One evening in the spring of 1992 I was asked to work some overtime in Studio K.
It turned out to be a two hour booking packaging a disc show called My Kinda Jazz, hosted by Canadian Jazz, Blues and Rock musician Jeff Healey. Healey played antiquated jazz on the show, dating back well into the forties and earlier.
When Healey got to the studio’s booth, the producer, whose name was David, informed him of my presence in the control room, and Healey greeted me over the talkback. I thought this was a friendly thing for him to do, as it wasn’t unheard of for the talent to completely ignore us technical types until it became absolutely necessary to acknowledge our presence.
I said hi back, and Healey remarked that he couldn’t hear me very well over the talkback. This didn’t really matter as in all likelihood I wouldn’t be talking to him during the show, but I decided to look into it anyway. I went to the booth and pointed out a certain knob that I suspected might have control over the talkback volume. Healey had his hand partially over the knob in question so that I couldn’t turn it up myself, and as he was blind, I was pretty sure that he didn’t know which knob I was talking about.
So I did a sort of stupid thing, I said, “It’s the one just to the right of your hand”, and then reached out and touched the knob, also brushing his hand slightly to let him know the position of the control I was talking about. I think it annoyed him greatly. I guess I was acknowledging his handicap and underestimating him.
He said, “No, that doesn’t have anything to do with it, that’s the monitor control.”
I suppose I had a thing or two to learn about dealing with blind people, not to mention studio booth controls.
Finally I just adjusted his mic and, with my tail between my legs, returned to the control room. (I found out later that you couldn’t adjust the level of the talkback in that studio, it was pre-set.)
If Healey really was annoyed with me it didn’t last long. There was a bit of friendly banter before we started the show. The packaging went well, it was a straightforward sort of affair, chatter, song, chatter, song, with all the songs pre-recorded by Healey one right after the other on a DAT. Made my job easy.
It just so happened that it was March 25th, 1992, Healey’s twenty-sixth birthday.
Healey was quite knowledgeable about his subject matter. I couldn’t tell how much he was reeling off the top of his head or how much he derived from his notes (all in braille). All the tunes were from old 78’s, his own; apparently he had a collection of about 6000 or so.
We played a song from Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, one of four versions the Duke recorded of this particular song, called The Mooche. There was a muted trumpet solo in the song, and Jeff remarked in his intro that the trumpet player used a plunger for a mute. I asked David if Healey was joking and he assured me that he wasn’t. During the song David asked Jeff over the talkback if the plunger was a used plunger. Jeff laughed and remarked that if it was, it was probably a “shitty plunger.”
He sat with his eyes closed the entire booking, rocking a bit to the music, and when he left he didn’t say goodbye, and David left as well to hail a cab for him.
In 2006 I recorded several instances of a show called The National Playlist. The show was essentially a competition between a bunch of famous guests to choose ten songs for “the national playlist.” Compared to much of the stuff I did it was an extremely easy gig, and I enjoyed listening to the tunes and the opinions of the guests.
One day one of the guests happened to be Ra (pronounced “Ray”) McGuire of Trooper. This is the man who wrote “We’re Here For a Good Time”, “Raise a Little Hell”, and “The Boys in the Bright White Sportscar,” to name just a few of his hits. Unfortunately Ra was in Vancouver so I didn’t get to meet him in person. We were communicating with him via something called a “Switched 56,” which was basically a high falutin’ telephone line. He was in a studio that was successfully sending his voice to us, and he could hear all of us in Toronto in his headphones, but he couldn’t hear himself in his headphones, which was odd.
One of the producers of the show phoned Vancouver master control to try figure out what the problem was, and this person reported back to me that, according to the technician in Vancouver, I would have to send Ra’s voice back to himself to make it possible for Ra to hear himself. I was highly sceptical of this, because doing so would result in an extremely distracting echo for Ra. It would be difficult for Ra to do the show with such an echo in his ears. So I phoned Vancouver Master Control myself to ask what they were smoking.
The tech there said that yeah, he knew it would result in an echo, but the Vancouver studio was wired in such a way that the only way Ra would be able to hear himself in his headphones would be if I sent him back to himself. This was a real head scratcher. Why would anybody build a studio that way? I expect there was more to the story but I don’t suppose I will ever know. Embarrassed that there seemed to be no way around this problem, I broke the news to Ra. He took it like the pro that he was.
