News From The Woods - August 15, 2010


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published August 15, 2010

"Always On The Fringe"

It seems that I have always lived on the fringe. I don't know if it's just me (and my mindset) or my location. As you may imagine, Mountain Home, Arkansas is not exactly the center of the known universe, music or otherwise. Sure, we DO have our "local heroes" that hail from Arkansas. There's Johnny Cash, Glenn Campbell and Grandpaw Jones to help polish our "hillbilly" image. We have famous authors, movie stars, Sam Walton, The Razorbacks, and Bill Clinton. Still, it's not exactly like an invitation to the upper echelons of society.

Arkansas (pronounced "Ark-Kan-Saw") is deeply and firmly rooted into Southern History. Although I was born in St. Louis, I have lived in the Natural State since 1947 (yes, you DID read that correctly). I'm 63 and proud to be an American and an Arkansan. Even though being connected to this state has mostly caused me more grief than fame or fortune. It's all part of what spurred me to write about being "on the fringe".

To begin with, please allow me to expound on "the fringe". It seem that all my life I've had to make do with either second best (or well below) or with a technology that may have led the pack in the beginning but was eventually outstripped by deeper pockets or larger brains that knew how to take a good idea and blow it way out of proportion. I will give you some examples:

When I got into music as a drummer in 1964, our band "The Vipers" were local heroes but that was about as far as it went. We did get a crack at a few brass rings but because of circumstances we never got past the initial thrill of "almost making it". We landed a recording session by a famous producer from Memphis, but on the day we were actually recording in his studio he met a young lady named Sandy Posey and decided to promote her career instead. The same band, two years later, got another shot at fame when we were managed by Harold Koplar, who owned three radio stations and two TV stations, along with the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. We were going to star in our own television program, release an album, and do a tour. What happened after that would take too long to explain. Suffice to say "the deal fell through" and we returned to our hometown to lick our wounds and eventually split up.

In 1968, when I entered the broadcasting field as a radio announcer (referred to as "Third Class Endorsed Radio Engineer" by the FCC) I landed my first job in Pine Bluff, not exactly a hot bed of activity. Ironically, the station's boss, Buddy Deane, happened to be a big wheel in Baltimore in the 50's and inspired the movie "Hair Spray". He was a top DJ that pioneered Top 40 radio in the nation and who moved to Arkansas to retire and run his AM radio station, KOTN ("1490 in the land of KOTN"). I went on the air on January 1, 1968 and got a real first hand look at the "real" Top 40 radio station. He was so far ahead of the pack that KAAY, 50,000-watt AM powerhouse in Little Rock would monitor our playlists to see what was going to be the next hot regional smash single. So, even though I did not cut my teeth in a major market, I STILL got the benefit of learning the insides of radio broadcasting. After that, my entire radio career was spent in Arkansas. I went from Pine Bluff to Rogers to Ft. Smith in the course of two years and wound up being among a handful of DJ's that created a new genre of radio programming called "AOR" (Album Oriented Rock) while working at 5KW AM KWHN and 100KW FM KMAG in Ft. Smith.

It was also in Ft. Smith that I began my other two major careers, concert promoter and audio engineer. Ft. Smith happens to be in the middle of the travel route for rock and roll tours moving between OKC/Tulsa and Little Rock/Memphis. Therefore, the tour managers for bands started pitching concerts to me so they'd have a one-nighter that brought in some money between "big gigs"……. Still on the fringe. I did okay at it…. Never made any "big money" and eventually after a couple of years Lady Luck caught up with me and I lost my shirt on a concert with "Trapeze" in Fayetteville due to an overnight blizzard which made it nigh impossible for anyone outside the city limits to make the gig. My own band couldn't even make it as the opening act, but I made it. And I watched as my promoting career took a nose dive.

As a DJ in Ft. Smith I wrangled my way into Ben Jack's recording studio, started sweeping floors and retrieving pizza for bands recording there. One fateful night the studio manager, Mickey Moody, gave me a shot at engineering and I started my career as a recording engineer. It wasn't a "big time" studio like in Memphis or Nashville, but it DID have professional equipment of the caliber required in those days to make a record. I gained valuable experience there in a couple of years, and eventually bought my own recorder and began to record bands around town for free, just to get the experience. I started with just a Dokorder 4-track, Radio Shack microphone mixer, and a handful of cheap microphones but I got a lot of hands on which would secure me as a professional in later years… Of course I never recorded any who became famous back then (because it was Arkansas, y'know)……. Always on the fringe…..

Eventually I moved back to my hometown of Mountain Home and established Cedar Crest Studio in a little green pillbox-looking concrete block structure sitting in the middle of a red clay field on the (then) outskirts of town. My partner, Mark Cheney, was the guitarist in our band "Goldrush". We were constantly broke and even used band wages to make payments on rent, phone, and electricity. There wasn't much of a local music scene in Mountain Home in 1973 (and there still isn't) and what bar bands there were certainly didn't have the money to spend on recording time. It was mostly nickel and dime jobs. Eventually our money ran out and we had to vacate the building because it was being torn down to erect a shopping mall. It would be several more years before I had the guts to try again and even then it was bleak until I got into video, which pulled me out of the gutter just enough to keep my head above the water. I know… you're thinking "Well, Bob, only an idiot would try to make a living with a recording studio in the Arkansas woods…" I hear you loud and clear. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what all the bankers in town told me when I tried to borrow some money.

