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From Studio to Audio

From Studio to Audio

Sep 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Allan Soifer and Chriss Scherer

For maximum flexibility, the current state of creative audio art has drawn on tools from radio stations, recording facilities and project studios.

The basic process of creating content offline for use on-air has not changed much. It used to be that a background of music, composed and arranged specifically for a sponsor’s use, was played by a live orchestra, and an announcer or singer extolled the virtues of the sponsor’s products. Today, the creative producer uses a computerized index to find a CD containing pre-timed thematic music, or he may download it directly to hard drive and mix that under the announcer’s copy. Using various processing and digitizing tools, the producer can equalize, compress, limit and vary the length of the spot, then record it to a CD or save it in the station’s on-air delivery system.

The basic function of production remains unchanged, but much has changed in the technologies that create the final product. Despite this, the creative art is still very much in the producer’s ear and mind.

>From the middle Let’s look at the mainstay of the production studio, the console. When radio broadcasting started to grow technically, the manufacturers who catered to the industry simply created downsized versions of their on-air consoles and touted them as production boards. Then, one simply had to adjust the relative level between one or two mics and other audio sources like turntables and open-reel tape decks in order to come up with a pleasing balance. In many stations, the production studio was a clone of the on-air studio, which allowed it to serve as a backup in case of a breakdowns or maintenance. Today, a radio production console differs markedly from the on-air console – it is specifically designed for recording rather than transmitting information.

Production consoles can sport many features not found in the on-air studio, primarily equalization. Proper use of equalizers can make the difference between just any voice and an interesting presencewith dynamics. Judicious EQ can heighten the listener’s sense of enjoyment and appreciation of musical tracks, and make them more pronounced or intense when buried under the announcer’s voice. Many consoles also offer the options of channel-by-channel compression/limiting, reverb or echo, and send-receive to outboard special effects processors. Each of these finds its way into the sum of a given production in the hands of the creative producer. (For more on processing for production, see FEATURE on page 34.)

Depending on the capabilities of the audio editor you use, the console may not be at the center of the studio. Some editors provide a complete mixing interface, and only a small console may be needed for level control and basic routing.

Processing is employed quite differently for production as compared with on-air. Processing can be used for the effect it creates or as a way to compensate for a shortcoming. A compressor can be set to reduce the level of the background audio automatically to allow a voice to cut through. Multiband processing is now finding its way into the production studio as well. Regardless of how it is used, care must be taken to prevent overprocessing before the station’s main on-air processor. Processing for effect is a creative tool that can easily be overused. When used judiciously, effects processors can add just the right ingredient to make the final production shine.

Effectively routing various audio sources and effects processors can be a challenge. In analog installations, patch bays are an economical and practical method of routing. With digital sources, the choices are not as easy. Compact audio switchers (both analog and digital) are available for small tasks. Most can also be remote-controlled. Multiple console buses can be used as well if they are available. The method of routing you choose should provide enough flexibility for the producer to focus on the final product and not on what to do to make it happen.

Capturing sound Microphones for production are, in general, the same as those used on-air, although a higher-quality mic may be chosen for production because of the safer environment. (That is to say that a mic in a production studio will not likely see the same amount of use or abuse as in the air studio.) Using the same mics in production as on-air maintains an aural consistency. Likewise, the same mic processor should be used. Some producers have several different types of mics available in order to capture different voice treatments as well as cater to the differing announce styles and methods of mic technique. Many producers like to have dynamic and condenser types on hand to deal with screamers and whisperers – without too much aggravation and electronic fiddling.

Monitoring facilities are critical to production studios. A good pair of reference speakers is required to enable close evaluative listening to make appropriate adjustments and enhancements. A smaller, near-field pair of speakers should be available to compare the sound to a different listening environment. Because the station’s on-air processing can alter the tonal balance significantly, it can be helpful to audition a finished project through a replication of the on-air processing to hear exactly what the listener will hear. Most current production consoles offer several choices of monitoring feeds for headphones and monitors.

Correct monitor placement is critical. Typical production studios have a console and a digital editor. Many times, these two devices are not positioned in the same optimum monitoring position. In these cases, it is helpful to the producer to have a second set of monitors placed around the second listening position. If most of the producer’s time will be spent at the editor, the primary monitoring position should be placed around the editor.

