As Wise Buddah Music, Radio One FM DJ Mark Goodier and his business partner Bill Padley are producing and editing programs for the BBC with little more than a Mac computer, a DAT machine, and some high‑powered Digidesign editing software. Paul White talks to them about how they manage it.
Radio DJ Mark Goodier and composer/ producer Bill Padley together comprise Wise Buddah, a radio production company that takes its name not from the wisdom of eastern philosophy, but rather from an anagram of Budweiser! I met up with the pair at their West End studio, where Mark had just returned from his two‑hour afternoon stint at Radio One. From these offices, the team produce radio programmes for the BBC and Independent Local Radio, but instead of the usual open‑reel tape machines, razor blades and splicing tape, their small studio is centred around a Mac computer linked to a rather lonely‑looking DAT recorder. Before delving further into the technology, I asked Bill how they came to be working together.
"We've both worked in radio for some time, and we first met at Radio Clyde; I've been in radio since I was about 13, and Mark isn't far behind. I've done a lot of work with jingles and music beds, including the new Top of the Pops theme tune, and we thought there was room for a forward‑thinking radio production company using our combined experience. The result was Wise Buddah Music Radio, which produces programmes both for the BBC and ILR networks. Our first commission was Collins and Maconie's Hit Parade, which ran on Radio One for 16 weeks."
What made you consider the digital approach to production and editing?
"When we first set up the company, we worked in the traditional way, using carts, tape and razor blades, but I said to Mark, 'This is just nonsense'. The show had about 30 sections of speech, all of which had to be linked in with jingles and music. I have my own music studio at home, based around a Yamaha DMR8, so I'm no stranger to technology, and I thought that we should look at doing the job digitally. Mark agreed, and then it was a question of deciding what to get. The top end stuff, like Soundstations and Audiofiles, were far too expensive, but lower down the price scale there seemed to be a mass of stuff to choose from. It was rather like buying a sequencer — at some point, you have to make a decision and then stick with it. We talked to a few people, read a few reviews, and then went to see Digidesign's ProTools at TSC. We bought a 4‑track system, but soon found that we needed more, and now we've upgraded to eight tracks. We're working with stereo tracks all the time, and with four tracks, you only need to have two pieces of stereo music overlapping at the same time as you have a voice‑over, and you're stuffed. Six tracks would have been enough, but you have to have either four or eight.
"The beauty of this system, firstly, is the quality — it's spectacular. We're going into it digitally, from a DAT machine, and back out again — so there's no quality loss. It's also very user friendly — it works like a tape machine, even down to the scrub. You can stick vast amounts of digital audio on a list, and then just put the bits where you want them to go.
"To control the system, we have a JL Cooper CS10, which has eight assignable faders. The automation is fantastic, and as we come from radio, where we're used to top faders rather than using a mouse, the JL Cooper box fills that role nicely. It can access most of the controls of the ProTools system, but to be honest, I don't really use it for anything other than the faders.
Bill Padley: "There are times when we've both sat here and grinned, because working in the traditional way, we just couldn't have done some of the things we do now."
Do you work from time code?
"We don't need to in radio, though we may well need to use it for future projects. With the Collins and Maconie show, they record their speech links in a studio across in Broadcasting House, and they are then brought back here and dumped into ProTools."
It all seems very easy — you don't have any regrets about moving to the new system?
"Not really — the only disadvantage is that everything has to go on and off the system in real time, and while it's doing that, you can't use the computer for anything else. The same applies when you're bouncing your regions to a new file — you can't do anything other than sit and watch the clock count down. One other thing that was a bit fiddly to start with was a couple of oddities about the operating system when it comes to breaking the audio file up into regions. For example, you can't edit across a region very easily — you've got to butt up to one section and then butt away from it again. Once you've got used to it, though, it's very quick."
How do you go about assembling one of your programmes?
