Category: Name Dropping (page 1 of 6)

Barney’s Version

In March 2003, my radio drama colleagues and I recorded a play called Barney’s Version, based on Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last book. The play was adapted for radio by Howard Wiseman, and directed by Greg Sinclair, or Gregory J. Sinclair, as he was always known in the credits. (Once, when one of Greg’s dramas went long and had to be cut for time, I suggested we save a second or two by cutting out the “ory J” in the credits.)

Barney's Version Cover Art

Matt Willcott, a year away from retirement but still giving it his all, performed sound effects. The glue in this massive production (and by CBC radio drama standards Barney’s Version was a definitely a massive production) was Associate Producer Colleen Woods.

There were many fine actors in this production, including Denis O’Conner (The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, and a veteran of over 300 radio plays for CBC/Radio Canada), Kathy Greenwood (Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and The Wind At My Back), acclaimed actor, director and critic David Gardner, and Wendy Crewson (The Santa Claus movies, in which she played Tim Allen’s ex-wife, and Air Force One, in which she played Harrison Ford’s wife), among others.

Greg had briefly considered fellow Canadian Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Barney, but ultimately decided on Saul Rubinek, who was also Canadian. Rubinek had enjoyed big parts in major Hollywood productions working alongside the likes of Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte and Christian Slater. He’d been working as an actor since he was a kid, on the stage, television, radio and film. He had also written, directed, and produced.

Saul Rubinek

Saul Rubinek

How do you get someone of Saul Rubinek’s stature to star in a Canadian radio play? Our casting director, Linda Grearson, put a call into his agent. Not only was Saul available, he was interested. This wouldn’t be his first gig for the CBC. He’d cut his teeth working on CBC Television productions. Saul lives in L.A. with his wife and two kids, so Greg flew him in.

I’d first heard of Saul Rubinek at school at Ryerson, when a teacher had screened a copy of a film about a Russian named Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko. In nineteen forty-five, three days after World War Two, Gouzenko defected to Canada along with one hundred and nine documents proving that the Russians were trying to steal atomic secrets. Gouzenko’s defection sparked the Cold War, as the West used the evidence of espionage to end their alliance with the Russians. Gouzenko, fearing for his life, was given a new identity and became known for wearing a sack on his head during public appearances. But he lived a middle-class life in the Toronto suburb of Clarkson and died of a heart attack in nineteen eighty-two at the age of sixty-three.

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Curiously, the film about Gouzenko, which was written by well-known Canadian journalist and writer Rick Salutin, doesn’t appear on Saul’s extensive filmography on IMDB. Nor is it mentioned in a Wikipedia article about Gouzenko. It’s no doubt buried in the CBC’s television archives, and may never see the light of day again.

Since seeing Saul’s portrayal of Gouzenko, I’d seen him in the films The Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and The Family Man with Nicholas Cage. He was an accomplished, well-regarded character actor. Rick Salutin called him “very funny.” Greg Sinclair believed that Saul, along with fellow lead Wendy Crewson, were among the best in the business.

When I first learned that Saul Rubinek was going to star in one of our plays, I thought, okay, that’s cool. My next thought was, I wonder how much of a pain in the ass he’ll be. I was thinking that a guy like him might be a bit full of himself, and used to being coddled with craft services, limos, trailers and the like. We didn’t have stuff like that in the CBC Radio Drama department.

Saul showed up on the first day all business. Okay, what’s happening, what are we doing, what page are we on. Short (5’7”, the same height as Tom Cruise) and plump (not fat), with big bushy eyebrows, he looked more like an accountant than a leading man. He could convincingly play Eugene Levy’s brother.

He insisted on wearing headphones during the first scene. I was not happy to hear this. I wasn’t keen on actors wearing headphones. There was the problem of headphone leakage, limited mobility for the actors (the headphones weren’t wireless), and actors becoming too conscious of their voices. In my view, the actors needed to perform their scenes without worrying about what they sounded like. Also, there were a lot of scenes in this play, with many different setups. It would be a pain in the ass to have to run headphones for Saul in every different scene. I was afraid this might be just the tip of the iceberg, the first of many such demands.

I set up the headphones for him.

Immediately after asking for headphones, Saul asked for a table to set his script and other assorted paraphernalia on. I hauled out an old desk that we used as a sound effects prop. Saul set all his stuff on it. Matt pointed out that the table I had selected, which was on wheels, was missing a wheel. It was liable to tip over. Oh. No worries—I found three or four old books to prop it up. But when I lifted it up to shove the books under the problematic corner, the table promptly flipped over, tossing all Saul’s papers onto the floor in a jumbled mess.

I braced myself for an outburst. None came. Without saying a word, Saul leaned over and picked up all his papers without complaint while I finished stabilising the table.

This was a good sign.

We got through several scenes in a brusque, efficient manner, with Saul completely focussed on the task at hand.

For one scene he needed to be sitting, so I provided a chair for him. He sat down before the microphone. We’d gotten rid of the desk, so I thought maybe he might like a music stand to put his script on.

“Wanna stand?” I asked him, holding up a music stand in one hand.

“I’m sitting,” he said.

Greg, Matt and I laughed, thinking that he was joking.

Brandishing the music stand, I repeated, “No, do you wanna stand?”

“Can’t you just lower the mic?” he asked.

I realized that he wasn’t joking, that he had misunderstood.

I repeated as clearly as I could, “Would you like a stand?” but by then he was talking to Greg about some plot point, so I left the music stand in front of him and returned to the control room.

Shortly after that Saul began pestering me about being heard in the control room. Whenever we finished recording a scene, and my presence was required on the studio floor, I muted the microphones, effectively turning them off. You don’t want to have microphones on if you think you might have to handle or move them. Also, when I was on the floor I wanted to be able to speak to the actors and sound effects engineer candidly, without anyone in the control room hearing me. Several times early on Saul tried to talk to the director in the control room after I had muted the microphones, and when he was unsuccessful he didn’t get angry per se, but he was visibly irritated:

“Why can’t he hear me? Can’t you set something up, you know, some kind of permanent mic on the floor which just automatically switches on at the end of every scene so I can talk to the director?”

I told him, “Saul, that might be a good idea with you, but to tell you the truth, other actors, we just don’t want to hear what they have to say,” which earned a laugh from Greg, Matt, and Wendy, and even Saul laughed.

“I’ll tell you what,” I told him. “I’ll suggest it to the other engineers, but it probably won’t go over very well.”

“Why don’t you just build it with a switch so you can turn it off whenever you want?” Saul suggested. “And remember: if you create such a system, you must call it the “Rubinek” system.”

So he was obviously not without a sense of humour about the whole thing.

When I did bring it up to the other engineers in one of our bi-weekly meetings, one of my fellow Recording Engineers said (referring to Saul), “Get over yourself!”

Still, I tried to be much more diligent about leaving the mic on so Saul could be heard in the control room, and any time I had to turn it off, I warned Saul that we wouldn’t be able to hear him for a couple of minutes. I continued to set up headphones for him in every scene. By the third day of recording, I felt that Saul had adapted to the pace of radio drama recording. He’d warmed up considerably (or maybe I had warmed up to him). He was calmer, more relaxed.

There was an old grand piano in the studio. Between takes Saul would sit down and play. He always played the same piece, Gnossienne 1, by French composer Erik Satie.

