How a radio guy became the Sound Designer for Disney…

Rick Allen Header

I met Rick on facebook, crazy story, ha? I was super imrpessed by the quality of the sfx he recorded and shared via soundcloud and needed to learn more about him and how he developed his skill set. Ricks career is impressive, back in the days he was the Imaging Director for the legendary Hot97 in NYC and created Noize for over 750 radio stations by running an imaging service called Continous Climax, which was big in the 90s. he also, and this is the most fascinating to me, used to create stuff for our imaging libraries Goldmine, Ambush and Horsepower. So this guy imaged the biggest radio stations and the libraries we are maintaning today before a lot of us knew how to write DAW – crazy. And the story goes: Rick is also the creator of a Kontakt instrument I am a big fan of: ASSAULT. Learn about Rick’s journey creating NOIZE for almost 40 years, get free fx and check out ASSAULT (side note Andy: more detailled post to come.)..Enter Rick..

1.Rick, you have been in the imaging game forever, how did the scenery, technology, style change over the years? What is better, what is worse compared to back in the days?

I am so thankful and lucky for each and every day that I’ve spent making my living in this crazy field.  I think I’d sum up where the world of the radio imagining is today by paraphrasing the first line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It’s the best of times.  It’s the worst of times.”  Wait, maybe a Kelly Clarkson quote is even more appropriate, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  The major advances we’ve seen in audio technology since I first started in the business have become a two-edged sword for radio imagers.  On one hand, digital workstations and all the new plug-ins put so many sonic possibilities at our fingertips.  On the other hand, it has also greatly increased management’s expectation of how quickly we can turn out a finished piece of production.  There are some incredibly enthusiastic and talented imaging people out there right now being buried under back-breaking workloads.  We all know there’s more to great imaging than just the production stage.  The slickest production can’t overcome poorly written copy.  And technology isn’t saving us any time in the writing process.  It still takes time to be creative.

Technology also affected the style of radio imaging over the years.  Back when we produced with analog multi-track machine, we tended to blend promo or sweeper elements from track to track because you didn’t want to physically cut and edit the multi-track tape.  That would have gotten expensive.  This forced a natural flow to the sound of the production.  Then when digital workstations came on the scene and let you do non-linear edits, some producers started to build highly produced blocks of audio that they edited together for a finished piece that was very production-intensive.  Radio imaging seemed to lose the concept of “flow” for a while.  There was the danger of it being so densely produced that the listener perceived an interruption to programming instead of something that blended everything together and added momentum to the station.

Listeners hear imaging on a radio station more than they hear most of the personalities.  I wish that imaging people got more of the respect they deserve for that. I was very lucky to have worked with programmers, managers and owners that knew the importance of imaging.  The good news is that imaging will always be an incredibly fun way for a person to be “on-the-air” and be a major contributor to how the station sounds.  The more things change, at least the more THAT stays the same.

2. a) You were one of the original creators for the Ambush, Horsepower and Goldmine libraries, what do you think about imaging libraries today? How did imaging libraries evolve in your opinion?

With today’s heavy workload at the station level, imaging libraries have become more important than ever.  Libraries have evolved beyond simple collections of work-parts and music beds.  The best ones have almost become an imaging director’s virtual assistant.  They’re a source of material the imaging director can quickly use to build a promo or sweeper that is highly polished and still let’s them deliver a local message.  Libraries need to continue to look for new ways to organize and search audio to make imaging production even faster and easier.

b) Your favorite prod/imaging guys ever?

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana listening to WNAP’s imaging.  Eric Edwards was the production director and his style was incredible.  A few years later I was the production director for another station in his building and I got the chance to meet him.  Then we both ended up as imaging guys for Emmis.  Each of us on separate coasts – he was in LA and I was in New York.  These days he’s known more as a sought-after voice over artist – but his earlier chops in the prod studio inspired me to get into this business.  It’s funny how over the years the people that I seem to admire the most have also become my best friends:  Eric Edwards, Brian James, Kelly Doherty, Bryan Apple, Forrest Martin, Mark Driscoll, Mike Madrigal, Dan Kelly…   Also lately I’ve been doing a lot of audio sweetening for corporate videos with veteran producer Bruce Goldberg.  He has the uncanny ability to edit and spot a music bed to a video so every cue hits on something musical.  He’s taken his years of radio experience and mastered a completely different field.

