I don’t know who this is, but he’s one of us, even if he is (I suspect) wearing a tie
In 1988 there were over eighty radio technicians working for CBC Radio in Toronto. We were not the kind of techs who fixed stuff. That was a different kind of tech. Our job was to record, manipulate and broadcast sound.
We came in all shapes and sizes and two different genders but we were strikingly similar. We dressed casual but not too casual. It was radio; nobody cared what we looked like. At least, not much—there was a guy who wore sweatpants and another guy who wore a tie. They didn’t last long. A couple of the older techs wore blazers and dress pants. They got away with it because they were old. Like, fifty something. I was twenty-something. I wore jeans and shaved every second day.
A tech’s time was not his or her own. Techs lived and died by the schedule. The schedule told us where to go when:
Studio B at 9:00 for Infotape promos. Studio W at 9:30 for a Quirks and Quarks two-way. Studio D at 10:00 to voice track Lister Sinclair for Ideas. Studio L at 11:00 to package Writers & Company. After that, an hour of standby in the lounge.
And so on.
If you wanted a meeting with me, you needed to talk to my scheduler, not me. This wasn’t usually a problem. Techs didn’t go to many meetings.
I picked up my schedule in my mailbox just outside the scheduling office. My mailbox was one of eighty or so other metal mailboxes, many with weird paraphernalia taped to them, like headlines from newspapers such as “Beware of Doug”, and “Mysterious Face Found on Moon” (that one had my face photocopied beneath it). One day we got our schedules in a new format. Days off were indicated by the letters SDO. “What does SDO stand for?” I asked a friend.
“Stupid Day Off,” he told me.
We didn’t have a boss. We had many bosses. We all reported to someone somewhere on paper, but we rarely saw or heard from them. In the studio, everyone was our boss, or thought they were. Everyone from thirty-year veteran producers to associate producers hired six weeks ago. Somebody had to tell you what songs and clips to play, when to fade the music up and down. This was fine at first, but it grew old after a couple of decades.
Most techs played at least one musical instrument. Everything from guitars to pianos to bagpipes to hurdy-gurdys. Maybe because they screened for that in the job interview. “Can you read music?” they asked me. I could—I played piano, baritone, and trombone, skills I used a few times on the job, playing organ for a radio drama and piano for many sound checks.
There were techs we all admired. Impossibly experienced and competent techs. Super techs. Today super tech means something different—supervising technician. Back then it meant just what it sounded like: a super tech. Superman only smarter and maybe not as strong, with laser hearing instead of laser vision. There was even a tech who looked like superman. There were techs rumored to have maintenance backgrounds, who could fix their own gear. Techs who knew how to operate anything from a Shure FP42 to a Neve VR to a McCurdy Turret System. Who knew when to use an AKG 414 and when to switch to a Neumann U-87. Who had four arms for analog mixes and golden ears for concert recordings and the know-how to put together a live pickup of a six-piece band including a full set of drums in Studio R at the last minute. Techs not afraid to share their hard-won knowledge with lesser, mortal technicians like me.
As a tech, if you wanted to, if you were lucky enough and ambitious enough, you could travel from show to show peddling your technical wares, no two days the same, getting to do everything and know everyone. Some days you would be a hero, performing difficult mixes for journalists, trotting out long distance phone codes from memory for panicked associate producers, fixing technical problems at the last possible instant. But the day after that you might be a complete fool, accidentally playing the wrong piece of tape at the wrong time, maybe over a host’s introduction for all the world to hear. On live radio, I felt like a goalie. Nobody noticed when I made the save, but when the puck got past me, everybody heard the puck go in the net.
Sometimes I got blamed when it wasn’t my fault. Many’s the time I heard a host tell the world, “Having some technical problems,” when in fact the problem had nothing to do with me or my equipment.
During my time as a tech we endured one strike and two lockouts. Because we were in a different bargaining unit than everyone else, we endured two of these labour actions alone. While everyone else was inside, we were outside marching around the building or huddled around oil barrels in sub-zero temperatures. Not looking to dredge up the past—it’s water under the bridge. But for anyone who lived through all that, it became a part of our DNA.
It’s worth mentioning that radio techs had better Christmas parties than anyone else, at least at Jarvis street, and that’s probably all I ought to say about that.
The job barely exists now, at least the way I remember it. There are only a handful of radio techs left. Most of the techs I worked with are gone now. Of the ones still around, many have moved onto different positions.
I like to think that a bond remains between those of us who worked as radio techs—an invisible thread of 1/4 inch Ampex tape, maybe. We’re not quite the same as everyone else. Our hearing is notched at 1K, but we still listen better than most. And if you ever need someone to plug in a few cables and adjust some settings here and there, you could do worse than a radio tech.
In nineteen-ninety-two, while on vacation in Halifax, my girlfriend and I went to see a play.