I was impressed to hear Saul play this piece because I happened to love it. My sister Susan had played it when she was studying piano in High School, inspiring me to memorize it myself. Other than my immediate family, I didn’t know anyone else (other than CBC host and musician Tom Allen, maybe) who even knew of the piece, let alone knew how to play it. Impressing me even more, Rubinek had figured out how to play it by ear, and he played it well.

During another break, Saul told us about working with Clint Eastwood on the set of “Unforgiven.” Saul had a major role in that film as a journalist by the name of W.W. Beauchamp. He told us that Clint always did two takes of every scene: one take and a safety. To block the big fight scene at the end, Clint came in and said to everyone, okay, you figure it out, I’m going for a coffee. Then he went away, came back a couple of hours later and asked, “You got it all worked out?” And then shot the scene.

After getting the master shot and the safety in the can, the cast and crew spent three days shooting extra coverage of the scene, getting all the little cutaways and close ups.

“If you watch that scene,” Saul told us, “you’ll see just one person sitting, and that’s me, because I knew they would take three days to shoot the coverage and I didn’t want to be standing the whole time.”

Saul was just getting into directing himself at that time. He spent a lot of time with Clint learning about directing, and has since directed several television features. The impulse to direct was strong in him. He couldn’t resist the temptation to direct other actors during the recording of Barney’s Version.

“No you have to say, “the Twelve year old!” very aggressively, not mildly,” he instructed David Gardner, who played Barney’s lawyer, referring to Barney’s favourite scotch. Gardner, an accomplished director himself, didn’t appear to mind. It was obvious that Saul’s intent was to make the scene as effective as possible.

Another time Saul burst into the control room to tell Greg to tell an actor something he felt strongly she needed to know, presumably not telling her himself out of fear of offending her. Greg took this all in stride. In fact, the partnership between Saul and Greg was a potent one as they constantly challenged the limitations of the medium.

One obvious limitation of radio is that you can’t see what’s going on. For this reason you have to exercise considerable caution when conveying action in a radio play, especially when attempting traveling shots. A traveling shot is a shot in television, film or radio in which the camera/microphone follows characters on the move. Think Xander on his skateboard in the opening shot of the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, skating down the street and into his high school. Another famous example is the seven minute and forty-seven second long tracking shot that opens Robert Altman’s The Player. Imagine how confusing that shot would be without pictures.

Travelling shots can be tricky in any medium. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the pilot episode, regretted the time it took to set up and execute the travelling shot with Xander. He was used to film. In film, you can take more time to get a shot, unlike television with its stricter shooting schedules.

In radio, writers often write travelling shots accidentally. They don’t even realize they’ve done it until they get to that scene in the studio and the recording engineer exclaims, what the heck? This is a travelling shot! You do realize how difficult travelling shots are to convey on radio, don’t you? To which the writer responds, why are you surprised? Didn’t you read the script before getting here? To which the engineer grumbles, well, the director should have caught it, at which point the director jerks awake in his chair and asks, what scene are we on?

Travelling shots are tough to present on the radio because the listener can’t see what’s going on. If you fail to convey the fact that the characters are moving through the only two options available—dialogue and sound effects—then the listener won’t understand what’s going on and your production will suffer.

However, it can be done if you know what you’re doing. There was a scene in Barney’s Version in which Barney runs back and forth between his living room and his kitchen trying to remember the word for “colander.” When I first read this scene in the script, I immediately considered it a mistake and began contemplating how it might be re-written so that it wouldn’t be a travelling shot. I thought it would be tough to make the listener understand that Barney was moving back and forth between a living room and a kitchen.

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Greg and Saul begged to differ. As I’ve mentioned before, we were blessed with a terrific studio in which multiple set ups were possible. Greg instructed me to set up a living room acoustic space directly adjacent to our built-in working kitchen. The kitchen acoustic was completely different than the living room acoustic—listening to dialogue spoken in one, you could not mistake it for the other. This was critical.

To make the travelling shot work, we set up two stereo microphones, one in front of Barney’s chair in the living room, and another covering the kitchen. We kept both microphones live, so that when Barney (Saul) moved from the kitchen to the living room and back again you could clearly hear the change in acoustic. Saul made lots of noise while moving back and forth so that the listener could clearly track his movements.

By this point in the show we had completely established the living room as a distinct acoustic environment, by (among other things) consistently using the same sound props (leather chair, glass of scotch, tape recorder). This, together with liberal use of obvious kitchen props (cutlery drawer, dishes etc), made it abundantly clear to the listener exactly where Barney was at all times.

When I wasn’t setting up neat tracking shots for Greg, he kept me and Matt Willcott busy lugging stuff around, couches, chairs, tables, from one set up to another. Matt and I hardly ever did this kind of thing. It was radio, after all. It wasn’t like anyone was going to see the furniture. In most radio plays, we just imagined the chairs and tables were there, unless we really needed to hear them somehow, and even then we just used a stool to double as a table or to create the squeak of a chair being drawn back. But Greg was going out of his way to make the actors—Saul in particular—comfortable. Many of our actors were experienced film and television actors who preferred to perform their actions with real props.

From time to time, as we lugged one piece of furniture or another, Matt would grumble, “Who’s gonna see the table on the radio?” That’s when he wasn’t saying, “Tippets and Richardsons: you tip it and I’ll rip it!” (Tippets and Richardsons being a well-known moving company in Toronto.)

“You know, I’m a recording engineer, not a mover,” I told Greg. “I’m supposed to be more of a white collar worker.”

Wendy Crewson overheard me. “Well, you’re an engineer, right? There’s all kinds of engineers. Sanitation engineers, for instance. Don’t they move things?”

“I think whether I’m a sanitation engineer or a recording engineer depends on the drama I’m recording,” I told her.

Later, I asked Wendy what it was like working with Harrison Ford.

“He’s a wonderful person,” she told me. “Not at all like he comes across in interviews. He’s a party boy, a lot of fun. He used to zoom up to my trailer on his motorcycle and bang on the trailer. Come on, let’s go! he would shout, and then with me on the back of his motorcycle, smoking a big doobie and thinking, if only they could see me now! we’d zoom off for Thai food.” Apparently Harrison loves Thai food.

Wendy Crewson

Wendy Crewson

When she told me that Harrison was a nice guy, I told her I’d ask Harrison the same thing about her.
“You know what I think he’d say? The exact same thing I said about him,” she said, and laughed, because really, what else are ya gonna say.

All of the actors in Barney’s Version were superb. This is not surprising. Casting Director Linda Grearson never let us down. We had no trouble attracting top-notch talent. Actors seemed to like making radio plays with us. The atmosphere in Studio 212 was always pleasant. And when you’re performing for radio you don’t even have to memorize your lines: you have the script right in front of you.

Two performances stand out. Kathy Greenwood was sincere and touching as Barney Panofsky’s ill-treated second wife. Kathy brought an endearing quality to the role that made Panofsky look like a fool for not loving her properly. And Saul as Barney Panofsky was a revelation to me. It wasn’t Method, I don’t think—when not in character, Saul was himself—but when he sat in Barney’s chair and drank Barney’s scotch and tried in vain to remember what a colander was called, Saul Rubinek inhabited Barney Panofsky. He didn’t just lift the words off the page. He strapped Saturn 5 rockets to them, achieved escape velocity, and placed them in orbit. As I recorded him, I tried to figure out how he was doing it.

