Tag: John McCarthy

Tools of the Trade

I felt as though I had been tailor made for Radio Drama. As though all my experience in radio from the age of sixteen, all the writing I had ever done, my stint in community theatre, my interest in music, all of it had conspired to prepare me for making radio plays. I had even written and produced a radio play before, as a student at Ryerson. Still, I had an awful lot to learn.

John McCarthy set about teaching me.

Up until this point, John had been an enigmatic figure to me, part of what I imagined to be an elite cadre of high-end recording engineers, well beyond anything I could ever aspire to be. Tall, bearded and bespectacled, from a distance he appeared aloof and serious. As I got to know him, I realized that he certainly wasn’t aloof, and although the jobs he occupied demanded a certain degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness—qualities that come naturally to John—you could not have a conversation with him without plenty of laughter.

A certain wizard

A certain wizard

There is something about John that has always put me in mind of a certain wizard. A staff in one hand and a conical hat and he would not be entirely out of place in a Tolkien novel. It is his bearing, his comportment. Like Gandalf, John is a counsellor, an advisor, a mentor. He was responsible for the two most pivotal moments of my career: inviting me into the radio drama department, and ultimately promoting me into management. Although he has never performed any actual magic that I’m aware of, I’m fairly certain he could kick Sauron’s ass.

On my first day in the drama department, John sat me down in a suite called Dialogue Edit and launched a piece of high-end audio editing software called Sonic Solutions. I had used similar software before, two programs in particular: D-Cart, also used by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the time, and Dalet, a version of which we still use today, but Sonic Solutions was considerably more powerful than either of these.

John showed me the basics, and then made a special point of showing me hot-keys—keystroke combinations that I could use instead of a mouse. He told me cautionary tales of people who had relied on “mousing” only to wind up with carpal tunnel syndrome. I heeded his words and learned every possible hot key combination. Not only did this make me a fast editor, I never suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.

John gave me an edit of a radio play to practice on, an adaptation of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I spent several hours replacing the existing sound effects with completely ludicrous ones, turning a serious dramatic work into something completely ridiculous. I was quite proud of the result.

“What have you done to my beautiful radio play?” John exclaimed in mock outrage when I played it back for him.

Once I was up to speed on Sonic Solutions, it was time to tackle the Neve Capricorn console in Studio 212. This was a rather more daunting task.

Recording Engineer Greg DeClute spent a few days teaching the console to me and a handful of my colleagues. On the morning of the first day, Greg challenged us to get tone up on the board. The purpose of tone, you might recall, is to line up audio equipment and establish continuity. Getting tone up on the board is the first thing I always do when confronted with a new console. I had never failed to get tone up on a board before. It’s pretty easy to get tone up on analog consoles.

Naturally, nobody who didn’t already know how to do it could get tone up on the Capricorn. On a digital console like the Capricorn it’s not exactly an intuitive process. After showing us how, Greg told us about a producer who was asked by a writer what would happen if everyone showed up to a recording session except the recording engineer. Would the producer be able to operate the Capricorn and record the show?

“Of course,” the producer told the writer confidently.

The truth is he wouldn’t have stood a chance. With all due respect to the producer in question, without training, he wouldn’t even have been able to get tone up.

I wasn’t sure I was up to the task myself. Did I have the kind of brain capable of adequately understanding something as complicated as a Neve Capricorn in an environment as complex as Studio 212?

This was nineteen ninety-nine, the year before my children were born. After taking Greg’s course, I had the freedom to come in on weekends to experiment. My goal was to make sure that I was able to record from every possible source, play it back through Sonic Solutions, route tracks through the various outboard processing gear, and mix it all using the Capricorn’s automation. This was the bare minimum I needed to know to make a radio play.

During his course, Greg had encouraged us to learn more than the bare minimum. “Be super-users,” he told us. “Seek to understand as much as possible about the gear you’re using. Don’t run to someone else for help every time you run into trouble. Figure it out for yourselves. Be the one that other people run to.”

Those are his exact words.

(No they’re not. It was a long time ago. And Greg doesn’t use words like “seek.” But it was something like that.)

I also needed to master Studio 212 itself. I needed to understand how to accurately translate the written word into sonic reality; how to get the most out of the acoustic spaces available to me. Doing so wasn’t necessarily straightforward.

