Dave Supplee is the market engineer for the Cumulus radio stations in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He’s also a key go-to guy when new studios need to be built or refurbished. From studio design to wiring techniques, Dave shares his years of studio-building wisdom, plus transmitter site advice on this episode of This Week in Radio Tech.
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Kirk Harnack: Hey, welcome in to This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack, your host, and yes, the founder of this fine podcast This Week in Radio Tech, where we talk about everything from the microphone to light bulb at the top of the tower, and everything in between, and even some stuff that's outside of that.
If you're a radio engineer or a want to be radio engineer, if you're interested in audio engineering, what really matters and what doesn't, like Monster Cable, and all those kinds of things, then this is the show for you. I'm glad to have you join us.
Our show is brought to you by the folks who are my employer, and I really appreciate them, The Telos Alliance. This show is brought to you by the Axia Element audio console, what a workhorse, and we'll tell you a little bit more about it half way through the show.
All right, let's bring in our guest. I pleased that today it's a one-on-one show. I get the whole hour with Dave Supplee of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Hi, Dave, welcome in..
Dave Supplee: Hi, Kirk. Thanks a lot, it's a pleasure to be here.
Kirk: Well I'm delighted to have you, Dave. How long have I known you? Eight or nine years, or so?
Dave: I think the first time I spoke with you was not in person, but I was in a car with Gary Klein. I think Gary was driving, I was taking my life in my hands that day. Gary was driving, I was riding, and we were listening to the virtues of this new IP audio system that you were coming out with. It was already out at that point, but we had not adopted any of the systems yet at that time, but this was 2004 or 2005. It's been eight or nine years.
Kirk: This year is Axia's tenth anniversary, of actual studios being built, so it probably was close to ten years ago. We probably had put in WOR and maybe the station in Auburn, Alabama that was the first audio over IP user for studios. So yeah, it's been about ten years.
I do remember Gary introducing you to us as his guy who goes and builds studios. I sure got that impression that with Cumulus, your employer, Gary's employer, on the grow that you would go around and build studios here and there. Is that about right?
Dave: I've built studios. I've built individual studios. I've built studio clusters for Cumulus. I've referbed studio clusters. I've installed transmitters. I've installed automation systems, and flown around the country and caused trouble for people.
It's usually my calling card if I can take every radio station in a cluster off the air in the middle of the afternoon drive. I did that in Dallas one time.
Dave: Oh, no. [laughs]
Now, even though we started about Axia, our sponsor, the show is not all about Axia. What we're here to talk about is Dave Supplee, who's an engineer who's been in the trenches. Dave could just as well be on one of our war stories episodes, with transmitters and studio sites, and working all over the country, I mean, quite the traveling guy, and having to plan studios.
Dave, I guess sometimes building a new studio, rebuilding a studio, and working on transmitter sites; this is a lot like changing the oil on a motorcycle as it's going down the road 60 miles per hour.
Dave: Sometimes it can be, absolutely. Moving in to a building, that's the easy part, or if you're moving into a new studio, but trying to rehab one while it's still operating-we did that in Bridgeport a couple of years ago, we being WICC up there. The station had been hit by a tornado. The studios were intact, but it had done a lot of damage to the building. We had managed to seize the opportunity and rebuild the whole place, with an Axia system by the way, so we have a building full of Element consoles and power stations. So we were building the place while they were still operating the two stations, which are both pretty active, doing talk shows and every other thing that they do, so that turned out to be quite a bit of a challenge. We round up playing musical chairs pretty often with, "Okay, now this week you're going to be operating out of this room," and then, "Next week you're going to be over in that room," whenever we're tearing these walls out, and repainting this, and bringing the furniture in.
Kirk: Tell me a bit about this. You said the station got hit by a tornado, this is Bridgeport, Connecticut?
Dave: Bridgeport, Connecticut, they have a rare tornado that came through. I'm thinking that it was 2011 that we redid it, so it was the year before. It was like in May or June, I think, 2010, and tornado come through downtown Bridgeport. It did a lot of damage. You don't think of that in the North east, but it does happen. It's rare, but it does happen.
Kirk: Yeah, as a weather guy, I know there have been tornadoes in 50 states, but in Connecticut it's pretty rare.
Dave: I know.
Kirk: And to hit the radio station.
Dave: It hit the radio station.
Kirk: It hit the studio, the transmitter, or both?
Dave: The studio building.
Dave: We didn't really have any damage-the studio is in the 7th floor of an office building right in downtown Bridgeport. The real damage was, it a STLA antenna that was on the roof and turned it into a pretzel, and it lifted up a big air conditioning unit-one of those monster units-and dropped it over on its side-still on the roof. It didn't take it off the roof-but it did quite a bit a damage to the roof of the building. So, we had quite a bit of water damage in our space, because we were on the top floor. That's were a lot of our trouble started. We started seeing rain water pouring in through the roof of some of the studios.
Kirk: So after the tornado went through, we sorts of things started happening first? Give me a little short timeline here of, water's pouring in, what did people do and how soon did you or other engineers get there to help out?
