Production 512: The Dark Side of Tech

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By Dave Foxx

At the risk of completely dating myself, I will say that I grew up in the era of the 45. I will explain to some of the younger readers that a 45 is a piece of plastic, pressed into a disc shape with a 1.5-inch hole in the middle. On both sides of the disc was a groove with little bumps in it that a turntable needle would be dragged through as the disc was turned 45 revolutions per minute on a turntable, much like you see in your favorite vinyl-playing nightclub, only with a much bigger spindle. The spindle on those turntables is a much smaller .238 inches, exactly the same as the old 33 1/3 LP records and the 78rpm records before that. In that groove on the 45, just like in your favorite vinyl night club, the little bumps cause the needle (actually, a better word is stylus) to vibrate in a way that can be transmogrified (cool word) into an electrical current and ultimately into a loud noise coming out of the monitors.

The REASONS the hole in a 45 is so large are interesting. One reason is scientific, the other is about marketing. The scientific reason is that when a 45 hits the turntable, it has to go from zero to 45rpm very rapidly, creating a lot of torque on that poor piece of plastic. Very quickly, after a few plays, a smaller hole would actually enlarge, almost always off-center. The record would then play unevenly and the sound would “wobble.” A larger hole allows the torque to be spread across a longer circumference (pi x 1.5 = about 4.172 inches) allowing the hole to stay round longer. There is a setting you’ll see on some plug-ins like Mondo-Mod by WAVES, that actually replicate that sound. It’s awful sounding, to say the least.

The OTHER reason is even more fascinating, and more germane to this column, the point of which is coming. Columbia Records introduced the 33 1/3 LP in 1948, crowing about being able to play 22 minutes of music without interruption. (Does that sound a little familiar?) Their chief rival, RCA Records was annoyed that they had to license the technology from Columbia and no doubt even more annoyed that they didn’t come up with it first. So, they introduced the 45rpm record that could be stacked on a special spindle that would automatically change records and continue playing for up to an hour! Can you imagine? Ha!

Fast forward to August of 1982, when we took another leap in the “continuous music” story to 88-minutes (uncompressed) when the Compact Disc was released by Phillips. It was a classical recording by an artist named Claudio Arrau performing Chopin Waltzes, which was originally recorded in 1979. SONY and Phillips had worked together to develop the CD. While Phillips got the commercial ball rolling on the disc end, SONY ramped up manufacturing of the player. The first popular music CD, released on Phillips’ Polydor label was ABBA’s 1981 album, The Visitors. Not long after, CBS jumped in by licensing the technology to release 16 CDs in early 1983, which many audio historians refer to as the Big Bang of the digital audio revolution. The collaboration of SONY and Phillips resulted in a very positive thing for the consumer: all CDs could play on all CD players. To this day, you can still play an audio CD on your Blue-Ray player because every new model is always backwards-compatible with all previous formats. SONY and Phillips wisely avoided all the marketing wars that could have erupted after they changed the world of music.

Fast forward again to this morning, when you downloaded the newest “clean” version of Iggy Azalea’s Team for your PD. My, oh my, we have come a long way baby. And I completely skipped the cassette tape chapter of music history. (Yeah, 4 and 8-track too, but that was SO awful anyway. Ugh!) Today, I regularly see 2 and 3-HOUR mixes from deejays around the world, posted online for anybody to play for their party or backyard BBQ.

Here are a couple more interesting ‘factoids’ about CDs. In 1988 there were 400-million CDs manufactured in 50 plants around the world. By 2012 though, CDs and DVDs only made up 34% of the music sales business in the US, even though they remained very high in Japan at around 90%. Today, most car manufacturers don’t even offer CD players in new automobiles, opting instead for a minijack to plug in your iPod or some kind of Bluetooth option for your phone.

Technology is a curse and a blessing, all wrapped up in one. As fast as new tech comes out, we tend to all become first-adopters (except for the iWatch, I’m still not sure about that one), and radio producers are no exception. Both Adobe and Avid now have subscription systems in place so we can always have the latest bells and whistles. I actually have both subscriptions because I have to have the latest Pro Tools and I hate the longer upgrade process, plus I use After Effects, Premier and a handful of other Adobe programs in my video work and it just seems easier. Yes, I also have Audition, but it’s only there for backup. I still prefer Pro Tools. Now, people ask if I’m using PT 12.3, and I have to think for a second before I remember that whatever the latest version is, the answer is yes. That is a huge plus.

