by Craig Rogers
It says it right on the reel box label, underneath the station logos: "Creative Radio Advertising Productions - If it isn't CRAP, it's probably crap." Those are words you'd eat in a hurry if you didn't have the oxide to back it up. Not a problem for Dennis McAtee at KKOW, Joplin/Pittsburg, KS., market #226. He knows his.....CRAP. Dennis' Christmas spot for Jones Boots, a western wear store, can be heard on The Cassette, and a fun walk through his meticulous studio technique is right here.
First, my thanks to Dennis right up front for the detailed letter he sent with his submission. Much of what you'll read here are Dennis' words...so at least you know this really is how he did it.
Here's a quick tour of the KKOW main production facility. At its heart is a Quantum QM-12P console with eight mono channels with semi-parametric EQ, four stereo channels with three-band EQ, four output busses, effects loop, cue bus, and headphones bus. Sources include a TASCAM CD-301, ITC-99 mono cartridge recorder/reproducer, ITC-99B stereo cartridge recorder/reproducer, TASCAM 122 cassette deck, Technics SL-1200 MKII turntable, DGS digital audio receiver, DCI digital audio receiver/sender, and two Otari MX-5050 reel-to-reel decks.
Each output channel of the Otaris is assigned to a mono channel on the console. Outboard is a UREl LA-4 compressor/limiter, fed by output bus 4 and returned through the effects loop return, and a Yamaha SPX-90 effects processor, fed by output bus 3 and returned through a pair of mono channels.
In my talk with Dennis, that caused me some confusion. So as often has to be done, I had him draw me a picture. Imagine you want the mike to go through the compressor, then to the SPX-90 for reverb, then to tape. Dennis would assign the mike to bus 4. That feeds the Urei comp/limiter. The Urei output comes up on the echo return position on the board. That pot is assigned to bus 3. That feeds the SPX-90. The SPX-90 pots can then be assigned to busses 1 and 2 which are the program left and right. (Thanks for the picture Dennis!)
The main production mic is an Electro-Voice RE-20. Dennis also has Sennheiser MD-421U's, Shure SM-58's, and a few "cheap-and-cheesy" omnidirectionals available.
Before recording, Dennis erased tape on each deck by threading tape from the take-up reel in an "S" shape around the top of the pinch roller, back between the pinch roller and capstan, then under the capstan and across the heads to the supply reel. By pushing RECORD and PLAY, the tape winds backwards from the take-up reel to the supply reel at 15 ips, and the last head any practical point on the tape passes is the erase head. Takes a bit more time, but the tape is c-l-e-a-n, none of the "whoomp, whoomp" from a quick pass with a hand-held bulk eraser. When that's done, he's ready to record.
After the console channel preamp, the microphone signal goes through the compressor, then through the SPX-90 programmed as a fairly drastic noise gate. He uses program 18 with the trigger level set to 60. He first recorded all of the first elf's parts, followed by all the second elf's parts (Dennis does voices for all three characters). For both elves, the Otari's pitch control was pulled up and turned fully counterclockwise (slowest varispeed) during recording. When these tracks are transferred to the other Otari, the varispeed will be fully clockwise (fastest varispeed).
Dennis says, "While I could have saved a generation of tape, and maybe time, by sync-recording the elves on the first pass, I elected to record the elves the way I did to keep the voices of the characters consistent. With noise gating, clean tape heads, and proper EQ, the generation loss is imperceptible to most listeners." With all the elves portions recorded, Dennis began transferring them, line by line to Otari 2, again going through the SPX noise gate. All of Elf One will end up on track 1, and all of Elf Two will end up on track 2. To further raise the pitch of the elves voices, Dennis has the varispeed of Otari 2 set to the slowest varispeed so that the voices are higher yet on playback at regular speed. When he's voicing the tracks, he has to talk much more slowly to compensate for this.
At this point Dennis uses a trick Dr. Don Carpenter showed him "eons ago." Using the console's headphone bus and the combination of the 5050's SEL REP and SOURCE/TAPE buttons, Dennis listened back to this part while he added the second elf's first line on channel 2. The RECORD safety buttons for both channels, the SEL REP button for channel one, and the TAPE/SOURCE button for channel one were all depressed, and the SEL REP and TAPE/SOURCE buttons for channel two were up. Note that while a SEL REP button is down, its associated channel's record function is defeated. To add the next line of the first elf, he reversed the positions of the SEL REP and TAPE/SOURCE buttons, and backed the tape up just enough to monitor elf 2. He's essentially using the 5050 like half of an analog four-track — Elf One on track 1, Elf Two on track 2, in sync.
He recorded Santa's voice with the tape deck pitch control fully clockwise, with compression and gating, but without echo, first-generation to channel one, following the second elf's last line on channel two. Now when played back at regular speed, Santa's voice will be pitched a bit lower.
Dennis says he experimented with various backgrounds — construction sound effects from their Media General SFX library, cartoon hammers and other backgrounds from the Hanna-Barbera library, Foley'd simulations of elves building toys, and combinations of sound effects and music. He opted for a music-only background from the TM Century Digital Director library, since it seemed to propel the concept, without cluttering it up. Says Dennis, "Sometimes less IS more".
The final mixdown is back to Otari 1, adding reverb and music to the voices. Dennis assigned both channels of the second Otari to busses 1, 2 and 3; 1 and 2 feed the cart decks and Otari 1, bus 3 feeds the SPX-90. He'll punch in the SPX-90 at the end to add a touch of reverb to one of Santa's lines. Dennis boosts the mids on the voice reel a bit and cuts the mids on the music to create a notch for the voices.
He turned off the pitch controls on both tape decks, started Otari 1 in RECORD, started the CD player, and started the "multitrack" tape. As elf 2 was finishing his last line, Dennis un-muted the SPX-90 returns and hit bus three on Otari 2 Channel l's console strip, to give Santa's "Ho Ho Ho" a stereo echo. At the end of the "Ho Ho Ho," he quickly unassigned bus 3, so that the echo tails under a dry Santa part. The final mix was also recorded simultaneously to cart, DCI to ship across town, library reel and a cassette for presentation to the client. Got all that?
Dennis says, "That's how we create near-digital quality in a two-track analog world. I know there are talented production people in the non-markets who do even more with even less."
Dennis has these additional observations on some of the decisions he made during this production: "While the SPX-90 has pitch-shift algorithms, using the tape vari-speed for pitch-shifting seems more natural and less sci-fi for this application. While our routing of the effects processor is unorthodox, considering our console has an effects loop and individual channel send level controls, we have the flexibility to use (the SPX-90) as a microphone noise gate, or for stereo delay effects, with or without dry signal, on mixdowns. Our setup also allows us to compress music tracks without rewiring or repatching. Proper biasing of tape adds to quality, as well as tape heads with minimal wear." Now, if you haven't already, check out Dennis' work on The Cassette.
Hmmm, on close inspection, it appears the "Creative Radio Advertising Productions" logo was printed onto an existing label with a computer printer. Dennis, save your printer; next time KKOW reorders labels, make that CRAP a permanent addition.