Most people who go to see underground music, myself included, are for the most part jaded about the music, the bands, the scene, man. If you’ve been around independent music long enough there is a good chance you’ve frequented the bars, basements and other performance spaces where these bands play. As such playing at these types of venues only reaches the damaged ear drums of those who would have been their anyway. The terminal music junkies and bar flies eager to get their fix of distortion.
For bands who are interested in reaching a wider segment of the population and new audiences going on tour isn’t necessarily the answer. Besides, for broke or struggling independent musicians tours are costly and time consuming. Vans filled with a bunch of music freaks who haven’t bathed in a few days, and who get really sweaty on stage when playing the drums, get smelly. Especially when mixed with the smell of half-eaten, carry out burritos. When the local hipsters don’t offer up a pad to crash at, the cost of motel rooms adds up, as do the buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken that grease the wheels and keep the band on the road.
As an experiment in media and technology and as a way to get around these problems the pioneering experimental music group Negativland created a phone fidelity device that allowed them to play live music from their home studio into their humble home telephone and broadcast the concert on radio stations all over North America and in England. The Teletour was born.
A radio audience is different from those found at the aforementioned hipster venues. They represent a much larger cross-section of the listening public and is a bit closer to the actual reality of the population. The Teletour allowed them to reach an audience who probably never would have stepped into a Negativland show or go to the places they play when they do perform on stage.
Their first series of broadcast telephone concert known as the Teletour were performed over a period of two weeks in 1988. In total this consisted of about 20 one-hour concerts from their home studio into various community and college radio stations. Twenty-concerts in two weeks provided a lot of exposure and entertainment to the audiences who heard them. Each of these concerts was transmitted with their homebrewed phone fidelity device. Negativland appeared on the air in about 20 cities, from points as distant as Hawaii and England, all while ensconced in their Bay Area studio.
The simple elegance of the idea was received with enthusiasm by the stations and their audiences. The motto for the Teletour was "From Our House to Yours," and summed up all the attractions of bypassing the usual formulas for touring. Most bands touring in the traditional way would have a difficult time playing just one gig a day. Without having to tear down, set up and drive to the next city, a lot of the pressures exerted on touring bands were made moot. Although Negativland has continued to perform live in clubs and other venues (I got to see them at the Southgate House in 2006) the Teletour remains, even all these decades later, a fresh alternative to the over-beaten path of the tour van grind. The Teletour also complimented Negativland’s close relationship with radio work as discussed in last month’s article on their KPFA radio show Over the Edge. I do think the Teletour could be taken up by other musicians and radio stations today who want to continue exploring and refining the technique.
The magic of radio reaches into the unique personal space of the listeners own environment. As such the Teletour is well suited to the kind of cerebral levels of thought and stream of consciousness associations evoked by Negativland and other electronic musicians who make heavy use of sampling. For the group, there was also something super appealing about their sounds being carried electrically over the phone and going out over a radio station in some places they may never have even visited in person, to be picked up by the unsuspecting ears of a random listener. This allowed for an element of real immediate and surprise and delight to occur for those who happened to tune across the dial and listen to a kind of radio and music they may have never heard before.
The Teletour also allowed Negativland to travel across vast distances at incredible speeds. They were able to jaunt between separate and isolated locations in short amounts of time. During the Teletour they were able to play several different time zones in the same evening. This way of touring also saved them money. The Teletours didn’t cost the band a dime while giving them exposure.
The rules they made for Teletouring were simple. Negativland played for free. The receiving radio station only had to pick up the tab for the long-distance phone call. Each show lasted about one hour. Negativland incorporated the station's legal ID into the show so that concerts could continue uninterrupted. They also sent out posters to participating stations in advance to promote the broadcast.
All of this evolved from a bit of homebrewed tech that connected their studio mixer to a normal phone line and transmitted the sounds over the line with improved audio fidelity. Phone companies do rent out high-tech and high-fidelity lines for concert transmissions; these are on the whole prohibitively expensive for the kinds of musicians who also have to hold down day jobs. Negativland made our own version. This box was originally built by David Wills (the Weatherman) in connection with Negativland's radio show, Over the Edge as explored last month.
When the Weatherman wasn’t at the studio with Don Joyce he would call in to the show. He soon cooked up a method for increasing the fidelity of his call into the station. Don Joyce realized that his phoned-in material had sharpness and clarity different from the other phoned-in material. The Weatherman had hooked the output of a small mixer up to his device, and then to his phone. This setup allowed him to send a variety of sources (cassettes, instruments, microphones, etc.) directly into the phone line with a significantly enhanced 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.