"Because we have so many speech links, I call every bit of the show by a letter, and it then becomes very easy to do what ProTools calls bouncing to disk. In other words, when you've put together the first bit of the show, up to the point where they announce the first record, that's 'A'. What in effect happens is that you start with a 40‑minute sound file, you extract the regions you need, and then these are compiled as a new, continuous sound file. This means that you do need a lot of disk space — we have around 4Gb here. Apart from the 40 minutes of speech, there might be another 25 minutes of stereo music. I have all the Radio One jingles plus all the jingles and music beds for the show on disk too. You just drag the jingles you need into the region list on the right of the screen, put them where you want them, and that's it."
Other than putting chunks of audio in the right place, what other manipulation do you need to be able to do? I assume that the EQ on the basic music tracks, jingles and voices is more or less OK before you start...
"Pretty much, yes. We don't do much with EQ or the aux sends, but we do make use of the cross‑fade edit facilities, which are quite spectacular. Even a really dodgy edit can be saved by using a crossfade, and if it doesn't work, you can just undo it with a click of a button. It's very similar to the cross‑fade facility in Sound Tools — you can do things that you just couldn't achieve with traditional tape editing. Once you learn just a few key strokes on here, it becomes so quick. I edited this show for the first couple of weeks with a razor blade and a reel of tape — and I'm pretty fast editing that way — but I was numb at the end of it, because it was just such an effort. On ProTools, it's a pleasure, and it's so fast. Another job we did on ProTools was the Mercury music show on Radio One, which is a half‑live, half‑recorded show. The trails and stuff were quite complex, and involved lots of people sourced at different time, at different places. At one point, we were almost laughing at how easy it was to stick it all together. The computer is simply a tool, and a better tool helps you do a better job."
Mark: "As well as improving the quality of what you can do, working this way also broadens the scope of what you can do."
Bill Padley: "I was brought up on PCs and Ataris, and I have to say that in comparison, the Mac is pretty damned good."
Bill: "When we were doing all our editing in real time, with carts and records, we had to back‑time the records and jingles, because we like to make the shows sound really professional and very 'Radio One'. That involves maths, and it takes time. But with this, you work out where the vocal of a record comes in, and just drop in the audio to finish there — and it sounds really tight.
"After the basic editing, I do the rough fades. It's obvious that a record is going to dip in level when the DJ starts speaking. I've never used duckers to do that — I've always done it manually, so after I've finished, I just go through the whole show in Volume Edit mode and fine‑tune the fades until they're just right. Radio One and other stations use a lot of processing on the output, so you have to get things just right. If you have the music too loud, some very odd things happen when the processor gets hold of it. I don't know exactly what it does, but I believe it involves some pretty sophisticated multi‑band EQ and compression which really does make things sound different — and it shaves quite a bit off the dynamic range. It's brilliant to be able to see volume graphs, and be able to pull them up or down with one keystroke. Once the editing is complete, the whole show gets played out to a DAT, and then copied off to a reel."
How do you see the future of Wise Buddah panning out? What are you working on at the moment?
Mark: "Bill and I are currently working on a few things which I can't really mention until the contracts have been signed, but things like documentaries interest us, as well as music. We can source our own material on a portable DAT, and put it together using ProTools. We're also putting in an ISDN line, and that opens up some really exciting possibilities. Bill, as well as being a great producer and musician, also does voice‑over work, and he'll be doing quite a lot of ILR work. The concept of being able to dial somebody's studio, and then send them a full‑bandwidth, stereo audio signal is mindboggling. If we land the contract for the next Collins and Maconie series, it's quite likely that we'll record it at the BBC, but ISDN it straight into here, so Bill can get to work on it straight away.
"As regards the future, we've already had one major commission from Radio One and we hope there'll be some more. These are early days, and this is a very speculative venture, but putting in things like ISDN will help. What I don't really want to do is hire out the facility to other people; Bill's extraordinary talent lies in being creative making things happen for us — I'd hate to think he was doing that for somebody else."
Will your system do everything you need for the foreseeable future, or will you need to add more tracks?
