Writer, Broadcaster

Tag: Q (Page 1 of 2)

Reflections on The Mermaid’s Tale by Den Valdron

The Mermaid’s Tale
by Den Valdron

This is both a review of Den Valdron’s book The Mermaid’s Tale and a reflection of sorts. Because The Mermaid’s Tale is a thought-provoking book. I mean that literally—it has provoked many thoughts. But before I get into those thoughts, a few disclosures. I share a publisher with Den, Five River’s Publishing, and I’m a tiny bit acquainted with him, virtually at least. We’re both members of SF Canada, Canada’s National Association of SF professionals. And editor Robert Runte edited both our books when he was Senior Editor of Five Rivers. I don’t believe any of those factors has influenced my opinion of The Mermaid’s Tale.

I’ve been curious about this book for a while because there is some buzz about it. People are talking about it, writing about it. I first heard about it the weekend Robert Runte signed me to Five Rivers. He didn’t mention the name of the book, but during our conversations that weekend he mentioned that he’d signed another book that he was quite excited about, that he thought was challenging, and now I’m fairly certain that he was talking about The Mermaid’s Tale.

After The Mermaid’s Tale came out, I read comments by others that suggested this book was a cut above. On Goodreads and in emails. On the SF Canada Listserve over the years I’ve read emails by Den in which he has proven himself to be eminently readable. When Den writes an email on a list-serve you generally read it. He’s thoughtful and considered. Smart. Reflective. Only natural to expect those qualities in a book written by him. So I went into this book with high hopes. I wanted to like it. I wasn’t disappointed.

I have many writer friends. Some are professional, at the top of their game, successful. Others struggling, or just starting out. I have bought books from many of these folks over the years. Some of the books are good, some not my cup of tea. If I don’t like a book, I won’t finish it and I won’t review it. If I like it, I’ll finish it. Usually, I’ll rate it on Goodreads. Sometimes I’ll write a review as well. If I know the writer, I try not to give a book less than a four or five star review. This is because I know how hard it is to write and sell books, and I know that a three star review won’t help sell books. If you’re reading this and thinking, wait, I gave one of Joe’s books a three star rating, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. I want you to be honest. I’m just explaining how I operate, not how you should operate.

Sometimes when I give a book a five star rating it’s not because I think it’s the best book ever written. Sometimes I’m employing other criteria. Maybe I think it’s a five star book for that author, or there’s some other quality about the book that elevates it to five star status. You may not agree with this approach. I don’t care—it’s my approach, refined over time. Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that in this case I’m giving The Mermaid’s Tale five stars because I think it actually deserves five stars. I think it’s a five star book.

A confession based on a fragment of memory. Years ago, when I was working in a certain capacity for CBC Radio, somebody sent me some chapbooks. I think they were about zombies, and I think it was Den who sent them. I might be misremembering. I got sent a lot of books at that time because of the projects and shows I was involved with. I didn’t have time to read all the books I was sent. The CBC gets sent a lot of stuff. When I worked on the show Q we had a table that we called “The Table of Shit.” It wasn’t all shit. It was just stuff we got sent that we set out so that people could pick through it. Eventually a lot of this stuff winds up lining the shelves along the atrium. I hung onto the chapbooks for a while, then, like much of the rest of what I was sent, they made their way to those shelves. I never read the chapbooks. They were snatched up pretty quickly by someone else. I hope they found a good home. Now I wish I’d read them, because if they were in fact from Den, I’m pretty sure they were worth reading.

Even if they weren’t from Den they’re worth mentioning because like I said, if I recall correctly, they were about zombies. The Mermaid’s Tale has nothing to do with zombies, but it’s all part of the same continuum. The Mermaid’s Tale is about orcs and dwarves and goblins and hobgoblins and vampires and giants and trolls. Now, I love science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not generally a snob, but even I, when confronted by books and chapbooks about zombies and the like, become instantly suspicious. I suspect that what is before me is probably not very good. It’s probably poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly edited, shallow. In other words, I’m prejudiced against the subject matter. Whoever wrote those chapbooks about zombies produced them before zombies hit the mainstream. I saw zombies and pretty much dismissed them. A few years later, Walking Dead hit comic book stores and the airwaves and zombies became huge. Mainstream. I saw that stories about zombies could be compelling. Yeah—I wish I still had those chapbooks.

Now here we are with mermaids, orcs, trolls etc. I already knew this wasn’t going to be your usual mermaid, orc, troll story because it’s Den and because of the buzz around the book. This book contains these sorts of fantasy/horror cliché characters, and that might make it sound juvenile, but I assure you it’s not. One of the many strengths of the book is the spin it puts on all of that. These aren’t the mermaids, orcs and trolls we grew up with. They serve a purpose. They have much more depth. We feel for them. Boy do we feel for them.

