In Praise of the 2-Track

by Dennis Daniel

Editor's Note: It's no secret that most of the best production done, is done in a multi-track studio; but it shouldn't be perceived that great production cannot be done in a 2-track studio. To help get that point across, we asked R.A.P. columnist Dennis Daniel to share some of his expertise in the 2-track studio. His 2-track work comes with credentials. Every award Dennis won before 1989 was won with commercials produced in a 2-track studio. That includes a Clio, the International Radio Festival Award, and a Firsty. He was even asked by the Radio Festival people to give a lecture on "Theatre of the Mind" production techniques, and he did it all with only 2-track knowledge.

God, it must boil your buns to read all those pieces in R.A.P. about multi-track recording, huh? Well, the time has come to recognize all of you unsung 2-track heroes! Bravo! We're all proud of you for putting up with less than what your talent deserves! And for all of you who feel completely cheated due to a lack of multi-track facilities, I say unto you, THERE IS NOTHING YOU CANNOT ACHIEVE ON A 2-TRACK! (The only draw backs: 1) You lose quality with multiple tape generations, and 2) it takes longer to produce something with only two tracks. It's all in the math. I'll explain in a bit.)

I know... you don't believe me.

I kid you not, my brethren. I am the living proof! For eight years, all I worked with were 2-track Scully's (two per studio. When I was at WPDH, I only had one!) These little workhorse reel-to-reels were a sight to see -- battered, bruised, and abused; held together with Q-tips, Crazy Glue, and safety pins; these worn out old beauties stood me well and helped me to produce some of my favorite stuff.

Let's talk 2-track.

When I started my radio career in 1979, 2-tracks were the only game in town. The first time I ever walked into a radio station production studio, my eyes beheld two reel-to-reel Scully's, two cart machines (only one recorded), a cassette deck (one of the worst ever made! A low budget home use model) and jacks for three mikes. (The mikes were awful too -- real cheap and tinny sounding. It would be five years before we bought any RE-20's.)

You know that saying, "Ignorance is bliss?"

To my young, inexperienced eyes, this studio was the cat's meow! The ultimate! "Wow! Two reel-to-reels! My own cart machine! SOMEBODY PINCH ME!" I began to play around.

(Caution: What follows is an account of the many tricks I employed in my 2-track world. Many of you 2-track warriors out there have probably figured out how to do these things. So, please don't take it as an insult if I mention something you obviously figured out for yourself long ago. If anything, these Ma and Pa production methods should amuse all those multi-track mavens who have it so easy and don't have to think about these things. I'll tell ya one thing though, if I hadn't learned how to do them all, I wouldn't be as good a multi-track producer.)

First, a brief explanation: When I refer to the "left" reel-to-reel and "right" reel-to-reel, I'm speaking about my particular set-up. The left machine was closest to the board and cart machines. I tried to get my final product on the left machine so it would be easier to cart. The right machine was too far away, and I didn't have any remotes on my board; everything was hit by hand. The left machine also gave me easy access to the turntables.

2-Track Trick #1 - Bounce Back: One of the reasons that a radio career worked out for me was that I can do impressions. I can imitate just about any dialect as well as some two hundred celebrity voices. (I'm not tooting my horn here. I know most of you out there can do the same thing. I'm just telling my story here! Cut me some slack!) Whenever I wrote a "character" spot, I always ended up doing all the voices because a) it was faster, and b) I didn't have to worry about coaching or directing someone. I write 'em and I produce 'em. I taught myself the tried and true "bounce back" method. First, I recorded one voice on the right reel-to-reel (while reading the second voice silently to myself). Then, I would play the first recorded voice on the right reel-to-reel as I recorded the second voice on the left reel-to-reel, filling the gaps I left. (You may ask, "Why not record one voice on the right channel and one on the left of just one machine?" The reason: I didn't want speaker separation with the voices -- one on the left and one on the right. By recording in stereo, the voices would come out full on both speakers. Of course, if you can put your 2-tracks in mono at the console, just one machine will work.) All in all, pretty easy, right?

Now comes the tricky part, sound effects and music.

My left reel-to-reel now has my two-voice performance. Let's say I wanted to put birds chirping under it with a mellow music bed. I have several courses of action:

1. Run the music and bird effects at the same time onto the right reel-to-reel for 60 seconds. Then, cue up both machines. Run them both at the same time and check levels. (Are the birds too loud? Music too low?) Once I have the sound I want, I cue up the reel again and hit them both at the same time, recording them onto cart. Now, the cart is my master. I run the cart onto the left reel-to-reel for mastering purposes and place the cart itself on the air (because it has the best generational quality of sound).

2. (You need two cart machines in your studio for this one.) Record the music and bird effects together on a cart. Make sure you get the correct ratio of bird effects to music. Then run the left reel-to-reel with the cart in a test run for sound quality. When your satisfied, hit the left reel-to-reel and the cart with your music and effects on it at the same time, recording both onto the second cart machine. Once again, the cart is your master. Make a copy of it onto reel-to-reel for mastering purposes and place it on the air.

