Many recent singles have had their path onto radio playlists smoothed by an edit from Wise Buddah Music Ltd. Sam Inglis talks to founder Bill Padley about the business of producing and editing music that gets on the air.
When Paul White interviewed Wise Buddah founder Mark Goodier and his colleague Bill Padley in SOS December 1994, the fledgling company was essentially a radio post‑production studio, offering editing and dubbing facilities on an early Digidesign Pro Tools system. Since then, the company has grown rapidly and diversified into other areas of the media and music businesses. Through their latest venture, Wise Buddah Music Ltd, of which Padley is managing director, they have expanded their activities to offer recording, mixing, songwriting and music production. Bill and Manager of Creative Services Paul Plant told me about their approach to these projects, the new working methods that are possible in an entirely Pro Tools‑based studio, and shared some of their experience on the subject of getting records played on the radio.
Wise Buddah made the decision to go with Pro Tools at the outset, and have stayed with it. Bill takes up thestory: "When Wise Buddah started, five years ago, our first commission was for Radio 1, for a show called Collins & Maconie's Hit Parade, and we started doing it on tape at the BBC, hiring a studio with cart machines and reel‑to‑reel. It was a quite complex music review show, with four people and loads of records and jingles and stuff, and it took us all day, and my fingers were raw with editing tape. After a couple of weeks we said 'This is ludicrous — things have moved on since we did this at Radio Clyde, and we should really investigate alternatives,' so I looked at all of them. At that point there wasn't a massive amount of choice, to be honest, it was a very early Pro Tools, and the other alternatives were massively expensive."
I occasionally get record companies saying to me 'Will you edit this track — it's got to be three minutes 30,' and I'll say 'No, it hasn't. It's got to be as long as it needs to be.
Bill and Paul are in no doubt that they chose the right digital system for them: "We did an OB from Ibiza with Pete Tong," recalls Bill, "and they had SADiE in the truck, and I had to edit a 10‑minute interview down to two minutes. It took me two hours! There were so many screens in SADiE — you open up a window, and another one opens up, and then a teapot appears on the screen and a couple of chickens fly in... It was, as far as I was concerned, massively overcomplicated for the job it was attempting to achieve, whereas Pro Tools is one screen, and anyone who's ever used a tape and razor blade and a chinagraph and some sticky tape can use Pro Tools. We can teach our producers Pro Tools in an afternoon, and they're off editing. When we did Radio 1 stuff, we managed to convince them that Pro Tools was a good idea, and they ended up with a couple of Pro Tools systems there."
Wise Buddah's new studios are among the first in the UK to be equipped with Pro Control, Digidesign's hardware fader surface for controlling Pro Tools. "We started with, and still have,JL Cooper CS10s," says Bill "which were basically eight faders in a box. When we did radio editing, we couldn't get to grips with moving a fader on a screen with a mouse — it had to be tactile. The other thing about radio people is that they're used to moving more than one fader at the same time, so you fade down a voice and fade something else up, or fade one record out and another one in. And you couldn't do that with a mouse, because you can only do one thing at a time.
"So we got the CS10s, which we lived with for three years, and they were fine. But then Pro Tools automation changed dramatically, and became really good, so you could have touch mode and latch mode, and all sorts of stuff it never did before, and without faders that moved, it didn't make any sense — you had to go past a null point on the JL Cooper and wait 'til a light lit up before you were in charge of it. So in our music studio we bought a Mackie HUI, which we've still got. It's good, but all I use it for is faders and basic transport functions. Any of the other clever functions it does, like controlling plug‑ins, I actually find a lot quicker to do on screen, but that's simply because I'm used to doing it. But with Pro Control, they've gone a step further. They've made it much easier now, so if you want an EQ, it's got a dedicated EQ button — up come the EQs, as opposed to a massive list of plug‑ins.