The book is from a small independent publisher. Like I said earlier, it’s one that I share with Den. A publisher like this can’t afford to publicize its books the way a large publisher can. It’s print-on-demand so individual print copies are a bit more expensive than we’re used to. (I actually bought this book twice: first the inexpensive e-book version, then, because I realized I don’t like reading e-books, the print version. I’m glad I did. The print copy looks and feels great and was a pleasure to read.) Some people might be inclined to look down their noses at independent publishers. I have had people in the industry smile indulgently, somewhat patronizingly when I told them I was published by one. But thank God for the existence of such a publisher, because they find and publish quality books like The Mermaid’s Tale. Look up Five Rivers back catalogue. They have published many fine books by many fine authors. And they must be doing something right because they continue to do so.

You might be asking yourself: who is Den Valdron? This is a bit of a problem for Den and authors like him. When you’re not a name author, few are going out of their way to find books by you. So who is Den? He’s an aboriginal rights lawyer originally from the Maritimes in Canada. A man who’d probably rather spend most of his time writing but can’t because you can’t make a living writing these days, with rare exceptions. So he can’t pump out as much material as required to make an impression. He could be a Stephen King but he’s not as prolific and hasn’t pulled off a Carrie yet. But he might—just give him time.

Den won’t break out with this book, I expect. It’s special, all right, but it’s got a jaw-dropping act of violence near the beginning that I suspect some people won’t be able to get past. I can imagine it would be pretty triggering for some. It reminded me of a scene in one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s books, Lord Foul’s Bane, that I first read when I was about seventeen, and that almost made me stop reading that book, I was so outraged. The scene in Den’s book did not make me stop reading it, but I wondered about it. I wanted to understand its place in the book. It’s not random, it’s not gratuitous, it’s ugly and horrible. It’s integral to the plot, to the characters, to the theme. It would not be the same book without it. It’s referenced later in the book. It speaks directly to the characters’ pain. It’s tragic and awful and something that happens in the real world and therefore merits inclusion. How do we deal with such violence if we simply bury it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and don’t talk about it in our art?

The Mermaid’s Tale deals directly with such violence. This is a story about characters who live in a violent world. It’s a story about the impact of that violence on them. It’s a story about characters who must live with the knowledge that they are reviled by everyone around them. Everyone, even themselves. It’s a story about the corrosive impact of that terrible knowledge upon them. But this isn’t just fantasy; all of that violence and hatred exists in our own world too. This is a reflection of that, and forces us to reflect upon that fact.

I should probably also mention that it’s a murder mystery, but, although important and well executed, and it’s the mystery that provides the scaffolding, that aspect is almost incidental. It’s the story, but not what the story’s actually about. The Mermaid’s Tale is greater than the sum of its parts.

We live in a world saturated with art and entertainment. It’s a golden age for television. A century’s worth of films to choose from. Hundreds of thousands of books published every single year. Much of this art and entertainment is very good, some of it sublime, created by gifted people know what they’re doing. We can’t possibly sample even a fraction of it. Like the unnamed protagonist in The Mermaid’s Tale who doesn’t stand much of a chance in her world, a violent book about an orc by an unknown author from a small publisher may not stand much a chance in this world.

And that’s a shame, because a book of this calibre deserves to be much more widely read.

Studio Q

One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

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:

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 two 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.

It’s no coincidence that the show q (formerly Q), hosted by Tom Powers (formerly by Shadrach (Shad) Kabangois, and before that, 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:

Spanish Bombs loop (The Clash)

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:

Original Q Theme

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

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth? Not So Much

Q

Having once worked on the CBC Radio show Q with Jian Ghomeshi I have been following the events of the past couple of weeks with a great deal of (morbid) curiosity. I feel terrible for the women involved. I also feel awful for the staff of Q, as well as for the CBC itself. I haven’t felt comfortable commenting on the affair much publicly because I still work for the CBC and I wouldn’t want anything I say to be misconstrued as anything resembling an official position; everything I write here is strictly my own opinion.

That being said, I would like to comment on one aspect of the story that I haven’t seen remarked upon anywhere else. I will not be talking about the specific allegations against Ghomeshi, which are overwhelming and in any case will ultimately be decided in a court of law. I’ll be talking about peripheral elements of that story that have got me thinking about the reliability of what we read and hear in the media.

During the last couple of weeks I’ve read most of the articles published about the Ghomeshi affair. Usually when I read news articles I’m reading about stories I don’t have anything to do with personally. I don’t know the people involved or much about the subject matter. I’m at the mercy of the journalist publishing the piece. I have to take their word for it that what they’re publishing is true. Maybe some sources are named that lend the article extra credibility. Maybe the newspaper has a sterling reputation, and readers are inclined to think heck, this is in the Globe and Mail. Therefore, it must be true. As such, my default has been to believe what I read in the newspapers.

This despite my father’s advice when I was a kid that I should believe nothing of what I hear and only half of what I see. I’ve always thought that was a pretty good rule-of-thumb (not that I’ve been able to stick to it). A few years ago when a friend told me one story about Jian Ghomeshi’s despicable behaviour toward women (the now infamous “hate *uck” incident) I was appalled but not inclined to take it at face value. It was a rumour. Hearsay. Having worked with Jian, I did not want to believe that he was that sort of person. My eight month working relationship with Jian had been punctuated by two episodes that could be called confrontations (and several positive interactions, I am compelled in the interest of truth and balance to add) but overall our relationship had been fairly neutral. I decided that there was probably something to my friend’s story—where there’s smoke there’s fire—but beyond that I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think it really mattered because by this time I was in a different role and didn’t have anything to do with Jian anymore, other than saying hi to him in an elevator now and then.

