Requiem for a Studio

212 -- Studio Floor

Me on studio floor of 212

I loved working in Studio 212.

Studio 212 was our dream studio. It was the Radio Drama Studio in the Toronto Broadcast Centre, the successor to Studio G on Jarvis Street. It was a one-of-a-kind facility, built for the express purpose of producing theatre-of-the-mind, painstakingly designed to provide creative teams the ability to replicate acoustic environments with maximum flexibility.

I spent most of my time in Studio 212’s control room sitting behind a Neve Capricorn recording console (later, a Euphonix System 5). Typically, a recording engineer and a sound effects engineer would sit behind the console looking out over the production floor. There was a credenza behind them, beneath which sat patch bays and outboard processing gear such as effects and reverb units. Directors, writers, and associate producers would sit behind the credenza during recording and mix sessions, ordering the engineers around.

Writers J. Michael Straczynski and Samm Barnes behind Studio 212 Control Room credenza

Writers J. Michael Straczynski and Samm Barnes behind the credenza in Studio 212 Control Room

Behind the control room was an equipment room. It housed the brains of the recording console, and doubled as a shortcut from the east side of the building to the west for those of us in the know.
The control room of Studio 212 was a hub, surrounded by several other rooms which served as different acoustic spaces in which to record actors. In front of the control room was the main studio floor, the largest and arguably most impressive space. The studio floor was deep and wide and two stories high. There were different materials on the floor to approximate different walking surfaces, among them wood, marble, and concrete. Two staircases led to a balcony. The staircase on the right (looking out from the control room) had two different surfaces (a good idea in theory, but in practice there wasn’t much difference between them acoustically). The winding staircase on the left was made of metal, and was perfect for approximating the sounds of stairs on ships and in prisons.

Close your eyes. Can you hear the difference?

Close your eyes. Can you hear the difference? (photo courtesy of Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

There were baffles on the studio floor that you could wheel around to create smaller acoustic spaces. Each baffle had two sides: a soft, sound absorbing surface, and a hard, reflective surface. Which side you used depended on what kind of acoustic environment you wished to replicate. A small closet? Place an actor and your microphone inside three baffles and allow the actor’s voice to reflect off the hard surfaces. A living room? Four or five baffles with soft surfaces underneath the balcony. A castle, church, or gymnasium? Use the entire space augmented by a couple of mics on the balcony and maybe a soupçon of electronic reverb (which I always called “schmoo”, as in, “a little schmoo on that will help,” because that’s what CBC recording engineer Doug Doctor calls it).

At the far end of the main studio floor was a combination kitchen/bathroom. It had a working stove, fridge, and bathtub. There were tons of dishes, pots, and pans in the cupboards. It’s said that they were originally going to put a working toilet in there but they were afraid that people would use it, and it wouldn’t get cleaned, and it would just get ugly. They were probably right. This space was relatively small and covered in ceramic tiles. It was perfect for recording kitchens and bathrooms (obviously) but served equally well for jail cells and locker rooms—any small, acoustically live environment.

Sometimes we'd make a mess in the kitchen

Sometimes we’d make a mess in the kitchen

To the immediate right of the control room was a room we called The Neutral Room because it sounded, well, neutral.

Behind the control room, to the left of the equipment room, lay a room we called The Office. I’ll leave it to the discerning reader to determine what sorts of scenes we recorded in there.

To the right of the main studio floor was a tiny closet of a room with a sliding glass door. We called this the Acoustic Chamber. It became the default room for recording actors who were supposed to be in cars. Once I rented a car with a big trunk to do a remote in Niagara-on-the-lake. An associate producer came with me. On the way back, as we were talking, it occurred to me that our voices sounded exactly like actors recorded in the Acoustic Chamber. So it certainly worked as a double for at least one make of car. Sadly, I can’t remember what kind of car that was.