"You can see now, with Pro Control and a 64‑track Mix Plus system, how you can actually do away with a desk, because you can plug in a compressor across every channel, and an EQ across every channel, so suddenly you've got a desk. The only problem with it is how to get your stuff in to Pro Tools. So, in our studios here, we've got Yamaha O2Rs, and their only basic function in life is to get things into Pro Tools. We're running ADAT Bridges between the O2R and Pro Tools, so that they communicate. And, of course, there will be occasions when someone comes in and says 'Can someone put this voice on a DAT quickly?' If Pro Tools isn't running, you haven't got a studio, but the O2R is still a real desk, if you just need to do something quickly.
"Pro Control is a magnificent beast, but for people who've been using Pro Tools from day one, it does require a bit of a learning curve to unlearn what yolearned before. It's not as intuitive to edit on as editing with a mouse and keyboard, but for mixing purposes, it's absolutely magnificent."
One area in which Wise Buddah have become prominent is in carrying out radio edits of singles. "Record companies would come to us and they'd go 'We've got this record and we can't get it on the air, it needs an edit,'" explains Padley. "And I'd approach that from the point of view of someone who understood what radio needed, but also from the point of view of a musician who understood what the guy was trying to get out of the record in the first place, and not destroy it. So I wasn't just chopping a few bars out here and there to get the time down, I was going 'Well actually, that bridge there was quite important, that bridge ought to stay there.'"
There can be few people more experienced in turning good records into airplay favourites (among the records Padley has edited for radio are all of Norman Cook's hits as Fatboy Slim, and most of Creation Records' output) so I asked him what the secret is. In part, it turns out, the key lies in recognising a distinction between dance music and pop songs — see the 'Editing Singles' box. Flexibility is also part of the solution: "I occasionally get record companies saying to me 'Will you edit this track — it's got to be three minutes 30,' and I'll say 'No, it hasn't. It's got to be as long as it needs to be.' It might only need to be 2'30" — or it might stand being 4'50", if it's brilliant. My advice would be to imagine you'd never heard the song before, and that it wasn't yours, then tell me at what point in it you get bored. And if that point is at the end, that's fine, you've done a fantastic job. If that point is two minutes in, you've got it wrong.
"I don't know how I would feel if somebody edited my track, but if the end result was that it got on the air whereas before it didn't, then surely you've got to sit back and accept that that's a vital part of your career progression. If nobody plays it, you can be as brilliant as you like — nobody'll hear it and therefore nobody'll buy it. So getting on the air is important. And radio is so competitive now, particularly commercial radio: they won't put 20 records on a week, they'll put five or six, so to get in that five or six it's got to stand up. So a radio edit of your track is sometimes going to make the difference between it being on the air and not being on the air."
So, apart from trimming the extraneous fat from your rock songs and turning your floor‑fillers into pop songs with a traditional verse/chorus structure (see box), what else can you do to get your music on the air? Once again, Padley is the voice of experience: "If you want to get your record on the air, then decide which station it is you want to get it on — if it's Kiss, then bloody well listen to Kiss. If it's XFM, listen to XFM. Don't just assume that you know what it is they're playing without listening to it. Absorb yourself in what they do for a living, and if you listen to Kiss for a week and hear the kind of stuff that they're playing, and your record's not like that, then it ain't going to get on it, is it? It seems a fairly obvious thing to say, but some people wouldn't do that.
"Let's also bear in mind here that it's not as simple as having a great record any more. You know, if you were Jim Smith from Huddersfield, and you'd written and produced a track that sounded exactly like the Backstreet Boys, without the machine behind you that is behind the Backstreet Boys, you are going nowhere. Those records don't survive because they're great records: they survive because they're great records with a great machine behind them."
So is it even possible to get on the radio without this sort of machine behind you — or is it essential to be signed to a monolithic multinational record company that can afford to throw money at you? Not at all: "A lot of the stuff that we do comes from small independents. Take Skint, Norman Cook's label, as a great example — there's him on it and a couple of other acts. And who would ever have thought that a bloke on a label in Brighton would be a phenomenon? But he is, and that's a great example of the fact that a small label can break an act if they're committed to the act and the act is the right act doing the right thing. To be honest, if I was setting out in the music industry now, I'd be much happier to go with a small label to start with. I'd rather be priority number one of one, than number 500 of six million. I'd much rather go with someone who's small, who loves my stuff to death, than somebody who says 'Yeah, we'll sign that — OK, put it on the shelf.'"
