The loudness is the message — on the 70s sound of WPLJ

Hey there! I’m sticking to my pledge to offer more in-depth stuff on chapter 4 during April Sundays, ch. 5 in May, etc., and today’s bit is about the sound of WPLJ, which I explain in Stealing All Transmissions benefited from an engineer’s error, and the Dorrough audio processor. The topic ranges into the obscure, I suppose, but really heralds the concerns of audiophiles in the mp3 era, in which all that glitters is not gold.

Back in the 1960s, WABC-AM in New York City employed an echo box 24-7, and its reverb-heavy sound distinguished their sound from their rival stations, and aided “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and Scott Muni while they broke new discs by The Beatles and Motown’s line-up. At this time, Mike Dorrough was engineering for Casey Kasem, and realized that he might be able to devise a solution for the mixing problems of pop/rock discs in the studio. So, when a bass drum kick coincides with a voice singing falsetto, and the whole sound needed to be compressed as a matter of mechanics. Otherwise, the needle on your phonograph would jump from the groove and, over the air, the sound would over-modulate (it’s not good, I’m sure), and engineers at radio stations made the necessary adjustments.

Berger, with DJ Tony Pigg, at WPLJ. From Billboard, July 26, 1980.

Dorrough realized that if the track could be separated, though, into low-, mid-, and high signals, then processed, and then sent out over the airwaves. These “multi-band signals”  sounded cleaner, found an audience in folks playing rock from Fresno (where it started) to New York City, where Dorrough closed a deal with Larry Berger, who used the machine to boost the volume of the signal, and compress its dynamics down to a narrow range, which would sound fine on portable transistor radios, but might fatigue listeners who were actually listening on home stereos. “We were going for a young audience,” Berger reported, “and we weren’t worried about fatigue. I just didn’t see it in the ratings.”

The use of the Dorrough “discriminate audio processor” to boost loudness rather than promote clarity dismayed Dorrough, and he was there the day Berger and his engineer tested the DAP on “Bennie and the Jets,” a song with great dynamics between the ambient crowd noise and the fat piano chords.

On WPLJ, though, the volume of those moments was basically equal. Berger didn’t want some kid imagining that he had lost WPLJ while driving outside the city during the quiet opening passage of the track and, as a result, change stations. Plus: they juiced the turntables, as I explain in ch. 4.

I pulled quite a bit of this information from the very smart Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, by Greg Milner. He’s also on twitter. Good stuff.

Thank you for reading this far before changing URLs and, if you missed Wednesday’s post, do check it out: I just adore this band.