Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sound Effects

Back in the day the DJs who were the core of live radio were always looking for a special sound that we could use on the air. We searched high and low for that unique piece of audio that we could use to drive the competition crazy trying to figure out just how we made it. Sometimes it took us to places where no man has gone before or quite frankly should ever go again. We even came up with one sound that was used a decade later in a six – part movie series. But more about that later;

The Good, The Bad and The Awesome!

The Good: The first sound “FX” that I want to share is an echo effect. Our station had a reverb system but my buddy Scotty and I wanted to improve on it for special phrases like “Number One” and the station’s current tag line. We tried parking lots, football fields and auditoriums but none of them gave us the exact sound for which we were searching. We tried airplane hangars, basketball courts and city streets in the middle of the night. Still we couldn’t find that special echo. At that time the radio station was located on the second floor of a high rise apartment building. My friend had a slight leg handicap so usually we rode the elevator but late one afternoon the elevator was tied up so we walked up the stairs. As we were talking, we suddenly realized that the stairwell produced exactly the echo that was the object of our search.

We quickly attached a long cable to the microphone from the production studio and drug it across the lobby floor and into the stairwell. It was a Saturday so we didn’t have to worry about anyone tripping over the cable. We were having a blast, yelling “Number One” and every other catch phrase we could think of into the microphone and reveling in the great sounds we were producing when we were interrupted by the security guard for the building. It seems that we were scaring the little old ladies on the fifth floor and they wanted to call the police. We agreed to finish up quickly but we lost the best echo chamber in the city the day we found it. The other guys never figured it out.

The Bad: There was a time when the station had the tag line used by a lot of top 40 stations in the day, “Tiger Radio.” We were a little uncomfortable with that tag line, since the mascot of the arch-rival to the local University of South Carolina was a tiger. We had a friend who had taught himself how to burp at will. Yes, it sounds gross but it gave us an idea. We got him to “burp” all of our names and the current tag lines onto tape. We then did our sound effects magic on his efforts and converted the burps into “The Talking Tiger.” Now that worked for us better than “Tiger Radio.” We used that tag line for almost a year, and no one figured out how we did the “Talking Tiger.” Lucky for us they didn’t.

The Awesome: Now the story of the movie sound effect that we used a decade before Hollywood. One day, I was working at the transmitter site with the chief engineer. I was helping him make some repairs to the night time transmitter while the day time transmitter was on the air. We were taking a break and decided to go inspect the anchors for the guy wires that held the tower up on its pedestal. Our tower was about 400 feet tall and these guy wires were pretty substantial. They were made from steel cables 5/8 inch thick. As we approached the base of one of the cables, we noticed an abandoned mud dauber nest, so I tapped the nest with the hammer I had with me to knock it off the wire.

“KaPoeeew” I was rewarded with the neatest sound I have ever heard in my life. It started with a sharp percussion and tailed off as the cable vibrated from the impact of the hammer. We both looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Did you hear THAT?” Working on the transmitter was forgotten as we went around the base, tapping on all the cables until we found the ONE that was perfect. We got a clean recording of the effect and used it in special projects for several years afterwards. You can imagine my surprise when sitting in a dark theater on May 25, 1977, that sound came back to me out of the past. You see, that sound of a steel tower guy wire being tapped by a hammer was used the base of the blaster fire sound effect in the Star Wars movies. Oh MY!

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