On a conventional radio show, you position a microphone in front of the host and guests and make sure their levels are good. Sometimes it’s a little more involved, such as when you want to have a band in the studio or someone wants to cook something or practice Tai Chi live on air (I’ve dealt with both). Everything has to sound “on mic” all the time. This is presentational radio, where radio shows present content to listeners in a straightforward, unambiguous manner.

Radio drama, on the other hand, is representational. Much of what goes into a radio play represents something other than what it actually is. The trick is convincing listeners to accept the reality that is being represented. Actors represent characters that they’re not. Sounds represent sounds that they’re not—for instance, squeezing a box of corn starch wrapped in duct tape to represent a character walking on snow.

Few people I know actually think in terms of presentational versus representational radio. It’s not necessary to be conscious of the distinction unless you happen to be mixing the two, in which case you risk confusing your listeners, the way Orson Welles inadvertently did with his live broadcast of The War of the Worlds. When you move into the realm of representational radio it’s usually a good idea to let your listeners know that you’re doing so, though if done responsibly it can be fun to toe the line. The show This is That, currently airing on Radio One and Two, is a good example of this.

The challenge for those working in representational radio is how to make listeners believe that what they’re hearing is what you want them to think they’re hearing. For instance, take the sound of a nobleman getting his head chopped off by a guillotine. How do you create that sound without actually chopping off someone’s head? Even if you did chop off someone’s head (which I would advise against), listeners might not understand what they’re hearing without visual cues to make it clear what’s going on. It might be necessary to produce a sound that conveys the idea of someone getting their head chopped off that sounds even more like someone getting their head chopped off than the sound of someone actually getting their head chopped off, if you catch my drift.

I once recorded a scene from Romeo and Juliet with a novice director. Juliet was supposed to be on the balcony with Romeo on the ground. The director suggested that we place Juliet on a chair to convey that she was higher than Romeo. I explained to the director that height wouldn’t “read” on the radio. Placing Juliet on a chair wouldn’t convey to the listening audience that she was on a balcony. Listeners at home wouldn’t be able to see that she was higher.

What we needed to do was record the scene from Romeo’s point of view, with that actor close to the microphone, and place the actor playing Juliet an appropriate distance away from the microphone. Not so far away that the actor couldn’t be heard, but far enough away to convey the idea that the two characters were a fair distance apart. That Juliet was on a balcony would be clear from the context of the play. We just needed to nudge listeners’ perceptions in that direction. “Theatre of the mind” would do the rest.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is rocket science. But I did need to understand it all before I could get to work.

A Dramatic Turn of Events

In nineteen ninety-six, I auditioned to be in a play called Anybody for Murder for the Milton Players Theatre Group. Hoping for a supporting role, I landed the lead. Not trying to brag here; the director just typecast me as a conniving, murderous bastard.

It was a challenging role. Scads of dialogue on every page, all to be delivered in a pompous British accent. Having been weaned on Monty Python as a kid I didn’t think the accent would be a problem.

I trotted forth my best British accent for the read-through.

Susan Cranford, the director, happened to be from Liverpool (I think). She stopped me after a couple of pages: “Do you think you could do even a tiny bit of a British accent?”

The Milton Players are currently performing out of here, the Milton Centre for the Arts. (When I performed with them it was in a paper bag in the middle of a sceptic tank.)

The Milton Players are currently performing out of here, the Milton Centre for the Arts. (When I performed with them it was in a paper bag in the middle of a sceptic tank.)

Intensive accent training followed. Half the battle, Susan told me, was simply to enunciate every word. She reserved special coaching for words like “water” and “theatre” (“WOO-tah” and “thee-EH-tuh.” Or something like that). Fortunately I didn’t have to ad-lib in a British accent. I just had a select vocabulary that needed to sound British. If I got it wrong, Susan corrected me. I don’t expect I even came close to nailing it, but after one performance, someone told me I sounded like Carey Grant, who was known for his “transatlantic” accent. Not exactly what I’d been going for, but I guess it could have been worse.

Susan’s other wish was that I sport a moustache. I had largely given up on moustaches after an ill-advised attempt to grow one in my late teens, but no sacrifice was too great for my art, so I dutifully grew a prim and proper affair that elicited shudders from my colleagues at CBC.

Performing in Anybody for Murder under Susan’s direction was a great experience (one that deserves its own blog post). I wish I could have participated in more such productions. Still, that single experience was sufficient to have a profound impact on my career at the CBC.

