In a recent post, David B. Treadway makes an important point. I was also amazed by the almost total lack of ego among the stars of KAAY.
Keep in mind, I didn’t join the KAAY airstaff until 1977. In ‘71 and ‘72, I was just a kid hanging around the studios on Friday and Saturday nights, in serious violation of Pat Walsh’s visitor policy. Even so, folks like David B., Phil North, Jonnie King and Barry Wood freely and gladly gave their time to coach me. Jonnie graciously took the time to show me how he chose music for the station, and how to communicate with the listeners. (Side note: Jonnie is one of those rare individuals who has the talent and ability to sound as if he’s right in your room with you, talking to only you as your personal friend.) Barry taught me that you’re not doing an airshift, you’re producing a show, and he gave me my first Budweiser. David B. and Phil would spend extra hours in the production room, teaching me, step by step, what they were doing, how they did it, and why.
And that brings me to what’s on the top of my mind as I sit here in a 64-track Pro Tools suite, with more goodies than the law allows. David B. and Phil have always been known as two of the best air talents KAAY ever had, but what sometimes get lost is that these two were also the wizards of the KAAY production room. While a number of air talents consider production to be a necessary evil, these guys loved it. Not only was this long before the days of computer workstations, plug-in effects, analog special effect boxes and even multi-track tape machines, but at that time, production rooms were equipped with cast off gear from the main control room. The idea of buying a brand new piece of gear for the production room was almost unheard of. So these two not only made magic, but they did it with almost nothing. The imaging and commercials they created were first rate even by today’s digital standards, but when you consider the technology they were working with, it was nothing short of amazing.
Today, if I want reverb on a voice track, I have literally dozens of reverb plug-ins to choose from and an infinite amount of control to tweak the sound just the way I want it, then save that preset for later use. In those days, reverb came from using one of the tape machines for slap-back, 7 1/2ips for a slow echo, 15 ips for fast. There was no Waves Metaflanger plug in to give you a phaser or flanging effect and no Pro Control to automate the send and receive sidechain. Instead, you racked up the same audio on two tape machines, started them at the same time, then used your thumb to alternately slow the playback speed just a touch, and recorded the result on another machine. And forget about being able to manipulate audio a thousand different ways or even to multi-track. Your only tools was a grease pencil, a razor blade (slightly rusty), a roll of splicing tape and your skill and imagination.
The workhorses of the KAAY production room were Ampex 351 tape machines, in mono configuration. Punching one of the transport controls on those monsters (and those controls required a heavy punch) produced a rather satisfying "thunk" sound as multiple relays engaged, and pulled enough power to dim the lights in half of downtown Little Rock. Yet thanks to the engineering guys, the audio quality that came out of them was outstanding. In fact, when I left KAAY in 1978, several of those 351's were still in use.
The monitoring system in that room was a huge, old dump truck of a speaker (the brand escapes me) sitting in the back of the room, about ten feet behind you, aimed right at your back. An interesting set up for critical monitoring, to say the least.
While today my digital microphone modeling plug-in will give me the exact sound of hundreds of different mics, at that time there wasn't even any sort of processing chain for the production room mic, until one of the engineeres found an old three-band EQ that actually came from a Gray labs turntable, made some slight modifications to it, then installed it on the mic line. Believe it or don't, the sound was actually better than some of the digital devices I use today, warm, but with an amazing amount of punch.
Along with learning how to make silk purses from pig's ears in the production studio, Phil, david B. and Barry Wood also taught me that the most important element in audio production is the written word. No amount of studio wizardry will save a bad piece of copy. Or, as their favorite saying went, "no matter how hard you rub, you can't polish a turd". And these three guys, along with others, were some of the best copywriters ever to put pen to paper.
Consider these two classics:
First, a commercial that Phil put together for a James Taylor concert. The spot opened with Phil's voice, using an absolutely haunting delivery over the intro of 'Fire and Rain' with the lines, 'Once there was a guy. A simple guy who couldn't quite get his head together. He spent some time in a mental institution, and that's where he met Suzanne. He got better, she got worse, was isolated and committed suicide. Thus the true story behind the one and only James Taylor (into the lyric) "Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you.'
Second, my all-time favorite imaging line: 'KAAY Com-Ex News...better staffed...better qualified...better listen.'
If those don't send chills up and down your spine, better check your pulse.
*I hear rumors that some low-life actually swiped this news line and used it on WIOD in Miami in 1994. Of course, I have no idea who that low-life would be.
Wow, Greg, what an account! I don't believe I've ever read such a great account of behind-the-scene production at KAAY! Thank you SO much for this, and we'll be looking for more!
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