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RIP Live to Tape

January 7, 2011

Unknown.jpegThis year, VoiceBox, the weekly public radio show that I host and produce for NPR-affiliate KALW about singing, has changed its production model from "live-to-tape" to "fully pre-produced." The first show of the year, which airs tonight from 10-11pm (at www.kalw.org and via the dial at 91.7 FM), welcomes in the new system.

Listeners may perceive a shift in the feel of the show, though it might seem fairly subtle. Changes include more artful fades in and out of the musical excerpts, a higher number of audio samples, many of them shorter than before to maintain the balance between discussion and music, and far fewer verbal splutterings and guffs.

But the change probably means much more to me than it does to anyone outside the process.

There are so many advantages to working with my first-ever full-time producer -- the thoughtful, musically-minded and technically-astute Seth Samuel. For one thing, it's wonderful to have someone other than myself who's invested in the project to bounce ideas off and share the production burden with. The end-product is far more professional, slick and marketable than before (meaning that I can start going after syndication opportunities and the like). Because I don't feel so pressured to make the entire recording session fit to exactly 59 minutes in one take, I feel more relaxed (as do my in-studio guests, I believe) and can take the time to ask just the right question and chop and change ideas on the fly and even in post-production, which was not possible before.

Last night, for example, Seth and I recorded a program for January 14 which traced the development of the vocal melisma from the Baroque Period to the overwrought singing styles of contemporary pop stars like Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Davod Archuleta. I realized only when I got to the station that I had chosen a Broadway recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess when it would have made more sense to put in an opera version. (You'll have to listen to the show next Friday to find out how Gershwin fits into this discussion.) In the old, live-to-tape days, I would have had to live with my mistake. But now, all I have to do is source a different version of the track and have Seth drop it into the mix in post-production. Easy peasy.

Still, there are things about the live-to-tape system that I miss. Gone is the thrill and adrenalin rush of having to pull off an hour of radio all in one, as-close-to-flawless-as-possible take. Also, the flow of the recording session used to be much smoother, shorter and in some ways more satisfying. Come hell or high water, the thing would be over in an hour (which always flew by) and my guests and I "lived" the recording session as if it were the live show, listening to the audio samples all the way through and treating the program as if it were going out on the airwaves then and there.

The closest analogy I can think of to illustrate the switch from the live to tape to fully pre-recorded model is that of an actor moving from doing a play at a theatre to working on a television program. The challenge for me, going forward, is to maintain the electric energy of a live show with the slickness of a carefully-honed product.

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