No It Isn’t Done Yet, But Thanks For Asking

The Infamous Manuscript

The Infamous Manuscript

Just now a woman stopped me on the Go Train platform to tell me that her nephew had finished his novel. Oh, and he’d published it too.

“It’s on the shortlist for the Jiller prize,” she told me.

“Giller,” I corrected. “Good for him.”

“How’s yours coming?” she asked me.

I felt a lump forming in my throat. “It’s coming along,” I told her.

She looked at me with what could have been sympathy but might just as well have been pity. “Good,” she said, nodding. “Good.”

She was asking because she’s ridden the same Go Train as me for several years. And as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

And I felt bad because as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

This morning – the same day, mind you – another Go Train friend told me about a friend who had just published a novel.

“How’s yours coming along?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Almost done.”

“It’s been almost done for four years,” she reminded me.

“Yeah,” I said, and slunk off.

Recently a relative said, “I don’t tell anyone about your book any more. It’s embarrassing. You need to just finish it.”

Later that same evening one of my daughters said, “Just finish it, Daddy. I’m sure it’s fine. You don’t need to fix it anymore. Here, let me read it.”

“Another pass and I’ll let you read it,” I told her, and slunk off.

The fact is my novel isn’t done yet. Last summer – or was it the summer before – I thought it was. I convinced myself it was done. I was tired of writing it. So I gave it to a few friends to read. Four of them professed to like it (one even graciously copy edited it for me.) I’m still waiting to hear from one (I don’t blame him – I consider it a great imposition to ask someone to read my work). One said he couldn’t get past page forty (yes, he’s still my friend, the jerk).

While I was waiting I read it over again myself. I liked it. But I didn’t like the ending.

So I went back to work.

And that’s what I’ve been doing since, correcting the ending. It’s a lot better. But I still have a few pages to go.

James Michener

James Michener

James Michener once wrote that the biggest challenge in writing a novel is finishing it. Many others have expressed similar sentiments. One of Michener’s favourite novelists only ever wrote one book. Except that’s not exactly true – late in life Michener looked him up and found out he’d actually written three others, but never finished them. Late in this fellow’s eighties he was still working on them, trying to make them perfect. As far as I know, he never did.

I have always been afraid of being that guy.

Once I was mad at George RR Martin for not finishing the next book in his Game of Thrones series in a timely manner. I met him in Montreal two or three years ago. I wanted to say, “Finish your damn book, sir.” Except I knew better, and I knew what it was like trying to finish a novel you care about.¹ You can’t just finish it. The book is the boss. It will tell you when it’s done, not the other way around.

George RR Martin

George RR Martin

Another of my favourite writers, Vernor Vinge, took ten years to write one of my favourite books, A Deepness in the Sky.² He had a full time job, like me. I’m eight years in since I started working on this book seriously in the Fall of 2005.³ So by that standard I still have two years to go.

Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge


So yes, in case you were wondering I know it’s completely ridiculous that I haven’t finished my novel yet. I’m sorry. Believe me, nobody wants to finish it more than I do. Increasingly when people ask me about it I just want to weep at the pathetic-ness of it all.⁴

Will it be worth it after all this time?

I was going to write that I don’t know, because I have no way of knowing whether it’ll ever get published, except to say that my efforts to get it published will equal my efforts to make it good.

But the true answer is of course it will be worth it. It’s already worth it.

Because I have loved every instant of writing it.⁵

Postscripts:
¹In the end I just shook his hand and told him how much I loved his books. “Thanks,” he said. And that was the extent of our relationship.
²Don’t hold me to that figure, I’m not exactly fact checking here.
³Although I put the first words to paper sometime around nineteen eighty-seven, I think.
⁴Except, as I have written before, I don’t, because I’m a man and as such have never wept and probably never will.*
⁵Except the first draft. I hate first drafts.
*Yes, the bit about weeping and being a man is meant to be ironic.

Bespectacled

The Glasses

The Glasses

When I was eleven I couldn’t see the chalkboard.

So I got glasses.

When I was twelve I wore them part time. I would carry them from class to class and put them on when I needed to.

By the time I was thirteen I was wearing them all the time. Just in time for my teen-age years. Just in time to eat away at my self-confidence like a particularly potent brand of sulphuric acid.

