The Soul Sounds of Ma Bell: An Interview with Evan Doorbell

(Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Telephone_Booth_Klamath_California.jpg. Ellin Beltz / Public domain)

Hello everyone and my apologies for being absent for a while – told you after the Holidaze® were the busiest time of the year… 🙂

I have an awesome make-up gift though! Through a chance meeting on the Tweet Machine I have been granted an interview with Evan Doorbell.

‘Evan Who?’ you might be saying right now…

Okay, let me back up a bit. Anyone who knows me also knows that I have a passion for all types of technology and especially those who use and understand it to true Mastery. I will happily babble on about Audiocasters and YouTubers who keep it personal, approachable, educational, and entertaining. I’ll watch my pal Brent work in his garage even though I have no interest in cars. Andrew Camarata’s skills will leave me daydreaming of driving skid steers and wanting to build things out of shipping containers – even though it’s miles away from my audio wheelhouse. Over the years I have found so many people creating content that delight and inspire (including many that I’ve linked to on this Blog). But Evan is pretty much where I began this particular journey.

About a decade or so ago I was looking for some telephone sounds to use in a production. While digging in the crates of the Interwebz® I found Evan’s tapes. I listened to a couple and was so floored by his content (the sounds and descriptions of the old phone system were haunting and just silly fun to explore) that I downloaded about half a dozen and listened to them when I got home. I’ve been hooked ever since, and find myself regularly floating back to his pages to grab anything new to enjoy on my limited downtime.

Fast-Forward to late last year when Evan Tweeted he was having an audio issue, and I was happy to step in to see if I could assist. In return he was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me, which I’m very excited to share with all of you. His commitment to The Phone Tapes is something that will inspire and fascinate you in this era where artists and creators jump from project to project, hotbed to hotbed to try and remain relevant. Oh, and he’s never charged a single dime for any of his content. It’s an absolute definition of a Labor of Love and something (IMO) this world needs more of.

With that in mind, enjoy some digging into Evan’s history and currency.

A Poke In The Ear: In your ‘How to Be a Phone Phreak’ series, you describe how you used a piano to match the tones for various telephone company functions. Later on, you used bells and/or whistles for the various tones (and then the ARP Odyssey, but we’ll get more into that in a bit…) I’m assuming you had formal music training in your early days, correct?

Evan Doorbell: Well yes, I took piano lessons for a few years. Also my mom taught me to identify intervals by ear. That started something which just snowballed by itself. Had I had YouTube back then I would’ve learned a hell of a lot more.

APITE: Agreed! Listening to the tapes I’m pretty sure that you have Perfect Pitch (or really good Relative Pitch) – am I correct in thinking this? If you do, it’s a rare and wonderful gift and would explain how you could figure out the TelCo sounds as well as pick out various background sounds later in compiling the various tapes…

Evan: I don’t have perfect pitch except for the sound of a modern dial tone, and that comes from my working with the tapes for the last 20 years.

Whenever I recall a song from the past, it plays in my head almost always one to one and a half whole steps flat.

APITE: When did you start recording phone sounds?

Evan: I started recording on the phone in 1970. The first tape was just a collection of recordings, mostly from tandems, recorded with a microphone held up to the earpiece.

APITE: You mentioned there was a reel-to-reel recorder in your house, and you used cassettes as well. Although I do remember them from the early 70’s, I recall them being a bit of a luxury item (quite expensive for both recorder and tapes). Did you have a job or use allowance money to ‘feed your habit’ so to say?

Evan: Money for cassettes was a problem until I became employed. I don’t recall thinking that because cassettes were expensive.

APITE: When did you get the ARP Odyssey synthesizer? Was it new or second-hand?

Evan: I got the Odyssey new in August 1972. That happened shortly before I went to the Commune, where numerous musical collaborations occurred starting in September 1972 all the way through the Spring of 1976.

APITE: Was the ARP purely for ‘Phone Phreak’ sounds or did you play with bands too?

Evan: I was never in a band but I often acted as the recording engineer and synthesizer programmer for someone’s music project at the Commune.

APITE: How long did it take to understand the ARP’s functions? Was it natural to you or did it take a lot of effort to get what you wanted?

Evan: I used the making of Group Bell jingles as a means to learn about the ARP Odyssey. It was a natural explorative process.

APITE: For the Group Bell jingles and other recordings (like the ‘Dom Tuffy’ vignettes) – how were they recorded? Did you have access to multitrack recording or were you using Sound on Sound techniques (or something else entirely)? Also, did you do any tape editing (splicing) or just fly things in in real-time?

Evan: The Dom Tuffy tapes were produced on an open-reel machine using material mostly sourced from cassettes. Pausing the tape, Sound on Sound, and splicing were all used in the production of those.

APITE: What was your studio like at the time?

Evan: My ‘studio’ for many years consisted of just the Odyssey and a Sony tape deck with its (built-in) microphones. The Sony could do Sound on Sound recording.

