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gear/software, sessions

FUV – Three Years in Review

In anticipation of a transition to a completely different field, I resigned from my position at FUV in January. It was a great 3 years, filled with awesome projects, a ton of personal and professional growth, and meaningful friendships. Here’s a summary of my favorite projects and sessions.

Setting up the monitoring environment
For reasons of redundancy, Studio 4 was set up as an auxiliary broadcast room instead of a control room. As a result, the monitors were placed near the ceiling, tweeters inboard (as they were in every other room). This created a funky stereo image and other abnormalities that made it impossible to do any real mixing.

The bottom of the monitor mounting bracket is about 20 inches above the computer screen. Way too high.

Correcting that took a few months, as we had to get some custom metalwork fabricated by a local shop. This was a crucial step towards being able to do any serious work in that room.

The bottom of the mounting bracket now hangs just above the computer screen.

 

Studio A Workflow Discovery & Quality Control Process
As I continued to settle in, I began to wonder about FUV’s production workflow. How did our audio get used? Who has to work with it? What are the common complaints by end users? A series of questions and some lengthy discussion with my friends and colleagues Jim O’Hara and Joe Grimaldi led to the creation of the Studio A workflow diagram.

Studio A Workflow Diagram

For me, at least, creating this document was an essential step towards understanding our business, thereby understanding our internal needs. As a result of this process, our quality control process was born.

Meant to address deficiencies and exploit opportunities, QC created a touch-point in our workflow at which problematic audio (e.g. low interview levels, noise, etc.) could be fixed by those best-equipped to fix it, before it ever reached the downstream producers tasked with chopping it up in Pro Tools. Concurrently, this touch-point served to identify sessions which would greatly benefit from another pass at mixing, so as to turn decent audio into great audio.

The execution and long-term support of this process was ultimately left in my hands, so it’s hard to say whether it was fully understood by anyone other than engineers. Either way, this process improved our product for downstream users, both internal and external, and made possible the creation of products like this:

 

Video Aesthetic and YouTube Revitalization
The change process always started with bouncing feelers off colleagues, and ended with lobbying managers for permission and funds to follow through. Changing our video aesthetic was no different. Annoyed by the lackluster performance of our YouTube platforms, I decided to make our videos look better. Ultimately, this boiled down to selling the idea for a few months, then making a group trip to a local fabric store to buy some cheap black backdrop and a few cases of binder clips.

Coupled with broader support, new cameras and targeted training, the impact was noticeable. Here’s an old video for comparison.

The aesthetic improvements were part of a larger effort to revitalize our YouTube platforms. Doing so involved experimentation, data collection, and some statistical modeling to determine what drove our video views. The result was that social media shares were the biggest driver of views, and one of the few variables that we could influence. This knowledge, backed by evidence, allowed us to shift our strategy from soliciting channel subscribers to soliciting shares with a viewer’s social network. Over the course of a year, our monthly views grew by a substantial factor.

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Building and Fixing Gear
Continuing on the YouTube theme, after a while I had begun experimenting with loudness maximization on our audio destined for the web, the premise being that a large percentage of our views were referrals from commercial music videos. Our non-mastered audio would sound poor by comparison, so getting our audio into a competitive loudness range would help us retain listeners. I remember clearly a day that I was experimenting with a [really awesome] plugin named FerricTDS, which is a tape saturation simulator. Slowly, it dawned on me – why play with tape simulators when we had real tape machines in the closet?

There began a three-month journey which really pushed the limits of my patience and resolve. I’m not an electrical engineer, but I sure learned a ton by fixing that Otari MX-5050. Through a lot of experimentation, reading, learning, and with the help of a handful of anonymous web forum experts, I was able to track down and fix an intermittent problem with the speed timing of the subject machine. I also laid out the money for a proper calibration tape and blank reels. Once restored to full operation, this 1/4″ recorder became an amazing tool for live recording and post-production mixing.

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I also built a handful of compressors and preamps, including an SSL G-Series clone, that became staples in every session recorded thereafter.

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Another fix I’m proud of was the modification of our headphone amplifiers, which were plagued by excessive gain and constant noise and distortion. The manufacturer was kind enough to provide schematics and advice, and by swapping one resistor on them all, we were able to eliminate hours of headaches and frustration from our sessions. I also eventually got around to trying to improve the acoustics of our control and live rooms, through acoustic analysis and the building of some improvements.

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Recordings
Of course, in front of all this stuff are all the recordings. My favorite part about mixing live is that the better you get at it, the more challenging it can become.  I gained a lot of pleasure from experimenting with recording techniques, mic configurations, tape, etc. I recorded around 200 sessions at WFUV; here are some of my favorites. (Interestingly, we weren’t allowed to film many of them).

 

It was a great run, and sad that it had to come to an end. It was a period of relentless experimentation and growth, and relative freedom to do so. Cheers to the great friendships made there, and to everyone I worked with who made it a great experience.

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