R.A.P. Interview: Val Davis

Val Davis, Co-Founder, AudioSonix, Olney, Maryland

by Jerry Vigil 

AudioSonix-LogoSeveral companies are quickly establishing themselves as major players in the new game of Internet based audio delivery. One of those companies is Olney, Maryland based AudioSonix.com. This month’s RAP Interview visits with Val Davis, co-founder of AudioSonix.com and a broadcast comrade with an extensive background in radio, production, and voice-over. Val also packs a wide-ranging knowledge of DAWs. We pick Val’s brain for some thoughts on today’s technology, and we get a close look at his company’s approach to this new way of sending and receiving spots for broadcast.

JV: Tell us about your background.
Val: I’ve been in radio since I was about fourteen. I started in southeast Missouri in Cape Girardeau, home of Rush Limbaugh, and left there in about 1980 and went to Houston. I did some part-time radio in Houston in the early eighties and bounced from station to station like most DJs—a year here, a year and a half there. I ended up working for KTRK-TV in Houston as a booth announcer. At that time, we were a Cap Cities station, and before long Cap Cities bought ABC. My boss then became the VP of Programming for ABC Television, and I found myself voicing nationally for ABC. I did that for a few years and then became a recording studio manager. I had a setup in Austin, Texas called On-Track Productions. We were doing music for video, custom commercials, voice-overs, jingles and whatever else we could. I starved to death for a few years then went back into radio doing mornings in Santa Fe, New Mexico and doing lots of production there—got into digital editors and really enjoyed that stuff. Our sister station was a Classic Rock affiliate with ABC, and Chris Miller, the Program Director for the ABC Classic Rock format, found out that I had been an ABC Television voice and asked me to voice a few things. Subsequently, I was the voice of the ABC Classic Rock format for a couple of years.

Then I decided to get out of on-air work and move to Iowa and go to work for SMARTS Broadcast Systems where I was a systems designer and installer for broadcast automation systems. I became very familiar with the computer world. Radio World magazine contacted the owner of SMARTS at one point and asked if he knew anybody who knew the SMARTS system well enough to write about it. So I got to do that and ended up writing for Radio World. I was with SMARTS for about a year, but that was my foot in the door with Radio World, and I got to review digital editors, broadcast automation systems, audio processing equipment, and all sorts of fun stuff. Over the course of three or four years, I saw pretty much every piece of digital editing software that was out there. I played with the Akai series of hard disk recorders, the DR8s, the DR16s, and just sort of blossomed and became an expert on digital audio workstations. And the whole time this is going on, I’m developing AudioSonix in the background. I had the initial idea for AudioSonix in ’95 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it took me a couple of years to get my brother, Darrel, to write the software for me. I couldn’t afford to hire programmers, so I had to lean on family and get my labor free. After a couple years of whining and begging him, he started working on the code and here we are.

JV: Is he still the programmer?
Val: Yeah, he’s the chief. He’s the VP of Technology for AudioSonix. We’re on about our third version of the software. There are two pieces of the system. There’s the server code, which runs on a box on the Internet. That’s currently written in Java. Then there’s the Windows client, which is written in Visual C++. About a year and a half ago, we brought on another fellow by the name of Gene McGirr. Gene was with IBM for twenty-five years, has some resources, and has brought money in, which has allowed us to hire another programmer so that Darrel could focus on the server application. We hired another programmer named Elonid Kagen who actually wrote the Windows client application. And between the two of them we have a really solid piece of software that works beautifully.

JV: Tell us about the features of the AudioSonix delivery system.
Val: AudioSonix is the first, that we know of, internet-based automated delivery system. What that means is that you can deliver files using the software to one or to ten thousand stations, and that the entire process can be automated. If you have a station in Kentucky and one in Illinois and one in Missouri, and you’ve sent a spot to them, they can set their software to automatically log on to the Internet at a specified time. They come in the next morning and the spots are sitting on their desktop ready to be played.