Or sometimes we'd record car scenes this way

Or sometimes we’d record car scenes this way. Recording Engineer Wayne Richards with Gordon Pinsent and a fellow actor (photo courtesy of Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Left of the main studio floor, through an acoustically reinforced door, was a long hallway that ended in a small chamber. Every surface in this space except for the floor was covered with Sonex Acoustical Foam, a sound absorbing material. The idea was that if you spoke in this room, your voice would not reflect off any surfaces. It would sound the way your voice would sound outside in the real world, theoretically. If you shouted down the hallway, which was something like thirty feet long, you would sound as though you were shouting across a large pond or a football field. If you spoke in the chamber at the end of the hall, you might sound the way you would on the beach. We called this room the Dead Room. Matt Willcott, one of our sound effects engineers, told me that he wanted to write an autobiography called “Live Effects in a Dead Room.” He’s long since retired and should have it mostly written by now.

Cynthia Dale in the Dead Room, as seen from a monitor in the Control Room

Cynthia Dale in the Dead Room, as seen from a monitor in the control room. There’s a hole in the wall beside the monitor because one day the other monitor fell out.

The floor of the corridor in the Dead Room consisted of shallow boxes. If you lifted the covers off these boxes, you would find several different types of surfaces: small rocks, pebbles, sand. Not often, but every now and then, we would have actors or our sound effects engineers walk on these surfaces to simulate walking on different surfaces. Rather less sophisticated, but no less effective, we also kept a medium-sized cardboard box in the Dead Room. It was filled with old quarter inch audio tape that had been liberated from its reels. When actors walked on this old audiotape, it sounded like they were walking on dead leaves.

SFX beneath floor in Dead Room (photo courtesy of Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

SFX beneath floor in Dead Room (photo courtesy of Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

All our outdoor scenes (well, the ones not actually recorded outdoors) were recorded in the Dead Room. Properly done it worked pretty well, especially after you added outdoor ambiances to the voice tracks such as wind or rain or automobiles or ocean surf. If you tried to fake it by recording outdoor scenes in one of the other spaces, spaces meant for interior recording, listeners might not realize what you had done, but psycho-acoustically they would register that something wasn’t quite right.

You had to be careful though. Not every spot in the Dead Room worked well. If you placed your microphone too close to a wall, even with Sonex Acoustic Foam lining the walls, the actors’ voices would reflect back and sound boxy. So they might sound like they were at the beach, but inside a wooden box.

Leaves the old fashioned way (Photo courtesy Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Leaves the old fashioned way (Photo courtesy Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Of course, outside in the real world there are many opportunities for sound to reflect off various surfaces. Often when I was recording outside on location I would find myself up against a brick wall or a wooden house or some other place that flavoured my recordings with odd reflections and other unique characteristics. So although the Dead Room provided an excellent approximation of outdoor environments, and allowed engineers a lot more control than might have been possible recording outdoors, nothing beat actually recording outdoors. Also, actors sometimes found it hard to be cooped up in the Dead Room for too long—you could start to feel a bit peculiar in there after a while. Which could be why one day shortly after the Dead Room was built, one actor carved her initials in the acoustic foam. It was never repaired, and she was never invited back.

It could be said that studio 212 was ever-so-slightly over-engineered. I’ve already mentioned the staircase with the two surfaces that weren’t that much different from one another acoustically. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could place your microphone underneath an array of baffles permanently affixed to the ceiling (called “The Cloud”.) You could flip those baffles to either hard or soft surfaces using a long pole that we kept attached to a nearby wall. When I first started working in 212, I would dutifully flip the ceiling baffles depending on my acoustic requirements, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it didn’t have much of an impact. Rarely was an actor’s mouth directed toward the heavens. Some of the floor surfaces were equally ineffective. They differed from one another so subtly that you couldn’t hear any difference between them, especially with actors wearing sneakers. We rarely used footsteps anyway—start putting footsteps in your radio plays and the next thing you know it’ll be all about the footsteps; you’ll drive yourself nuts. Just put them in where you absolutely need to.

But far be it from me to nitpick about such a unique studio. I shall not look upon its like again.

17 Comments

  1. I loved working there as well. I remember putting footsteps in plays and then having to keep putting footsteps in and yes, it drove me nuts! Joe-your hair is grey!!
    I assume 212 is no more?

  2. ilanderz

    January 22, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Hey Janice! Good to see you’re still out there somewhere. Yes, 212 is no more. And my hair is grey, because it has been a long time! I suppose your hair isn’t grey? 🙂

    • I’m sure there is some grey but I don’t know for sure. My hair dresser has strict instructions not to tell me.