There was a statue above the stage in a little alcove. I assumed it was just a part of the theatre’s decor.
Before the play started, Lynda leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think that statue has anything to do with the play?”
It’s a stone angel, silly
“You mean that stone angel?” I asked, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that of course it did, because the play was an adaptation of Margaret Laurence’sThe Stone Angel.
The play was directed by James Roy, who worked for CBC’s radio drama department back in Toronto. I didn’t know James then, but I knew of him, so when I returned to work I sought him out to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play.
Seven years later James welcomed me into the Radio Drama department, where I had the honour of working with him on many radio plays. Seven years after that I was invited to record a play in Blyth, Huron County, during the Blyth Festival, at which time I learned that not only is James an accomplished director, he was also the founding Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival.
The Blyth Festival is unique. James, along with his co-founders Anne Chislett and Keith Roulson, created a festival dedicated to the production and development of Canadian plays, which was at one time—and perhaps still is—the only five hundred seat theatre in Canada devoted solely to Canadian plays. Not content with merely producing plays, James and his partners also created an Art Gallery, and the whole enterprise is still going strong forty years, ten artistic directors, a choir and an orchestra later.
In the summer of 2006 I drove up to Blyth in a rented car accompanied by sound effects engineer Anton Szabo, who would be doing live effects for the reading we would be recording. That afternoon we sat through a rehearsal of the reading. Actually, I snoozed through the rehearsal in a really comfortable armchair. I was suffering from cat allergies which were waking me up in the middle of the night with the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, a sensation that would linger throughout the day. At the time, I had no idea that it was because of cat allergies, so it had me rather on edge.
Anton and I set up the next morning. AKG 414s on each of the actors and another one for Anton’s sound effects. Anton had a keyboard sampler plugged in for additional effects. I was situated on the stage not far from Anton’s setup, well behind the actors, but visible to the audience. I had two DAT machines but I’d learned my lesson at the Royal George; they were only for backup. My main recording would be done on ProTools on a Mac laptop. I was getting a 60 hertz buzz on one of the lines. Somebody that worked for the theatre lifted the ground on an extension cord. It did the trick.
We recorded one dress rehearsal, and then the actual performance. I don’t remember much about either recording except that they went well.
What I do remember is asparagus.
After the performance, James, Anton, myself and several others went for supper at the Stage Manager’s house. I am doing the Stage Manager a great injustice by not remembering her name. She had a house on a hill outside Blyth. But not just any hill—it was a hill from which you could see for miles and miles. A house from which you could see the sun set, but not set into the rooftops of houses halfway up the sky. Here it set directly into the horizon, painting half the sky wonderful shades of red, one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The Stage Manager had a garden out back in which she grew fresh vegetables, some of which I may have eaten, but all I remember is the asparagus. I’ve had asparagus soup before, and possibly actual asparagus, but I had never eaten fresh asparagus straight from anyone’s garden before.
I was astounded.
Hmm… fresh asparagus!
The asparagus was sublime—the food of, if not all the Gods, then at least those with sense enough to eat vegetables. I couldn’t stop eating it. We ran out. Seconds before I capitulated to symptoms of withdrawal, the Stage Manager went out and picked more, God bless her.
The asparagus wasn’t all that surprised me that night. I found myself enveloped in a wonderful sense of fellowship. It was a privilege to be part of such a company: directors, stage managers, writers, sound effects engineers, producers, and me. Colleagues, but also friends. We had a lovely meal, and a lovely talk. Such a night had snuck up on me unawares. I felt as though I belonged. I felt as though I could breathe. I felt as though I could eat more asparagus.
So I did.
A few weeks later I bought some asparagus at Sobey’s and served it to my family. It was the first time they had ever tried asparagus. It was stringy and tasteless. We all hated it, and have never eaten it since.
Most of the time, CBC Radio shows are broadcast out of special, purpose-built radio studios, all carefully designed, built, and equipped by experienced broadcast engineers. In studios like that all you have to do to get your show on the air is go in, sit down, and turn on a piece of equipment or two.
Other times, studios are built from scratch.
Sometimes this is as simple as a microphone attached to a recording device by an XLR cable, along with a pair of headphones.
Sometimes it’s rather more complicated than that.
When we go offsite and cobble one of these transient radio studios together, whether it’s simple or complicated, we call it a “remote.”
Some remotes are more remote than others. If a remote is just a few blocks away and the tech happens to forget a piece of gear, maybe a microphone stand or a clip, he or she can just dart back to the Broadcast Centre and get it. If a remote is hours away, maybe half-way across the country or in a completely different country, the tech had better have all the right gear.
Some remotes last only an hour or two; others never seem to end. Sometimes a show will broadcast live right from their remote location. Other times they’ll record what they want and edit the content later and broadcast it sometime after that.