Dave: Well, everybody evacuated the building, we were required to evacuate. Once they determined that it was safe for them to return our engineer at the time, Ed Butler, was on site and assessed the situation. We had a number of calls to determine what we were going to do. Fortunately we were able to operate, our equipment was pretty much intact, but over the long haul over the next couple of months we were able to secure the funding to rebuild the place.
We had been at kind of a turning point there, because our lease we about up, so were we going to stay or were we going to go? We determined to stay and the building was being rehabbed. We got some funding from there and some funding from Cumulus, and we were able to rebuild the place.
Kirk: Wow! Well I'm glad nobody was hurt, but gee.
Dave: It was almost a year from the time that the tornado hit for us to actually be operating with the new studios.
So, one thing that became apparent in chatting with you-I know I met you at an NAB show and we were chatting about some wiring techniques. I tell you, I just didn't have the right words to say to describe how audio wiring could be different when you use an audio over IP system. I doesn't matter whether it's an Axia system, or a Wheatstone, or one based on Dante', something from SAS, or Logitech, it doesn't matter; there are some new and interesting things that you can do, that I think, make your life simpler when you're wiring.
It seems like I remember-well maybe it was at this station in Bridgeport-that it's just so natural to go buy a bunch of punch blocks, and set them up, and start punching all of your audio wires down.
Is there still a reason that you are doing that when you build studios?
Dave: We did a combination. There's the two schools of thought. School of thought one is, with the AoIP systems, you take your nodes and you put them wherever they're needed. So if you have a rack of STL equipment and you want to hook up to that, you put the node in there and you just go point to point right from the nodes into the equipment. I've seen that done and that's very effective. That's what we did at the studios. We didn't do the punch block, we didn't do a lot of any of that, really, in the studios. It turned out to be very effective for us, and very quick.
In the rack room we ran all of the nodes out to Chrome [sp] blocks. The reason that I did that was because I wanted to distribute my loads a little bit, so that if I wanted to have the STLs, I had my main STLs on one node and a backup STL on a different node. I didn't really have the ability to run multiple one-nodes.
Kirk: Is that because, if one node fails-the node the audio's coming in and out of from the AoIP system-that kind of becomes an extension of your whole STL system.
Dave: Sure, absolutely.
Kirk: And if a node fails, well you've got another node that's providing audio for your backup STL system.
Dave: Right. That's why I did it that way. It gave me a way of having a little bit more redundancy. We could get in there remotely and work around it, because a lot of these stations are not staffed that much. So being able to go into the station through VNC, or what have you, I could go in, get into the pathfinder, and change the route and be back on the air if I had had a hardware failure of some kind. I thought that would be a little bit easier for us to maintain in the long term.
You know, obviously in a perfect world, you're going to have enough nodes in your facility that you don't necessarily need to do that, but we ran it pretty tight and didn't really have a lot of extra capacity built into the system, so we made our redundancy that way, by distributing it.
Kirk: When somebody talks to you, let's say Gary Klein, or maybe a station manager, or a program director comes to and talks talking about, "Okay, we need a new studio. It's time to build a new studio," what goes through your mind first? What kind of questions do you, as an engineer, ask to figure out, "All right, what size console are you going to need? Does it need to be a sit down or stand up? Where does other equipment need to go in proximity to operator? Back before we had automation systems doing all of our music and commercials now, we had decisions to make about cart machines and CD players, turn tables even, and tape machines that needed to be within arm's reach, or at least remote control reach, of the jock. What are your considerations now for planning a new studio?
Dave: It's probably not as important as it used to be, in those terms, because you're right, you don't have the cart machines, you don't have the reel-to-reels, you don't have all the other things, the peripheral equipment that you used to have. You basically have the automation system and maybe the phone system. In most studios that and an editor, that's pretty much what they use. So, you obviously want to find out what they're doing, if it's a music station or if it's a talk station obviously the needs are significantly different.
In Bridgeport we had one talk station and one music station, so those studios are quite a bit different. In the talk studio we generally like to have a stand up control room for pretty much everything. Of course for ADA we need to have one sit down height studio, so we did that in a production room, in Bridgeport. The talk studio is a sit down height for the talent and the guest, but the air studios, the control rooms are both stand up height. Typically in Cumulus that's what we're doing.
Really a lot of it is, "What space do we have?" We have to take all of the things into consideration. If there's a number of, "How many guests are there in a morning show?" Is it a morning show stand alone? Is it a morning show with a host and co-host? When we do, we're generally are trying to build enough capacity in there that if it is a single morning show that we're figuring that at some point in the future they probably will have a co- host, so we build the position in there and make sure it's available, and then room for a guest or two. The same goes for any kind of a talk situation, what kind of a talk environment is it?
In Bridgeport they did local talk every afternoon. The host would bring the mayor in. We also used those studios for a lot of guest programming or special programming on weekends, where somebody would buy a block of time, and come in and talk about sports for an hour.
Kirk: Ah, yeah.
Dave: Believe it or not, they were pretty popular. They had a lot of people that would come in and out of the place on weekends and talk about whatever it is that they seem to want to talk about. So we had to build with that in mind.
I really don't know if I've specifically answered your question, but hopefully that gives some idea for the process.
