Miami wakes up to the prospect of ReelMix 2016 day two and breakfast is served…
In this masterclass are the UK’s own Andy Jackson and Ben Marks, plus Neal Martin from the US. All three are Production Vault imagers, but focus on different music formats.
Andy is explaining how he builds up a music track from samples. He’s making a branded song intro for a new release by Hailee Steinfeld. Kick, snare, hi-hat and some tom rhythms form the basis of this demonstration. He keeps everything clean and crisp, with no processing.
Once he has something with energy, he will turn to the vocal and instrumental drops he needs from his source material. In this demo, he’s lifted female vocals and a clean acoustic guitar loop, and is adding elements of his own voice saying “all the hits, the hits, hits, hits, all the hits, the h-it, it, its”, heavily tuned and formanted.
The audience challenges him to remove all the processing so we can hear the original recording. To his credit, and a little English embarrassment, he does.
Andy then layers the vocals to add delays and harmonies. It’s the same source recording in each layer, but tuned differently to create harmonies in the appropriate key.
Andy uses several sound design elements in the mix too, but never starts with sound design because that risks “ending up with a muddy mess”. It’s the last thing he adds, once the rhythmic and melodic elements are in place.
Andy is now adding some spoken voice drops from Hailee Steinfeld. She’s recorded a drop specifically for Z100 but the sound doesn’t match the rest of her voice line so Andy is manipulating it to minimise the difference between the recordings.
He’s asked why there’s no bass line in his construction. Andy says it’s just not needed in the intro. He has drums with some solid lower kick. The melodic bass energy will come later in the track.
The whole piece took about three hours to make, says Andy.
Now a quick example of a branded intro for a Pitbull song.
Andy has cut-up a vocal line “living for the weekend” into single syllables which he then arranges in a cool rhythm and tunes into an original arpeggio figure. Again, WavesTune and Little Alter Boy are his plugins of choice.
We’re looking at EQ now. This intro uses a voice drop from Dave Foxx. Dave’s voice has lots of lower energy, but for this example, Andy is removing all that. He’s peaking the upper midranges so the voice cuts through at a lower level in the mix and adding some distortion: not nasty clippy peak shattering distortion, but regulated harmonics that add some fuzz.
At the end of the intro there’s a riser (upwardly sweeping effect) that Andy generated with the Nexus synth instrument plugin and then stuttered manually.
Andy is asked whether he has standard EQ and compression settings for material he uses frequently, like Dave Foxx’s voice. He says not – he starts everything from scratch because every project is different but for Dave’s voice specifically he has a starting point saved.
What about reverbs and delays on the vocals? What’s his thinking behind those? Andy says he uses them to give energy and keep things moving forward but he is careful not to use too much which can lead to musical clashes. He often fades them out at the end of the branded intro, as the song itself starts.
It’s always good to see another member of media’s Martin dynasty on stage. 😉 Here’s Neal with another piece that bridges musical composition and radio production. He specialises in the Classic Hits format.
In this example, Neal is building up the basis of a branded intro to sound like a track that doesn’t have an intro. Drums, synth patterns, bass and strings come from Neal’s favourite range of instrument plugins. He says the best plugins require little or no processing.
His background shines through in this demo as he is revealed as an extremely accomplished and versatile musician.
We’re jumping to a Jackson Five example of a branded intro using the track ABC and Neal’s own vocals singing “welcome back to the seventies” in various harmony parts. To get “Michael’s” voice, he records an octave lower and then jumps it up with Little Alter Boy.
Five layers of vocals in harmony, despite the electronic manipulation, sounds remarkably similar to the original nature of the Jackson Five.
Neal is asked whether he ever uses Karaoke sites such as karaokeversion.com – he doesn’t, preferring to create his own tracks and effects, but they are a useful reference point he says. In Production Vault, everything he makes is original.
More UK talent now as Ben unpicks a Kisstory branded song intro. Really intense, contemporary production but for old skool music tracks is a hallmark of Kisstory in the UK.
The detail in this bit are getting a little beyond me, to me honest. That’s why Ben’s work is so highly regarded, I guess. So, why not have a listen yourself:
Here’s a good tip – if you put too much bass in effects and elements you drop on the 1s, you lose the impression of power. Use a low shelf to get more solid impacts, and leave the track itself to sort out the bottom end. Basically, there should only be one thing at a time going on down there.
Ben’s next example involves a Major Lazer song, again in order to create a branded intro version for Kiss.
