Designing a Master Reel System

by Craig Rogers

It's inevitable: a spot comes up missing, or a machine eats a cart. What do you do? If you're saving your spots to a master reel, you're in good shape. If you're not, you could be costing the station money in missed spots and costing yourself lots of time.

With a system of master reels, you'll never miss a spot because it has been lost from the studio. It can be redubbed or even played right from the master if necessary. Money saved! And you won't have to take time to reproduce a spot. Just cue up the reel and dub away. Time saved!

Before discussing some different types of master reel systems, let's talk about a couple of things you'll need in any master reel system. First, you'll need good tape. At WHO/KLYF, we use a good quality 1.5 mil tape. That extra thickness keeps it from stretching. Spend a bit extra on quality tape, and you'll see your investment returned. If you miss a spot because of thin tape that stretched or wrapped around the capstan, that spot probably would have covered the cost of better tape and then some. Thicker tape also helps reduce print-through. Of course, good high-output, low-noise tape is best. Ampex 456 and 3M 226 or the new 3M 996 tape are some popular brands.

You'll also need some sort of log to keep track of what is on each reel. Use a loose leaf notebook or clipboard to hold the pages for current and past reels. Here are some items you'll want to consider putting on a log sheet: The date the spot was cut, client name, spot title or number, cart number, length, stereo/mono, music and/or effects used, plus a column for remarks ("tag needed;" "voice only, needs jingle;" "voice on 1, music on 2;" "revised version of cut 12 above;" etc.). This list is by no means all inclusive. Keep track of whatever information you feel you'll need.

There are three basic types of master reel systems I've worked with. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I'll outline them, then you can take the ideas that will work in your situation and adapt them.

Type 1 -- Individual Jock Reels: In this system, each jock has two reels, either ten-inch or seven-inch, depending upon how much storage you want. Each jock is responsible for keeping a master reel of all the spots he or she does. When one reel is full, they start on the second reel. When it is full, they start fresh on the first reel. All reels are stored in an area where anyone needing them can get to them. That way, if jock "A" is gone for the day, jock "B" can dub a spot from "A's" reel. He doesn't have to get a key to get into anyone's office, rifle someone's desk, etc..

An advantage to this system is that it makes each jock more responsible for mastering their production. They can't say that someone recorded over a spot since they should be the only one putting material on the reel. If a spot didn't make it to the master, you pretty much know who missed it.

Jocks also seem to take a bit more pride in their production when saving it to their "own" reel. They can pull off great spots quickly to enter into awards competitions or to put together a demo tape for outside voice work or even for a new job. Also, they can just sit back and listen to everything they've done to see how they're sounding.

This is also a good system if you can't afford to tie up a reel-to-reel machine with just a master reel. Each jock sets up their reel when they start and takes it with them when they leave.

The main disadvantage to this system is that jocks can sometimes be lax in logging cuts. "Hey, I know what's on there and where everything is!" Problem is, the guy who has to make a last minute dub from that reel doesn't.

Type 2 -- Daily Reels For The Studio: With this system, you'll need thirty-one reels, one for each day of the month. Number them "1" through "31." Each day, the reel for that day is set up in the production room. All spots produced during the day are saved to that reel. A fresh log sheet is started for each day.

An advantage of this system is that it takes less time to find spots. There is less fast-forwarding and rewinding past a zillion other spots to get to the one produced a week ago. Simply put up the reel for the day needed, and spots can be found quickly.

Spots can also be saved to master by someone other than the jock who produced the spot. If the morning guy has to cut some quick spots before heading out to a remote, he can leave the carts or spots on a reel with the Production Director to later put on the master reel, thus saving him a few minutes.

One disadvantage here is the initial investment in tape. It can be larger than with other systems. Most stations could probably get by with seven-inch reels if they run at 7.5 ips; but if you do lots of production or run reels at 15 ips, ten-inch reels may be needed. If you have two production studios, that means sixty-two tapes -- a set for each room.

Spots are only saved for thirty-one days with this system. When the first of the month rolls around, all spots recorded on the first of last month will be gone. If you need to save spots longer than a month, let's look at...

Type 3 -- One Big Master Reel: With this system, a reel is dedicated to the production room. Every spot cut in that room is saved to the master. When that reel is full, you set up another one.

With this system, you can keep reels as long as you feel necessary. At WHO/KLYF, they are filed for thirteen months. That way, if a client wants to run the same spot this Christmas as last, the spot will still be on file, even if it was cut in late November. There might still be a sizable investment in tape, but you can spread it out over the year instead of having to buy it all at once.

