Folk Alley: On the Road Again

September 1, 2010


WKSU's Folk Alley Express provides Web and broadcast audio production support to folk music on the beaten path.

My first exposure to PPM was in the mid-1960s. No, not the Arbitron Portable People Meter (PPM) technology currently used to measure radio audience participation, but the now-well-known folk music group Peter, Paul and Mary. Little did I know then that I would eventually be working with FolkAlley.com, the world's most listened to folk music site with more than 102,000 registered listeners who collectively represent nearly every country around the globe.

The creator of FolkAlley.com, soon to enter its seventh year of operation, is WKSU-FM's Executive Director and General Manager Allen Bartholet. As I write this, Bartholet, his crew and the Folk Alley Express (motor coach) just returned from the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival. They spent the weekend there providing Web and broadcast audio production support to NPR Music, WFUV and local outlets. The Folk Alley Express experienced its maiden voyage in August 2009 when it first attended the Newport Folk Festival. Its most recent journey prior to this year's Newport event was to the Austin and Dallas, TX, areas to attend folk music festivals.

The Folk Alley Express idea came about when a fan, who felt that Folk Alley needed to be more visible in the community, provided a generous $150,000 gift to obtain a motor coach and subsequently install a recording and production studio in the vehicle. The purpose of the Folk Alley Express is to provide a promotional tool for Folk Alley and to record the best folk music performances throughout the country for webcast at www.folkalley.com and for broadcast over Folk Alley affiliate stations.

The Folk Alley Express ready to head to Newport, RI, for the Newport Folk Festival.

The Folk Alley Express ready to head to Newport, RI, for the Newport Folk Festival.


The project begins

Early in the project we realized a standard motor coach floor plan was not practical for our application: The motors for the slide outs were at floor level - at least in every model we researched. That eliminated the possibility of stripping a bedroom for conversion into a studio. An alert motor coach salesman realized our dilemma and suggested we consider a toy-hauler-type motor coach - the type with a garage in the back for hauling a motorcycle, ATV or golf cart. That was the answer! The brand new unit we acquired is a 37' long by nearly 13' high Damon Outlaw Model 3611. The interior includes an 8' wide by 10' deep by 6.5' tall garage, a queen-size loft bedroom located above the garage, a rear full-size drop down tailgate, plus all the other appointed comforts of home.

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WKSU's Folk Alley Express provides Web and broadcast audio production support to folk music on the beaten path.

Supports for the vehicle's rear drop-down tailgate allow it to serve as a stage for three- to four-person folk music groups.

Supports for the vehicle's rear drop-down tailgate allow it to serve as a stage for three- to four-person folk music groups.


With the help of Malcolm Lanning at Custom Mobile Products in Cleveland, the garage was converted to a two-position studio that includes an audio operations position on one side and a video operations position on the other side. The studio has equipment racks and storage cabinetry for audio and video production electronics, microphones, cameras, cable reels, stands and lots of other peripheral equipment that will all eventually be carried on board as future funding permits. One entire cabinet houses the vehicle's sophisticated mobile communications system. Cable pass-through access holes were created in each side of the body and through the roof for easy routing of cabling from the studio to one or more on-site performance venues as well as to the roof for a future rooftop video shoot platform and Internet uplink dish. Because the rear wall tailgate drops down, a typically rear-mounted ladder for roof access was not an option. Therefore, a 24" × 24" hole was cut into the ceiling of the studio, which is also the floor deck for the queen size bedroom above. An equally sized hatch was cut into the roof and perfectly aligned with the studio ceiling hole for easy pass through of materials to the roof deck from either the studio or the bedroom deck. Two removable panels were manufactured for placement in the studio ceiling pass-through hole - one an open grate to allow for additional air conditioning flow into the studio and the other a solid panel for support of additional bedroom deck weight when required. Standing on the bedroom deck allows for easy and safe access to the roof through the hatch.

WKSU staff inspect the garage area on delivery day. The garage, intended to haul motorcycles, ATVs, golf carts, etc., was made into the studio.

WKSU staff inspect the garage area on delivery day. The garage, intended to haul motorcycles, ATVs, golf carts, etc., was made into the studio.


