An Excerpt from Something Technical: A Memoir
One day in 2005, after grabbing a coffee at Ooh La La’s, I stepped into the CBC atrium where I was hailed by Tom Anniko, then Executive Producer of CBC Radio Comedy. He was sitting at a table with a lanky young man of about thirty. Tom introduced him as Matt Watts, the writer and star of the next radio play I’d be recording. Matt’s claim to fame at that time was as one of the creators of the (soon to be) Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone and one of the stars of the second and third season of Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom.
The radio play turned out to be Steve the First. It was about a laconic young anti-hero named Steve who has an accident and wakes up many years in the future to find himself in the middle of an apocalypse where everybody’s suffering from a disease that makes them “melt” over time. People in the grip of the disease are called “melties.” It’s up to Steve to save the day, except that he has little interest in doing so. Matt is a brilliant comedy writer and Steve the First was a funny show. A science fiction comedy, it was right up my alley.
Matt and I hit it off. I told him about my attempt to make a science fiction radio series and gave him a copy of my show Faster Than Light to listen to. In an unusual move, rather than ask me to mix Steve the First after we recorded it, Tom Anniko brought it to his base of operations in Winnipeg and asked a talented music recording engineer to mix the show. This fellow was a well regarded recording engineer but he specialized in recording and mixing music, not radio plays. Matt Watts was not pleased with the results. He’d listened to my mix of Faster Than Light (which, you might recall, contained two radio plays, Captain’s Away and The Cold Equations) and approached me about remixing Steve the First. I listened to the Winnipeg recording engineer’s mix of Steve the First and had to agree: it wasn’t quite up to snuff. Several of the sound effects just didn’t work and the dialogue was too far back in the mix, among other issues. Matt was quite upset. Would I remix it?
I really wanted to remix it because I was certain I could make it much better, but I didn’t want to disrespect the work of the other recording engineer, who I’d met a year or so earlier and liked. Matt and I went to Tom and asked him what he thought. Tom agreed to allow me to create an alternate mix. But first I felt I had to talk to the other recording engineer. I went into the conversation thinking it would be a delicate discussion but I needn’t have worried. He wasn’t precious about his work, readily admitting that he was first and foremost a music recording engineer.
So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, replacing sound effects, bringing the dialogue forward, and taking what I’ve always thought of as a “leave no stone unturned” approach to mixing radio plays. I’d learned a lot mixing Faster Than Light and every other radio play I’d mixed in the five years since I’d joined the radio drama department. I was mixing within a smaller dynamic range, making my waveforms look a lot more like the waveforms you’d see in top forty music on commercial radio, the better to allow my product to compete on that medium. I made my sound effects much louder and punchier than when I’d first started out. I worked alone, or sometimes with Matt, without a producer looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do. Having Matt hang around the studio was a huge bonus, because he was the star of the show, so it featured his voice a lot, and if I thought a line needed to be different, either a completely new line or different delivery, I could ask him to record it then and there and simply incorporate it into the mix. There was never any discussion of paying him extra to do that because, for one thing, I didn’t have the authority to authorize that, and for another neither of us cared. We just wanted to make the absolute best product that we could.
We were both pretty happy with the way Steve the First turned out. And we became fast friends in the process. Never up to that point had I felt so sympatico in a creative collaboration.
The CBC contracted Matt to write three more episodes of Steve the First. I was just supposed to be the recording engineer on each of them. But when Matt started writing the second episode, he sent his early drafts not only to Tom Anniko but to me as well. I don’t know whether he expected me to comment on it, but because I fancied myself a writer I read it and had some pretty strong opinions. I waited a bit to see whether Tom responded, and maybe he did, but if so he didn’t copy me. So I sent Matt my thoughts.
Much later Matt told me that he got my notes and read them and they made him angry. He was so mad that he went outside for a smoke and stomped around a bit. And then he thought, dammit, he’s right! And went inside and rewrote some stuff based on my notes.
I’m not relating this story to illustrate what a great writer or story editor I am. It’s more evidence that Matt and I were operating on the same wavelength when it came to his material. From that point forward I story edited all of his radio plays, unofficially for the four episodes of Steve the First and the four episodes of its sequel, Steve the Second. I became the official story editor of the final series we worked on together, Canadia: 2056, but they only paid me $150 per episode rather than the usual $500 story editors usually got paid. But I didn’t mind, because it was fun work, doing what I loved, and of course I was still getting paid to be a recording engineer at the time.
Matt and I had a lot of fun making Steve the First and Steve the Second. I became the de facto producer, at least for the mixes, and I did all the post production sound effects (Anton Szabo did most of the live-to-tape sound effects). There were some memorable moments. Sometimes Matt and I would mix the episodes during the evening. For one scene we needed the sound of a big jug of water bouncing off the floor. I grabbed a great big spare bottle from a water dispenser and brought it into the studio. We hit play and record on ProTools and Matt and I stood in the booth and dropped the completely full, unopened water bottle. To our surprise it cracked, flooding the booth. The carpet was completely soaked. There was little we could do to mop it up or accelerate the drying process, though we did the best we could with scads of paper towels. The next day I had to tell my boss, John McCarthy, who took it extremely well. I don’t think there was any lasting damage other than to the water bottle itself, and maybe a slightly moldy carpet.
After mixing an episode I would burn it to CD and take it home and listen to it in several environments: in the car, in the kitchen, in the living room. I wanted to see what it sounded like in each environment. The car was always the noisiest. If a bit of dialogue or a sound effect didn’t cut through in any of those environments, I went back to the studio and remixed it until it did. I was trying to make the shows the most sonically successful work of my career. I was pretty happy with the results, but I didn’t entirely succeed. After the shows were broadcast, when it came time to print the shows to CD for sale, the woman in charge of doing so, patsy stevens, came to visit me in the studio and we had a friendly conversation about the quality. Reviewing the audio on the CDs, she’d noticed a little glitch or two. I was incredulous. She played them back for me. Sure enough there were a couple of weird audio anomalies. Just fraction of a second things that I’d never noticed in all the times I’d listened, but that she’d caught. Of course, she was married to one of the top CBC music recording engineers at the time, Todd Fraracci, and evidently shared his ears. I was embarrassed. I went back to the original mixes and did what I could to fix them, but due to the nature of the glitches my options were limited. They’re still there in the final product, to some extent. But I daresay you would probably need the “golden ears” of Patsy (or her husband Todd) to discern them.
Steve the First and, later, Steve the Second aired Saturday mornings at 11:30. I think they went over fairly well, but neither Matt nor I became anywhere near as famous as our radio drama hero Douglas Adams, famous for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Maybe next time.