Managing Audio Assets

September 1, 2011

How to improve the workflow around your studio

Radio is audio. All the equipment, the sales efforts, the personalities, the office operations and the programming choices combine to create the overall brand and product, but the product itself is audio. While stations and networks take heroic efforts to create this audio, many stations are not fully protecting or managing these assets once they exist.

Most station operations (if not all) are now computer-based. This is an advantage in managing the data we use to create our on-air products. But a final audio product is often composed of many individual elements. For in-house productions, the quantity of ingredients can be significant.

Asset creation

What defines a station's audio assets? Obviously the music being played on the air is an asset (and likely the most extensive). This asset is created when the audio file is imported into the audio playback system.

A station's commercial or underwriting library is an asset. When created in-house, these can be quite extensive works with many individual elements taken from other in-house assets.

Sound effects and theme music libraries are most often purchased, but can also be created in-house. With loop libraries, custom music beds are easy to create even by non-musicians.

Once a program is created or aired, the final version is a new asset. Logging systems have made it easier to capture and save live programs, and many offer the ability to save a very high quality version for a short period to create promos and best-ofs and another version in a compressed format to accommodate long-term storage without requiring extensive amounts of storage capacity.

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How to improve the workflow around your studio

In the most basic view, audio assets are created on an ongoing basis when an audio file is saved to the server. All these assets have value. Some would be easy to recreate; some would be impossible. But once created, it's important to have a system in place to protect and preserve these assets long-term, as well as be able to easily search and retrieve the files when needed on a daily basis.

Asset storage

While preparing this article, I asked several engineers how they store various assets. While all of them replied that audio files are transferred to a server or servers, many noted that older material was often kept on the original CDs or burned to optical media for long-term storage. This brought up the question about archiving, which we'll examine shortly.

Cube-Tec Quadriga is open to any Content Management System and can easily be integrated into existing network and database structures.

Cube-Tec Quadriga is open to any Content Management System and can easily be integrated into existing network and database structures.

File storage is the function of a file server, and there are lots of options in file server architecture. What can be tricky is when the various types of assets exist on different file servers. If users must access these various systems, files may be stored in more than one place, which can complicate matters.

Is there a need for the on-air automation system to be able to access the sound effects library? Probably not on a regular basis, but the ability to simply access multiple types of assets at a given location can improve workflow. In most cases, a radio station automation system can read files on the same file server that the production system uses, although the production editor and on-air playback system may not be able to access all the metadata associated with various audio files.

Asset archive

I mentioned long-term storage earlier. When a music or production library is delivered on audio CDs, it's easy to import the files to the audio file server and then keep the original CDs as a backup. (Granted, this can easily become a physically large collection.) In case of a crisis, the bulk of a station's music library could be replaced from music collections, CDs or purchased from a service.

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How to improve the workflow around your studio

With audio files being placed on a file server, common computer storage backup practices can be used to create a robust archive of the audio assets. As always, this effort is only as effective as the steps taken to maintain it. Backups must be made on a regular basis, and they should be stored off-site for maximum benefit.

Some automation systems run mirrored servers or systems, which provide an automatic backup system. If the on-air machine fails, the production machine has an exact copy of everything. This practice has saved many stations from total catastrophe.

Myers Information Systems' ProTrack Radio increases efficiency by maximizing inventory.

Myers Information Systems' ProTrack Radio increases efficiency by maximizing inventory.

Another approach to create an off-site backup is to use a station's existing LAN or data link. Links to a transmitter site, another studio site or station cluster or a corporate office can be used to transfer a data backup to these other locations. Some stations create such backups during overnight hours when network usage is low. If necessary, a lower-than-optimal file transfer speed can be used to accommodate for a data path's capacity. And if it's overnight and takes six hours instead of one it's probably not a big deal.

An off-site backup at the transmitter also has the advantage of providing all audio resources at the transmitter site (which often has backup power as well) in case of a total studio failure. All the station's audio content is readily available for emergency on-air operations.

Indexing and retrieval

Now that your station has established a wide range of audio assets, what good are they if they can't be found? This is a dilemma I have seen many stations face. Someone recalls a certain interview from a few years ago, but where is it now? Without some kind of database, all the audio assets are a jumbled mess. Descriptive file names and file dates can help, but there has to be a better way.

TV has stored, indexed and retrieved video data for some time. How often do you see archived video on news and entertainment programs? Video systems with this capability can be quite expensive, but the same accessibility can be applied to audio files.

This is where an overall database would work well. Files saved on different systems are usually only searchable within that system. Various audio files have different ways to store metadata within them. Through various data chunks, metadata can be stored in the audio file. Artist name, song title, album name and several other standard fields typically exist. Individual keywords should also be carefully chosen, and a common style should be established to aid user searches.

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How to improve the workflow around your studio

All this relies on a regular, standardized databasing effort. This can be a major undertaking on its own, and having multiple users entering metadata on their own can create more problems than are being solved.

Audio editing systems, from the most basic to the most advanced, often do not have the tools to search metadata. Files can be manually tagged with metadata, and a separate database can be created to include the same information, but this would require entering the data twice. Consumer media storage systems, such as iTunes and Zune, can read or write some of this data, but can only sort files based on a few fields. Neither is very elegant, but can be implemented for little to no cost. An Access or FileMaker database (or even one in Excel) can store the data for searching.

Netia Media Asset Management provides a heirarchical organization of content.

Netia Media Asset Management provides a heirarchical organization of content.

There are several content management or media asset management systems available that will interface into existing editors, automation and newsroom systems. Some of the systems that tout this capability include Myers Information Systems ProTrack Radio, Cube-Tec Quadriga and Netia Media Asset Management. The more flexible the search and indexing, the easier it will be to locate audio files, which make a more efficient workflow.

Your current audio asset management plan may work well for your situation, but it's worth talking to the production and on-air staff to see if there's room for improvement.

With all the effort put into creating a station's audio assets, it makes sense to ensure they are protected and easily accessible. Hopefully the ideas presented here will help you reevaluate your current procedures and possibly spark some ideas on areas of improvement.

Saving keywords

Different audio files have different methods of storing their metadata. Most standards have several common fields, which aid database entry, but a field specifically for keywords does not exist. However, there is often a field that can accommodate a larger chunk of text that could be used for keywords.

The Broadcast Wave File (BWF) container has a description field. The Cart Chunk standard (AES46-2002) has a Tag field. The ID3 tagging standard, which is used for MP3 and MP4/AAC files, has a comment field. These would be suitable for keyword use.

Like any keyword effort, using the right terms is, well, key. A music bed could have "guitar," "heavy," and "140" (for beats per minute) as keywords, but users need to know the common standards in place to maximize their search efforts.