Test Drive: The Blue Group PhoneByte Digital Phone-Bit Recorder

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by Jerry Vigil

The RAP Test Drive is generally reserved for equipment one might find in the radio production studio. But we must not forget the "other" producer in the radio station, the morning show producer. At many stations, this individual is doing a production shift packed with edits, sound effects, music beds, voice tracks -- pretty much the same stuff we play with in the production room. The major difference is, on the air, it's live. In production, it's not. And this "on-air" production isn't confined to morning shows. Depending upon the station and the format, a great deal of "production" can occur on any and even all day-parts. For producers of these live shows, The Blue Group presents PhoneByte, a digital system designed to handle the recording, editing, and programmable playback of listener phone calls. But PhoneByte's capabilities don't stop there. It is basically a 2-track digital workstation, able to record, edit, and playback any audio, stereo or mono. For on-air shows, this can include sound effects, special music beds, traffic reports, IDs, etc..

PhoneByte is a PC based hard-disk system that consists of the computer, a color monitor, and a standard computer keyboard with several colored keys to indicate various functions of the system. A built-in track-ball on the keyboard handles mouse-type screen functions. The computer houses the hard disk drive and I/O cards. Installation is quick and easy if you're simply hooking up Line In and Line Out, but a more elaborate installation is available. The PhoneByte will interface with some phone systems to enable it to automatically record calls as the phone is answered, and many functions of PhoneByte can be wired to remote switches.

There are only three primary screens to familiarize yourself with, the Main Screen, the Edit Screen, and the Stack Screen. The Main Screen consists of a row of "buttons" and indicators at the top, and a collection of buttons and indicators at the bottom. Each button can be clicked with the track-ball, or its respective "hot key" can be pressed on the keyboard. The key is designated on the screen by a capitalized red letter. For instance, the "S" on the stop button is a red capital "S." Press "S" on the keyboard to stop playback or recording. The "T" on the "SorT" button is capitalized and red. Press "T" on the keyboard to access the sort function. The center of the screen, and over half the screen, is occupied by information for ten recordings. You can have any number of separate recordings in the system (limited only by the amount of recording time available), but only ten appear on the Main Screen at a time. "Scroll bars" at the right are used with the track-ball to scroll through other recordings on file. Each recording is numbered automatically when you begin recording. It is also time and date stamped, and the length of the recording is displayed. There is room to add a comment to each recording such as, "good winner," "Beatles request," "needs editing," or whatever. Recording and playback is very simple. To begin recording, either use the track-ball to place the arrow on the Record button then press one of the track-ball buttons, or, simply hit the red "R" on the keyboard. Recording begins immediately. Whether you press the "R" key or use the track-ball arrow, when recording is engaged, the track-ball arrow automatically goes to the Stop button, since this is probably going to be the next command. Let's say we're on the air, taking requests. Press "R" to begin recording. Answer the phone. Record the caller. If you're going to answer the next line immediately, you don't have to hit Stop; you can simply hit Record again. The system closes the previous file and begins recording a new one. Every time you hit Record, the current file is closed and a new file is created. Recording never stops. Each new file is assigned a number, and the "Find" function lets you locate recordings by number. Let's say you're recording dozens of calls and finally get one you like, but you don't want to stop recording. Simply glance at the screen and make a mental note or jot down the number of that phone call. Going back to that call is quick and simple with the Find function.

Once several callers have been recorded, stop recording by clicking on the Stop button on the screen, or by pressing the yellow "S" key on the keyboard. (Not only are several keys color coded, but the function is also printed on the key. For example, the "S" key also has the word "Stop" printed on it. The green "P" key also has the word "Play" printed on it, and so on.) If you recorded ten callers, the screen will show the ten recordings in numerical order starting at the top. The ten number keys at the top of the keyboard can be used to instantly access any one of the ten recordings displayed on the screen, or the track-ball can be used to select a recording. When selected, press "P" or click the Play button to begin playback.

As the recordings are played back, this is a good time to decide which ones to keep. Each recording is automatically stamped with a "T" code after recording to indicate that it is a Temporary recording. Click the "KeepIt" button, or press the "I" key on the keyboard. One press turns the "T" to "S" for "Special," and another press of the KeepIt key turns the "S" to "K" for "Keeper." The "S" can really mean anything you want it to mean. Maybe you assign an "S" to all recordings that you want to listen to again later. "Ts" can be purged immediately, and "Ks" are to be kept indefinitely. This is all up to you, but the recordings can be deleted or purged based on this code. This is done by pressing the "U" on the keyboard or clicking the "PUrge" button on the screen. The Purge Screen gives you the option to keep all recordings that are Keepers or Specials. You can also choose to keep recordings that have comments attached to them, recordings that have been edited, recordings placed on a stack, or recordings older than the current date or any other date you wish; or you can keep files with any combination of the above criteria, deleting all others. Of course, you don't have to decide to keep any recording if you don't want to bother with the "KeepIt" function. You might decide to simply attach a note to any call worth keeping. Do this by clicking the "Comment" button or pressing "C" on the keyboard. You get a 30-character field in which to type in your comment. Then, later, you can purge all files that don't have comments. Recordings can also be deleted by clicking on the "RemoVe" button or by pressing the "V" key on the keyboard. This brings up a screen with options to remove the last recorded file or the currently selected file. There's an option to audition these files before deleting them.

