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

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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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