"Pro-sumer" vs. "Pro"

by Craig Jackman

One of the things that I’ve had to learn over the years is equipment. Not how to use the stuff—everyone has to do that—but why one piece is better than the other, or what is the better buy. In 15 years of being a “Radio Professional,” I’ve been involved to some degree in making over the studio I work in a couple of times, built a 2nd studio, packed up, moved, and re-installed both of them, plus helped a couple of former co-workers with their home studios. About the only thing I haven’t done, but somehow always meant to, was build one for me (mostly money in case you are curious as to why BTW). What is the one trick I’ve discovered? For production use, you are wasting money–and I mean A LOT OF MONEY–if you are convinced that you have to buy the traditional “radio” equipment. Hey, I like tube mics and x-thousand dollar pre-amps as much as the next guy (maybe even more), but economics these days demands that you do more with less. Know what? You can, and after some acclimatization, you’ll never know the difference.

In my first real radio job, I was the night guy, with a more experienced (and infinitely more patient) Production Director working days out of a single studio. For the time, it was well equipped with Orban spring reverb, dbx compressor, and a massive Ampex 1” 8-track feeding a 4-track McCurdy radio console through a crummy Ramsa 12-channel sub-mixer. I thought I was walking into heaven coming out of the mono studios in college! I should have learned, but of course didn’t, but the main reason that the engineering staff seemed to be there 24/7 was to clean the switches of the McCurdy and fix the tape tension controls of the Ampex. It was deemed time to replace the console after 12 years of near continuous use. The Production Director and the Chief Engineer looked, and read, and visited, and looked some more before coming to the conclusion that the Wheatstone SP-6 was the board for that room—despite liking a Studer console more. The GM saw the Studer price tag, and then agreed to the Wheatstone. $60,000 (Canadian) vs. $100,000 was a sound business decision.

Over the years we replaced just about everything in that studio: Orban and dbx out, Yamaha, Digitech, and Rane in. Ampex out and Alesis in, which turned into one of the happiest days of my life! Through it all, the Wheatstone was the hub, even though we still had to call in the engineer to clean switches and pots. At that point, it was still $60,000 well spent, and was returning on the investment. As the station grew, so did the workload and demands from sales. One set of hands (mine actually) was having a hard time keeping up with the requests, despite the fact that I had the talented Dan Youngs coming in after me to finish up/work ahead/infuse my efforts with his talents. I approached the GM about adding a second studio in what was underused space just to give sales access to both of us, better suiting their needs. Cheers all around for such a thoughtful idea, and after months of discussion and planning, the green light was given. I broke the deal by promising that I could do the entire new studio, plus a couple of upgrades for the old studio, for half of what our Wheatstone console cost. The GM did not believe that it could be done until I laid it out for him piece by piece. I actually would have made it except that the staffer who custom designed the furniture for the studio insisted on using beautiful woods like cherry. On the other hand, all that hardwood and fine woodworking is durable, gorgeous, and still looks like new.

What he didn’t know, but I did (because I read all the free trades, magazines, and brochures I get in the mail) was that a revolution was taking place. That revolution was the "home" or "project" studio. Bands that I had actually heard of (and bought the CD) were now making records in their basement that sounded really good! How is this important? This stuff that they are using is available at your favorite music store (think contra¼) and is inexpensive as opposed to cheap. The Mackie 8-bus that I use is one-tenth of what the Wheatstone cost, has better EQ, better mic pre-amps, better S/N, and more aux sends. With the exception that I don’t have remote starts on the board and it’s 2 faders per stereo source, it is an absolute joy to work on every day. And those 2 drawbacks? It took me about 2 hours not to notice anymore. Now, I’ve had to get the engineers in to replace 6 faders that were worn after 3 years use (and maintenance is a colossal pain on it), but that’s better than replacing switches on a monthly basis. Better yet, if it breaks after a couple of years, pitch it and buy another. Lets see ¼ if it cost 1/10th the “big” board, and you get 3 years out of each one, that would give you 30 years use. Do you really think you can get a console that will last for 30 years these days? And do you think that technology will change enough that there will be something better available in those 30 years? I know that the digital consoles are looking mighty attractive.

Now though, it is a different matter. Working audio through a computer has changed everything. No longer do you have to have the rack of compressors, digital reverbs and effects when you can do it all internally in the digital domain with a plug-in. You don’t need the CD players when you can load through your CD-ROM. I only use my DAT for backups and archiving. Instead of an armful of reel dubs everyday, my reel machine is now mostly used as desk space. If you are using a DAW, all you really need is a routing switcher.

As coincidence would have it, the Wheatstone SP-6 is now dying a slow, painfully agonizing death. Every switch and knob makes noise; some channels just do not work at all, while others cut out at the most inopportune time. Given the above criteria, what are we looking at? A new Wheatstone is the wrong answer, but to give them credit, we did install one in our on-air studio in our new building. A Mackie 8-bus is also the wrong answer because we are looking at a $500 (Canadian) Mackie notepad mixer. Think about it for a minute. All we need is a mixer that has some decent mic pre-amps, the ability to mix the odd source like cassette or reel, and the occasion to mix external of the computer when we are not in the mood to mouse it. For $500, if it doesn’t work, pitch it, as it’s not going to be worth fixing, not that reliability is going to be an issue. We have a reporter at the Parliament buildings who had used one for years there with no failures. It looks like hell, but it sounds great.  

So what does it mean for you the “radio professional?” Pay a visit to your favorite local music store client and talk with the sales guys on the floor. See what there is and what you really need. At worst, you’ll do face with the client and get some ideas for your future home studio. Then when/if the GM and the engineer ask if you have any opinions on how they want to renovate your studio, lay it on them. Maybe you’ll get a raise out of all the money you’ll save them (hahahahahahahahahaha ¼.).

Here’s the ironic thing though. 12 years ago, when we got the Wheatstone, we gave our old worn out then-12-year-old McCurdy to one of the local college radio stations. They refurbished it, and now close to being 25 years old, it is still on the air and working fine.

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