Audio Quality on Radio Today


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Do you know what really annoys me?

People who don't indicate before making a turn. If they're driving a car at the time it irks me more.

Flies.

Bed undersheets with those elastic edges that spring up in the night and entomb you, chrysalis-like.

But in my professional life as a broadcast engineering consultant, what really annoys me, is bad quality audio.

I've been embroiled in this profession, industry, vocation, hobby, whatever you call it, for over 30 years now. I am a child of the razor blade and splicing-tape age, the valve (tube)-containing transmitter era and the vinyl record-to-CD epoch.

I've watched as those lethal tools of our trade were consigned to the analls of history and the subjects of anecdotes to audiences of incredulous interns.

And in all that time I have strived to ensure that the best quality, the least distorted audio, the nicest possible sound was caused to pour, mellifluously, from the loudspeakers of grateful listeners.

Back in the halcyon days of back-cueing, valves [tubes] drifting out of spec, and oxide-shedding tape, it was actually quite a challenge against the limits of the technology available to ensure that faithful reproduction via the electromagnetic spectrum was attained; at one station I worked, the styli were replaced every two weeks. At another, which played all audio from NAB carts, the tape heads were cleaned (by me) twice a day and demagnetized every week.

We had to realign the tape heads periodically as they wore, with consequent azimuth errors. Vinyl records would start to sound dull or distorted (particularly towards the center of the disc) and would have to be either replaced or consigned to tape before they got too bad.

The AM transmitter required constant attention as the bias drifted, the antenna was monitored and retuned to ensure linear bandwidth and the correct impedance; the whole transmission chain, from mixing desk via jack-fields (with their annoying habit of developing a bad connection on their own when no-one had gone near them) to studio-transmitter links was swept and analyzed to ensure everything was spot-on.

It was difficult, in those far-off times, to produce good-quality radio.

But we did it.

Oh! How we rejoiced, when the Digital Age came amongst us. Complicated, vulnerable sine waves were to be replaced by invincible ones and indestructible zeros. Incorruptible digital signals would bestride our facilities, shrugging off all hitherto foes, and emerge, unscathed, into the listeners' auditory environment.

But I fear that these days, all is not as pristine as it should be. It seems new technology has, in fact, produced worse quality radio!

My, oh my. I hear and witness some terrible things these days.

When computer playout systems came along, I could see how these brilliant tools could be used to create even better radio. Instead of spending all the time while a song was playing getting the next record out, cueing it up, getting out the carts for the stop-set, manually checking for duration and voice clashes, the presenter could instead consider how best to present his next link as a sparkling, clever, concise and perfect example of his art.

Instead, they now seem to spend this newly freed-up time watching TV, reading the newspaper, twittling or updating the Book of Face.

But that's a rant for another day.

With the introduction of hard-disk storage, I thought "Great!" No more azimuth problems, no more dirty tape heads, no more cue-burns, no more surface noise, no more wowing due to off-centre spindle holes, no more worn-stylus distortion.

But of course, because in the mid-nineties hard drives cost more than the GNP of a small country for even modest storage capacity, we were forced to embrace bit-rate reduction. Data compression. Still, the early systems with MP2 extensions on their filenames still sounded OK.

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