even more fun that the Roland, which is to be expected since the Orban sells for around twelve thousand dollars more than the Roland—loads more features and fun. But, as I use all this cool scientific stuff, I cannot help to be reminded of a quote from the UK science fiction show, Dr. Who, in which the Doctor gave the ultimate description of a computer. He said the computer “is a highly sophisticated idiot. It will do whatever you want it to do at a high rate of speed. But if you want it to change direction once it’s begun, or even stop, it’s nearly impossible to do so.”
Which brings me to the subject of today’s sermon, boys and girls. Among the great mysteries of life, surely the one that will continue to give us pause in the future, will be: “Is this digital thing all it’s cracked up to be?” My answer for this question before I got a DAW was, yes and no. Now that I’ve been using two different DAWs for a couple of years, and I’ve had a shot to really experience first-hand the technical capabilities of what they can do, my answer is still, yes and no.
Yes, because in terms of editing capacity, features, and speed in assembling audio information, the DAW is unbelievable. We can shift, invert, descend, overlap, mix, and even turn inside out any phrase of audio we want. With one of these babies we can defy nature as far as what natural sound can produce. And that’s the drawback. That’s where I say, NO.
There are certain limitations in how much audio a human ear and brain can process. Audiophiles be damned, the human mind can only hear so much frequency. Add too much to the mix and you get garbage, mumbling, distortion, and major tune-out factor. What causes tune-out factor? Too much crap!
I know it sounds bizarre for a former rock and roll Production Director like myself to say this, but too much noise is TOO MUCH NOISE! It is not pleasing to listen to, and it is not getting your message across. I know that the philosophy of rock bands is to play loud and overwhelm the environment. That’s okay. We don’t go to concerts for intellectual stimulation. We go to get our brains fried. BUT, that philosophy doesn’t work for radio promos or commercials, because in promos and commercials the message is vital. The message is the focus, not the sound effects or music tracks.
This all became painfully obvious to me in 1996, when I was asked to send some of my best ‘KLQ promos to an industry magazine for a CD compilation they were making of rock radio production. When I later received my copy of the CD, I was startled to say the least. Interspersed with the feature music of the month, they ran segments containing the hottest promos, sweepers, contests, IDs, and such from some major rock radio stations in North America. Some of it was quite good. But much of it, unfortunately, was guilty of what I’m going to refer to as “Digital Erections.” Write that name down. I am out to make it a household word among production people, and you are now the first kid on your block to see it.
A Digital Erection is what happens when a production person (women can get them, too) is so geeked about their DAW that everything they do, and I mean EVERYTHING, from the shortest ID to the longest sweeper, has EVERY SINGLE FEATURE that the DAW is capable of producing. It’s much like when Eventide introduced the Harmonizer and when Yamaha introduced the SPX-90 and everyone was pitch changing their voices and everyone was sssssstuttering. God, do I remember that with pain! It got to the point where every spot and promo that I got from other stations had stuttering and pitch changes on it. I once heard a thirty-second promo where EVERY SINGLE WORD THE ANNOUNCER SPOKE WAS STUTTERED!!!! I wanted to kill the guy who did it.
The same horrible problem is returning with a vengeance with DAWs. The way the audio effects and music were burying the copy on so many of the promos, sweepers and IDs on this sample CD was beyond belief! In fact, I heard at least one sweeper (possibly more) on that disc in which I couldn’t understand one single word the talent was saying because the voices were totally overwhelmed by the Digital Erections. What’s ever more frightening is that these bits were not produced by beginners. These Digital Erections were being committed by people in major markets like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and on and on, by people who’ve been in the business for years and should really know better than to do crap like this.
Producers are getting it in their heads that because these DAWs can do so much, we have to show it off all the time. We’ll blow away the other stations by virtue of our superior sound capabilities! “I can invert the balance on three tracks while simultaneously pitch shifting two more, and custom edit the stereo panning on the last three tracks so that every other word is shifted into a different stereo position, plus add sound effects and music in this fifteen-second sweeper! Am I a PROD GOD or what?” Of course, I also know that many times it’s the Program Director who insists on this kind of sound. “Hey, all the other stations in the majors are making their promos and sweepers sound like that! We’d better do it too!” Like a bunch of lemmings jumping off a cliff.
