FeaturesBenztown's Andy Sannemann in conversation with New Zealand imager Andrew Biggs

Benztown’s Andy Sannemann in conversation with New Zealand imager Andrew Biggs

Check out my wide-ranging conversation with one of New Zealand’s most talented and creative imagers, Andrew Biggs. Andrew is a five-time New York Festival winning audio producer, who has worked in radio for almost 20 years in New Zealand, Australia, the Middle East and currently owns and operates eyesound, working for New Zealand’s NZME and their brands Coast, ZM, Hits, Mix, and more.

Andreas Sannemann: Andrew, can you give me a bit of background on yourself, your career, achievements, role at the station? I am sure a lot of the readers will know you, or of you.

Andrew Biggs: I’ve had a fascination with radio from around 10-years-old. I used to record myself on a little portable cassette player, write my own music on the piano for my “playlist” and make up my own commercials for LEGO and Transformers or whatever else I was playing with at the time. My poor parents had to listen to these over and over again. Years later I wound up doing free work at a radio station, just making coffee and generally being a nuisance, but I just loved the environment, the creativity, and the technology.

After college (secondary school) I was accepted into the New Zealand Broadcasting School, where I completed my qualification learning about all facets of radio, specializing in creative writing and announcing, of all things. From there I was offered an internship at a radio station, Resort Radio, in Queenstown, which was the absolute time of my life. I did everything. It was a small station, but because of the tourism aspect to Queenstown, we always had these huge events and lots of personalities on the station all the time. My role was “do everything except for sales” essentially and I worked 12 hour days and loved every bit of it. I ended up having to teach myself production on this absolutely awful software called Prosonix and there were only three of us in the country at the time using it. I would spend hours making imaging for the station after many months of trying to prove to the program director that I was good enough to do it.

After that I was lucky enough to bump into a hero and mentor of mine, Grant Brodie, at a production conference. He was imaging some of the country’s biggest radio stations and he spent some time training with me and teaching me ProTools. From there, I was invited to come and work and learn from him in Auckland, eventually taking over for him for three months while he did some travelling overseas. I’ve never been thrown in a deeper end in my life and I have no idea how I survived. Nevertheless I was offered a job across the road at MoreFM in Auckland afterwards. From there I was put in charge of rebranding all the local stations from their individual names to the MoreFM brand, which was around 20+ stations across the country at the time. It was all brand new imaging and the first time it had ever been done in New Zealand. I won two New Zealand Radio Awards for my imaging during this time and my first New York International Silver Radio Award for my imaging for MoreFM.

After working for five years for MediaWorks, I left for an opportunity to work for Austereo in Perth doing breakfast imaging and production. It was completely different than the imaging work I had been doing, but I enjoyed the fast-paced nature of that style in Australia and it taught me a lot. After nine months there, I was offered a position to work for DMG Radio in Melbourne, doing imaging for what is now Smooth FM in Sydney and Melbourne. I was doing imaging for both markets and local production for Melbourne. I loved working with the team there, met some incredible people, and it was five years of some of the best work I’ve done in radio. I won another New York International Radio Award during this time as well. Then I was offered a position to move to Dubai and work with a wonderful program director, Steve Pulley. He ran the English Virgin Radio and Dubai 92 brands and they wanted a modern take on production. I was also given the opportunity to head the Production team, looking after Hindi, Filipino, English, and Arabic radio station imaging and managing the different production and creative talents. Along with winning two more New York Radio Awards, I learned a lot from the different production styles and skills of the team, and we had such a great creative working environment over there under Steve Pulley and later, Ross Flahive. I won Gold at the New York Radio Awards for my Dubai 92 imaging and shortly thereafter, I finished up in Dubai after five years working and travelling in the amazing Middle East, and around 10 years of living abroad.

I was ready to come back to New Zealand. I set up my own radio production company, eyesound, and have been given the amazing opportunity to work for NZME nationwide, looking after imaging for their Coast and MIX brands, along with providing an additional production resource for their ZM and HITS brands. I also do a lot of their iHeartRadio online imaging and just about anything they send me on any given week is exciting and fresh. I’m honoured to work for a bit of a radio legend in David Brice and the entire Coast team. Lorna Subritzky was my tutor in broadcasting s760chool, and Jason Reeves, who I worked with when I first got my opportunity in Auckland doing imaging, has brought me almost full-circle. I’ve recently won another Silver in the New York Radio Awards for my Coast imaging and it’s an incredibly fun station to be a part of, pushing the boundaries of a “modern” take on the superstar music of the ’70s and ’80s.

