Tag: Q

Studio Q

Most of my time on the second floor of the Radio Building was spent in Studio Q.

Studio Q was a news studio. We did The World Report, The World This Weekend, The World at Six, and short four and a half minute long newscasts called Hourlies out of there.*

Like every other facility in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Building on Jarvis Street, Studio Q was kind of dusty and dingy. It had an analog console, probably a McCurdy, in the control room. Directly behind the technician were a couple of industrial strength quarter inch Studer A810 tape machines. To cue up tape on these beasts the tech would have to turn completely around. Several news items during the newscast would rely on audio from these tapes, so the tech frequently had his/her back to the console.

This Studer A810 has seen better days

This Studer A810 has seen better days

A news editor functioning as show director would sit beside the technician to the right of the console. A glass window separated the control room from an announce booth big enough to accommodate two news announcers. Hourlies and World Report only had one announcer but a show like The World at Six had two. A small recording room to the right of the control room contained four A810s and a second technician whose job it was to take in audio feeds.

About ten minutes before every newscast, the tech at the console would “line up” with a tech two floors below in Master Control using a dedicated phone line. After checking tone to ensure continuity, the tech in Master would relay the time, counting up a few seconds, to ensure that the clock in Studio Q was correct. Shows switched according to a strict automated schedule in Master Control, meaning that if a tech started the news early, the beginning of the show would be clipped.

Shortly after starting at CBC Radio I found myself observing a particularly chatty technician in Studio Q who forgot to line up one newscast. The phone from Master Control rang: a Master Control technician wondering why the news hadn’t started on time. The tech cursed and leapt into action, hitting the news theme, but it was too late. We already had about a minute of dead air. Afterward the Master Control tech phoned back and asked for the tech’s initials, which would be included on the inevitable fault report. My initials were MO (JM was already taken) and they would wind up on a few fault reports over the years.

There was usually a fair amount of excitement in Studio Q before a major newscast such as The World at Six. Providing the most up-to-date news reports meant that reporters often filed their stories at the last possible instant. As soon as a reporter finished recording a “voicer” an editor would appear and snatch the tape from the tech’s hands to prepare it for broadcast. This meant editing out mistakes and inserting a piece of leader tape—tape upon which it was not possible to record sound—before the actual audio to be played back. This would make it easier for the technician to find the item on the tape and cue it up. Sometimes, if it was seconds before the tape was to air, the recording room technician would simply hand the tape to the tech at the console, who would cue it up as fast as possible before whirling around to stab at the “play” button when the news announcer finished reading the intro.

Studio Q wasn’t my first exposure to radio news. Before joining CBC Radio, I’d spent six years off and on announce/operating in private radio. At my first station, CJRW in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, I worked evenings alone hosting a disc show (country on Friday nights and Top 40 on Saturday nights). During the show I was required to read the news every hour on the hour. Before the news I would put on a long song and then go down the hall to rip the news, sports, and weather off the wire machine. Over the previous hour the news wire machine would have spit out reams and reams of cheap yellow paper. It was my job to scan that (sometimes) thirty-seven foot long piece of paper for the information I was looking for. Fortunately, the news always came in distinctive blocks of print that made it easy to find. I would rip off the sections I required and go back to the studio and read it live.

I never read the copy ahead of time. I was a pretty good sight reader and because I was busy hosting a show all alone I didn’t have the time. Usually this wasn’t a problem, but I did get into trouble twice. Once, glancing up from reading the news, I saw my friend Andrew Fortier (visiting me at the station) making a face at me. I immediately burst into a big belly laugh right in the middle of the newscast. Another time I was reading an item about a contest to come up with a name for a new sports dome in Vancouver. After listing several serious suggestions, I came to the suggestion “the Unknown Dome”, which, coming as it did from out of nowhere, struck me as funny, and once again I dissolved into gales of laughter live on air. I giggled my way through the rest of the news.

A few years later I hosted an overnight show at CFCY/Q-93 in Charlottetown.** There, instead of reading the news myself, I used a news service called CKO. I would open up a line and someone in Halifax or maybe Toronto would read the news for me, after which I would resume my hosting duties live.***

Back to Studio Q.

