The Future of Radio Production: Digital Breakthroughs Raise Interesting Questions

by Rick Allen

There is an ancient Chinese curse that reads, "May you live in interesting times." As the digital revolution hits the radio production field full force, I'm beginning to understand the impact of that curse. Sure, it's interesting when new technology enters the production studio. It's interesting when you hear new sounds for the first time. But it also means you have to keep up with a lot of technical advancements. There's so much to learn. What happens to your career if your station doesn't outfit your studio with the latest gear? Are all the skills you've worked so hard to develop now worth nothing?

Digital gear has been hailed as the be all and end all for production. It's on its way, but it still has a long way to go. So, if you're in a small market or a station that can't spend the capital for new gear, don't get too jealous of the guys that work with the new stuff. On the other hand, if you're one of the few that work with digital recording gear, wipe that smile off your face. As the technology develops, you're going to have quite a bit of relearning to do.

The new digital technology will no doubt change our jobs. Though it won't happen overnight. This revolution will turn out to be an evolution. Remember when personal computers were first introduced? The developers screamed that every household would have one to balance the checkbook and file recipes. It took a lot longer than they predicted. The machines went through a lot of changes before they reached wide acceptance, and, even today, most people still reconcile the bank statement by hand and pull their recipes from a cookbook. Digital recording gear will have to go through the same stages of change that computers did. There are still many unsolved problems: the cost issue of mass storage, the length of time it takes to load digital audio into these new devices, and how to get the almost instant repair radio requires of its gear when the gear goes down.

Once these issues are solved, will the changes that digital production brings about in our jobs be for the better? If we use the power of digital recording as a tool to do our job, the answer is yes. If we make the process of recording more important than the recording itself, then we've taken a step back. It's the same trap we fell in when the Harmonizer first came out. How many times did you pitch shift something, not because it was what the spot needed, but because you had a Harmonizer and you just could. Then we fell into the same trap again with sampling. Digital recording is a much larger development than pitch shifting or sampling, and it has even a larger chance of being abused. Digital production can be faster, sound cleaner, and give us more options; but we need to look at some of the different directions it could take us.

With digital recording and editing comes increased speed, but if a concert spot that took a half hour to produce with analog gear takes five minutes to complete in the digital domain, will you be expected to produce six concerts spots in the time it used to take to do one? Will it change the production studio into a "mass-production" studio full of burned out production personnel, or will you be allowed to use the increased options to experiment and try out new production techniques on each spot? Don't forget to include the time it takes to train on this new gear. The industry still needs to decide on standards. Becoming an expert at a Synclavier helps very little when you sit in front of a Dyaxis or an AKG system.

Beware of false hopes and expectations. Many people think if they could produce in the digital realm, their station would sound so good it would shoot to number one. Short term, until we move into digital transmission, let's face it, this isn't a factor. Long term, it will indeed become an issue if and when DAB becomes a reality.

Keep digital production in perspective. The value of a Production Director has always been based on his or her degree of skills in several important areas. Your dollar value will continue to be based on your degree of skill, but some of those skills may change in the near future. Look at the computer industry and you'll get an idea. Remember when a person had to be an expert in high tech, complicated computer languages to earn a good salary in that field? Today, the high tech side has given way to user friendly systems. Now the competition for high salaries is in the area of good creative ideas in software and new uses for hard-ware. Look for the production field to follow these same patterns. Now, and for a few years to come, a degree of technical understanding will be required just to operate in the digital realm. Keep up with this technology, but keep the creative skills sharp. As the gear becomes user friendly, just as in the computer industry, we'll begin to see a resurgence in the value of creative skills.

In the analog world, value is placed on such technical skills as splicing and timing. The new, digital gear drastically reduces the difficulty of these things. As a skill becomes less important, its value decreases. However, as you work in the midst of the "digital revolution," to succeed you must keep working on basic skills like splicing (which will no doubt become obsolete in the years to come). These are still the skills you need in order to get, and keep, the best jobs with the best companies who will give you the best chance to see the direction of the future. At the same time, you must put in the extra effort to learn and master many new skills used in digital technology to get to or stay at the top.

These days, you must not only master the old skills but also the new skills as well. Of course, don't forget the simple traits that will always be key to production success, like the ability to come up with good creative ideas. We live in interesting times, indeed.

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