An adjustable hand-cranked four-jack stand arrangement with two metal edge-to-edge connecting horizontal members serves as support for the tailgate in a flat and level position for use as a performance stage. A custom fabricated set of metal steps attaches to the tailgate to allow for easy on/off stage access. When not in use, the tailgate remains in its up position to form the rear wall of the studio.

An on-board 5.5kW generator provides electrical power when the vehicle is not connected to commercial (shore) power. To provide uninterrupted power, a 2.5kW inverter was added to the studio along with two additional deep cycle batteries for extended run time. The studio's electrical power distribution system is configured so that it can be fed from an independent generator or other power source in the future if and when required.

The studio allows for flexible setups such as this one that was used at the Newport Folk Festival to record the festival acts as well as provide audio for various live streaming destinations.

The studio allows for flexible setups such as this one that was used at the Newport Folk Festival to record the festival acts as well as provide audio for various live streaming destinations. Photo by Chris Wallis.


Getting equipped

For audio equipment, a Digidesign Model 003 using Pro Tools LE provides the audio mixing tool when connected to Presonus DigiMAX LT eight-channel preamps tied to a Roland S1608 16x8 digital snake system for stage-to-studio audio transport. Being locally based, Audio-Technica has always been a generous supporter of WKSU and Folk Alley. A full complement of Audio-Technica microphones ride onboard, including AE-5400 stage mics, AE-5100 and PRO-35 instrument mics, and AT-875R shotguns. All of this is complemented by WKSU's locker of Neumann and AKG vintage microphones, along with cable reels and many other odds and ends. A NewTek TriCaster/Camplex cable video system is expected to be added to the Express when budget permits. In the meantime, Internet quality video is shot and edited using a variety of video recording devices. All equipment is portable so as to perform double duty when relocated to any of WKSU's nine studios that can support the Folk Alley operations. It also sometimes is put into use at smaller venues that do not permit placement of the Folk Alley Express because of its physical size and weight.

Because of the nature of a mobile studio combined with our FolkAlley.com Internet-based programming, reliable connectivity is a high priority. A moving vehicle presents significant obstacles for maintaining the reliable cellular access and data services required on long trips. While designing the Folk Alley Express' connectivity and network infrastructure, WKSU LAN Administrators Chuck Poulton and Dan Kuznicki made the decision to use both Verizon and AT&T for data services. Both carriers have advantages and disadvantages, but generally speaking one or both will have coverage in any given area. In addition, each carrier utilizes a different base technology. That ensures each carrier will never be a roaming partner with the other and therefore the Express will not be reliant on a single carrier for service at any given time.

The pfSense on the embedded m1n1wall Netgate routing hardware enables the system to intelligently load balance and fail-over both cellular data connections. A Level One WBR-3800 and a Cradlepoint CTR350 gateway are used to maintain the 3G/PPP cellular connections so the router can manage the IP connections natively. In addition to the onboard cellular data services, interfaces have been added to the load-balancer allowing utilization of local high-speed Internet connectivity when available.

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WKSU's Folk Alley Express provides Web and broadcast audio production support to folk music on the beaten path.

An audio setup for many events includes a Digidesign 003, a laptop and Audio-Technica mics.

An audio setup for many events includes a Digidesign 003, a laptop and Audio-Technica mics. Photo courtesy Audio-Technica


All load-balancing, routing decisions and connections are managed automatically. The Express' road team need only connect to venue Internet access when available. Otherwise, no operator intervention is required. The entire system is totally remote accessible so the WKSU/Folk Alley IT team has the ability to manage the configurations while not actually being on site for an event.

Click to enlarge

A drawing of the Folk Alley Express studio gives an idea of the scope of design and how much was built into the space. (Click image to enlarge.)


POTS telephone service is trunked to the Express via a VPN tunnel, in combination with a Linksys PAP2T VOIP analog telephone adapter and an Asterisk server located at WKSU. The SIP telephone trunks are delivered via Bandwidth.com. The design provides direct telephone service, both via an inbound local number and unlimited outbound calling. In areas where cellular coverage is limited, data service reliability is enhanced by a pair of elevated outdoor cell antennas mounted just below roof level.

The Folk Alley Express will be attending many more folk music events yet this year and in the years to come.