Ra seemed like a decent fellow. During the show he came off as intelligent and well-informed. In fact, he seemed like such a nice guy that I did something I usually don’t. When the opportunity presented itself, I separated him from the mix and spoke to him down the line. I just wanted to thank him for the music. In my entire career I’ve only ever done this twice.
He thanked me for complimenting his music, and then I asked him if there was a story behind his classic song, “We’re Here For a Good Time, Not a Long Time,” which is one of my all-time favourite songs. It accompanied me when I lived in France in ‘93 and is inextricably interwoven with my memories of Aix-en-Provence.
“Absolutely there is,” he said, and told me that he was feeling quite stressed about coming up with new material for Trooper’s third album. His driver (I’m pretty sure he said it was his driver) could see that he was worked up and asked him why. When Ra told him why, his driver/friend told him that he should probably just relax, and then uttered the immortal words: “We’re here for a good time, not a long time.”
Which, happily for Ra and the rest of us, resulted in a fantastic tune, and I appreciated hearing the story behind the song from the man himself, Ra McGuire.
Ra was just one of many “sort of” famous people I met while working for CBC Radio as a tech. Sometimes the people I met were, like Ra, just a little bit famous. Niche famous. Although I’m pretty sure most people in Canada have heard Ra McGuire’s music, probably most wouldn’t recognize him on the street or even know his name. I’ve met plenty of others in this category, musicians and politicians and authors and filmmakers and so on. And a few rather more famous—we had all sorts through the door when I worked on the show Q, for example.
Most of the time I would pretend that I didn’t know who these people were. I found it easier to deal with them that way. I found it levelled the playing field. Still, meeting certain people was sometimes undeniably neat. I could pretend that Eric Idle was an ordinary human being just like me (and he is, of course) but my God, it’s Eric Idle of Monty Python, and he just said my name on the air! When Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford of Genesis showed up one day I couldn’t help but tell them how much I loved their work (I remember them nodding at me and saying, “Thanks! Means a lot,” and I think they actually meant it, dammit.)
A weird thing about having famous people come through the door was that I didn’t really feel like I could talk about it afterward. Nobody likes name dropping (like I’m doing right now). After recording him on Q I’d have a great chat with David Cronenberg about martial arts and afterward I’d think, “hey, that was pretty cool,” and I’d want to tell people about it but I couldn’t really because it never felt right. Chatting with the likes of David Cronenberg was just a fact of my life at the time but I was pretty sure that people would think I was bringing it up just to impress them. So I would settle for savouring the experience silently. Even mentioning it here feels problematic, like broaching this entire topic was simply a sly (and ridiculously transparent) means of name dropping, akin to humble bragging.
My wife, for example, would never fail to be singularly unimpressed when I told her about some famous person I’d met that day.
“Who?” she’d ask, not necessarily because she didn’t know who they were, but because she just didn’t care. Whoever they were put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us, and if I really wanted to proceed with whatever story I was about to trot forth it had better be about more than just who this person happened to be.
Which is why I think I’ll leave my Joni Mitchell story for another time.
I’ve rummaging through old folders on my laptop and unearthing all sorts of interesting artifacts, including these meeting minutes that someone who shall remain nameless wrote, possibly while inebriated (I’ve changed pertinent details and all the names)
If you’re a Production Hardware user and your livelihood depends on Production Hardware, you should (expletive deleted) well read this.
The long awaited meeting commenced at about ten-fifteen after all the usual suspects were hauled kicking and screaming from their morning double decafs and chocolate croissants.
In attendance, looking splendiferous one and all, except perhaps a shade grumpy here and there: Fred Flintstone, Wilma Flintstone, Ned Slate, bespectacled Don Knotts (elegant in summery pastels and sneakers), Tim Conway, denim clad Betty Rubble, Marilyn Monroe, Carol Burnett, the ever ebullient Doris Day, and myself, Jim, taking a few little notes here and there.
Fred Flintstone, who chaired the meeting (charmingly, I might add) opened with the startling observation that there are certain problems with the production systems that must, I repeat must, be rectified.
