Blog: Recording Day, Part 1

ABOUT A HALF HOUR BEFORE CALL TIME Jeff, a rather stout man of forty-some years, bespectacled and bearded, arrives at the old school building in the center of International Falls. Built as a middle school in the 1930’s, the Backus Community Center is a three-story brick affair, fronting by a quiet street. This is a Saturday, so the building is locked. Jeff, however, has a key. He lives just across busy 3rd Street from Backus, and every evening he, or his wife Diane, or both take a brief walk through and around the building to make sure all the doors are locked and the correct lights are out. The key is very convenient for days like this.

Jeff enters the building, making sure the doors are left unlocked for the other members of the cast. He heads down two flights of stairs to an alcove with three doors. The left door offers access to the building’s basement. The center door, a metal gothic affair with an iron latch and large, bolted hinges, is the subject of some historic guesswork. The best theory is that it once protected a now-dismantled a paper incineration system. Inside is just a small room with strange brick walls. All who venture inside agree, the tiny room with the iron door is very creepy.
The final door is wooden, and old. Above it is an old cardboard sign stenciled with the words ‘Health Room’. Next to it, there’s a plastic box about six inches square with the letters ‘On Air’ painted on the front. An electrical wire sticks out of the box and disappears into the door jam. Below that, a printed sign reads ‘Studio B-6’. And in the center of the door, looking rather shabby as it was put together quickly (which it was) is a paper print-out that reads “Icebox Radio Theater” with a series of addresses and contact numbers.
Jeff arrives at the door and produces a key. He unlocks, moves inside and turns on the lights. He is in a small entryway about five feet wide. A large steam pipe runs along the wall on his right. A pegboard wall, painted white to match all the other walls in the room, is on his left. The floor is bare concrete.

Jeff moves purposefully into the room past a series of posters promoting old IBRT performances on the steam pipe wall, and a series of cork and white boards on the pegboards. There are index cards, scribbled notes, a home-made calendar showing all the months from September 2010 to May 2011, and a list indicating which shows are in what stage of production. Past these walls the room opens out to a comfortable square with a coffee table, half a dozen used chairs and a very ugly couch. A long table with a blue table cloth is along the steam pipe wall, covered with cups, bottles, sugar packets and other coffee paraphernalia. An electric kettle and a microwave are nearby. The whole area resembles the unkempt hominess of a dormitory lounge.

Jeff comes in and slips out of his coat. He hangs it on a hanger that is suspended on a water pipe running overhead. It seems every pipe in the building must run through this room. Steam, water, electrical conduit for power, internet and miscellaneous, they all seem to be here. The room was rather difficult for the community center to rent, but it is a perfect space for a recording studio. Only flushing toilets from the floor above interrupt the silence, and there shouldn’t be any of those on this day.

The studio is, in fact, a long rectangle about 100 feet by 20. Old curtains hang at approximately one-third intervals to divide the studio space into three areas. The room with the couch and the electric kettle is The Green Room; so identified by a sign hanging on one wall that features an image of the Green Hornet and Kato. Move past the old theatrical curtain hanging behind the couch, and you squeeze through a tiny gab between the curtain and the wall. Here, the wall is decorated with pictures of luminaries from radio’s past. Through this narrow gap you enter the studio space.
Like the rest of the Icebox Radio studio, much of the main recording area is assembled from cast-offs and donations. The Backus Community Center is a 70-year-old building, and there were many treasures hiding in un-used basement rooms and forgotten corners. Large, drab curtains hang on the side walls, on-loan from the building’s management which recently replaced curtains on the main auditorium stage upstairs. Above, a makeshift ceiling made of blue tarps and egg cartons hangs rather precariously from thin strings that criss-cross its surface. The floor is made up of five different pieces of carpet, all donated or scrounged. To one side, a school AV cart (easily the newest looking piece of equipment in the room) sits holding microphones, headphones, cables and various other pieces of equipment. Spread around the room, as far away from each other as cable lengths will allow, are four recording areas, each with its own mic stand and mic, headphones, music stand (some of the oldest antiques in the room) and stool. The setup is designed for flexibility. The room can accommodate five recording artists comfortably, seven or eight if they squeeze in.

