By Keith Smith
Little did I know when I accepted the job as K-Earth’s Production Director in the fall of ’91, that I would get the opportunity and the privilege of working with a living broadcast legend. If that fact did not cross my mind, then imagine how far from the realm of possibility it was that I would be the one who would produce his memorial tribute.
It was Tuesday August 5, 1997. The news of The Real Don Steele’s death had been broadcast. Everyone at K-Earth was taken completely by surprise. K-Earth Program Director Mike Phillips came into my studio and informed me that we would be dedicating an entire weekend to The Real Don Steele, and it was going to hit the air in three days. This weekend would include past aircheck vignettes, listener call-ins, and opportunities for fellow broadcasters to remember his life and its impact. There was so much to do in such a short amount of time, and without any pre-production “in the can,” I was very skeptical of what the end result would sound like. I remember looking up at the clock every once in a while during those three days, and it seemed like hours were going by like minutes (or even seconds).
12 noon on Friday August 8th, 1997 came quickly. Even though I was still producing elements while the tribute was actually underway, by midnight it was done. As I look back on the weekend special, I realized that the most difficult task was finding one single piece of music that would be appropriate for both sentimental reminiscing and lighthearted tales of joy. It seemed like once I had that “piece of the puzzle,” the rest of the elements just came together.
The response was so positive that I felt it would be good to put together a compilation of the weekend’s highlights. That was how it all began!
As I started to decide on the layout of this compilation, I thought that it would be nice to open it up with a montage of the news reports of Don’s passing. I called Shaune Steele, Don’s wife, to see if she had any of the local coverage, and she did. I shared with her what I was doing, and before I knew it, I was given an invitation to go through his personal collection of airchecks. What an opportunity!
As I entered Shaune’s house and walked into her living room, I saw a couple of large boxes that were filled with tapes. They were not only labeled with station call letters, but each tape box had a post-it note with Don’s personal rating written on it. The rating system went something like this: “very good,” “good,” and “o.k..” There were NO “bad” ratings in the bunch (of course). I took all of the “very good” and “good” rated tapes, and saw that I was going to be very busy.
For the next couple of weeks I poured over the thirty or thirty five hours of material. I soon realized that almost every station that he worked at was represented, so I decided to turn the compilation into a retrospective of his career. I wrote a script, and chose Bobby Ocean as the voice talent. It was one of the best decisions that I could have made. He graciously volunteered his time and talent, and his wife Liz even “spiffed up” the copy.
Now it was time to start the assembly. At K-Earth, I work on an Orban DSE 7000 digital editor. This machine was the perfect tool for the editing of all of these airchecks, but due to the limited recording time of the DSE, I had to create a separate file for each section of the show. I started to filter through the material again, and I chose the best of the best. After all of the talk-overs, call-ins, and other elements were in their files, I started to sort them according to flow. After all of the segments were in the right order according to flow, I listened to them over and over…and over. I heard segments that were not at the proper speed or sections that needed equalization. I corrected the speed with the vari-speed control on my Otari reel-to-reel machine, and I ran the segments with deficient sound quality through an Orban parametric equalizer. Then I decided that I would try to cross-fade as many segments as I could, and the rest would be “butt-spliced” together.
The next step was to put the narration beds under Bobby’s voice. I searched through appropriate production library CDs. I then started to assign certain beds to certain sections. It was my goal to match the narration bed with the approximate time period that Bobby was talking about. After all of the beds were chosen, I had to edit them so that every bed ended cold. I did this so that each transition from narration to aircheck material was smooth. This was done very effectively with the DSE 7000, both by its ease in editing and its time compression feature. I would edit the bed as close to the end of the last word of the narration as I could, and then would use the time compression to get it perfect.
Because the DSE could not hold an hour of information in one file, I had to find another way of putting all of these segments together. I asked my friend Michael Seven (owner of Pow-Wow Productions) if he would help me assemble the segments on his Spectral system. He agreed. We ended up using many different tracks because after all of the segments were put together, we saw that some segments needed added equalization so that the sound was consistent. After ten mixes (or more) due to flaws and changes, we finally were ready to cut the master CDs. On top of the equalization work that was done in the assembly of the project, Michael mastered the program, which “sweetened” it considerably. This mastering unit is a multi-band equalizer and compressor, which evened out the disparities that existed in some of the sections.
As I look back on the project, I reflect on some of the challenges of producing one piece of audio with many segments of varying quality. I remember, receiving a tape of a rare live interview that Steele did in a bar. It must have been recorded on a tape deck with a condenser mic, and the crowd noise was almost as loud as Steele was. If it weren’t for the low pass filter on my parametric equalizer, I wouldn’t have been able to use it. I thank God that I live in a time with parametric EQs, digital editors, and all of the awesome advances in audio processing. We as producers are quite blessed!
Well, the show is “in the can.” I am hopeful that those who listen come away with the same sense of awe that I did when I heard the evolution of this great talent as he moved from The Don Martin School of Broadcasting to K-Earth 101, where he ended his storied career. It is my hope that every producer has a chance to take on a project like this. It was quite a learning experience.
Tina Delgado is alive, ALIVE!