For one thing, he knew the script cold. He may have memorized much of it. If not, he’d clearly gone over it many times. He was not one hundred percent married to the script. If he felt the need to change a line slightly to make it sound more natural, he changed it. Subtle changes here and there. He was not afraid to grunt and clear his throat and fart and burp and inject whatever other flourishes he felt were required to bring Barney Panofsky to life. Nobody objected.

I don’t expect I’ll ever fully understand the alchemy involved.

Saul’s work was illuminating in other ways, too. Looking back, I see that in a few short years I had become lazy, conservative, and rigid in my thinking. Saul was operating on a whole different level. His energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism challenged me to open my mind, to think bigger, to do better. His example has informed my work ever since, whatever form that work has taken.

Muckraker

The first radio drama project that I worked on regularly was a weekly half hour sketch comedy called The Muckraker. The Muckraker aired every Saturday morning at 11:30am, and promised to “take you behind the headlines for the real story on the latest news.”

The Muckraker was a fictional online newspaper staffed by five intrepid reporters, a device that allowed us to set up actual news stories from the previous week. Once the stories were set up, the show segued into comedy sketches about those stories, with the cast assuming the roles of various colourful characters poking fun at Canadian and International news.

According to the internet, The Muckraker was created by a fellow by the name of Gary Pearson. I never actually met Gary. I knew who he was because I’d once seen him perform an excellent impression of Captain Kirk in a live comedy sketch show, but I don’t remember ever seeing him set foot in the studio.* That doesn’t mean he was never there. Nor is it a bad thing, as the writing team was ably represented by head writer Jerry Schaefer (whom you might remember as Possum Lake animal control officer Ed Frid on the Red Green show).

Gary Pearson

Gary Pearson

Searching the net, I see that a fellow by the name of Chris Earle also wrote for the show, but I never met him either. It’s possible that others wrote for the show too, but if so I have no idea who they were.

The Executive Producer of The Muckraker was Anton Leo. Anton also directed most episodes. Anton apparently achieved modest fame in the seventies as “Waiter With Tray” in a series of beer commercials, but I had no idea about that until I looked him up just now.

I took turns recording and mixing episodes of The Muckraker with fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards, alternating weeks. Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) did the sound effects for most if not all shows.

The Muckraker cast was a talented bunch. I liked them all. Peter Oldring (currently featured in This is That) did an old man voice that is the funniest old man voice I’ve ever heard. It should be considered a national treasure. Every now and then I would get him to do it just for me. I don’t know why he doesn’t talk in that voice all the time.

I enjoyed Richard (Rick) Waugh’s performances so much that I wrote a part just for him in a pet project I did a few years later (more about that in another post). You know Rick, you just don’t know it—you’ve heard him many times doing commercials on private radio.

Richard Waugh

Richard Waugh

Mag Ruffman is well known as her alias Debbie the Tool Girl. Mag was a pleasure to work with.
Deann Degruijter was a ball of positive energy. Looking her up, I see that she recently finished a stint as the voice of Mayor Goodway on Ryder and the Paw Patrol. According to a website for the show, Deann is both “female” and “alive.” It’s great to have the former confirmed and I’m happy to hear about the latter.

Glen Gaston, according to the internet, has appeared in both movies and theatrical productions since Muckraker. Sadly, I can find no web sites confirming his gender.

We packaged Muckraker on a pretty tight schedule. The writers produced scripts for us late Thursday afternoons just in time for recording sessions Thursday evenings. While the cast read through the script a couple of rooms over, I’d peruse my own copy to determine the best way to block each scene. By blocking, I mean arranging how the actors moved through the scene with respect to one another and the microphone.

Sometimes, as I’ve written elsewhere, the blocking was as simple as having the actors stand next to one another facing the microphone. Other times it was more complicated. I’ve also written about that, but it won’t hurt to provide another example:

A mother is shouting out her window at her son, who’s climbing a tree outside on the front lawn. She’s afraid he might fall out of the tree and break his neck. How do you make a scene like that sound convincing on the radio without recording it on location? (We didn’t have time to visit all the locations in our script. Even if we did, they might not have sounded convincing. In the world of audio, with no pictures to help your brain figure out what you’re hearing, stuff doesn’t always sound like what it actually is.)

In Studio 212, I might have placed the son inside the Dead Room (no hard surfaces for his voice to reflect off, simulating an outdoor environment), and his mother in the main studio within some artfully placed soft-sided baffles. There was a window between the Dead Room and the main studio to allow interaction between the actors. By tweaking the actors’ proximity to the microphone and one another, and by adding the appropriate ambiance in post, I could make a scene like that sound pretty convincing. Studio 212 really was brilliantly conceived, designed to give production teams maximum flexibility to recreate just about any environment, internal or external, that they could conceive of.

It was arguably the director’s job to do this kind of blocking, but not every director had sufficient experience or interest. Wayne and I usually helped Anton Leo block the scenes. This is not a slight against Anton: his expertise was comedy, not blocking radio plays. Directors such as Gregory J. Sinclair, James Roy, Bill Lane, and Bill Howell, on the other hand, who were profoundly interested in the medium of radio drama, were constantly pushing the boundaries, and often surprised me with their innovative blocking. Most of what I know about the craft of making radio plays I learned from them.

Despite assisting with the blocking, I was still pretty green when I was working on The Muckraker. And I was pretty much flying without a net. Recording during the evening, there was no one around to help me if things went south, apart from Anton Szabo, who, though resourceful, had not been trained on the Neve Capricorn.

I was so green, in fact, that I didn’t even know how to hard reboot the Mac Computers if they froze.

“Press the power button for five seconds until it restarts,” John McCarthy told me shortly before my first evening shift, courteously refraining from rolling his eyes.

In my defense, this was 2002. It was my first exposure to Apple computers. I didn’t like Macs at all back then. I’d been a hard core PC guy since I’d bought my first IBM XT 286 back in 1991. I knew the PC operating system. I was familiar with DOS. I didn’t know anything about Macs. There was a lot about them that drove me nuts.

For example, on the Mac Quads we used to run our editing software, it was not possible to eject the CD tray from the Mac computer itself. You had to do it through a button on the keyboard. The problem with this was that the computer was not located in the control room with us. Because the computer was noisy (not good when you’re working with sound), it was housed in a completely different room down the hall, connected to the monitor, keyboard and mouse in the control room via extremely long cables amplified by range extenders (I think). I’d go to the Mac in the other room to insert or remove a CD only to discover that I’d forgotten to eject the tray from the keyboard, forcing me to go back to the control room to hit eject.

Then there was the spinning wheel of death. When a Mac computer hung, it hung real good. It would display a colourful little wheel on your monitor that would spin forever and ever, and God help you if you forgot to save your work before the Spinning Wheel of Death showed up.

Back to The Muckraker. During each take, I would sit in the control room, hunched over the console, listening closely to each take. I was listening to make sure there were no issues with the sound, but I was also listening to see if I could help make the scene any funnier (I fancy myself a writer with a particular interest in humour). Sadly, the Muckraker team wasn’t the least bit interested in my input. Only once did they ever accept one of my suggestions. It was for a sketch that concerned an incident with Jean Chretien. Back in Aug 16th 2000, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien was touring an agricultural show in PEI when a twenty-three year old protestor shoved a pie in his face.

“You have developed a funny way of serving pies these days,” Chretien told supporters later. “I’m not that hungry.”