3. How does a radio imaging guy get into sound design recording, mastering etc?

Immerse yourself in whatever area of sound design that you are dying to break into.  Read every blog you can find on the subject.  Learn the language.  Then reach out and offer to assist someone working in that field.  You never know where your big break into sound design will come from.  It’s become a very crowded arena but there’s always room for truly talented people that can leave their ego at the door.


4. What do you like about making sound design?

It’s strange but I’ve always heard sounds “visually” in my head.  It’s hard to describe but I can close my eyes and “see” the sound I want to create. It gives me such a high when a sound I’m creating for a specific game, video or web project finally combines with the actual visual to undeniably add impact to the moment.

I really enjoy getting out in the field and recording sounds and then coming back into the studio and morphing them into something completely wild and different.  I like to use organic sounds as a foundation for my sound design.  When you hear a head-turning bizarre sound that’s been created with this method, your subconscious mind still hears something familiar about it and it grabs your attention in a more intense way.  I love having the excuse to behave like a big kid while doing my “job.”  Smashing huge panes of glass with a sledge hammer, blowing up old TV’s, climbing down over a mile into a cave to capture the reverb impulse, spending a day in an abandoned jail recording cell doors slamming…

5. How is your studio setup? Gear, toys, DAW etc…

Oh boy, I’m about to admit to everybody that I’m a total audio geek.  I’ve worked hard but I’m also lucky to have been able to put together a workplace that makes me feel very relaxed and hopefully creative.  After more than a decade of working in New York City, I moved the studio to Arizona.  I now live on a couple of acres in Scottsdale.  Tucked away in the back of the property is the 1200 square foot studio building.  In the studio I run Pro Tools and Logic as my workstations on a G5.  It’s housed, along with all the drives, in a separate room to isolate any equipment noise.

I’ve gone a bit overboard when it comes to audio monitors.  I have a pair of Genelec 1037B’s which are the larger monitors in the room.  I hand-built the stands for those myself.  Welded steel frames packed with sand to add weight and stop any resonance.  Next there’s a pair of Focal Twin 6’s with a Focal CMS sub.  Then, for near fields, a pair of vintage NS-10’s that I’ve been using for years.  The old saying is true: if you can make it sound good on NS-10’s it’ll sound good on anything.  Last but not least, I also have a small Trivoli Audio PAL powered speaker off to the side that I use to double check the mix and make sure it’ll sound OK on small speakers like laptops.  These all run through a Dangerous Music ‘Monitor ST’ Monitor Control System.  I absolutely love the transparency of that box.

In the last couple of years I have also built up a pretty healthy collection of microphones.  It still amazes me how much the choice of mic can greatly effect the sound of your recording.

Over 50 different vintage hardware synthesizers line the walls along with several racks of vintage signal processors and outboard compressors.  These provide a great sonic balance to all the software plug-ins and virtual instruments I use “inside the box”.

I also built a separate small sound booth for recording voice or live instruments.


6. What is your standard setup for sfx recording in the studio and outside?

In both the studio and my Foley stage, I go for as a clean signal path as possible.  No processing.  You can always add processing in post but it’s more or less impossible to get rid of it once it’s printed to a track.

In the studio I’ll use a 96k/24bit Pro Tool session if I’m recording audio I’m going to use for sound design.  Some people think that’s overkill since we can only hear up to 20k and a session with a 44.1k sample rate captures right up to 20k.  OK, hold on. I apologize.  I’m about to go all mathematical on you for a second.  At the 96k rate you can record a frequency up to 43.6k which comes in handy when you’re going to manipulate a sound and pitch shift it down an octave or more. When lowered an octave that 43.6k top frequency now becomes 21.8k.  If you lowered that same sound recorded at a 44.1k sample rate by the same amount, the highest note it will reproduce is 10k.  Granted, you have to be using an extended range mic in the first place when recording if this is really going to make a difference.  That’s why I have the Earthworks MC30’s with their 5hz to 30hz range.  OK, enough tech and math.  Back to talking about the set-up.  I usually start with a large condenser mic and run it through an API pre-amp straight into Pro Tools.  I have several other pre-amps that I might use to get a different flavor like the Summit TPA-200B.  It’s a tube pre that lets you dial in the amount of signal going to the tubes which gives you control over the analog tube warmth you’re adding.

