Production 512: My Ultimate Radio Throwback

A few weeks ago on Facebook, Anita Bonita, who worked at Z100 previous to me, posted a picture of my old studio in the Secaucus, New Jersey digs from before I was there. I knew it simply had to be from before my time because the 1/2-inch 4-track MCI you can see on the right was reconfigured/upgraded to a 2-inch, 16-track “Beast” by the time I arrived.

Plus, by the time I got there, someone had dropped an ITC triple stack (cart machine) on top of the bridge over the Auditronics “Grandson” console. The guitar on top of the cabinets was long gone and the rack you can see just left of center had been reconfigured with a couple of new pieces of gear, including an SPX90, a CD recorder/player and a graphic equalizer, plus a MIDI-interface that allowed for multiple voices simultaneously from the Jupiter electronic piano and drum machine (which were added at the same time as the 16-track upgrade.) Unseen behind the counter in front was a pair of Panasonic turntables that were covered up for a couple of years before someone finally said, “Hey, we don’t need these anymore.” We ripped those out to give us more desk space, which is where I later plopped my Mac, once we made the move to digital.

Z100 Studio 400pxIt was a great studio ergonomically. Everything was within easy reach and the patch bay on the bottom of the rack allowed us to reconfigure how all the gear interfaced at will. Our Chief Engineer, Frank Foti and his trusty sidekick, Steve Pepe clearly knew how to make a great workspace for us. It worked perfectly and sounded amazing.

As I pored over the pic, I realized that I am separated by more than time from that era. The technology gap from then to now is HUGE. Notice on the front lip of all the tape decks a silver block about 5-inches long. That was an Editall editing block. The little white tape dispenser between the two 2-tracks was filled with splicing tape (just barely narrower than the 1/4-inch mylar we recorded on.) Hiding behind one of the editing blocks was a china marker (grease pencil) that was usually white or yellow. With a razor blade, the blocks, splicing tape and china marker, an adept producer could mark and splice the recording tape to edit mistakes in the VO or sometimes improve the timing and edit music tracks. To do that, one had to rely on his or her ears to find the precise point to make the cut, and one’s skill at editing was of paramount importance. Today, not so much. We can actually see the waveform on a track and find that spot down to the millisecond before making a couple of keyboard strokes and have the perfect edit every stinkin’ time.

When you did make an edit, you always had to take care not to press the china marker too hard against the record head for fear it would knock it out of alignment, giving you all kinds of unwanted phase headaches. Unless the producer really knew what to listen for, detecting phase alignment was problematic. That’s why we had the oscilloscope in the bridge, just to the right of the ITC single cart deck. If your signal is “out of phase,” it meant that the peaks and valleys of the left channel weren’t syncing up with the peaks and valleys of the right channel. On a stereo setup, it sounds a little weird, like there’s a ‘hole’ in the middle of the sound (no center channel). BUT, if your listener is hearing your work on a mono setup, the entire center channel disappears, meaning “Good-bye VO.” The volume drops down to next to nothing and all you can really hear is whatever is in either left or right channel exclusively. Trust me, it sounds like crap to the mono listener (think kitchen/bedroom radios), but it’s something you’ll never have to worry about on a DAW, because the only way you can get “out of phase” is if you mean to do it.

Back in the day, if we wanted a special filter on a track, we had to plug in a cable on the patch bay, connecting the SPX90 to a fader, while another cable would bring the original track (usually the VO) to the SPX90 so when we brought the fader up on the console, you’d get the filtered track in the mix. These days, we just drop a plug-in (see where that term came from?) on a track in the DAW, or perhaps on a send/receive bus. We can even automate the mix so it pops in only when we want it instead of riding the mix faders. The Auditronics board didn’t have automation on the faders like the folks over at SONY/New York had. Of course, their console cost $750k compared to the $15k we paid.

