Whither Audio?

whither-audioBy John Pellegrini

One of the interesting factors of no longer being a ‘radio station employee’ is I no longer listen to radio like a radio industry professional. Instead, I find myself “listening like a radio listener”. Quite frankly, and unfortunately, a lot of what I’m hearing is appalling.

In the past 10 years or so, it seems the audio quality of many broadcast radio and TV stations, internet audio services, cable and satellite subscription services, and podcast programming is just plain awful. I’m hearing stuff that sounds like it was recorded over a cell phone, inside a warehouse, or inside a wind tunnel.

Inferior minds and lesser talent will blame technology. “It’s all digital’s fault!” they shout to the rooftops. And the media, always looking for a way to misdirect from the real problem, will nod their collective heads in agreement.

But the truth? Let’s be honest: Technology is only as good as the idiot that’s controlling it... the engineers, the operators, the talent.

I’ve been in some form of the broadcast and music biz for over 30 years, and I can state without fear of contradiction that I’ve heard audio just as lousy all the way back to the dawn of electricity as the audio I hear today.

To blame digital or any technology is lazy and stupid.

The problem is us. 

We’re asleep at the wheel when it comes to quality control.

Take the example of a startling revelation in a recent recording industry trade publication which featured an article about a seminar conducted by a famous music producer. The audience was a group of recording industry engineers and recording studio owners. He was complaining about this very subject: the lack of quality control in the recording industry. During the speech he took a quick informal poll; he asked for a show of hands to the question, “How many of you listen to the final mix that the consumer purchases?” In other words, do you listen to your music product from iTunes or any other download service?

Shockingly, no one in the room could say that they listen to their audio files in any other form besides the original high-definition master in the studio setting.

I believe the three letter acronym that best sums this up is WTF?!?!

Unfortunately, this is nothing new and not, as I said, symptomatic of digital technology or any other technology.

Another example occurred to me personally about 20 years ago. I even wrote about it in RAP at the time in an article titled, “The Million Dollar Audio Glitch”.  I called it that because of the status of the agency, studio, and talent involved. It involved a series of commercials for a now-defunct home improvement client and the major name advertising agency (since then merged into some other group). The commercials were recorded at a major Los Angeles based recording studio (also now out of business). This studio boasted some very high-end equipment including a Neve mixing desk, Neumann microphones, and all the major gear. The talent for the commercials was the late character actor, Tom Poston, who at the time was playing the role of George on ‘Newhart’. One of the studio’s main engineers was on the session. I found out all this during the ensuing debacle.

You’d think with all that talent and all that expense that the commercials would have sounded great. You would think so, but you would be wrong. Every one of the commercials had an annoying mid-range buzzing noise. Now this was back when everything was still being done in analog and on audio tape. For those not familiar, well produced audio mixes on tape were sent ‘tails out’, which means that the tape was not rewound on the left side reel, but instead sent with the audio loaded on the right side reel, and the reel had to be rewound to the beginning of the tape. This was done to prevent ‘pre-echo’ problems, the kind of which you hear in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (though in that instance the pre-echo was deliberate). Since there were multiple commercials on a single reel, the tapes had a slate (a low frequency tone and typically an engineer recorded over a microphone the track number and commercial name for radio stations to reference - when you rewound the tape you’d hear the tones played back in a much higher pitch).

The noise I’m talking about only showed up in the commercial audio itself. Not on the slate tones, and not on the short length of tape that separated each commercial.

There was only one way for that kind of noise to show up. When the copies of the commercials were dubbed, the tape deck that was used to play the audio for the other decks to record had some kind of a grounding problem and the engineer or technician who did the copying wasn’t listening to the tape copies after they were made. Often, many recording studios back then didn’t have dubbing (copy making) equipment in-house and sent their tapes to ‘dubbing houses’ that had dozens of tape recorders to make the large number of copies needed. When this happened, the dubbing house would put their own label on the tape box so you’d know where it came from. However, in this case, the famous recording studio had its own dubbing equipment in-house.