Bill: "At the moment, eight tracks is all we need, and other than the ability to process files on the fly, the system does everything we need. In a radio production situation, to have this system with enough hard drive space is wonderful. There are times when we've both sat here and grinned because working in the traditional way, we just couldn't have done some of the things we do now. For the foreseeable future, the system will meet our needs, and as for razor blades and splicing tape, there's no going back!"
What do you think to the Macintosh itself — the actual computer driving your whole system?
Bill: "I was brought up on PCs and Ataris, and I have to say that in comparison, the Mac is pretty damned good. Compared with my Atari, which used to crash if I so much as looked at it, this has been very reliable, and the Mac platform is very user‑friendly. Even Microsoft seem to be acknowledging this, because their next version of Windows is almost a copy of Apple's system 7. I. I always thought that Macs were horrendously expensive, but at the current prices, they're comparable to PCs. We did have one occasion when the system did something very odd, but within half an hour, the guys at TSC had fixed it. On that occasion, they saved not only our bacon but probably the whole pig as well!"
You've been very complimentary about your ProTools system as it is, but is there anything you think the system needs to make your job easier?
Mark: "It would be nice to be able to do more things on the fly, rather than having to do processing such as compression off‑line. Apparently, Digidesign's TDM will make that possible, and you'll be able to plug third‑party hardware and software into the system, but with the system as it is, the only way you can compress something non‑destructively is to process the whole file in Playback mode — you can't bring the process in and out during playback. You can pull it into Sound Designer and process it there, but that's a pain and takes ages.
"I have to say, though, that any gripes with the system are very minor. Only the other day we were celebrating our wisdom in making this purchase — which was quite a bold step for us. We only had a commission for 16 programmes, so this setup took up a huge chunk of the money that we got for those programmes. It isn't cheap, but then the cheaper systems don't seem to be geared for this type of work. For example, Session 8 looks great, but it's really a multitrack system for making music, not for assembling radio programmes. Digidesign seem to be a very switched‑on company, and it doesn't look as if they'll be going bust tomorrow. I think it was a very good move on their behalf to liaise with other manufacturers and actively encourage people to produce things that would hook into their hardware."
Have you tried any of the third‑party software plug‑ins for Sound Tools, such as the Waves EQ and limiter?
Bill: "I've heard good things about them, but they have the same problem we have with our current system — you either have to use them off‑line, which takes ages, or you have to process a whole file in Playback mode. It would be great to be able to use these things non‑destructively, but to be able to switch them in and out against time code. At the moment, you can't say, 'Let's just treat those two tracks'. You need to be able to work as you can with a compressor in a studio, in real time. Other than that, there have been very few occasions where I've said' I wish I could do so and so', and I've not been able to. Things do improve as the software is updated — for example, you now get a proper scrolling display, which you didn't before, but on the whole, you don't get the impression that you're the beta tester, which is still the case with some software."
"Another irritating thing, which is nothing to do with Digidesign, is that the broadcast industry seem to be happy with a sampling rate of 48kHz, whereas music people work at 44.1kHz. If you want to go in and out digitally, that means using a sample‑rate converter or going in via analogue. Converting it within Sound Designer takes for ever."
You could use something like an Alesis AI‑1, which will convert everything to the sample rate you choose. That can be a life saver when somebody sends you a DAT containing mixed sample rates without telling you.
Mark: "Absolutely. That would save a lot of time. My only regret is that the BBC don't have ProTools, because I'd really like to take just my hard disk in and record onto that — then I could just bring it back here to work on. The reason I still use the BBC studios for recording stuff is because there are broadcast engineers there who are so good and so experienced; I'm not sure I'd get the same quality if I shopped around. If Digidesign were to lend the BBC a couple of ProTools systems, we'd be delighted!"
If your interest in hard disk recording and the ProTools system has been kindled by this article, you might like to know that a free hard disk recording seminar has been jointly organised by Sound On Sound, Digidesign UK, TSC, and George Martin's new Air Studios. The seminar will be held on Thursday December 8th, 1994. For further information, call 071 258 3454 during office hours, or see this month's Shape Of Things To Come.