Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Dreaded Voicetracking

Voice-tracking is the devil. The scourge of our industry. The thing that has de-humanised this once exciting living, breathing thing called radio. 

That would probably have been my view a few years ago as a spiky-haired awkward jock. Now, I believe it’s none of those things. Done well, it provides for impressive efficiency and high-quality output which helps to provide for the level of listening variety the UK now enjoys.

The first time you VT – let’s agree it feels odd. Imagining a real listener is quite challenging enough without having to imagine one who might be listening one foggy night next week. Mastering the art of the VT is a new skill which presenters have to acquire, where necessary. And like most things in radio, it’s a particular skill which some find themselves more at home with than others; and an approach which suits some formats better than others.

The efficiency is unquestionable. You can present a programme at a time of your choosing and only focus your time on the parts where you are needed. There's no need to sit drumming your fingers on the desk, moving around random sheets of paper and turning knobs needlessly up and down through nervous energy whilst you wait for Dua Lipa to end.

It also means that that you necessarily have to prepare well.  Opening a dry mic and recording a VT link without a direction in your head is impossible.  Preparation is necessarily done beforehand - and calmly, not hurriedly when distracted by a noisy song.

A presenter recording a show for the weekend simply has to summon up the sense and mood of the day to come, and what their listener will be up to. It’s a train of thought that too many live presenters find it easy to ignore. In a sense, with VT, you can only put the listener first. 

Similarly, VT radio demands perfect operational programme management too. There’s no room for the sort of stations where three people issue contradictory emails to presenters about what’s happening on the station - and what needs talking up and how.  You have to make your mind up promptly if the programmes to be recorded this week for next week are to be accurate – and issue definitive single notes on what’s what.

Doing it well is an acquired skill.  Like most things in radio – one gets better at it with practice. The tone of links - how they begin and end - and delivering just the right energy each time. Sounding natural and getting the pace just right, even if it is the seventh time you'd had a bash at the same link.  On music-intensive formats, repeatedly delivering much the same message in a fresh tone and vesting real meaning in your station name; on chatty formats, delivering mountains of fresh content all at once. Presenters who truly master all the tricks can hear the full show in context in their head.  

Some days, links are instantly flawless, and a show is dispatched within minutes.  Other days, one particular link feels like a loose tooth you keep wobbling with your tongue even though it hurts. The difference with VT is that the listener doesn’t hear the version of the link that wasn’t very good.

It might be argued that VT means sanitised radio - a pre-packaged convenience food without any topical relevance. With good thought, it’s not. Indeed, content can be updated with ease when appropriate. The impressive Matt Deegan who runs Fun Kids, wholly voice-tracked with Zetta, says “Generally presenters are recording between 3 minutes and 3 days before their shows go out”.

As a passion project, I appear on a VT easy listening station called Serenade Radio on weekend afternoons (under the nom-de-radio of Ben Golding, named after the nurse two minutes into this memorable station launch!). When, after recording, the death of a treasured artist is announced or the Grand National won, it is simple to to insert a relevant replacement link.  I suspect this voice-tracked station is sometimes more ‘up to date’ than many live presenters sat insulated from the world on air in their concrete studio.

Many good community stations use VT well too.  Running on small staff, they can whizz around gathering fresh content whilst the output purrs on. Remotely, they can insert links and freshen stories, as they wish. And, let's face it, even the finest BBC current affairs programmes pre-record chunks.

It's not lazy, cheap radio, it can actually be richer, maximising the value of personnel.  As Matt Deegan points out: “With presenters not being paid to waiting for songs to finish, we can then use their time in better ways - like building a YouTube channel around the breakfast show presenter with 100,000 subscribers and over a million views a month”.

There are, of course, notable examples too of how VT stations can sound truly awful. Outdated content being repeatedly aired, or missing chunks and car crash junctions. But is that not simply about poor operational management?  VT, operated well, should result in fewer technical and editorial errors, not more. If a station cannot manage its automated output well, it shouldn't really be on the air.

Isn’t radio about interaction?  Clearly, VT stations cannot respond to listener interaction in real-time, but they can respond a great deal more quickly than they did in the days when you wrote in for a request in the so-called golden days of radio. Listeners can get in touch via the website or app, and content can be cleverly channelled and incorporated if necessary, within minutes.  You can’t get callers responding on-air live in quite the same way but, again, many 'live' programmes routinely incorporate pre-recorded segments. 

And -  of course - there is no dispute about live radio always having its place for particular programmes or formats.

