Loud and Clean… The Best of Both Worlds

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

I admire people who are blessed with “great ears.” They can listen to a radio station and fine tune the audio chain. Some stations want to be louder than the competition, while others want that crisp, clean sound. Processing can help or hinder time spent listening because when a station is over processed it becomes fatiguing to listen to. Listeners may not know why they are spending less and less time with a particular radio station, and eventually may stop tuning that station all together because they find something else on the dial that is more pleasing to their ear.

Someone who knows a lot about processing is Jeff Keith,  the Senior Product Development Engineer at Vorsis. Jeff spent 30 years working in the trenches as Chief Engineer of some of the best sounding radio stations in the USA before moving to Omnia where he helped develop the Omnia 6. For the past three years he has been leading the development of the Vorsis processors.

There is a lot of talk in the industry about the new Vorsis processors and I wanted to find out from the man himself about this technology. Here are some of the questions I put to Jeff who had just returned from presenting a technical paper in Canada at the Central Canada Broadcast Engineers conference.

Jeff what benefits does this technology offer the average radio station? Stations want to be loud, and until now they’ve had to give up quality to achieve what they considered to be a competitive signal in the market. What we’ve been able to do with AirAura is soften the old “What are you willing to give up to get the thing you want more” paradigm. Now a station can be incredibly loud and uncannily clean at the same time.

Can the average consumer hear the difference? We believe they can. They may not understand the psychoacoustics behind why they like to listen to a station with an AirAura processor longer than a station without one, but it really doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that our new clipper technology can help stations achieve a longer time spent listening rating while still being very competitive in the market.

Why should a PD or GM consider spending the money to upgrade their processor?  While there are many things in the air chain that can sabotage good sound, the on-air processor is still the gate keeper to getting great sound to a listener’s radio. The more capable the on-air processor is the more potential there is for the station to be competitive and its listeners to enjoy the station.

What else should a radio station be doing today other than upgrading their processing to improve the audio quality of their FM signal? I covered exactly this subject in a recent audio processing workshop. Station personnel must remember that the audio that comes out of a listener’s radio is subject to degradation at myriad places in the typical air chain. One of the most harmful factors standing in the way of getting good audio on the air is the use of MP3’s and/or source material of unknown heritage. A great on air sound starts with the quality of the source material – the on air sound can never be better quality than the source. Record companies are shipping low bit rate MP3’s to radio stations so they can get a new song to air quickly. But over time that can really damage the sound of your radio station. I’ve seen radio stations put a new processor on the air and the radio station actually sounds worse because the old processor was masking and hiding the audio imperfections.

What are the differences in the way music is being recorded today say compared to 20 years ago, and why should radio stations be concerned about this? Record producers are having their own loudness wars now, and many mastering engineers overuse or abuse the audio processing tools they have available in the studio. What they don’t recognize, or don’t wish to recognize, is that the radio station’s processing will add to whatever they’ve done in the mastering studio, and it will almost always add with quite unsatisfactory results. The reason the record labels are having a loudness war with each other is the same reason radio stations started doing it. They simply want their records to be louder than the other guy’s. Unfortunately, “louder no matter what” seems to be their mantra these days. Some of the most recent material is pure garbage in my opinion. You can’t do anything to make it sound good.

You are known as the engineer who had some of the best sounding radio stations in the USA for many years. Who in your opinion has the best sounding radio station today? There are lots of great sounding radio stations all over the country, but one I really like is WMXJ in Miami Florida. You can find it at 102.7 and that station sounds great in my opinion. When you tune it in a car for example it fills the cabin with the most musical and natural sound.

Where do you see audio processing going in the next 10 years? We are always investigating better ways of controlling audio. In the past it was mostly about generating the loudness that program directors craved. But through our ongoing research we’re discovering ways to fool the human ear into believing that competitively processed audio sounds far better than it actually measures. We’re doing this by taking advantage of human psychoacoustics to hide, or mask, objectionable distortions that we’re used to hearing when older technology is pushed as hard.  

What do FM radio stations need to be doing from a technical point of view to remain relevant? The engineering staff should never forget that the broadcast chain – from the original audio source material to the time the electromagnetic waves leave the antenna – is part of a very complex system, and seemingly subtle problems in that system can completely wreck what could otherwise be a very good sounding radio station. You would be amazed at some of the things I find in the field while helping customers achieve the sound they’re after.

If you were building a radio station today what technology would you put into that radio station and how would that look different from a radio station that was built say 10 years ago? For sure, I would build it around AoIP technology. The flexibility and technical performance of that technology in a typical broadcast environment is way beyond what we used ten years ago. As to how it would look? For one thing, there would be a lot less wire! As a radio ‘old timer’ it took a while for me to get used to the fact that an entire radio station could be on a flimsy Cat5 network cable. But in fact the technology works, and it works well.

The radio broadcast chain seems to be more about computers and audio over IP today. How does a radio technician stay current with all this new technology? There is no question that broadcast engineers must be IT savvy today in order to be successful. The fortunate thing is that there are plenty of sources of information and/or training available, so there is really no excuse not to learn it. Besides, if the engineer ever leaves radio for greener pastures, a very solid background in IT can go a long way towards landing a great gig.

The recent earthquakes in Haiti showed how important local radio is to broadcast critical information to a mass population. But today’s technology appears to be more sensitive to power bumps and takes more power to keep the signal on the air. There was one radio station in Port-au-Prince called Caraibes FM that was back on the air within hours of the earthquake which destroyed the studios by using power from a car battery as they broadcast from the sidewalk. Can we do that with today’s equipment? The overall answer would be yes, but it highly depends on many factors, some completely outside the station’s control. For instance, in the US it may not be quite as easy to stick up an antenna anywhere you want just to get back on the air. That said, any station that does not have a disaster recovery plan that extends well beyond the business manager and traffic director’s offices and into the actual technical plant is probably being foolish.

What else would you like to say to the non technical readers about the advances in technology?  Keep your eyes open, discover and learn about new emerging technologies, and try to leverage those technologies to gain technical advantages over your competitors. And if it so happens that Moore’s Law also pertains to broadcasting, exciting changes are definitely ahead!

You can hear Jeff speak on Creative Audio Processing at the upcoming NAB in Washington DC on Friday 1 October. If you are talking to Jeff, ask him why your audio processor needs to be located at your transmitter site and after your STL codec?