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4.12.04 Ignorance Confronted

Last Thursday I uploaded to PRX my well-mentored and revised radio production, "Kitty Keeps On Singing." It's always an anxious moment to put yourself out there for criticism in a field you are new to and by professionals who don't know your inner wonderfulness. In February I endured the sting of criticism for the first version, but it spurred me to get a mentor and stick with it. I was now posting a much better product.

Imagine my horror when, within a couple hours of the uploading, I got another lukewarm review -- this time from Sydney Lewis of Transom and the editorial board of PRX. Oh sure, some parts were complimentary -- as Jim took pains to point out to me while I was in mid-freakout. But still, I would have preferred pure adoration. The worst line of the review was this:

The production is a little rough -- an annoying hiss in the narrative sections, an off-fade here and there.

An annoying hiss? Would I have uploaded it with an annoying hiss? My mentor has won award after award for his sound production work. Would he have let "an annoying hiss" slip by? It's like being told you have bad breath right after you brushed your teeth.

I wrote my reviewer. Whether or not she liked the content, I was going to get to the bottom of the hiss business.

One of my recurring themes is the difficulty of learning new things. In business seminars they talk about a learning progression:

  • 1-unconscious ignorance (you don't know what you don't know)
  • 2-conscious ignorance (you are aware what you don't know)
  • 3-conscious competence (you can do it if you really concentrate)
  • 4-unconscious competence (you can do it without thinking)

To make a long story short, I learned I was a Stage 1 ignoramus when it comes to subtle shifts in background noise. Syd very kindly told me to put on headphones, crank up the volume and listen to point :24, :29, 1:05, etc. It was all but inaudible in my original MP2 file, but played through RealPlayer at the PRX site the little shifts were more pronounced.

Ohhhhhhhhh...

There is this thing called "room tone."* It's how a room sounds when everyone is quiet. I'd seen advice that sound people should always take pains to record a couple minutes of room tone, but I didn't really get it. What was first referred to as "hiss" was really the ambient sound of my bedroom-recording studio. When I would cut my narration and insert a few bars of music that undertone would stop, then suddenly appear again when my narration picked up. To the trained ear, it was jarring.

And thus I graduated to a Stage 2 ignoramus. I consulted with Paul, who gave me some additional pointers. Friday night I sat at my computer making a file of "room tone" by collecting all the pauses in my narration track. Saturday morning I spent hours, with headphones pinching my ears, pasting little snips of room tone into my production and carefully cross-fading the overlapping edges of different tracks. I was all a-tingle with newfound accomplishment. Stage 3 was mine.

Jim was interested in what all the fuss was about. I set things up so he could hear before and after. What had only hours earlier stretched before me as a highway of uneven sound suddenly snapped back into the milliseconds they were.

Jim frowned. I think he was only pretending he heard any difference. "I didn't think people listened to the radio that closely," he said.

Ignoramus.

Notes

Room tone (a.k.a. "presence" or "atmosphere"): A location's "aural fingerprint" - nonspecific sounds on the upper end (somewhere between 2 000 and 8 000 Hz).
Each room has a distinct presence of subtle sounds created by the movement of air particles in a particular volume. A microphone placed in two different empty rooms will produce different room tone for each. Room tone is recorded during 'production sound recording.' Room tone is used to match the production sound track so that it may be intercut with the track and provide a continuous-sounding background.
Room tone may smooth out edit points and give a feeling of life in a sound-deadened studio. The soundtrack "going dead" would be perceived by the audience not as silence but as a failure of the sound system. [From Filmsound.org]

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