AS: How do the tasks differ between the different stations/brands? What are the stylistic approaches and how difficult is it to change hats, if you do?

AB: I have two quite distinct roles working with the team at NZME. For Coast, I look after most of the writing and all of the imaging for the station, along with David Brice. For ZM and HITS I provide an “overflow” resource and I’m assigned work from their incredible imaging producer, Alistair Cockburn. It’s mostly client-sponsored promotional material and trailers, but the format for both is quite a bit younger than Coast, so it’s a completely different sound. It’s also really important what I’m writing or producing matches the style of those stations and their producer, so I’m matching that “flavor” as best as possible, rather than on Coast or Mix where I pretty much get free reign to do whatever I want, within reason.

I have a lot of fun pushing the boundaries on Coast, I can’t recall ever being told I’ve gone too far on something, yet. I really want Coast to be a modern representation of that Classic format, a station you can be 30+, listening to, and not feeling like you’re going to a funeral. I’ve worked on easy listening stations in the past and they can sound so dreary and dated in their imaging. I try to make Coast sound fresh, modern, and positive. Switching between all these different formats and different approaches to production is reasonably easy. I try to schedule work for a specific brand on a particular day, or part of a day, so I’m not flipping between formats on a regular basis. I also try and “reset” my ears between jobs by listening to classical music.

AS: What do your days look like? Is there a blueprint? A routine?

AB: I start my day after the kindy run, so around 9:30 a.m. As I work from home it’s pretty flexible, but I try to keep a strict routine. I usually get an email from David the day before with the voicing for the week, then the talent does the voicing in Auckland, they send the files to me at home, and I put everything together and send it back, writing any scripts needed in the evenings.

Additionally, ZM will send me scripts to write or produce during the week along with work from HITS or one-off pieces of production. I’ve covered work for their talk station Newstalk ZB before, along with other music brands or imaging packages for one-off online iHeartRadio stations. It’s always something different and no week looks the same. The really great thing about working from home for NZME is it gives them the ability to send me work across the weekend as well, so they’re not always locked into a Friday deadline. I’ll often work on a Saturday or a Sunday so they have an additional production resource, outside of normal hours. I think it gives them a bit of an edge with turnaround as well for client material.

AS: What is your baby, your most fun project?

AB: At the moment? It’s definitely Coast. I love the brand, the people, and the music, which certainly helps. The team really is a who’s who of New Zealand radio, so I’m definitely trying to prove that I deserve to be part of it! They have an annual promotion called “Cash Call” which runs each year and I love reinventing the sound of that project yearly. I always use an acapella version of Blondie’s “Call Me” but remix it each time. I have a blast coming up with new ways to make it sound different each year. I’ve been working on a new version for 2020 already and I think it might be the best yet!

AS: Your dream studio would have…

AB: Production has changed so much (and the associated costs) so I’m fortunate to work in a home studio that I’ve built myself, so it’s pretty much my dream set-up! I’m 100% mobile so I can work from anywhere with my custom built Macbook. ProTools has never been more stable and easy to use, although, I really would like to invest in a proper voice booth. I guess my “dream” studio would be a custom built studio as part of a new home or something like that. I haven’t given it too much thought because I believe the best asset I can bring to modern production is the ability to be mobile, work from anywhere, and be flexible and not tied to a desk or a specific location.

AS: What DAW do you guys use?

AB: I use a custom built 2018 Macbook Pro, 2.2GHz 6-Core Intel i7 with 16gb Ram running the latest version of ProTools, Waves bundle, and a few other little plugins.

AS: What are your favorite plugins?

AB: I chop and change all the time, but my favorite one currently is Crystallizer by Soundtoys.

AS: What inspires you?

AB: I use a lot of film and television trailers as inspiration for my audio work on Coast because the two demographics often intersect. Film work by James Gunn and television shows like American Idol will often use those huge hits from the 70s and 80s as inspiration for a modern twist, so I try to apply the same rules and style for Coast, where appropriate. I try and take ideas from the actual music I’m working with on the station as well, so when you hear a particular song you think of it as a “Coast” song first, before another station, for example.

AS: Any new tools you discovered lately?

AB: I’ve been trying out different ways to monitor final mixes of certain imaging to give them a different feel, using different types of headphones. One thing I’ve been experimenting with is using high-end noise-cancelling headphones to mix sweepers. You get a completely different sound to imaging with headphones on, so the most recent imaging package I did for Coast I did entirely by recording the voice and mixing with headphones, not my studio monitors. It ended up producing this really warm, deep sound to all the sweepers. Perhaps a little too much at times, so it was trial and error, but the result on-air is this smooth, thick sounding audio mix when listened to on regular speakers or in the car.