Kirk: Yeah, it does. I think the considerations are probably less now than they were before, but also seems like there's often a requirement to build a studio into a smaller space, or fit more of them effectively into an end of a hallway, or one side of a hallway. Even, you might have to put six control rooms in close proximity to each other, and make the all [inaudible 14:27]
Dave: No doubt about it, with consolidation we're definitely building smaller studios, and we're trying to fit more into a smaller space.
I'm in Harrisburg, PA, where my office is. We built this place about ten years ago. The studios here are not huge, but they're not tiny either, so they're pretty good sized, but probably today if we we're to do it, we could probably fit about two or three more studios in here.
Kirk: With the dependence that so many stations have today on automation systems, and periods of time when there's nobody in the studio- we could argue all day about how good or bad that is for radio- but when you do build a new studio what considerations do you try to make to accommodate the people who will be working in there, as far as windows that they can see out of and see the weather if they have to, or just have some sunlight coming in? Are there still considerations for creature comforts?
Dave: Sure, absolutely. We try to make sure that if the view is available we try to pick a nice location for the studio's, so that they do have some kind of an outside view. In Bridgeport, for example, we actually WEBE into the corner office, which had been-I think it was the WICC studio at one time-but we moved it into this room, which turned out to be a fairly large studio. We moved a couple of other walls around, and gave them a really nice showcase studio to make it enjoyable for them to work in. Also, because it's such a high profile radio station, we want the place to look good for guests and advertisers to come in.
Kirk: Yeah, you do want to make advertisers comfortable, that's the money [inaudible 16:25].
Dave: We did that too. Also, in Bridgeport, we did that here where we try to turn our rack room into a showcase as well. We put it in behind this nice glass wall, in Bridgeport, and when some advertisers or guests walk in they walk right past the tech center. They see all the flashy lights, and see all the equipment, and meters moving, and all that kind of stuff. It looks like showbiz, and radio, it's nice and neat. It's impressive.
Kirk: Hey, I'm curious about your workflow when you're planning and you actually begin building a new studio. I was a kind of engineer that always wanted to get some tunes playing as soon as possible, so I'd get the speakers put up, get the power amp put in-I guess nowadays we tend to buy speakers that have built-in amps-but I'd get some tunes. That helped me, when ever I'd put a new source into the console, wire in something new, and I could right then check it for ground loops, or hum, or quality and such.
But there's a lot of stuff that I consider necessary, but not fun to do, like grounding work from studio to studio, or from studio to a central grounding point, grounding for the rack room. All those things you have to do that, by golly, they can take days to get done, but you've got to do them, probably, first.
Talk to me a little bit about that. What's the order of; when does the furniture go in? When does the grounding go in? When do conduits or other such cabling necessities start going in?
Dave: Well before the racks go up, generally the conduits are going in, the electrical has been roughed in. We'll bring in the racks and get the rack room started simultaneously. What I've done usually in the past is, I'll work with a couple of guys. My job is usually the rack room. I'll have, maybe, another guy or two working on studios and they'll be assembling studios. We have one guy who likes to put furniture together, so we'll fly him around and he's our guy who'll assemble all the studio furniture.
Kirk: He's always got a job hanging out in front of an Ikea store, if he needs to.
Dave: He's a pretty big guy, so he can pretty well handle the furniture on his own without any problem. We do occasionally need to help him, because we've had some pretty big studios that we've done in the past. But he'll put the furniture together and then a couple of guys will work on wiring the furniture, wiring the studios, and I would work on getting the rack room put together, so a lot of things are going on at the same time.
But ahead of time, usually before we start any real work, we've run the cabling, any trunking that goes on. Of course now, we're not really running trunking between studios, we're running bundles of CAT 6 or CAT 5e through, to make sure that we can accommodate the IP audio. If we do run any analog audio across or AES audio, of course it works very well on that stuff, so you don't need to necessarily be running trunk cables, like big bundles of 25 pair Gepco like we used to run.
Kirk: That's a good point. Nowadays you can get by with pretty much just pulling category cable, CAT 5e or CAT 6 cable from a central rack room to your studios. You can run balanced AES balanced audio on that, and of course your Ethernet and IP, if you have several networks, as many people do now. If their AoIP system is on a separate network and their business system is on a separate network, who knows, maybe there's a separate network just for telephony, for SIP phones and that kind of thing, you can do it all on the same kind of cables.
Dave: Yeah, you can. Shreveport was a more traditional facility, because we have a TDM router system that we put in there. We had run all the over CAT 5e bundles, 25 pair CAT 5e, but we didn't run the network in the same bundles that we ran the audio. I was very comfortable doing that, so we ran the individual CAT 5e's across for the network and the TOKO [sp] stuff, but did all the audio on CAT 5e. It saved us a lot of money over running AES cables.
The reason that we did it is kind of funny, we didn't do it save money, we did it because when we went to price out all the cabling we needed, and find the availability, it wasn't available. We were a waiting list. They said, "Well, you can have that, but's it's going to be like two months before we can get you this Gepco 25." You know, the 24-pair Gepco AES stuff that we used. So we decided to try just using standard CAT 5e and it worked great.
