JV: What was one of the foremost learning experiences you had there?
Chris: They had a feature called “Live At Five.” And Live At Five wasn’t actually live; it was pre-recorded. But country music artists would come in, either by themselves with their acoustic guitar, sometimes with their entire bands with full blown amp systems and drum sets, and they would perform usually two or three songs. And over the six years that CISS Country was on the air, we recorded about 900 songs. My predecessor probably recorded about 300, maybe 400 of those, and I did the other 500 or 600. And it was just the single best radio experience I’ve ever had. I got to record Alabama and Blackhawk and The Band and Carlene Carter, and you name it. If they came to Toronto, they usually would come and do Live At Five. And the radio station did it the right way; they invested enough money and built a studio that was appropriate for it so that these people would want to come in for the show. We would not do what most radio stations would do back then, which was to bastardize and completely butcher their product. We wanted them to be impressed; we wanted them to listen to it before they left and go, “Wow. That really sounds good. We’ll come back next time we’re in Toronto and do this again.” That was really the rationale behind it — hopefully they’d come back and do it again. And I’d say mostly they did.
I remember the first time I had to do it, it was with one of the first big bands, The Mavericks. And my boss, who had been doing all of these, didn’t really share too much of his knowledge with me. So I really had no idea what I was doing. I’m an imaging producer being asked to mix and produce the music for The Mavericks. So we multi-tracked the songs to a digital 8-track, the WaveFrame, and then mixed it down after they were done. I remember all the guys being in there, and we had brought in an audio engineer from another company in town so a real experienced engineer who knew a lot about mixing and recording music would be there. We brought him in at whatever, $50, $100/hr. to come and help me out. That’s all he’s there for, just to help me out so everything goes smoothly. We also have our Chief Engineer there to help me out if there are any technical difficulties, and we’re on a timeline. The band comes in around 1:30, and I have to have the thing mixed down for 5:00 that night; that’s when it actually goes to air. I have to mix down three songs one at a time, then put the three songs back into the interview, and then lay down the whole thing, which will be about 25 minutes long, back down to tape and into the system for it to be played back.
So the band’s sitting in there, and we’re getting a little bit of a phasing problem in the headphones, and I can hear it too. I must have spent 45 minutes trying to figure out what this was, and I swear to God, the sweat was literally dripping off my face. And I could feel my face was just beet, beet red. Our GM even came in and said, “Are you going to be okay?” And I said, “You know, I have what is going wrong here, and I don’t know how to fix it.” I said, “I know that when this is going to tape, it’s sounding fine, but I know that right now in their monitor, in their cans, and here in my speakers, it doesn’t sound right. I don’t know how to fix it, but I know it’s right going to tape.” I remember the guy in the band, the lead singer, finally just said, “You know what… just forget the headphones. Let’s do it without the headphones.” And they all throw their headphones on the ground, and you can tell they’re not real pleased. And my stress level? I thought I was going to have a heart attack. And right there I was thinking, “I don’t ever, ever want to do this again. This is way too stressful. This is not what I do. This is not my area of expertise. They can get somebody else to come and do this freelance, because I’m done with it.”
I remember getting done with that day, and I still felt that way a week later. But they weren’t going to hire anybody else. It was left to me. And one session at a time I got a little bit better, and I would say about eight months later, it was the thing that made me hop out of bed in the morning. It was the thing I just got so excited about, to go in and have a conversation with Clint Black about how to mike his guitar and have him sing two inches away from a window in the studio because he’s telling me, “If I sing right here, I’ll get a little bit of a bounce off the window and back into the mike; it will be a real nice kind of echo reverb thing you’ll get out of it.” It was just a cool experience. And I would say the country music artists, with very few exceptions, were the nicest, most accommodating, interesting people you could ever meet in the music world. No attitudes.
JV: What did the phasing problem turn out to be?
Chris: Oh, that… I was sending everything into the WaveFrame editor, and I’m bringing it all back from WaveFrame so I can monitor WaveFrame. So it’s all coming back from WaveFrame into my console, but at the same time, I’ve also got the left/right pushed on every microphone input that’s going into that console. So it’s going back to the mains twice — going into the mains from WaveFrame and also directly from the microphones, and they’re offset by a millisecond. Just enough to drive everybody in that room insane, including the guy I hired to come and help me out. Nobody could figure it out. However, it was a pretty crude setup. We had two consoles that were attached together and wired into the WaveFrame in sort of a makeshift way just to make it work.
JV: How long were you at CISS and what happened next?
Chris: I was there six years total. During that time, they launched Country Music Television Canada. I tried to make a jump from radio to post audio in TV, and they sort of convinced me that they really needed me at CISS Country. But they knew how excited I was about the possibility of doing post audio for television, so they arranged it so that me and whatever people I would have to hire at that point, would do all the post audio for the television network. It was really great. They let me and the Chief Engineer research and purchase and implement the equipment and software that we needed to carry out all of that business. Then they sort of made me Post Audio Production Manager for the network. I’d have to schedule and coordinate production for the CMT while juggling and balancing their needs against the day-to-day requirements of the radio station. It was almost like a small business being operated inside the radio station. I would keep timesheets, which were basically bills, and send the bills off to CMT. And then they’d pay the radio station, even though it was all the same ownership.
JV: How did you wind up as Production Director for the Rogers group where you are now?
Chris: I did CMT for a few years, and then after Country Music Television eventually got sold, CISS Country was sold to Rogers Communications here in Toronto. Rogers bought CISS Country in 1999, and I worked my butt off on the new format that they launched the exact same day they bought us. They sort of came in and said, “We purchased the radio station. CISS Country no longer exists, but what does exist is Power 92,” a new CHR station in Toronto. I remember… boy, there’s nothing worse for a producer than going through all your hard drives for the main file server, the on-air server, and deleting everything you’ve done for the last six years. You just watch it all go, and a little tear rolls down your cheek.
So I deleted everything out of the system, and they’re running DAT tapes of CHR music live on the station. And right then and there, literally at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday night, we started producing new splitters for a CHR station and loading in Top 40 music. And that went on for a while. I’d say I worked 7 days a week, 13, 14, 15 hours a day, for probably 3 or 4 weeks, and then 11 or 12 hours a day, with weekends off after that, for the next 3 or 4 months for lots of different reasons, not the least of which was, of course, if you’re a producer, you really want the station to sound hot because it reflects on you, and partly because our company had just been sold, so there was no guarantee that I had a job.
And then I told them what I was interested in doing. I was the Production Director and Creative Director back at CISS Country, and I said, “I’d love to contribute as much as I can at Rogers, and if there is anything there...,” and I submitted my resume and my demo tape and worked my butt off. Then they asked me if I was interested in being Production Director for the 3 stations they had in Toronto. This was in 1999, and I’ve been here since.