After my stints in private radio I was rather taken aback by all the effort that went into making news at CBC Radio. I didn’t understand why it was necessary to have two people at the console (one operating, the other directing) while a whole other person—sometimes two—read the news. They made it all seem like such a big deal. There was a real sense of gravity. The work wasn’t actually all that difficult for the tech—the serious atmosphere made it feel harder than it was—but we did create quality newscasts.

Still, mistakes happened:

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In between news casts, when not mixing items and taking in feeds, techs would often create a makeshift tape reclaim around the console. Employing pencils as axles, we’d spin the reels with our fingers and easily spool the tape off. Or we’d take a few minutes to see who could cue up tapes the fastest (an experienced tech could do it in less than eight seconds). Or we’d listen to the yarns of older techs such as Studio Q veteran Fred Park, who once warned a couple of us junior techs about a curious phenomenon that we were bound to experience sooner or later: in the middle of a show we’d push a button or flick a switch and at that exact instant silence would descend—dead air, the arch-nemesis of all makers of radio—and it would seem to us as though we had caused the dead air by pushing that button. But in fact it would have nothing to do with us, and a second or later the show would resume as though nothing had happened, because, in fact, nothing had happened, the silence was just a coincidence, somebody had paused in the middle of a thought, un ange est passé. Fred was right—in the years to come I would experience this all the time, and I would like to say that every time it did I thought of Fred, but I can’t, because, well, I didn’t.

It’s no coincidence that the show q (formerly Q) hosted by Shadrach (Shad) Kabangois (formerly Jian Ghomeshi) is called q. When we were trying to come up with names for that show, one of the suggestions on the whiteboard was Studio Q, from which the final name of the show is obviously derived.

It was, at least in part, a deliberate reference to a certain hallowed news studio back in the Radio Building on Jarvis Street.

* At least, I think we did The World This Weekend out of there. (It was a long time ago.) We did some shows, like Canada at 5, out of Studio T across the hall.

** CBC news correspondent James Murray also worked at both CJRW and CFCY/Q-93. We went to high school together; he was one year ahead of me. There was a sign on one of the doors at CFCY/Q-93 when I worked there: please do not prop this door open with useless objects such as Jim Murray’s head. Jim and I are still pals—at least until he stumbles upon that little bit of trivia on this blog.

*** After completing my degree at Ryerson, I applied for a job at CKO. Someone from CKO phoned me up to offer me an interview. I was in the bathroom at the time. “He’s taking a shit,” one of my roommates told the caller. Despite my idiot roommate’s remark, they eventually offered me a job, but it was only part-time, so I declined. Shortly afterward I got the job at the CBC. A good thing, too—CKO went out of business shortly afterward, in 1989.

Eulogy for a Theme

They changed the Q theme song.

That’s okay, I guess. To all things there is a season.

Still, I will miss it. I was rather fond of it.

I liked it because it was a good piece of music. It got your attention. It had good posts. It finished with a bang. It made for a good bed at the end of the show. You could cut it up into little bits and make short, punchy little themes out of it. It wasn’t just a good theme: it was a good bunch of themes.

It was recorded by Luke Doucet and Chris Murphy (of Sloan) at (almost) the last minute three days before Q first aired. I had no idea they were doing it. I had been badgering the Executive Producer for weeks to come up with a theme package but I didn’t think he was listening. I wasn’t invited to the recording session and was stunned when the raw tracks were handed to me Friday afternoon. I was expected to mix the entire theme package over the weekend for the show’s debut Monday. Except I was working all weekend and didn’t have a chance to get to it until 7pm Sunday night. I was already fried before I even began mixing on ProTools in Studio SFX 3. It took me three hours to mix it. It speaks to how well the song was recorded and conceived that it came together as well as it did. It had little to do with anything I did to it.

In fact, I hadn’t mixed it properly. I had mixed it complete with lead guitars, leaving no room for voice-overs. I flipped MP3 versions to Jian Ghomeshi and the Executive producer before I left Sunday night, and when I came into work the next morning the Exec informed me that I had to remix it, leaving room for Jian’s intro. It was a classic “slap yourself on the forehead” moment. As I’ve written elsewhere, I didn’t think we had time to pull it off before going to air, but the Exec thought we did, and he was right.

