By Dave Foxx
I was just musing to myself how much things change over time. As I write this, I am sitting quite comfortably in a Boeing 737, cruising at 35-thousand feet, preparing to eat breakfast as I type away on my MacBook Pro. In a few minutes, I’ll hook up my m-Box and start mixing a promo I started yesterday but just was too tired to finish. That way, when I get to Punta Cana, I can jump on the wi-fi and send the finished promo back up to New York while I sip a big tall glass of something cold, wearing only swim trunks and a smile.
It sounds a lot like an episode of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous, but I am neither (outside of our little community), and like many of you, am just another mook, trying to make a living by making noise. It does, however, bring up an interesting topic that I’ve been seeing a lot of email about: setting up a “studio-in-a-box” that can do all the things we need to do as radio producers, without breaking into mom’s insulin money. If you want to be able to free-lance a few jobs from time to time from the comfort of your family room, whenever the chance comes up, this is your guide. If you’re a budding VO artist who would like to take your act on the road sometime, read on.
The first question is always cost. You probably have a rough idea about what getting a full-blown studio setup is going to run and that is intimidating, to say the least. But, what do you really need to do radio production? Once you break it down to the essential parts, your biggest expense will be your laptop, followed by your microphone (if you need one at all), and then comes storage. Bringing up the rear is the software. If you have a good broadband connection, you can do it all without breaking a sweat.
Many, if not most of you use a Microsoft operating system computer. If that’s what you’re most comfortable with, by all means stick with it. If you’re an Apple fan, like me, go with Macintosh. Cost is NOT the dividing issue that many think it is. In a recent comparison, an independent research company purchased a basic MacBook Pro, Apple’s top of the line laptop. They also purchased a Dell PC, which is renowned for being the most cost-efficient computer available. However, they decided that to make the comparison useful, they would have to add some features to the Dell that come native on the MacBook Pro. To get the Dell up to the performance standards of the native Apple, the cost of the PC went up to about $20 more than the Mac. So, when considering which platform to use, if you want to have room to expand your repertoire, and all the horsepower you could possibly want, get a Mac, plug it in and start working. If you go the less expensive route, know that eventually you’ll end up spending the same amount and have about 20 times the aggravation.
For those who plan to do voice work on their new system, a quality microphone is a must. This is one time you really need to stay away from Radio Shack. Go to your local professional audio gear outlet and find a mic that really does the job cleanly, with as close to a flat response as you can get. There are dozens of models you can get for $300 to $900 that will do exactly what you want. One of my favorite microphones is the Shure SM7. This is a sturdy mic that delivers a clean, clear signal that you can depend on, take after take. Once you decide which mic is right for you, go online to buy it. All the pro dealers out there will hate me for saying this, but they can’t come close to the prices you can get online. My favorite is Sweetwater Sound, but there are a lot of them out there, who deliver quickly and efficiently for a lot less than any purely storefront operation.
I mentioned earlier that the third most expensive item would be storage, but that will depend on your choice of software. Storage itself is getting to be ridiculously inexpensive, with firewire drives going for less than a dollar per gigabyte. Getting an external hard drive for storage is a must for any serious producer. It doesn’t matter which audio software system you use, the rate at which the software writes the audio data as you record makes it extremely dangerous to write to the same drive your software is on. If you are doing this on your main system at work, stop it immediately. It doesn’t happen too often, but every once in awhile, the audio data will overwrite something in the worst possible place. (This is most likely to happen with a severely fragmented or even a mostly full drive.) You’ll end up with software that won’t work because something vital was overwritten, or worse, your computer could crash completely and not be functional without a completely new install of the operating system. As cheap as external storage is these days, it simply doesn’t make sense to write to your main drive.
Now, I alluded to the fact that the cost of your software can vary widely. I know a number of producers who try to do major league production on the various little pieces of software that come bundled on many laptops, with mixed results. Do yourself a favor, get software that is designed for the kind of work you want to do. Many of you use Adobe Audition™, or what used to be called Cool Edit or Cool Edit Pro. It works. For some it works very well. I’m sure many of the audio samples on this month’s RAP CD were done using this software. The main reason people extol the virtues of Audition™ is cost. But, this is a myth that decidedly needs to be burst. Sure, if you want to get a full-blown Pro Tools™ HD3 system, capable of doing anything, you can spend a boatload of money without even blinking; but you can set yourself up with a simple Pro Tools™ rig for next to nothing. For just a little more than nothing, you can get everything you need to do the best radio production you can imagine. And I can imagine an awful lot.
I splurged the extra $600 and got the m-Box2 Pro. It comes complete with microphone pre-amps, professional connectors and a sturdy little case that’s smaller than my laptop. It also comes with extra DSP (audio production horsepower) and connects via firewire so it doesn’t need a power supply.
Now, after I wrote the first few paragraphs of this column, I did indeed break out the rest of my gear and do the mix I mentioned in the very first paragraph. THAT is my audio for this months’ RAP CD. An hour after we landed in Dominican Republic, it was in the Z100 system, ready to start airing Monday morning. Admittedly, I had already recorded the VO before I left, so it was just the mix I needed to finish, but from 35-thousand feet, I am extremely pleased with the results.
As many of you know, I also do voice work for dozens of stations around the world, and that didn’t stop during my week in Punta Cana. With the exception of Thursday when the internet was down for the day, I would trot up to the lobby each afternoon, download scripts and then go back to my suite to record. Once recorded, I’d head back to the lobby and upload everything, and then send an email saying it was done and ready for pickup. Inside an hour each day (a little more on Friday because of Thursday’s outage), I was able to deliver the voice work with little or no interruption.
So now that you have some ideas about what you can build for your own “studio-in-a-box,” let me give you a couple of pointers. I keep all my gear in a backpack that I carry on. (I don’t even want to think about what baggage handlers would do to my external hard drive.) When I take out the laptop at the security checkpoint, I also take out the microphone, hard drive and m-Box and put them in separate trays. Otherwise, they’ll be taking my backpack apart, zipper by Velcro strap and examining everything at least once… sometimes twice.
The only thing that would have made this trip simpler would have been broadband in my room, but hey, it IS a third world country. I figure I have to go through a little hardship. OK. Gotta go. The missus wants to play golf after her SCUBA lesson. Then our personal Cordon Bleu Chef is preparing a special dinner for us before we head off to the casino.
Yeah… and my other car is a Rolls Royce too. A guy can certainly dream, can’t he?