He’s found a three note motif within the track which he’s recreated as a recognisable signal at the very start of the branded intro, and then has built a drum and bass track to sit under some voice drops from the artists.
Ben is asked about his delays and reverb plugin: he says it’s Effectrix which has tonal delays. In essence, it delays in tune with the track. Really useful for dragging out the tail of elements, says Ben.
In answer to another question about delays that sound mechanical, Ben says again that Effectrix sorts that. It’s easy to manipulate and sounds awesome.
Ben says he adds drums to everything, unless he’s working in AC format. He’s a drummer and a beat addict. He loves to feel the energy.
One more example of Ben’s work for Kiss. They wanted artist IDs: a great piece of imaging around one artist. It’s not a branded intro, but required a different interesting approach.
The station determined which artists they wanted to use and Ben went to find acapellas and music to match. In this example it’s Calvin Harris.
There’s a lot of echo at the end. An audience member wants to know what’s going on. Hey, guess what… it’s Effectrix again, this time supplemented with Echo Boy by SoundToys. But it’s not just delay – there’s a some autotune to bring out the tonic note.
For mastering, Ben has a simple set-up: he runs everything through a sub-mix channel with an aux send to a Waves 2500 compressor. So you hear the compressed sound to bring out details without crushing the peaks. Then everything hits a small amount of multiband limiting.
Time for a coffee break here in Miami.
Ever seen twenty radio imagers trying to avoid a bottle of water?
It’s a productivity session moderated by Juan Tobar from The Mix Group, and featuring Victor Lisle, specialist talk format producer, Robbie Ehrbar, based in California for Production Vault and Laura Mather from Reelworld’s UK base. You may have heard her on this Earshot podcast from earlier in the year.
Worksheets, organisation and structure. Who has them? Some hands go up in the audience.
Laura Mather explains how she plans. Her routine works about one week out. She says it’s a bit old fashioned but Laura has a diary, containing lists of her tasks. If something doesn’t get done she moves it from one day to the next but Monday is her planning day, Tuesday is reserved for scripting etc.
Robbie says he tries to get as much done at the start of the week because the rest of the week lends him less room for control.
Victor jokes that it’s all about coffee. His week starts on a Friday when he maps out what clients will need in the seven days ahead. When he switched from rock to talk formats he found this was necessary. He generally knows what diary items are likely to happen up to two weeks ahead, but every day is different in newstalk, responding to the news cycle.
He has to keep across the news agenda through the weekend because Monday may not be as planned if a major story breaks.
Production Vault has a workflow management platform, Smartsheet, across the business. It contains information about every job in the company’s makelist, who it’s assigned to and at what stage of progress the project is sat.
Robbie demonstrates how he shares audio clips using Dropbox for major projects.
Laura explains that the geographical spread of teams helps them respond to breaking stories. The example she cites is the death of Prince. The news broke late in the evening UK time but teams in the UK were able to turn around material quickly.
Robbie says that, like major news organisations, they manage a obituary list.
Laura says she uses her email out of office message to let clients know when she’s head-down in production work and cannot be interrupted.
Victor says he takes deep breaths. You have to conquer the work or it will conquer you. He was stuck on a boat at the moment Mandela died. He now travels with enough kit to be able to respond to breaking news when he’s on the road. Apparently, he’s always out when a big story breaks. They call it the Mandela effect.
Laura explains that her time spent producing morning shows taught her the value of forward planning; skills she still uses today. When Victor worked on a station he would record calls in advance for his show, then take the tapes home and produce ‘the hell’ out of them. It was the best part of the show and it taught him the value of getting organised.
Juan asks about managing work-life balance. Laura learned how to say no to people in order to protect her personal time. You still deserve to have a life. The sales guys will be out the door at 5pm.
Robbie works from home and the presence of his two year old pulls him away from work.
Victor’s day always starts at 5am, but could end anywhere, right up to 2am. He’s ‘a pleaser’ and wants to meet people’s expectations but knows this is a fault of a kind. You have to find a way to find peace and tranquility because the job carries a lot of stress.
Victor says it’s all about time management and file management. If you’re writing a script, put difficult pronunciations at the very top. It saves the voiceover time and saves you time when you have to edit the audio.
‘Quality, quantity, speed’. Victor needs to get his files fast so he files everything chronologically in folders and subfolders, properly named so you can search quickly. Eg: ‘sfx: open, run in, close door’.
The teams use the same approach with Dropbox. It takes a time investment but saves time when it really counts.
