Make ‘em go “WOW!”

WOW burstTo create “WOW”, you need to keep the audio quality at its best all the way through your station, with no shortcuts.

That is, don’t play mp3 files or anything that’s been overly processed. Play only uncompressed linear audio direct from the CD. If you use a satellite music service, be sure the audio is high quality. (You would be surprised at the “garbage” some stations are re-transmitting.) Don’t take a low-quality internet stream from your program provider, either.

When you record audio to your PC or portable recorder, use .wav or .PCM (linear file with absolutely no data compression). Back when hard disk space was expensive, it made some sense to record compressed .mp3 files. But these days data storage space is cheap. Don’t record as .mp3 or any other compressed data format. (You won’t get “WOW” if you are playing .mp3 audio… trust me.)

Be consistent with the microphones in your studio. For example, if you use RE20 in the on-air studio, use the same model in the Production Room too. This maintains a consistency to the “flavor” of the station voices, no matter where they are doing their work.

Use mic processors (286S, 528E, M1 are among the most popular). Don’t rely on the program processor to manage the mic sound… it needs to be optimized for the overall audio program. Process the mics separately and individually, and make sure all the mic processors are adjusted to sound the same. Ideally, the listener should never hear the voice distorting, going loud and soft, or so “boomy” as to be unclear. When properly adjusted, the sound from the mics should be consistently loud, without that “gritty” sound so common on over-processed stations.

The telephone hybrid you use can make a significant difference, especially if phone calls are central to your program. Several models have automatic caller leveling, which keeps the caller’s voice consistently loud. And the HX1 has its own multi-band processor built in, which optimizes the highs and lows (yes, it adds a bit of “WOW” even to a phone call.) Very impressive sound, and easy to use.

Another part of “WOW” is the program processing.  It used to be that you could be “loud” or “clean”, but not both at the same time.  With the latest digital processing techniques, multi-band compression and multi-band limiting, it’s much easier to maintain competitive loudness, while still having a “relaxed and open” feeling to the audio. The more bands of compression, and the more bands of limiting you use, the less damage will be done to the sound. A popular mid-priced unit is Wheatstone VP-8IP. The 4 bands of AGC and 8 bands of limiting allow it to sound unusually clean, clear and “open” while being louder than anything else in its price range. For those of you engaged in all-out loudness wars, some of the $10K+ units go up to 31 bands of limiting.

And don’t forget the most important part… your on-air talent needs to project “WOW” every time the mic is on. And the programming, whether it’s music or talk, needs to be so much more interesting than the competitors, that listeners would turn to your station even if the other “WOW” components weren’t there. But once you’ve hooked them, the high-quality presentation and high-quality sound will keep them stuck to your place.

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Keep Your Remote Broadcasts Sounding Their Best

com_accesstie_commanderg3fieldBroadband IP codecs from leading manufacturers like Comrex and Tieline, have made wireless remote broadcasts much easier and more reliable.

The most common method of using wireless IP to manage a remote broadcast is to use a rack-mounted codec at the station, and a portable codec (often with a built-in mixer) at the remote location. The remote codec has circuitry inside that makes it behave like a regular  “smartphone”, complete with its own SIM card and phone number. The codec uses this circuitry to make a broadband internet connection, which then links to the codec back at the station.

Apps exist that allow you to use an ordinary smartphone, and make the same broadband IP connection to a Comrex or Tieline codec. Tieline offers their REPORT-IT software. Comrex mentions (but does not sell) several apps.

Using these apps, any smartphone can be used to do a quick “drop-in” news report, using the phone’s built-in mic. The sound will be significantly better than an ordinary cell call, but the phone’s mic is not fully “broadcast quality”. You wouldn’t want to do a long remote, or a ball game, with just the phone’s mic.

tieline_micadapter_1To address this situation, Tieline developed the MIC-ADAPTER, which allows connection of a professional mic and headphone. But it works only with iphone 4 and 4S.

I hear you ask “why can’t I just get an adapter cable, and connect a regular handheld reporter’s mic, and headphones to my phone?” Good question. Here’s the answer:
- most handheld “reporter’s mics” are dynamic, which requires much more preamp gain than is provided by the phone. It won’t be nearly loud enough. And by the time the guys back at the station turn up the volume enough to hear you, the background noise will be offensive.

OK, so why not use a handheld condensor mic?
- if the condensor requires phantom power to operate (most do), it will need between 12 and 48 volts, which the phone can’t supply.

A few condensor mics are available that have their own internal battery supply. Those would work, except for the usual reasons we don’t use condensor mics for field reporting:
- easy to overload when yelling your way through a sports broadcast.
- if used in wet weather, the mic can fail completely (until dried out for several hours.)