Padley is at his most enthusiastic when talking about his plans to break into songwriting and music production through the newly‑founded Wise Buddah Music Ltd. As well as their existing (though recently expanded) studio complex in the West End, they now also run a music studio in West Hampstead, in which Padley and his colleague Jeremy Godfrey compose and produce complete tracks either to order or to fill any empty niche their radio‑tuned ears happen to perceive.
In music production, just as in work for radio and TV, Padley sees the key as being able to offer a complete package: "In terms of making demos, I can't remember the last time I made a demo of a song that we'd done. We make masters. We say to people 'You can take our backing track and just stick your bloke over the top of it.' Because we're using Logic and Pro Tools as we're writing a song, we're also producing it at the same time as we're writing it. So we're not 'Here's a song which I've written on the acoustic guitar, now let's produce it' — it's part of the writing process. Nowadays there's no excuse for chopping out some crappy demo on an acoustic guitar with a bird twittering in the background, recorded on your Winfield portable cassette machine. If you're serious about it, then buy yourself the tools necessary. And that's not a blasé statement, because they're not expensive any more, they really aren't."
I think a lot of nonsense is talked about big desks and big rooms and expensive gear: if you've got a tool that works for you then use it. If your creativity is limited by the gear you're using, then buy something else.
And while it's important in the current climate to be able to provide the technical production elements as well as the creative input, it's ultimately all a means to an end. "You mustn't allow yourself to be caught up in the technology versus the song," Padley insists. "You cannot polish a turd. So don't get carried away. If your song's shit, your song's shit. What I'm saying is that I use technology in a way that's maybe different, but always thinking about the melody and the lyric and the chord structure; what goes over the top of that is dressing. You can dress any good song in any number of ways you want — it can be a reggae song, an LA ballad, or an indie pop song depending on how you dress it up, but it's still the same song.
"I've done albums for people that have been 'proper' albums with drummers and people playing live and all that kind of stuff, and I've got nothing against that, I really haven't, but we're running a music company that can't afford to spend three days worrying about getting a drum sound — and the type of music we're playing and writing doesn't demand it. It's about the song and it's about the way you treat that song. I could play a 32nd triplet on a hi‑hat for real — but why would I need to when I can play it on an Octapad and it sounds exactly the same? People can toss themselves off about the musicianship in things, you know, and get carried away with it. But does it really need it? Does that make your song a number one? No, it doesn't. It just shows how great a hi‑hat player you are. And that's not to denigrate great musicians, because if you're making albums with different people in a different genre of music that require great players then fine — let's go to SARM West, let's go to the Townhouse and get them all playing, and let's get really vibed about it. But if you're making pop songs, no‑one cares as long as they can dance around and sing the hook. They don't care whether a drummer played it or whether it's programmed."
Whereas Pro Tools had initially been merely an editing tool for Padley and his colleagues, their forays into music production have led to increasing use of its multitrack recording and mixing facilities. Given their emphasis on providing 'complete solutions', it's clearly a godsend to be able to use a common system for radio, TV and music production. "Because we're working on the same Pro Tools systems," points out Paul Plant, who manages sister company Wise Buddah Creative Ltd, "we can bring a session from the music studio in so that appears as a multitrack track list in our Pro Tools [for editing or dubbing to picture] — so if the keyboard is too loud at a certain point it can be taken down; we're not just stuck with a rigid mix in stereo."