Laura reiterates the importance of setting up systems, planning forward and clearing down emails. Laura likes 20 or fewer emails in her inbox by the end of the week.
Robbie likes to ‘capture’ stuff as he goes. This sound likes a list approach, as celebrated in the Atul Gawande book, The Checklist Manifesto. He came off Facebook because it was such a distraction. A round of applause in the room for that.
Laura says she looks Facebook and Instagram but is made of stronger stuff and can use them for escapism without letting them interrupt her work. Victor says he is ADD and cannot let himself get sucked in. He says ‘know your weakness’ and manage it, challenge it.
A question from the auditorium asks about making year-end montages. How do you manage for that? Victor says he makes a daily ‘hot topic’ promo every day. For example, the Obama 9/11 bill in Congress is today’s hot topic.
On a weekly basis, he uses the same material and makes a weekly review promo.
On a monthly basis he uses the weekly promos to create a monthly review promo.
Then, you saw this coming, at the end of the year he can narrow down from those monthly promos to make the review of the year promo.
Sometimes the important stuff isn’t the most urgent says Anthony Gay from the audience: how do you make time for the special stuff? Victor uses an analogy: everyone likes cake. Every now and again you’ve got to serve cake. It’s worth putting in the effort to make special stuff that inspires you.
Laura says that sometimes she decides to stop working on a difficult project, stop and come back to it the next day with fresh inspiration. Mike agrees – he does the same thing – walks away and comes back later.
And now, lunch from this lady…
It’s the afternoon in Miami now and Eric Huber, creative director of ReelWorld, is on stage.
He has a list of principles that drive his work:
What is the foreground element
What target are we trying to hit
3 D chess – what is the overall impact of the sum of the parts
What needs to be taken away so that the foreground element can print? Thinking reductively.
Have we created emotional impact?
Now that’s all sorted, it’s onto some mighty track laydowns to understand how Eric and his team apply those principles daily.
We’re looking at a track laydown for an AC jingle. The amount of production in here is remarkable. Five sounds combine to create the kick drum sound, all perfectly phase-aligned and complementary. The hi-hat is accompanied by a ‘click’ sound to help it cut through and the snare doesn’t ride alone either. It is partnered by a ‘room trigger’ that sounds like a pistol shot effect, giving the snare further depth.
A lot of these decisions are based on the reality of listening to radio on typical listeners’ sets which don’t always convey the full range of frequencies.
For the second time at ReelMix we have a demonstration of the benefits of sidechain compression. This technique uses one sound to drive the dynamics of another: in this case ducking a range of sounds with the combined kick to create space for the drum peaks to cut through. It’s subtle but effective way to improve impact without adding further density by limiting off the top end.
Erik asks the audience whether they mix then add their mastering, or like him, put in place the end chain before starting work. He likes hearing how the final mix will sound as he builds up the tracks.
His mastering chain comprises the SSL compression plugin, A C4 four band limiter, L3 ultramaximiser and a mastering plugin by Slate Digital.
The ‘Loudness wars’ are starting to become a thing of the past says Eric, so his final mixes do contain “some air” and are not totally flattened off in the way they would have been a few years ago.
By contrast with the heavily produced sound of AC, Eric says his Country format work is far more organic.
Time for another technique tutorial: parallel compression. This means taking a sound, copying to multiple tracks and then applying different dynamic processing to each track to highlight different characteristics of the sound. One track remains entirely clean to maintain the purity of the peak transient.
Reductive eq: Eric takes out a lot of lower and mid frequencies from his acoustic guitar tracks to remove boominess that can conflict with the bass, but leaves the brightness.
Now we’re taking a walk through the mix of a Z100 CHR cut. The room gives Eric a round of applause when he plays the full mix. He says it’s nice to be in a room where people appreciate this stuff and gives the impression that doesn’t happen at home!
A little secret of phase alignment is the ‘hard sync’ on his instrument plug-in. By the way, Eric uses Logic for all his composition.
Finally, song transitions in key with the songs you play. Using a Chainsmokers track he demonstrates the importance of programming jingles in key. [Listeners in the UK might be interested to know that Ken Bruce on Radio 2 has his main jingle produced in a variety of different keys. Ken is at the cutting edge of music radio programming, surprisingly.]
Eric gets the whole room to pledge only to ever programme jingles in key with songs. Selector/Linker can do this automatically if you fill in the relevant fields.
I ask Eric afterwards if there’s ever a reason to create a key transition between imaging and song. He says yes, for emotional effect but you have to know what you’re doing. Try jumping to the dominant or subdominant: that works.
