One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
“Mix/Minus” CBC V June 17, 2012
From Fall to Christmas 1988 I spent my time at CBC Radio both observing and working in studios, learning the tricks of the trade. I did basic bookings, simple recordings, a lot of what are called “Two-Ways.”
Two Ways consist of a host in a studio in one location and a guest in a studio in another location. The second location could be just across the city or it could be a studio on the other side of the world. You have to master a little something called the “mix/minus” to perform a proper Two-Way. This is just making sure that you’re not sending the person on the other end of the line back to themselves. Say I have a Two-Way between Toronto and Vancouver. The voice of the guest in Vancouver is sent down a line to my studio in Toronto. At the same time I have to send the voice of my host down the line to the studio in Vancouver. But both me and the technician in Vancouver have to make sure we don’t send one another’s signals back to one another. If I send the guest in Vancouver back to himself, it will come back to him delayed by as much as half a second. He or she will hear this in the headphones and find it very distracting.
Although straightforward once you knew how, people were always getting the mix/minus wrong. I remember doing the summer edition of Morningside one morning in 1993 (it was called Summerside then, which was kind of neat, as I grew up in Summerside Prince Edward Island). We had a guest on the show from Moncton, New Brunswick, but the technician in Moncton was summer relief and didn’t know how to “split the board” (one way of referring to “mix/minus”, though it also has other connotations). We were already live on air with one portion of the show and I had about fifteen minutes to teach the technician in Moncton how to split his board for the mix minus. This involved figuring out what kind of console he was flying and how it worked and instructing him to make the necessary adjustments. Fortunately he was a quick learner. Also, although we were live on air, my host (it was either Ian Brown or Denise Donlon who was replacing Peter Gzowski at the time) was in the middle of an interview, which meant other than watching audio levels I had time to focus on teaching the Moncton tech. Live radio was always full of challenges like that.
Two-ways are one thing, but we also did three-ways, four-ways and even more. Same basic principle, but care was required, especially in live-to-air situations.
Back to the Fall of ’88. A great hurdle all new technicians had to face was the intimidating presence of experienced producers. You would walk into a studio as a new technician and the first question you would get from the producer was, “Where’s (insert name of experienced technician here)?” There are of course many wonderfully flippant responses to this inane question, but you would choke them back. If the producer was intelligent, which was sometimes the case, they would simply deal with the situation and help you make the booking a success, whether it was a simple recording or a two-way or what-have-you. If the producer was what (intelligent) producer Sandy Mowat would call a “mutton head” then you might have to put up with some abuse, or at the very least a distinct lack of friendliness.
It was frequently an intimidating experience. There were over twenty studios in the old Jarvis street radio facilities. Almost every studio was set up differently. Every patch rack was different, usually a spaghetti-like tangle of patch cords, the rack itself cryptically labelled. I remember doing a booking in Studio F, which was usually the As It Happens studio, but this was before 11am in the morning when As It Happens claims the studio. I was working with a particularly belligerent producer. I needed to make a patch, but I didn’t know where the patch point was, so I started at the top left hand corner of the patch rack and worked my way down to the bottom right hand side, looking for the patch point.
I said to the producer, “You’ll have to excuse me for a moment, it may take me a couple of minutes to find the right patch point.”
He said (and I quote), “Have you considered the possibility that you’re stupid?”
I was flabbergasted, but determined to take the high road I said nothing, found the patch point, and continued on with the booking. I had some gum with me and at one point offered him some to illustrate that I had no hard feelings about his remarkably harsh remark. At the end of the booking I said, “Better make a point of remembering where that patch point is lest it ever be implied again that I’m stupid,” at which point the producer mumbled, “How you guys remember all these different studios is beyond me.” I accepted this oblique apology, though never forgot his words. And there will be more on this character (and others like him) later.
Come Christmas I had a basic familiarity with some of what I’d be required to do as a radio technician, but there was much, much more to learn. At Christmas I was reassigned to work in Radio Master Control for several months. Ostensibly this was a bit of a promotion (master control techs were Group 5s), but it interrupted my education as a basic Group 4 radio tech for a while.
More on Master Control later.