Darren “Robbo” Robertson has been a longtime friend and a partner in crime on some Benztown custom projects in the past. He’s been in the game for a long time and one of the early adapters in many directions…you could call him a gearhead as well. The list of stations and people he has worked with over his career is massive and to this day he images some of the biggest radio brands in Southeast Asia (SEA). He personally hosts several podcasts and I’ve previously been lucky enough to be invited as a guest. So much to talk about! Thanks for your time, Robbo!
Andreas Sannemann: Overall question…where does your name come from?
Darren Robertson: Hey Andy, and firstly thanks for inviting me. It’s humbling to be included along with some of the great names you have featured here. Well “Robbo” has hung around since my days at Triple M here in OZ. It came from shortening my surname (Robertson), a very Aussie thing to do. But at the same time, everyone seemed to have a nickname. There was my boss, the great Jeff Thomas (Thommo), Wayne Fox (Foxy), Simon Hicks (Slash) and Michael (Sideshow) Anderson. As for my company name, Voodoo Sound, I have to tip my hat to the great Rolling Stones and their “Voodoo Lounge” Tour for that one…
AS: Give me a bit of background on yourself, your career, achievements – I am sure a lot of the readers will know you or of you, but it puts a lot of the below in context.
DR: Wow, I’m not sure I can remember that far back…lol!
I started at an AM station here in Sydney called 2SM as the “cart boy” back in the late 80s. It had been the number one station in town for years, but the introduction of FM had seen it lose numbers to the FM band. It was a shame, because there were some amazing names in Australian radio who’d been through the doors there, and its heritage was amazing. In fact, in my first few weeks there I found some archives of AC/DC doing some station jingles for them. It’s also where I first met Duncan Cambell (now the Group PD at iHeart’s stations here in Australia), a name that would pop up a number of times through my career.
By the time I left SM, I had worked my way out of the cart room and into the commercial production studio, and I went to my first (and Sydney’s 2nd) FM station 2DAY FM. In my time there, the station became the first in history to accumulate an audience of over 1,000,000 people. And (for one survey at least) we managed to topple Triple M from their number 1 position. There were so many talented people there at the time who feature heavily in Australian Radio.
After leaving 2DAY I went to Newcastle to work with a bunch of Radio buddies who were launching a station called X13 that soon got an FM license and became X107. It was my first experience working with some American consultants, and I really learned a lot about imaging a CHR station.
And from Newcastle I started my 13-year run with the Triple M network around the country. Jeff Thomas (KIIS, Capitol, Killer Hertz) gave me my shot and I started in Brisbane. By the time I landed back in Sydney, I had worked in every market besides Melbourne. It was a great time in my career. The network was spending money on massive promotions (we even sent one listener into space) and I was working with Jeff and the rest of the guys I mentioned above. Creatively, and personally, I learned so much from all of them, but to work with and learn from the great Jeff Thomas was easily a career highlight. I still keep in touch with most of them and treasure my time at (what was then at least) the greatest network in Australia.
I left radio for awhile and got a gig at one of Australia’s largest advertising agencies. Working on campaigns for some reasonably large clients was an eye opener, and then I spent some time with the title of “Senior Sound Designer” at one of Sydney’s best known post production facilities.
When my first son was born in 2005 (I have five kids), I wanted to spend more time with them than a job in a Sound House would allow (I was working 8 a.m. till 10 p.m.) and I had recently invested in a Pro Tools rig, so I quit and took a mix of radio and post production clients on working from home, and along with going back to Triple M to fill in when Michael (Sideshow) Andersen was on leave, I carved out a living and managed to spend much more time with my growing brood. And that’s where Voodoo Sound got its start. I’ve never looked back.
AS: How is it to work for some of the biggest radio stations in OZ and SEA? How do the tasks differ between the different stations/brands? What are the stylistic approaches and how difficult is it to change hats between podcasts and radio imaging?
