Feeling the Pace of the Technology Race

by Stuart McCowan

It suddenly hit me.  I never really thought about it before.  I just took it for granted, always accepted it like you would any other progression or advancement.  Yet here I was, mouse in hand, looking at my edits on a computer screen.  A computer screen!  Looking at them!  It seems like only yesterday I was picking up a razor blade for the first time, carefully approaching the editing block upon which lay a piece of 1/4-inch tape delicately pulled out from the reels.  I still to this day remember thinking to myself that I would never be any good at editing, and I would end up doing something completely different in radio.  Now, as a Production Director, editing is what I do.  Well, there are other things I do, like writing scripts, deciding who is going to voice which script, what music and sound effects to use.  In addition, I also have a morning show to co-host Monday through Friday, but that’s by the by.  The majority of my time is spent in the production studio, producing commercials, sweepers, programs, etc..  And hasn’t that studio set up changed?  Only a couple of years ago I would be surrounded by tape and cart machines, CD players, turntables, audio processors, tape decks, and, of course, the trusty sound board.  Now, through the advancement of science and technology, all I have left is a sound board and the addition of keyboard, mouse, and monitor!

Is it an advancement though, moving from the razor blade to the computer mouse I mean?  It’s like the age old question of whether CDs truly are better than vinyl records.  There aren’t that many people in sound production and audio engineering that still don’t like to hear the faint crackle and audio range of a piece of vinyl turning at 33 1/3 rpm on that motorized wheel.  Aaah, beautiful.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love what I do.  I love using the computer, and I am all for moving into the future.  I am just amazed at how quickly we have done it and how far we have come.  It seems as if we have moved from the Model T to the BMW Roadster in a matter of minutes!

Currently I use DALET, but I also have experience with SADiE and ProTools.  The latter was being introduced at the BBC back in Britain just before I moved out here to California just over two years ago.  Two years!  A few years before that, radio stations, at least in Britain, were still playing songs from a turntable and not sure whether to trust these newfangled CD players.  Starting a song on the turntable was very hands on.  You could see it spinning around.  You were the one that pushed it on its way.  With a CD, you just push a button and hope the CD is not dirty and sticks.  I think that’s what I miss about having a razor blade in my hand getting ready to slice away.  (Oh dear, I hope that will not be taken out of context, or I will have the FBI at my door thinking I am a serial killer!)

What I do like about the digital age is being able to place all the elements you need for a spot, promo, sweeper, whatever, onto the screen at the same time and play around with them all until you get the sound you want.  Before, at least in my experience, it was a matter of having it all planned out beforehand (not that I don’t do that know, but it’s a lot more flexible with the computer don’t you think?), heading into the studio and spending the hours putting it all together using two or three tape machines, CDs, turntables, carts, and hopefully producing something that sounded as you had hoped.  The other aspect of being digital is being able to play around with the sound in real time, and if you don’t like it, just press undo and it’s gone, which is great if an edit doesn’t work.  Who hasn’t been on their hands and knees looking for that bit of tape on the floor you just threw away, and all the bits of tape on the floor looking identical!  I hated that! 

This feature of playing around with the sound there on the screen is great, I have found, when it comes to sound effects.  Before I would find the right SFX on a CD or vinyl and play it when the moment was right onto the master tape.  Nowadays, I can still use prerecorded SFX, but I can record them onto the computer at any time during the production process.  What is really great about it though is the fact I can play with the sound, warp it, put a flange in, echo, whatever.  I have found this specially nice when looking for a particular sound you may not be able to find on all the sound effect discs in the world.  So, what I do is go out and record a sound close to what I am looking for, then play with it in the computer till I get what I am looking (or hearing) for.  For example, only the other day, my co-host on the morning show was looking for the sound of a human liver being squashed--don’t ask me why, it’s a long story for another time.  I went out to the local harvest fair and with it being grape crushing season, was able to get someone stomping and crushing grapes with their feet.  A few minutes back in the studio on the computer and presto, a human liver being squashed!  Now, I know what you’re saying, using various bits and pieces of the old equipment I could have eventually been able to get that sound, but with the computer it saved me time and money.

Where will computers and digital technology take us in the next two years?  I know advancements and improvements are still being made, new versions of all the digital editing software are coming out, and eventually, I’m sure, there won’t be anything you cannot do with a computer when it comes to production.  All the audio effects will be installed (bye, bye Mr. Audio Processor).  Sound effects, music and production elements will already be installed or can be upgraded by simply sliding in a CD-ROM (bye bye Mr. CD player).  And, fingers crossed, computer crashes will be a thing of the past, insuring that your work will never be lost (bye bye Mr. Tech support).

Still, despite all the pros and cons, one thing is certain:  you can’t slice your finger open with a mouse--and we have all been there!

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