Leaving the comforts of the studio allows radio to shine in the limelight. Audio quality is important, but so is the physical presence of the station.
Remotes are something that most of us encounter over our careers in radio. Some take it in stride, others look at them as a source of fear and raised blood pressure. When you hear sales or programming announce, “We want to go live from…” the next steps you take can make the remote a success or a failure.
Whether your format is CHR, news/talk, country, classical, or anything in-between, remotes can take on many forms. Some are simple, requiring a single microphone at the local taco joint. Others can be so involved that it takes days and a small army of engineers to setup. Flexibility from the equipment and the personnel involved is essential for a successful remote.
At our Buffalo, NY, cluster of radio stations, we complete around 700 remotes a year. Some stations may do more; many do less. However, there is a common goal that connects all remotes: to have a snafu-free remote that sounds as good as if it were done at the studios. We will look at what it takes to make a remote a technical success. Some remote aspects, such as elevating the RPU transmit antenna to clear ground obstructions, are obvious. Other aspects may be second nature, but an occasional review is always helpful.
First, the most important part of a successful remote is to have sufficient information. The second most important item is to have enough lead time to prepare. Establishing some rules is a good start. Meet with the general manager, program director, sales manager, news director and promotions director to set these guidelines. At our stations, we ask for written requests that have the exact location, address, phone number, and contact person at the remote site. It is given to us with no less than a seven-day notice prior to the event. The information is then entered into a database, and a site survey is scheduled. After the site survey, any particulars about the site are entered into the database. This allows the on-site engineer to take a printed copy of the information about the remote. Upon completion of the remote, any additional helpful information is entered into the database in case we go to that location again. This eliminates the need for a complete site survey each time you go to the same car dealer.
A relational database program, such as Lotus Approach or Microsoft Access, will provide the most flexibility in keeping an accurate database. Spreadsheet programs can also be used for basic database functions.
Some coworkers have asked why the seven-day notice is required, stating that they feel that remotes are the responsibility of the engineering department, and the staff should be ready at all times. The lead-time allows us to schedule the remote into an already hectic engineering schedule, and it enables the remote setup to better sell the image of the station. Sound quality is important, but the visual image on site properly sells the station's image. The only time we break the seven-day rule is for breaking news on the news/talk and sports station.
In setting up a remote, we all know that the signal has to get back to the station in one form or another. Today, there are a variety of ways to do this. RPU shots, ISDN codecs, and POTS codecs all provide nearly studio-quality or better.
Remotes by RF
Let's take a look at the RPU shot. Transmitting and receiving in the horizontal plane provides a good start in preventing intermodulation (also called intermod or IM). IM is the result of different frequencies interacting to create an undesired by-product. In congested areas, a horizontally polarized, directional receive antenna is also useful. In one of our installations, we use a Scala Paraflector with a heavy-duty rotor mounted on top of the STL tower at a transmitter site. The DC sample of the antenna direction and RPU receive signal strength are connected to the transmitter facility remote control so that the antenna can be remotely adjusted. We have used this directionality to set up two different remotes using the same frequency at the same time.
The receiver signal strength indication is a valuable tool that should be used as much as possible. While an antenna can be aimed by reducing the hiss in the audio signal, more often than not, you are not obtaining an optimum signal. Most receivers provide a signal strength indication.
I have found audio noise reduction to be indispensable on RPU systems. Whether it is built into your RPU equipment or added as an outboard unit, you are bound to extend the reach of your RPU shot and make that remote sound closer to studio quality. We use dbx type II on our systems.
Wired for sound
If RPU is unavailable or impractical, telephone codecs are a good avenue. There are a variety of flavors in codecs, some of which have internal re-insertion of local audio for your mix-minus feeds from the station. If your codec happens not to have this feature, you can easily generate a local mix by using a headphone DA and the output of your mixer. Just make sure that when you mix the local audio with the mix-minus return you have some sort of a buffer amp in-between the two sources. This will ensure that the mix-minus return does not feed back to the station. One of the more pronounced problems with ISDN codecs is the delay in the send and receive audio. It is particularly apparent on talk stations with live telephone calls. The conversations tend to get a bit disjointed. To minimize this and maintain quality, send audio from the remote codec using a higher audio quality algorithm while receiving at the remote site with G.722.
POTS codecs have been a blessing where RPU or ISDN is not possible and near-studio quality is a must. However, using a POTS line presents some interesting challenges. Even though the codec is digital, the signal is carried via an analog network using modem tones. Depending on the phone company, the signal may be converted back to digital for fiber transmission and then back to analog for the last mile. These complex paths can limit the connect rate, which reduces the audio frequency response. We have had great success with using an NT-1 on an ISDN circuit at the studios. This provides a digital circuit from the telephone company, but the conversion is made at the studio, where we can still control the line lengths. This method has provided us with a one-level increase in connect rates and has also helped minimize dropouts.
When connecting a POTS codec, use the shortest possible wire length to the jack to minimize noise pickup. It is better to run a longer audio cable from your mixer to the codec. Also be sure that the line you are using is clean and has no other connections to it. Someone picking up a telephone set on the same line will typically disconnect the POTS codec. (For more on codecs, see Trends in Technology on page 34.)
Now that we have gotten the remote audio back to the station, let's take a look at the actual remote site and some of the extra tools that make a remote a success. Wireless microphones and IFB systems can enhance your broadcast with greater talent mobility. There are a wide variety of manufacturers and systems available.
A wireless IFB can be costly. If you are working on a budget, you can achieve good results with consumer 900MHz headphones. If your remote is an RPU shot, it is best to connect to the wireless equipment in the building from which the remote originates, rather than trying to receive the 50mW signal through concrete and steel at the RPU transmitter. This will also give you better range indoors. Most talents like to roam, and roam usually means further than you told them they could go. (For a look at an interesting roaming remote, see the On Location sidebar.)
Using a profanity delay is a complex undertaking in any studio. Using one during a remote can be even trickier. A pre-delay mix-minus feed needs to be sent to the remote site. This is not a great challenge when codecs are used, but, if an RPU is used, you will have to find some other means. FM subcarriers can provide an inexpensive way of getting the pre-delay audio out to the site. Another option is to use a dial-up telephone coupler with a cell phone. Most frequency extenders, which can enhance the audio being sent, work with cell phones.
Finally, a good arsenal of mic-to-line and line-to-mic adapters, balancing transformers, phase reversers and ground-lift adapters are a must, along with a good set of tools. There are times when a fast fix is needed to get the show on the air, and the right tools and adapters can save the day. Pre-made adapters are available, but you can also construct many of these in-house.
Tom Atkins is director of engineering for Entercom, Buffalo, NY.