Audio Etc. “TIMELY LESSONS” [Sept. 1985]

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There's nothing like on-the-spot experience (with a bit of informed guidance) to push you through the learning process in any field, as you will understand if you read my installment on radio last month.

Educators set up workshops to supplement texts and lecturing, audio specialists help you with hands-on sessions to get your sticky fingers where you want them. All this is just the old apprentice system, whereby various trades and skills-also the very highest arts-are carried forward from one generation to the next. But how about an accidental apprenticeship, unintended? So it was for me in radio and plenty else, as noted before. A series of happenstances, or call it luck. As though I'd bumbled somehow into Titian's or Michelangelo's studio (bottega is the word) and found myself trying to paint feet on a half-finished Madonna. An apprentice by mistake, but even so, it might be interesting.

Routine work in a radio station of the 1940s was not that different from the same today, granted no automation and differences in equipment and programming. Most present-day operators could walk right in and get down to business. But for an outsider, then as now, the basics were a considerable surprise. I quickly learned about time, for instance, when I got past that first show of mine. It is measured in seconds, not minutes, and a half-hour program runs 28:30 or else. No dillydallying. As a result, to this day I am the most punctual oldster I know. People find it disconcerting when you are so literal-but not in broadcasting.

I learned, too, about the dread of time lost-the phenomenon of dead air. No signal. Five seconds of that is endurable; 10 is disturbing-the heart begins to pound. Thirty seconds of silence is total disaster, Sweat pours, hysteria mounts.

Some stations have deliberately tried, over the years, to relax this tyranny of the seconds, but it isn't really possible. It's inherent in the medium itself, AM or FM. Yes, we can be relaxed but only in proportion. A 10-second pause seems forever.

You'll note (and I learned) that recording has the same sort of time factor. Spacing between LP bands, for example, now runs naturally in the 5 to 10-second range. But in live concerts that spacing can be 10 times as long and audiences don't mind a bit. A "live on tape" recording today, even with music unedited, must somehow be shortened in those painfully long (and noisy) intervals-as we hear the reproduced sound. You fit the message to the medium.

Curiously, television, combining audio and visuals, has an inherently much slower tempo, probably because it can command more attention through two senses, however soporific on occasion. TV shows are longer by far than the old radio equivalents, and correctly so. Blanks and silences do not seem to matter as much. Again, it's the nature of the medium.

I learned very quickly to use one vital time trick: back-timing. Brilliant idea! So simple. You start at the end and go backwards. If your plane leaves JFK Airport at noon, you back-time from that point, step by step, to find out when you can safely leave home. Elementary, but few people bother. I still back-time practically everything, but now I'm canny. When dealing with people who don't, I insert an extra NLQ, a Normal Lateness Quotient. Some people are always 5 minutes late, or maybe 10, others much, much more. One guy, the other day, said on the phone, "I'll be there in 20 minutes." I knew him. He was punctual, right on the dot (including his NLQ), an hour and a half later. Fit perfectly into my back-timing.

On radio, if your show (always live, in the '40s, except for a very few muddy transcriptions on disc) ran too long it was usually dumped off the air at precisely the preset time. You weren't supposed to run overtime; whole networks were waiting on your final word. So you didn't. I learned to live with this imperious rule after several hideous mishaps.

One of my later taped programs was a "mystery composer" show, a sort of musical guessing game. I did a long, tricky build-up, giving hints, with lots of music, and I had the bright idea of saving the composer's actual name until the very end to heighten suspense. At that point I said, portentously, "And now, the name of our mystery composer! Believe it or not, he is ..." Clunk. I was cut off the air! Right on the last word.

That name would have gone 1 second overtime, due to a late start with the tape, the station's fault. No matter.

The axe fell exactly on schedule. "You have heard Edward Tatnall Canby ..." said the announcer, not even noticing.

And then the phones started to ring.

I made an unconvincing explanation the next week and thereafter resolved to run my tapes a bit short-and never to end with vital information.

Now, so many years later, even if I try to delay I always get to the doctor's office exactly on time, as scheduled and then must wait an hour, or often two. Curious ideas some of us have as to the allowable plus or minus! I'd hate to be an M.D. with a program on the air. Of course, it's not only radio and all broadcasting that adheres to the tyranny of the second. Every music group, in studio or concert hall, must learn exact timing wherever there is audio involved. So must the home hi-fi user when it comes to video or audio cassette recordings. Time waits for no man! It never has.