  3. I had the honor to work in both Studio G (Booster McCrane) and 212 (The Old Guy and Salvage) and both have a special place in my heart. Studio G because I believe that sound gets into the walls of a room and in some strange way creates a magic and Studio G’s walls were full of Glenn Gould’s Magic and the magic of Andrew Allen and Len Peterson and three generations of great Canadian performers. 212 was just a wonderful playground, especially when it first opened and the slaughter house on John Street was still a beehive of creativity with a big sunny cafeteria full of all the famous faces and voices of CBC’ swilling coffee and arguing over the events of the day. Hell, you might even get stuck in an elevator with Larry Zolf. Soon enough the cafeteria was gone and radio drama’s offices were emptying out and the faint odor of killers masquerading as bean counters was wafting along the corridors. But inside 212 everything was still golden. Great producers, great technicians and amazing performers loved working in that room. A kind of joyful calm wrapped around you in that space which seemed, at least to me, to be acoustically perfect. Our shows were pulling ratings in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes doing better than the leading TV dramas. Whole series were coming out of that room on budgets that wouldn’t have paid for a single episode on TV. There was a huge potential to create a symbiotic relationship between radio and TV drama that could have seen radio becoming a powerful tool in the development of ideas for TV, but the two departments shared a building and little else. And radio current affairs hated giving up air time to drama. So The Corpse destroyed radio drama, one by one the staff was laid off and producers who had spent their whole creative lives in drama were shuffled off to non-creative jobs or frog marched out of the building. – just when their talents could have been refocused on the exploding new media of podcasts and the internet. I’ve come to hate the CBC. To hate it’s bureaucracy and it’s incompetence. And this wonderful requiem for a space reminds me why. But let us hope with new funds and new management some of the magic can be found again. Because we need it, more than ever.

    • Yes! Bring Radio Drama back, as podcasts. Afganada (sp?) had three houses on my street with people sitting in their cars listening instead of hopping out.

  4. A sad, sad story indeed. Such a waste, such broken promises–in my view. I find the CBC incestuous, a clique that does not represent Canadians but rather chosen groups. The Ins and The Not Ins. It is now gender biased in reverse, its content if monitored seriously. would beg questions about bias and propaganda and perhaps most serious of questions which might not appear politically correct. To think that policy and governance of the CBC radio and television networks have remained in the same hands for twenty years and more boggles the mind. No matter how competent they may have appeared, the idea that they were like a government that didn’t change for decades with regard to whom might receive work and commission and those who were secretly on a kind of black list, albeit unwritten I find disgusting and –well, demented comes to mind. CBC once set the bar very high with regard to profession standards. It was an ideal to be worked toward, and a mark of distinction to have arrived at. It does not reflect the broad base of tax payers who support it and in my view has broken faith with the icons who gave it a reputation the world could admire. I am sorry to be so unkind, especially in view of how much I owe to my years as a contract announcer at CBC. I have wandered far from the subject of your essay on studio 212 and radio drama. What I have never quite been able to understand is how radio has become a whistle stop on the way to television. Radio drama in particular. While the theatre with its floorboards and movement can never be replicated with film or sound, and television and film continue to have a niche all to themselves, Radio Drama has no equal–at least not in my mind. We are profoundly more influenced by what we hear–rather than what we see. To have built a room like the one described with its own Foley floor and all the other devices for recording and and enhancing sound and voice and not use it for the best writing that could be found is —-pathetic and very sad. The image that comes to mind is building the Hubbell telescope for the purpose of duct cleaning. As for Current affairs and its impact on radio and tv budgets one can only wonder why the old saying about newspapers has not been revived. Something to do with today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrap.

  5. What is happening to the studio? I also remember directing live to air in Studio G on Parliament for James Roy when he was on holiday, and mixing on those fat fat rolls of 24 track tape in pre-digital days. I watched foley work being done for the first time in Studio G by Matt and the other guy whose name I don’t remember, but he could make the sound of a highheeled walking woman and a man walking beside her in hard shoes at the same time! I remember watching a canteloupe get pummelled to get the sound of a horrible act of violence in Studio G. Studio 212 was amazing. I loved the actual running water in the kitchen and your description of the dead room brought back a tons of memories. I remember trying to squeeze a dozen actors into the dead room when we tried to record Michael O’Brien’s Viking Saga epic “Shores of Wonder.” (So funny – I happened to find an old CD recording of that over the past Christmas holidays – and I put it on, and I COULD NOT FOLLOW the story! Not sure how that ever made it to air.) I’m so sorry more storytellers, writers, actors, directors, producers, musicians won’t get to use that studio. 212 was an incredible space for the imagination.

