Homework

By Craig Jackman

Have you ever thought about working from home? Have you ever read RAP with a touch of envy, about those who have home studios? Maybe you are one of those who’ve invested in toys to play with at home. Me? During the glory days of tape there was no way, but ever since I switched to computer editing, I’ve thought seriously about it, but never really had the professional need. To follow corporate speak: I couldn’t make the business plan work.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t plan to eventually do it. I’ve collected stuff I thought I was going to need over the years, thinking that one day I’d have a home studio, even if it meant that something was just going to take up space on a shelf in the basement for a couple of years. For example, when my little company got swallowed by the big fish I work for now, and we were moving to a new building, I cherry picked some stuff that was just going to be thrown out. Among other things I got cables that could be reused, plus some equipment racks that were only a couple of years old from studio furniture we weren’t going to use (neatness counts and helps keep your equipment from getting damaged). Of course I’ve got my (legal) software collection of audio programs and plug-ins.

I also needed a computer. Yes, my computer is really a story in and of itself. You see, I have a family of computer geeks. Between my Dad, one brother the computer programmer, the other brother who has his entire house networked, and my Aunt, I have a Frankenstein computer built out of everyone’s spare parts. I call it the big beige box of hand me downs. State of the art? Maybe half a decade ago, but with enough power to be above minimum system requirements for most of the software I’d be using. The sound card is a basic Sound Blaster Live, and it has a 10Gb hard drive and runs Windows XP. There’s an old 4x Yamaha CD-R drive and an 8x CD-ROM drive. The monitor is an old 15", but the chair is good; so for a place to work, comfort balances out. All in all, it’s just barely good enough, but good enough it is. It’s all stuck in the last tiny bedroom of my house, on a cheap computer desk from Ikea, doing it’s best to hide the mural we painted for my daughter when she was a toddler.

The need for the home studio came quite suddenly. 3 days before Christmas I was called into the GM’s office, where I was told that January 9th at noon we would be flipping formats on 3 of our 5 stations. From a Production point of view, one format would just be moving lock, stock, and announcers to a new spot on the dial. The Producer in charge of that station would be handling that switch, which meant changing the tails on a couple of hundred sweepers and promos. Another format would be cloned from other Rogers stations in Toronto and Vancouver, and all we would have to do is insert local calls into 300 pre-existing sweepers. With both of those allocated and planned, that left one format to be created from scratch. The one hitch was that it had to be done in absolute total and complete secrecy.

That was actually a pretty big hitch as I told them. None of our studios have locks on the single doors, nor do they seal acoustically very well. If people can see that we’re not on-mic through the windows, they do tend to walk in even if the door is closed. Plus being audio and computer network connected, it would be pretty easy to spy in when the secret inevitably leaked out. I could work from home, but the problem became how to transfer the large amounts of data I’d need from my studio computer to my home computer. I couldn’t transfer data using the company FTP site as I’m on dial-up at home and I’d still be waiting on downloads.

It turned out that we already had a solution in hand. We had just gotten a 80Gb hard drive in a USB enclosure that we were planning on using for data backup in improving our disaster recovery plan. The company was even willing to pay for a USB 2.0 PCI card for my home computer to ensure lightning fast transfers. I copied over every audio file I could possibly think that I’d need onto the drive and headed home.

At first attempt, the USB drive worked to perfection. I had access to everything I needed, put a couple of things together quickly, and put them back on the drive to hear them through a system I was used to. Next day all is good, the PD likes what he heard and agreed to me working at home. The second attempt at working with the drive was about as bad as it could be, as the home computer wouldn’t recognize the drive, and a trip into the station turned out that no computers would recognize any data on the drive. Somehow it had corrupted itself, and the clock is ticking on the format switch. Time for the backup plan! Oops ... sorry, that turned out to be time to MAKE a backup plan.

When in doubt and under the clock, go to a technology that you know is going to work. Since I had no other choice to get audio from work to home, I burned a handful of CD-R’s full of data. Cheap and it works, but requires you to be vigilant in cataloging your data so that you know where things are when you go to look for them. At home it was a trip down to the basement to see what was sitting on the shelf. The computer has the CDR drive plus the CD ROM drive, so if I needed to I could rip audio in. I was covered. Unfortunately the recent upgrade to Windows XP meant that the digital i/o daughter board I had bought for the Sound Blaster a couple of years ago was no longer supported. That meant that my salvaged SV-3700 DAT machine wouldn’t be used on this project. Everything would go back and forth on CD-R.

As I like to have a CD player available to preview and search before I rip audio into the computer, or for playing in short production elements via analog, the basement shelves gave up the JVC CD player that my wife gave me 15 years ago for my 25th birthday. I hooked that up to a Yamaha MM10 personal mixer that I bought long before I got into radio. It’s unbalanced, and could best be described as a Shure mixer without the build quality or additional features like metering or phantom power. A mic (a Shure SM-58 from a garage sale) was hooked up to a Symetrix mic processor that was installed at my house as part of our existing disaster recovery program, then into another channel of the Yamaha. The mic was only going to be used for effects as station voice Chris Corley had sent MP3 voice tracks. The Yamaha output went into the Line In of the Sound Blaster, and my fingers were crossed as I fired everything up.