The only thing that you've got to watch is, you cannot run any unbalanced audio on it. If you do that you'll blow it up.
Kirk: Yeah, it'll leak right away.
By the way, could you take a minute-I know there are some people in our audience who are not sure about that, what you mean be balanced and unbalanced, and why can't you run unbalanced, whatever that is, over these twisted pair of wires when they're next to each other-to help us understand what happens.
Dave: Well, generally crosstalk is what happens. It's balanced audio, you have two wires in a twisted pair. I'm not sure how to describe it, but it's the same, but inverse, waveform on each of the two wires. They cancel out any crosstalk that would occur on any of the other wires in the bundle.
I'm not sure if I'm even describing that properly.
Kirk: No, actually, you used some different words than I usually do, which is why I wanted you to describe it to help folks understand. I think I've explained this once or twice, but it doesn't mean that I'm explaining it right.
But you're right, that's why wires in a CAT 5 or a category cable are twisted-you're right-one wire carries an inverted version of the signal that the other wire's carrying. So it's like push pull, push pull, push pull, push pull, and when you twist these you give them, kind of, an infinitely common and small axis, they're not an individual wire that's running along and radiating. The two, in the long form, act as one wire so the radiation from signals that are on the wire cancel each other out, from the two wires over a length, and that means that they don't interfere with cables next to them, because they're not putting much of any energy out.
Also, it means that they don't accept much energy in. This is because any hum, and signal that is magnetically being imposed on that twisted pair is being imposed in what we call a Common Mode. It's equally on the hot and the cold, or the plus and the minus wire, so when it gets to its destination this common mode signal, which may indeed get picked up somewhere, disappears at the receiver, because the receiver is looking for a differential mode. It's looking for a difference in the signal in the two wires at any given instance. If the signal is the same riding on the two wires, in common, then that signal just gets rejected, as it does on a transformer. That's why an audio transformer is such a great thing for an input when you're in a noisy environment.
So, a good explanation, and yeah, if you have an unbalanced device, like a consume CD player, or whatever it may be, you've got to balance that audio first, either with a passive transformer or with an active balancing amp from, like Henry or any number of other companies. When you do that, you don't have a problem.
Dave: There you go.
Kirk: Pretty cool.
I also think it's cool that you can use one of these Fluke meters, or other brands too, to measure the crosstalk between pairs in a CAT cable. This is basically RF, when you have a CAT 5 cable with IP, Ethernet on it, it's basically RF, up to three or four MHz or even higher. If you don't punch them down and terminate them properly, they can, at the points where they're not routed quite, you can get crosstalk between them. That's what these meters measure, "Okay, what's my near end crosstalk?" and, "What's my far end crosstalk?"
The cool thing is, if you get it right for the Ethernet it will be right for the audio. Right?
Dave: That's right.
Kirk: The audio's not nearly as demanding.
Dave: Absolutely. If it works for the Ethernet it will definitely work for AES or the audio. That's right.
Kirk: Good deal.
Hey folks, if you just tuned in you're watching This Week in Radio Tech. It's Episode Number 203.
I'm Kirk Harnack and I've the pleasure to be talking for the whole hour with Dave Supplee. Dave works for the folks at Cumulus Broadcasting. Dave is their expert at building new studios and building transmitter sites, and fixing broken ones, when that happens. I met Dave and was introduced to him as, the guy that travels and builds.
We're talking to Dave about some of the techniques that he's learned and how he builds studios. We're going to get around to talk about transmitter sites too.
Also, Dave, if you'll think about it during our ad here, we take a break for an ad, think about some of the tips and tricks that you've learned along the way. I'll bet they're just as common as hen's teeth, no that's not common at all. I'll bet they're common to you, and maybe uncommon to other people, so see if you can think of some tips and tricks you'd like to pass along to your fellow engineers.
Hey, this show is brought to you by my friends at the Telos Alliance and Axia. I want to tell you about the big console, the console that just really put Axia on the map, and that is the Axia Element audio console. This is an audio over IP console.
The Element can be any size. I've been in studios, actually I've in the same studio in France where they had a two-fader console. Yes, it was two faders and the monitor section, so that the big honcho announcer could run his own little board, and right across the table from that was the world's largest Axia console. This was at the Energy Network in France. It had something like 40 faders. It was actually three Element frames all butted up together , bolted together, to make a huge 40-fader console with a bunch of custom controls on it.
So the point is, no matter what size console you need, up to about 40 faders, the Axia Element can accommodate you.
The Element is incredibly strong. It is not sheet metal that's out and laminated, folks. The Axia Element console is built on an aluminum extrusion that is complex, and beautiful in its design, and is extremely strong. We can extrude this thing out four feet long and it's just as rigid as can be, and all of the things we need to slide in, circuit boards, panels, over bridges, they all just slide right in. Then the modules themselves, that contain either faders, or phone controller modules, intercom, whatever modules need to go in, those just slip right in.
They have the most ingenious design for bolting in. Two bolts at the top and at the bottom there is an rubber gasket pressure mechanism that doesn't let these modules slide around. Let's imagine you didn't quite screw the bolts down tight, they won't move around in there, they're held by this linear rubber gasket. It's the most ingenious design and just gorgeous.