Playing music and sound effects is a major portion of production. Virtually all production libraries are now issued on CD. Today’s CD players offer cueing, scrubbing and instant start with repeatability – something most producers appreciate. Music and effects library suppliers have moved forward with the times as well. In the heyday of outsourced music for local productions, only a few agencies offered leasing of various indexed collections of pre-timed original music. Today, dozens of suppliers offer a direct purchase license to selected packages. Some suppliers have added special packages of selected pieces or even single-selection purchase options. In addition, some suppliers have made their collections available online for preview and purchase.

With the advent of the home recording studio or project room (some of which are much more than just home studios) facilitated by relatively low-cost digital equipment with high-quality specs, almost every musician who can invest in this prosumer-level gear can become a music producer for radio. Add to this the advent of duplicate-it-yourself CDs, and anyone can offer production music. Interestingly, some progressive radio stations are entering into partnerships with well-equipped musicians for the purpose of offering new and fresh music for local spots at affordable prices. Some stations have gone as far as building and equipping their own project studios adjacent to their production rooms. These project studios can be contracted for the services of several knowledgeable local players to offer in-house music production.

Speaking of studio space, when designing a production facility, if possible, allow for a production control room and production studio. This additional studio may be as basic as a small voice-over booth or as complex as a performance studio. A larger studio also can serve as a place for bands to perform live on the air or for occasional multipurpose use, such as a public station’s fund-raising drives.

A separate studio will require additional monitoring and talkback capabilities. Some consoles include a provision for studio communication and monitoring. In some cases, an external intercom system may be required for effective communication between the two or more rooms.

Recorders and recording From cutting lathes to tape recorders to CDs and other digital recording media, the advances in audio recording have been tremendous.

Today’s production studio may have an open-reel tape machine, which probably sees little use. There are occasional spots and programs that require a reel to reel. The CD certainly has found a suitable home in a production studio, too. Other media, including mini-disc, DAT and RAM-based recorders, have found uses in production. These formats are also being used in field recording. DAT and CD have found a home in archiving applications. The multiple-access recorders/players that found instant success on-air have also found a place in the production studio. All of these solutions offer inexpensive and convenient storage and retrieval options.

For archiving purposes, it is best to choose a linear recording format. While many data-reduction algorithms sound quite good, the effects of multiple encoding can quickly become apparent. Further, there is no way to know what algorithm may be used in the future for transmission or distribution, so a linear format provides some insurance against incompatible file formats.

The most common building block in a production facility is now the digital editor, also called the digital audio workstation, or DAW. Many manufacturers offer DAWs in a wide price range with an even wider range of features. From basic stereo to multitrack recording and editing, there is a system to fit your needs.

There is no single file-format standard among DAWs. Various recording formats are used, although MPEG and WAVE formats are the most common. The pro audio industry is settling on 24-bit/96kHz performance, but DAWs have not yet settled into a common mode, either. Sharing files between different systems also can be a challenge. Most systems will import and export WAVE and possibly MPEG files. Some allowances may need to be made for file sharing (see Managing Technology, pg. 14), but different systems should work together.

Computers have natural homes on networks, and computers for audio are no exception. Audio file sharing across the building or across the country is common. Completed productions and contribution elements can be stored on a central file server for easy retrieval by any network user.

Distribution of completed spots usually meant shipping a tape or, more recently, a CD. Faster communications methods for voice and data allow for commercial insertion orders to be processed up to the last possible moment. In these cases, shipping a tape or CD makes no sense. Private distribution networks like DG Systems were created to transport the audio files anywhere a POTS or ISDN connection was available. Now that most stations have Internet access across their office networks, a new path is available.

New service providers have made audio file distribution as simple as sending an e-mail message. While the interface is not exactly the same, the basic idea is. Audio files can be e-mailed or stored on a central file server and then downloaded (sometimes automatically) when needed. The commercial scheduler and audio playback system can even check an FTP site at the beginning of the day to see if a new version of the spot is available and automatically make the update. These Internet services also provide tracking and verification of receipt and transmission of traffic instructions.

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