The spots can be sent in any format, MP3, APT, Wave, ADP, whatever compression you’re running. It doesn’t matter to us. We just deliver files. That allows you to push files out to the stations. It’s what I call a virtual or a simulated push because the stations are logging in automatically. You set the software up to log in at 1:00 a.m. You tell it whether you have a permanent network connection or a dial-up connection. At 1:00 a.m. it looks for a TCP/IP stack. Obviously, if you’re connected full-time, it will just log on. If it doesn’t see a TCP/IP stack, it picks up the appropriate dial-up account and logs in using the user name and password you’ve given it. That is stored in the system encrypted, so you don’t have to worry about somebody finding that information. It logs into the server, looks for what packages are there, and automatically pulls them down, whether it’s one or ten or twenty. This is a great way to send large files so nobody’s sitting there at a machine waiting. The files can be directed to the default “in” box. Or if you want to set up an application that’s dumping audio straight into an automation system, you can have the files be written directly to the automation system’s music directory or commercial directory. You can run a daemon, a TSR program that sits there and looks for new incoming files and makes that file ready, if you need information written to the header pertaining to run dates or cart numbers or anything like that. That can all be done automatically.

JV: Is the TSR part of your software?
Val: We will write custom TSRs for whatever automation systems are out there. You can’t have one TSR that serves everybody because every automation system uses a different file header type. It’s not brain surgery to write those daemons or TSRs that do that. And for those that don’t know, on a DOS box it’s a TSR. On a Linux box it’s a daemon.

JV: The software is free and downloadable from your site, correct?
Val: Right. And we’re just like FedEx. We’ll send you packages for free. The only guy who pays is the sending party. In an upcoming release of the software, we will build in reverse billing so that if you’re a production house sending to an advertising agency, rather than have to go through the process of being billed and then rebilling the advertising agency, you can just send it reverse billed. We’ve built that in to make it easy for the production houses to do distribution without having to incur the shipping costs. If they incur the shipping costs, then they have to turn around and re-bill for shipping. It’s a step we’d like to eliminate for them.

JV: If someone wants to create and send an MP3 file, they’ll first need an encoder. What’s out there and where can they get them.
Val: Well, you’ve got the original Fraunhofer encoder that’s out there. You’ve got Q Design, which has got a great encoder. You’ve got the Blade encoder. There’s the Xing encoder which is really popular these days. And then you have the encoders that are being built into things like Cool Edit Pro. Again, all we are is a delivery mechanism that can send Wave, MP3, APT, ADP, MPEG2, etc. They can send video. They can send images. They can send text. They can send whatever they want to send. If people are looking for encoders or decoders or rippers, on the AudioSonix website, there is a link to MP3 tools. I’ve got about ten of each linked to the site, and they’re all freeware. None of these are shareware. These are all absolute freebies that you can grab and download.

JV: When did AudioSonix officially launch?
Val: That’s a good question. Some would say two weeks ago, and some would say last October. We incorporated in July of last year. Our first server went on line in October of last year, and we have been working the system since then. We recently upgraded our server. We moved to a facility called RackSpace, which leases corporate server space. We’re on a box running dual Pentium 3600 processors with like 256 megs of RAM, and it’s a very, very fast server. We have hit it so far with a couple of hundred simultaneous connections without any load showing at all. I feel like this month [July] has been our first real month of “open for business” operation where the client is debugged enough that it works flawlessly and the server is fast enough that people can really get business done.

JV: How does someone sign up for your service?
Val: All they do is download the software from the AudioSonix website. It’s a free download. When they set up the software, it will ask them to register. There’s a registration screen where you create your station’s call sign. If you’re a radio station, you just use your call letters. If you’re a production house, you can make it whatever you want it to be. Then you create your user name and password and fill out the information. That then generates an account on the AudioSonix server, and the next time people log in and pull down the list of available stations, your station will show up as a deliverable address.

JV: And if a station wants to send something to another station that’s on the network, they just go to the site, upload the audio to your server, pick a destination and click?
Val: Right. And here’s something special just for your readers. We’re going to make the service free for the readers of Radio And Production for the month of August. If they want to set up an account that allows them to send for free in August, they need to send e-mail to RAP@AudioSonix.com and just say, “Set up an account for me. Our station’s call letters are blah, blah, blah…”, and then any deliveries they send for the month of August, we’ll make them free.

JV: Thanks! Sounds like a great deal! And after the free month, I assume anyone that signs up will have an open account on file with AudioSonix?
Val: Right, and then they will be billed for future sends. Smaller accounts will be billed monthly on credit cards per transaction. If networks are sending a thousand spots a week, we’ll obviously do some billing for them.