Just about every producer I know has Hightail, Soundcloud or Dropbox subscriptions to deliver work, especially to out-of-town clients. Just today I did a session for a private group in Denmark, sent a bill via PayPal, got the money, sent the link and they are now in production, all within a period of 25 minutes. Even 15 years ago, that never could happen. That’s definitely on the plus side of tech. It makes commerce so much simpler and faster.

The dark side of tech comes in a couple of places. One is when we adopt too soon. When Mac first made El Capitan (their latest OS) available, I jumped right in, forgetting that my bread and butter was Pro Tools. But Pro Tools wasn’t ready for El Capitan. It wouldn’t work at all. I had to very painstakingly, step back to the previous OS so I could make the radio voodoo. Avid finally updated their software and I could proceed, but I learned a valuable lesson that day.

The other dark point of tech (now arriving at the point) is the absolute FLOOD of information that has become available via the web. It isn’t the amount of information that’s bad though…it is amount of BAD information!

I just about choked when I saw someone blogging about writing good radio copy say that, “You must always mention the client’s name at least 3 times in a commercial.” What? Seriously? Do you mean to tell me I’ve been doing it wrong all these years? The absolute BEST radio copy I’ve ever read for a client, mentions the name only once. That’s all you need, if you’re writing good, effective copy.

I literally laughed out loud when I read that there is NO difference between a limiter and a compressor. The differences are striking and only an idiot would even say that. If you don’t know the difference, a compressor brings the loud down and the soft up to reduce the dynamic range. It also gives you many more options for shaping the sound so it doesn’t just sound like it’s been crushed. A limiter ONLY brings the soft up. That’s all! There are no sound shaping tools. It’s a brute force method of compressing your dynamic range without any nuance at all. For all practical purposes, limiting is what most radio producers use to great effect. It’s faster, more efficient, and used wisely can do exactly what you want a compressor to do with less fuss and bother. But in the right circumstances, you really need to know how to use a compressor.

One more TERRIBLE piece of advice I’ve found on the web is, “You need to give your announcer street cred if you want to appeal to the common listener.” The ‘advisor’ went on to say that dumbing down the grammar makes the announcer seem more like a friend. What a raving lunatic! Dumbing down the grammar makes the announcer sound like an idiot. I don’t care who the advertiser is, if you program to the lowest common denominator, you will never grow your potential base of customers. If you value buying power, making the announcer sound like some dude hangin’ on the corner turns off the top two-thirds of your desired audience. The folks with the money are not interested in being friends with ‘some dude’ hangin’ anywhere. It’s all about the money, honey. Keep the grammar simple, but never think about giving street cred to your announcer. That’s a recipe for NO return business from a client.

The point of this column is simple, in spite of my not-very-straight-to-the-point way of getting here. Be careful of the advice you find online. Some of it is good. Some of it is VERY good advice. Some of it is just plain stupid. Hopefully, you’ll recognize it for what it is and avoid it at all costs. Do not let the tech blind you to what would otherwise be an obvious truth. Anybody with email and a Facebook or Twitter account can publish just about any stupid idea they come up with. Know your source, like Radio And Production, and you will (almost) never be steered wrong. I had to put the ‘almost’ in there, because I think I might’ve slipped a few bonehead ideas into my columns over the years. Maybe…probably…

For my sound this month, I am kicking off a series of “Throwback” promos originally heard on Z100. This time, I take you back to January of 2007. Z100 was re-introducing the “Z100 Pays Your Bills” concept with a VIP twist. All ZVIP winners had a shot at a trip to that year’s Super Bowl in Miami. We could actually say the words ‘Super Bowl’ in the promo because our contest sponsor also happened to be a Super Bowl sponsor, so we had license to say the actual name of the game. I hope you enjoy! [Listen here.]

Dave welcomes your correspondence at Dave@DaveFoxx.com.

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