Two weeks ago the big story about Ghomeshi broke and suddenly the newspapers were filled with articles about people I knew. Not only that, every now and then they would refer to events I was a part of. It was fascinating to read those bits, and on one particular occasion I was reminded of my father’s advice: believe only half of what you see.

There was an article on Friday October 31st in the Globe and Mail written by James Bradshaw and Greg McArther. The article is called The Story of Q. That in itself is interesting because it’s the title of a speech I gave to Ryerson Radio and Television Arts audio students in 2008 about the creation of the show Q. I published the speech on my blog shortly afterward, where it’s still visible (I’m not suggesting the Globe got the title of their article from my blog post; I just thought it was interesting).

In the article, the authors state the following:

“When Q launched as the new afternoon arts program in the spring of 2007, it had a core group of young and ambitious producers, almost all of them in their 20s and 30s.”

Nine of us created Q. I don’t know everyone’s exact age, but I do know that at least two, and possibly as many as four, were in their forties. Jian himself turned forty within months of our debut, in June 2007, so that’s three (and possibly five) of the creators in their forties by June, and of those in their thirties, only one was in his early thirties. So I’m not really sure that you can accurately report that “almost all of them were in their 20s and 30s.” At best it leaves an inaccurate impression, and at worst it’s factually wrong. (I readily admit that we were all ambitious and at the very least felt young.)

The authors go on to say:

“Mr. Ghomeshi had a very specific idea of what Q was going to be, and it was not typical CBC. The aim was to land big-name guests, and not to adhere to the usual CBC mandate: promoting Canadian content coast-to-coast.”

I would suggest that this is also misleading. Although these two sentences don’t state it explicitly, they suggest that Ghomeshi’s ideas took precedence over the ideas of the rest of the producers present, and this was simply not the case. We all had equal input into the conception of the show. I can’t comment on what the show evolved into, because I wasn’t there later on, but in the beginning we all contributed equally, and if we all thought an idea had merit, we adopted it for Q.

It also suggests that Ghomeshi came into the planning sessions with preconceived ideas about the nature of Q, and maybe he did, but I don’t remember him imposing his ideas on any of us in any untoward way. The planning sessions were expertly facilitated and in the very beginning we were remarkably cohesive in our thinking about what the show should be. Really all any of us knew as we started discussing it was that the show was going to be an arts and culture show with Jian as the host. Everything else was up for debate. We even debated what arts and culture meant (e.g., did culture include sports, and if so, under what circumstance?) We did agree early on that landing big-name guests was a good idea, but not to the exclusion of Canadian content. We didn’t care what nationality the big name guest might be: Canadian, American, Martian, whatever. The point was that the show itself was by its very nature Canadian (i.e., we were Canadian, operating out of the CBC) and the content we would produce would be for Canadians (and whoever else chose to consume it).

More from the same article:

“A couple of veteran producers who objected ran up against Mr. Ghomeshi’s star power; they were weeded out. The five that stuck around…”

Etc Etc.

People left, but were they weeded out? I don’t know. Conversations perhaps happened that I wasn’t a part of. Certainly there was a bit of musical chairs but you get that everywhere. The line that really got me was, “The five that stuck around…”

I had to stop and think when I read that. There were two producers that left before we even started to create the show but I don’t think they were weeded out; I’m pretty sure they left of their own accord. And only one of them could have been considered a veteran producer. Ultimately nine of us remained to create Q, one of which was Jian, so that leaves eight, not five.

Maybe the authors were talking about after the show had been created. After the show debuted one producer left for a job in print. After a while the executive producer left as well, leaving… six, not five. Maybe I wasn’t counted because I left myself after eight months, but it certainly wasn’t because I was weeded out. I left due to a promotion; it had nothing to do with any tension with Ghomeshi.

I’m making mountains out of molehills here. The distinctions I’m pointing out are pretty minor, significant to nobody other than me, probably. Still, they have changed the way that I will consume news in the future. Especially when viewed in conjunction with other articles (and recently published books) about the CBC that contain, at least to these eyes, additional (and arguably more important) factual errors or at best misapprehensions about the internal goings on at the CBC. I’m referring to another article in the Globe and Mail that I just cannot take at face value, one published Friday October 10th by David Shoalts called Hockey Night in Canada: How CBC Lost it All, and yet another one in the Globe by Patrick Lagacè published Thursday Nov 6 called “Enabler to a Media Hatchet Job.”

Read all this stuff with a major grain of salt, folks. Unless you were actually there, participating in these events, you do not, cannot, know the whole truth.

Nigel Godrich

Nigel Godrich -- Super Producer
Nigel Godrich — Super Producer

One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

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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