JV: When a spot is sent to a station, are they notified?
Val: They will not be notified. They will only know when their software logs in and pulls the spot down. If they’re expecting a spot, they can just launch the software, and they will see that package sitting there waiting to be pulled down. There’s actually a window there that says “Available,” and that means it is on the server and ready to be pulled down.

What we expect the stations to do when they install this is to set it up to automatically log in at a specified time during the day. That way any deliveries that come in that they don’t catch will come down automatically, but if they’re expecting something, they can just manually launch the software, and it will grab it.

JV: How does the AudioSonix delivery system differ from the others out there?
Val: There are lots of delivery systems popping up out there today using the Internet. Unfortunately, most of them are web-based, meaning that they use http protocol to transfer a web page which requires user interaction. A person has to log in with their user name and password, get to a screen where they see the files to download, click on it to download, and then wait for the download to complete. That’s all time consuming, and for somebody distributing commercials, that happens on a one-by-one basis, and there’s not much tracking or a verifiable chain to verify delivery. What makes AudioSonix different is that we allow this entire process to occur automatically outside of a browser. Some broadcast companies are limiting the installation of browsers in production room computers or computers away from the “general public” because they don’t want deejays disappearing into a corner and getting sucked into the web for hours. We are not browser based. It doesn’t have to be Netscape or Internet Explorer. It just has to have a network connection. And as long as that is happening, it can be installed anywhere. So we thought it was important to get away from the browser technology. This is a dedicated piece of software that does nothing but deliver and receive audio.

Another advantage is that we can install this software on several different computers in a radio station. You can have the production room computer that receives commercials. You can have a control room computer that receives show prep material. You can have a Music Director’s computer that receives promotional music from record promotion companies and things like that. And you can have a network box setting there receiving broadcast content automatically. So we can have multiple instances of the software installed in different parts of the station all doing different things.

JV: Are there some other features of AudioSonix that we haven’t discussed?
Val: Well, there’s group management. Group management is important when you’re sending spots if you’re a centralized facility for a group of stations, and you’re sending out a spot that’s going to six stations. Rather than having to create that package six different times, you can create the package once and select a group for distribution. One click will send it to six or seven or ten or a hundred or a thousand stations. And you can create your own groups. We don’t do that for you. You create the group and you associate which stations you want your spot to go to. So, for networks who are distributing to the southwestern United States or sending a toned-down commercial to the Midwest or whatever, this becomes a very valuable tool.

Something else we’re offering on the web page is the Production Exchange. In broadcast today, many small market stations have been scaling back, attempting to lower their costs by bringing in satellite programming. In the process of doing that, they let a lot of the air staff go. In a lot of instances, they may have just a morning man, a sales guy, and a station manager, and that leaves very few voices for production. The Production Exchange will allow stations to make contact with one another, to e-mail production copy to one another, and then to send those spots to one another very cheaply. So, for five bucks you can have somebody with a killer voice in Arizona voice your commercial and send it back, and then you do one for him. You have no talent costs; you’re just trading the production and sending it back and forth. This is something I think has the potential to take off and be very, very big. This also applies to the voice-over market using air talent from different parts of the country. And again, with the way AudioSonix is set up, you can have your air talent record on the same kind of audio card that you have in your automation system so that when he sends his voice tracks, they’re ready to go without any conversion or anything else. You just give it a specific filename, put it in the appropriate directory, and it’s ready to air.

JV: The AudioSonix website also offers a free HotBox Audio Player when you sign up. What does this program do?
Val: The Hot Box is designed to mimic the functionality of the 360 Systems Instant Replay. You load the software, and it will assign sound effects to the letters of the keyboard, A through Z. You can fire them by hitting the keyboard, or you can point or click at the specific button on the software and fire it that way, as well. It gives you about a hundred and twenty-five sound effects in wave form. You can download sound effects off the web, dub them off a CD, or whatever, then put them into a directory and assign them to the keyboard so that you can immediately have laughter or boos or gunshots or whatever. We were selling this software for fifty bucks, and we’re giving it away to stations just to get them to download and install the AudioSonix Client, which also is free.

JV: Our Q It Up question for this month is regarding the transfer of MPEG files over the Internet for use on the air. Some station engineers are concerned with possible degradation of the audio quality, particularly if it goes through an audio chain that has digital compression. What are your thoughts on this?
Val: For listening, I think the MP3 format, which is actually MPEG2 Layer3, is more than suitable for on-air broadcasting. Most transmitters don’t pass anything over 32 kilohertz anyway, so you have something that sounds fine. Now, a lot of the automation systems run on MPEG2. And when you’re playing an encoded file over a digital audio chain where you’re running it through another codec, there can be some problems. But for the most part, I think there aren’t a lot of stations in America today running fully digital chains.