Now that you're saving all your spots to reel, you'll need a way to find those spots when you need to redub one. The best way is to write on the copy or production sheet the reel and cut number of the master. When a spot needs to be redubbed, traffic can tell you which reel it is on and which cut it is.

You can also track things down by the date they were cut. Check the date on the production sheet, and then check the reel logs for that date.

It is also important that each cut be slated on the tape. Roll the tape in record and read the client name and spot number and/or title over an 80 Hz tone. For example, "Joe's Lawn Mowers, number 91-A, 'Mow That Lawn Boy'." If you don't have a tone generator on your board, pot up the dial tone from the phone and do your slate over that. It's much easier to count the blips of slate tones as you fast forward or rewind than to guess as to where you are. If there are nine different spots in a row for Joe's Lawn Mowers, the slate will verify whether or not you have the right one.

If you have a reel-to-reel machine that keeps track of "tape time," you can do without counting the slate tones as they go by and just keep a record of where, in terms of tape time, each spot is on the reel. Use some leader tape or a tone at the beginning of the reel to mark the "zero" point on the reel.

Here are some more tips. Clearly mark your master reels as "Master Reels." I put Day-Glo orange labels on ours. When someone sees a reel with those labels, they know it's a master reel and not work tape.

To maintain the highest quality on your masters and save a bit of time, dub the spot to master at the same time you dub it to cart. That saves a generation of dubbing to cart and then from cart to master.

It's also a good idea to dedicate one reel-to-reel deck to your mastering. In other words, the master reel always rolls on that machine. When you need to dub a spot from the master, use the same machine for playback. This gives you the best possible quality on your dubs. If you only have two decks and can't afford to tie one up with a master reel, at least make sure the reel always rolls on the same machine. Put a sign on the machine reminding jocks to use that one for the master reels.

One last tip I've found useful. If a spot comes up missing and can't be found on the master, make sure the person who forgot to save it reproduces the spot. Gently point out that it wouldn't have to happen that way if the spot had been on the master in the first place. Sure, there'll be an emergency when the spot has to air now and the person who did it originally is gone for the day. In that case, I'll re-do it. But the original producer will reproduce the spot when he or she returns. I've found this approach to be most effective in getting jocks to save spots to the master reel.

Use these ideas as a starting point for designing your own master reel system. Think about what your needs are and will be. Maybe you'll want to keep multi-track masters. Will you run reels at 15 ips for best quality or at 7.5 ips to get more spots on each reel? Do you want to include only fully voiced and produced spots, or everything including tags, donut inserts, and partially completed spots? How long do you need to keeps spots? Etc., etc., etc..

Once you have a system in place, you'll wonder how you ever worked without it.

SIDEBAR: DAT Masters

Reel-to-reel master systems are still perhaps the most widely used, but DAT mastering and storage systems are quickly gaining popularity. A recent article in Radio World (DAT's Use by Radio Increases; August 21, 1991) reports a recent survey's claim that 7.7% of radio broadcasters presently have DAT equipment, and 36% said they plan to purchase DAT machines by 1993. The article went on to suggest the 7.7% figure might be a bit conservative and that 15% to 20% percent might be more accurate. Whatever the figure is, one thing is certain: DAT usage in radio is increasing, and the benefits of DAT as a mastering/storage medium are multiple.

To begin with, you have the digital quality of DAT. Mastering from your multi-track to DAT and then dubbing from DAT to cart gives you as clean a spot on the cart as if you had mastered directly to the cart. Accessing spots on the DAT cartridge is as simple as accessing a track on a CD. There are no slate tones to count as they go by, and the access time is much less than that of reel-to-reel tape. DAT machines index each cut with numbers up to 99. On a 120 minute DAT tape, you can easily place 99 sixty-second spots. The most you can get on a 10-inch reel of 1.5 mil tape is around sixty spots, and that's if you master them at 7.5 ips. Master at 15 ips and the number of spots you can put on one reel is cut in half. You can fit twelve 120-minute DAT tapes in the box one 10-inch reel of analog tape comes in.

As a mastering/storage medium, DAT tapes are easier to handle than analog reels, they're faster to work with, and they provide digital quality. The most inexpensive DAT deck we've seen is the Technics SV-DA10 consumer deck for $695. 120-minute DAT tapes cost about the same as one 10-inch reel of good analog tape. Will DAT be around for long? Who knows? Will hard-disk systems, magneto-optical systems, and recordable CD systems replace DAT? Who knows? If they do, you can bet on one thing: as soon as these other systems appear to have a hold on the market, there'll be yet another technology threatening to replace the hard-disks, magneto drives, and recordable CD's. Maybe it'll be a plug-in chip the size of a match book that can hold twenty hours of full bandwidth audio! YES!!!

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