I have been testing several headsets, looking for one that will give professional results when connected directly to a smartphone or ipad. All those tested thus far have severely limited frequency response on the microphone elements. Little or no fullness to the lower registers of the voice. The search goes on…

So, as it stands right now, for a full remote broadcast, use a remote codec system made for this purpose. For occasional quick reports, a smartphone’s internal mic will do OK.
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[ -- DEAD AIR -- ]

please stand byIn broadcasting, silence is NOT golden. If your signal is not working… for any reason… the listener will just click on to the next station. And it may be a challenge to bring them back to your place once the problem is fixed.

You need a plan to keep your audio running, no matter what.

If the failure is a headphone, microphone or music player, you likely have another one (maybe in your remote interview kit) that you can substitute temporarily. But what do you plan to do when the dreaded “I spilled coffee into the mixing board” call comes in? Or, even worse… “the link to the transmitter is down.”

Any station that intends to offer “live” program material every day really needs a fully-capable spare studio to move into if anything happens to take the “main room” out of service. The spare studio will be used most of the time as a production room, where interviews and spots are constructed and edited. It may have a slightly less-complex mixer, but there should be enough capability to get the basics done… put a live phone call on the air, have enough mics and headphone capability for a live guest or two. In some cases, your remote broadcast kit may be capable enough. (You can do a lot with a JK RemoteMix , a smartphone, and a couple of headset mics.)

For the transmitter site, consider a silence detector that will switch to a continuously-playing loop of one full broadcast day, including sponsors. If the main audio goes down, the replacement audio will have the same messages at the same times for the same sponsors. If the sponsor’s message got through, the pain is less.

Be creative! Keep those listeners tuned to your station… not somewhere else.

Control Yourself… and that other guy, too.

528EFront_300Microphone processing is one of those things that most broadcasters know about, but it seems mysterious to those new to the industry.

When we say “mic processing”, we don’t mean that it will change the voice to suddenly sound like Darth Vader. We are concerned with controlling the overall level of the voice, minimizing background noises, and a few other things.

In the course of an ordinary conversation, your voice may go from very quiet (almost a whisper) to extremely loud (when you get really excited about the point you are making). The problem is, the person listening to your program is not usually able to deal with the full range between soft and loud. The listener is usually in a car or office, with other distracting noises around them. In order to hear you at all, your voice needs to be maintained at a consistent level, and not allowed to drop very far from that level.

The mic processor’s job is to ensure that, when you are speaking loudly, your voice does not exceed the level that the equipment is designed to pass. This prevents a distorted sound. At the same time, the processor brings the quieter parts up to the same level as the loud parts, so when you speak softly, your words are still heard clearly.

The action I just described is compression. But a mic processor does more than merely compression.

When you stop speaking, or take a breath, the background noise of the studio would be clearly heard. A mic processor has a “downward expander” system that effectively reduces the background noise during even brief pauses.

It’s this combination of compression and downward expansion that creates the “bigger than life” sound of a polished radio program. Most mic processors have additional functions that add to the “finished” sound of the voice talent…

Some people have unusually loud “sss” sounds. An ordinary compressor over-reacts to a strong “sss” sound by reducing the level of the voice farther than needed, to the point that the next few words may be too soft to hear. A mic processor treats “sss” sounds separately, with a system called a “de-esser”. It specifically watches for overly loud “sss” sounds, and holds them to a normal level, so the main compressor  circuit can more effectively control the overall sound.

Equalization changes the tonal balance of the voice, by altering the amount of high or low frequencies that are heard. Some mic processors have elaborate equalization sections, while others are more basic. It’s in this section that many users go too far, and cause more harm to the sound than if EQ had not been used at all. If EQ is called for, the amount of adjustment should be minimal for the best results.

Consider this: the microphone you selected for your studio was chosen because of its sound characteristics. You may have heard another one that sounded almost the same, but this one sounded “just right”. If the mic was carefully determined to be “just right”, then why are you anxious to change its sound by altering the equalization settings on the mic processor?

The final process found in many units is the “symmetry control” or “phase scrambler.” On certain (mostly male) voices, a slight increase in loudness can be gained by engaging this process. If the talent is listening to his “processed” voice, the “phase scrambled” effect may be undesirable, and he may elect to not use it. This process is most often used in traditional over-the-air broadcasting. It has little benefit on a non-transmitted format.

So, using a mic processor will ensure that your talent is heard at a consistent level, whether he is shouting or whispering. And the room’s background noise will be reduced.

It’s the first “upgrade” to consider for your new studio.

The most popular mic processors are: Symetrix 528E, dbx 286S, Vorsis M-1, AirTools 2X,  and Aphex Channel.
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The Music Goes Round and Round

We offer more different turntables now than we did in the 80′s. Vinyl records are definitely not dead! Here are a few things to keep in mind as you shop for a turntable.

Some turntables have straight tone arms, and some have curved. The curved arm causes less wear on the record, and provides a more accurate reproduction of the sound. If the turntable is used primarily to play a record from beginning to end, the curved tone arm is the way to go.

ThTT curved armTT straight arme straight arm is better suited for “scratching”.  If you work the platter back and forth while playing, a curved arm will tend to jump out of the groove, while the straight arm will stay put.