The other solution, obviously, is when you’re doing file transfer, to do it in a way where you can send things other than MP3. APT is a compression algorithm like MP3. It’s not as severe a compression algorithm, and it has been used for years and years on radio stations all over America without any problem. Dalet, Enco, SMARTS, Scott Studios—they all sell systems that use compression of some sort.

Another thing to consider is this. If you receive an MP3 file, that file has to be played out through an analog audio chain through a console and recorded back into the automation system. Doing this takes it out of its format. The only thing you and I are talking about here is the actual playing of MP3 in its native format directly onto a digital chain. When you play it out of a computer sound card, you convert it back to an analog signal at that point, and you eliminate the problem we’re talking about.

There are several automation systems out there today that play MP2 straight to air, and with those systems, it’s completely possible to send them compressed audio files in the format they are going to air in and to place them in the appropriate directory and manipulate the header file like we spoke about earlier. In that instance, you have to worry about running that audio through a chain with digital compression or digital processing. And now they have digital transmitters, so I wonder what that’s going to do? My experience has been that with the best engineers in the world, and all the pencils and pencil sharpeners and paper in the world, nobody really knows what it’s going to do until you turn it on and see what it sounds like.

JV: One of the responses from our Q It Up question brings up a good point. If people just get everybody else’s e-mail address, what’s to stop them from simply e-mailing spots as file attachments and bypassing companies like yours altogether?
Val: E-mail uses a protocol called SMTP, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. This protocol and these servers are designed to transfer small text files. In an Internet Service Providers office, they have a dedicated computer that sets there and serves the purpose of distributing mail. When you load that computer down with giant files, it slows down the system for everybody else and eats up a tremendous amount of hard drive space. Just imagine a hundred thousand people sending their favorite picture back and forth, or whatever. So, what’s happening on a large scale is that web administrators are limiting the size of attachments that you can send with e-mail. I’ve heard that within the next year or two, about every Internet provider in America will be limiting file attachment sizes to 200 to 300K, which is still a huge 400 page document, but it’s unfortunately too small to even send a thirty-second MP3. Also, when you’re sending a delivery like that, it’s not trackable or verifiable, and it’s a strictly one-to-one delivery. You can’t send one to thousands that way.

JV: As a reviewer of digital editors, you’ve really had your hands and your head into a lot of DAWs over the years. What’s your overview of the systems out there today?
Val: Well, very few of them have a broadcast or production background. They seem to have been written more from a programmer’s perspective than from an audio engineer’s perspective. So, when you find a good one, it’s really special. My favorite right now is Cool Edit Pro. The interface is fast and easy. If you had come from a production environment where you’d been working on a sixteen-track MCI machine, a reel-to-reel deck, the interface and the processes and the flow of Cool Edit Pro make sense, and that’s the only one that is that way. There are others, which we won’t mention, that you spend weeks and months and years learning. They actually sell videos on how to work them, and they have workshops. I mean, when a system is that complicated….

One of the things that I love about today’s technology is what you get for your money. Many years ago, I was doing radio in Lewiston, Maine. In the evenings, I was doing voiceover for a man named Eddie Boucher. Eddie had a jingle house, and he had a great idea where he would produce generic jingles that would have a theme like, “You’ve tried all the rest. It’s about time for the best.” And then we could sell that in markets all over the United States, to hardware stores and new home dealers and car lots. I mean, you take a generic jingle like that and give it good sounding copy, and you can sell it to anybody. Anyway, we were doing production, and Eddie’s console wasn’t capable of doing the kind of mixdown we wanted to do. So, we went to a place in Boston called Sound Tracks. This is 1986. Sound Tracks had just purchased this thing called the New England Digital Synclavier. It was the first direct to hard disk system. They had an entire closet with these monstrous double-height drives and big, fat, SCSI ribbon cables running to each shelf, and fans running to cool it down. It was an amazing system. Artists like Sting and Peter Gabriel used the Synclavier, and other expensive systems like the FairLight. These systems went for over half a million dollars fourteen years ago. Today with Cool Edit Pro and a thousand dollar PC, I have a hundred times the power that we had with the Synclavier.

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