Sometime around twenty-one or twenty-two, after much consultation with friends who’d already taken the leap, I got contacts. I loved them right away. They took my disability and made it go away. It required some practice but in no time I had no trouble putting contacts in my eyes. There was the odd mishap, like the time my lens got too dry and scratched my cornea, and the time a lens split in half in my eye and rolled up under my eyelid. (I freaked out at that one, until I reasoned that the lens couldn’t get lost behind my eye, that it had to be just under the eyelid, and sure enough a doctor flipped the eyelid back and got it out.)

Once I accidentally washed my contacts down the drain (I got mixed up and thought I was rinsing out my contact lens container). No problem, I resorted to glasses. But by then I had developed a loathing for glasses, and on the subway I took them off to get a break from them and set them on the seat beside me. Then got up at the next station stop and left them behind. They never showed up at Lost and Found, so for three days, while I waited for replacements for both my contacts and glasses, I was forced to live life with my natural-born eyesight.

Because I always had some form of vision correction, I hadn’t noticed how badly my eyes had deteriorated. I wasn’t exactly blind — I could still see close up, but what an eye opener, pun intended. I still had to go to work. I remember editing audio tape with the tape machine inches from my eyes. I went to the zoo with my girlfriend and was unable to see any animals. I couldn’t watch television, there was no point going to movies, and I couldn’t even read a book or magazine with comfort. I realized for the first time in my life how much of a disadvantage I would be at had I been born in a time without vision correction — in other words, for most of human history.

But other than those incidents I had a good twenty-six years wearing contacts.

Until a couple of years ago. When I started getting headaches.

I have an astigmatism. I can’t see far away and just about all distances are blurry to me. In my mid-forties, as I think is the case for just about everyone, I started to develop far-sightedness, or an inability to see close up. My eyes began to lose their elasticity. My contacts couldn’t correct all my vision problems.

I persisted anyway. I loathed glasses, I told myself. It was inconceivable that I should have to wear them all the time. I dealt with the headaches. I worked through them, lived with them. Never felt completely normal — unless I wore glasses. I tried different contacts, but none of them made the headaches completely go away. Some days were worse than others. You might think, why would he put himself through that? I would refer you back to the part of this essay where I mention loathing glasses.

Still, the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve made my peace with glasses. They allow me to see, after all. They are a miracle product — not as elegant as contacts, which allowed me to pretend that I didn’t have a disability, but thank God for them.

Because last weekend the headaches were so bad that I was practically in tears by the end of the day (I wasn’t actually in tears, mind you — I am a man, and as such I have never cried, and probably never will.) It was obvious that the end was nigh. I knew this would be the case someday, but I thought that day would be when I was seventy, not forty-eight.

I have worn glasses every day since. Twice I have put the contacts back in but haven’t been able to stand them any longer than an hour. I am looking at a future of glasses and no contacts.

My optometrist tells me she has one more trick up her sleeve. Something called “monovision”, which involves correcting for distance in one eye and up close with the other eye and letting the brain try to make sense of it all. I’m not optimistic, but I’ll give it a try. I’d sure like to be able to wear contacts again.

Still, if I have to wear glasses full time I will accept it with grace. Why wouldn’t I? There are people who suffer much worse fates — loss of limbs, chronic pain, what have you. What’s having to wear glasses compared to that? Nothing more than an annoyance.

So if you see me with glasses and wonder what’s up, that’s it. Get used to it.

I intend to.

What Did We Know?

Three Oaks Senior High School

Three Oaks Senior High School

My wife and I were discussing reunions for the High School we both attended, Three Oaks Senior High School in Prince Edward Island. Neither of us has ever managed to attend a reunion because we live in Ontario, only get back to PEI every two years (if that), and when we do get back any reunions are invariably held the week before or after we’re there (hmm… makes you wonder).

We got to talking about the so-called “in-crowds” which neither of us were ever a part of, if such things even existed at Three Oaks.

We agreed that it was a long time ago and probably everybody’s changed anyway.

“What did we know back then, anyway?” I said. “Nothing, that’s what we knew. We were just kids. We didn’t know anything.”

“You didn’t know anything,” my wife corrected me. “But I’m pretty sure everybody else knew some stuff.”

Effectively ending the conversation (it’s hard to talk when you’re too busy laughing).

Facebook Faux Pas

Not so sure about the thumbs up...