My first remote was a music pick-up in the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, not too far away from the Radio Building. Recording Engineer Dave Burnham was recording a choir there to be broadcast later on a show called Listen to the Music. (The Cowboy Junkies had recorded their superlative album The Trinity Session in that same church a few months earlier.) My job was to help Dave, which mainly meant lugging all his equipment. Remotes almost always involved a lot of lugging.
It was a simple enough remote, on the surface of it: recording one small choir. Dave’s setup consisted of a handful of microphones connected to a small console. Still, there were several questions that needed to be answered. Just how exactly to make this choir sound as good as possible? What kind of microphones to use? How many? Where exactly to place them? What kind of outboard gear to use, if any? An experienced high-end recording engineer like Dave had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and employed his own unique strategies. Recording music out in the field was an art, and although I accompanied engineers like Dave out on a few remotes, and did some music recording of my own privately, I never acquired anything resembling the expertise of someone like Dave.
After a couple of years of lugging gear for other techs and learning what I could, I started getting my own remotes. Despite my time observing, I was initially a bit handicapped. Unlike many other techs, I never did a stretch in Radio Technical Stores. Radio Tech Stores was where techs got equipment for their remotes. Working in Stores you assembled equipment for more senior techs and accompanied them on their remotes. If you paid attention, you learned what gear was best and how to make it work.
Motivated by a profound fear of failure, I overcame my handicap by spending time in Stores on my own, hooking up gear and figuring out how to make it do what I needed it to do. Over time my preparation paid off, though the knowledge of gear I acquired didn’t entirely compensate for certain other massive deficiencies, such as an inability to find my way around Toronto.
One of my first solo pickups was for a show on politics called The House. My job was to record the second last Mayor of Scarborough, Joyce Trimmer, on a Nagra in her office for one half of a double-ender. A double-ender consists of an interviewer back in the studio talking to a guest on the phone while somebody like me records the guest out in the field. Afterward, back in the studio, a tech eliminates the poor phone quality recording of the guest, replacing that recording with the high fidelity recording done in the field.
I needed to be at Trimmer’s office by two pm. We only had the studio in the Radio Building booked until two-thirty. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a car and wasn’t used to driving in Toronto. I didn’t know my way around the streets of Scarborough at all. Driving a Stores van, I got hopelessly lost. I couldn’t find Trimmer’s damn office. Somebody had told me it was in the Scarborough Town Centre but I couldn’t even find that. When I finally did, I figured there must be offices in it somewhere. Maybe there is, but if so she wasn’t in any of them. Turned out her office was in a building behind the Scarborough Town Centre. Panting and sweating and lugging my equipment, I got there twenty minutes late. Back in the Radio Building the producer and host must have been freaking out. Trimmer herself was the epitome of graciousness. She offered me a glass of water, which I gratefully accepted, and we managed to get the recording done in the time remaining.
My remote skills (such as they are) really came together while working for the folks at CJBC. CJBC is a part of CBC Radio-Canada. An affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, they broadcast to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860 out of studios on the fifth floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre. I was loaned to them for four and a half years after I took the better part of a year off to live in France. We did a lot of remotes during my time with them.
The first big remote I did for CJBC was for something called a Salon du livres, held in one of the big halls in the Toronto Convention Centre. Basically it was a book fair. We did one of those a year. Because the Salon du livres was a relatively big remote, and because I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I asked for an assistant. I was assigned fellow technician Carlos Van Leeuwen, who happened to be working in Stores at the time.
The remote consisted of a host and three guest positions set up at one table in the middle of the book fair, facing a small audience. The guests and hosts would use headphone microphones. There was a PA (public address system) set up for the benefit of a small audience. During the live show I would sit at a separate table with my mixing console and the producer and associate producer at my side. There would be a talkback set up for the producer and the host to be able to communicate with one another. An ISDN unit would transmit the show to the Broadcast Centre and live to air.
Tech Stores had something called a McCurdy Turret System for exactly this kind of remote. Carlos and I decided to give it a try. Only problem was neither of us had ever used it before, and we had only the barest idea how it worked. There were no instructions and we didn’t have access to anyone else who know how it worked, if such a person existed. The only way to figure it out was to plug it all together in various permutations until it finally worked. I would say that it was a completely unintuitive system except that I know people who used to work for McCurdy and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
For some reason that eludes me now, but that I’m sure made perfect sense at the time, we didn’t start trying to figure it out until the day of the remote. There were moments I didn’t think we’d ever get the bloody thing working. But we did, and I will be eternally grateful to Carlos for his help — without him I’d probably still be staring at it cross-eyed.
Once I understood how the McCurdy Turret System worked I began to use it on all my remotes. One day another tech watched me set it up. The connectivity was so bizarre that he couldn’t believe it worked that way. He insisted that I must be doing it wrong. Happy to entertain better ways of doing it, I challenged him to make it work another way, but he couldn’t.