RCS gave us intelligent voice-tracking many years ago, offering a chance to hear the last
bite of the last song before performing  - and also other studio software like Genesys from Broadcast Bionics offer it too. There are also hugely impressive cost-efficient options: Station Playlist, Playout One or, from Germany, DigAS - from which the lovely Pat Sharp dispatches his content for his Norwegian shows. 

Many systems also allow for presenters to record remotely in their home studios too. Yes, away from the team spirit - but also away from the politics and the business end of radio; and a way of securing talent who would not be available 'full time' for you. Kenny Everett spoke of his idol, the great Jack Jackson, and the accidental value of him recording his shows from his holiday home in later years, away from all the things which put presenters in a bad mood.  The future for many stations may well be virtual. Alone with your listener in the back bedroom. That's intimate.

As a former jock, I’d agree that nothing can beat the kick you get from a live show. But is that kick more yours than the listener’s?

How often do you have the live show from hell, which everyone else tells you was the best one ever? We are not always the best judge of how a programme feels when we are in the midst of it.  When you listen in to your own voice-tracked programme as a listener, however, when you’ve forgotten what you’re about to hear yourself saying, your assessment of your own performance is altogether more valuable.

This voice-tracking lark isn't as bad as I'd feared. Let's raise a much-deserved cheer for the people who really master it.




Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.











Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.






21 comments:

  1. YES - it's the devil incarnate, but - YES it allows older (discarded) ILR DJs (+a few from the BBC) and sensible people who had real jobs, reDJuvenate Dr. Who style, to create professional stations that cost £50 million a year LESS to run than BBC Radio 2....

    Only change : 'Dua Lipa' = the Ronettes!

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  2. David, I agree completely. VT took me a hell of a long time to get used to, and of course there can never be the same buzz that comes from a live broadcast. However, VT makes possible the possibility to create a good show every week. The first link is always tricky, but then it always was. VT is a long way from the good old days, but so is everything else. What matters is what comes out on the air!
    Stevie Gordon

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  3. "Voice-tracking is the devil. The scourge of our industry. The thing that has de-humanised this once exciting living, breathing thing called radio." ....I'd leave it there..

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    1. ..I don't believe that VTing a show, can come anywhere near the spontaneity of a live show, being able to interact with your audience
      Making them feel as though they are part of the show by involving them in the show as it evolves, gives a much more positive message to the listener.
      To me the audience is the most important part of my show, if I can make them feel as though they are part of my show "family" then they remain positive and loyal, and I do believe that has been a major factor in good listening figures. Even the simple message at the end of each show of thanking the listener for their input makes them feel wanted, and gives an excellent reason for them to stay loyal.

      I'd rather have that than just presenting a show that just makes the dj feel good........I haven't VT'd a show in 33 years of broadcasting, maybe I'm just one of many who believes spontaneity and the unexpected twists and turns that live radio can bring during a 4 hour show, is better than sounding distant or clinical...
      eg being live on air when a famous musician dies, and being one of the first to announce it ....
      or
      maybe I'm just old fashioned..!

      p.s.
      I also enjoyed reading How to Make Great Radio', :)

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    2. I don't disagree with you wholly, Jerry. There are indeed some shows which simply must be live. But others don't. I also worry about the ones which spend hours going through the boring motions of asking listeners to get in touch - and then reading out dull responses from the same old folk! I think there's a risk of falling into the trap of asking the listeners to do the entertaining when our own words should also be pretty good at it! :) Thanks for the book comments - that's very kind.

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  4. It's karaoke radio. It's lazy. And, admit it David, it sucks. Watch Comfort and Joy and tell me that closing piece - Dicky Bird talking intimately and one to one with his listeners on Christmas Day - would work with some Dave Double Decks prerecorded voice over from October.

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    1. Lazy is a perfect description of VT Radio..

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    2. I agree - it can be very lazy. But it can also be brilliant. A one-to-one piece talking to 'the listener' can be as much a great VT link as a live one. 'Dave Double Decks' is unlikely to be made any better by being live. :) Ta for comment.

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    1. "I don't believe that VTing a show, can come anywhere near the spontaneity of a live show"

      Your point is about speech/ listener interaction with the DJ - and raises the fact that there are really 2 basic types of DJ:

      Let's call type 1. 'Social DJ' those who rely on 'spontaneity', with guests, phone/ email / social media interaction to have something/anything to talk about. By the nature of the shows the 'talk' means the music is secondary - and the show is more about the topics of the day/ the 'area' and the listener..