The music studio contains an Akai S6000 sampler, along with a decent selection of synth modules, which are sequenced using Logic Audio Platinum on the Mac. "I was a completely committed Cubase man, from the days of Pro 24 on the Atari," explains Padley. "I lived and grew up with it until about 12 months ago, when I became so irritated by Steinberg's attitude to professional musicians. And what I mean by that is their unwillingness to support their product when it required support. If I'm a professional producer, working in a studio, and a bit of gear falls over, I expect to be able to find out why. If I've got Luther Vandross screaming down my ear that he's only got half an hour, and I say 'I'm really sorry Luther, but the dongle appears to have broken,' I really want an answer now. And I took the decision from my company's point of view to switch from Steinberg to Logic Audio — and it was a painful one for me, because I love Steinberg stuff, I think it's fantastic software. The other thing which precipitated that decision was that they abandonded Digidesign hardware in favour of their own VSTetup. But as far as I'm concerned, as a professional musician, I don't want my record to be coming out of a 3.5 millimetre jack plug on the back of the Macintosh.
"The way we work is quite interesting. Because we use Logic and Pro Tools, what we want it to do is end up on Pro Tools as a multitrack. You could do it all in Logic, but I want it on Pro Tools because I love Pro Tools and to me it's a much easier audio tool than Logic is. So the way we work is we use all of our MIDI gear, we boot up Logic to start with and run that in audio mode, record all the MIDI stuff alongside a guide vocal and anything acoustic that might need to be there, like a guitar or something, all on Logic. And then comes the very boring and laborious process of dumping all of that lot into Pro Tools. And the only way to do that — and this is where life could be a lot easier, actually — is that Pro Tools effectively becomes a tape‑based multitrack for a while, while you run Pro Tools alongside Logic, sync'ed up to it. You could just carry on and mix it live, frankly, but we want it into Pro Tools, because we treat Pro Tools as an instrument.
"If you've got a reel of tape with 48 tracks on it, you've then got, as far as I'm concerned now — I wouldn't have said this five years ago — a blank canvas with which to be creative. Because you're not, at that point, as far as we're concerned, just mixing it. You can then add crashes, bangs, wallops, reverses, pitch‑shifting, transposing, flanging, all the stuff that Pro Tools does brilliantly, and it becomes part of the track then. So we know, when we've got it onto Pro Tools, that we've still got work to do, but because we do it all the time, we know what that work's going to be as we're recording it.
"We were working with a DJ guy the other day doing a remix, and he works on an Atari with Notator with everything running live, and he automates all his reverbs with MIDI commands, and all that stuff. After we'd finished this remix he went 'My God, I'm doing this in such a long‑winded way' — he was using samplers to sample the vocals, all that sort of stuff — and you don't need to do that any more, you really don't.
"The plug‑ins stuff in Pro Tools is the one thing they did that I think has been a master‑stroke, that nobody else did — that you can get a Focusrite EQ, that you can get a Lexicon reverb, and automate them. These things in the real world aren't possible, but they are in Pro Tools. The first time we got Mix Plus and I booted up a 64‑track session, I just said 'OK, I'm going to put a Focusrite EQ on all 64 tracks,' and it just appeared. And I went 'Oh my God, I cannot believe this has just happened.' You imagine what that would take in a real studio at three grand a pop — and then you can automate them all!
"On a typical sort of record, or a remix, I'm running anything upwards of 48 tracks, sometimes up to 64 tracks, all completely automated, coming up on two faders on an O2R — and I just think that's the most brilliant thing ever, that I can go to a project I was working on a week ago, load one session and the entire thing comes back. Do that with an SSL! Show me how the outboard is automated exactly, then! I think a lot of nonsense is talked about big desks and big rooms and expensive gear: if you've got a tool that works for you then use it. If your creativity is limited by the gear you're using, then buy something else."
- Kurzweil K2500 master keyboard
- Akai S6000 sampler
- EMU Orbit, Audity 2000, Planet Phatt, Proteus, Morpheus
- Yamaha DX7 mkII, TX81Z
- Oberheim Matrix 6R
- Roland JV1080, D50
- Access Virus
- Waldorf Microwave XT
Given Padley's almost postmodern view of the music and media industries, in which categories like those of the artist and the technician are almost non‑existent, it's perhaps surprising to find that, in his eyes, the key to editing tracks for airplay lies in maintaining a firm distinction between dance music and song‑based pop music.
