(click thumbnail)Jason Phelps, Vito Gorinas, Forrest Martin and J.J. Foxx
CSG Studio Gear List
Wheatstone Generation 4 Digital Consoles (3)
Wheatstone SR-9, 5.1 Surround Mix Console
Each room is equipped with the following:
Manley Vox Box Mic Preamps (2)
Neumann TLM-103 Microphones (2)
Kurzweil K-2600 XS Keyboard
Tascam MD-350 MiniDisc recorder
Marantz CD Player
Telos Zephyr XStream
Pro Tools HD 192 I/O
Pro Tools MIDI Interface
Dell Dimension 9150: 3 gigs of ram, 300 gig hard drive
Macintosh Quad Processor G5: 3 gigs of ram, 200 gig hard drive, Pro Tools HD 3 system
20-Inch Dell LCD Monitors (3)
Genelec 4-Inch Nearfield Monitors (2)
JBL 4410 A Studio Monitors (2)
Software and Plugins:
Pro Tools HD 7.2, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Audition 2.0, Waves Diamond Bundle TDM, Waves SSL Bundle TDM, Sony Oxford TDM, Sound Toys, Anteres Autotune 5, Reason 3.0, Vokator, Grm Tools , Reverb One, B.F.D., Drums On Demand, Bombfactory Plugin Suite
Various gear shared between rooms:
Mesaboogie Dual Rectifier
Korg Toneworks Tuner
AKAI MPC 1000 Sampler
When the HD Digital Radio Alliance last year introduced edgy radio spots for the new digital technology, using the tag line "Are You Def Yet," the spots came from a relatively low-profile arm of Clear Channel called the Creative Services Group.
Formed in 2004, this entity is a kind of "mini agency" in Atlanta that produces custom commercial work for advertisers on Clear Channel stations in its top 25 markets. The production facility provides services such as audio branding, customized musical underscores and full-blown jingles.
Four senior producers and 10 other employees are involved in brainstorming, writing and producing concepts for Clear Channel clients; ideas are shared with other stations in the group via the Internet for local adaptation.
Clear Channel production directors can download scripts and finished audio elements such as music and effects from a private Web site via a process known as SpotShare.
The company aims CSG services at clients with healthy budgets who are willing to accept non-traditional advertising — such as the one- or two-second radio spots Clear Channel dubbed "blinks," and "adlets," which run five seconds.
Though the industry trend seems to be away from traditional :60s, Forrest Martin, a senior producer with the group, acknowledges that the really-short-spot concept may seem odd to the uninitiated, but says they work well for a certain type of client, "someone with a national brand that can be recognized. For McDonald's we demonstrated how we could make a 1-second blink of their famous 'ba dop ba ba bah…' theme." Clear Channel officials say it created the short ad concept to help extend established, national brands,
Martin feels many traditional :60s are boring, with messages that could easily be tightened to 30 seconds. The company emphasizes that short spots work best when used in conjunction with other lengths. Vice President/General Manager Bob Case says, "Advertisers today are much more interested in shorter length, they recognize that time is precious. We do get calls for :60s every once in a while as well as even longer spots and full sponsored content. It all depends on the strategy and the objective of each individual advertiser."
CSG sometimes produces pieces that run as long as two minutes, more like songs than commercials.
"Whether we're creating a really short spot or a 30-second spot, the key is that we must connect emotionally with the listener," said Martin. "We're not the right guys for clients that want to have a phone number mentioned four times in each spot. We are more useful to advertisers interested in branding their businesses."
Here is a sentence from the CSG policy book that you will never hear uttered by a local sales manager: There is a 10-day turnaround policy on all projects.
"Each spot must be approved twice, once in script form and again when the final audio is completed," Martin said. "Liz Smith, our creative director, is responsible for that."
When the written spot is approved, CSG producers have many tools at their disposal including almost every music and effects library from Canadian supplier Sound Ideas. These tracks come with national licenses so the resulting spots can air in any market.
"The search engine makes the choices less overwhelming," said producer J. J. Foxx. "If I can't find what I'm looking for in our libraries, I will go to www.sounddogs.com and buy it. Sometimes I make my own sound effects using a portable recorder. I have had several interesting conversations with managers of home improvement stores as to why I was shaking paint cans, tossing items on the floor and banging on buckets. I end up buying the items that can give me the sound I'm looking for."
Then there is the Voice Bank.
"This was developed especially for us by Joe Lomonaco, a great production guy in Rochester," said Martin. CSG staff use it to find the right voice for a spot; the access the "bank" online via password. "I can get online and search for just the right voice for any spot by gender, age, name or voice description.
"Some of our talents work for Clear Channel, some go through an agency and some are independent announcers. A lot of them have home studios, but even if they don't, we can usually get them into one of our studios in Los Angeles or wherever they are."
Music director Jason Phelps is called in when library music isn't enough. With a background that includes a stint backing up pop star Shakira, his own certified No. 2 song on Billboard and videos on MTV, he is more than qualified. Phelps has his own specially equipped, spacious studio capable of accommodating an entire band. But one has to wonder why he would give up the life of a pop star to write music for car dealers.
"I wanted to get out of the artist side of the business because my wife and I had a baby girl in 2004," said Phelps. "It became difficult for me to hit the road because I missed them tremendously. [Clear Channel's] Jim Cook asked me to move to Atlanta so I could make music for him and I was given the task of re-inventing the radio jingle. No more singing the name of the business. No more singing the phone number. We connect with audiences just like a song."
Phelps regularly hires freelance musicians and singers to contribute to his projects. But all the producers use musical tools to create underscores and effects. Each studio is equipped with a Kurzweil 2600XS keyboard, an 88-note synthesizer/sampler.
"I'm not a musicians but I find ways to use that and a number of 'soft synths' [software versions of synthesizers] that are plug-ins for our Pro Tools system," said Martin. "We just did some effects for Disney and I was creating Tinkerbell sounds where in the past I would have tried to pull a something off a library."
Other gadgets favored by Martin include Vokator, a high-resolution vocoder/synth by Native Instruments, and BFD from Fxpansion, which is a MIDI program for creating drum tracks. Those letters almost stand for "Big Freakin' Drums."
Help on the way
When CSG's dance card is filled they call in extra troops.
"We have a SWAT team," said Martin. "These are outside producers we trust who help us when we get slammed, but the same approval process is involved on every project."
Creative Services Group may be working on as many as 40 projects at once. Keeping it all straight falls to continuity director Karen Shiflett.
"She is the keeper of the Bonkers List," said Martin. "That's a list of the status of every project we're working on. D.J. Williams is director of client services. You might call him "The Firewall."
"D.J. acts as an agent for us," said Martin. "Sales people from the radio stations are not allowed to contact the producers directly; they must go through D.J." Other members of the team include producer Vito Gorinas, a former jock and station imaging expert; copy writer and research director Summer Mullins; Bob Case, the general manager, who was one of the founders of CSG; and Gabe Warren, director of technology.
In a twist on a familiar industry expression, producer Gorinas likes to say he creates "theater of the blind," which he defines as "painting audio pictures with colors you've never heard before."
Gorinas marvels at the tools available to him.
"I've never had so many creative weapons at my disposal, from HD Pro Tools rigs to plug-ins to music gear. Now on the imaginary front, have they come out with a plug to make me sound like Don LaFontaine yet? That would be sweet."
Radio World asked Forrest Martin to share a tip or two for production directors.
"Never hesitate to ask questions," he said. "And build a network of people. That is really the most important tool you have."
Examples of CSG's work are at http://www.betterradio.net.