This sort of thing was right up Muckraker’s alley. The resulting sketch related the broad details of the incident: the Prime Minister getting pied in the face, and the protestor getting arrested. There was a line: “I’m taking you into custody.”

I suggested we change the line to, “I’m taking you into custardy. Uh, custody.”

Hey, I’m not saying it’s the funniest line ever. But of all my suggestions during my time with The Muckraker, that’s the one they took. It was Rick Waugh who agreed to deliver the line. Thanks Rick.

The infamous Chretien Pie Incident

The infamous Chretien Pie Incident

We usually finished recording the cast around eleven pm. The cast and crew would bail, leaving Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) and me to clean up. Afterward, I would race home as quickly as possible to hit the sack because I would have to be back in bright and early the next morning to edit, assemble, and mix the show. Neither Wayne Richards nor I were particularly fond of this quick turnaround. Once, rushing home on Highway 401, I got stopped by a cop for speeding.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” he asked me.

“No,” I told him honestly.

“There are jets that fly slower than you,” he said.

Keen to get home, I’d been doing over 140 k/hour without realizing it. Luckily, I was only fined fifty bucks and didn’t lose any points. Except with my wife, that is.

During our Thursday night recording sessions, Associate Producer Tracey Rideout kept track of the good takes. (Tracey would go on to become a full-fledged comedy producer herself). Friday mornings when I came into edit and assemble the show, we worked off Tracey’s notes.

Fridays were as annoying as Thursday evenings were fun. It was a pretty intense day. For a while, the show aired on Friday nights as well as Saturday mornings, so there was a lot of pressure to finish mixing by eight pm.

The mixing process was essentially the same as any radio play except that instead of mixing it in studio 212, where it had been recorded the previous night, we mixed it in Studio 213, otherwise known as Sound Effects 3, or SFX3. SFX3 would quickly become my favourite studio. Mixing in SFX3, I had access to ProTools, a Digidesign Pro Tools Control 24 mixing board, one piece of outboard gear (a Harmonizer), and a suite of Waves Gold Plugins. Plugins are software effects processors that allow you to manipulate sound in all sorts of fancy ways.

On a conventional radio play the recording engineer would edit the voice tracks and then hand the project over to the sound effects engineer to assemble the sound effects, and together they would mix the show under the supervision of the director.

On The Muckraker, Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) always prepared his sound effects before the recording session, recording many of them live into the sketches. The rest of the sound effects he would load up in the hard drive, readily accessible. Having the sound effects already recorded and pre-loaded greatly reduced the time needed to mix the show. This was critical, because it still took a damned long time. Anton (Szabo) usually didn’t participate in the Friday mix sessions. SFX3 was a smaller studio. It was easier and more comfortable just to have one engineer working with the director and associate producer.

I can’t speak for Wayne (who, you might recall, engineered the show every second week), but the way I mixed the show was scene by scene, editing the dialogue first, then fleshing out the sound effects (and music, if there was any). Ideally, we’d take the best single take of each sketch based on Tracey’s notes. Unfortunately it never worked out this way. Anton Leo always insisted on listening to every bloody take. Then he’d take bits from several takes to create a composite take. All this futzing around slowed down the process and drove me and Wayne nuts (I can safely speak for Wayne on that point).

“Why doesn’t he just follow the damned notes?” we’d ask ourselves.

Of course, he was trying to get the funniest bits into the show. Ironically, years later, when Greg DeClute and I started directing, editing and mixing our own radio plays, we were infinitely fussier than any of the directors we ever worked with, including Anton.

Creating each episode was a painstaking process, but it was also pretty rewarding as the show came alive. It was also quite an education. I learned how to make dialogue pop. I made crazy edits that I never thought would work but that did anyway. I manipulated sound in crazy ways, using all the tools at my disposal, bending sound to my will, mwa ha ha.

At first, levels drove me crazy. You want the volume of the show to be consistent throughout, within a certain dynamic range, peaking at about -20 dBfs (decibels relative to Full Scale). I came from live radio where I managed levels on the fly. Maintaining consistent levels in the digital domain was trickier. I worked off two meters, a stand alone dBfs meter on my left and a similar meter on the DAT machine to my right. The meter on my left also showed me whether my content was in or out of phase (which you can hear, but it’s nice to have visual confirmation. More on phase later).

There’s a phenomenon called threshold shift. You probably experience this in your car when you’re listening to the radio. When you first get in the car, you set your car stereo to a certain level, then you get driving and the road noise is loud so you crank the radio up. You get out on the highway and it’s even louder so you jack the radio up even more. At the grocery store, you get out and buy your groceries. When you get back in your car and turn it on, you can’t believe how loud your radio is. You’re a victim of threshold shift.

I also experienced threshold shift mixing radio shows, but it was more about ear fatigue. As the day wore on, my ears got tired, and as my ears got tired, I gradually made everything louder, forcing me to revisit parts of my mix to make the levels consistent. Eventually, I acquired the discipline to do this as I went along, constantly checking levels on both meters to ensure consistency. And I would try not to vary the volume of the studio monitors, a lesson John Johnston had taught me a decade earlier.

They were long days, mixing Muckraker. Twelve, thirteen hours days followed by the long commute home. Once we finished mixing the show, we still had to print it in real time onto DAT tapes (later we burned it onto CDs). If there was a mistake, we’d have to stop, fix it, and start again (we didn’t usually make mistakes; we didn’t have time to). Once printed, Anton Leo would grab the tapes and run them up to the third floor to Radio Master Control for broadcast. More than once we weren’t entirely sure we’d make it in time.

After a while they stopped the Friday night broadcast so we only had Saturday to worry about. This bought us more time, but it also meant that we could tweak even later into the night. And when we switched from capturing the show on DAT tapes to burning it onto CDs, it didn’t really save us any time. In fact, it sometimes added time. To make a CD, we had to “bounce” the show into a two–track (stereo) version in Pro Tools, and then use a program called Toast to burn the CD.

This was usually pretty straightforward, if we set the bounce up properly. But there was one stretch of several weeks when the Mac Superdrive wouldn’t burn the CD properly. If we couldn’t burn the CD, then we couldn’t get it to Master Control for broadcast. When we burnt a CD that didn’t work, and that we couldn’t reuse, we called it “burning a coaster” as that’s all the CD was good for. I burnt a lot of coasters during that period. Eventually Audio Systems (which is what radio maintenance was called back then) fixed the Superdrive for me.

That wasn’t the only technical problem I experienced. One Saturday night I was at home watching a movie with my wife when the phone rang. Muckraker was on the air but I wasn’t listening to it. Having recorded and mixed the thing, I’d heard it enough already. It was Director/Exec Producer Anton Leo on the phone.

“They all sound like ghosts,” he complained. He was talking about the cast.

Reluctantly, I turned on the radio. Sure enough, half the cast sounded like they were only barely there. They sounded like I’d recorded them from the next room over. Anton told me that the cast sounded that way in most of the country. Curiously, they sounded fine in parts of Alberta. Although he was too polite to come right out and say it, Anton clearly wanted to know how the hell I’d wrecked his show.

Immediately I suspected that the cast sounded this way was because the show was being broadcast out of phase.

What does that mean exactly?

It means that the show’s audio, in particular the voices of the actors, was cancelling itself out.

How could this happen?