Not so sure about the thumbs up…

I don’t know how many times I’ve embarrassed myself on Facebook. Probably more times than I even realize.

Recently, at about one in the morning, I came across a humorous anti-gun cartoon good enough that I thought I’d share it. I wrote a caption to the effect that as long as at least some people on the planet were thinking in these terms, there was hope for humanity. I felt good about myself.

The next morning I woke up, opened up Facebook, and the anti-gun cartoon had somehow turned pro-gun. I had posted a pro-NRA gun cartoon and loudly proclaimed this kind of thinking to represent salvation for humanity!

What an idiot.

So I wrote a comment clarifying my views. Later in the day I looked at the cartoon again and thought, well, maybe it could be interpreted as anti-gun, if you squinted right. When I realized that I could no longer even interpret the cartoon correctly, either due to the ambiguous nature of the cartoon or impending senility, I decided the best course of action was simply to delete the cartoon, which I did.

Writer and Facebook Friend Ed Willett

Writer and Facebook Friend Ed Willett

Later, one of my Facebook friends, Canadian science fiction writer Edward Willett, posted the following on his Facebook page:

Social media reveals to you what your acquaintances think about all sorts of controversial issues. I am not sure this is a good thing, since it is likely you will then discover that your acquaintances appear to be blithering idiots about this or that issue on which you disagree, which may have a harmful effect on otherwise friendly relationships.

When I read that I thought, My God, he’s talking about me. Okay, probably not specifically me, but it could certainly apply to me on occasion.

Because sometimes I can’t resist sharing cartoons, essays and whatnot that I think reflect my views. Only they may not entirely reflect my views, either for reasons of stupidity as noted above, or because I’m being flip. Because let’s, um, “face” it, Facebook may not be the best forum for in-depth intellectual discourse, and sometimes (I would even say usually) when I post or share something, I’m doing so without a whole lot of thought behind it.

Recently I was called out for this flip-ness. Flipness, it seems, doesn’t translate well on Facebook. People take you literally. A couple of weeks ago I shared someone else’s essay on how modern filmmakers should not eschew analog film in favour of more modern, but more expensive, digital equipment. I agreed with some points of the essay. But I posted it because I like to indulge in a tongue-in-cheek preference for analog over digital because I run a department called Digital Production Maintenance. Sometimes the digital broadcast equipment my department maintains drives us absolutely bonkers with the need for constant upgrades and the software bugs such upgrades inevitably create. I joke that life would be a lot easier if we reverted completely to analog and changed the name of the department to Analog Production Maintenance. But I am joking (mostly). When I shared the essay on Facebook I did not make this nuance clear and at least one friend took me to task for my apparent gullibility. Perhaps others thought the same. There is a real (if slim) chance that such “mis-posts” could potentially even harm my career, were the wrong person to misinterpret such a Facebook post.

I have also noticed that whenever I go to the trouble of posting something with a little heft to it (such as this essay), it is usually completely ignored. Whereas when I post an anniversary announcement, or a cute picture of my kids, the “likes” sky-rocket. I am tempted to conclude what most people have probably known from the beginning. That it’s best to play it safe on Facebook. Leave religion, politics and other serious thinking out of it.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

However, I am not inclined to leave religion, politics, and other serious subjects completely out of it. As Edmund Burke once wrote, for evil to flourish all that is needed is for good people to do nothing. I subscribe to that whole-heartedly. It is not my nature to stay completely neutral, posting only innocuous posts about baby kittens and friendly whales.

But clearly I need to modify my approach. When I do stray into dangerous territory, I need to exercise more care. I need to be clear, not flip. I must make sure that I am not misrepresenting myself in any way.

Heaven forbid someone should think I’m not in favour of baby kittens or friendly whales.

Toronto Gay Pride Week

Throwing Confetti During Gay Pride Parade

Throwing Confetti During Gay Pride Parade

Got up this morning, ate my usual English Muffin with peanut butter and jam accompanied by a banana, an orange, and a glass of water, opened the Toronto Star, and was immediately confronted with hatred.

There was an article about a man who, along with his family and several hundred others, was rounded up in 1941 and marched at gunpoint to a pit in the forest where they were all murdered and buried in the pit for the crime of being Jews. The man survived to tell the tale so that I, in the comfort of my peaceful, middle class home seventy-two years later, could learn about the capacity of the human race to hate. And not just hate, but HATE.

