Low hums and pre-fade listens

There was an interesting moment the other evening when Hull band Low Hummer were on BBC 6 music doing a live session and their second song started off sounding really weird. They’re a pretty exciting indie band, but this sounded more esoteric than the band’s usual style I’d heard previously.

It sounded like there were two drummers, and the song utilised off-kilter rhythms, sounding incredibly complex. The duelling drummers fought for syncopation and the vocals soon settled over one rhythm, with the other continuing underneath. It took a moment to get into, but actually sounded really cool. After a while it settled into one beat, and as I listened I presumed that the other beat would re-emerge and the song would whirl wildly between the two.

But as it turned out, that’s not what was happening at all.

As the DJ Marc Riley explained, they’d messed up a bit, and while the band played their track live to air, another song had been playing out underneath. Oops.

This brought back memories of doing live radio with John. Not the mistake! Just the nature of producing live radio itself. I was always terrified of running the desk, though I often get tactile flashbacks which make me kind of just want my own little desk of faders and knobs to play with while playing some music.

On the desk we were using – and I presume this is a standard – the usual practice was to only have one fader up at a time. You might speak over a ‘bed’, or you could have a track playing and announce over it, so you might fade your mic up and down over the track (and conversely the music down a little to make room). But for standard intro-track-chat-intro-track-repeat radio, you normally only want one source playing out live.

Anyway, because 6 music – and a certain subset of its shows and listeners – are rather nerdy, it was felt necessary to explain exactly what had gone wrong, and to give Low Hummer another chance to play their song again without interruption.

Marc Riley explained that, when they have bands in playing live session tracks, the producers line up a ‘blank’ cart with the metadata for that song, so that the track name etc appears on all the playout software – from the BBC’s internal systems right down to the displays on digital radios.

(I recall doing something similar where I’d play an album on iTunes, muted, whilst listening to it on vinyl or MiniDisc, so that the metadata would be scrobbled to my last.fm account.)

Unfortunately, in this case, the ‘blank’ metadata cart wasn’t blank – and so the audio on that cart played out at the same time as the live session. I enjoyed the explanation and I could totally see how easily it could happen.

I have one memory of this happening to John and I – briefly playing one track ‘underneath’ another by accident. I think what happened for us was accidental misuse of the PFL or pre-fade listen function.

From memory, PFL allows the DJ to preview a track over the studio monitors without interrupting the live output – the song plays with the fader down, because moving the fader anywhere off the bottom makes that track live, playing it out on the main feed.

I vaguely remember that what must have happened is that the fader for that track was just a hair above the bottom, so was basically silent, but actually live. Despite this, we didn’t actually make that many technical mistakes live on air – though I think this was as much the limited scope for making any mistakes as a good deal of luck. But then I wasn’t the one driving the board most of the time!

Anyway, that 6 music show is available to listen back to here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0018xq4 – and Low Hummer sounded great. I’d heard a single or two of theirs recently, and was pleased to catch this session.