First on the agenda was Production Hardware. I shall elaborate:
Don Knotts spoke eloquently of the existence of four Production stations, plus Fred Flintstone’s. The latter is apparently “obsolete,” while three out of the other four have Version 6.
In Studio C two of the systems can work with SCSI, but only one with Firewire, because some intrepid soul has busted the Firewire on the other one. How they busted it is a matter of some debate, but likely it involved poor vision, questionable motor skills, and a reckless disregard for exactly how to plug things in. This unit will be kept in service despite the busted Firewire because hey, the SCSI drive still works fine for the two and a half people still using SCSI
To rectify the problem of people breaking or losing cables, we are confiscating all cables and will install them permanently on each system so you only need to carry your drive around with you. So there. This includes both power and Firewire cables and will be done pronto and, according to Tim will include studio B.
As a result of this initiative, Tim will no longer be able to mock the amusing manner in which Don plugs things in
Fred in his fatherly manner issued the following caution: ALWAYS take your drive out of the computer when you’re done, and NEVER fire the computer up with someone else’s drive plugged in. If you want to know why, never mind, just do it, dammit
Producers were warned that they must initialize (erase) their drives on a regular basis (once every six months) or suffer the consequences; namely, their overloaded drives would begin to malfunction and/or call the producers names, in which case we recommend both erasing the drives and booking stress leave – don’t laugh, it happened once in Windsor.
You should consider backing up your material regularly, to CD or DVD, in the event that you should lose your drive or break it
You should not lose your drive or break it
Briefly, we discussed the issue of plug-ins. Currently, Jim and Ralph are researching the issue and will report back in a few years.
In the meantime, producers are not encouraged to use plug-ins because plug-ins are only for people who have had considerable book learnin’ on the subject
Uniforms will not be required
Unicorns will not be permitted to use Production Systems
We attempted (being serious now) to decide upon a “neutral” state in which to leave systems at the end of each session
Users MUST return systems to this neutral state
Leave all cabling the way you found it
Leave all patching the way you found it
The Hard Drives of each system are divided into four count’em four volumes, the folders of which you can clearly see on the screens if you squint hard enough.
Mac OSX HD is the brains of the computer. Do not touch this folder. Don’t load anything into this folder. Don’t even look at it for more than a second or two if you can help it. You never know what might leap out at you
Jim and Tim are only too happy to help with whatever problems you have. Especially if they’re Production Hardware problems. Call them. Don’t forget to say “please”
Fred Flintstone volunteered the information that Studio F has a D-Cart system as well as two production systems with Firewires and that with three people working in there it was ridiculous – if things get busier, this could become a problem
Betty volunteered to “ponder” this information
Arnold further volunteered the information that studio B “sucks”
Betty volunteered to “ponder” this information too
Fred expressed the opinion that these notes (the very ones you are currently perusing) should somehow be helpful
Jim expressed considerable skepticism at this notion
Some people have (gasp) zero training
Betty suggested that in situ tutorials might help (I’m just guessing at the spelling of “in situ” – Betty and her fancy French!)
Th-th-th-that’s all, Folks!
You’ve come to the end. If you’re still reading, phone 5555 and utter the code word “Rosebud.” No, really.
I had submitted the files to my publisher, who had forwarded them to Audible (ACX), only to have them rejected because they were less than 192 kbps. This didn’t make any sense to me as I was sure that I’d exported them from Audacity properly. When I checked the files out, though, I discovered that I’d actually accidentally exported a couple of files at 32 bit sample rate. It’s weird this only happened to a couple of files; why would the settings change for just a couple of files?
Anyway, I figured this was the problem, so I corrected those files and resubmitted them.
Audible still rejected the files.
So I went back and had another look. I thought I had the settings in Audible correct, but my mistake (well, one of my mistakes) was that I hadn’t actually checked the files themselves. This was really sloppy on my part. The reason I hadn’t checked the files themselves was because, well, I had checked the files, but I’d done so on a Mac, which doesn’t tell you the bit rate. It tells you a lot of other stuff, but not the bit rate, unless you jump through a few hoops, which I hadn’t done. I’d simply assumed that Audacity was doing what it said it was doing:
It says it’s exporting 220-280 kbps. So isn’t it? Nope!
Turns out I should have selected “Constant” Bit Rate Mode, which would have resulted in a guaranteed Bit Rate of 192 kbps.