Sound travels through the air in waves. Saying that sound travels in waves can be misleading though. Many people think of sound as looking like the surface of water, with peaks and troughs, because the motion of sound is often represented visually as a sine wave. This is just a convenient way to visually illustrate what’s going on. The truth is sound waves travel through air as longitudinal waves. Longitudinal waves don’t have peaks and troughs. What’s actually happening is that as sound passes through a pocket of air, it displaces particles of air before and after that pocket as the energy of the sound wave passes through it.

Without going too far down this rabbit hole, when an object creates a sound wave that passes through air (such as a human voice), it creates low and high pressure areas in the air around it—areas where the air particles are bunched up, and areas where the air particles are spread apart. These are called compressions and rarefactions respectively. They are not the peaks and troughs of waves; they are just different concentrations of air particles.

Compressions and Rarefactions

Compressions and Rarefactions

How does phase come into this?

When two compressions come together—two areas where the air particles are bunched up—followed by two rarefactions—areas where air particles are less concentrated—the sound waves reinforce one another. This is called constructive interference and will result in louder sound. If, on the other hand, a rarefaction meets a compression—a low pressure area meets a high pressure area—then the longitudinal waves will cancel one another out. If they cancel one another out completely, the air particles will behave as though they were at rest, with no interference at all. This is called destructive interference, and will result in no sound.

Obviously, the interaction of longitudinal waves in a medium such as air is rarely straightforward, especially when enclosed within reflective boundaries such as walls, with other reflective objects such as furniture scattered throughout. So in the real world it’s unlikely that sound waves would completely cancel one another out. They can, however, do a lot of damage to one another, and that’s what I thought was happening to The Muckraker that night. I thought that I must have done something during either the recording or the packaging process that resulted in that particular show being out of phase.

Sound can wind up out of phase for several reasons. It can happen at the recording stage. An actor might stand in the wrong spot relative to the microphone. Recording using a style called MS Stereo (I’ll spare you the details of that), we kept a close eye on the phase meter when we had several actors ranged around our MS Stereo microphone. If an actor wandered in behind the microphone, he would get recorded out of phase. I was pretty sure I hadn’t let that happen.

There is an issue closely related to phase called polarity. They are often confused because both polarity and phase manifest themselves in similar cancellation and interference issues. They are not the same, though. Phase has to do with timing and signal delay. Polarity is when you have two possible choices that are mutually exclusive, such as a fan blowing air or a vacuum drawing air in, or flipping a coin either heads or tails, or observing positive or negative when you insert a battery, or deciding whether to be good or evil. When you’re talking about sound, polarity is a question of direction of flow of electrical current.

Polarity issues can arise from bad or incorrectly used cables, microphones, and loudspeakers. On the home front, for example, a listener might have audio issues because their stereo speakers are wired up wrong. Many people do this without even realizing it. If you accidentally reverse the polarity of one channel on one of your speakers—putting the black (negative) speaker wire where the red (positive) one is supposed to go, then you will mess up your speaker drivers, which work by rocking back and forth. If you reverse the polarity of a speaker, one speaker cone will behave opposite of what it’s supposed to, going forward when it’s supposed to be going backward, the opposite of the cone in the other speaker (assuming the other speaker’s wired correctly). When this happens, the longitudinal sound waves from the two speakers will partially cancel one another out, resulting in weak bass and weird stereo imaging, which you don’t want.

Here’s a trick: Take your two stereo speakers and place them about a foot apart facing one another. Turn the stereo up. If it sounds big and juicy, the polarity is likely fine and all is well. If it sounds thin and tinny, the speakers might be wired incorrectly. Try reversing the wires in the back of one speaker. You should hear a significant difference in the quality of sound. You want it sounding big and juicy, with full bass. (Note that if you reverse the polarity of both speakers, you’ll be fine, because then the speakers won’t be cancelling one another out any more. Don’t talk to me about absolute polarity.)

But the odds of everybody in Canada except those in parts of Alberta having all their stereos wired up incorrectly were inconceivably slim. So that probably wasn’t the issue.

I worried about it all weekend. When I got to work on Monday I immediately brought it up with the guys. Nobody could figure out what I might have done.

I’m afraid the punchline’s a bit anti-climactic. Within a day or so, transmission techs discovered that the problem had been a bad patch in the CN Tower. Either a cable had been patched wrong or the cable itself had been wired incorrectly, reversing the polarity. The reason the show sounded fine in Alberta was because Alberta received the show via a different means of transmission.

It was a good to know I hadn’t done anything wrong. Not that it mattered if I had; I would have had to just own up to it and learn from it.

Which some poor transmitter tech no doubt had to do this time round.

*Memory is a funny thing. It’s entirely possible that the man I saw perform Captain Kirk so effectively that night long ago was someone else entirely. However, I am absolutely certain that Gary created The Muckraker. I know this because it says so on the Internet.

Cherry Docs

My first official sound effects gig was on a drama called Cherry Docs, written by David Gow, directed by Damir Andrei. Cherry Docs was originally a stage play, and is about a liberal Jewish lawyer defending a neo-nazi skinhead from a murder charge. Or rather, it’s about the journey these two men take together as they confront one another’s prejudices and their own. Or rather, it was about me learning how to make sound effects for a radio play.

David Gow

Playwright David Gow

Because the truth is, I remember virtually nothing about Cherry Docs itself. I had to look up the plot. This has nothing to do with the quality of the play, which is quite well regarded. It has to do with the fact that we recorded it a long time ago, and as we were making it, I wasn’t thinking about the story as much as I was thinking about how sound effects could help tell that story.

I had been schooled in the basics of the craft. I knew to comb the script to figure out what sound effects were required. I knew to divvy them up into three categories: sound effects that I would perform live with the actors, sound effects that I would create and record separately, and sound effects that I would source from CDs.

Damir Andrei

Director Damir Andrei

On the first day of recording with the cast, my very first sound effect was lighting a match for the main character, a foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead played by Randy Hughson. Hughson’s character was supposed to be smoking a cigarette.

Why was I required to light the match? Couldn’t Randy have lit the match himself? For that matter, couldn’t Randy have performed all the sound effects himself? It’s true, Randy could have lit the match. But he probably wouldn’t have known where to light the match in proximity to the microphone. Lighting the match too close or too far away could have ruined a perfectly good take.

Also, lighting a match is simple, but it’s just one example. Sound effects sequences could be a lot more complex. Sometimes several sound effects were required during a single take. We preferred actors to concentrate on their performances rather than having to clink glasses, light matches, pretend to tromp around on snow and so on.

And then there was the business of how to create the sound effect to begin with. It wasn’t always exactly an intuitive process. Lighting a match is pretty straightforward. Lots of other sound effects aren’t. There are tricks, such as waving a thin stick in front of a mic to create the whoosh of an arrow, or touching a rag to a hot surface to create the sound of frying. We had an entire room full of bizarre contraptions and knick-knacks capable of making all sorts of weird sounds. Devices for making wind, doorbells, screen doors, the sound of someone getting hanged, or their head chopped off. It was useful to have someone around who knew where all these contraptions were, and how to make them work.

Actor Randy Hughson

Actor Randy Hughson

Anyway, there I was, the alleged sound effects specialist about to perform my very first professional sound effect. On the first take, at the appropriate point in the script, I dutifully lit the match, and promptly dropped the lit match in Randy’s hair. Fortunately, I was able to blow the match out before any damage could be done, but I was mortified. Thank God Randy wasn’t actually the foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead he so effectively portrayed!