Equipment List

AKG C414B, C451E
Alesis M1Active 520
ART DPS II
Audio-Technica AT-4050, AE-5100, AE-5400, PRO-35, AT-875R
Cradlepoint CTR350
Custom Mobile Products vehicle build-out
Damon Outlaw Model 3611
Digidesign Model 003, Pro Tools LE
Furman power conditioning
Hosa and ProCo optical and XLR cables
Level One WBR-3800
Linksys PAP2T
Neumann KM84i
NewTek TriCaster
On-Stage Stands mic stands
Presonus DigiMAX LT
Roland S1608, W100S-R
RotoRack SKB-6
Sony MDR-7506, MDR-7509 HD
Whirlwind snake cables, direct boxes


Project Budget

Vehicle acquisition   $96,000
Interior studio build, cabinetry, lighting, wall treatment, flooring, roof hatch and side cable access holes, and fold down stage support system (not including equipment other than additional inverter and (2) deep cycle batteries)   $23,000
Exterior vinyl wrap. (Vehicle was originally white)   $8,000
Tech equipment and miscellaneous outfitting   $23,000
Total   $150,000


Bartlebaugh is director of broadcast engineering, WKSU-FM/Kent State University. WKSU LAN Administrator Dan Kuznicki contributed to this article.


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WKSU's Folk Alley Express provides Web and broadcast audio production support to folk music on the beaten path.

The Folk Alley Express at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the rear tailgate (stage) dropped.

The Folk Alley Express at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the rear tailgate (stage) dropped.

The Folk Alley Express parked at the Newport (RI) Folk Festival in 2009 on its maiden voyage.

The Folk Alley Express parked at the Newport (RI) Folk Festival in 2009 on its maiden voyage.

Audio station. <i>Photo courtesy Audio-Technica.</I>

Audio station. Photo courtesy Audio-Technica.

Audio station. <i>Photo courtesy Audio-Technica.</I>

Audio station. Photo courtesy Audio-Technica.

A shot looking at the queen bedroom loft and the studio entry below.

A shot looking at the queen bedroom loft and the studio entry below.

A partial interior shot showing the VoIP phone, etc. The steps toward the rear lead up to the loft, located above the studio.

A partial interior shot showing the VoIP phone, etc. The steps toward the rear lead up to the loft, located above the studio.

Another shot of the interior, directly opposite the kitchen.

Another shot of the interior, directly opposite the kitchen.

The Folk Alley Express on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Cleveland skyline in the background.

The Folk Alley Express on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Cleveland skyline in the background.

The Folk Alley Express parked at the WKSU Broadcast Center.

The Folk Alley Express parked at the WKSU Broadcast Center.

The RV in front of the WKSU Broadcast Center located on the main campus of Kent State University.

The RV in front of the WKSU Broadcast Center located on the main campus of Kent State University.

The RV before the Folk Alley wrap was applied.

The RV before the Folk Alley wrap was applied.

The RV before the Folk Alley wrap was applied. The vehicle is sitting in Malcolm lanning's shopt at Custom MObile Products in North Olmstead. Malcolm did the interior studio room build (cabinetry).

The RV before the Folk Alley wrap was applied. The vehicle is sitting in Malcolm lanning's shopt at Custom MObile Products in North Olmstead. Malcolm did the interior studio room build (cabinetry).

Two cell phone antennas are mounted near the roof line on the left side of the RV.

Two cell phone antennas are mounted near the roof line on the left side of the RV.

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WKSU's Folk Alley Express provides Web and broadcast audio production support to folk music on the beaten path.

The Folk Alley Express at the 2009 Folk Alley Around Town event in downtown Kent, OH.

The Folk Alley Express at the 2009 Folk Alley Around Town event in downtown Kent, OH.

A daytime shot of the audio position. There is also a video position.

A daytime shot of the audio position. There is also a video position.

Audio station. <i>Photos courtesy Audio-Technica.</i>

Audio station. Photos courtesy Audio-Technica.

Storage bins

Storage bins

The audio station. The door at the rear leads to the living space within the motor coach.

The audio station. The door at the rear leads to the living space within the motor coach.

The video production side.

The video production side.

Jeff Oehler, a contracted sound engineer, works at the audio station.

Jeff Oehler, a contracted sound engineer, works at the audio station.

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WKSU's Folk Alley Express provides Web and broadcast audio production support to folk music on the beaten path.

The crowd for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and the Folk Alley RV.

The crowd for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and the Folk Alley RV.


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