When I heard the noise, I called in the sales rep, the station GM, and the traffic manager and played it for them. They agreed that they couldn’t be aired as they sounded. So the sales rep called the agency to let them know the problem.

Wanna guess what happened next?

The famous recording studio flatly denied there was any problem with their incredible million dollar line-up of high end audio equipment. We were just a puny third-rate hick radio station in a low-rent market with, obviously, low-quality audio equipment. It was our inferior equipment and our untrained, uneducated production monkeys (me) who were causing the problem.

They thought that they could bluff their way out of it with arrogance and their ‘superior technical know-how’. After all, if they admitted they made the mistake, they’d have to cover the costs of hiring back the major talent and redoing the entire campaign. The advertising agency rep claimed that ‘not one other radio station in the country has complained about the sound quality’ -- which, of course, meant that they were getting tons of complaint calls.

So the recording studio and the agency refused to correct the problem and the commercials aired with the noise. The local franchise owners had a conniption (not just the ones in my station’s market, but also across the country), and within two weeks the entire campaign was removed. The big deal client was persuaded by the agency that, ‘radio advertising is a waste of money’, and turned to television advertising instead.

Now, as Bill Cosby said, I told you all that to tell you this. Even though the commercials wound up on the air, we, and a few dozen other radio stations, took the time to alert the ad agency of the problems. More often than not, when we’d report these problems, the ad agency or recording studio involved would take the right course and have the audio corrected. This story sticks with me because it was such a rare occurrence of a studio and an agency refusing to fix the audio problem back then.

Fast forward to today: is anyone reporting the lousy audio? Is anyone listening to anything they create any more? I realize that in some cases virtually everything on the entire broadcast day could be considered “lousy audio” but still, what’s the reason?

You cannot tell me that it can’t be fixed. I own my own digital recording setup and I know how to make audio sound good. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented broadcast engineers throughout my entire radio career who refused to accept anything less than perfection in the audio chain. Yet we are constantly bombarded with the worst audio quality from broadcast media and the music industry that I’ve experienced in my lifetime, and we are apparently expected to accept it as standard.

One thing I’ve learned from the film industry that should be taken to heart by everyone in the business: The audience will accept problems with the picture... a little blur... poor lighting... a little shaking of the camera... but they will ABSOLUTELY NOT ACCEPT poor audio quality. How many times have you read reviews of movies where the reviewer hates the movie because of poor sound quality? Not too often, and when it does happen, the movie is almost always universally panned - such as the case with Pirates of the Caribbean 3, which nearly every critic world-wide hated due to the horribly over-compressed sound quality of the theatrical release. In fact, I read that the producers had the sound mix completely redone before they released it on DVD in order to save sales.

Once again I have to repeat, the problem is NOT technology. The problem is laziness. It’s amazingly convenient to record a commercial, a podcast, hell, even an entire radio show, on your laptop or smart-phone. But that doesn’t mean you should. The sound quality simply isn’t there, and I don’t care what affordable model USB microphone you’ve purchased for the job or what processing was included in which free DAE program you’ve downloaded (or came pre-loaded on your device when you purchased it).

I remember when DAEs, DAWs, and computers were first introduced to the broadcast industry. The big caution proclaimed everywhere was that you had to outfit these DAWs, DAEs, and computers with “Broadcast Quality Sound Cards”. Does anyone even think about looking for those anymore? Because, believe it or not, despite the incredible upgrades in memory, speed, and processing, your laptop still doesn’t come with one unless you do a special order request. And forget smart devices... you couldn’t fit a broadcast quality sound card in one even if you wanted to.

Whether or not the station you work for has a qualified engineer on staff is probably out of your control. Whether or not the station you work for even has a full-time staff is also probably out of your control. But that doesn’t give you the excuse to do a half-assed job. Your own professional pride should be sufficient. Take the time to listen to everything you record and listen to how it sounds on-air or in its final delivery form. Make sure the sound of everything you produce is ‘CD quality’ - and if you don’t know what that is, then take the time to learn how to get there. It’s the difference between being heard and just being “noise”.

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