I’ve always wondered what Luke Doucet and Chris Murphy thought of the mix. Luke was on the show later when I was still working on Q but I didn’t ask him. Maybe I didn’t really want to know. It doesn’t matter. It seems to have done its job. Long after leaving the show I would hear it on the radio and feel good that my little contribution to popular culture was still being heard. I figured it would last as long as the show lasted. But then… well, let’s not speak of that.

A few months after launching the show I convinced the Exec to spend a bit of money on an additional theme package. I thought it would be a good idea to have more music (based on the original music) to draw from. So we recorded a bunch more music with someone else, someone quite talented and accomplished, and I mixed those as well, but we never did use them. They just didn’t have the same magic. No, Luke and Chris had nailed it right out of the gate, and the truth was we didn’t need anything else.

A lot of people think the original theme sounds a lot like Spanish Bombs by the Clash. They’re right. I don’t know how Luke and Chris wrote the theme, but I strongly suspect Jian played Spanish Bombs for them before they started, because a loop of the opening bars of that song is what we used for a test pilot of Q that never aired:

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I don’t think this fact devalues the theme at all. It’s sufficiently different and let’s face it: all art is created on the shoulders of giants.

Anyway, I’m sorry to see the original theme go. It has taken a small part of me with it. Maybe I’m too sentimental — heck, I’m still mourning the loss of the original As It Happens theme song (Curried Soul by Moe Koffman).

Here’s the original Q Theme song:

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And here’s Luke Doucet himself teaching how to play it:

Nigel Godrich

Nigel Godrich -- Super Producer

Nigel Godrich — Super Producer

I’ll start from the beginning.

The band Travis showed up just before two. We had finished the live broadcast for the day and I was eating my lunch in the studio. We were just going to record the interview and song live to tape to be broadcast the following day. A whole bunch of them came in, I had no idea who was in the band and who wasn’t. I shook a few hands, then allowed them to settle into the booth while I gobbled down the rest of my microwave dinner. Then I went in to help them set up.

They had wanted a couple of vocal microphones and two direct boxes to plug an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar into. (Direct boxes allow you to plug an instrument directly into a console so you don’t have to mike it). I had those all set up and ready to go. Although the entire band had showed up, only two of them were actually going to sing and play, lead singer Fran Healey and bass guitar player Dougie Payne. Fran asked me if I could mike his acoustic guitar instead of using a direct box. I said sure, that I preferred using a microphone, and had just used the direct box because the bands technical specifications had asked for direct boxes. He called out to somebody to change the tech specs.

“I’ll put an SM57 on it,” I said.

SM57 Microphone

SM57 Microphone

He said, “How ‘bout that AKG 414 you’ve got hanging over the piano?” I said sure and set it up.

In the control room I waited for Fran to finish tuning, then attempted to set levels as they rehearsed a song. Too many people were yapping in the control room and I couldn’t hear a damned thing. I told them all politely but firmly to pipe down. Fran was complaining about something. I turned all the mikes off so I could go into the booth and speak to them privately.

“I couldn’t hear anything, I had to tell everyone out there to shut the hell up,” I told them.

AKG 414 Microphone

AKG 414 Microphone

They laughed and said good on ya.

Fran told me he wanted a bit of reverb on himself and a lot on Dougie. Dougie was supposed to sound kind of ghostly. No problem, I told them, but I was thinking: damn it, all I have is a Rev 5, a reverb unit that dates back to the eighties. I can’t stand the sound of the thing and have been complaining about it since day one, but it would have to do.

Yamaha Rev 5 Digital Reverb

Yamaha Rev 5 Digital Reverb

There was something wrong with the sound of Fran’s guitar… it was distorting. I checked all my levels and the trim and couldn’t see why it was distorting. In fact I’ve never had a guitar distort that I can recall. I decided to swap out the 414 microphone on the theory that maybe it was overloading. This happens sometimes on condenser microphones if they’re getting too much acoustic information, they just can’t handle it. It’s called capsule distortion. At least that’s what I call it. But for a guitar to cause capsule distortion is kind of nutty; it usually happens when vocalists (or actors) are really belting it out.