Live and learn.
Because of this mistake, I had to re-export all my files at the correct bit rate of 192 kbps.
This meant finding the original sessions of each chapter. Doing so, I discovered another bit of sloppiness on my part: poor file management. I’d carefully saved each session using a specific naming convention, but I hadn’t paid much attention to where I saved the files, other than ensuring they were saved on a hard drive somewhere in, say, my house.
Well, at least I knew all the sessions were saved on a hard drive attached to my MacBook Pro. Fortunately, my searches usually managed to locate the required sessions. Unfortunately, they didn’t always do so. I could not find the final sessions for about four chapters. The good news was that I was able to find and re-open at least the penultimate session for each chapter. This resulted in a bit more work than I would have liked. And I became paranoid that I wasn’t re-exporting the absolute final version of each chapter. Because of this paranoia, I decided I needed to re-listen to every second of every chapter to ensure that they were in fact the absolute final, pristine product.
This cut into the writing time of my second novel, which I usually worked on during my commute, and so was a bit of a drag, but it had to be done. Fortunately, I was able to download the files from Dropbox onto my Smartphone, which meant that I could listen just about anywhere I went. Unfortunately, this usually wound up being in rather noisy environments, which meant that I could confirm the proper pacing of the sound files, and that there were no missed edits, and what the chapters would sound like in the real world, but I couldn’t really tell if there were any little clicks or pops or mouth noise etc.
So I listened to all twenty-seven chapters this way, and during the course of this exercise discovered several chapters that weren’t quite up to snuff. In the case of some chapters, it was because I hadn’t been able to find and export the absolute final version, but in the case of other chapters it was because the absolute final versions themselves just weren’t quite up to snuff.
By “up to snuff” I mean mostly that the pacing was off. The way I had read and edited them had resulted in readings that were way too fast. My brain couldn’t keep up listening to them. They threatened to ruin the entire product. Even if listeners couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong, what was irritating about the product, I was pretty sure that it would still bother them. All of these chapters needed to be re-edited. There were a few other minor issues too that I took the opportunity to correct, mostly sloppy enunciation, and some minor issues with the levels.
If I hadn’t exported the files at the wrong bit rate to begin with, I probably wouldn’t have discovered these other issues until it was too late, so I was glad about that.
Looking back, the single biggest hurdles I encountered during the production of this audiobook was the fact that I performed it myself, and did the whole thing all alone. There was nobody to tell me I was reading too fast, and I was too close to the product to realize myself where I was going wrong. I didn’t actually even clue in that there was a problem until after I’d finished recording the entire novel and completed the initial edit of the first chapter. Listening back to that initial edit, I was horrified at the pace of my read. So I re-edited the entire chapter and it was STILL too fast. It wasn’t actually until a few weeks went by and I listened to the chapter again with completely fresh ears that I was able to tell what the proper pace should be. So I edited it AGAIN and finally got it in the ballpark (I hope!).
I made the same mistake with several other chapters, thinking as I was going along that I was getting the pacing right, but again I didn’t have sufficient distance to be able to tell for sure. It was several chapters before I acquired enough experience to know to insert far more space than I thought I needed. Doing so made it far easier on subsequent passes to edit the material correctly, tightening it up a bit.
Had I been a seasoned performer, I would have been able to get the pacing right in the performance, which would have resulted in one heck of a lot less editing.
At least one chapter (Chapter Four) was so bad that I was forced to re-record the entire chapter. But by then I had a much better idea what I was doing, resulting in a performance that was much closer to the mark, and that required only a light edit.
Bottom line: it’s mostly about the performance. If you get the performance right, post-production becomes infinitely easier.
I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t read and record their own novels. But I am saying that if you do, have a second set of ears present—preferably, somebody who knows what they’re doing—so that they can set you straight during the recording, which will result in a whole lot less post-production time.
If you can’t have someone else present, maybe just do one section or chapter at a time. This should reduce the learning curve, and maybe by the end of the book your performance which be much closer to what it needs to be.
Still, despite having created a whole lot extra work for myself on this audiobook production, I’m fairly happy with the final product. I did not release it into the wild until I was satisfied with it. I’m also really happy to have this one under my belt. With what I know now, if I ever have to do this again, it should (theoretically!) go one heck of a lot faster.