Sunday, May 4, 2014

The new vs. the old

Back in the day, before digital sound and computers came along presenting a radio show was a lot of work. There was selecting the next 45 RPM record and cueing it up, loading the reel to reel tape and cueing it up, selecting the next recorded announcement from the cart rack and loading it into the cart machine. All this had to be done while thinking up the next bit of DJ patter to announce into the broadcast. There was a lot of physical work to be done and at the end of the typical five hour broadcast shift, we would emerge from the control room joyfully drained, knowing that we, as the sports analog goes “left it all on the control room floor.”

Many of the DJs that came along with me look at the radio station control room of today, with reel to reel recorders, turntables and cart machines replaced by a computer or two and mutter at how much better it was back in the day. At times I tend to agree, there was a pride that went along with mastering all those little chores and choreographing them into the ballet of doing radio the way it was meant to be. Maybe “ballet” is the wrong allegory, it was more like a jitterbug or a disco dance; lots of energy required. My old buddies tend to look at the broadcast computer as the enemy.

Left: A control room view at WUSC-FM. The computer on the left is my laptop running SAM Broadcaster. The monitor in the middle behind the microphone is displaying Audiovault's control room page. The monitor behind my head is a for general use, information searches, weather etc. In the sense that the modern broadcast computer tends to take away the job of “disk jockey,” I agree completely. But there is another side of this equation that is rarely calculated but when it is, it is pretty spectacular. It is a side that is not seen too often. This is the side when the disk jockey actually controls the computer instead of the other way around. There are a handful of very lucky guys and gals that get to do radio pretty much on their own terms. They get to use the advantages that computers bring to the control room – and they are not too shabby.

I am not going to get into the argument about which produces better sound; vinyl or digital. Each has their own advantages and followers. What I am talking about is how computers can actually help the DJ do a better show.

When I do a show on WUSC-FM or on my internet radio station, my main source of music and production elements is my laptop computer and a piece of broadcast software called SAM Broadcaster. SAM provides similar capability as other software used by broadcasters such as Audiovault or Scott Systems, now called WideOrbit. At WUSC my music and production elements are coming from SAM and the promos, PSA’s and Station IDs are coming from AudioVault.

Left: a typical "WideOrbit control room display. Let’s take a look at one little advantage that computers can bring a DJ: It’s called “hitting the post.” Hitting the post means talking over the instrumental introduction of a song and finishing a beat before the singer starts singing. If you listen to a professional DJ you will hear that a lot. However it is not an easy thing to learn. You have to know exactly how each song starts and when to expect that first lyric. When we played vinyl, we could take a moment and listen to the opening to remind ourselves of what it sounds like. We used to write the length of the intro down on the record label if the record company didn’t do that for us. Still it is hit or miss. One of the features of broadcast software is that you can cue mark the audio file with the post and then it will count you down on the screen to the time you have to finish talking. Cool, eh!

Another feature of broadcast software is the ability to search for an audio file by artist or title. This is especially useful when you are doing a request show or come up with a combination that you would like to play. Yet another useful feature is that the software keeps a log of the music you play, and in some cases, if it is integrated to the radio station’s RDS stream it automatically puts the song information on the face of the radio receivers that have RDS capability. The software also maintains a list of the songs that I have played in a log. For me, the advantage is that these logs are used by my performance rights providers to pay the licensing fees. So I don’t have to keep a manual log in pen and ink.

So, in the end, I have mixed feelings about computers in the control room. They do make doing a live music show easier and they help me fill the time on my internet station that is not covered by volunteer DJs. I suppose they are like any other tool that man has invented; they can be used for good or evil! They are good when they help the live on air DJ, they are evil when they replace him or her! Oh MY!

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