A while back, I did an article on the Blogtalkradio.com studio I had put together. A lot has happened in the evolution of our studio capabilities and I wanted to take time to go over the current system and discuss the changes to our environment.
The initial system was simply a telephone and me with a computer. While it worked well, I wanted to go with a set of headphones and a true studio microphone to enhance the broadcasting experience and also to find a way to lose the "telephone" sound from my end.
So, I decided to research how to best attack the problem and found that my existing desktop Skype phone was an excellent performer for Blogtalkradio shows. The only issue was that the handset would need replacing (believe me, getting rid of the phone on your ear is a Godsend!). I tried to couple the phone directly to my mixer board (a mid-quality Radio Shack 4 channel mixer) and the results were disastrous for that particular show.
- First evolution
I bought a used Dell computer and dedicated it as a broadcast system and tied that into the mixer as a result and found that it worked very well. Using instructions on how to tune Skype on the PC to optimize the audio going in and out proved to be very useful (See: http://www.digitalpodcast.com/podcastnews/...t-using-skype/) and I have honed the system into a real performer. It has never let me down and the addition of a audio to USB converter (Behringer U Control UCA202 USB Audio Interface) has really made the quality go up.
One thing we learned quickly was that there was still a need to use a telephone to call into Blogtalkradio.com and I was tying up the family phone line for 90 minutes weekly until I discovered that my cellular plan would allow for plenty of night-time minutes calling after 7:00 PM. So we recently went away from traditional dial up and over to cell phone dial in as the new model. The nice part of the dial-in via phone (no matter what method you use, cell or hard-wired) is that you have a great backup method of getting out to the show in case of a failure of the connection on the broadcast computer.
Why the dial-in with a reliable broadcast computer? Well, it seems that Blogtalkradio has a certain sensitivity with Skype hosting via the PC. There have now been three shows I've done where this lesson was brought home in no uncertain way to me and I lost contact with my show in the middle of the broadcast. For some reason the issue only seems to affect the hosting mode and not a "guest dial in" like I now do with the broadcast computer once I get the host line called in and muted. If I could figure out WHY this is the way it is, I'd be happy to know, but now, it is a mystery best left alone.
By dialing in with the cell or hard-wired phone, I've never lost a connection and have the assurance that should I lose the connect on the broadcast system, I can reach for the phone, turn off mute and go on.
So the procedure now goes like this:
- Dial in to the BlogtalkRadio.com host number.
- Mute the line after getting connected.
- Place the phone in a location where the audio noise does not get picked up by the studio microphone. (One thing I need to test is to see if there is a way to mute the audio out from the show!)
- Fire up the broadcast computer (should already be done).
- Dial in via Skype to the guest line and use the switchboard to tie in.
- Wait for the show to go live and do your thing!
I also make sure to dial in to the Skype testing service and run audio pre-checks twice before show time. You cannot appreciate how many gotchas I've solved before show time by just running a few audio checks to check audio-levels and the like ahead of time!
-- Wireless Internet
The other item of note is that we do the entire show from a remote studio building approximately 400 feet from our internet connection. It is all done wirelessly and I had a devil of a time with getting that reliably working until I added a Linksys range extender to the mix and then I began getting very reliable connectivity. Our setup is living proof that wireless studio broadcasts can and do work!
We still keep our landline at the ready just in case any of the other methods fail and that brings up another point. We've created a procedures book with how to run the show using any of these technologies so that our flexibility remains at a constant. Depending on what the problems are that day (and yes, sometimes the technology is just frustrating as heck and we end up reverting to an older method), we just pull out the book and go forward and no one is the wiser.
We discovered about five months into our shows that we had a lot of hum in the audio and it turned out that we had a bad phone line that needed fixing. Once that was addressed, we were good to go. I also installed filters directly to the mixer to address any floating ground loops and took extra care with the wiring.
- Mixer Board
The mixer board was another great addition. We began hooking various audio sources to it and are constantly tweaking and trying new ideas with the feeds that allow us to send output directly to our USB audio input mechanism. It's a really slick setup and we're in the process of adding yet another computer dedicated to running audio streams to the mixer board so we can play EVPs and interviews straight through to the broadcast system.
One other computer is used to control the switchboard and we are in the process of getting specialized stands to assist with getting all the gear in reach of the host (me!) so we can easily control the entire arrangement.
