Studios From Scratch
One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
Most of the time, CBC Radio shows are broadcast out of special, purpose-built radio studios, all carefully designed, built, and equipped by experienced broadcast engineers. In studios like that all you have to do to get your show on the air is go in, sit down, and turn on a piece of equipment or two.
Other times, studios are built from scratch.
Sometimes this is as simple as a microphone attached to a recording device by an XLR cable, along with a pair of headphones.
Sometimes it’s rather more complicated than that.
When we go offsite and cobble one of these transient radio studios together, whether it’s simple or complicated, we call it a “remote.”
Some remotes are more remote than others. If a remote is just a few blocks away and the tech happens to forget a piece of gear, maybe a microphone stand or a clip, he or she can just dart back to the Broadcast Centre and get it. If a remote is hours away, maybe half-way across the country or in a completely different country, the tech had better have all the right gear.
Some remotes last only an hour or two; others never seem to end. Sometimes a show will broadcast live right from their remote location. Other times they’ll record what they want and edit the content later and broadcast it sometime after that.
My first remote was a music pick-up in the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, not too far away from the Radio Building. Recording Engineer Dave Burnham was recording a choir there to be broadcast later on a show called Listen to the Music. (The Cowboy Junkies had recorded their superlative album The Trinity Session in that same church a few months earlier.) My job was to help Dave, which mainly meant lugging all his equipment. Remotes almost always involved a lot of lugging.
It was a simple enough remote, on the surface of it: recording one small choir. Dave’s setup consisted of a handful of microphones connected to a small console. Still, there were several questions that needed to be answered. Just how exactly to make this choir sound as good as possible? What kind of microphones to use? How many? Where exactly to place them? What kind of outboard gear to use, if any? An experienced high-end recording engineer like Dave had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and employed his own unique strategies. Recording music out in the field was an art, and although I accompanied engineers like Dave out on a few remotes, and did some music recording of my own privately, I never acquired anything resembling the expertise of someone like Dave.
After a couple of years of lugging gear for other techs and learning what I could, I started getting my own remotes. Despite my time observing, I was initially at a bit of a handicap. Unlike many other techs, I never did a stretch in Radio Technical Stores. Radio Tech Stores was where techs got equipment for their remotes. Working in Stores you assembled equipment for more senior techs and accompanied them on their remotes. If you paid attention, you learned what gear was best and how to make it work.
Motivated by a profound fear of failure, I overcame my handicap by spending time in Stores on my own, hooking up gear and figuring out how to make it do what I needed it to do. Over time my preparation paid off, though the knowledge of gear I acquired didn’t entirely compensate for certain other massive deficiencies, such as an inability to find my way around Toronto.
One of my first solo pickups was for a show on politics called The House. My job was to record the second last Mayor of Scarborough, Joyce Trimmer, on a Nagra in her office for one half of a double-ender. A double-ender consists of an interviewer back in the studio talking to a guest on the phone while somebody like me records the guest out in the field. Afterward, back in the studio, a tech eliminates the poor phone quality recording of the guest, replacing that recording with the high fidelity recording done in the field.
I needed to be at Trimmer’s office by two pm. We only had the studio in the Radio Building booked until two-thirty. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a car and wasn’t used to driving in Toronto. I didn’t know my way around the streets of Scarborough at all. Driving a Stores van, I got hopelessly lost. I couldn’t find Trimmer’s damn office. Somebody had told me it was in the Scarborough Town Centre but I couldn’t even find that. When I finally did, I figured there must be offices in it somewhere. Maybe there is, but if so she wasn’t in any of them. Turned out her office was in a building behind the Scarborough Town Centre. Panting and sweating and lugging my equipment, I got there twenty minutes late. Back in the Radio Building the producer and host must have been freaking out. Trimmer herself was the epitome of graciousness. She offered me a glass of water, which I gratefully accepted, and we managed to get the recording done in the time remaining.
My remote skills (such as they are) really came together while working for the folks at CJBC. CJBC is a part of CBC Radio-Canada. An affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, they broadcast to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860 out of studios on the fifth floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre. I was loaned to them for four and a half years after I took the better part of a year off to live in France. We did a lot of remotes during my time with them.
The first big remote I did for CJBC was for something called a Salon du livres, held in one of the big halls in the Toronto Convention Centre. Basically it was a book fair. We did one of those a year. Because the Salon du livres was a relatively big remote, and because I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I asked for an assistant. I was assigned fellow technician Carlos Van Leeuwen, who happened to be working in Stores at the time.
The remote consisted of a host and three guest positions set up at one table in the middle of the book fair, facing a small audience. The guests and hosts would use headphone microphones. There was a PA (public address system) set up for the benefit of a small audience. During the live show I would sit at a separate table with my mixing console and the producer and associate producer at my side. There would be a talkback set up for the producer and the host to be able to communicate with one another. An ISDN unit would transmit the show to the Broadcast Centre and live to air.
Tech Stores had something called a McCurdy Turret System for exactly this kind of remote. Carlos and I decided to give it a try. Only problem was neither of us had ever used it before, and we had only the barest idea how it worked. There were no instructions and we didn’t have access to anyone else who know how it worked, if such a person existed. The only way to figure it out was to plug it all together in various permutations until it finally worked. I would say that it was a completely unintuitive system except that I know people who used to work for McCurdy and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
For some reason that eludes me now, but that I’m sure made perfect sense at the time, we didn’t start trying to figure it out until the day of the remote. There were moments I didn’t think we’d ever get the bloody thing working. But we did, and I will be eternally grateful to Carlos for his help — without him I’d probably still be staring at it cross-eyed.