This depressed me. It probably depressed many decent people. How is such hate possible?

Later I was listening to CBC Radio’s DNTO which today is about the elasticity of gender, where I was confronted with my own capacity for hatred.

I grew up in Prince Edward Island where I encountered to my knowledge two gay men and no gay women that I’m aware of. I know now that there were many more but at this time only two were out of the closet. I did not hate the two that I knew, in fact one of them was a favourite teacher, a drama teacher, who cast me in one of his plays, and the truth is I didn’t think much, if ever, about the fact that he was gay.

It was only later when I was in university in Nova Scotia and in the company of many shallow youth such as myself that I began to contribute to the culture of intolerance and, yes, hatred for homosexuality. I did not understand it, I thought it was wrong, I was surrounded by like-minded people who affirmed this kind of wrong-headed thinking. Thinking created by not thinking with any kind of intellectual rigour about homosexuality, thinking manufactured by fundamentalist religious views, thinking promoted by wanting to fit in, to become that much more accepted by your peers by generating a few laughs about an easy-to-target demographic that you think has nothing to do with you, really.

I moved to Toronto to attend university there. I got a job as a security guard at 77 Carleton Place. My first boss was George, a World War Two vet who went abroad to fight against exactly the kind of hate that I started this post with. “We’re not allowed to carry weapons,” he told me when I started. “We are allowed to carry keys, though.” And he produced a key attached to a long wooden stick that I hope to God he never actually had to hit anyone with.

George also talked to me about one of the other security guards, a handsome, fit man in his early forties who also worked as an underwear model. I can’t remember George’s exact words about this gentleman, but it was clear what George thought his sexual orientation was, and that George did not entirely approve.

George got sick and the handsome man became my boss. One night myself, the handsome man and another security guard happened to be working together and the subject of homosexuality came up. This was not as random as it might seem because there was a tenant in the building dying of Aids at the time. He looked terrible and was the first person I’d ever met who I was aware suffered from Aids. I do not believe he survived long after I met him.

Anyway, in a moment of candour I wish I could erase from my life (along with the attitude that produced it), I told my new boss (conveniently pretending that I suspected nothing about his sexual orientation) what I thought of male homosexuality.

I never worked as a security guard again.

My next job was working for a private production company. One of the biggest jobs I worked on for this company was producing a documentary on Aids. It was about a young man dying of Aids and the struggle of his family to come to terms with both his sexual orientation and the fact that he was terminally ill. Before the father (a tough, grizzled autoworker) learned of his son’s illness he was every bit as prejudiced as I was at the time. He’d never really thought about the subject before. But, he told us on camera, choking back tears, nothing mattered to him now but his love for his son.

This was just one brick in the wall of my own education on the matter. After that I went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. My first year there I fell in love with a woman who never loved me back, at least the same way, because she was gay. I won’t write any more about that for reasons of discretion except to say that this was the emotional juggernaut that prompted me for the first time to really think about the subject. I talked to people, visited bookstores in which I spent hours reading about homosexuality, trying to understand. I started from the position that homosexuality was a choice, a bad choice. I seriously thought I could get this woman to change her mind. I actually told people that I thought a crime had been committed, as if someone had corrupted her in some way. I would get her to come around, I thought.

But the crime was mine, of not understanding.

My feelings on the matter were further complicated when I moved in with two women who, two days before I moved in with them, informed me that they were gay. I had guessed because of a certain lack of bedrooms. They were going to tell me the day I moved in. I lived with them for six months during which they treated me abominably, ignoring me, not speaking to me. It was a terrible, emotionally damaging experience, and one of the happiest days of my life was the day I moved out.

You would think that experience might have deepened my prejudices, but in fact I was already starting to come around. I had friends by this time who were clearly gay and I would defy anybody to truly be friends with someone either gay, Jewish, black, animal, alien or otherwise and remain intolerant. Or at least I hope so.

To this day I don’t think I have any true comprehension of what it’s like to be gay or the subject of any real intolerance, prejudice or hatred. I’m a straight white male who in many ways has it easy. But I hope, I hope to God, that I have eradicated as much hate and intolerance from my being as possible. I attended a church for a while, full of people that I like, but who adhered to a certain fundamentalist perspective such as an intolerance for homosexuality that after a while I couldn’t look past, that to me amounted to just a different kind of hate. So I stopped attending.