I usually mike guitars for the show with an SM57 and I’ve had good luck with them. We had Brad Deneen on just the other day and somebody wrote in to compliment me on the sound of his guitar, so I thought I would try it. But when I went into the booth to swap out the microphones, unbeknownst to me somebody followed me in. This fellow spotted a Neuman U-87 and suggested that I try it. Fran introduced him as “our producer.”

U-87 Microphone

U-87 Microphone

Now, the fact that he was a producer didn’t impress me much. Most producers I know, while being perfectly acceptable human beings, don’t know much technically. In fact they often have half-baked technical notions. I told this fellow that I didn’t want try the U-87 (even though it is an awesome microphone) because, like the AKG 414, it was a condenser microphone.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

“We might be getting capsule distortion,” I told him, confident that he wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

“On a guitar?” he said.

This had two immediate consequences. First, I realized that this guy might actually know what he was talking about. Second, I instantly felt like an idiot, because the truth is it was highly unlikely that we were getting capsule distortion from a guitar.

“Okay, I’ll try it,” I told him.

He said, “I don’t mean to get in the way.”

I said, “Not a problem, tell me anything you want. I don’t mind, really.” I still had no idea who he was.

“There you go, butting in, making everyone tense,” Fran said.

“No really, I don’t mind, it’s not a problem,” I said. Which is the truth. I don’t get my back up at all when people pipe in. It makes them feel a part of the process and I could potentially learn something. I don’t have much ego invested in engineering. When it comes to recording music I’m just a meatball engineer. I told the guy as much and invited him to stand behind the console and help me with the mix.

Dougie Payne

Dougie Payne

We tried the song again with the U-87. Fran’s guitar was still distorted, damn it. There were other issues as well; my helpful new friend had me tweak all the levels, and he thought Fran’s lead vocal was peaking out of the mix too much. He wanted more compression on it. This was a problem. I didn’t have separate compression on the various vocals. I am aware that ideally you have access to separate compression on everything but I don’t have that many compressors. It’s a radio studio, not a recording studio, and because we usually have to do things fast I try to keep it simple.

So there wasn’t much I could do about Fran’s lead vocal except try to keep the guitar and bass up. Except the guitar was still distorted. I was starting to feel under the gun. We needed to start the interview. My new friend suggested there was a problem with the strip on the console. I agreed and plugged the guitar into a different strip. It corrected the distortion but I was still wasn’t happy with the sound of the U-87 on the guitar. But we were running late and I had to let it go.

I was starting to regret allowing my new friend to help. Although I am no crackerjack music engineer, when I do a mix on the fly I pretty much have to trust my instincts. He was taking the mix in a different direction than I would have and it wasn’t sitting properly. I have no doubt that if he were sitting at the board he could have made it work. But he wasn’t sitting at the board, I was. I had to forego what I would have done and second guess him. Second guessing rarely makes anything better. Plus I was embarrassed about the distorted guitar and the lack of compression, and a tad tense.

Fran Healy

Fran Healy

In his defense, he had apologized for interfering and I had invited him repeatedly to help. And in his mind I was probably butchering his baby.

Finally we decided the sound we had would have to do and began the interview. Fran and Dougie would play the song at the end of the interview. Halfway through the interview, Jian (our host) asked Fran and Dougie why their superstar producer was tagging along. Only then did I realize that this producer fellow helping me might be someone special in the world of rock music.

They played the song and I wasn’t really happy with the sound. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great. I was too embarrassed to even look at the producer. He made a couple of suggestions about levels and I tried to follow them.

“I’m sorry it probably wasn’t as good as you would have liked,” I told him afterward.

He clapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand, and I thought, well at least he’s a decent guy.

Fran and Dougie were decent too… they thanked me sincerely and shook my hand on the way out. I listened to the mix afterward with another engineer and we decided that it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. My Q mates seemed to think it was okay.

Shortly afterward I was standing overlooking the CBC atrium when a friend looked out and said, “Geez, is that Nigel Godrich over there?”

I told him I’d just worked with him and asked him just who the heck this Nigel Godrich fellow was, anyway. And he proceeded to tell me.

And I’m awfully glad I didn’t know ‘til then.

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