DR: I have always enjoyed a challenge, and after setting up Voodoo Sound, found I actually loved the different tasks that being a freelance imaging producer provides. The roles I take on at each station also varies. For some clients I work side by side with their own imaging guy (or gal), at others I AM the imaging guy, and at others I actually take on the role of creative director. Conceptualizing imaging, writing scripts and liaising with the promotions team and PD to come up with competitions and survey promotions.
I love all of that for a number of reasons. Firstly, because by default I get exposed to a bunch of really talented people, and get the opportunity to learn from their experience and talents. Plus I get to push myself in new ways and I find both my actual work behind the DAW and my creativity in general get a great kick along because of that.
DR: What do your days look like? Is there a blueprint? A routine?
AS: I never used to have a routine, until I read a book by Daniel Pink called “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” In it, he talks about different personality types and how your body’s natural clock can affect what type of tasks you should be doing and when. Turns out that (as I was probably already aware) I work best at the back end of the day in terms of creativity and energy. So I start my day with the mundane tasks of email, social media posts, and editing podcasts, etc. Just stuff that doesn’t need a great deal of creativity and cognitive input.
Then after lunch is the time that I really get into my imaging work, music composition, and the sort of work that really requires me to be 100% in the game and at my creative best.
The last hour of my day (whatever time that may be) is spent preparing for the next day by sourcing work parts I might be able to use in projects I need to work on and setting up the sessions I will need. I also do my podcast prep here too, watching videos or listening to the work of guests that we have coming up or just preparing questions etc.
I even have dedicated times to check email and phone messages. I do that 4 times a day. First thing whilst Pro Tools is booting up, then at lunchtime, mid-afternoon and at the end of my day. I answer the simple stuff straight away, but anything that requires some thought or time (and can wait) gets prioritized for the following morning. This way I find I’m not being distracted by all those things that can so easily suck up hours of your day. Oh, and the other great tip…turn off your socials during the day. And I don’t mean shut them down, I mean find a way to stop yourself accessing them without some hassle, that way you’re less inclined to spend three hours of your day watching some guy train his cats to jump over a high jump bar he made in his garage yesterday.
One other thing I do that I find helpful is to schedule an hour or two in my week (usually on the weekends) to just sit and listen to other people’s work. If I hear stuff I like and I can download it, I keep it in a folder called “Idea Starters.” Then when I’m stuck for an Idea or just not getting a vibe on something I open up that folder and listen through until something sparks an idea in my own head and I can get started. None of this works however without copious amounts of coffee to keep me suitably motivated!! lol
AS: What is your baby? Most fun project?
DR: To be honest I’ve become a bit of a podcasting nerd. I am involved in three that are my babies. The first, The Mojo Radio Show, is in its 7th season and is hugely popular. It focuses on personal development, creativity, time management, and business skills in general. As you can imagine, it’s not your regular sounding podcast.
The other two are audio-centric. There’s The Pro Audio Suite, where we talk about all things home studio (pro setups only, not mum’s with a voice booth under the stairs). And the other is a new one that I’ve just started with some imaging buddies called The Imaging Hangout. Each week we invite a couple of imaging producers from around the world to “hangout” with us and chat about…well…everything. It’s not your deep, in-depth sort of technical show, but more just an exchange of ideas and thought starters. So far we’ve had Staxx (Z100), Brendan Tacey (yep, the BT Iron Imager), and a bunch of other really talented guys. It’s a whole lot of fun.
I love working on all these shows for different reasons, but the theme that runs through all those reasons is it makes me better. Better as a producer, audio engineer, imager, and in the case of the Mojo Show, a better parent, person, business owner (and footy coach…lol).
AS: How important is staying current with new stuff, trends and creativity for you?
DR: It’s vital. Because I work from a project studio I built in my home, you can end up in a creative bubble being so isolated (a concept I’m sure many of your readers are currently familiar with). If you don’t keep up to date with trends and spend time just chatting with people in the industry over a coffee or beer you can quickly get left behind. That’s partly the reason for my time investment in the podcasts, but I also have a network of mates in the industry in similar positions, and we catch up regularly to chew the fat and bounce around ideas and just flex those muscles that need some work.