After a while of living I realized that my true religion was people. People over ideals. My idea is that as long as I place people first, whether gay, black, pink, purple or what have you, I can’t go wrong. I don’t care what you believe, if it places any kind of people anything other than first, you wind up with hate.

Author Iain Banks summed it up nicely: “F*** every cause that ends in murder and children crying.”

Amen.

Happy Pride Week.

Joni Mitchell

Joni

Joni

I like Joni Mitchell.

Not just because her music is awesome, but because of a simple gesture on her part.

Several years ago she came to the Broadcast Centre for a series of interviews. I’m pretty sure the main interview was for Morningside with Peter Gzowski, because Trish Thornton was still with CBC Radio, and she was Morningside’s tech at the time.

I believe Trish recorded Joni performing one of her songs. Then I was booked in the studio immediately afterward to record Joni for another show (I can’t remember which one) while Trish went off on break. I remember being mildly impressed that the guest was Joni Mitchell. I went into the booth to meet her and the show’s producer and I asked, “So what are we doing? Recording a song?” I was prepared to mic her guitar, do whatever else was required, and I was disappointed when I was told that no, we weren’t recording any music, it was just an interview.

So I went back in the control room and recorded the interview. I can’t remember a single thing about the interview… mind you, I’ve recorded hundreds and hundreds of interviews and don’t remember much about most of them.

What I do remember is this. To most guests, technicians are little more than pieces of furniture. Or another piece of equipment. Barely human, certainly not worth paying any attention to. So I was always pleased when a guest treated me like a human.

The interview finished. The interviewer (I can’t remember who) led Joni out into the hall. It wasn’t necessary to pass by the control room. I thought, yeah, there they go, both of them, ignoring the tech as usual.

Until Joni deliberately broke free of the interviewer and marched back up the hall to the control room, where she sought me out, caught my eye, and said, “Thank you, it was nice to meet you.”

“It was nice to meet you,” I said, and we smiled at each other.

Like two human beings.

Immodest Genius

Some band

Some band

I was listening to the Beatles today. Sgt. Pepper. Such a great album.

And I got to wondering. Did the Beatles ever just pull that out to listen to when they were in the mood? Do Paul and Ringo, today, sometimes just stick it on to enjoy? Or would they be embarrassed to do so? Is it considered somehow gauche to listen to your own stuff, even at that level? Is it something you can do with other people over, or is it something you can just do by yourself?

I’ve recorded a few tunes of my own over the years. Strictly amateurish stuff, but I like some of it. It’s on my iTunes on my laptop. It’s in the rotation, and sometimes, when it comes on, I listen to it.

A young Gordon Lightfoot

A young Gordon Lightfoot

We had Gordon Lightfoot in Studio 212 one day. It was for a television thing but I was in charge of 212 that day, so I was in the studio with him and about a hundred of his hanger ons. He was in a mood and one of his hanger ons told me and some others to leave while they dealt with it. While I was standing outside the studio I talked with one of his lesser inner circle and they told me some Gordon stories.

One of the stories was that at Gordon’s parties they play Gordon Lightfoot music. And we wondered. Was that weird? Or did it make sense? I would be the first to admit that Gordon Lightfoot’s music is awesome. I’d put some of it right up there with the Beatles. Should he not have the right to play it when and where he wants? Would I play my own tunes publicly if I were as good as Gordon?

Doesn’t seem quite Canadian, somehow. Immodest.

So I’m going to go with probably not.

Night Town

Cathi Bond's Night Town

Cathi Bond’s Night Town

I recently finished reading Cathi Bond’s Night Town.

It knocked my socks off.

Okay it didn’t literally knock my socks off, I’m still wearing socks, though I probably shouldn’t be. It is a barefoot sandals kind of day today.

But you know what I mean. I was impressed.

I’ve known Cathi for a while. She was a frequent contributor to CBC Radio shows such as DNTO, which I used to tech for occasionally. Once she contributed a lovely high production commentary to one of my numerous attempts to get a science fiction radio show off the ground. We also worked together on an experimental non-linear web-based narrative project called Vega that never quite got off the ground, but that did manage to be at least one brick in the wall of our story-telling education.

Whatever other bricks have been a part of Cathi’s story-telling education, they’ve clearly paid off. With a debut novel this good, I can only imagine how good her subsequent novels will be.