I'm telling you, you can stand on this console-not that I'd recommend it, and it's a little bit harder to operate the faders with your feet-but it's just such a beautifully built, long lasting, and durable console.
It is the kind of console that you can place on the tabletop without cutting a hole, if you want to. It's low enough in its design, but it does look better sitting in a hole. So you can cut a hole out in the top of your tabletop and lay that Element console right in there.
Plenty of folks have even taken out their old audio console and put a new top, or a little bit of an extended top, on the top, and then cut a new hole for their Axia Element.
What else can I tell you about the Element? Well it has just so many features that make life really easy for disc jockeys and board operators. Before the show Andrew and I were just talking about automatic mix-minus. That's one of the hallmarks of Axia consoles, so not matter what remote audio you bring, from a codec, from a telephone line, no matter what you bring in the fader can make an automatic mix-minus, even if the path back to the person who's calling in is different. Let's say you have a reporter coming in via a satellite link, well the return audio won't be by satellite. Let's say it's by a dialup telephone, an IFB. You can make that work very easily, so that the board operator never has to worry about how to get the remote person to hear properly. Mix-minus is automatic. We never send the caller back to the caller, or the remote reporter back to the remote reporter. It's always the correct mix-minus audio so that everybody and participate just fine.
In fact, we're using that feature right now on this show. That's how I'm able to Dave Supplee and not hearing myself back a half a second or a full second later, due to the delays inherent with Skype.
So just one of the features about the Axia Element console, built-in mic processing, as many mics are you put on there. You can do parametric EQ and mic processing with downward expansion, and also DS'ing. Just it's just as cool as could be.
I want you to go to the web and check it out, whether you need a small Element console, like I have at one of my radio stations, or a huge, big, honking Element console like Energy has, or anything in between, check it out on the web. Go to Axiaaudio.com and then click on the link to the products and the Element audio console, Axiaadio.com.
Thanks a lot, Axia, for sponsoring This Week in Radio Tech and giving me a chance to brag about those Axia consoles. In fact there's one right across the room from me here. I guess in should play with the board.
All right, Dave Supplee is our guest on Episode 203.
Dave, let's hear a little about transmitter sites. You've been to a bunch of them. You've probably built a few of them. Tell about what's your favorite thing about dealing with transmitter sites?
Dave: Do you really want to know what my favorite thing is?
Kirk: Sure, yeah.
Dave: It's, there's usually not a lot of people around to bother me.
Kirk: [laughs] I knew you were going to go there.
Have you seen that meme-I mean there's all kinds of memes on Facebook and the Internet-but there's that meme where-oh gosh, the name escapes me-Doctor somebody, and he says, "Oh, the engineer's at the transmitter."
Dave: Yeah, right. [laughs]
Kirk: Have many times have we been accused of, "Oh, he's at the transmitter."?
Dave: Oh yeah, all the time, and, "He's always at the transmitter. I don't understand."
But seriously, I think that is one of the things that I do like about the transmitters. It's not necessarily that you're there by yourself, but you can really focus in and clear you mind, and work on things, work with your hands. Maybe you're not sitting in front of the computer answering a million emails or dealing with stuff on the phone, you can really just be an engineer, because, a lot of us that got into it early on. My first console that I ever worked on was full of tubes, so I'd go in once a month with a tube tester and check everything out, and that kind of stuff, worked on cart machines, and reel-to-reel machines. That part of the industry is obviously long gone, but the transmitters are something that require a lot more hands on than just about anything else that we do. So, that's one of the fun parts of it.
Of course, the newer solid-state transmitters are just fantastic when it comes to getting them installed. We put a new Harris transmitter on for NASH in New York, for our launch there last spring. Basically from the time it rolled off the truck in West Orange, New Jersey until we had it on the air, it was less than a day. It was actually about five hours, because we had planned ahead of time and everything we ready to go. We just had the electrician come and hook up the wires. We had had the hard line done and off we went. It even has IP remote control.
Kirk: Oh, that's cool, yeah.
So an engineer like me, I used to do this very full time and it used to be that almost every transmitter I dealt with, with the exception of a couple of Nautel AMs, had a tube in them. I guess the stations that I own, we do have a couple of small, rack mounted FM transmitters that are solid state, but if I were to jump into broadcast engineering now with so many solid state transmitters, and this is becoming the norm, what's going to impress about that? Or, what do I need to look out for? What do I need to be aware of in this new world of solid state broadcast transmitters?
Dave: Well, solid state broadcast transmitters, obviously there's a few models out there that do go up to the higher power. Of course, the question is, "Are you going to do HD or not do HD?" because that makes a big difference. If you're not going to be doing HD then obviously your transmitter cost is going to be significantly less, especially if you were going to be doing high level HD. With a solid transmitter it's a big heater, so you need to make sure that you've got sufficient air conditioning to handle. That's always as sticking point that we run into. So, there's all kinds of ways you can roll the HD game, or just not do it at all.