Well, you've recorded all these great callers, but these are raw tracks. They need editing. After selecting a file to edit, click on the "Edit" button or press "E." Welcome to the Edit Screen. This is where a Start Mark and End Mark are set and splices made. The editing functions on this screen are similar to those found on digital workstations, but you don't get "cut and paste" type editing. You can set a start point and end point for the recording, and you can make up to ten "splices" on a file. But you can't take a piece of audio from the back of the file and move it to the front. You can't do fancy loops, and you can't play audio in reverse. PhoneByte doesn't try to act like a fancy digital workstation. It's a simple, easy to use device designed for on-air production; and in the on-air studio, the simpler, the better. Besides, if you think about it, 99% of the editing you do with phone calls is basic cut and splice editing anyway. And that's exactly what PhoneByte does very efficiently.

The "Cut" and "Splice" buttons on the keyboard function like "edit in" and "edit out" functions on most digital editors. These Cut and Splice points can be set on the fly while playing back the audio and fine tuned later. Pressing the Cut key sets the "edit in" point. Pressing the Splice key sets the "edit out" point. Once these points have been set, the cuts are automatically made and the splice is done. No other button needs to be pressed in order to perform the edit.

Once the edit is made, the track-ball arrow can be used to adjust the in/out points by clicking and dragging markers on the screen. Or the keyboard can be used. I found the keyboard to be much more accurate. The "scrub" function is done with the nine keys of the numeric keypad to the right of the keyboard. What at first seemed like a strange way to cue to edit points turned out to be surprisingly fast and accurate. Place the index finger on the 7 key, the middle finger on the 8 key, and the next finger on the 9 key. This is a natural and comfortable position. Pressing the 8 key with your middle finger auditions the current edit point. Pressing the 7 key moves it back one second and plays from the new point. Pressing the 9 key moves it forward one second and plays from the new point. Once you're in the ballpark, drop you fingers down and place them on the 4, 5 and 6 keys. The 5 is used for auditioning, and the 4 and 6 keys move the edit point back or forward in increments of 1/10 of a second. If you need even more fine tuning, drop your fingers to the 1, 2 and 3 keys. Again, use the middle finger for auditioning, and the 1 and 3 keys for adjusting the edit points in increments of 1/100 of a second. I have yet to come across a system that uses the numeric keypad in this way, and I was completely surprised at how well this method of "scrubbing" worked.

You do have the option of doing waveform editing by clicking the "WaVeform" button or pressing the "V" on the keyboard. However, PhoneByte draws the waveform slowly. In fact, it takes it about as long to draw as the recording itself is -- a 30 second file takes about 30 seconds to draw. If you have the time, the waveform is accurate and helpful. If you don't have the time, it's not necessary. We never had waveform editing with our analog decks, right?

Once edits are made, they can be auditioned by clicking the "Splice AUdition" button or pressing the "U" key. You get the option of listening only to one particular edit or all of them. Or you can just listen to the beginning of the edited file or the end of it to familiarize yourself with how the recording starts and how it ends. Click the "BotH" button or press "H" to hear both the beginning and the end of the file. Click on the "RaW" button to hear the entire unedited file. The "Audition TiMe" function sets how much pre and post-roll time there will be around each splice being auditioned, or how much of the beginning or end of the file is auditioned. There are buttons and hot-keys to undo edits and clear all edits. The Comment field can be edited from this screen, and there are several indicators to show total time, elapsed time, "edited" time, and more.

Let's say you've been recording calls for a "Make It or Break It" segment. You have ten calls recorded and edited. Now you want to play them all back to back. From the Main Screen, click the "StacK" button or press "K" to go to the Stack Screen. To the left of the screen is the list of recorded phone calls you've just edited. To the right is an empty "playlist" or "stack." If you aren't sure which recording says what, you can audition them before or after placing them on the stack. Placing them on the stack is easy. Simply "click and drag" from one side of the screen to the other. When the stack is built, clicking the "Play Stack" button or pressing the "P" key plays back the entire stack. As PhoneByte plays the stack, there is an ever-so-slight pause between each recording on the stack, a mere fraction of a second. This is more than likely the system cuing itself to the next file in real time as opposed to loading the "next" audio into a RAM buffer prior to playback. With voice tracks and phone calls, this is virtually unnoticeable and not a problem unless there is a tremendous amount of background noise or music behind the voice tracks.