  6. Thanks for the requiem, Joe. Sad to see the expertise and the artfulness squandered. Like so many, looking to the past and the vibrant cultural and creative glory is bittersweet. It’s growing harder and harder to keep the faith in a future for the Corps. Keep telling the stories. And be well.

  7. Hey Joe. Thanks for this. It makes me happy and sad at the same time. I see you took an awesome photo just before the Vogons arrived. I couldn’t go back.

  8. Joe, great overview! Nice to document how things worked, so when future generations ask “What’s a Radio Drama anyway??”, they can find this. And know that I was also one of the ones ordered around (hey, I’m all for this smidgen of editorializing)!
    Paul Ledoux summed up my feelings so well, I couldn’t add much. There certainly was a real spirit to CBC back on Jarvis St that got lost more and more after the move to John St. I guess it started with the government cuts, which were delivered by a succession of managers who often didn’t understand the history – and they actually got bonuses to slash and burn!! So then for the workers, I’d say this lack of respect and insecurity caused stress that brought out the worst. Hence the ‘Jian’ types, and also the victims of the bullying and manipulation.
    So ya, it’s not the same! We’re all sick about what’s been happening. But kudos to Joe, a manager now, who understands how rich our history is, and what has been lost. Studio 212 was unique, an amazing facility.
    I guess we should remember to also credit those who had the dream in the first place. John McCarthy for one. John Stewart I believe. Do you know any more about that aspect Joe?

  9. Hey Joe. Love the pictures. I remember the day you took the photo in front of the kitchen? That was for “Faint Hope”. Smashing all that crap was a hell of a lot of fun.

  10. Good read Joe, As you know I had a lot of history in 212 and the like. It was certainly one of a kind.

  11. If the story of the actual demise of the studio is not available elsewhere, I would love to know (as an electrical engineer who did the preliminary electronic design work for the facility) the following. So what happened to the studio? Was it converted to another CBC use, rented out, or ? Was it torn up, or just locked up and abandoned, or mothballed? Was the equipment sold off, or perhaps stored? Is there just no CBC radio drama being produced anymore in Toronto? What was the stated rationale for the closure? And I am sure you could add many more details yourself.
    Thanks,
    Tom Shevlin

  12. Hi Tom. The Drama department was shut down and the studio mothballed. That portion of the second floor has been leased to the advertising agency Bensimon Byrne. They are now reconfiguring the space for them. Some of the equipment was repurposed; for instance, the Euphonix System 5 console (which had replaced the original Neve Capricorn console) was moved to the Glenn Gould studio. I’m not entirely sure what happened to all the sound effects props.

    No, radio drama is no longer being produced, though it’s possible we may see its return someday, in some form. The programming department has not entirely ruled it out; I was asked to consult on a proposal just recently. However, radio drama is expensive, and almost everyone originally associated with the production of radio drama no longer works for the CBC. I think there are five or six of us left, now working in other departments.

    As for the rationale, the last few years have been pretty hard on the CBC financially, requiring some difficult decisions. One of these was to close facilities on the second floor and lease that space to generate revenue. I should make it clear that it is not my intention to second guess any of these decisions. All I’m doing is writing history.

  13. Joe. thanks for the retrospective on this amazing facility. I worked in Winnipeg where we heard reports and stories about this studio. I must admit that we were envious, but also, being tech geeks, we were thrilled that a place like this existed. I never got to see the drama studio, unfortunately, but I certainly appreciate the magic that could be created in the theatre of the mind, where the lighting was always perfect.

  14. Thanks, Joe. I was lucky to work there with you and all the others who made magic happen in those spaces. (One of the five or six still there, but in different places…)

1 Pingback

  1. Barney’s Version

Leave a Reply to Anonymous Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2017

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