Mono: It's The Real Thing!

by Dave Oliwa

It was your typical "Production Director Friday" at a top-rated, major market radio station. We were billing about $3 million a month, so you can imagine the amount of work, even on days other than Fridays. On this particular day, I was up to my...elbows in the studio, feeling the crunch of too many salesmen's last minute "this will only take five minutes" pleas. One FedEx package from New York in the "get-it-done stack" contained not a reel of tape, but a letter from a large advertising agency promising a little "something special" would be arriving soon at my station. It was a few years ago, when digital audio was still relatively new. The letter was promoting a cool, new way to make old analog stereo sparkle. The Coca Cola Company was going to go where no one had gone before by using cutting-edge technology, called "Q-Sound," on their spots. The letter hyped "an entirely new approach" to radio advertising, and said the spot reel for the new Coke campaign was arriving early the following week.

I had read about Q-Sound. And, they had placed some of the most incredibly beautiful print ads ever seen in Billboard. Using a secret formula, Q promised to deliver three dimensional sound from only two speakers! With all of the experience I had as a kid, wiring up as many speakers as I could, some of them serially (I invented "Quad," and "Surround Sound" years before "they" did-—you may have done the same), I was truly excited about this Q-Sound thing, thinking it held some real promise for analog, and possibly, digital stereo.

Early the next week, the golden package arrived. Although the tape box had a Q-Sound logo that looked suspiciously similar to the label on a concert spot box from Bill Young in Houston (methinks he could have sued them), it came from New York. There was no mistaking this was the giant step for audio that had been promised the week before. The word went out to other audiophiles in the building that were sure to enjoy the first threading up of our audio future-—twenty minutes, Production Studio A, be there.

With the tape ready to roll, and with about ten people in the room, it was obvious I wasn't the only one who had heard about it. It's as though we were expecting Tom Edison himself to speak from the ether-—or to at least do the slate. Here, for the first time since, perhaps, the very idea of stereo, was the vanguard of what would probably be the final upgrade to analog sound.

Somebody push the play button

Even the first moments of the jingle we all knew so well were absolutely stunning. Eyes became wide. Jaws dropped open. Some lips puckered with a rush of inward air, like the unvoiced "whooo" after a snifter of Benedictine, while some others mouthed what was probably the first sound of caveman-like human approval: "ohhhh." There were no questions.

We had a winner here.

Except, for one little thing: mono. Apparently, the developers of Q-Sound had introduced some kind of phase error into the grand scheme of their "secret recipe." That, of course, caused the signal to all but disappear when played in mono! The "great experiment" was not going to bode well on FM radios—-especially when a large majority of FM radio reception is mono. (As you may well know, car stereos, for one, have several "levels" of stereo separation, depending on the signal strength available, and almost all "at-work listening" is done in mono as well.)

This one had to be called in.

A quick explanation of the problem had me talking with the Senior Account Executive for the Coca Cola account (I was handed off to him immediately). The ad agency saw its life, and its billing, doing a lemming over the edge. After just a couple of minutes talking with him, a "conference call of the damned" had begun: the studio that recorded the jingle, the Q-Sound technical staff, the dubbing house that produced all those little reels, the ad agency minions, and, yours truly. The first barrage of attacks were, of course, aimed at moi. After all, what could someone like me possibly know? The questions came at a rate not unlike that of a Wink Martindale game show's "speed round."

"Are you sure you've got the right tape? Are you using any special effects? Are you sure they're off? Did you thread the tape machine right? Are the heads clean? And aligned? Have you tried this on more than one machine? Are you sure your speakers are wired correctly? Is the tape backwards?"

Is the tape backwards???

Hey, I was smart enough to dial the phone! And, the equipment at my station sported names like Pacific Recorders, Studer, Neumann, Eventide--top-o-the-line stuff--a production guy's dream studio. They simply couldn't believe what they were being told. I could almost hear their brain waves being transmitted over the phone line: "...some idiot at some stupid radio station nowhere near New York City thinks he's smarter then we are?"

Yes I am.

