Before I left to work for Wheatstone six years ago, I was the chief engineer for WCBS(FM) in New York City. At the time, WCBS was somewhat aggressively processed but not over the top. I had designed a unique signature with feedback from programming and talent, and the station maintained a consistent No. 1 or No. 2 rating in the market. The processing was appropriate for the format. The station that sometimes beat us to No. 1 has a very open sound, while the station that had the most aggressive processing was around No. 15 and never seemed to budge!
Mike Erickson I’ve seen this scenario play out in other markets as well, where the higher-rated stations aren’t necessarily the loudest, but had a great combination of good programming and appropriate processing.
The truth is that most modern audio processors give you the tools to achieve an open and clear sound on the dial. Some can be very loud and very clean as well. But it takes a bit more than just the processor itself to achieve that second goal.
If you’ve ever spent good money on a brand-new processor only to be disappointed with the noticeable artifacts coming out of the air chain, you already know the importance of good audio going in.
Just about any new processor will sound better than your previous processor when you feed it linear audio. You’ll hear amazing detail, less “homogenization” of the audio, more perceived dynamic range … all the things that sold you on the processor in the first place.
But that’s only if the audio is linear, and your air chain isn’t packed with analog distribution amplifiers that date back to the Clinton administration. Your new processor will bring out all these bad details in your audio, details that your old processor covered up.
Your high-performance sports car (the processor) needs premium fuel (linear audio) to sound good. But what can you do besides redo the entire music library?
Here are a few steps you can take. These are worth taking for any radio station, whether or not you start with linear or lossy audio.
Step 1. Check the audio path from end to end. Remove any and all unnecessary gear between the console and the processor, and perhaps even some after the processor as well. I ran into a situation where a very old composite clipper, which the engineer swore was on his backup chain, was in fact on the main air chain and doing horrible things to the output of a brand-new processor.
Step 2. Standardize levels on live broadcasts. Many consoles use the dBfs scale … but 0 dBfs is clipping! On this scale, –20 dBfs is about where you want to be for proper headroom. This applies directly to the production department as well as the on-air staff.
Step 3. Establish how spots are ingested into the system. The use of some processing to sweeten the audio is okay, just don’t overdo it. Use effects processors to create but don’t be deliberate. Stereo enhancements in spots can sometimes become over enhanced on the air.
Step 4. Relegate clip restoration processors to the right studio. For those who like to use clip restoration processors, the best place to do it is in the production studio on individual pieces and not in “real time” using an audio processor. I have heard some good things from these clip restoration algorithms, but I’ve also heard them play tricks on audio that doesn’t need restoration. Your best bet is to use clip restoration on a case-by-case basis, and only in the production studio.
Step 5. Use the composite output of your processor (be it analog composite or AES composite) when possible. The use of the AES left/right output moves the stereo generator to the exciter. While there are many good stereo generators in today’s exciters, none compare to the one you can find in any modern audio processor. Also, composite processors in today’s modern boxes have advanced to the point where it’s almost a free lunch. You can literally add that extra dB of loudness and get away with it using the composite output. That’s something that isn’t available on the AES left/right output.
Step 6. Optimize your STL! I can’t tell you how many stations I have seen using a compressed STL with lossy audio on playout … and wonder why the station sounds so terrible. Dueling algorithms and audio processing do not get along.
Step 7. Maintain your transmitter. Transmitter site maintenance is key to making sure your station sounds good. Proof of performance, while no longer required, is always a good idea. The engineer and the transmitter building should not be strangers! Regular maintenance can only help your audio in the long run.
Now I’m sure that some of these things fall under the category of “easier said than done” for many readers. If that’s the case, and especially if you are stuck with lossy audio but are looking to get the most out of that new processor, your best bet is to go for a more open sound. On the flip side, the better your source audio, the louder you will be able to make your station without egregious side effects.
Remember, at the end of the day, listeners tune in for content.
The author is systems and support engineer for Wheatstone in New Bern, N.C.
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