Teletours In Negativland

The following essay on teletouring was written in the late 1980s. Negativland has not pursued this interesting option as much as we should have during the intervening years, although we did complete a 3 week live-by-phone teletour of our regular Over The Edge broadcasts to Resonance 107.3 radio in England during 1998. Since then we have begun broadcasting OTE live on the World Wide Web every week. However, the basic phone fidelity device described below remains in use by regular callers to OVER THE EDGE, and remains a good idea for anyone wanting to transmit sounds or a mix of sounds with startling presence over their phone. The instructions which follow the "Teletouring" essay describe how to build your own phone fidelity device and were providedto us by Mike Anderson ("The Professor") who is one of our regular OTE callers. This is his improved 1998 version which surpasses our original device in both simplicity and quality of sound. 

As students of the commercial American media dream machine which grinds out hourly doses of ever-more-vivid fictions for a society now addicted to cathartic spectatorship, we find our critical perspective being increasingly drawn into the machine itself, as more grist for the insatiable mill. Our object becomes just another subject, and it becomes clear that the massive business of creating culture, from art to commercials, feeds a massive cultural urge to be stimulated - an urge that is continuously encouraged (as it is created) by the industries that feed it. It is vast, and true need becomes an almost indefinable abstraction when we are flooded with so many options to desire. Yet most of us would agree that this is better than too few options. It's all about as confusing as democracy.

On the other hand, here is another view. Most of these options are actually very similar. We are mostly saturated with well-worn creative formulas that reach us through a few tightly controlled channels of one-way national media. "Success" in any creative endeavor is still a matter of getting one's work into these mass channels for all to see or hear (and buy). It's also clear that to get into these narrow media channels of wide exposure, the work must pass through various hidden filters of comparability. It must be close enough to what is already there to uphold the media's self-determined "standards," which might be defined as "mainstream," which means economically viable in a mass market, which is necessary to support the enormous expenses of these national/international media channels. Is this dangerous? Probably about as dangerous as democracy.

In Negativland we understand that those who create culture for distribution by the corporate dream machine have no effect on how that machine operates. 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 from 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.

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 concemed 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 the concert 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. OTE 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 they hear their phone stop ringing, that means they're on the air. Our motto is "Don't say hello."

The Weatherman 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 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.

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 at the time, SST, 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.

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 A Phone Fidelity Device

Parts required:

  1. Audio Isolation Transformer with 1:1 turns ratio, 600 ohm impendance

  2. ($3.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 273-1374)
  3. 1/4" Phono jack ($1.99 for 2, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-155C)

  4.      OR
    RCA-style phono plugs ($2.19 for 4, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-384)

  5. Modular Dual Jack Extension Cord ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-363)

  6.      OR
    2-outlet Modular Adaptor ($4.79, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-357) 
  7. Modular-to-spade 12" line cord ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-391)

  9. OPTIONAL: Telephone wiring box ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-343)

  10.      OR
    Wall mounting box ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-341)
How to build the device:
  1. Plug the male end of the Dual Jack Extension cord into a wall phone jack. (You can also use a 2-outlet Modular Adaptor.)

  3. 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.

  5. 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.)

  7. 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. 

  9. 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.)

  11. 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.

  1. 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.

  3. Using the telephone plugged into the Dual Jack, dial the number you want to call.

  5. When you hear that the other end's phone is ringing, plug the Modular-to- Spade Line Cord back into the Dual Jack.

  7. 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.

  9. 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!