Teletours in Negativland
Intro | How to Build and use a Teletour Box | What is a Teletour Box | The Electronics | Adjusting Your Signal | Improvements |
In Negativland we understand that those who create culture for distribution by the corporate dream machine have no effect on how they operate. Even when work is criticizing the machine that is consuming the work, you will not notice even a hiccup in response. In fact, such work is often welcomed because it proves the machine is the pillar of free expression in a democratic society that it claims to be. And because it does, I guess it is. In Negativland, we accept confusion as an unavoidable result of the media environment we all exist in.
All this mixed wariness about the hierarchical mechanisms of public exposure has become infused into the work of Negativland on many levels. We think how something reaches you is as significant as what it is that reaches you. We are as interested in creating formats as we are in filling them. A good example of our kind of low-tech alternative to establishment channels of exposure is the Teletour.
In 1988, Negativland performed the first series of broadcast telephone concerts known as a Teletour. Within a period of two weeks, we performed about 20 one-hour concerts in our own studio at home. Each of these was transmitted by our phone, equipped with a special fidelity-enhancement device, to different radio stations and broadcast live. Thus, we were able to appear live on the radio in about 20 cities, all the way from Hawaii to England, without leaving home.
The simple elegance of this idea was enthusiastically received by the stations and their audiences. The Teletour motto is "From Our House to Yours," and it sums up all the attractions of bypassing the usual formulas for touring. Although we continue to perform live in clubs and other venues, the Teletour alternative to the beaten path of live touring is both refreshing and appropriate to our music and our attitude. Our form of sound organization involves found sounds, "actualities," synthetic noise, tape edits, improvised effects, and theme concepts. Mass media itself is a continuing source and subject for our work. In many ways, our sounds are more at home on the airwaves than they are beaming out across a dance floor.
The unique environment of personal spaces that radio reaches into is well suited to the kinds of thought levels and associations we like to evoke. There is something very appealing about an indiscriminate radio signal that radiates 360 degrees across all kinds of landscapes to catch the unsuspecting ears of a random population. It allows for elements of real surprise to occur that are hardly possible among the small and often jaded flocks that frequent the live performance scenes. A radio audience represents a much larger crosssection of our population and might be considered closer to reality as we know it.
The Teletour allows us to travel incredible distances and appear in widely separated locations within a very short time, often playing in several different time zones in the same evening. The broadcasts also reach far more people in the places we transmit to than we possibly could by playing clubs there. Add to this the pleasure of "touring' without the tangled grind of traveling too far too fast. We avoid lost, stolen, and damaged equipment, bad accommodations, fast food, and bad-tempered club personnel. And we don't spend money, so we are not so concerned about not making any.
The Teletour rules are simple. Negativland plays for free with the receiving radio station paying for the long-distance phone call only. We play for approximately one hour and the receiving station must broadcast this live over their on-air phone line. The special spark of a live performance is important to us and we don't allow taping for delayed broadcast. We incorporate the station's ID into our show so that it continues uninterrupted. We also provide participating stations with Teletour posters in advance that they can copy and distribute to promote the broadcast.
The whole idea of Teletouring evolved out of a bit of homemade technology that allows us to connect our studio mixer to a normal phone line and transmit live music over that line with significantly improved audio fidelity. The high-tech, high-fidelity lines rented by the phone company for concert transmission are prohibitively expensive so we made our own version. Except for our inexpensive little device, the phone line is the same as everyone else uses. This line-transforming device is a little box originally built by David Wills (the Weatherman) in connection with Negativland's radio show, Over the Edge. This weekly, three-hour, late-night program of live mixing includes an aspect we call Receptical Programming. This is public input to our broadcast via call-ins that are neither screened nor delayed. Listeners use our on-air phones to play instruments or tapes, sing, dance, rant, rave, or just talk. When listeners/participants call Over the Edge, we punch each one into the ongoing mix as their call appears. When their phones stop ringing, that means they're on the air. Our motto is "Don't say hello."
Mr. Wills would call in too, when he was not doing the show. He soon discovered how to soup up the fidelity of his call so that his phoned-in material seemed to leap out of our mix with a sharpness and clarity that was quite un-phone-like. He would hook the output of a small mixer up to his device, and then to his phone. This simple setup allowed him to send a variety of sources (cassettes, instruments, microphones, etc.) directly into the phone line with a greatly enhances frequency range. This phone fidelity device does not exactly produce high fidelity, but it does create a surprising improvement in highs and lows, and provides enough depth for effects such as reverb to work well.
Now, several of the regular callers to Over the Edge have these devices, and we continue to encourage listeners to build and use them. Eventually, it dawned on us that we could use this technology to perform over the phone as a group. In 1987 we arranged the first experiment with a college station in British Columbia, and about a year later we embarked on the first full-scale Teletour. Our record label set up about 20 concerts at college stations all across the country to occur over a two-week period. We also arranged one concert for the BBC outlet in Sussex, England.
