Tag: Acoustic Chamber

Ten Most Influential People Who Never Lived

So there’s this book called  The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived.

Who are the ten most influential people who never lived in your opinion?

Here’s mine:

1. Captain James Tiberius Kirk

Not to be confused with the man who played him.  My childhood was suffused with Kirk and Star Trek, well before the Star Trek phenomenon took over the world (to my eternal dismay).

Kirk was a hero, a leader of men and women, and a champion of limitless human potential.  My first real introduction to Star Trek was through books, not television.  Science fiction writer James Blish turned each episode into a short story in a series of books in the seventies.  I devoured them. I still own every one.  And one cannot talk of Captain Kirk in the context of inspirational imaginary characters without pointing out that Kirk himself was allegedly inspired by yet another imaginary character: Horatio Hornblower.

2. Johnny Sokko

My favourite TV show when I was six

I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island.  When I was six years old we had access to all of three television channels.  Saturday mornings at eight one of those channels played a show called “Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot,” about a boy who discovers a wristband that allows him to control a giant robot with which to fight evil.  Can you imagine?  Your very own giant robot with which to fight evil!  I can honestly say that were it not for this show I would never have been inspired later in life to build my own giant robot with which to, um, fight evil and, ah… never mind.

3. Hawkeye Pierce

“Let’s go join the nurses,” suggests MASH surgeon Trapper John to fellow surgeon Hawkeye, who  replies: “Yeah… make them into one big nurse.”

No one ever laughed at Hawkeye’s jokes, but that didn’t stop him from cracking them.  Humour allowed Hawkeye to cope amid the insanity of war.  He got away with a lot because he was the best at what he did, and he had the coolest nickname on this list.

4. The Man With No Name

Clint Eastwood’s cooler than thou cowboy in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western trilogy may in fact have had a name: an undertaker in a Fistful of Dollars calls him Joe, and he is referred to in the credits by that name.  It has been suggested that the appeal of The Man With No Name is that he can do things that none of the rest of us can.  I know I certainly wouldn’t mind a piece of the poise that “Joe” exhibits on screen .  (Although as cool as The Man With No Name is in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, it’s really Eli Wallach’s character Tuco who steals the show.)

5. Merlin

Merlin advised Kings, shaping world events from the shadows.  Though he appeared to age normally, he experienced life backwards, from death to birth instead of the other way around (try wrapping your head around that one).  My knowledge of Merlin is mostly gleaned from the novels of Mary Stewart and T.H. White, as well as the brilliant portrayal of Merlin by actor Nicol Williamson in John Boorman’s superlative film Excalibur.

6. Bugs Bunny

Rivaled only by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name for sheer, unadulterated cool, but arguably more human, and infinitely funnier.  To an adversary who happens to be a bull: “What a nin-cow-poop!  What a gulli-bull!”  But the real appeal of Bugs Bunny to me is the meta-cartooning genius so often displayed by his creators: Bugs Bunny as cartoonist/God messing with a thoroughly irritated Daffy Duck, just to cite one classic example.

7. Gully Foyle

In Alfred Bester’s seminal science fiction classic The Stars My Destination (or perhaps more properly Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, the original title of the novel) Gully Foyle illustrates the heights any of us might achieve if only we were properly motivated.  There’s a lot of great science fiction being written today, but damn I miss the sheer frenetic vitality of books like this.

8. Hobbes

The tiger, not the philosopher. Hobbes is Calvin’s best friend, there when Calvin needs him and more than willing to go along with Calvin’s every crazy scheme.  Who doesn’t need a Hobbes in their life?  Words fail me.

A certain wizard

9. Gandalf

I hung on just about every word in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring’s chiefly to find out more about Gandalf.  Who was he, really?  What was he?  Where did he come from?  We never really find out, though I suppose there might have been more information on him in the Silmarillion… alas, I never could wade my way through that one.

10. Hoopoe

In my teens and twenties I read just about everything written by James Michener.  His book The Drifters inspired me to spend the better part of a year in France and Europe.  Another book of Michener’s, The Source, prompted me to question my every assumption concerning religion.  And in that book it was The Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird, the story of Hoopoe, the ancient Israeli engineer who so resembled the Hoopoe Bird , that touched me the most.

Requiem for a Studio

212 -- Studio Floor

Me on studio floor of 212

One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

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.

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