3. You could record the music along with your first take on voice number one. Then, when you record voice two on the second reel-to-reel, have the birds playing in the background. Then, mix them both together onto cart and master from cart.

Okay, that's pretty basic, simple stuff -- two VO's, music and one sound effect. The question is, what if you want more!

The answer? No problem. It's all in the math. You have to pre-plan the entire production either in your head or on paper. Figure out where you're going to put certain effects beforehand, as well as the music. First, let's create a complicated spot:

(Door Knock)
Man #1: Come in.
(Elephant yell)
Man #1: On second thought, don't come in.
(Door opens/closes)
Man #2: Sorry about that. I have a cold.
Man #1: What do you want?
Man #2: I want you to listen to this!
(Music)
Man #3 (echo): Hello there. Thank you for inviting us into your home. As you can tell, we're rude, obnoxious people; but with good reason! We want to sell you a left nosed nostril inhaler with the state motto on it that glows in the dark.
(Music stops)
(Woman Screams)
Man #1: Sounds scary.
Man #2: It is.
Man #1: Why would I want that?
Man #2: Because you're obviously not interested in trying the new Daring Dan's Pizza Burger.
(Train SFX)
Man #1: What was that!
Man #2: A train, stupid.
Man #1: Oh yeah.
Man #2: So what about this Daring Dan's Pizza Burger?
Man #1: I thought you'd never ask! Listen to this!
(Music)
Announcer: It's crazy (man yells). It's kooky (woman giggles). It's the new Daring Dan's Pizza Burger! 100% ground sirloin topped with cheddar cheese, onions, spicy tomato sauce and grated cheese. (crowd: MMMMMMM!) The Daring Dan's Pizza Burger! It's obnoxious!
Man #2: (chewing) But it's good.

Now, I just wrote this off the top of my head. Such a place doesn't exist (thank God). Here's how I would produce it in a 2-track studio with two reel-to-reels and two cart machines. (I could also do it with only one reel and one cart. If you'd like to know how, write or call me.)

Step 1 - Effects: Always find and/or record all the effects you need first. In this production, some of the voice effects (various screams, yells, etc.) may be in your house library. If not, record them yourself. Use other jocks or people in the office. (Sometimes, producing these yourself will sound better than a library.) In this piece you need a woman screaming, a man yelling, a woman giggling, and a crowd making the MMMMMM! yummy sound. Get those first. Then, assemble all the other canned effects (the door knock, elephant yell, door open and close, and train). Next, record them all onto a cart in order of appearance in the spot. (Leave a four second gap between effects.) When you listen back to the cart, time each of the effects and write the time down next to each effect on your scripts.

Step 2 - Record Voices: On your right reel-to-reel, record every other voice on the script. Make sure you know how you want each voice to sound. Read the lines you're not saying silently in the pentameter that fits the performance. A good way not to screw up is to yellow out the intros to each line. (In this piece it would be Man #1, #2, #2, #1, #1, #1, #1, #1.) Make sure you leave a little space to drop in the effects, based on the times you wrote down. On your left reel-to-reel, record the other voice-overs (#1, #1, #3, #2, #2, #2, #2, announcer). Now you have all the vocal performances on the left reel-to-reel.

Step 3 - Add the Effects: Now, run the completed VO track onto the right reel-to-reel, adding the recorded effects on cart as it runs along. If an effect doesn't cue up on cart in time (example: the door and elephant may be too close together), just record the door on the reel first, stop the reel, wait for the cart to re-cue, then continue recording.

Step 4 - Music: Now, you have the spot with voices and effects on the right reel-to-reel. Run that reel onto the left reel-to-reel and add your music at the appropriate times.

Step 5 - Cart It Up: As you cart the final product, raise the volume on the cart recording machine at the point in the spot that requires echo (Man #3).

In the end, the spot will be four generations down on the cart, but with all the effects and music, you'll hardly notice it. Plus, if your station has heavy compression, it helps mask the generation loss on the air.

Of course, this is just one way of doing it. Other ways exist. For example, if you don't want to do all the voices, you can bring several people in and get the voice stuff all in one take on one reel -- first generation. You could record some of the carted effects as you're doing the voices. You could add the music at the same time as the VO recording. Like I said before, it's all in the math.

Here are two of my favorite tricks: Try running both reel-to-reels when you record a voice track. Then, cue them both up and run them at the same time. It gives your voice a synthesized or flange effect. Another favorite is putting masking tape on the round bar that rolls with the rubber wheel. The thicker you put it on, the faster your voice will sound. If you put a little lump in the tape, it gives your voice a garbled effect. If you find the tape coming off the capstan, separate the tape with a razor. Make it rough so the tape holds better. (Putting tape on the capstan also helps if a spot needs to be sped up a second or two. Of course, if you have pitch control, the tape trick is not necessary.)

I hope this little demonstration of technique has given you 2-track warriors an idea of just what can be accomplished with a limited amount of equipment. When all I worked with was a 2-track facility, I felt on top of the world. I truly knew no other way of doing things.

The bottom line is, THERE'S NOTHING YOU CAN'T ACCOMPLISH! Believe it! Now go into that studio and create! We're all waiting to see what you can do!