APITE: Some of the jingles sound like they have ‘sequenced’ elements in them. Did you have a sequencer or was that just clever use of the Odyssey’s Repeat function (or just damned tight playing)?

Evan: I never had a sequencer during the years I was making Jingles. Sometimes I recorded notes at half or quarter speed on an open-reel tape recorder and speeded them up. That might sound like a sequencer…

APITE: Where did you learn the techniques for recording? Trial and error? Magazines or books? Friends or other people?

Evan: I learned my recording techniques by hands-on experience. Analog tape was remarkably forgiving when it comes to recording. It had a way of smoothing things out that digital doesn’t do.

APITE: In the Atlanta Centrex tapes you mention that you upgraded to a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. Did you find the transition from analog (with the Odyssey) to digital (with the DX) confusing? I personally *hated* programming the DX series back then although I find it surprisingly fun today…

Evan: Learning to program the DX-7 was just super cool to me. I jumped in with both feet, having not yet realized that by 1986, over 70% of the sounds it was capable of made it making had pretty much all been discovered.

My best patch for the DX is one that I have sadly lost. It was unique: a bell sound based upon my harmonic analysis of the Big Ben chimes. It was quite beautiful and I’m really sorry I lost it.

APITE: Do you still have (and use) any of the old synths today? Have you bought anything new(er) recently?

Evan: Nowadays I’m not doing anything with music, there’s just no pleasure in it for me including listening these days. I hope that changes.

APITE: It’s also obvious you have a bit of Electronics knowledge (wiring amplifiers to the phone network to make your voice louder early on certainly stands out). Like the question above, how did you acquire this knowledge?

Evan: I was always interested in electronics as a young child. Once when I was four years old I went into a TV repair store where there was an obvious electrolytic capacitor hanging over the desk. The guy at the repair shop was surprised to hear a four-year-old boy say “that’s an electrolytic capacitor.“

APITE: I should also get into your computer programming skills (modding the Apple II to understand voices is absolutely brilliant) with ‘demon dialing’ and analyzing phone calls. How did you find your way into it?

Evan: My learning to program in Apple machine code began while I was waiting for the manager of a Disco to show up with whom I was going to ask for a job. I brought my 6502 (Apple’s Machine Code (or ‘Assembly Language’) protocol from the early 1980’s) book and waited him out. I got the job and was also on my way to programming in Apple II’s Machine Code.

The AutoJan program is what led to the other telephone inventions with the Apple II. George followed pretty quickly it was only a natural progression for me. (Check out his Early 80’s’ Programs1 through 3 for more info on these systems)

Eva, an invention which I haven’t made the program to explain yet, Was a device that made a super high-capacity talk line using the Bell Systems’ new transfer feature. That turned into a small business which ran from 1984 through 2004. What ended that business was changes in the industry enabling competitors to compete with us for no charge to the users. You can’t compete with free except by doing it free, which we couldn’t do because our business had a completely different model.

APITE: I may have missed this in the tapes (I’ve listened to a lot, but there is just so much I haven’t heard!) but did you ever actually work for a TelCo? Seems like you would have been an amazing technician/engineer for one of them…

Evan: Never worked for any telcos.

APITE: Is there anything about your early recording/editing that has influenced what you have done career-wise since then?

Evan: I’ve never had a career involving editing sound or producing audio. I can say that once you start working with sound, that awareness and skill just snowballs. I don’t think I would want a career producing audio, because currently I have a volunteer project (the Phone Tapes series) which pretty much uses up my entire capacity for audio production.

Voiceover work is completely unpleasant and very difficult. I’m constantly dealing with phlegm, hoarseness, mouth clicks, And a general inability to control my voice. I’m constantly having to spit into a rag and edit every two or three words together. It sucks.

Being a Club DJ was the best career I ever had. The only reason I left business is because the music started sucking. There is absolutely nothing like it. I was a natural for mixing, and about a year into my career, Steve (DJ Friend and Mentor) and I worked out a system for programming music that has never been surpassed.

I was the first DJ in Atlanta to use a computer in the DJ booth. But the computer was just a library system containing all the records, their tempos, musical keys, and transitions that had previously been identified. It doesn’t really help in the science of music programming – that’s more a matter of being very sensitive and analytical about the music and I have really high standards.

APITE: Can you estimate how many tapes you have recorded (or acquired) over the years?

Evan: There are about 53 open-reel tapes on 7 inch reels. Most are recorded at 3-3/4 IPS, 1800 feet, Four tracks per tape.

There are approximately 1415 cassettes, most of which are C-60’s, many are C-90’s. (60 and 90 minutes total run time, respectively.)