Obviously, a reputable manufacturer, I think that's probably the main thing, is to make sure that the company that you're buying that transmitter from is going to be around to support it. You can still get parts for the tube transmitters and for most of the old tube transmitters out that are out there, the biggest issue that we see is getting the smaller tubes. The big PA tubes they still, but we still have some old CCA's, some of them are in main service and others are in backup service. We have a few of the old Gates AM transmitters still floating around that have tubes in them. I think there's maybe one or two that are still in service as the main, but most of them are as backups.
Here is Harrisburg I have an ITA Kilowatt, that's a tube transmitter, and that's running as a backup. It's perfectly reliable. The issue with it is finding the smaller tubes, they're getting harder and harder to find. The quality of the tubes, of the glass type that we used to use, it getting a little bit iffy. To go out and get a glass vacuum tube, I don't think that anybody in the United States is making them anymore, and they can't be rebuilt.
The ceramic tubes that are used in the Continentals-there are a million Continental transmitters out there-the Harris tube transmitters, and most anything that's running on FM. Most of the transmitters that are running 15-20 kilowatts are still tube transmitters, although you can do solid state in that range, it's there's a point where it's more cost effective to go with a tube than it is solid state, because of the power consumption. Although, it's my understanding that new designs that are in the works are probably going to make the solid state higher power transmitter a more efficient option than it has been previously.
Kirk: You're right, especially at the FM frequencies solid state devices of 10 or 15 years were not efficient at all, so you had to burn up a whole lot of heat in making an FM solid state transmitter. AM's were a lot better. A megahertz solid state device can be pretty efficient and certainly Nautel has made a great business of making solid state AM transmitters for a long time. But FM's you say are getting more efficient, so that's good to hear.
Dave: Yeah, and it's evolving. Obviously there have been solid state transmitters since Harris came out with the MW-1, which I think was a still a Gates, in late 1970 or '71' or '72' whenever the first solid state AM's were out. That's been an evolving product. For a lot of those transmitters it's actually, maybe, a little harder to get parts for than it was their older predecessors that are running the tubes. The reason for that is, because the semi conductors have been discontinued for [inaudible 28:38].
Kirk: Yeah, the end of life for the semiconductors.
Dave: Right. But, you can still get tubes, and you can still get resistors, and capacitors. There are still people that will still wind transformers, and things like that, so you can keep the old ones going, in some ways, more easily.
Kirk: So, think about the engineering that you do at various transmitter sites, both the ones that you take care of on a regular basis and ones that you've built or helped build for other Cumulus stations. You've been doing this long enough, Dave, that you probably are not making the same mistakes over an over again when you're installing or planning.
Dave: Oh, I wouldn't count on that.
Kirk: [laughs] What are one or two things that still bite you in the butt. You know, "Oh man! I knew that was going to happen?" Or, "Isn't there a solution to this problem?" Maybe it's surge or lightning, or inept operators, I don't know, but can you think of something that still bites you in the butt?
Dave: Oh, absolutely. Walking out the door with the transmitter or the remote control in Local.
Kirk: Oh! Yeah.
Dave: That's the one thing that gets you almost every time, so as a result I've got signs on all the doors of transmitters saying, "Did you put the transmitter in Local?" That kind of stuff.
But, inevitably, every so often I'll go to call it and it like, "Oh, well, I can't do anything. I must have left it in Local." Or, worse yet, you go an change something and it fails. Then you call the transmitter and you find that the remote control is in Local and you can't do anything, so you have to drive up there, which can be an issues at some sites. But that's probably the one big one.
Kirk: What if somebody made a remote control that had Bluetooth, right? So you could program your iPhone or your Android so when you're in proximity it would flash a light that would let you go to local mode if you want to. It wouldn't switch it automatically, but when you walk away it goes back into [remote 40:35]
Dave: That's a great idea. You ought to patent that, that's really a fantastic idea. Why don't you build that?
Kirk: Actually I think one of our support engineers at Telos, a guy named Matt Rockwell, he's doing that at his house. We he leaves his house stuff happens automatically, because he's gone.
Dave: Oh, yeah.
Kirk: On his way home, when he walks through his front door stuff unhappens.
Dave: Stuff happens at my house when I leave, but it's usually because my dogs and cats have been doing something, playing or something.
Kirk: So a remote/local proximity switch.
Dave: That's a great idea. I like that.
Kirk: What I still see on Facebook in the I Post picture of transmitter sites, that forum.
Kirk: People still, because it still happens, there hasn't been, to my knowledge, a great improvement in this technology. It's when transmission lines and antennas fail, sometimes precipitated by a lightning strike, or precipitated by water in the system, not keeping it pressurized, but sometimes it happens. You get an RF switch that fails, or draws a big arc and then stuff starts to burn up. Does that kind of stuff still get you?
Dave: Not really, because I know enough. We wire in the interlocks to the transfer switches, so hopefully that doesn't happen.