AS: Your favorite piece of imaging / production ever?

AB: This is a really stupid one, but I did a commercial a long time ago, written by a very good friend of mine, Richard Thorburn. He’s an absolute genius writer and it was for a roofing company. It talked about the team of people that did really specific jobs in the company and the owner, Phil, turns up at the end with his “Philometer” to make sure everything is done right. I spent, literally, hours creating a very specific sound effect for the “Philometer” and agonizing over the placement of it in the 30-second commercial so it played as a comedy beat and timing everything to the music. It’s one of those things that nobody will ever notice, but it just made us laugh so much. It was a great line in the script and that’s the kinda stuff I really enjoy where the production gets to add a lot of value to a really simple concept or line to create an idea in someone’s mind that’s bigger than what was on the script.

AS: What would be your career advice for a youngster or your 20-year-old self?

AB: If you’re wanting to get into audio production, learn an instrument. Learn lots of them! Especially learn to write and compose music, because it really helps in production. ProTools is just a giant music score, except you’re balancing effects and voice, versus cellos and drums. If you think of production as a musical score, I think it really helps on the creative side of it.

AS: Who have been mentors of yours and how did they support you?

AB: I mentioned him earlier, but Grant Brodie has been a huge inspiration for me, his work for The Edge in New Zealand is iconic locally. Chris Davis is both an incredibly good friend and a mentor of mine as well, from the way his production sounds to the way he operates from his home studio, he’s an incredibly talented guy and someone I’ll randomly call to work his brain for an idea, or run something past him to see what he thinks. There’s a bunch of other people I liberally steal ideas from like Travis Evans, a producer I’ve worked with in Australia, Vinay Rao in Dubai for Virgin Radio, who just has such a different style and ear for sound that’s very creative for the region.

AS: The best tech purchase under $100?

AB: I’m obsessively particular about the mouse I use in my studio. I’ve been using a very old Microsoft one for over a decade and I was very attached to it. Way back when I was first starting out in radio, I bought this thing for $99 and it seemed like the biggest expense of my life at the time. It became my “ProTools” mouse and it’s been to every job, every studio, every country I’ve worked in. Sadly it passed its used-by date a couple of years ago, so I’ve had to upgrade, but I got a solid 10 years out of the thing!

AS: If you had to pick five plugins…

AB: Never leave home without the Moogerfooger! That’s my baby. Q10 is such an easy equalizer, I’d also pick the L1, Soundtoys Crystallizer, and a decent reverb.

AS: Radio in five years? What will be different, new, more of, less?

AB: Radio is going through a bit of a renaissance right now, as far as I can tell. I hear radio stations playing in shops again and people are talking about stuff that is happening on-air. They’ve figured out what a lot of television hasn’t which is that local content and GOOD content trumps everything. Radio always does local well and it’s cost-effective. I think in five years you’ll begin to see an investment back into local regional markets again as television revenue will continue to decline up against streaming content. Radio will take over a lot of that local advertising revenue again, hopefully. I think radio as a business will continue to be light and adaptable. The idea that writers or producers have to sit in an office for eight or nine hours a day will become less and less and working from home or opportunities for flexible working conditions will become more standard and in my experience, yield vastly better return on both investment and creativity.

AS: Best advice you have ever gotten?

AB: A mentor and good friend once told me the key to not getting stuck in a creative rut is to always have three tricks you can execute quickly and easily to just get the job done. Then the next time, reverse the order of those same 3 tricks, then mix it up again, and so on. Using those three tricks in different ways gives you plenty of scope to make basic projects sound interesting, without getting bogged down all the time reinventing the wheel. It’s been such great advice that I always pass it along. It’s a great way of getting great audio made consistently, whilst still being able to manage time efficiently in the studio for other more creatively heavy projects.

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Andreas Sannemann
Andreas Sannemannhttps://www.benztown.com/
Andreas Sannemann is a leading international audio imaging specialist, composer and Stuttgart-based entrepreneur who joined forces with Dave “Chachi” Denes and Oliver Klenk in 2008 to form Benztown. Together, they built a network of partners in the United States, Germany, England, Australia, and New Zealand delivering distinctive audio branding, imaging and programming to over 2,300 affiliates on six continents.

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