What questions do you have for the WFMT audio engineers?
Which recording do you think has the best sound?
Friday is Engineer Appreciation Day on WFMT, honoring a group of professionals who are as essential to a broadcast as the musicians themselves. After all, a performance can only be heard if a skilled individual properly captures it.
The engineer faces an incredible range of variables: how will the presence of an audience affect the acoustics? Is the electrical wiring adequate? Will theater staff hang microphones from the catwalk or will the sound engineer have to climb up there? The engineer must account for rehearsal schedules, the equipment’s physical appearance (if there’s a live audience), the acoustical properties of the instruments in a particular environment, whether or not the performers move around onstage, and whether or not they plan to address the audience.
Close call: “One of the worst situations happened when I was in Zagreb, Yugoslavia recording all of the Beethoven symphonies for 3 weeks. The orchestra went on strike in week three leaving us with no way to complete the project. We had to sit down with an orchestra negotiation committee and pay some more money. We insisted on getting a new principal oboe, so he was replaced.”
WFMT Trivia: WFMT and WTTW made their first stereo broadcast of a live event in 1958.
WFMT often depends upon ISDN, which stands for Integrated Services Digital Network. ISDN provides digital networking through telephone wires, allowing for broadcast-quality signals to be sent from a remote location to the WFMT studios. If the ISDN line has not been set up for a particular location, WFMT Operations Manager Donald Mueller must place an order with the phone company. Installation can take several weeks, which means advanced planning is critical to being ready come performance time. A day or two before the live remote broadcast, Don goes to the location to perform a test. The installation costs about a $1000.
Worst situation: “I was brand new at the station and scheduled two recordings back-to-back. Of course the first one went long and the second − a live Impromptu − required around fifteen microphones. I had twenty minutes to set everything and get my levels. It wasn’t until we were live that I found out several channels on the soundboard weren’t functioning. The broadcast was a mess, but I learned a valuable lesson: always schedule plenty of prep time.”
WFMT Trivia: WFMT has 21 live broadcasts scheduled in June.
A sound engineer has to consider which microphone best captures the sound of particular instruments. Choosing the optimal height and distance from the performer is critical.
Recording engineers work in peculiar places, often operating the mixing board from a separate room, like a church sacristy or a classroom. For Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings, the engineers used to sit in the “bass room” of Orchestra Hall.
“I’ve had to set up my recording gear in more than one toilet room.”
WFMT engineer Hudson Fair has a passion for the sound and design of the old tube microphone. He admits being impressed by a recent copy, “The Flea 49′s sound is very close to the original.”
WFMT Trivia: WFMT broadcast the first compact disc. Officials from Sony headquarters in Japan flew to WFMT, testing the equipment for hours alongside engineers Jim Addie and Gordon Carter before airing a jazz CD.
Pickiest musician: “Many years ago we did a regular live broadcast of a certain concert. One of the musicians recorded the concert at home and did not like what he heard. Since he had a certain measure of influence, the next concert he insisted that he would get to hear the mix during rehearsal and possibly make adjustments. He listened during the rehearsal and had us make some adjustments. When he was done the only instrument you could hear was his. When our Program Director heard this he told us to put it back to the original settings for the broadcast.”
Most unusual location: “While not for WFMT, certainly the most unusual location was the cab of a steam locomotive running at 60 miles per hour.”