Are you getting the picture yet? Well, somewhere in the early 80's consumer video was rearing its head in the marketplace. I drove to West Plains and purchased an SL-7200 1/2-inch Sony Betamax for almost a thousand dollars. Tapes were over $20 each. It would only record 2 hours in the "long play" speed, but the images were crystal clear. Less than six months later I bought a new Sony HVC 2200P video camera and a break out box which enabled me to take the audio and video from the single-TUBE camera and patch it into the A/V IN jacks of the Betamax. I got my first video job doing an "armchair tour" for a local real estate company. The standard for "professional video" at that time was ¾" U-Matic, like the TV stations used. They were VERY expensive by comparison but flying by the fringed-seat of my pants I managed to coax decent videos for my clients. And just about the time I had invested a lot of money into my personal video library, VHS came along and wiped out Sony's Betamax. Even though the Beta pictures were far superior to VHS, you could record a whopping SIX HOURS on the VHS tapes. The Sony Beta format never caught up. End of story.

And then, a couple of years later a local low-power TV station went belly up and the bank was so desperate they even loaned ME the money to buy the gear for pennies on the dollar. All of a sudden I had a production studio (of sorts) and had moved up to the professional ¾" U-Matic video format. I did all right for a couple of years before the next wave of technology came along and smacked me in the face. There was an entirely new video technology being born in Topeka, Kansas. It was called the "Video Toaster" and it ran on an Amiga Computer because that computer's hardware was video-friendly. A friend in Springfield called me and said "Bob, you've got to come up here and see this thing work". Well, I did, and it changed my life forever. This box had a video switcher, character generator (titler), Time Bas Corrector, (LightWave) 3D modeling system, and Paint program all under the same cover. And the most amazing thing was that this box could be purchased for UNDER THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS. It did the work of a comparable broadcast system costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, conventional broadcasters sneered at it… but not for long. In the short span of two years the Video Toaster ushered in the Age of Desktop Video and the rest is history. Today you can buy into a video computer lock, stock & barrel for under $500, but back in 1990 SCSI Hard Drives for video were selling for about $500 per Gigabyte. Imagine that!

Well you probably think…. "Okay, Bob finally hitched his wagon to a star"… Not so fast, moose-breath. Do you know anybody using a Commodore Amiga computer today? Probably not, because Commodore ALSO went belly up about three years into the venture by NewTek. Bad timing. Poor choices. Life on the fringe.

Actually I still have my TWO Toaster/Flyers. I've seen them pop up on eBay occasionally, but the cost is an insult to anyone who fell in love with a tool that escalated their lives. Sitting here tabulating the original costs of those two complete systems, I'd wager (including software) I have "invested" around $20,000 in those two systems. Today I see the mainframe 4000T alone going for about $100 or less. Instead, I told myself, I'll just hang onto the old systems and let Robert have a video toy to play with. And today I realize it'll be cheaper to buy him a new Laptop and use today's magical video editing software to play with. So it sits here, along with SO many other boat anchors in the Bob Ketchum Museum of Antiquated Technology. Someday I'll open up that museum……

I suppose you think my story may end here. Wrong again, Spock ears!

SO…………………. I had to finally bite the bullet and make the move over to modern computing technology. I used the NewTek Toaster/Flyer NLE all the way up to 2005. NewTek saw the writing on the wall at the turn of the Millennium and moved the Toaster over to the PC. However, after having spent time with an early version (V.2) I came to the conclusion they had sold off ease of use for feature set and felt it was cranky (which it WAS at the time) and clunky to use. My friend that bought it went with that technology based on my experience with the original Toaster, and neither of us were prepared for its eventual OS. To their credit, NewTek made it over the hump and today is a major player in not only NLE but streaming technology aimed at everything from reality TV to Live Event programming.

Some of the guys still with NewTek are from the old Amiga days and I knew them well because the Video Toaster User Forum was a most progressive database for the NewTek Development Team. Developers, Programmers, AND users were united on the forum. Whenever anything popped up, it was immediately discussed and addressed by the collective onlne community. I got personally involved in suggesting ideas along with others. It was wonderful to ask for a short cut or parameter control which would save time and make it easier and even fun to use. The online forum was the most and best one would expect from such collaboration. Not that there weren't flames occasionally as one might expect from such a group of innovative minds, but overall it was a cherished community and we all hated to see the forum die off.

So NewTek moved on and now with products like the TriCaster and the Broadcaster, anyone with about $12K can have a portable production switcher AND real time streaming. But I digress………

As I waited and waited while watching the NewTek saga, I was writing on the NewTekniques Magazine staff to do product and software reviews as well as considered the "audio guru" in the outfit (owning a recording studio and all). One particular review was an early version of Sonic Foundry's ACID (V.2). I fell in love with the audio software and the company allowed me to keep the program, so I started using it. In time Sonic Foundry released a video program called Vegas. I saw a demo and was hooked. It was more user-friendly than anything else out there at the time. Plus, it's OS was very comparable to the ease of use I found using the old Amiga Flyer.

And I waited…… I waited for the other foot to drop (as usual with my decisions) but it didn't. As a matter of fact Sony wound up buying ACID and Vegas and it looks like those programs will keep up with all the other A-Listers now that Sony's money is behind it.

Of course there HAS to be a "gotcha", doesn't there? Well, turns out the "hot" software to have for audio/music in the music business is ProTools. I've tried a hand at it. But for me personally (no reflection on PT) ACID still does everything my studio needs to get the job done and seems so much more user-friendly.

…….And of course…….because it's on the fringe . . . . . . .


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