My new book, Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture, is out in 2022. It tells the story of radio through pop songs, movies, novels, poetry, art and sculpture. What’s your favourite radio song?
Meanwhile, in the radio studio, I used to dread the studio intercom suddenly blaring out: “Levels!”
It’d be the programme organiser, yelling from their office down the internal system to me in the on-air studio.
I’d know straight away that I had something going out that was either too loud (more than likely) or too quiet (almost impossible).
Driving a BBC local radio on-air mixing desk in the 1980s and 90s was not dissimilar to manoeuvring a lively vintage car with a crash gearbox: everything had to match and be smooth. Gramophone discs, phone callers, tapes, carts, OB lines, my mic, guest mics, the news studio, all sources into my mixing desk that could – and did – seem to reset their own audio levels on their own. Honest. I’d not touched a thing.
The local radio presenter (never just a DJ) was a self-op beast. We’d fly solo, controlling all the technical aspects of the show whilst sounding intelligent, urbane, witty, and engaging to the listener. We still do, after 50 years of BBC Local Radio in England.
At the heart of the technical side of things is the way you set up the desk for every item you’re going to play. It’s called pre-fade listen. Get it right and the rest of the show should (barring any interruptions from the programme organiser) go really well.
The idea was to set the levels of every source (before opening the fader [pre-fade]), so that when you eventually opened the fader to its maximum the level would be just right on air. First, the BBC Mk 3 desk – introduced in the early 1970s and used until the early 2000s in some stations. This desk has made some great programmes:
On this made-by-the-BBC Mk3 Local Radio Desk, the pre-fade switch (61, below) was up for PFL (usually in headphones), middle for off and down for momentary listen. The pre-fade gain was adjusted at (62) allowing the fader (63) to be faded up to its fullest (as shown in the diagram) for perfect audio level.
Source: Author’s archive
By the way, contrary to most commercial radio desks, the BBC Mk 3 desk had faders opening downwards, towards the presenter.
Now onto the Mk 4 desk, modelled here in this photo by Peter Gore in the late 1980s:
In the opinion of this writer, the Mk4 was the mdf to the Mk3’s solid oak. The Mk4 looked as if it’d been bolted together; the Mk3 had the air of being crafted, constructed and engineered. (I guess I’m pinning myself down as a technological determinist… which, upon reflection, suits me just fine.)
On this made-for-the-BBC Mk4 Local Radio Desk, the pre-fade was a button labelled ‘PF’ (2, below) which glowed mauve when pushed in. The pre-fade gain was adjusted at the ‘trim’ pot (3). [The ‘shift’ (4) was the stereo pan]. Momentary pre-fade listen could be had by pulling the relevant fader back against the back stop.
N.B the Mk4 desk had faders opening upwards, away from the presenter.
For more about old BBC local radio studio gear, visit http://www.orbem.co.uk/locrad/lr1.htm
All sound levels are monitored on the peak programme meter (PPM)…
The colour coding is red for left and green for right. Speech is peaked to six and music to five. Always. Otherwise the programme organiser shouts at you down the intercom from his office.