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Producing Radio Programs


Looking for new revenue possibilities for your studio? Producing radio programs can provide income that doesn’t come with clients who have fist fights during recording sessions or want the monitors turned up to 11. In fact, in the best cases, the client comes in, records the voice tracks and splits, leaving you the flexibility to put the show together as it suits you.

Radio program production might seem as simple as sequencing recorded elements-sort of like sequencing music tracks on a CD. Unlike CD sequencing, however, producing a music radio program often combines widely divergent audio elements that challenge a producer’s ability to make the show hang together. Jazz musicologist Jim Murphy’s “Journey Into Jazz,” a one-hour weekly program that covers 50 years of music, provided just that sort of challenge.

When you have recordings from Sinatra, Tito Puente, the Four Freshmen, The Rippingtons, The Hi-Los, Max Roach, MJQ, Oscar Peterson, Spyro Gyra and Sonny Rollins, you’ve got a very listenable but very wide hour of music.

The show, with 13 weeks of programming already in the can, was produced on an Orban Audicy workstation, with the music loaded in a cut at a time. Under direction not to “mess with the music” (which I interpreted as no EQ or compression), I found the loudest passage of each cut and set record levels accordingly. Against my gut instincts, all of the voice and music elements of the first two shows were mixed without processing.

After listening to the mixed programs, Murphy was not happy. The first problem was that the intros to some of the pieces started at rather low levels, which became more apparent when sequenced with the voice tracks. I explained that raising the level would be changing the dynamic properties of the music, and that’s what he said he did not want. He cleared things up by saying he wanted the audio to sound like it did on the radio.

That changed everything and made my gut feel better. Almost everything on the radio is EQ’d, compressed and limited. Part of running a “tight board” (radio lingo for no dead air and consistent levels) is raising the level of soft intros and backing them off as the song builds. After that, you let the station’s compressor, limiter and clipper do the work. If the song fades at the end, it’s not unusual to increase its level until the subjectively “best” musical moment for either a segue to the next tune or the back announce. That part of the recipe was working.

The other part is the appropriate use of compression and limiting on both the voice and music. I know some people think music should not be messed with-it is a complete art form and the degree of compression and limiting is part of the art form. I also know that in the 17 years I spent working at radio stations, every single one compressed, limited and clipped at the transmitter. (So, no flame mail!) In the ’60s and early ’70s, stations were using the CBS Audimax and Volumax. They were crude by today’s standards, but they increased the average modulation level. In AM (amplitude-modulated) signals, a good portion of the signal strength and coverage area is produced by the modulation in the side bands. The harder you bang it, the bigger it gets. Bigger coverage area means more listeners.

In the late ’70s, Bob Orban’s multiband Optimod 8000 revolutionized the sound of FM radio by reducing the amount of artifacts produced by massive amounts of gain reduction. Multibanding was part of the solution; using a small amount of delay to prepare the gain reduction circuits for what was about to hit them was another. Other manufacturers contributed boxes with their own “secret sauce,” resulting in some truly hideous audio when too many radio stations tried to turn it up to 11. (And that’s the last time I’m going to use that phrase in this article.)

The point is, you never know if the programming you’re producing is going to end up being aired on a station where management has decided that louder is better. If you give them the full, unadulterated stuff, with no…er…preprocessing, it will sound a lot worse on the air than if you do some of the gain reduction work with relatively transparent gear beforehand. That way, their equipment doesn’t have to work as hard, which generally means fewer artifacts and better sound.

Preprocessing also falls right into line when loading said audio into a workstation. The more bits you use, the better the sound, but digital “overs” suck. Striking the right balance of compressor and limiter settings took some time because the production styles and mix techniques within 50 years of jazz vary wildly. In the end, I found that an Aphex Compellor followed by a Studio Dominator set at light but fast settings contributed a consistency. The Compellor is a very transparent device, and the tri-band stereo limiting of the Studio Dominator kept the lid on without pumping. Compression ran at a fairly constant 2 to 4 dB. The Studio Dominator was set to catch the occasional peaks, most of which required 1 to 3 dB of gain reduction. A few of the selections, some with bongo accents and drum and vibe solos, had extremely high peaks, requiring the Dominator release times to be set faster to avoid pumping. From there, the input level to the Compellor/Dominator stage was varied as needed to account for level differences on the LPs and CDs. In most cases, the newer tunes were produced with more overall compression than some of the earlier ones. The more gain reduction I heard in the original recording, the less I used.

After testing several mics on Murphy’s voice, I settled on a Gefell UM 70 through a GML mic preamp with no EQ. The voice tracks were recorded through the Compellor/Studio Dominator chain using the same settings as for the music tracks. The Audicy was used to cut the center out of Murphy’s breaths, leaving enough to imply natural breathing.

A good turntable, stylus, cartridge and preamp all make a difference. You can’t “get by” with bad stuff. I used a Stanton 981 HZ-Mk II-S cartridge with a II D98S stylus in a Technics SL-D1 direct drive turntable and a Stanton Model 210 phone preamp. Murphy’s LP collection is in very good condition, requiring only that a standard, moistened Discwasher be used to remove the usual dust buildup. Some of the older, more frequently played discs had developed some crackles and pops. The Audicy got rid of the pops with no problem, but the budget wasn’t there for more extensive noise removal.

The show was mixed to a Panasonic SV-3900 DAT in quarter-hour segments. It’s very easy to let the level of a sequenced show creep away from you. The tendency is to make each segment just a little louder than the last. I used the -6dB peak hold indicator on the DAT meters as a guide, with rare excursions to -4 dB and -2 dB.

After making high-speed DAT backup copies of each program with a Tascam DA-302 dual-well DAT, the DATs were sent off for CD replication. The house with the best price is not always the best deal. Of the first ten shows sent out, 1 to 7 came back in mono, and 8 and 9 came back in stereo with the channels reversed, but that’s another story.

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