Q It Up: Checking In on the Switch to Digital

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95Q It Up: This month’s Q It Up question is a two-part question. 1) By some slim chance, is your station still using carts? If so, why haven’t you moved on to one of the many digital systems available? And 2), if your stations have made the analog to digital switch, what effect, if any, did going to a digital system have on deadlines at your station? And what are some thoughts you have on the overall effect of the transition from carts to your digital system with regards to the process of getting spots and programming material on the air? Has the digital system improved things? Made some things worse? Any other comments you have on the subject are welcome.

Tom Robinson [tom.robinson[at] mail.citcomm.com] Citadel Broadcasting, Grand Rapids, MI: I miss carts. I miss the hiss. I miss cleaning cart deck heads, pinch rollers, and capstans. I miss having to re-cart-up 8 beer spots on an 8.5-minute cart because the 8th spot wasn’t “tight enough.” I miss having carts thrown at me when I walked in on the morning show. I miss knocking over a 2-foot stack of carts while the mic was open. I miss seeing earwax encrusted cotton swabs left around by air talent that didn’t know they were supposed to use them to clean the cart decks. I miss typing up cart labels. I miss trying to do that cool cart-flip thing I saw in a movie (Broadcast News, I think). I miss pulling and stacking the spots (and music, in the ’80s) for the next jock. I miss the huge, rotating cart racks. I miss explaining to station visitors that carts can’t be played in 8-track decks. I miss spilling tape head cleaning fluid into the razor cuts on my hands (from splicing reel-to-reel tape, of course). I miss the dead air from carts not being properly cued-up. I miss waiting for the cart decks to go through the erase/azimuth-adjust/splice-find cycle before dubbing a spot. I miss trying to extract tape that was gobbled up by a hungry deck. Yep, digital systems sure took the fun out of radio.

Carlos Montoya [agmaprod[at] liveradio.com]; AGM, Albuquerque, New Mexico: We are off of carts, but we still have a cart machine hooked up in the KYLZ studio and the main Production room. I think they’re just hanging around for sentimental reasons.

I can’t say much about the effect on deadlines because the company was already digital when I was hired. But I have worked with carts before and there are some pros and cons to both. With a digital system, you don’t have to deal with recycled carts missing chunks of media making your masterpiece drop in and out. You don’t have to worry about the previous jock not cueing the cart back up and having it play in the middle of the spot, and you can preview without having to wait for the cart to cue up again. The sound quality is the biggest advantage to digital in my opinion.

But of course, there are always disadvantages. You still have jocks missing their assigned spots for whatever reason: transposed cart numbers, recording to the wrong station drive, or the ever-popular, “I did it—somebody must have erased the cart number!” I suppose the pros outweigh the cons with a digital system, but when the on-air computer has a problem, you’re really screwed because all your spots are on the same drive. But with carts, if you accidentally stepped on one or rolled your chair over it, it was only one spot.

Editing has obviously completely changed with the move to digital. No more having to get it all in one take. Now you don’t even think twice about making 20 or 30 edits to one production. There’s only one guy in our building that can still read a spot in one take. He’s definitely old school, but very well respected. Carts, reels and razor blades are all tools of the past and only a handful of us remember the art of cueing and timing the start of your reels and cart machines. Aah, memories.

Chris Adams [ChrisAdams[at]Clear Channel.com]: In answer to this month’s 2-part Q It Up question:

1) No, we no longer use carts at any of our 6 stations. As a matter of fact, the other day one of the jocks asked the engineer if we had a cart machine hooked up somewhere so he could pull off an old bit to reuse. The engineer laughed so hard he almost swallowed his tongue! (He did manage, however, to install an old cart deck temporarily.)