A turntable requires a specialized pre-amplifier to boost and properly equalize the signal before it connects to your mixer. (A DJ mixer may not need a separate turntable preamp, but a broadcast mixer will.) Some current turntables have the preamp built in. If you need an external preamp, they are available here.

A heavy platter works to smooth out any irregularities in the rotation of the disc. But a heavy platter takes more energy to come up to full speed from a dead stop. So, if you want the stability of a heavy platter, but need the instant speed, expect to pay more for a more sophisticated motor system.

The low-cost units with lightweight platters often use a belt-drive system. These don’t accelerate quickly, and are best suited to use for recording the disc to a computer for archiving, rather than playing directly on-the-air.

Most turntables include a cartridge and stylus (the “needle” that actually touches the disc.) If you have a choice of stylus shape, elliptical is preferred by audiophiles for accuracy and detail. Conical shape is more often found in broadcast and DJ use, as it tends to de-emphasize scratchy groove noise.

A few turntables have a USB interface built in, which makes for a simple one-step connection to a computer. Just be sure it also includes regular audio connections for the times you want to use it with a mixer.

Standard turntable speeds are 33 and 45 RPM. A few can play 78. (There are software tricks to allow recording of a 78 RPM disc with a 33/45 turntable, if you ever have the need.)

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Mackie 802 mixer solves a Sports problem

I recently received a request for assistance with a sports broadcasting problem. The announcer uses a headset to call the game, and plays recorded content from his laptop. He also has 2 assistants that act as “spotters”. They scan the field for something interesting to talk about, and let the announcer know about it in his headphone.

The announcer’s voice, and the recorded material from the laptop, are part of the broadcast (he also sends this audio to the PA system in the stadium). But the spotters voices should not be heard by the listeners… only by the announcer.

Here is how I suggested that he resolve the problem. See the diagram below, and follow along as we walk through it.

802-SPOTTERSYour mic (part of your headset), and 2 spotters mics, will connect as shown, to a Mackie 802VLZ mixer. The headphone part of your headset connects to the mixer’s PHONES jack, while the spotters’ headphones connect through a separate headphone amplifier connected to the mixer’s MAIN OUT. Spotters will hear the same material that you are sending to the PA system. You will hear a separate mix.

Notice on Mic2 and Mic3, that the MUTE button is highlighted with a red diamond. These MUTE buttons should be depressed. This removes the spotter mics from your main mix, but sends them to an alternate destination.

Now, find the CONTROL ROOM SOURCE buttons (just left of the meters). These buttons determine what you will hear in your headphones. You want to hear the MAIN MIX, and you also want to hear the ALT 3-4 (this is where we sent the spotters to).

You will hear the main mix and the spotters.
Spotters will hear the main mix.
PA system will hear the main mix.

If you want to put the spotter into the main mix, just release the MUTE button on that mic.

Here are links to more detail on the items discussed:
Mackie 802VLZ4 mixer
Rolls HA43PRO headphone amplifier
AudioTechnica BPHS1 headset

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Compression vs Compression

When discussing audio, the term “compression” can have more than one meaning.

datacamelThe first type of compression is more formally called “data reduction”. It uses techniques like .mp3 and .aac to reduce the amount of data needed to reproduce sound.

This is especially useful when streaming audio over the internet, as the bandwidth required for acceptable sound can be reduced to less than 10 percent of the amount that would be needed to pass the original “uncompressed” signal. Data reduction is also central in HD radio broadcasting.

Despite the fact that you have “tossed out” over 90% of the original information, the sound can be quite listenable.

It’s important to start with the best quality audio. Whenever possible, use the original, full-sized (uncompressed) audio direct from a CD or other high quality medium. Only convert the audio to .mp3 after you have completed all the editing processes. With hard drive costs as low as they are today (1TB – that’s 1000 gigabytes – is commonly less than $100), there is no reason to use anything less than uncompressed linear audio as your source material. Yes, the difference is clearly audible to the end user.

When it’s time to convert the audio to .mp3 (or any other data reduced format), use an encoder that includes processing techniques to minimize the “swirly” sounds often heard on low-bandwidth streaming audio. We have software encoders like Omnia A/XE and F/XE, and hardware encoders and processors by Telos, Omnia, Inovonics, Wheatstone, and others. Careful attention to the encoding process can make even a very low-bitrate stream sound impressively good.

dynamic rangeThe second type of compression is Dynamic Range Compression. This type reduces or “compresses” the range between loud and soft. There is still a difference… just not a much as on the original source material.

Most radio listening is done in a car, office, or on a mobile device. The listener is dealing with noises in their surroundings that would make it difficult to hear quiet sounds, so we work to increase the quiet parts, while at the same time controlling the loud parts so they don’t distort.

The simple compressors often used by musicians aren’t equipped for the needs of broadcast. Stay with brands known to work well for broadcast… dbx, Aphex, etc.

So – two completely different types of compression. One reduces the size of the file; the other reduces the range between loud and soft. Both are very necessary in broadcasting. You use both types every day.

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