You can’t tell from the picture, but all of our tape decks had 3 speeds: 7.5 inches per second, 15ips or 30ips. (It’s a measure of how much recording tape passes the head in one second.) In the analog world, the slower the tape speed is, the more ‘hiss’ you get on the recording, it’s just how tape works. For most music applications, 15ips was ideal because the signal would be much louder than the hiss and very few people could hear any hiss at all, but if you’re recording voice only or soft music (think classical or jazz) the hiss becomes a problem.

One of my weekly chores at that time was recording Scott Shannon’s voice tracks for his syndicated show, Rockin’ America with Scott Shannon. He’d get of the air in the morning, take a few minutes’ break and then come in, sit down and do his voice tracks. I’d have one of the 2-tracks loaded up with a tape pancake, just tape on a hub without a cover that was 14-inches in diameter. To make sure I recorded with as little hiss as possible, the machine would be set to 30ips. He’d hand me a copy of the script and we’d begin. As he read the script, I would make little hash marks on my copy, showing where his pickups were. Scott was a perfectionist, so there were a LOT of hashmarks by the time I was done. An hour or so later, he’d be gone and my real work began.

I’d usually have three pancakes full (sometimes more) that I would have to “clean up.” When I’d get to a hashmark in the script, I’d stop the tape, mark and cut it, then re-thread the tape and start it up again, allowing what followed to spill out onto the floor until I got to the last hashmark for that edit point. I’d mark and cut it again, then splice it to the point of the first hashmark. It very often took 3 hours or more to have a “clean” VO tape. Every week, when I finished, I would be up to my knees in tape on the floor…I kid you not. I would then load the finished tape onto an empty reel and walk it out to the front desk. Waiting there was a courier from Los Angeles who had just arrived. He would then take the tape to the airport and fly back to LA where they edited the show together with music and commercials, press it onto vinyl albums and mail it out to the affiliate stations, all in one day. We’d record on Tuesday and the show would play on the weekend. By the way, it sounded fantastic.

One of the reasons we were an early adopter of digital technology came when Scott Shannon left for LA to launch Pirate Radio and I started editing Adam Curry’s Top 30 Countdown. The prospect of having to go through all of that with Adam was simply too daunting and Adam said, “Dude, relax! We’ll do it all on a computer!” That’s when I got my Mac. No more 14-inch pancakes, no worries about hiss, and editing was…well, you know, stupid easy. I’d stop by Adam’s house at 4:30 in the morning and pick up a DAT (Digital Audio Tape for those too young to even know what those are) on my way to work. I’d spend an hour or so cleaning up his tracks and then move onto whatever imaging work I had going on by 7am. By then FedEx was rolling and I’d just box up a DAT and the FedEx guy would pick it up. (I’ve often wondered whatever happened to the courier dude who used to come by every week. He was always SO tired. LOL)

Well as entertaining (hopefully) as this throwback column has been, I’m sure you’re wondering what the point of it is, so I’ll tell you: embrace the tech. As nice as the studio in Secaucus was, and it truly was, I’ll take today’s situation over that any day of the week. I have a Mac Pro computer with 128GB of ram and 6Tb of storage, a microphone and a pair of DynAudio BM-5 powered monitors running through a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface. The latest version of Pro Tools, a big WAVES bundle and a few little helper programs I use to download music and sound effects from a few suppliers make my system as powerful and dynamic as any studio in the world. I’m guessing that the vast majority of you have powerful systems too that free you to be as creative as you dare. 10 years from now, it might ALL be different, so if you want to remain relevant, embrace the tech.

My sound for this column is a little more than sound. It’s a video! Some of you, no doubt, know Jon Wolfert at JAM Jingles in Dallas. He popped into Z100 one day in 1992 to ‘check in’ on us and shot some video which he later posted on YouTube. It shows Jagger working in the on-air studio, playing JINGLES! Then Jon came into my studio (the same one in the photo) for a quick shot of me showing off all the reels of JAM jingles we had. The quality is a bit lo-res by today’s standards, but I’m sure you’ll see a bunch of stuff…including my pony-tail. I am mortified. LOL!

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