What a waste of an hour. I just downloaded a small stack of Frank Race episodes, only to
discover I couldn't listen to them. The sound quality -- and I use the word loosely --
was so bad that it was pointless to try. It sounded like someone was listening to the show
in another room, and there were 14 closed doors between me and that radio. Murk. Delete.
Empty recycle bin. Brood.
The sound quality roulette wheel is familiar to us all in the old time radio hobby. It
seems to be getting better all the time, in general, but there's still plenty of horrible
sound out there to contend with. Entire series are marred by poor sound quality. One of
my favorite shows, in fact, suffers from bassitis. Bold Venture stars Humphrey Bogart and
Lauren Bacall. Set in the Caribbean, it has all the ingredients for adventure, intrigue,
romance, and more adventure. When someone first posted all the episodes on a newsgroup,
I babysat my computer day and night to make sure I got every one of them. And I wasn't too
thrilled with the murky sound that made the adventures barely audible.
Most of us accept it. This is just the way it is. We curse a little and sometimes whine
to each other. But there are some people out there who actually do something about it.
T.M. Conner is what we who give technical names refer to as a "sound guy." He has quite
a setup in his home where he restores old radio programs, going far beyond the call of duty
until they almost sound like modern CDs. Remember when I first told you there were many
corners of this hobby? This is certainly one that requires more financial output and
dedication of time. It can also be one of the most rewarding areas of the hobby, because
at the end of the day, you've got something nobody else has.
It begins with the purchase of what is known as an ET, or an Electrical Transcription. It's
basically a record. Some of the later ones are almost exactly like records, the earliest
were aluminum, often bare, sometimes coated in lacquer. Between those eras came the lacquer
disks, often called acetates. As scratchy as these things can be, at least they couldn't be
recorded over, which is why all those shows survive today while so many from the reel-to-reel
era have vanished forever.
T.M. Conner has just scored a crate of transcription discs of My Favorite Husband. Opening the
box, he finds most of them in pretty fine shape, though a few show evidence of Palmetic
Acid, a white substance caused by the decomposition of the lacquer coating on the aluminum base.
Most of these discs will take Connor about 10 minutes to clean. The few showing Acid will take
a lot longer. The cleaning is done with distilled water and a series of brushes that range
from all sizes and shapes of paint brushes to bath brushes to toothbrushes.
After the cleaning process, the discs are rinsed and dried. The heavy equipment is brought out
and the studio is set up as Conner chooses the proper stylus for the job. After listening to
the raw material, the equalization is set to restore the tone to just the way it originally
was. Once this is all set up and ready to fly, the disc is played and recorded onto computer
via a sound editing program called Cool Edit 2000 from Syntrillium. Conner saves these recordings
in .wav format at a minimum quality level of 128/44 for mono and 320/44 for stereo. Then it's
time to burn the wav file to CD.
What you have here is a fine sounding CD. One that would elicit ooh's and aah's from the average
OTR collector. But guess what. This isn't "the thing." This is what Conner and other audiophiles
call the "raw." The golden rule amongst these hobbyists, the rule which must never be broken, is
"always make a raw copy of everything you do, because new technology may come along soon and
enable you to do a better cleanup." All this time invested up to now has been for the raw.
Then comes the truly crazy part, which has the end result you can't argue with. When the mood
strikes, Conner loads the raw wav into the Cool Edit with the Sound Forge noise reduction plugin.
The computer's job at this point is to remove all clicks, pops, scratches, snaps and other
unwanted surface noise. It takes its time doing so. For a 30 minute show, it takes an hour
and a half, more or less. That's because it takes three passes at it, y'see. Pass one gets
most of the clicks and pops out, and believe it or not we're talking about tens of thousands
of them. On pass two, surface noise such as rumble and buzzing is isolated and, if all goes well,
eliminated. Finally, on the third pass, the filters try to weed out all remaining obtrusive pops
and clicks without damaging the integrity of the shows. Sometimes, even after all this, there
are still little annoyances that have to be dealt with, so the brave audiophile will zoom in
closer and closer until the spike in question in right in his sights, highlight it, and either
delete it completely (do I hear gasps?) or perform any number of volume or EQ reduction tricks
to make it less audible. Then another CD is burned.
Yes, this is the one.
To many, this will all sound like a crazy amount of work to go through just to improve the
sound of some old radio shows. It seemed a bit nutty to me, too, until I met T.M. Conner.
See, he had a few cleaned up episodes of Bold Venture, that Bogie and Bacall gem I told you
about earlier. Let's just let you be the judge. I've encoded these two sound clips in the
same quality level as far as RealAudio goes. Of course there's no comparison beyond that.
Here's a clip of a standard Bold Venture episode. Now here's one of
Conner's cleaned-up Bold Venture episodes. It's hard to tell through
the murk of example 1, but they're the same episode.
So maybe those guys aren't crazy after all. They sure do get to hear things the rest of us
are doomed to miss. But in the end, it's really just another area of a hobby that has more
cul-de-sacs and back roads than I'll ever find time to write about. I'll keep trying, though.
Special thanks to T.M. Conner, without whom this column would have sounded much murkier. See
you next month.