One of those is the great Andrew Peters. AP lives outside Melbourne and has an amazing home studio, together we are two of the four clowns on the Pro Audio Suite, but we also chat pretty much daily, just talking gear, and work life in general. He’s a great mate who I’ve known since the mid 90s, we just don’t get to drink enough beer together!!!
AS: What DAW do you use?
DR: I’ve been on Pro Tools since 1999, for imaging (and post production in general) it’s by far the standout player. I have Audition on my Mac and use it occasionally for various reasons, but I always come back to Pro Tools. It’s just where I’m comfortable, I don’t want to have to be thinking about what button I push or how I do what needs to be done mechanically. I’d rather focus on the creativity of my work.
AS: What are your favorite plugins?
DR: Now you’re opening a can of worms! My most frequently used would be Pitch n Time and Auto-Tune. But my favourite ones to get really creative with would be just about anything from the “Sound Toys” collection. I love the flexibility of them, and when you stick a few on a track one after the other you can always come up with something interesting and new.
For voiceover, my new go-to is Nectar from iZotope. I had resisted the “all in one” plugin for a long time, thinking “I bet the compression is great but the eq sucks or something like that”, but after interviewing Dan Gonzalez from Izotope on the Pro Audio Suite last year I downloaded Nectar and after a bit of mucking around fell in love with it! It’s so versatile and sounds good on just about any voice you stick through it.
AS: What are new learnings? Ideas you work on? Inspirations?
DR: This probably mostly shows in my CHR imaging right now, but I’m really concentrating on my music editing within the imaging I’m producing. Both “what” I’m using and “how” I’m doing it. I’m loving really challenging myself to find (or create) the perfect piece of music and pairing it with a great vocal grab from a contemporary artist that fits both musically and within the context of what the piece is all about.
AS: Any new tools you discovered lately?
DR: I’ve been working on streamlining my Pro Tools templates, to be honest. One of the best things that I learned over the years (and something Thommo was always preaching to us about) was to save everything. So I’m always doing mix outs of promos and work parts that I make use of again and again. I recently came up with a template that lets me record all my different passes in one go.
To explain a little further, I have created audio tracks that are fed by busses from the main session. They include bed and FX, FX only, VO only, music only and the full mix. Then rather than “bounce” the audio, I record-enable all those tracks and hit record, and all my mixes are done in the one pass. Then I just label them and export them to different folders on my work parts drive to be used again somewhere or other!!
AS: Your favorite piece of imaging/production ever?
DR: God I wish I had a copy of it, but back in the early 90s when I was working at Triple M, we sent a listener into space (The Stratosphere anyway) in a Russian MIG jet fighter. They went to somewhere near Russia and went through basic pilot training before taking off and flying to where the Earth’s atmosphere meets space.
We called it “Red Angel” and Thommo (Jeff Thomas) made the promo. It was just mind blowing. It was made at a time before Pro Tools (on a 24 Track Analogue multi) and just kicked butt. Not so much in terms of amazing FX and crazy drops and montages, but in terms of theatre of the mind (the thing that radio and Thommo does best in my opinion) and creating excitement/vibe around an already awesome prize. The music came from a piece by [film composer] Amin Bahtia, and Thommo’s work (as usual) was mind-blowing.
AS: What would be your career advice for a youngster your twenty-year-old self?
DR: Be yourself, but at the same time challenge yourself. It’s something I try to do constantly these days but for a while, early in my career, I was probably guilty of just getting into a comfortable space and staying there. These days I’m working on all sorts of formats from Talk, to CHR to Rock (my spiritual place) and Country, plus the podcasts. I find challenging myself and pushing myself also brings out my best work. But the nice thing is, just when you think you have pushed yourself as far as you can go, you push a bit harder and all of a sudden you’ve achieved something even greater. The nice thing about this is that it’s a lesson that not only works in relation to imaging, but to getting better at anything! And it’s something I definitely try to teach my kids. Get uncomfortable, it’s a great place to be!!