It's enough that PhoneByte is a nice workstation for handling on-air phone calls, but PhoneByte goes a step further. Clicking the "EFX" button on the Main Screen or pressing the "X" key takes you to the Sound Effects Screen. Just as phone calls can be recorded into the system, so can sound effects such as crowd cheers, audio bites from television or movies, dogs barking, cats meowing, whatever. This is an ideal place to digitally store each jock's custom drops and IDs, too. These sounds can be assigned to any of the twelve function keys at the top of the keyboard. Again, a "click and drag" function is used to assign sound files listed on the left of the screen to the function keys listed to the right of the screen. And if twelve function keys aren't enough, pick up the optional keypads available in three sizes, 60, 176, and 300. These keypads are flat and come with replaceable cards that slide over the buttons. The cards can be written or typed on to indicate where sounds are on the keypad. The large 300 button pad is about the size of a clipboard and basically replaces 300 carts in your control room! One minor drawback: only one sound can play at a time. If you try to fire another sound before the first is through playing, the second one won't fire. So if you wanted to have the crowd cheering while the dog was barking...can't do.

Perhaps one of the nicest features of PhoneByte is the "TaLent" button on the Main Screen and Sound Effects screen. PhoneByte isn't just for the morning show. When the midday jock comes on, he/she can click the TaLent button and enter his/her initials. Press Enter, and a whole new set of pre-recorded phone calls and sound effects files appears. The removable card on the optional keypad can be replaced with the midday jock's own collection of sound effects. In effect, this is the equivalent of putting the morning show's hundreds of carts away, removing the morning show's reel of phone calls from the 2-track, loading your own reel on the 2-track, and bringing in hundreds of your own sound effects carts, all in less than five seconds!

Click on the "Formats" button from the Main Screen, and you get PhoneByte's recording format setup screen. PhoneByte offers five sampling frequencies: 22kHz, 25kHz, 32kHz, 44.1kHz, and 48kHz. Furthermore, you get these sampling frequencies with PCM digital recording, or CDIC compressed digital recording. The CDIC compression ratio is 3.73:1, expanding recording time to nearly four times what's available with PCM recording. The unit we had for this Test Drive was equipped with Dolby AC2 compression as well, providing up to a 6:1 compression ratio at 48kHz. Other compression algorithms are available. This screen also selects between Stereo or Mono recording.

PhoneByte's list price is $5,495 for a complete system minus the monitor. This comes with a 425 megabyte drive. PhoneByte is available less the computer and monitor for $4,395. For this you get the keyboard, sound card, control card, cables, and, of course, the software. The optional sound effects keypads sell for $299, $799, and $1,999 for the 60, 176, and 300 button keypads respectively.

Perhaps the first concern of the station's Chief Engineer or PD might be whether or not the on-air staff is ready for a computer based digital editor to replace the friendly, old, analog 2-track in the control room. This is a valid concern, but PhoneByte doesn't "bite." I've had my hands on plenty of digital workstations, and PhoneByte is by far easier to use than any workstation I've operated. It may intimidate the computer-shy jock at first, but there's no reason why any jock won't be completely comfortable with it after one on-air shift with PhoneByte installed. Ben Umberger of The Blue Group walked me through the system in about 20 minutes on the phone. When he was done, I felt quite comfortable with the system and was able use it for the rest of this Test Drive without any reference to the manual. It's a no-brainer.

Unless you have an air shift or have had one in the past, it will be difficult to really appreciate what a system like PhoneByte can do for you. No longer do you have to put pieces of paper in the reels of tape to mark places where good bits are, only to later forget which piece of paper is for what bit. How about searching for that one phone call about a half hour ago that would be perfect over the next intro? In the analog reel-to-reel world, forget it. You wouldn't find it in time. With PhoneByte, even if you didn't record a "comment" with the call to help you find it, you can search for it by time. Just use the Sort function to sort them by date/time and look back at the calls a half-hour old. Forget about those times when you couldn't find the splicing tape or the razor blade, and once you've edited a phone call with PhoneByte, you won't want to find the splicing tape or razor blade again. Back-timing bits over intros is a breeze because the length of the edited phone call is always displayed.

PhoneByte offers file import/export capabilities. And since it is available minus the computer and monitor, PhoneByte may integrate with systems already in place at your station or planned for the future. A talk with the folks at The Blue Group will help answer those questions for you.

And there's more to look forward to from The Blue Group. In the works is NewsByte, a similar package designed, obviously, for the newsroom. Features include an audio switcher that will automatically record satellite feeds, an auto-answer feature that will let a field reporter file his story without interrupting anyone in the newsroom, the ability to record from two sources and playback all at the same time, and more. Then there's PortaByte, using the same software as PhoneByte but installed in a notebook computer with a docking station. The PortaByte was conceived as a sports recorder but can be used anywhere in the field.

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