Our Teletour performances are largely improvised around certain pieces that involve a general theme of some sort. Although we use the same raw material for each show on the tour, we always perform it differently, making each version unique. Performing from our own studio means all the relaxing comforts of home while using the same setup we would use on a stage. Negativland is actually a bunch of unlikely types for show biz. We are relatively unanimated and like to concentrate on what we're doing, so not being visible on a Teletour is not such a drawback. It also allows for unlimited off-mic communication as we play, which helps to keep the improvised beat on track and time.
We have found the Teletour to be a barrel of fun and a surprisingly simple way to play live anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, with no expenses. But the biggest satisfaction lies in the ability of this idea to completely circumvent all the presentation formulae and show business facilitators that usually stand between performers and their audiences. With a simple, easy-to-build phone fidelity box, we found ourselves live on distant radios with every aspect of our performance in our own hands. If you would like to experiment with this little piece of empowering technology, we include the plans here. At the very least, you can give your local talk-show host a double take.
HOW TO BUILD AND USE A TELETOUR BOX
Aesthetic and logistic considerations aside, you have to build a Teletour system before you can use it. If you have a lot of money to spend, you can simply buy professional phone-line interfaces - in America, Symetrix makes the $500 Tl-101 and the four-line, $1700 Tl-104, and others are available from radio broadcast equipment makers - but if you're reading this publication, you probably don't have a lot of money, which means that you're going to have to build the electronics yourself.
There are many possible ways to construct a Teletour box. This article presents our way. The basic idea is: take your line-level audio signal, heavily equalize it to fight the phone system's poor frequency response, amplify it to a loud headphone power level (to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio), send it into one side of an appropriate transformer, and connect the other side of the transformer to the phone company's lines. The transformer electrically isolates your equipment from theirs so that if anything dangerous happens on the phone lines it's the cheap transformer that takes the damage, not your expensive equipment. Similarly, for monitoring the phone line you connect a transformer to the line; the opposite side of the transformer produces a microphone-level signal that you can listen to via a preamp/amp/speaker (like Radio Shack 277-1008). All of the parts needed can be bought at Radio Shack.
Teaching electronics construction techniques is more than this article can do, so if you want to build a Teletour system but can't follow the technical information presented here, you're going to have to either find somebody who can and work with that person or you'll have to teach yourself some electronics. Also be advised that when somebody calls you, the electrical signal that rings the bell is strong enough to seriously hurt you, so be careful not to touch any bare wires when the phone is connected to the phone company's line. _________________________________________________________________
WHAT IS A TELETOUR BOX AND HOW DO YOU USE IT?
A Teletour box is something you build out of parts from an electronics store. It plugs in between the base and the handset of a telephone via the phone connectors at either end of the handset cord, so you can't use it with one-piece phones. In addition to the To Base and To Handset connectors, the box has a Send Input, a Monitor Output, a Teletour/Handset switch, and a Send/Receive switch. You connect the headphone-level audio output of the device you want to send (mixer, tape deck, etc.) to the Send Input, and you connect the Monitor Output to a small amplifier and speaker so you can hear what the people at the other end are doing.
When the Teletour/Handset switch is in the Handset position, your phone behaves normally - you can talk and listen simultaneously, using the handset - and the Send Input and Monitor Output are disconnected from the phone line; this is useful for setting up the communication when you first call up the radio station (or whomever you're calling). When in Teletour position, the handset is disconnected from the phone line and your Send Input and Monitor Output become active.
To start a Teletour transmission, you plug your headphone-level audio into the Send Input, plug an amplifier and speaker into the Monitoring Output, flip the Teletour/Handset switch to the Handset position, and call the radio station, just like a normal call. If the connection echoes or is noisy, or if audio quality is poor, keep calling back until the phone system routes you through a sufficiently clean signal path. When ready to start, you put the handset down (but not on the hook - that would break the connection, hanging up the phone) and switch the Teletour/Handset switch to Teletour, at which point things get a little awkward. You can listen to them over your speaker, or they can listen to the signal you're sending, but not both at the same time.
Phones normally allow two-way communication, but, as it happens, our lowly Teletour technology only allows one-way communication at a time: you're either sending or receiving, never both at the same time, and you throw a switch (Send/Receive) to pick the direction. The switch works instantaneously. When your switch is set to Send, your Input signal is connected to the line, and the Monitor Output is disconnected, so your signal is sent but you can't hear the other end. Conversely, when in Receive, the Input is disconnected and the Monitor Output is connected to the line, so you can hear the other end, but they can't hear you. This can create confusion when trying to hold a normal conversation. We found ourselves adopting the CB radio protocol of each saying "over" when done speaking, requiring the people at the other end to do the same, and flipping the Send/Receive switch at every "over."
Once connected, we found it necessary to go through a process of careful level-setting before starting the main part of our transmission, as described below under "Adjusting Your Signal." What happens after your levels are set is up to you. Your communication controls are the Send/Receive switch, the Handset/Teletour switch, and hanging up.