What follows is an adaptation of a post I placed on Good Reads upon finishing the book. The post is mostly just praise, I haven’t really gone to the trouble of summarizing the plot of the book. So if you want to know what it’s about, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Or better yet, just read the book. That should give you a pretty good idea what it’s about.

***********

SPOILER ALERT

***********

Though the writing in Night Town is professional, gripping and taut, I did not always find it an easy book to read. The protagonist Maddy’s descent into hell was harrowing. I didn’t want to be in that world with her. But I wanted to know about that world. I felt like I needed to know about that world. I kept wondering, how did Cathi know about that world? It all came off as terrifically authentic.

Maddie’s point of view was always consistent and disturbing. I wondered about her reliability as a narrator. Almost everybody in her story shut her out (even her mother, tragically), nobody offered her the support and love she desperately required, at least according to the story as she tells it. I suspected that she was a love filter, filtering out love and support, not absorbing it when it came her way, so although it might have been present in her life, she filtered it out so of course it wasn’t reflected in her story. Or maybe there was none at all and that’s why turned out the way she did. They say that lab rats raised alone without comfort and support invariably become sociopathic.

The characterizations were deft and superb. Aunt Anne was real. Grandpa was real. Dad leapt off the page. The bit players, especially Gabe, lived authentic (if pathetic) lives. And Maddie of course rang truest of all.

I wondered how Cathi would manage a happy ending without it feeling trite or stage managed. She pulled it off. I wanted there to be hope at the end and there was. I couldn’t have borne it had there not been hope for Maddie. I want to know what became of Lily. But that story must be left unsaid, the same way the true nature of Gabe and Lily’s relationship is best left unsaid.

I think this is not only an excellent book, it’s an important book. A book with difficult subject matter that a lot of people might not be able to get past — the exact same people that most need to read it.

Highly recommended.

Nigel Godrich

Nigel Godrich -- Super Producer

Nigel Godrich — Super Producer

I’ll start from the beginning.

The band Travis showed up just before two. We had finished the live broadcast for the day and I was eating my lunch in the studio. We were just going to record the interview and song live to tape to be broadcast the following day. A whole bunch of them came in, I had no idea who was in the band and who wasn’t. I shook a few hands, then allowed them to settle into the booth while I gobbled down the rest of my microwave dinner. Then I went in to help them set up.

They had wanted a couple of vocal microphones and two direct boxes to plug an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar into. (Direct boxes allow you to plug an instrument directly into a console so you don’t have to mike it). I had those all set up and ready to go. Although the entire band had showed up, only two of them were actually going to sing and play, lead singer Fran Healey and bass guitar player Dougie Payne. Fran asked me if I could mike his acoustic guitar instead of using a direct box. I said sure, that I preferred using a microphone, and had just used the direct box because the bands technical specifications had asked for direct boxes. He called out to somebody to change the tech specs.

“I’ll put an SM57 on it,” I said.

SM57 Microphone

SM57 Microphone

He said, “How ‘bout that AKG 414 you’ve got hanging over the piano?” I said sure and set it up.

In the control room I waited for Fran to finish tuning, then attempted to set levels as they rehearsed a song. Too many people were yapping in the control room and I couldn’t hear a damned thing. I told them all politely but firmly to pipe down. Fran was complaining about something. I turned all the mikes off so I could go into the booth and speak to them privately.

“I couldn’t hear anything, I had to tell everyone out there to shut the hell up,” I told them.

AKG 414 Microphone

AKG 414 Microphone

They laughed and said good on ya.

Fran told me he wanted a bit of reverb on himself and a lot on Dougie. Dougie was supposed to sound kind of ghostly. No problem, I told them, but I was thinking: damn it, all I have is a Rev 5, a reverb unit that dates back to the eighties. I can’t stand the sound of the thing and have been complaining about it since day one, but it would have to do.

Yamaha Rev 5 Digital Reverb

Yamaha Rev 5 Digital Reverb

There was something wrong with the sound of Fran’s guitar… it was distorting. I checked all my levels and the trim and couldn’t see why it was distorting. In fact I’ve never had a guitar distort that I can recall. I decided to swap out the 414 microphone on the theory that maybe it was overloading. This happens sometimes on condenser microphones if they’re getting too much acoustic information, they just can’t handle it. It’s called capsule distortion. At least that’s what I call it. But for a guitar to cause capsule distortion is kind of nutty; it usually happens when vocalists (or actors) are really belting it out.

