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A Trip Down Memory Lane: Some Good Audio

If you recall a couple of years back, I heard from a fairly obstreperous reader named Bro Duke, of Santa Rosa, Calif. Bro Duke is a likeable if dedicated gadfly who is plenty appalled at how bad the audio is when he watches TV. He sent me a CD of examples of just how bad it gets out there in TV land and pestered me to take up the cudgels. He seemed to think that TV Technology and the FCC should crack down on bad audio, declare it illegal and punish the miscreants. As you may or may not remember, I devoted a couple of columns to Bro Duke back in 2001.

One of the examples on Bro Duke's CD was of a rerun of Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show." This is what I said about it at the time: "I find the upper midrange boost really irritating and the compression on the audience makes me feel like I'm being bludgeoned by a moderately firm two by four. Duke likes Carson's voice and the quality of room tone (which is much more "live" than more contemporary broadcast techniques) over more "contemporary" sound qualities. He attributes this to the use of a desk mic (Carson used an AKG 414 during the latter part of his career), plus booms rather than lavaliers on the guests and talent. I opined that the problems were probably due to sloppiness in the rebroadcast. That was then.

Some things never go away entirely.

About a month ago, I got a package in the mail containing a bunch of CDs, a long letter and some magazine articles from a guy named Ron Estes. Naturally, if you don't know, you're gonna ask.

Who Is Ron Estes?

It turns out Ron Estes was the audio engineer for NBC's "The Tonight Show" for about 11 years, from approximately 1980 through 1991. He had read my pieces on bad audio (uh-oh, I thought nervously!), and when he began to transfer to CD some of his audiotapes of the Carson shows, it occurred to him to share with me how it really sounded at the time. Bless him!

Hence, the package contained a CD of music cue excerpts of his mix of the 1975 Academy Awards, plus two Carson shows (a 1984 broadcast with Sammy Davis Jr. and a Valentines Day broadcast in 1985 with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme). All of these are in stereo, right off the console. (In early 1984, TV wasn't yet being broadcast in stereo.) On July 26, 1984, "The Tonight Show" was broadcast in stereo on WNBC-New York as an initial experiment-this was done to beat the folks at ABC to the draw since they were scheduled to broadcast the opening day of the 1984 Olympics in stereo the next day! Full-time stereo broadcasts of "The Tonight Show" began some time later; however, Ron had been hard at work figuring out how to do the show in stereo and had actually been audiotaping it that way since 1981, while it was being broadcast in mono.

So, I called Ron up, thanked him for sharing this remarkable material with me, and interviewed him for this column.

STEREO AUDIO FOR TV

Stereo was pretty well established by 1985 for the record industry. Most of us had at least some idea of what we were doing, and even National Public Radio was trying to get its stereophonic act together, with its remarkable series of Music Recording Workshops.

However, to hear Ron tell it, TV was still really stuck on mono. As he wrote, "shortly after starting on 'The Tonight Show' I began wondering what it would be like to mix the show in stereo. The NBC custom-built console, consisting mainly of Langevin components, was mono, but with some patching I was able to produce both a stereo and mono mix simultaneously... [A] problem was that only Channel 1 of the videotape machines went out over the single channel network facilities to the various stations. Discrete left or right recording was not possible as Channel 2 (which contained the reed section of Doc's orchestra and any other "panned right" information) would be lost to the audience.

"I had heard of sum and difference recording and thought this might solve the problem. One of our maintenance men, John Strain, designed and built a matrix encoding box... Channel 1 of the VTR was fed a compatible "sum" or mono mix, while Channel 2 of the VTR was fed a "difference" mix that could be used for archival purposes to play back these shows later in stereo. This method was used for several years before the network was stereo-capable. Many of 'The Best of Carson' shows, which originally aired in mono, aired in stereo by decoding the 'sum' and 'difference' signals on the videotapes."

Ron makes it sound pretty straightforward and easy. However, keep in mind that the show ran in real time and was not edited! Further, the console only had two bands of shelving EQ on each channel (with a few switch-selectable frequencies and gain settings), plus a grand total of six (count 'em, six!) LA-2A compressors; no pan pots, either. Six submasters were allocated as two pairs of L/C/R-one for voices and one for music and audience. Reverb for the orchestra was an AKG BX-20 (remember those?-a spring reverb with oil damping for the spring), and Ron used an EMT-plate reverb for music vocal tracks-much gain riding. Oh yes, the console did have 55 inputs, though I would imagine Ron seldom used more than about 30 of them. One other saving grace was that the output amps didn't clip until +37 VU (about 100 volts!), so summing bus overloads just weren't going to happen.

Personally, given my hothouse multitrack ways, I would rate this as an 11 (out of 10), for degree of difficulty.

SO WHAT DOES THIS STUFF REALLY SOUND LIKE?

The CDs themselves are a revelation. This stuff doesn't just sound, well, "good for TV sound." It sounds great, period! The Severinson band is a revelation and the clarity and richness of the voices of Carson, McMahon and Severinson are great, combined with a lovely tight ambience that makes it feel really live. Finally, the studio audience is quite small at 465, and the audience mic pickups are extraordinarily live and intimate.

I played this material for a couple of different adult audio classes I'm currently teaching, and the response was that this is completely different from what they remember of the TV shows (or what the current "Tonight Show" sounds like). There is a brilliance, a liveness, a vitality and a performing intensity carried in the audio that is almost overwhelming-man, it is cool!

As for commercials, Ron writes: "When we previewed the commercials each day before the show I would check for 'loudness' (audio compression, mid-range peaking, strident delivery, etc.) and then choose the level at which I would integrate these commercials into their breaks... Most local stations had their compressors set so that it expanded the loudness of most audio material and I was hoping to minimize this problem. Most of the commercials ran between 3 and 6 dB below 0 VU." Nice.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

These recordings are excellent. I have quibbles about some minor issues, but when played back on really good monitors at a studio production reference level these really stand up for mix balance, stereophony, timbre, cleanness and freedom from noise. Further, they really capture the spirit of the performers and illuminate them.

The bummer is that they reveal how much is lost between that stellar production effort and what usually emerges from our televisions-clearly, it is not a matter of technology. Ron was working with extremely limited resources, from a stereophonic point of view, and he was largely making it up as he went along. Wow!

Ron has given a few of these CDs only to friends and folks in the industry. They are good examples of "how good it can be." I hope you all can get a chance to hear some of this material.

Thanks for listening.