For our timing we had, in the 1940s, a non-computerized card catalog which at first had me somewhat scandalized. Every bit of music we owned on records was filed by timing, second by second. If you had 4:58 minutes to fill up after a featured work, you looked under 4:58 and took your choice of maybe four or five items. When I later came to making up dozens of recorded programs, all to a typically exact length, I found this system quite delightful. (So you thought we chose the music for its artistic worth, did you?) Now, I suppose, you do exactly the same thing on the house computer monitor. Might save 2 or 3 seconds over the old system on cards.

An even more personal bit of learning came for me when I splurged and had my very first broadcast on FM taken down on ET (electrical transcription). An air check. Very simply, I wanted to hear myself. Delusions of grandeur? Maybe, but more practically, I wanted to know what my show was like to the outside listener.

No tape, no personal recorders then.

You went to a local recording studio and had them take you down off the air. Mine came on two big, 16-inch, 33 rpm lacquer discs, professional type, which I could play in the studio. They ran about 15 minutes a side. The alternative 78 lacquers for home playing ran around 5 minutes (narrower grooves than commercial discs). All these were cut on two tables, overlapping the material at each ending. For a half-hour show on 78 this was painful.

But at least you got all the content.

Yes, I indulged in a bit of megalomania. I remember going out into Central Park and gazing at the top of the Hotel Pierre, where our antenna was clearly visible-little me, emanating from way up there! But when I heard the ETs of the show, I was dismayed. It sounded awful. / sounded awful, I mean. Why? I had tried to do my best. Why did it sound so monotonous and dull? I was deflated, embarrassed.

Well, of course, in those days you did not ever hear the sound of your own voice as others heard it. In the broadcast, before the mike, I thought I was being witty and cheerful and very sophisticated. What a delusion! On the air, as recorded, I sounded like an idiot, and it wasn't the fi either, which on ETs could be quite good.

Well, live and learn, or retire from the field. I took those two big lacquer discs into our studio during off hours and spent many days working on them. I got out my script and read it out loud along with the recording, to see how it sounded from the inside of me. That study was another turning point. I found out several things that largely accounted for the trouble.

First was timing. When you speak via any electronic medium you must punctuate by deliberate pauses. Most people don't. I had blithely run my clauses, my sentences, even my paragraphs into one long, unbroken flow. You could understand if you tried, but I wasn't helping. I once heard a recording of a famous American novelist who read his own works exactly the same way. Excruciatingly dull. If you don't do it naturally, then you learn. You practice and practice, until it becomes second nature. All actors, all radio and TV people (including the President!) either know their timing instinctively or have studied it very, very well. As a matter of fact, when you read anything aloud, anywhere, the timing principle applies.

Even to impromptu speeches. Pause for effect, also for grammar. So I tried and tried. I filled up my script with pauses and thus made it too long. But the next one went better.

Second was pitch-emphasizing speech by ups and downs of the voice-and third was the big punch, the forceful explosion that carries. Teddy Roosevelt-ever hear him? (He left a few recordings.) That punching is a big temptation. It goes over in board meetings and on the basketball court.

It quells any opposition if you do it right. But it kills mikes.

It seems I was a puncher and I didn't use the pitch of my voice nearly enough. (Do you?) To make my impression, notably as a teacher before a lot of apathetic students, I learned to punch like crazy without half noticing. I had punched my way (without enough pitch variation) straight through that first radio script and all I got for my trouble was a batch of momentary overloads and no punch at all.

So I practiced, as I went on to more broadcasts, making all my points at a dead level of volume, using only the pause and the rise of pitch to get impact. It began to work (more ETs). I sounded more interesting and the VU meter stopped banging its pins. I proliferated the pauses, short, medium, and long; the voice soared up and down (however silly it seemed at first), and my programs began to be almost professional. That direct comparison between my inside voice and its outside equivalent paid off.

Today it is simple to do all this with any tape recorder almost anywhere.

Today our equipment, from mikes to speakers, can generally take a wider dynamic range, though the ubiquitous limiter will cut you back if you get too loud. But the rules still basically apply, as they did 40 years back.

I went further in those first years. I began to take on some announcers' tricks I heard (as you do now) every single day. You start a sentence like "And now ... let's hear ..." with an "and" in your very deepest bass, then a "now" at a higher pitch-and you curl that "now" around the diphthong, naw-oo, like the knell of doomsday.

Announcers can make the silliest things sound important: "And naw-oo, a message from Chompy Cheese Bits"-phew! Grabs you. Why shouldn't I do the same, even on classical radio? So I did.

"And naw-oo, just listen to this extraordinary interpretation of (pause)

Johann Sebastian Bach...." It's a strange world, this audio of ours.

(adapted from Audio magazine, Sept. 1985)

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