(I actually did see someone’s head burst into flames once. Fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards invited me to a party at his house at which he opted for candles over electric lighting. Joram Kalfa and I were in the kitchen talking to a young woman with long red hair when she stood too close to one of the candles. Her hair caught fire with a great whoosh. Within seconds her head was a great ball of flame. It was something to behold. Rather than admire it, quick-thinking Joram stepped forward, took a deep breath, and blew the woman’s head out as though it were a giant birthday cake candle. Her hair was slightly singed but she was fine.)

I mentioned that the main character of Cherry Docs was an intensely hostile neo-nazi. This set the stage for a slightly surreal moment when Damir, the director, instructed the actors to “just take it down to stupid f***ing paki at the bottom of page twelve.” Everyone laughed at Damir’s apparent obliviousness to the extremely offensive nature of what he’d just said (reflecting sentiments which, I hasten to add, no one present endorsed).

Shortly after my inadvertent attempt to set Randy on fire, the fire alarm in the Broadcast Centre went off. This was a complete coincidence, having nothing to do with my incident with the match. Moments later, standing on John Street alongside the rest of the occupants of the Broadcast Centre waiting to get back inside, Randy turned to me and asked, “So how long have you been doing sound effects?”

I looked at my watch. “About fifteen minutes,” I said, much to the amusement of recording engineer Greg DeClute.

Back in the studio, I recorded as many sound effects as I could with Randy and the rest of the cast. Recording sound effects with the actors is usually a good idea. Not only does it ensure that the sound effects are recorded in the right ambient space, it enhances performances as actors respond to the sound effects in the moment. It also makes for less work in post.

Still, it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I always felt slightly embarrassed doing sound effects with actors. Sometimes the sound effects felt silly, such as using a knife and fork to eat an invisible breakfast on an empty plate. Or I’d make a stupid mistake, such as almost setting Randy Hughson’s hair on fire. We had two dedicated sound effects specialists on staff, Matt Willcott and Anton Szabo, guys who actually knew what they were doing. Me, I was just a dilettante. I never forgot that. Still, whenever called upon to perform live sound effects, I always did the best that I could.

SFX in Studio 212

SFX in Studio 212

Once I was finished with the cast, I turned my attention to recording wild sound effects, a process called “foley” after Jack Donovan Foley, a pioneer in the field of film sound effects. Foley is the process of recording sound effects in isolation. They’re mixed into sound tracks afterwards. I was a lot more comfortable doing foley than performing sound effects with actors.

Foley can be recorded anywhere. I recorded most of the sound effects I needed for Cherry Docs on the floor of Studio 212. Over the years my colleagues and I recorded car doors, squeaky doors, jail cells, elevators, breaking plates, baths, showers, decapitations, hangings, sword fights, fist fights, even gunshots in various parts of 212. For Cherry Docs, some of the action took place in a car, so I spent one afternoon recording myself driving my Pontiac Sunbird, speeding up, slowing down, turning, using the windshield wipers, buckling the seatbelt, and so on. We often talked about preserving and cataloguing the sound effects we created ourselves, to save time on future productions, but nobody ever got around to it.

Any sound effects that I didn’t record with the cast or as foley I sourced from CD. We had quite an elaborate sound effects collection. Thousands if not tens of thousands of sound effects, collections from Canada, Britain, the US, with names like Sounds of a Different Realm, Evil FX, Hollywood Edge, Top Secret, Wacky World of Robots, Widgets and Gizmos, Star Trek, Sound Ideas, and so on. Despite the breadth of our collection, it didn’t have everything, which is why we often had to create our own sound effects.

While I was busy recording and gathering sound effects, recording engineer Greg DeClute created the dialogue edit, choosing all the best performances from the actors and making a single continuous dialogue track. When he finished this to the director’s satisfaction, he handed it over to me to do the sound effects assembly.

When it came time to do the sound effects assembly, I was always grateful that I’d already recorded as many sound effects as possible with the actors. Anything that I hadn’t recorded (the foley sound effects and anything sourced from CD) needed to be loaded into my workstation (in those days a Mac G4) and then placed on separate tracks using our digital audio editing software, Sonic Solutions (we would move to Pro Tools a few years later). The sound effects usually took up a lot of tracks, layered on top of one another. A scene with characters arguing in a car might include a track of them arguing, another track with the sound of their car, yet another of passing traffic, several spot tracks of blinkers, wipers, seatbelts and so on, and maybe a music track as well.

Once I finished the sound effects assembly it was time to mix the show. In those days we almost always mixed big shows in Studio 212 with the cast long gone and the studio floor mostly empty. Cherry Docs was no exception. Greg sat on the left and I sat on the right before the Neve Capricorn console in the control room. Damir, the director, sat behind us.

Mixes were usually a collaborative process, although that depended on the director. For Cherry Docs, we followed Damir’s direction, but everybody provided input into what sounded best. As the mix progressed, we moved dialogue, sound effects and music around that weren’t quite in the right places. We added electronic processing where required (e.g., if a little reverb was required here and there). Greg equalized the dialogue track of a character who was supposed to sound like he was on a telephone. The Capricorn console remembered every move we made on the various faders and dials, and played it all back afterward just the way we mixed it.

Once we were happy with the mix, it was time to print it. We turned down the lights, launched the CD burner and DAT backups, pressed play on the console, sat back in our chairs and listened, hoping to God that we hadn’t made any mistakes. If we did, we stopped, fixed them, and started the print over again with a fresh CD.

I loved the Neve Capricorn, but it wasn’t perfect. Every now and then one of us would notice that it had fallen out of automation. When it did, we leapt out of our chairs cussing and swearing, trying to re-engage the automation before it missed any of our carefully programmed moves. If we caught it in time, we were fine. Usually, though, it was too late, and we were forced to start the print all over again.

Once the show was successfully printed, we turned up the lights and handed the finished CD and backup DATS to Damir, who (hopefully) checked it one more time before presenting the finished product for broadcast.

And Greg and I moved on to our next projects.

David Hartwell

David Hartwell

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

Much will be written of David Hartwell over the years. This may be the least of it, because I didn’t know him well, or hardly at all, but we did cross paths a few times, and he was a bit of a towering figure to me.

I first became aware of David Geddes Hartwell when I was hanging around with author Robert J. Sawyer for a bit, trying to make a CBC Radio show called Faster Than Light. In between attempts to get our radio show off the ground, I made a couple of documentaries on science fiction. For one of these, Robert suggested I attend one of Allan Weiss’s Academic Conferences on Science Fiction. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was quite a who’s who of Canadian SF attending this particular conference, maybe because Allan had snagged Margaret Atwood as one of the guest speakers, or (more likely) because they’re always like that.

Sitting a few rows up from me was a distinguished looked fellow in his early sixties, one of the few fellows present wearing a suit. Rob pointed him out to me. “That’s David Hartwell. He’s the Senior Editor of Tor Books.” Tor is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Hartwell was Rob’s editor. At this time Hartwell had already edited hundreds of books, working with authors such as Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe, and Philip K. Dick. He was nominated for the Hugo Award over forty times. The man was a legend in the SF field.

