Remembering TV Stereo Pioneer Ron Estes

(click thumbnail)In 2004, the late Ron Estes received a Technical Emmy for his work in developing TV stereo.I was shocked and saddened to learn of the recent passing of a good friend and a pioneer of television stereo, Ron Estes. Ron was for a number of years the sound mixer for "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," one of the all-time classics of U.S. television.

A program such as the Carson show demands perfection, and Ron was, to say the least, a top-notch sound mixer.

As also might be expected, the show established routine procedures that were perfected and repeated night after night. Working on the crew of the Carson show was, in many respects, the most routine of routines: band, monolog, panel talk, etc. But many nights also brought musical performers onto the stage, and accommodating these performers and making them sound their best was anything but routine. Ron was up to those challenges.

Nor could it be said that Johnny or his producers were on the technological cutting edge. A running joke had it that no one was sure that Johnny knew his show was in color. A clue to how this worked may be seen in the fact that for the duration of the Carson show's run in Burbank, the bright, multicolored stage curtain never changed.

Ron was on the technological cutting edge, however, and in the early 1980s, he convinced the show's producers to permit him to produce the show, recorded on one-inch videotape at the time, in stereo.

In order to assuage their apprehensions about what might happen if only a single stereo channel was broadcast (in mono, of course), Ron had to record the sum of the left and right channels on audio track 1 of the show tape, and the difference between the left and right channels on audio track 2, aptly called sum-and-difference recording. This way, the tape could safely be played back with track 1 feeding air, as had always been done.

When the time came in the summer of 1984, (a year before the network began regular stereo telecasting) to broadcast a test program in stereo, "The Tonight Show" was the perfect candidate, as it was already being recorded in stereo, and at that point Ron's hard work and pioneering spirit paid off.

On that exciting night, without previous announcement or publicity, those in the New York area with prototype stereo TV receivers at home who were waiting to see Johnny heard Sue Simmons announce at the end of her newscast that "The Tonight Show" would be broadcast in stereo. Following this, they saw the stereo light illuminate on their TV sets, and Doc Severinson, holding his trumpet, make a brief announcement to the same effect, and the stereo TV era was born.

TV stereo is now a daily routine, but this broadcast was anything but. The switching central facilities in Burbank and New York were mono plants, so two switching central channels had to be used at both. The first channel carried video and one audio track; the other carried just the second audio track. Ron's sum-and-difference audio tracks were played back and uplinked in Burbank, and since the network's fledgling satellite backhaul and distribution system did not yet have a permanent New York earth station, the signals were downlinked by a truck in Brooklyn, then transported to Manhattan on telco facilities. After the signals passed through New York switching central, they were put onto the microwave STL link system to the World Trade Center (which fortunately had two audio subcarriers), where they were routed to the transmitter.

Since the audio signals were still in the sum-and-difference domain, they had to be de-matrixed into left and right channel form before being fed into the homemade TV stereo encoder that fed the transmitter. There was absolutely no stereo monitoring equipment on the premises save an audio test set and an oscilloscope. This meant that the sum-and-difference channel levels, absolutely critical to maximizing separation, had to be balanced precisely using tone.

There was no way to further check stereo separation. Neither was there a stereo TV receiver at the World Trade Center. There was a stereo receiver at the studio, and once the broadcast was underway, the first indication to those at the World Trade Center that stereo sound was being successfully broadcast was the gleeful exclamations heard over the phone from those watching at the studio.

The homemade stereo encoding equipment that was used for that broadcast was subsequently reduced to rubble with the rest of the contents of the transmitter facility at the World Trade Center.

Ron Estes was a key player in the transition of television to stereo sound. His foresight and willingness to take a risk led him to convince those he worked for to permit him to record the show in stereo: not a mean feat in the risk-averse world of television broadcasting, particularly on a show that was a national institution. Fortunately, when his network won a NATAS Technical Emmy for pioneering work in TV stereo, Ron got to go to New York and share in the festivities.

It was more than saddening to hear of Ron's passing. He was a true pioneer of television stereo. Ron Estes, 1940-2006. We will miss you, Ron.

Randy Hoffner