Now, the things that do get you, yeah, transmission lines burn up, antennas burn up. Sometimes with antennas, towers move, they're not sitting there rock solid. If you've ever been on a broadcast tower, no matter what the size is, it moves. It vibrates or it sways, it shakes, what have you. That over a period of time is going to moving those internal components of the antenna. The antenna is not one big solid piece, it's a lot of pieces that are put together, and where those pieces come together you'll see-in one antenna in particular-because of the internal conductors and the bullets that match up with the inner conductors, the expansion and contraction of just heating and cooling, plus the motion of the tower as it moves around in the wind, over time will drop little bits of metal on some of the insulating material below. Ultimately it builds up enough little bits of metal that, as we know, metal and electricity work together very well, and electronics and RF go to together very well, so you get a nice arc and it burns a hole in your antenna and lets all the magic smoke out, and it no longer works, because it's all escaped.
Then maybe if you're less lucky, all that stuff will catch fire, melt down through the insulating material, drop down into your coax and contaminate that as well. Then you've lost both of them.
That does happen and it's one of those things that is almost impossible to predict, and almost impossible to prevent. Fortunately it doesn't happen often, but I've seen it several times.
Kirk: As an engineer you're probably public facing from time to time, like when a complaint call comes into the station, "I'm picking your station up on my telephone." that kind of thing. As a public facing person, and we sometimes do have these responsibilities, what's your attitude about dealing with that kind of call or complaints from listeners?
Dave: Well I usually don't mind doing that. Most people that call they've got a problem and they're looking for an answer. They're not calling just to hassle you, so I'm always very polite to people when they call. Fortunately I don't have a lot, but I've had a few. It's usually somebody who's maybe down near my AM site, and exactly what you're saying, they've had problems with their telephone. So, I have a vendor that supplies filters that I'll drop off at their house, or I'll have somebody drop it off at their house, or I'll stick it in the mail for them. I'll say, "Here, plug this into your phone and get back to me if it doesn't solve the problem." Nine times out of ten it works. I've not run into too many people where they come back and they're irate about things. Most people are pretty understanding.
Kirk: You mentioned that you had a supplier that can help you out and you just reminded me of this famous place that sells lots of telephone doodads to fix problems call Sandman. Have you ever used them?
Dave: Have I used them? I don't think so, I'm going to have to write them down.
Kirk: Yes, it's sandman.com, telecom and cable installations products and training. Of course they have butt sets of every description, message on hold equipment, all kinds of older and newer telephone stuff. A loop current booster, for example, if you have an extension phone just way out in the barn on the back forty and you need some loop current boosting going on. But they have RF filters. RF eliminators they call them, filters, that are good for AM and FM frequencies.
So, yeah, that's pretty cool. That's a good source.
Dave: One of the weirdest complaints I ever got was, I had a lady call me one time that was telling me that the leaves of the sides of the trees toward our tower changed colors sooner in Autumn than the leaves that were away from our tower.
Dave: There was another station that their antenna was very close to ours, here in Harrisburg, and she was saying that when they changed format a couple of years ago it took her a long time until she felt normal after that. Not that she listened to the station, but it disrupted the airwaves so much with their change to country music. Those are the kind of people that you just have to say, "I understand, I understand. It's okay. I'm really sorry to hear that. I don't know if I can really do anything about what you're calling about."
I think this person just wanted to talk to somebody and discuss her theories about how the leaves turned sooner, and a different color too, toward the antenna.
Kirk: A different color, yeah, yeah.
So, not that we're doing a tip of the week, but I had forgotten about sandman.com until you mentioned those filters, that's just a great resource.
Do you have a particular resource, a tool, a piece of software that you love and you don't know how you got along without, or a supplier, or some product that you'd like to pass along as a tip to other folks, other engineers?
Dave: Probably the most useful thing that I have is a Bit Buddy. It's not really a tip as much as anything, it's just one of the most useful tools ever made when it comes to any kind of audio/studio issue it is just about as handy as it gets. So the Bit Buddy and your basic inexpensive audio sniffer are two of the most useful things that I have.
Kirk: Isn't the audio sniffer a great thing? A fox and hound, as some people call them.
Dave: Yes it is. We've used it for just about anything, trying to indentify wires, or figuring out what's going on. If you're really clever with it you can figure out if you've got an unbalanced wire that's off, an unbalanced pair that's off, you can hear on one side or the other more or less audio, so you can usually tell where the problem is coming from.
Kirk: Yeah. Those fox and hound kits, they used to be about $75 or $80 for the little tone warbler and then the sniffer. Are they still about that much money?
Dave: That's about right, yeah the last time I bought one. I'd routinely lose them every couple of years, leave them somewhere, what have you, step on them, drop them, that kind of them. The last time a bought them I think they were about $50 to $60, something like that.
Kirk: If your Bit Buddy has been so helpful to you over the years, and that's for AES audio, right?
Dave: It's AES and it also does analog.
Kirk: Oh, it does analog too, okay.
Dave: Yeah. I haven't found the equivalent yet for the IP world.
Kirk: Yeah, that's just what I was going to say, that's what we need is little hand held that does Livewire, it does Wheatnet, it does Dante, and it does the new AES67 Standard, it does RAVENNA, wouldn't that be cool? That would be just awesome.
Dave: That would be nice. Somebody should invent that, Kirk, what do you think?
Kirk: Well, making it small might be the tough part.