I usually mike guitars for the show with an SM57 and I’ve had good luck with them. We had Brad Deneen on just the other day and somebody wrote in to compliment me on the sound of his guitar, so I thought I would try it. But when I went into the booth to swap out the microphones, unbeknownst to me somebody followed me in. This fellow spotted a Neuman U-87 and suggested that I try it. Fran introduced him as “our producer.”

U-87 Microphone

U-87 Microphone

Now, the fact that he was a producer didn’t impress me much. Most producers I know, while being perfectly acceptable human beings, don’t know much technically. In fact they often have half-baked technical notions. I told this fellow that I didn’t want try the U-87 (even though it is an awesome microphone) because, like the AKG 414, it was a condenser microphone.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

“We might be getting capsule distortion,” I told him, confident that he wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

“On a guitar?” he said.

This had two immediate consequences. First, I realized that this guy might actually know what he was talking about. Second, I instantly felt like an idiot, because the truth is it was highly unlikely that we were getting capsule distortion from a guitar.

“Okay, I’ll try it,” I told him.

He said, “I don’t mean to get in the way.”

I said, “Not a problem, tell me anything you want. I don’t mind, really.” I still had no idea who he was.

“There you go, butting in, making everyone tense,” Fran said.

“No really, I don’t mind, it’s not a problem,” I said. Which is the truth. I don’t get my back up at all when people pipe in. It makes them feel a part of the process and I could potentially learn something. I don’t have much ego invested in engineering. When it comes to recording music I’m just a meatball engineer. I told the guy as much and invited him to stand behind the console and help me with the mix.

Dougie Payne

Dougie Payne

We tried the song again with the U-87. Fran’s guitar was still distorted, damn it. There were other issues as well; my helpful new friend had me tweak all the levels, and he thought Fran’s lead vocal was peaking out of the mix too much. He wanted more compression on it. This was a problem. I didn’t have separate compression on the various vocals. I am aware that ideally you have access to separate compression on everything but I don’t have that many compressors. It’s a radio studio, not a recording studio, and because we usually have to do things fast I try to keep it simple.

So there wasn’t much I could do about Fran’s lead vocal except try to keep the guitar and bass up. Except the guitar was still distorted. I was starting to feel under the gun. We needed to start the interview. My new friend suggested there was a problem with the strip on the console. I agreed and plugged the guitar into a different strip. It corrected the distortion but I was still wasn’t happy with the sound of the U-87 on the guitar. But we were running late and I had to let it go.

I was starting to regret allowing my new friend to help. Although I am no crackerjack music engineer, when I do a mix on the fly I pretty much have to trust my instincts. He was taking the mix in a different direction than I would have and it wasn’t sitting properly. I have no doubt that if he were sitting at the board he could have made it work. But he wasn’t sitting at the board, I was. I had to forego what I would have done and second guess him. Second guessing rarely makes anything better. Plus I was embarrassed about the distorted guitar and the lack of compression, and a tad tense.

Fran Healy

Fran Healy

In his defense, he had apologized for interfering and I had invited him repeatedly to help. And in his mind I was probably butchering his baby.

Finally we decided the sound we had would have to do and began the interview. Fran and Dougie would play the song at the end of the interview. Halfway through the interview, Jian (our host) asked Fran and Dougie why their superstar producer was tagging along. Only then did I realize that this producer fellow helping me might be someone special in the world of rock music.

They played the song and I wasn’t really happy with the sound. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great. I was too embarrassed to even look at the producer. He made a couple of suggestions about levels and I tried to follow them.

“I’m sorry it probably wasn’t as good as you would have liked,” I told him afterward.

He clapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand, and I thought, well at least he’s a decent guy.

Fran and Dougie were decent too… they thanked me sincerely and shook my hand on the way out. I listened to the mix afterward with another engineer and we decided that it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. My Q mates seemed to think it was okay.

Shortly afterward I was standing overlooking the CBC atrium when a friend looked out and said, “Geez, is that Nigel Godrich over there?”

I told him I’d just worked with him and asked him just who the heck this Nigel Godrich fellow was, anyway. And he proceeded to tell me.

And I’m awfully glad I didn’t know ‘til then.