I decided right then and there that I wanted Hartwell to edit my books. He was the goal, the Holy Grail of editors. I wanted access to Hartwell’s brain, to his knowledge of how to write effectively, how to write books that other people wanted to read, and not just read, but read compulsively, and weep and laugh, and afterwards go wow, what a book.

But Rob didn’t introduce us and I didn’t have a complete novel at the time. I didn’t see Hartwell again until the World Science Fiction convention Anticipation in Montreal in 2007, when I drove up with my pal Fergus Heywood and hung out with the Rayner boys, Mark and Mike. In between all the panels and the boozy nights, I made it a point to attend one of Hartwell’s talks.

I don’t remember much of what he talked about, but during the Q&A I got up to ask him a question, because I still really wanted to pick the brain of this man. I asked him this: “You edit professional writers who are presumably quite advanced in their craft. What do you as an editor have to tell them that they don’t already know?”

He said, “That’s just concise enough a question that I can answer it in less than half an hour.” Everybody laughed. He went on to tell us that the big thing that professional, experienced authors mess up is setting. Their books often have no proper sense of place. There’ll be lots in the way of dialogue and ideas, but no sense of where it’s all happening, to the detriment of the story.

I was heartened by this, because I had spent a lot of time on setting in my novel (which still wasn’t quite finished), and ultimately set it mostly on Prince Edward Island, except those parts that take place on other worlds.

Hartwell also mentioned that Canadian writer Karl Schroeder had given him a 180,000 page manuscript that was obviously too long, and he quickly determined that 80,000 pages of it was a digression, which he urged Schroeder to cut, which Schroeder did. This prompted me to look over my own manuscript for digressions, and I concluded that there was a chapter about seagulls that was a digression, so I cut it. Until my sister Susan said, “You cut the chapter about the seagulls? I loved that chapter!” And my daughters Keira and Erin said the same thing, and I realized that it wasn’t actually a digression; in fact, in some ways it was the heart of the whole story thematically. So I put it back in.

I didn’t see Hartwell again until 2014, when I attended Rob Sawyer’s Academic Conference on Science Fiction, which was also celebrating the inclusion of Rob’s personal papers into the McMaster University library. At the time, I was almost finished my novel. Actually, shortly before the conference I had convinced myself that it was done, because I was tired of writing it. I knew I needed to finish it and get on with the next one, so I ended it, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t really done. I gave it to some friends to read and they weren’t too keen on the ending, so I picked it up again, and by the time I attended Rob’s conference I thought I could wrap up this new draft in about five pages.

I was nervous about attending the conference, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the end I had a great time, mostly because I met a friend and we spent the day hanging out and attending the panels. Hartwell spoke at the end of the day, and I asked him another question during the Q&A. He said he was always on the lookout for talented writers. I asked him to define talented, and he provided a flip response that got a big laugh from the audience. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what he said, and I don’t want to do the man a disservice by guessing what it might have been, though I will say that I don’t believe it was particularly encouraging. After the Q&A I got a chance to have a proper conversation with him. He apologized for being flip with me during the Q&A.

I’m a little embarrassed about what happened next. I was on a mission. I wanted him to look at my manuscript. What began as a conversation with me, Hartwell and a couple of others quickly became a conversation between me and Hartwell as I monopolized the conversation. I was basically buttonholing him. I remember the look on one woman’s face as she realized what was going on, that she was not welcome in the conversation anymore. I wince remembering it. Looking back, I could no doubt have negotiated that moment infinitely more graciously.

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

Finally, I came right out and asked Hartwell if he would consider reading my manuscript. To my surprise and delight, he agreed, and offered to take it right then and there. But I hadn’t brought the manuscript with me. I hadn’t even thought to put it on a USB key. I figured I would just email it to him.

Also, there was the business of last five pages. I asked him if that was a problem. He said, “No. Just make sure the first five pages are perfect.”

I assured him that I would.

He invited me to dine with him and Rob and several others. I would have loved to, but I had already accepted an offer from my friend to drive me home.

When I got home I was quite excited about getting my manuscript to Hartwell. I realized I hadn’t asked Hartwell for his email address. I emailed Rob and asked him for it. Rob responded right away. In his email, Rob warned me that Hartwell was notorious for taking forever to respond. This fact was quite well known in SF circles, I think, but it was the first I’d heard of it. It was my first hint that Hartwell might take, well, forever to respond. Rob also suggested I only send the first five pages.

I opted to send the entire first chapter, but I didn’t send it to Hartwell right away. I took his advice about making the first five pages perfect. I enlisted the aid of a couple of friends to edit the first chapter. This was another instance of obnoxiousness on my part, presuming upon my friends to get their edits to me quickly. Which they did. Brilliant edits, which improved the first chapter immensely.

I sent it to Hartwell, reminding him of who I was, that we had spoken, and that he had generously agreed to look at the manuscript.

He never replied to tell me got it. I thought, this doesn’t bode well. He’s seventy years old, I told myself. Maybe he doesn’t have email etiquette down. Or more likely, I’m just some pipsqueak who’s not actually important enough to respond to.

For the next year, though, I felt like I could tell people that, hey, yeah, my manuscript’s at Tor Books with their senior editor, they’re taking a look at it.

A little over a year later I decided, well, enough of that nonsense.

I wrote Hartwell a friendly email with the intention of letting him off the hook, to make sure I could show the book elsewhere with impunity. I did not expect a response.

To my absolute astonishment, he replied within two hours. He apologized for not having gotten around to reading my submission. He said I was free to show the book around elsewhere, but promised to find the time within the next couple of months to read it. He wrote that he was “really sorry to have disappointed” me.

It was a humble, gracious note.

I never heard from him again, at least via email.

I met Hartwell for the last time at the CANCON writer’s conference in Ottawa in October 2015. We ran into one another in the hall in the Sheraton, where (again, somewhat to my astonishment) he greeted me like an old friend, and we stood and talked and he told me personal details of goings on in his life that I might have expected from a close friend. I told him that I was considering a publishing deal with another publisher, Five Rivers Press (I signed the contract two days later). Hartwell said he didn’t mind losing out to another publisher, so long as the book got published. I thought, he didn’t mind losing out? He thought he was losing out??! I didn’t pursue it.

We spoke again the next day, when fellow author Melissa Yuan-Innes and I ran into him in the hotel bar, after he insisted on taking a picture of Melissa in her faerie wings (did I mention it was Hallowe’en?). I happened to remark that I was rereading Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogy. He said (as I have written elsewhere), “I rejected that trilogy.”

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell


I was talking to a man who had rejected Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t see the value in the series. He explained that Donaldson had originally submitted the first three books as a single volume. To make it work had ultimately required a massive amount of work on the part of Lester Del Rey, an investment in time that Hartwell couldn’t commit to at the time.

Knowing that Hartwell had rejected one of my favourite series, I immediately felt better about him not accepting my book (technically, he never did reject my novel).

A fact I have observed about my life: whenever I want something really bad, I often don’t get it. Instead I get something else. Something that, at first glance, doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing, but that in the end is really just a weird-ass portal to something beautiful (to paraphrase author Lidia Yuknavitch). For instance, when I was in Grade Seven, I wanted to play the trumpet in the junior high school band. I got the baritone instead. I came to love the baritone, a sweet sounding brass instrument which frequently played the melody of whatever piece we were playing. As was so often the case, it was only much later that I realized I’d lucked out.