Once I understood how the McCurdy Turret System worked I began to use it on all my remotes. One day another tech watched me set it up. The connectivity was so bizarre that he couldn’t believe it worked that way. He insisted that I must be doing it wrong. Happy to entertain better ways of doing it, I challenged him to make it work another way, but he couldn’t.
During that first Salon du livres there were many long moments where nothing worked properly, during which I seriously entertained the notion that we wouldn’t make it to air. There is a moment like that on every remote. It can last seconds or it can last hours, but it’s always there. Sometimes it’s dead simple: you have a microphone set to line instead of mic on the console. Fine. You spot the problem and fix it. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, and you have to troubleshoot your entire setup to find the answer, maybe a bad cable or a faulty mixer, and there are no maintenance techs around to help you (well, sometimes there are, on some big music remotes, but there never was for me). I had a rule of thumb that served me well: it’s never the cable. And it never was. Except for once, when it was.
Sometimes the problem will have nothing to do with your equipment. Once, during a setup for a remote in Welland, I couldn’t establish continuity with Master Control. I wasn’t too concerned; it was an hour before airtime. Forty-five minutes later it still wasn’t working. I was certain the problem wasn’t anything on my end. Nor was the problem in Master Control. Turned out it was in between, with Bell. A Bell tech fixed it ten minutes before air time — someone had patched a cable wrong.
Remotes were usually pretty straightforward once you got everything working. Once I had to deal with a bit of feedback from the PA, and another time a dirty turret developed a bit of a click whenever the host toggled the microphone on or off, but I never had a remote go completely belly-up on me.
I came close, though. The closest was during a remote in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was working for the Radio Drama Department at the time. We did multiple remote pickups every summer at the Shaw Festival for the Bell Canada Reading Series. They were usually a lot of fun. Sometimes another engineer would tag along; sometimes it would just be you and a producer. On this particular day I was flying solo.
Because I had to be there early, I packed up my gear the night before and drove the CBC van home. Proud to work for the CBC, and proud to be seen working for the CBC, I always liked driving a CBC branded van (yes, I’m aware that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). I got up at five in the morning the day of and made the two and a half hour drive from Whitby to the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Someone let me in in the theatre and I set up. I don’t remember what reading I was recording on this particular day. It might have been an adaptation of the French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, or it could have been something about Emily Carr. Whatever it was, it involved eight or so actors lined up in a row on stage reading from scripts on music stands. I typically used AKG 414s on the actors, plugged into a snake, fed to a Sony MXP61 mixing console. We recorded straight to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in those days. I had two decks; one master and one backup.
I’ve always hated DATs.
When I first started doing remotes I would only bring as much equipment as I thought I would need. I mistakenly thought that sort of economy constituted good planning. And maybe it would if you were travelling to the North Pole. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was much smarter to bring as much as I could cram into the van. Extras of everything. Two consoles instead of one. Extra microphones, stands, snakes, whatever I could get away with. But sometimes even that wasn’t enough.
There is no air conditioning in the Royal George Theatre, and it was unbelievably hot that day. I wondered if it might be too hot for the DAT decks. I was parked right outside the theatre. I considered moving the DAT machines into the back of the van and turning on the vehicle’s air conditioning. We’d done that once before. But it was getting a little too close to show time, so I left the setup the way it was.
Patrons filed into the theatre. Soon the place was packed. With all those people it got even hotter. The show started. My top deck was a Panasonic. The bottom deck was a Sony. About ten minutes into the show the Panasonic deck stopped recording. No problem. I still had the Sony. I got the Panasonic going again. A few minutes later the Sony froze. Uh oh. What if they both froze at the same time? It went on like this for the entire hour it took to record the reading. First one deck locking up and then the other. I was sweating bullets, but not because of the heat.
Once the recordings were finished I tested playback. The Sony would play back but the recording was spotty. The Panasonic wouldn’t play back at all. This wasn’t good. It was a long drive back to the Broadcast Centre. I had screwed up the entire remote. How would I break the news to the producer, Barbara Worthy? I had never seen Babs angry before. Well, there was always a first time.
Usually, I would head back to the Broadcast Centre, unload all my gear, return the van, and head home on the GO Train. This time I unloaded all my gear as fast as I could and made a beeline for the edit suites. I needed to know if I could get anything off the DAT tapes or if in fact the remote was a complete failure.
The best way to retrieve material from a DAT tape is to play it back from the same machine it was recorded on. I didn’t trust the machines I’d recorded on so I found the same make of machine in two different studios. Playing back the tapes, I saw that some audio had successfully recorded on each tape. But there were gaping holes in both tapes.
I transferred the contents of each DAT tape into ProTools, then lined them up on separate tracks, allowing me to see visually just what was missing from each tape. Although each tape was missing several minutes worth of material, through some miracle each track compensated for the other. Between the two tapes I had an entire show. What a relief! I resolved to bring seventeen spare DAT machines with me to the next remote.
Fortunately, technology was constantly involving, and I didn’t have to rely on DAT tapes much longer.