Well, I knew enough, at least, to listen to the damn thing in mono first before putting it on the air on my stupid radio station. (I check everything in mono-—it's one of the few good habits I picked up early in my radio career.) As a matter of fact, I had thought I was being fairly diplomatic in not pointing out how stupid they were for not listening to the spots in mono first before sending it out all over North America and who knows where else! It was corporate policy not to harass, heckle, torment, tease, or otherwise persecute the station's advertiser's agencies, no matter what their IQs.

After their initial target of incompetence was proven to be, well, uh, correct (someone at the ad agency had found a dub while we were talking and discovered the exact same problem), the most bizarre thing happened.

They asked me what I thought they should do.

Now, if you've read my small contributions to Radio And Production Magazine in the past, you know me well enough to know the great restraint I had to gather up, just in order to remain serious. These top-o-the-line suits, as I like to call them, just had me, albeit for a short time, on the top of their moron list. Now, they were asking me for help because they couldn't figure out what to do?

Ironic, ain't it?

Don't worry Mom, I was good

I did the only thing that I could do in this situation. I told them the truth. When I was a kid, my mom said the only way to deal with any problem is to accept the truth, then find a solution that is realistic. They were going to have to nix the Q-Sound idea for at least a little while; like, until it worked.

In the meantime, they would have to have something to run on the air first thing tomorrow morning. Could we run the current spots for a few days until the problem was corrected? Oh no...the new campaign was starting on television (I wonder if those spots...nah). How about picking the left or right channel and using the best side as a mono signal? Oh no... for the Q-Sound premiere, the stereo was really cranked, and the folks at Coca Cola would pop their tops if it wasn't, at minimum, in stereo.

It's tough being an idiot at a stupid radio station. The only thing left, really, was to suggest they do the impossible, at least, the extremely difficult--for it was almost one o'clock my time, and two o'clock Eastern. The spots would have to be remixed, remastered, reduped, and redistributed--the four "Rs" of production screwups. Thousands of radio stations and hundreds of networks and syndicators would have to reschedule spots as well. Somebody would have to call or fax 'em too. Finding the dubbing facilities and getting them to drop what they're doing for this little emergency wouldn't be easy. And the shipping hassles alone... (this happened just before digital delivery was introduced, or more accurately, widespread).

The phone line went silent.

But, there were no sounds of anyone falling out of their chairs. I knew they had to do it. They knew they had to do it. It was just taking them a few seconds to accept the truth—-and their fate. After a gruesome pause, they begrudgingly discussed the logistics of it all as I silently listened in on their frantic, problem-solving planning. Then, the decision was made. The spot would be re-re-re-everything. Everybody hung up their phones.

The new, replacement spots actually arrived the next morning, in plain ol' regular stereo. No small accomplishment, given the amount of time available to pull it off. Along with the new tape, at least in my package, came a list of all the stations, networks, and syndicators that had received the replacement tapes.

I would have been thrilled with just the commission from the FedEx costs alone!

Did Coke ever know about this?

Well, they know now.

The real thing turned out to be a real dud. Strangely enough, I never heard from Q-Sound again. At least, Coca Cola never tried that again. And, I don't recall ever getting another commercial from anyone using Q-Sound. I've asked other Production Directors if they've ever heard any spots using Q-Sound, and, to a man, they replied, "Ohhhh that? Nope." I hope I wasn't the messenger that killed Q-Sound's involvement in the advertising business, but I have my suspicions that when you blow something as big as the Coca Cola account, you're through. Is the genius who came up with the idea of making "New Coke" still employed there? I think not. But, Q-Sound is still in business selling, for one, a program that adds 3-D sound to your computer and Web pages for $14.95. They also sell a box that--and remember, this is years later--claims to have "better mono compatibility."

It's one of my favorite Production Director stories, a pleasure to share it with you, and the folks at Coca Cola. You may be wondering what I got out of the deal. Well, they didn't send me a truckload of Coke, although I would have loved that; it's my favorite (it's also the reason my dentist owns a swimming pool today). Of course, I was never thanked. Not on the phone. Forget a letter. A scribbled Post-It Note in my replacement package? No way. But, that's okay; I was used to it. I was a Production Director. It was my job--a thankless one most of the time, if I remember correctly. Yeah, I do remember now--I left radio and went into business for myself.

I was angry about only one thing, really: I had missed lunch because of this. So I went into the kitchen, pulled out fifty cents, bought a Coke, and went back to work.