When I’m out recording on location, my “Go To” set-up is a Sound Devices 702 digital recorder.  The mic preamps in the 702 are incredibly clean.  I’ve been using a matched pair of Scheops CMC6’s with MK4 capsules in an X/Y array to capture general stereo location sounds.  The choice of microphones, though, really depends on what I’m recording.  If it’s high SPL level-type sounds like machine guns or explosions I’ll probably use a dynamic mic for the close position because it can handle the loud transients.  When possible, I love to use large diaphragm condenser mics positioned further out.  I think they capture the “air” better than a lot of other mics.

7. What do you recommend for beginners in terms of gear?

In a word, “anything you can afford.”  OK, that’s 4 words.  Your timing is great if you’re just getting started in terms of gear.  Gear has never delivered more bang for the buck.  I would consider Reaper for the DAW.  I am also impressed with Logic Pro at the price.  Of course, Pro Tools is a great option if you have the budget.  It never hurts to get hands-on experience with software that has become an industry standard.  A quality microphone is a must.  There are so many quality budget mics out there now.  Check out one of Rode’s or Blue’s condenser mics.  The next step, if your budget allows, is a good mic pre-amp.  Then, if you’re going to use near-field monitors, I personally like the sound of the KRK Rockit 5’s.  Finally, do some reading on room treatment and make an effort to get your listening room acoustics under control.  The most important recommendation I can give a beginner on gear is that it really doesn’t matter what you use… all that matters is the final sound you create with it.  Looking back, I’ve produced some of my best work on some of the most beat-up gear you’ve ever seen.  Really, it’s your ears that are the most important piece of “gear” you’ll ever own.  Spend as much time as you can listening to the kind of material you admire most and want to create.  Try and train yourself to mix and master to match it.  Experiment and always keep learning.

For field recording, there are tons of choices.  I’d recommend starting off with something inexpensive like a Zoom H1.  Then get out and experiment and record in the field.  Make sure you really enjoy location recording before you commit to spending bucks on more expensive gear.

8. You also do a great plug-in which works with Native Instrument’s Kontakt and is called Assault – tell us everything about it…

I teamed up with the guys at Sample Logic and created the sounds for Assault, which is a virtual instrument plug-in for Kontakt.  It was a labor of love.  I can’t tell you how many months went into recording original material and mastering every sound included with that software.  I blew up a lot of things, smashed a lot of stuff and even took a flamethrower out into the desert and recorded as I torched an acoustic guitar.   I have to admit I blushed like a little kid when John Debney, who scored Iron Man 2, Predators, Sin City and End Of Days, told us “not only are the sounds unique and sit just right in a mix, but they’re just the beginning. With the FX and the endlessly easy tweaking, these sounds quickly become your own.”


9. How can I use this as an imaging guy in my daily work environment?

It can work for you as a very easy-to-use and flexible collection of risers, hits and impacts.  It comes with hundreds of different sounds.  With the user interface you can tweak and change everything to create tons of additional sounds.  My favorite feature is the “random” button.  Click on that and the effects processors will be randomly reset to create a totally new sound each time you hit it.  If you’d like more info you can go to

10. The question I ask everyone and you can advise great here I assume….what is your advice for youngsters?

Oh boy, in my opinion, if somebody has a job right now at a station doing imaging, they’ve already proven that they are smart, talented and willing to work their asses off.  Hey, these days if someone is crazy enough to be in this business … they don’t really need any advice from me. They’re already as crazy as I am.  I guess just try and stay positive when things get bumpy as they always do, try to experiment everyday, meet, talk, and hang around with other creative people as often as you can.  Never stop learning.  Never stop having fun.

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