"Raise your hand and repeat after me: I do solemnly swear to always produce jingles in the same key as the song." –@erikhuber#ReelMix2016
Now we’re into the funny, with this opening video by Jerry Seinfeld about his approach to comedy writing.
Some people are on stage… Eric Chase and Mike Daly / Flounder…
And Bob Coates and John Frost (who are currently out of reach of my camera).
Here’s some of their work.. John Frost:
First tip: write it down. If you have an idea, just get it down on paper immediately. Often ideas come late at night when you’re really tired. Write it down.
Where does Bob get his inspiration? He says he’s just ‘an ass’ and likes to make fun of things.
One of John Frost’s sweeper scripts here: “Here’s a bunny. Here’s a fourth of a bunny. [chopping sfx]. Happy fourth”.
He says the sound design is very Warner Brothers: it’s straight from the cartoons so makes the harshness of the comedy acceptable.
Eric Chase takes aim at sound effects libraries: they’re never short enough, they’re never ballsy enough. He can spend ages looking through 6000 Sound Ideas discs looking for a bunny effect but would rather just squeek into the microphone. You can be surprised how much you can do with your mouth. Fnarr.
‘Catch ’em all’ – for an edgy rock format Flounder took that line made famous by Pokemon Go and applied it to STDs. On brand, certainly.
John Frost says he’ll make stuff that’s close to the edge: a lot of stations would not play it, but he knows there will be one or two formats/markets in which it will run. The example he gives is a joke about someone in the news who was currently in a coma. Unacceptable in many places, but not all it seems.
Victor Lisle floats a thesis: political correctness is killing comedy. He asks the audience how many would run something that’s clearly not politically correct but is really funny. Few hands go up.
It used to be the case that the success of work was judged by the number of complaints. That’s not the case now. Eric says a CHR PD will sometimes freak out with one complaint.
Eric and John both make their services with mix-outs so stations can use the characters but not the voiceover, or whatever.
We’re discussion whether family members are useful sounding boards for comedy pieces. The panel agrees they’re not: the writers are experienced enough to know what’s funny and what’s not. If you make yourself laugh that means the work is great.
"If I make myself laugh when I'm writing, that's when I know it's good." -Bob Coates #ReelMix2016
If you had to run everything past someone else (family or PD) it would get watered down.
More audio now:
Eric says there’s nothing that will draw you closer to the radio than silence. It gives you a chance to digest what you’ve just heard. It has to be exactly the right amount of silence though – it has its own internal rhyhthm.
John Frost says you can make something way more funny just by changing the timing. Same script, same effects, just a different pacing. Eric describes everything as like a piece of music.
Subtle nuances: Bob Coates puts in a lot of little stuff that he hopes gets picked up by some listeners but he doesn’t know for sure. John Frost agrees it’s essential to paint the pictures. If you’re in the Artic, there had better be a wind.
Eric talks about cinematic sound production: detail adds realism. Without all the little foley effects and atmospheres the dialogue just sits there ‘like a turd’.
The panellist agree that the Speakerphone plugin is really powerful for creating believable environments.
A question from Drake Donovan… do the producers ‘see’ the scene in their minds before they make their audio. Eric does. He has rigged extra mics in his studio to help create the scenes he perceives.
Another question: how many of the character voices are actually you. Eric says he and John do almost all their own voices. John says it’s born out of necessity. He says they’re not impressive voices but they’re enough to be believable in context.
They all pay tribute to Mike Kominsky as brilliant voice and character actor.
To help with timing, Eric uses a timing grid in musical tempos. He says if he sets the session to 150bpm, he’ll end up with a spot that actually uses that as a reference, even though he’s working with speech and effects, not music.
To add authenticity, John Frost overlaps voices and uses silences. That’s how people speak.
Question: are you making audio for the first listen or repeated listens?
Eric says you’ve got to get over the point on the first listen, but there’s scope to add details that become apparent on repeated listens. For example ‘oh, there’s a child sneezing in there’. Not essential to the story but interesting colour.
Sometimes Eric writes down ideas and just waits for the appropriate news story to come along to make it topical.
We close with a John Cleese video which, for copyright reasons, I cannot share here.
And that’s it from the live blog at ReelMix2016.
I’d appreciate your feedback. What worked best for you, and what could be even better?
Earshot will be at The Imaging Days in Amsterdam on Monday and Tuesday with more live coverage from the global radio production community.
And that’s the biggest Earshot Creative logo I’ve ever seen…