During that first Salon du livres there were many long moments where nothing worked properly, during which I seriously entertained the notion that we wouldn’t make it to air. There is a moment like that on every remote. It can last seconds or it can last hours, but it’s always there. Sometimes it’s dead simple: you have a microphone set to line instead of mic on the console. Fine. You spot the problem and fix it. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, and you have to troubleshoot your entire setup to find the answer, maybe a bad cable or a faulty mixer, and there are no maintenance techs around to help you (well, sometimes there are, on some big music remotes, but there never was for me). I had a rule of thumb that served me well: it’s never the cable. And it never was. Except for once, when it was.
Sometimes the problem will have nothing to do with your equipment. Once, during a setup for a remote in Welland, I couldn’t establish continuity with Master Control. I wasn’t too concerned; it was an hour before airtime. Forty-five minutes later it still wasn’t working. I was certain the problem wasn’t anything on my end. Nor was the problem in Master Control. Turned out it was in between, with Bell. A Bell tech fixed it ten minutes before air time — someone had patched a cable wrong.
Remotes were usually pretty straightforward once you got everything working. Once I had to deal with a bit of feedback from the PA, and another time a dirty turret developed a bit of a click whenever the host toggled the microphone on or off, but I never had a remote go completely belly-up on me.
I came close, though. The closest was during a remote in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was working for the Radio Drama Department at the time. We did multiple remote pickups every summer at the Shaw Festival for the Bell Canada Reading Series. They were usually a lot of fun. Sometimes another engineer would tag along; sometimes it would just be you and a producer. On this particular day I was flying solo.
Because I had to be there early, I packed up my gear the night before and drove the CBC van home. Proud to work for the CBC, and proud to be seen working for the CBC, I always liked driving a CBC branded van (yes, I’m aware that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). I got up at five in the morning the day of and made the two and a half hour drive from Whitby to the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Someone let me in in the theatre and I set up. I don’t remember what reading I was recording on this particular day. It might have been an adaptation of the French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, or it could have been something about Emily Carr. Whatever it was, it involved eight or so actors lined up in a row on stage reading from scripts on music stands. I typically used AKG 414s on the actors, plugged into a snake, fed to a Sony MXP61 mixing console. We recorded straight to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in those days. I had two decks; one master and one backup.
I’ve always hated DATs.
When I first started doing remotes I would only bring as much equipment as I thought I would need. I mistakenly thought that sort of economy constituted good planning. And maybe it would if you were travelling to the North Pole. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was much smarter to bring as much as I could cram into the van. Extras of everything. Two consoles instead of one. Extra microphones, stands, snakes, whatever I could get away with. But sometimes even that wasn’t enough.
There is no air conditioning in the Royal George Theatre, and it was unbelievably hot that day. I wondered if it might be too hot for the DAT decks. I was parked right outside the theatre. I considered moving the DAT machines into the back of the van and turning on the vehicle’s air conditioning. We’d done that once before. But it was getting a little too close to show time, so I left the setup the way it was.
Patrons filed into the theatre. Soon the place was packed. With all those people it got even hotter. The show started. My top deck was a Panasonic. The bottom deck was a Sony. About ten minutes into the show the Panasonic deck stopped recording. No problem. I still had the Sony. I got the Panasonic going again. A few minutes later the Sony froze. Uh oh. What if they both froze at the same time? It went on like this for the entire hour it took to record the reading. First one deck locking up and then the other. I was sweating bullets, but not because of the heat.
Once the recordings were finished I tested playback. The Sony would play back but the recording was spotty. The Panasonic wouldn’t play back at all. This wasn’t good. It was a long drive back to the Broadcast Centre. I had screwed up the entire remote. How would I break the news to the producer, Barbara Worthy? I had never seen Babs angry before. Well, there was always a first time.
Usually, I would head back to the Broadcast Centre, unload all my gear, return the van, and head home on the GO Train. This time I unloaded all my gear as fast as I could and made a beeline for the edit suites. I needed to know if I could get anything off the DAT tapes or if in fact the remote was a complete failure.
The best way to retrieve material from a DAT tape is to play it back from the same machine it was recorded on. I didn’t trust the machines I’d recorded on so I found the same make of machine in two different studios. Playing back the tapes, I saw that some audio had successfully recorded on each tape. But there were gaping holes in both tapes.
I transferred the contents of each DAT tape into ProTools, then lined them up on separate tracks, allowing me to see visually just what was missing from each tape. Although each tape was missing several minutes worth of material, through some miracle each track compensated for the other. Between the two tapes I had an entire show. What a relief! I resolved to bring seventeen spare DAT machines with me to the next remote.
Fortunately, technology was constantly evolving, and I didn’t have to rely on DAT tapes much longer.