"We get a lot of dance records to edit," he explains, "and there, what people have done is they've made a record that's going to work in a club. And that doesn't necessarily mean a song that's going to work in a club, it's a record — I make the distinction between a record and a song. A song, to me, is a proper song that's got a verse, a bridge, a chorus, middle eight, and so on, whereas a dance record doesn't need to be a song at all. That works fine in a club, for 12 minutes, but when you try to edit that down to a decent radio length, there's not enough in it, most of the time, to sustain more than three minutes of your time before you've heard it all.
"So for dance things, what I tend to find I'm having to do is to rearrange it. They'll do one verse, and they'll do a chorus, and they'll repeat the chorus 50 times, then there'll be a breakdown, then it'll finish. I'm having to go 'OK, well the verse really should happen again after the first chorus — and as there's only one verse, I'd better put that one in again!' It's imposing a song structure on a dance record. That's because what works in a club doesn't work for a woman sitting listening in a shop in Essex: a hook repeated 50 times over three minutes isn't going to grab them. And it ain't gonna get on the air, frankly, because radio programmers aren't stupid, and they know it ain't gonna grab them.
"Norman Cook is an interesting case in point with edits. I remember doing 'Rockefeller Skank', where there was a fantastic bit of pitch‑shifting time‑stretching on the vocal. It went on for about 30 seconds, and it was great — as a muso, I was thinking 'How the hell did he do that?' But on the radio, it wasn't going to work. It went on for too long. So I chopped it down to five seconds and did a load of clever crossfades and that, and it went back to Norman, and Norman went 'But that took me all day!' And the plugger said 'Yes, it may have taken you all day, Norman, but it ain't going to get on the air. People aren't going to sit at home in Essex going 'How did Norman do that pitch‑shifting?'
"Dance records also do this quite a lot: they get a big build‑up which takes three minutes, then they sing the chorus, then it all breaks down again for the verse, and there's no drums going on. Well, that's not good enough for radio, because 20 seconds into it, you don't want to have broken down to a pad and a vocal. So sometimes I have to put a drum track from later on back where the vocals were. In a club it's great to have a big breakdown for two minutes, so everyone can wave their arms in the air and hold their lighters up, but on the radio, they don't do that. There's always, in dance records, eight bars of drums at the beginning so they can mix into it, and eight bars at the end so they can mix out of it, so you've always got the drum tracks somewhere.
"So dance records are a tricky one. It's much easier to talk about songs, and what people do wrong with songs. When something comes in to me, it tends to be that someone's made a record that is five minutes long, and they want that to get on the air. They'll take that to a radio station, and the station will say 'Well, it needs an edit.' And the reason they say that is because it dribbles on in various parts of it.
"Where they tend to dribble a lot is in the intro and at the end. Most songs that get on the air and are big hits tend to have got to the first verse by about 15 seconds in, whereas when they originally start out, it tends to be 40 seconds before they've even started singing, 'cos the guitarist's warming up, and the bass player's showing how great he is. So what I tend to try and do with songs is condense the already great ideas and lose the fat. What they tend to do is have a guitar solo that goes over eight bars instead of four, and when it comes out of the first chorus they have an eight‑bar bit before the second verse starts. Those kind of things are easy to condense, but you've got to approach it from a musician's point of view and go 'Well, is that really destroying it?'
"What I never do is lose words. If someone's taken the time and care and effort to put together a song which is properly structured, but the only point they've missed is that it's got to be condensed a bit, I'll really try to stay away from losing words."
In editing a single for radio, Padley invariably has only a copy of the original stereo master to work on — and Pro Tools, again, proves its worth: "If I was to do all the edits that I did on a bit of tape, I'd be in trouble, because a lot of it involves cross‑fading things. People make such great records these days, they have loads of reverbs and echoes and effects and stuff going on. The other thing is that people do all these filter sweeps, and you can't edit a filter sweep with a bit of tape. The jump from where it started to where you've edited it sounds like a jump, whereas in something like Pro Tools you can cross‑fade it cleverly, if you know what you're doing, so that the filter sweep just sounds as if it's got there quicker."