People! It is time to put a leash on it! Get this crap out of your system NOW! Digital effects by themselves are not cool to listen to. They are annoying! They do not enhance your message. They overwhelm and distract! Under certain circumstances and with the greatest care, the processes and features of a DAW can be an invaluable tool to any producer. But never ever forget that if your message cannot be heard, if your message isn’t being delivered, or worse, if you ain’t got a message at all, and all you’re doing is “impressive sounding effects,” then you’re performing the audio equivalent of jerking off! (This is what Frank Zappa often accused lead guitar players of doing with their solos.) If you don’t have anything worth saying, it doesn’t matter how you say it or package it with effects. There’s still nothing worth listening to. When listeners complain of too much talk on the radio, they mean too much boring talk! Boring talk is not having anything worth saying. Boring talk is a result of Digital Erections. Trust me; I work at a talk station. It’s not too much talk but the content of the talk that turns people off.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my DAW, and the time it saves me in doing production is great. But will the DAW mean the difference between winning production awards or not? Will the DAW help me become even more creative than before? Will the DAW allow me to write commercials that really sell and promos that really boost the station’s ratings? Of course not. I’d be a fool if I believed any of that to be true. DAWs, word processors, computers, and all that technology are nothing more than tools, tools that merely allow us to do our jobs. They perform the same function as the manual typewriter and the wire recorder of thirty and forty years ago. And they’re only as effective as the information you are putting into them.
Go back and listen to Dick Orkin’s demo tape on the June 1996 RAP Cassette—virtually no sound effects or music on any of the spots, or, if there is, it’s used sparingly. Yet, you don’t even miss it—none needed. The message was all that needed to be heard. Nothing else matters. Why is it that in terms of real impact, nothing in radio has ever succeeded the Orson Welles’ War of The Worlds broadcast? Would the War have been any better if Orson had a DAW to work with? Hardly. Would a DAW have made any impact or difference for the program at all? Nope.
That’s because radio isn’t about stunning digital effects. Radio is about imagination. You don’t need anything except a story (and a fairly good story teller for radio’s sake) to stimulate the imagination.
Another problem with digital purity is, and this is something that many of us production people tend to forget, the average person is listening to their radio in one of two ways: either in their car or at home. I don’t care what car audio enthusiasts say, a moving vehicle of any kind is the worst listening environment invented, and no amount of Dolby, subwoofers, pre-amps, and noise insulating can help it. Even those who blow upwards of ten thousand dollars or more on their car stereos still have inferior audio in their vehicles because there is no way you can completely overcome the inherent noise inside a vehicle that’s running. I’ve heard sound systems costing thirty and forty thousand dollars inside Cadillacs and Rolls Royces for God’s sake, and they still sound inferior to the best home audio systems.
As far as home listening environments go, most people listen to the radio on either boom boxes or cheap stereo systems that offer the same audio quality as a boom box, which is pretty poor. Promos and sweepers that use the amazing digital effects that you can get on a DAW are lost on radios that have low-grade reception. We tend to forget that, while we may have awesome audio reproduction equipment in our studios, the average listener is hearing our station on a set of tin cans wired with coat hangers and powered by an old car battery. Even more fun for me, WLS is an AM stereo station. Show me one person (outside of radio industry tech geeks) who owns an AM stereo tuner? Everything I produce now is in MONO. Why? What good are stereo digital effects that completely disappear when your audience is listening in mono?
I remember a statistic I saw once in some audio trade magazine. It stated that less than five percent of any given radio station’s listening audience has what could be considered high-grade radio receivers; i.e., the kind which can properly reproduce this miraculous audio that we create with our Digital Erections (twenty percent if you work at a Classical music station). So, we find ourselves with two problems. The audio effects are overwhelming the message, and most people don’t even have the audio equipment needed to hear some of these amazing effects. Can you say Dilemma?
Here’s how you can cure yourself of a Digital Erection. Consider your DAW to be just another fast tool to help you get the job done quicker, like the way your word processor lets you write faster than a typewriter. Consider your DAW to be Hamburger Helper. Regardless of what Randy Quaid said in National Lampoon’s “Vacation,” Hamburger Helper by itself tastes like crap. You’ve got to add meat to the stuff to get it to do something. Your copy is your meat. Your message is your meat. The audio spectaculars you can create with your DAW are just the motion. Like it or not, in this biz, it’s the meat, not the motion.