Soon after my moustache had firmly established itself on my upper lip, I ran into CBC Recording Engineer John McCarthy at the St. Andrew Subway station. Although both of us were techs for CBC Radio, we didn’t really know one another. There were about eighty radio technicians working for the CBC at the time, and we didn’t all run in the same circles. John was ten years older than me and a high-end recording engineer working in Radio Drama. I was a Group 4 radio technician doing a stint for the French services. Until this day we’d barely spoken, and had it not been for the moustache, it might have remained that way.

Spotting me on the subway platform, John approached me, peered at the hair on my lip, and said, “What—is—that—THING—underneath your nose?”

Okay, he didn’t say that. But he did make some crack about the moustache.

Slightly embarrassed by it, I said, “It’s for a play I’m in.”

This immediately piqued John’s interest. “You’re into the theatre?”

I confessed that I was.

Unbeknownst to me, John was on the look-out for a new Radio Drama recording engineer. Had it not been for the moustache, I might never have mentioned the play. Had I not mentioned the play, John might never have invited me to join the Radio Drama department, and the rest of my life might have unspooled completely differently.

Though it remained a somewhat circuitous journey.

My friend Greg DeClute was already a recording engineer for Radio Drama, along with John, Janice Bayer, Drago Grandic, John Marynowicz, and sound effects engineers Anton Szabo, Joe Hill, and Matt Wilcott.

I remember Greg DeClute in particular in our early days as radio technicians. Greg was always reading manuals and spending as much time as he could in Studio G. It was clear that he was going places. Janice Bayer, too. Myself, I didn’t particularly aspire to be a high-end engineer. I had other plans. I was going to leave the CBC and become a full time writer or direct films or something. I was never quite clear on exactly how or when this would happen, but I had no doubt that it would happen (it hasn’t happened yet).

Also, I didn’t particularly self-identify as a tech the same way that Greg and Janice did. To me, the gear was a means to an end. True techs, it seemed to me, fawned over gear like lovers. They liked it for its own sake. I wasn’t interested in reading manuals from cover to cover, back then. I just wanted to know as much as I needed to know to make the gear do what I needed it to do.

I would come to change my mind about that.

Shortly after my encounter with John, somebody—I can’t remember who, it might have been Operations Manager Charlie Cheffins—mentioned that drama was looking for someone to replace Janice, who was leaving the CBC. Would I be interested in throwing my hat in the ring?

Surprisingly, looking back at it, I said no.

I wasn’t looking for change right then. I’d just gotten married and didn’t want to have to worry about learning a new job. Radio Drama seemed like a high pressure environment. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of all that. I just wanted to park my brain at the door for a while.

My friend Wayne Richards got the job instead.

(To be clear, he might have gotten it anyway even if I had thrown my hat in the ring.)

Fast forward to nineteen-ninety nine.

I’d had it with CJBC. I had come to regard it as a trap. The work had become quite boring; I couldn’t imagine doing it for the rest of my career. So I approached Charlie Cheffins about a new gig. There were a few possibilities. I could go back to the tech pool. I could join Radio Music as a Music Recording Engineer. Or…

“What about Radio Drama?” Charlie asked me.

“Nah,” I said. “I hear they’re kind of snooty.”

Again, looking back I’m amazed that I said that. I don’t think I actually felt that way for more than the few seconds it took me to say it. I think I was actually afraid that they wouldn’t have me.

But I wasn’t the only one with reservations. Greg DeClute was afraid that I got bored too easily. He knew that I’d recently taken a year off to study French in France and didn’t want to invest a lot of time training me only to have me take off again. There had already been too much turnover in Radio Drama. He wanted someone he could count on to stick around.

But Greg came around, and so did I.

Me in Radio Drama Studio 212

Me in Radio Drama Studio 212

And John hadn’t forgotten our conversation on the subway platform.

One day, while working in studio 522, the phone rang. It was John, asking if I’d be interested in coming to work for the Radio Drama department.

You bet, I told him. And instantly became quite excited at the prospect. I couldn’t wait to start.

A few weeks later I moved to 2F100 with the rest of the Radio Drama Recording and Sound Effects Engineers, and began a career in Radio Drama, that, despite Greg’s concerns, would last until shortly before they shut the place down.

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