Sunday, May 1, 2016

Snap, crackle, pop!

I bet you think this is going to be about breakfast cereal! Well, not exactly, it is about music and the experience of the baby boomers with it.

First of all, our music came out on vinyl records. I loved the warm rich sound of records, especially the 33 1/3 RPM 12 inch albums. They seemed to hold up better than the 7 inch 45 rpm records that were the mainstay of the radio stations back in the day. Of course those records having the fortune of making it into the hands of the local DJ lived a glorious but rather short life. They were heard by thousands and thousands of ears that lived each day to hear the songs that these days fill the hallways of our memories. They didn’t last as long as those that made it to private collections. Playing a record on a radio station involved queuing and that resulted in “que burn”. Usually after a couple of weeks, we would have to replace the on air copy of the song with another.

Some of the 45s would hold up better than others. You could tell by the feel of the plastic when you hold it. You can see it is the grooves too. The good ones just look more substantial. Last weekend, I had a chance to visit the annual Record Show here in town. I got a chance to see many of my old friends, those songs on those record labels that haven’t seen the light of day for many years. I must admit that I was tempted but most of them looked like they have seen lots of play. That means that they were full of snap, crackle and pop! I spent the better part of an hour sorting through them and remembering them spinning on the green felt of turntable number one, just to the left of the console. One that I found was Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears.” When I picked it up, I realized that the hole in the middle of the record was slightly off center, just like the one we had at WCOS. When played, that off center hole caused a slight warble to the sound. Come to think of it; all the copies we had at the station had that same off center hole. I wonder if they ever pressed a 45 rpm copy that was not off center. I also wonder if the song would have been as big a hit without the off center hole. There is a bit of evidence to support the theory that the hole helped; “96 Tears” made it to #1 in the US and Canada but only 37 in the UK where 45 rpm records have a small hole.

Vinyl records were not the only source of snap, crackle and pop in our music, the other was radio itself. AM radio was king, and growing up in the south, which meant there was usually a background of static weaving in and out of the tapestry of the music that made up the soundtrack of our lives, even in the wintertime, the difference being the loudness of the static. Who remembers listening to Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes” in the middle of a thunderstorm? Wow, that was quite an “in your face” experience that you can’t even imagine listening to a record, CD or FM station!

Not too many people listened to their favorite AM station with headphones back in the day. Back then, radio announcers were required to listen to the “on air” signal to monitor the station’s transmitter real time. We had to use headphones in order to prevent feedback when the microphone was on. A lot of people use headphones these days to place their music right into the center of consciousness. For us, the experience of listening to our shows, including the static and even the low hum you sometimes got from the transmitter’s rectifiers really connected us to the “ether,” and we felt almost like we were immersed in the electron stream pounding out the backbeats of the music we were playing. Never before or since, have I heard the same rolling beat and the warmth of the music heated by those huge vacuum tubes.

Today, because of digital delay circuits and modern FM transmitters, we can’t monitor the transmitter because what it sends out is anywhere between 10 and 20 seconds behind what the DJ is doing in the control room. Instead, we monitor the output of the audio console. This is less than optimal because we can’t hear what the audio processing is doing to the signal. A common way you can tell this is happening is when you hear the music is too loud and you can’t hear what the announcer is saying behind it. It sounds OK to the announcer, but the audio processor has raised the level of the music to the point where the audience can’t hear him or her clearly.

I have a former DJ friend who preferred listening to the processed audio stream so much that he convinced the station engineer to build a parallel processing stream that fed his headphones so he could boogie old school style. Fortunately for him, the station engineer had been an old school DJ before switching over to the more profitable engineering side. I can tell you that when he was on the air, I never heard a mixing error nor did I ever hear him “step on” a song’s lyrics at the post.

So, when playing an old favorite on the air these days, if I have a spare moment, I often put my headphones on, sit back in the air chair and transport myself to a studio that was ¼ mile northwest and 50 years in the past of where I am now. I can hear the warmth of the tubes, the static background and most of all that familiar snap, crackle and pop of a well used and well loved vinyl record. Oh MY!

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