Remember that while you're transmitting you'll never know if the connection is lost or something goes wrong and the other side wants to talk to you. We would always advise the radio station about how long we'd be playing, then transmit for that duration, and come back on when we were done. More than once the connection had failed at some point during the 50-minute show, and we had to call back to find out what had happened. _________________________________________________________________
This version of the Teletour box counts on you to provide one clean headphone-level amplifier for the signal being sent. You might use the headphone output of a stereo, or your mixer, or a tape recorder. We used a Bogen GA-2. Whichever, you connect your system's line output to that headphone amp input, and connect the headphone amp output to the Send Input. The Monitor Output is mic or very low line level, and has a volume control. You connect that to a mic preamp/amplifier/speaker setup, which can be almost anything from a cheap one-piece cassette recorder that can monitor in pause, to a mic input of a mixer, to a stereo with a mic input.
Note to non-U.S. residents: this article describes our system for use with the U.S. phone system. Since you don't have modular handset cords, you'll have to go inside your phones. We're told that in 746-type phones the mouthpiece wires are blue and white.
These part numbers are from Radio Shack in the USA (Tandy in the U.K.). All this shouldn't cost more than $25:
* S1 Handset/Teletour switch, DPDT 275-636 * S2 Send/Receive switch, DPDT 275-636 * J1 Send Input jack, 1/4" mono 274-280 * J2 Monitor Output jack, 1/4" mono 274-280 * T1 Send transformer, 500/8 ohm 32-1031 * T2 Receive transformer, 600/600 ohm 273-1374 * V1 Receive volume control, 1K ohm 271-261 * RJ1 & RJ2 connectors to base & handset 279-306, 307, 308, or 309
(To make RJl and RJ2, take the handset cord and cut it in half, then trim the rubber jacket on each half back past the cut, so that you can get to the four wires inside.)
You'll also need some kind of box or base to build it in or on, some wire, nuts, bolts, and superglue to attach the parts to the box or base, and some tools (soldering iron, drill and bits, etc.). Before you pick a box or base or start construction, think it over carefully to make sure the electronics will fit into the base or box you've chosen - the Send transformer is pretty big. It might be nice if the telephone can sit on top of the box, with the controls and jacks on the front panel. (See schematic diagram)
Plan to anchor the handset cables RJl and R12 and the audio jacks J1 and J2 to the box/base so your wiring doesn't get ripped up from use. The volume control V1 and the two switches, too; ideally, you'd use a box and mount Vl, J1, J2, S1, and S2 in holes drilled in front of the box. The receive transformer T2 (which is small and has no mounting holes) should be glued to the box/base and the send transformer Tl should be bolted. Whether you use a closed box or an open base, you'll want to label all of the switches (Sl and S2) and jacks (J1 and J2) and the volume control (Vl), and in the case of the switches you'll also want to label both positions as well (Send/Receive; Transmit/Bypass). Unless you'll be using the box in an area with unusually heavy radio-frequency energy, like near a radio transmitter or high-voltage power cables, shielding (grounded metal box) won't be necessary. You may want to get a knob for V1.
Wire the parts together as shown in the schematic. On V1, use only one of the two pots in the part and ignore the other. Be sure the center terminal of Vl is connected to the tip terminal of J2, not the sleeve terminal. In the schematic, note the color coding of T2's leads and the legends on Tl's terminals. You may want to use a terminal strip (like Radio Shack 274-688) to anchor T2's somewhat flimsy leads, allowing you to solder connecting wires to the stronger terminal strip.
ADJUSTING YOUR SIGNAL: LEVEL AND EQ
The phone system has a very peaky and rolled-off frequency response, optimized for speech. A big part of the Teletour quality comes from our radical equalization to fight this frequency response curve. Before the Teletours, we conducted a series of tests of the headroom and frequency response of the phone system, using the Teletour setups at both ends of the line. We discovered that, in general, we got the best sounding transmissions when we sent our send signal through a five-band graphic equalizer set like this:
* 60 Hz: +5 dB * 240 Hz: +12 dB * 1000 Hz: -6 dB * 3500 Hz: -9 dB * 10,000 Hz: +11 dB
You may come up with something different. Note that low bass is almost entirely filtered out by the phone system, which surprised us. We also found that the frequency response of the line changed depending on the particular connection, and that we couldn't count on having technically informed people at the other end to listen and tell us what compensating EQ adjustments to make. We had to settle for one standard EQ that worked well for most connections. Headroom before distortion also changes, but we could rely on the listeners at the other end to tell us whether they were hearing distortion in the signal, and we could adjust our send level accordingly. Part of the setup ritual for every show was to send a steady 0 dB tone to the other side so they could set their levels to avoid distortion in their equipment. We would also tell them how many dB our peaks would be above 0 dB. A compressor/limiter was connected between our board and EQ, so we knew we wouldn't peak above that level.
To avoid having to use a whole stereo or some very dubious-quality amplifiers we had, we bought a dedicated telephone amplifier to drive the Send Input, and installed it permanently in our box. It's made by Bogen; it's called a Music On Hold Amplifier, model GA-2, and we paid $67 for it. It works great. We feed the line-level EQ output directly into the Bogen, and run it with the volume control about 40% of the way up.
Our sending signal path, then, is: Board line-level out into compressor in; compressor out to EQ in; EQ out to Bogen amp in; Bogen amp out to Send input. Our monitoring signal just goes into a little grey plastic Radio Shack battery-powered amplifier-speaker box, which we always forget to switch off so we're always buying batteries for it.