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

I wish I could believe that I have some kind of guardian angel protecting me, steering me towards what’s best for me. I know that’s not the case. Probably I view what actually happens as positive because I’ve cultivated a positive attitude. Because the fact is we are not guaranteed positive outcomes. Bad things happen. Good people, talented people, important people fall down stairs and die.

I have lucked out with my novel, though. I’ve found a Canadian version of David Hartwell in the form of Robert Runte, who is currently editing A Time and a Place for Five Rivers Press. He’s the perfect man for the job. I couldn’t be happier about it.

In the meantime, I was privileged to have known (however briefly, however tangentially) a man many believe to have been one of the three greatest, most influential editors in the history of science fiction.

David Geddes Hartwell passed away January 20th, 2016.

Tools of the Trade

I felt as though I had been tailor made for Radio Drama. As though all my experience in radio from the age of sixteen, all the writing I had ever done, my stint in community theatre, my interest in music, all of it had conspired to prepare me for making radio plays. I had even written and produced a radio play before, as a student at Ryerson. Still, I had an awful lot to learn.

John McCarthy set about teaching me.

Up until this point, John had been an enigmatic figure to me, part of what I imagined to be an elite cadre of high-end recording engineers, well beyond anything I could ever aspire to be. Tall, bearded and bespectacled, from a distance he appeared aloof and serious. As I got to know him, I realized that he certainly wasn’t aloof, and although the jobs he occupied demanded a certain degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness—qualities that come naturally to John—you could not have a conversation with him without plenty of laughter.

A certain wizard

A certain wizard

There is something about John that has always put me in mind of a certain wizard. A staff in one hand and a conical hat and he would not be entirely out of place in a Tolkien novel. It is his bearing, his comportment. Like Gandalf, John is a counsellor, an advisor, a mentor. He was responsible for the two most pivotal moments of my career: inviting me into the radio drama department, and ultimately promoting me into management. Although he has never performed any actual magic that I’m aware of, I’m fairly certain he could kick Sauron’s ass.

On my first day in the drama department, John sat me down in a suite called Dialogue Edit and launched a piece of high-end audio editing software called Sonic Solutions. I had used similar software before, two programs in particular: D-Cart, also used by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the time, and Dalet, a version of which we still use today, but Sonic Solutions was considerably more powerful than either of these.

John showed me the basics, and then made a special point of showing me hot-keys—keystroke combinations that I could use instead of a mouse. He told me cautionary tales of people who had relied on “mousing” only to wind up with carpal tunnel syndrome. I heeded his words and learned every possible hot key combination. Not only did this make me a fast editor, I never suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.

John gave me an edit of a radio play to practice on, an adaptation of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I spent several hours replacing the existing sound effects with completely ludicrous ones, turning a serious dramatic work into something completely ridiculous. I was quite proud of the result.

“What have you done to my beautiful radio play?” John exclaimed in mock outrage when I played it back for him.

Once I was up to speed on Sonic Solutions, it was time to tackle the Neve Capricorn console in Studio 212. This was a rather more daunting task.

Recording Engineer Greg DeClute spent a few days teaching the console to me and a handful of my colleagues. On the morning of the first day, Greg challenged us to get tone up on the board. The purpose of tone, you might recall, is to line up audio equipment and establish continuity. Getting tone up on the board is the first thing I always do when confronted with a new console. I had never failed to get tone up on a board before. It’s pretty easy to get tone up on analog consoles.

Naturally, nobody who didn’t already know how to do it could get tone up on the Capricorn. On a digital console like the Capricorn it’s not exactly an intuitive process. After showing us how, Greg told us about a producer who was asked by a writer what would happen if everyone showed up to a recording session except the recording engineer. Would the producer be able to operate the Capricorn and record the show?

“Of course,” the producer told the writer confidently.

The truth is he wouldn’t have stood a chance. With all due respect to the producer in question, without training, he wouldn’t even have been able to get tone up.

I wasn’t sure I was up to the task myself. Did I have the kind of brain capable of adequately understanding something as complicated as a Neve Capricorn in an environment as complex as Studio 212?

This was nineteen ninety-nine, the year before my children were born. After taking Greg’s course, I had the freedom to come in on weekends to experiment. My goal was to make sure that I was able to record from every possible source, play it back through Sonic Solutions, route tracks through the various outboard processing gear, and mix it all using the Capricorn’s automation. This was the bare minimum I needed to know to make a radio play.

During his course, Greg had encouraged us to learn more than the bare minimum. “Be super-users,” he told us. “Seek to understand as much as possible about the gear you’re using. Don’t run to someone else for help every time you run into trouble. Figure it out for yourselves. Be the one that other people run to.”

Those are his exact words.

(No they’re not. It was a long time ago. And Greg doesn’t use words like “seek.” But it was something like that.)

I also needed to master Studio 212 itself. I needed to understand how to accurately translate the written word into sonic reality; how to get the most out of the acoustic spaces available to me. Doing so wasn’t necessarily straightforward.

On a conventional radio show, you position a microphone in front of the host and guests and make sure their levels are good. Sometimes it’s a little more involved, such as when you want to have a band in the studio or someone wants to cook something or practice Tai Chi live on air (I’ve dealt with both). Everything has to sound “on mic” all the time. This is presentational radio, where radio shows present content to listeners in a straightforward, unambiguous manner.

Radio drama, on the other hand, is representational. Much of what goes into a radio play represents something other than what it actually is. The trick is convincing listeners to accept the reality that is being represented. Actors represent characters that they’re not. Sounds represent sounds that they’re not—for instance, squeezing a box of corn starch wrapped in duct tape to represent a character walking on snow.

Few people I know actually think in terms of presentational versus representational radio. It’s not necessary to be conscious of the distinction unless you happen to be mixing the two, in which case you risk confusing your listeners, the way Orson Welles inadvertently did with his live broadcast of The War of the Worlds. When you move into the realm of representational radio it’s usually a good idea to let your listeners know that you’re doing so, though if done responsibly it can be fun to toe the line. The show This is That, currently airing on Radio One and Two, is a good example of this.

The challenge for those working in representational radio is how to make listeners believe that what they’re hearing is what you want them to think they’re hearing. For instance, take the sound of a nobleman getting his head chopped off by a guillotine. How do you create that sound without actually chopping off someone’s head? Even if you did chop off someone’s head (which I would advise against), listeners might not understand what they’re hearing without visual cues to make it clear what’s going on. It might be necessary to produce a sound that conveys the idea of someone getting their head chopped off that sounds even more like someone getting their head chopped off than the sound of someone actually getting their head chopped off, if you catch my drift.

I once recorded a scene from Romeo and Juliet with a novice director. Juliet was supposed to be on the balcony with Romeo on the ground. The director suggested that we place Juliet on a chair to convey that she was higher than Romeo. I explained to the director that height wouldn’t “read” on the radio. Placing Juliet on a chair wouldn’t convey to the listening audience that she was on a balcony. Listeners at home wouldn’t be able to see that she was higher.

What we needed to do was record the scene from Romeo’s point of view, with that actor close to the microphone, and place the actor playing Juliet an appropriate distance away from the microphone. Not so far away that the actor couldn’t be heard, but far enough away to convey the idea that the two characters were a fair distance apart. That Juliet was on a balcony would be clear from the context of the play. We just needed to nudge listeners’ perceptions in that direction. “Theatre of the mind” would do the rest.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is rocket science. But I did need to understand it all before I could get to work.

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