Tag: Neve Capricorn

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.

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.

© 2017

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