Having built the phone fidelity device the Weatherman spread the tech around to several of the other regular callers to OTE. The band eventually realized that it was a no brainer to use this technology to perform over the phone at remote stations as a group. In 1987 they arranged the first experiment with a college station in British Columbia, and about a year later embarked on the first full-scale Teletour. Their record label at the time, SST, set up about 20 concerts at college stations all across the country to occur over a two week period. They also arranged one concert for the BBC outlet in Sussex, England.
Negativland found the Teletour to be an entirely positive experience. Playing live anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat with few expenses seems like a great idea for independent bands but for some reason it hasn’t caught on. If you would like to experiment with this little piece of empowering technology, the plans are included here, as Negativland has freely distributed these the past three decades. I think it is time for today’s independent musicians to coordinate some air time with community and college or even shortwave radio stations and bring the Teletour back to life.
How To Build A Phone Fidelity Device
The parts listed here have Radio Shack catalog numbers… I’m sure anyone who wants to build this can find their equivalent.
Audio Isolation Transformer with 1:1 turns ratio, 600 ohm impendance
($3.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 273-1374)
1/4" Phono jack ($1.99 for 2, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-155C)
RCA-style phono plugs ($2.19 for 4, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-384)
Modular Dual Jack Extension Cord ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-363)
2-outlet Modular Adaptor ($4.79, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-357)
Modular-to-spade 12" line cord ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-391)
OPTIONAL: Telephone wiring box ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-343)
Wall mounting box ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-341)
How to build the device:
Plug the male end of the Dual Jack Extension cord into a wall phone jack. (You can also use a 2-outlet Modular Adaptor.)
Plug a standard phone into one jack on the Dual Jack Extension Cord, and plug the Modular-to-Spade Line cord into the other jack.
The Modular-to-Spade Line Cord should have four wires: yellow, black, red, and green. Put tape on the ends of the yellow and black wires, as these are not needed. Connect the red wire to the red wire from the Audio Isolation Transformer, and connect the green wire to the yellow wire from the the Audio Isolation Transformer. (No need to solder, just make sure the wires are attached securely, e.g. with alligator clips if you don't know how to solder.)
Connect the black and white wires from the Audio Isolation Transformer to the terminals on the 1/4" phono plug (it doesn't matter which wire goes to which terminal.) (You can also use an RCA-style plug, depending on the type of wire coming from the output of the mixer or stereo.) Again, there is no need to solder necessarily.
Now plug a mono output line from the mixer or stereo into the phono jack, and you are ready to go! (You can also use a tape deck or CD player as sound input.)
OPTIONAL: Since your device might be fragile (particularly if you did not solder the connections) you may wish to place the core of the setup inside of a box of some sort. I use a Telephone Wiring Box. This also has little screws and posts inside which I use to secure connections.
How to operate the device:
When you are calling into the radio, the trick is to use the telephone line ONLY FOR SOUND INPUT, NOT for listening to the radio. Therefore, you should put headphones on which are plugged into the radio to listen to yourself when you are on the air.
Unplug the Modular-to-Spade Line Cord from the Dual Jack, so that only the telephone is plugged into the Dual Jack. You should get a dial tone when you pick up the phone.
Using the telephone plugged into the Dual Jack, dial the number you want to call.
When you hear that the other end's phone is ringing, plug the Modular-to- Spade Line Cord back into the Dual Jack.
Once the device is reconnected, try outputting sound from your mixer. You should be able to hear the sound by listening to the telephone which is connected to the other side of the Dual Jack. If you hear sound, you should hang up the phone, put on your headphones, and wait until you are on the air. (When you hang up the phone, the line will NOT be disconnected, as you still have a line running into the other jack which is acting as a phone itself. If you do not hang up the phone, the device will still work, but the signal may not be as strong.) If you do not hear sound through the telephone, your device is probably not connected properly.
When you are done, make sure you unplug the Modular-to-Spade Line Cord from the Dual Jack. Otherwise, the line will remain connected, just as if you left the phone off the hook.
TIPS: Once you get on the air, try adjusting the level and EQ on your sound. You want to be loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that you are distorted or drowning out the ambient sound. You should realize that you are going to lose a lot of the sound at lower frequencies. You can boost the bass on your mixer/stereo, but still be aware that low-frequency sounds are not going to come out very clearly. Mid and high frequency sounds (under about 15 kHz) tend to come out best. IF YOU WANT TO GO IN STEREO, you need two phone lines, and two devices as above. Then you need to get both lines on the air at once! I use a computer with automatic-dialing software to make it easier to get through.
Good luck, and have fun!
This article originally appeared in the January edition of the Q-Fiver:
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.