APITE: How many of the tapes have survived quality-wise over the years? We’ve always heard about tape deteriorating over time and I’m curious if you’ve had to resort to anything like creative editing, or even having to bake a tape to get it to unstick…

Evan: Only one of the tapes was noticeably damaged and that was because it was one that was stored in an un-airconditioned room in New York for many years. Other than that one, there were no noticeable degradation of the tapes.

There were some tapes that I had to bake, but those were defective from the start and baking really did help.

As we all suspected would be the case, the cassette tapes made by TDK show no deterioration of any kind whatsoever. The Maxell cassettes also fared well, however they tended to print-through loud dial tones rings and busy signals right from the get go.

The Scotch brand tapes were flawless, but only the actual tape itself. The pressure pads (which keep the tape pressed against the playback head on the cassette player) all deteriorated requiring me to break open the shells, which were not secured with screws. (some cassette shells can be opened by removing 4 or 5 screws, while some are physically glued together.) There are still little blue shards of Scotch cassette shells hidden in various corners of this room…

ED Tape Xfers

APITE: Are the tapes pretty well cataloged or do you have to listen through and take notes to find out what’s on them?

Evan: The thorough cataloging won’t be done until long after I’m gone. However since most of the tapes were a single subject, I do know what each of those are. There are probably less than 20 cassettes recorded by Ben (Decibel) that have multiple subjects and would need to be gone through for me to know exactly everything that’s on them, but I don’t expect to find any big surprises. Or I should say I don’t expect that any big surprises will be found in this tape collection.

APITE: Do you digitize tapes first before listening/cataloging or do you just take them one at time?

Evan: The digitization process started in 1999 and ended in 2017. The cassettes were all digitized using a freestanding CD burner made by Tascam. Various methods were used to make sure everything was done right. At the very least, I’ve looked at every waveform display to make sure there were no abnormalities. Most of the tapes were manually set to the correct speed when digitized. I’m talking about minor speed variations which would make dial tones, etc. off pitch. Some of the cassettes were recorded by more than one cassette machine and have speed variations within the tape. Those will have to be speed corrected later. I have a whole set of reference tones that I use to get the speed exactly right.

APITE: How long does it take to make an episode, from subject(s), research, scripting, editing, etc.?

Evan: It takes longer than you would ever imagine to produce a narrated tape. The fastest ones to produce are the short phone trip stops, each of which takes about a week of full-time work. The ones that take the longest are the ‘How I Became a Phreak’ series, the first of which took me four years to complete. Actually, it didn’t take four years of full-time work, it just took me four years to get through my cognitive difficulties involved in making it happen. That began in 1998 and it wasn’t until 2002 that I figured out how to end it.

Generally, these take about three months of full-time work. Episode 10 was the most efficient. I think I got that done in less than a month – it was a miracle.

APITE: Let’s talk about how you edit the tapes. You’ve talked about computers (and computer issues – like all of us!) so it’s clear you’re compiling and editing there. Which software are you you using? Have you switched programs over the years?

Evan: I got locked into Adobe Audition when Cool Edit Pro was bought up by Adobe unfortunately. That company (Adobe) shows a contempt for their users in the way they design things but I don’t feel like bitching about that right now. I have to stay with Audition because over the past 20 years I’ve learned to remove extraneous hum from the tapes using its algorithms. Removing hum from the phone tapes is totally an art, and anyone who tries to do it is going to screw things up royally and it would be better to not even try.

Hopefully I’ll have time to put out some how to videos before I die. I don’t expect to die anytime soon but you never know… Any processing of these tapes that produces a result that could not have been recorded in the 1970s is a no-no as far as I’m concerned. I mean if it’s full of digital artifacts, what the hell have you got when you have one of these recordings? You don’t have anything. Better to leave the hum in then fuck it up into some sort of abomination that doesn’t represent anything that ever happened anyway.

I highly recommend Evan’s ‘How I Became a Phone Phreak’ series if you want a great starting point into his Phone Tapes. He goes into exquisite detail of how he got started doing these recordings and it’s just a great tour of telephone history and and enjoyable listening experience as well.

If you liked what you read here, please click the links I’ve highlighted above and spread the word to anyone you think might find these interesting You can find much, much more over at his Soundcloud page. Consider it his ‘Audiobiography’. 🙂

Thanks again to Evan for his time and patience with my queries, and until next time…

Sound Designing for Modern Things®

Just caught this over at Create Digital Music:

http://cdm.link/2018/09/jaguar-richard-devine/

I half-jokingly predicted this over a decade ago that as silent (i.e.: Electric) transportation becomes more and more prevalent Sonic Artistes could ply their wares by providing different ‘soundtracks’ and ‘sonic signatures’ for the drivers and passengers. Richard Devine to the vanguard. 

(But Srsly Richard? A Flash-based website? In 2018?)

I’m personally holding out for laser and or particle-beam devices to come of age. That’s my Sonic Specialty. 🙂

Anywho, always good to read about, and something to think about for the Modern Sound Designer.