2) When we first switched over to all digital it was a nightmare!! We lost spots. We missed spots. Spots were dubbed in with bad levels and with no end tones or marks. It was terrible! 2 years later things are moving along swimmingly. We have NexGen and we love it. I won’t say it always works flawlessly, but it’s a damn sight better than having to erase carts and cue past the splice and then listen to the cart after it was recorded to make certain all was well. (Yes, I realize I’m a little anal...so what? It’s my life.) All in all, going digital has been a very positive experience for us...with one notable exception: I believe most everything produced and played back in the digital realm has a certain “coldness” or “lack of warmth.” To combat that, I run all spots produced here through a dbx Quantum processor. It makes things sound mah-velous! (I could be convinced to be a spokesperson for dbx if they’d comp me enough of their gear!) Other than that, after working most of the bugs out, we have found that digital saves us both time and money. We’re diggin’ it!

Donnie Marion [dmarion[at]104 krbe.com] 104 KRBE, Houston, TX: My life is so much easier now! Except for the rare times when the system crashes and our multiple levels of redundancy may need another level of back up.

The one or two times the system has crashed and been down for longer than a song, I’ve had to find the mp3’s of spots or just re-dub to machines on our back up control room and play the spots from there. When that happens, I wish that I was in the habit of encoding everything to mp3 so restoration would be quicker.

The deadlines for copy did not change as a result of switching to a digital system. But the deadlines were moved up one hour. Maybe because the AE’s don’t have to drive around town to pick up tapes. Or, maybe because I have to surf around the www to download them. But once I get them to my desktop, things begin to move really fast, even if we get a spot on a reel.

When copy changes, or is finally delivered, there have been times when I’ve finished dubbing, less than 60 seconds from the time the new spot airs. In that case, I don’t get to listen to the spot to check for quality until it gets on the air. But it’s rare to cut it that close.

Laurent Boulet [kiwi[at]choifm.com]: My boss believes in technologies: embrace changes, don’t be afraid of them. So in my 7 years here I started in a one studio production department equipped with a Chilton board (never heard of this brand before nor after) with a Studer A-80 1-inch reel-to-reel with Dolby noise reduction and the works. What we produced sounded great but it was long and complicated. We went from that to a Roland VX-880 if I recall correctly, which more than doubled the speed at which we produced, thus enabling us to have 1) better working hours (the imaging guy worked nights), and 2) jingles and sweepers refreshed more frequently. Then we went from that to a 3 room production department all equipped with Cool Edit Pro, storing everything on a network.

All this technology helped us in a lot of ways. Some promos I do today on Cool Edit in 3 or 4 hours would have taken 1 of not 2 days on the old tape including a lot of mixdowns along the way 'cause you can’t go very far with only 8 tracks and effects in your voices and everything. The imaging is a lot better also because it can be refreshed more frequently. The studios cost way less to equip so we can afford a second salary on an imaging guy...then again better imaging. The station used to be 4th or 5th in the market. Nowadays we are 2nd; I like to think that the imaging played its part in that. But being 2nd increased the commercial load. Then again Cool Edit helped a lot. The only downside I think is that these digital systems won’t do the dishes...yet.  :)

Craig Jackman [craigj[at]canada.com] Rogers Media, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: In answer to part 1) Oh God no!

As for part 2), actually we’re right in the middle of switching from one digital system to another (non-compatible file formats too). Has it made any difference to deadlines? No. There are no production deadlines, but that’s another question. It’s easier the “old” way to physically write something on the log. Digital systems allow automation, and automation discourages last minute traffic changes as it affects so many other areas of the operation. I understand the business reasons for automation, but I’ll never agree that it makes better radio. From a Production standpoint, I don’t see any difference between digital systems and carts, except that you can be more sure that end dates are actually going to happen, and jocks can’t air the wrong spot. In digital systems, carts don’t get lost, “borrowed,” or misfiled. Labels never fall off. Combined with automation, you can ensure that all your hundreds of programming elements and IDs are getting the proper rotation and use. Of course the control rooms are neater as there aren’t giant cart racks along the back wall and tucked into every open space. You never have to worry about cleaning heads, worn pucks, rotted splices giving out at the most inopportune time, cue tones that don’t cue up, and those annoying cue up burps.

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