Tweak a couple of levels in the Windows mixer, and considering that the Yamaha was hardly state of the art in 1982 when I bought it, and the Sound Blaster isn’t the highest technology audio card built (it actually has some pretty serious design flaws), everything sounded great. The only problem was that my old Goldstar 8x CD-ROM drive (bought used for $25 many years ago) finally gave up the ghost. With some regret, I ended up spending not too much more than that $25 for a new CD-ROM drive that spins up to 52x speed, making rip-ins nice and fast. While I was at the computer store I bought new computer speakers (Logitech Z3’s with a sub-woofer!) as the existing ones were pretty crappy. The old ones were so bad that I had to plug in headphones to hear what was really going on, and while the new ones are not quite as good as what’s in my work studio, they are a dramatic improvement and didn’t cost a lot.

The point I am making here is not that I can switch over x-number of formats in a couple of weeks. For one, there were invaluable contributions from Chris Pottage and Robert Browne in Toronto, and Mike Irvin here in Ottawa, not to mention the others in the building who took up the slack. Check out www.1053kissfm.com, www.923 jackfm.com, and www.y101.ca to hear for yourself. My point is that you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to have a workable home studio. Think about what you need to do, and what you really need to be able to do it. It may not be how you are used to doing things, but all that matters is the end result coming out of the speakers, right? You can probably do everything you need with stuff you already have at home or can borrow from work. Oh, and I do mean borrow. Keep track of what’s yours and what’s the station’s. Make sure someone at work among the higher ups knows and approves of what you are doing before you load up the trunk of your car. If you do have to buy some stuff to bridge the gap, keep your receipts. If the station does not reimburse you, you have a tax-deductible business expense. Check with an accountant for further details or how it applies to your financial situation. Don’t forget to apply that thinking to software you may have to buy as well, as you really can’t legally just bring a copy of what you’ve already got installed at the station.

One thing you must do is get your family on your side. Working at home is no good if your kids are running in every 5 minutes wanting to play computer games and surf the ‘net, or your wife needs to check email. You’re going to be holed up for hours, days, or weeks, and your wife is going to have to do pretty much everything. It is one of the rare situations where it probably would be better to be single. My family was very supportive even though it meant a last minute wrench was thrown into our existing Christmas and New Years plans. Your family does have a right to use the home computer too, so don’t set things up so it works for you, but they can’t use it... unless you buy a computer specifically for audio use.

Next you have to convince your PD that you working at home is not just a cheap excuse for you to skirt your existing responsibilities. Commercials have to get done. Sponsored promos for existing formats need to get done. Sales and Programming staff still need to consult with you. The hard part about working at home is balancing family life, while working the extra hours that are sure to be involved, and how you are going to get reimbursed for your time. Are you going to get paid for your time? Okay, you can stop laughing at that. Are you going to get time off in lieu? In my case I went into the station every day at my normal time. There were commercials to be done, plus the usual supervisor fires that needed putting out. I finished up my day (and then some!) by leaving after lunch to get back to the format project.

The advantage to the company is that you can work in peace without interruption, and your work will be secret from prying ears. In some cases, that secrecy is worth many times any “actual” costs that someone is going to have to pay. Will all companies agree to it? Not likely. It does take an amount of trust by the PD that you know the sound he has in his head and how to get it.

In my situation, the rumors were running at top speed through the building and on various Internet forums. Of everything that I heard and read, pretty much everyone figured out the station was moving to a new frequency. Nobody got the cloned format out of Toronto (which turned into about 2 days work at my end), and only one person got the new format. We didn’t even announce the new format to the staff when we told everyone what we were doing in a morning staff meeting the day of the switch. We called our most important clients to warn them of what we were doing, but with no correct rumors leaking out, we did get the surprise factor we were looking for. On that basis alone, the project was a big success.

Since the format switch, we’ve tried a couple of things using equipment at work that either was heading for the junk pile or hadn’t been used in years, to try to improve the home computer setup even more. We tried adding an old Frontier Designs Wave Center ISA card, but the beta Windows NT driver supplied by Frontier kept hanging up (not that we actually thought it would work, but it was worth a shot). What I’m planning next is using the Frontier Designs Tango breakout box that went with the card as a patch bay, patching in my CD player, the analog side of the DAT machine, the output of the mic processor, and my Yamaha SPX-90 (also garage sale), then taking the ADAT digital output of the Tango and using an Alesis AI-1 digital format converter to send S/PDIF to a new sound card. This would eliminate the old Yamaha mixer. Since I can get a Sound Blaster Audigy NX USB sound card with better specs than the Live card and optical S/PDIF i/o for $160 CAN, that still lets my family use the computer for what they want it for, and it fits in with what I want to do without spending a lot of money. Details to follow.

Oh, and the USB drive? Our head of Engineering plugged it into his computer, and before he could do anything, it started repairing itself. Of the thousands of .wav, .mp3, and edl/ses files that I had put on it, 3 were corrupt, and only 1 disappeared completely. There was nothing that couldn’t be reloaded off the original computer.

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