The microphone setup is a really trick item. Due to the way the studio is set up, I have the main microphone hanging from the ceiling directly in front of me. With my broadcast chair and everything "just-so", I have a great setup for doing the broadcast and the addition of a nice set of very comfortable headphones does the job nicely.
- Second Studio
One other method we developed was the creation of a second studio. This one is less sophisticated than the first one, but we have a mixer board (smaller), another desktop Skype phone and another broadcast computer all set to get to run the show. We're still tuning this setup, but we have it running via dedicated CAT-5 straight to the main internet feed point and it has proven to be useful. Right now, we use the Skype phone with a headset arrangement that has turned out to work quite well and then we use the broadcast computer in that studio to run things.
The eventual goal with the second studio is to mirror the first studio as much as possible and have a procedures book and multiple connection possibilities in place so we can host in any number of scenarios.
Currently, I use a mix of audio control software. The list includes:
- Audacity for EVP and also sound track work
- Sony Acid Music Studio 7 for advanced multi-track work for voice-overs and show intro loops and similar.
- Winamp for cueing various loops and sets of tracks.
- Windows Media Player for simple playbacks.
That is when Sony Acid Music Studio comes into play. I'm still learning a lot about that package and love the free loops that come out weekly. They really help jazz up the show audio and we're getting better and better with using the entire package.
- To Do
We're dropping a new CAT-5 line to the big studio since the first one died. Meaning, I get to dig a ditch and lay in pipe and multiple lines to be sure we've got reserve capacity for the future. This will have us turning back on the hub we have set for that and to give us the ability to reactivate our other Skype desktop dial-in so we can have yet another option for dialing in.
This weekend, I'm adding a second microphone to be hung from the ceiling joists above me so studio guests can easily site comfortably in the studio with me when we do broadcasts and be able to have their own mic and headphones in place to be part of the show.
Another item this weekend is to get out the drill and a jigsaw to very carefully cut out a slot in my broadcast table to drop my mixer board into. I've been aching to do this because of the bulk of the mixer sitting too high on the computer table I have it set on and it just fits perfectly if I drop it in and then seat it into the table to give the studio a much more polished look and feel. I'm a bit nervous about ruining a good computer table, but think if I just take my time and not get too eager to cut it fast, that we'll be fine.
I am also saving my nickels and dimes for a Shure SM7B microphone and will dedicate my other microphone as the guest mic. The SM7B is simply one of the best there is for studio voice work and I'm looking forward to getting one in the coming year. All my spare change is going into a cookie jar for that little wonder! $350 for that bit of magic, but worth it (see update at end of the article. We've got the SM7B as of September 18th and the preamp to go with it. The story continues!).
Formatics are the skeleton of the show. I use formatics to provide a basis for my particular show and write one once a week. I've got a file cabinet full of these now and they really are great for allowing you to know how to progress forward with the show and also give you a means of checking off where you are in the show and also give you the means to vary the lineup on-the-fly and to still control the entire thing. I find them absolutely crucial now and rarely do a show without them. And if I am caught without notes, an old set and a quick set of scratches later, I've got a show ready to go!
I'm proving an example of our show formatics here. Feel free to copy it for your own paranormal show and let me know how it worked for you!
Formatics for show:
0 - 5 min (8:05):
Show intro - auto-play by Blogtalk
Play theme - signature block
Host announces show guests/subjects:
Show call in number
5 - 25 minutes (8:05 - 8:25):
News spot play
- News items on GRI main home page.
EVP playbacks and case discussions
25 - 30 minutes (8:25 - 8:30):
First music break - Choose one from the bank
Station ID - 20sec
30 - 55 minutes (8:30 - 8:55):
Shoutouts to chat room.
Call in number (646) 478-0377
Introduce guest if any:
55 - 60 minutes: (8:55 - 9:00):
Play second music spot. - Choose.
Station ID - station_short_20sec_station_ident spot
60 - 85 minutes: (9:00 - 9:25)
Call-in number. (xxx) xxx-xxxx
Continue interview/field questions.
planned show content here
85 - 90 minutes: (9:25 - 9:30):
Next week's show:
Shoutouts to chat room.
Close show. Thank guest if any
Play closing theme music. - signature block
Believe it or not, an atomic clock in-your-face so you see the time is essential. I have a number of these and they really help to get you set to go before show time and to give you a sense of exactly when things are gearing up to end.