Dave: Making it small might be the tough part, but just even a single in and out. You could plug in a set of headphones into it, or something, and a RJ45 for you to get whatever piece of audio into. It would be very useful.
Kirk: It sure would, that would be awesome.
Dave, we're almost out of time. Have we not yet talked about something that you wanted to discuss, that you're passionate about, something along the lines of engineering, or engineering management, dealing with disc jockeys, or program directors, whatever you'd like to pass along?
Dave: You talked about, maybe, tips that I had for studios and building studios. I work with a lot of engineers. I work with, I think, some of the best engineers in the country. I get to work at some of the legendary radio stations. I get to come in and cause trouble in some of the neatest places that you'd ever want to go to.
Last year I we got to play with the antenna tuning at WLS in Chicago, the big eight [inaudible 50:30]
Kirk: I've been there, yeah.
Dave: I mean, that was just great, it's cool. But, it's one of the things that I have picked up in Cumulus-I'd like to say, and I think it's true-that we have the best engineers in the country. When I look at the guys that are really good, they are the guys who always seem to have it under control. Then there's some guys that maybe seem to have a little more trouble keeping things running than others do.
The biggest tip that I can give is, it's very simple, it's be prepared. Be prepared and be flexible no matter what you're doing. When you walk out the door in the morning you need to have a plan, you need to know what you're going to do. You don't just walk in the station and say, "Oh, here it is, it's Monday, what am I going to do today?" Carry a planner. Some of the most effective people I know still use the hand written Franklin planners, or Daytimers, or that kind of thing.
That's probably the difference that I see. It's necessarily the people that are the smartest people. I'm not one of the smartest people, I can tell you that. I mean, my knowledge of electronic theory is not that strong, I'll be honest with you, but I think I plan things well. I implement things well and I think that's a big difference.
The other is, when you're doing studios, or any kind of work, documentation and labeling your wires is essential. You have no idea many sites I go into where people have not documented things, or the wires aren't labeled, because they got in a hurry and they thought, "Well, I'll go back and do that later. I know what that wire is." A year later they go back and they say, "I don't remember what that wire did. Why did I put that there?" You know, that kind of stuff.
That's really my passion. In the business I like to try to help guys. I like to try to help engineers. As a regional engineer it's really my job, it's to be there to support the guys and to try to take the guys that need help and help them do better jobs. The guys that maybe just need to get stuff done through corporate, I try to do that too. But, I like to see people try to be prepared and know what they're going to go.
You also have to be flexible, because things break, things happen, things change. Somebody comes along and changes your plans and you have to be able to handle that change, and not have your world come apart, because all of a sudden you had planned on going to this transmitter site today, but the market manager comes in and says, "Hey, I need you to move some offices for me, because I've got two new sales people starting." So that's the kind of stuff that you can't just fall apart if something like that comes down the road. You have to be able to roll with it a little bit.
That's all I really had on that.
Kirk: Supplee's thoughts.
Ladies and gentlemen we've come to the end of This Week in Radio Tech.
By the way, that's good advice. Of course you have to have experience in order to know what to prepare for. I did contract engineering for almost 20 years. Out in my garage I've got all my tools that I used to use and over the years they didn't get more and more and more tools, they kind of got whittled down to a set of tools that would solve 98% of the problems, 98% of the time. But there were a few tools that are, "Well, I don't have that one with me. I'm going to have to go back and get that." But you know what? I didn't need it the last 100 trips I made. So it takes experience to know what is worth dragging around and what isn't.
Dave: There's a saying-I think it was a football coach that said it-but it really made sense to me, because he said, "What's luck?" This particular team won the game because they got a few lucky calls. I think the coach said, "Well, there really is no such thing as luck, it's more like experience meets opportunity." Or, "Being prepared meets opportunity." I think is what he said. I think that that's true. I think that being prepared and the experience comes with being prepared to deal with whatever comes your way, and seeing the opportunity that may arise when a particular situation occurs.
Kirk: Dave, it's been a pleasure and a delight, and we're out of time. I appreciate you taking an hour out of your time to be here.
Dave: It's been fun.
Kirk: Thanks so much. Hey, maybe on a future show you can give us a little tour of your Harrisburg studios there. We love to show off studios. That would be a very cool thing to do.
Dave: I'd love to and I'd love to join you again sometime.
Kirk: All right.
Dave Supplee with Cumulus, in Harrisburg, PA, he travels all over and builds studios. He's your studio hit man. I'm glad he's out there doing it for Cumulus and making the radio industry better for those who work in it.
I'm Kirk Harnack. You've been watching This Week in Radio Tech, this has been Episode Number 203, brought to you be the Telos Alliance and the Axia Element audio console. On the web at Axiaaudio.com.
Our thanks to Andrew Zarian, the producer of the show, and to the GFQ Network, Andrew's big baby who gets us out all over the world every week. I appreciate it very much.
Be sure you go to the website Thisweekinradiotech.com or GFQnetwork.com. You can download, you can watch or listen, and you can subscribe to the podcasts there. Subscribing is the best way to do it. It shows up in your media device automatically every week or so, so check it out.
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Bye, bye, everybody.