As we progress in life things we like change, favorite movies/foods/songs etc evolve and change. We are rarely today what we were 20+ years ago. HOS is just about the only thing I can think of that is still a constant. Obviously some programs strike more of a cord than others but I still look forward each week to that hour where we enter another world.
I'm sure your plate is full but should time permit I think sometime on the blog a short piece on what it takes to make a program would be interesting. How long does it take to put a program together ? Do you decide let's do a space week or a piano week or a change of season week. etc.
Thanks for looking out for us Space Fans.
Thank you for asking. At the risk of creating the kind of disillusionment that famously accompanies seeing sausage made, I'll give this a shot.
WARNING: this post may contain spoilers, read at your own risk.
After 26 years, the process of creating the weekly HOS program has settled into something of a routine, but it has never been 100% predictable. The music gods either smile on your work and allow it to flow with little effort...or they do not. The deadline remains the same in either case. So we long ago decided that when a show was not reaching our standard of quality, it was better to rerun a good one and put more time into the new show.
It must be said that where HOS shows are concerned, we try to take a longer view of our source material. After all, this kind of music has been around for centuries. What's the rush?
Most radio music programmers are focused either on exposing newly released material — a form of music journalism that is supposed to aid the listener in "music discovery" — or optimizing a format composed of classic tracks in their genre.
We do neither, which I realize can be frustrating for the many worthy artists, labels and music promoters who are looking for timely airplay for their new releases. Our answer to music discovery is our online service, which now provides not only a "curated" source of the best music, but also a detailed reference guide to all the artists and albums we play.
From the very beginning of the national show in 1983, Anna Turner and I were concerned primarily with creating an immersive, hour-long contemplative music experience. This is the reason for the uninterrupted format and minimal announcing, and I believe is largely responsible for our longevity as a program.
So while a great new album release can certainly inspire us to create a show around it, it can also sit in our "on deck" circle for years before we find the right material to combine with it and the right moment for a show. I sincerely apologize to any artist or label who has waited in vain for airplay, but we have found that a show where the component tracks truly join together to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts is more than worth the extra time it takes. Not only that, like a classic album, it is the only standard that will support repeated listening.
To prepare, we review new material and collect it around various themes or program ideas until something like a "critical mass" of raw material is reached. At this point we can consider using the material to create a finished show, which is a separate process with its own dynamics.
An additional element in our creative process is the subtle question of seasonal and cultural appropriateness: what show is best for a particular week? The week of 9/11, for example, we completely changed our plans and wrote new voiceovers for a rerun show whose music took on a totally different meaning in the light of the event. (Pgm. 536) There's no formula — it's an intuitive process.
When you are working with ambient music that itself creates a virtual sound environment, this musical "space" also relates to the larger environment we live in — the season, the weather, and the cultural moment. This correlation, whether obvious or subtle, informs many of our scheduling decisions.
We have found that certain ambient sounds and musical genres simply sound more effective at certain times of the year. For this kind of seasonally related material, there is a sense that the music is "locking in" to the surrounding atmosphere, from which it gains a kind of inevitability and power. Other music is more neutral and could be scheduled anytime.
Longtime Associate Producer STEVE DAVIS does most of the initial filtering of the new material that comes our way. I also review and comment on new arrivals as time permits. After 26 years of national syndication, many of the artists whose music relates to our format send us their music automatically. We also go out and beat the bushes by requesting service from new artists we have not previously contacted. As the web has grown, this process has become much easier, since we can listen to samples and full-length tracks online. This year we added a 4 terabyte file server to our in-house network to store downloads, since some artists are now abandoning CDs altogether and only releasing their music online.
Steve and I discuss the upcoming schedule and make initial decisions about what we will work on in a given week. After years of working "just in time," we now produce one week ahead of our broadcast release schedule, which makes it easier for both our public radio stations and Sirius/XM Satellite Radio to process and promote the upcoming shows in their own production systems.
Once we have determined the musical theme and the schedule, the patient is moved to the operating table by loading all the material we have collected for that show onto our Pro Tools digital audio workstation. Pro Tools is a professional audio editor that we have used since it was released, but we could do it with any number of other programs. Our hardware is a little Mac Intel Mini, a 24" flatscreen, and Genelec monitor speakers, which is all we need.
Digital audio has been a great boon to our work, as it maintains the full quality of the original CDs or hi-res files and allows instant and almost effortless editing and experimentation with the music. Nevertheless, there is no substitute for simply sitting back and listening, just like you do at home.
Steve Davis does the initial load in, then takes a pass at establishing the starting and ending pieces and creating a sequence for the rest of the show. This usually happens on Monday. He listens during the day, I listen at night when I can work uninterrupted.
Then we begin a process of adding and subtracting, moving and changing, editing and tweaking that can take as little as a day or as long as three. Regardless of how long it takes, the object is to make sure that the individual pieces feel like an integral part of a larger entity, and the journey through the sequence feels natural, inevitable and correct. If it's just not working we start to think about a rerun, and remind ourselves that we work to a standard of quality, not a schedule.
When we get it right, the program begins to emerge as an entity in itself. At that point, if it hasn't already become clear, it's time for me to give the show a name, and start writing the copy for the intro and the outro. Normally I do this at night when it's quiet and I can really hear the music with fresh ears. In the course of a typical week, I may have listened to the program a dozen times in various stages of completion.
As I listen, I refine the volume levels of each piece using Pro Tools and additional "plug in" processors. The goal is: not too loud, not too soft...just right. This sounds trivial, but along with the editing and sequencing is one of the keys to a program that flows effortlessly from end to end and does not have you diving for your volume control at any time. We want you to relax, listen, and perhaps think about wonderful things, not worry about adjusting your radio or computer.
We must deliver shows that are exactly 59 minutes long every week, so this means that some music editing is necessary just to bring the programs to time. But over the years we have found that we can often improve the flow of the listening experience by making additional edits within the component pieces of music. These edits may be anywhere from a few seconds to 80% of a longer piece. This explains the (edited) and (part) references within our playlists. Remarkably, no artist has ever complained about this.
Now it's time for the voiceover session, which I do first thing in the morning of deadline day. Normally I "rough cut" the voice tracks, then turn them over to Steve Davis for fine editing and a first pass at mixing them into the head and tail of the show. Editing voiceovers with tape and razor blades used to be unbelievably tedious; now it's almost fun with a digital editing system.
When this is done, it's time for some serious tweaking to fit the announcements into the first and last piece of music. 1/10th of a second more or less makes a difference for the pacing to sound natural; tiny volume changes to both the voice and the music allow the words to "float" over the background music and still be perfectly audible. And shorter is always better, so I edit and rewrite as necessary during the session.
When everything has been checked and rechecked several times (more listening) we record the final show to the hard disk and then transfer it to another computer, where it is transformed into several other formats: one for public broadcasting, one for SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and several more for our own online service. We use special "batch encoding" software for this. Then we upload all the different files to distant servers, where they eventually find their way to you.
In the end, the idea is to make every show sound as effortless as floating through a dream you want to have again, and again, and again...