Another observation; At 30 seconds to broadcast, I switch the studio mic off and go into audio isolation. Once the initial leader audios have played then I bring the mic online with a flick of the switch on the mixer and start my spiel. The reason for this? We found that sometimes the show will pick up your audio before the start of the default audio track played by BlogTalkRadio and I added the "audio isolation" step to the process to make sure we had a pristine start to the entire process.
Filing cabinet. We keep all our old show notes by date and just slam them into a new folder before shutting down the studio. It helps to have records and items to go back to!
We also save all our electronic copies of the show notes for later reference and scrape chat rooms just to be safe so we have some record of what happened.
Chair - I have one very comfortable chair for the broadcast and recommend investing in a good one. Your back will thank you.
On-air sign. I've got an on-air sign outside the studio (flip sign) and a nice neon one inside to remind people when we are on-air and to watch what they say in the building.
My favorite part of the show. And the most challenging. Real-live people do amazing things and sometimes unexpected things. Guests who have been absolutely amazing interviews and then some who are truly an amazing challenge to open up. Interviewing skills are essential and it's a learning process with each person you bring on.
We've had guests who have committed to showing up and have left us in the lurch (twice now). I decided early on to have a backup show in the can just in case and it has saved our bacon when we found ourselves in trouble. My list includes friends I can call on to drop in and give us a great show on a moments notice, so I recommend to hosts to definitely keep a reserve show and notes on hand to use in case that guest either forgets you or just leaves you hanging for whatever reason.
Also, a blacklist to track abusive callers is a good thing. We've had a number of experiences with great callers and then there is that one or two that you just really do not want to hear from. Having a policy and means of tracking who is who is a good idea. We've been luckier than a lot of other show hosts I know and only had a small amount of trouble, but we've definitely had our trials with it all.
All in all, the real trick is just to remember that people of all sorts make the world go around and when your subject is paranormal in nature, you are going to get a few folks with some pretty different views or who might be missing a few screws. These are not the majority of what you get though.
I've found most of our callers want to relate their own paranormal experiences and we try hard to make sure they call in with some thoughts about our guest if we have one and to keep the call on-topic. Sometimes that takes a bit of work to do with the more challenging ones and we just gently bring them around, but they eventually do get what we are saying.
Keeping a guest list and maintaining it is a great idea. I keep my database up to date and have learned to reach out and get to know people and ask nicely for them to be part of our show. And in these harder economic times, it pays to be nice.
Many of these folks are going through their own hard times and a little patience pays off when you approach them. I don't kid myself though... you WILL be rebuffed at times and disappointed when seemingly solid plans don't pay off. I've gone through a real spate of that lately and think a lot of it has to do with the economic times and strangeness that sometimes just happens in life.
All in all, it's worth it and you should really remember that broadcast work is not for the faint of heart. It takes resourcefulness and grit to put a show together and then true love of the art to do it weekly, especially for no pay!
- Final thoughts...
It's been a long evolution. I've had a blast building the studio and building my show but the real reward has been all of the neat guests we've attracted and the audience we've managed to get to know over the past year.
The studio will never be "done", but it will be a place that is constantly improving. I cannot think of what else it may morph into, but I can say that I know it will change and that the lessons will continue to be learned.
I highly recommend to other paranormal radio show hosts to just dive in and learn like I did. Last December, I had no clue what I was getting into and the experience has been a real reward and a technological challenge unlike any other.
If you care to share your experiences with me and want to talk paranormal radio technology, drop me a line and we might even put YOU on the air to talk shop!
Update 9/19/09 - The SM7B microphone is up and running. We are still getting the audio preamp cables worked out. We noted a lot of hiss and then realized that we had two preamps in series, the new one and the one built into the mixer board, hence the hiss. We've ordered some new cables to put the SM7B and preamp onto an unused input for the mixer that does now have the preamp. We think that will complete the addition of the microphone and allow us to have the kind of rich vocals we've dreamed of having.
We're going to a second mic (the original one) hooked into the original location for our in-studio co-host and are working on that configuration.
The next attack will be the new CAT-5 line to be installed underground. Meaning the ditch-digging begins next week... Once we have that running, we'll be good to go with running the show audio stream through that up to the main feed at the access point about 400 feet away.