The far boundary of the main record area is marked by two tri-fold wood and cloth screens that stand about six feet tall. They form a kind of doorway between main record, where the actors work, and sound effects. The Sound Effects department was designed to both store the multitude of home items, knick-knacks and hardware the IBRT has collected over the years, and provide a serviceable performance. Like the main record area, sound effects is flexible. A curtain wraps around a corner to sound-proof two walls. In front of the curtain is a large wheeled table. Next to the table, a full-sized door mounted on a wooden frame. Piles of foam and two mattresses, currently not doing any specific purpose but held on to in the hope of being useful one day, are leaning against the door. Across the room, a plastic utility sink for water effects (currently drained) sits with storage bins on top. And next to that, the storage area begins in earnest.

First, a wooden cabinet holds various dishes, knick-knacks and glass where. Next to that is a metal filing cabinet, each drawer filled with everything from electric motors to old shoes. Finally, a plastic shelving unit sits in the corner, piled with buzzers, boxes, two coconut shells, whistles, old office equipment and telephones, just to name a few things. It is difficult to see the system at work here, but one exists. Seldom does the sound effects department need to look too long before finding the exact item it needs.

Unfortunately, the logistics of working sound effects and actors together can be daunting, so this department will remain quiet on this day. After the actors have done their work, and the editor has trimmed the show down to its main ‘dialog track’, the sound effects department will come in for its own recording session and provide any foley that is necessary. But that is a job for another day.

Back across the studio, Jeff moves from the green room into main record. On the other side of the curtain that divides the green room from the rest of the studio is main control; a cluttered collection of computers and sound equipment that brings the whole show together. Two tables are pushed together to form a kind of ‘L’ shape with an office chair at the center. A printer sits on the angle of the ‘L’. To the left of the printer are piles of office supplies, an old computer monitor (currently unused) and the makings of the theater’s ‘Office Center’ (some day). To the right of the printer is an old desktop stereo with detachable speakers, a huge cinema screen monitor, a mouse, keyboard and the heart of the operation, a small, flat beige box called a Zoom R16.

The R16 is the newest piece of equipment in the room, but it would be easy to overlook. A little over a foot long and eight inches wide, it is a remarkable piece of equipment, more of a gaget than a powerful sound engine, but it fits nicely with the IBRT’s philosophy of cheap adaptability over name brand power. It can record up to eight tracks simultaneously either to a memory card on board, or direct to the computer. On this day, Jeff will not be required to act, so he has opted for the computer option. One downside of the R16 is it often crashes the computer unless someone is on hand to hit ‘save’ frequently. On days when Jeff does need to be on-mic, he simply picks up the R16 and moves it to the AV cart in main record. After recording to its own memory, Jeff will move it back to main control and plug the R16 into the computer (a Mac G5 situated under the desk) via a USB cable. Then, that session’s recordings are dragged and dropped to the computer. Uploading a ninety-minute session takes about 6 minutes.
Jeff slides into the control chair and taps the keyboard to wake the computer. The massive cinema display flashes to life, showing a desktop scene of a snowy road with a few icons down the ride side of the screen. He opens Garageband, and creates a new project named after this day’s play. Cables from a “stage snake” (a bundle of microphone cables that has individual connectors at one end, and a metal box with the opposite connectors at the other) peak up to the R16 from behind the table. Jeff makes sure that cables 1-4 (clearly marked on the connector) are plugged into the corresponding ports on the R16. Jeff plugs the USB cable which is perpetually plugged into the computer, into the R16, and turns back to the computer.

After a couple of adjustments, the computer is communicating with the R16 and is ready to go. Jeff creates four tracks, each one named for one of the actors working today, and assigns it a track on the R16. If it works, each actor should record on his or her own track, allowing Jeff to adjust volume, add effects, and a variety of other processes without effecting what the other actors sound like.
Just as he finishes these setup chores, Jeff hears footsteps back toward the front of the studio. The first actor of the day has arrived.

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