      Type 2. Let's call these 'Music DJs' - the ones who work best not having to be spontaneous, or handle/ respond 'live' to social media, unpredictable guests, and (on breakfast) the (mainly female) 'foil'. These DJ's work best with their personal cliches, and mainly music content, that they link tightly with voice-overs, jingles (imaging for the youngsters) and music facts and 'trivia'. They also tend to be the 'top of the hour', '22 and three quarter minutes past eight', and 'lovely to have you listening' DJs - perfect for background listening!

      Using Radio 2 as an example you can classify No.1s as: Mayo, Wright and Evans.

      No 2's would be Blackburn, Gambaccini, and Bruce (yes they do have some chat but don't really sound at ease/ Bruce has the pop quiz but it sounds to me like he is relieved when it's finished)

      The nature of commercial radio now means most breakfast shows are No.1s, the rest of the day, No. 2s - this mainly fits with where VT'ing is used.

      Of course there are some DJs who are unclassifiable, where it's just a mismatch of yap and features and trivia and the music is drowned out - these DJs are the ones likely to have the most varying audience reaction, from love to hate... such shows cannot be VT'd.

      I'll admit I am a firm No.2, always hated phones, never at ease interviewing, but it got me through a decade on-air. So for me VT'ing is now natural....

      Without VT'ing commercial radio would not be able to survive in it's current form, and it's the reason some stations still pay only £20,000 a year to DJs who are desperate to break into a business that is not what it was in the 1980s...

      ....and that is Sad

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    2. "The nature of commercial radio now means most breakfast shows are No.1s, the rest of the day, No. 2s - this mainly fits with where VT'ing is used." Oh I number oned meself laughing at that line!!!

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  6. It's a fantastic tool and I'd say it is one of the most useful technological innovations that I have experienced in 30 years of working in radio. Bad voicetracking is solely down to untrained, uncreative or lazy presenters. It's operator failure.There's still a buzz about doing a well prepared and well-delivered voicetrack. The 'payoff' might be delayed to the point when you hear it air, though. Voicetracking has helped previously unviable radio areas to have content-rich, relevant local radio of a standard they would have not enjoyed with the old 'everything is live' approach. Some of the best RAJAR figures of all time have been achieved by stations which employ a high degree of VT.

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    1. REALLY good point on the delayed gratification.

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  7. I have pre-recorded material for later broadcast, usually about a day before broadcast, and have done live shows many times, and I always prefer live shows. Pre-recording links in advance, just doesn't have the same energy that a live broadcast does. Whilst you can record and insert material minutes before it actually airs, and I have heard presenters do that and do it well, again, it just isn't quite the same as being live.

    I always prefer being live and will probably always prefer it.

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    1. I agree many of (us!) do 'prefer' live - but I guess radio is about the listener - and about running stations affordably - rather than what we like! But I know what you mean. As far as the right energy levels are concerned, it is an acquired art.

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  8. This was a very timely post for me.

    I recently had training at my local commercial station and attempted my first ever VT using RCS Zetta.

    I found it much harder than I expected and I think that's because subconsciously, you know because it isn't live and that you can re-record a bad link, and if you're a bit of a perfectionist like me, then you end up doing this a lot or you're never happy with any of them. Combined with a healthy dose of nerves I really struggled this first time.

    I also found it very "alien" because when you record the VT, you can't actually hear exactly how it will sound when it airs as it doesn't 'duck' the audio when you speak and it can be really off-putting when you're coming to the end of your link and you hit the button to start the next track and it comes it at full volume and you have to avoid the urge to raise your voice...

    I'm trying again next Friday - now I know what to expect and can plan accordingly, I've got a much better idea of how to attack it.

    I'm going to record the 'key' links e.g. start, end, travel intro, news intros etc. first and then fill-in the rest afterwards instead of recording them in time order. I'm also not going to bother putting my Mic on PFL when recording and I'll leave one ear off my headphones so I can ignore the volume levels.

    Wish me luck!

    P.S. I love your books.

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    1. Yes - you do have to feel at home with it - and listen back to a few - just like perfecting any broadcasting skill. I know what you mean re levels on the 'fake' mix you hear. Just find the way that works best for you. Have a god show! Thanks for comments on books.

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  9. As a presenter on now 2 radio stations I have never VT'd. I've always done and love doing live radio. Reading your comments guys has got me doubting my ability to VT if I'm ever asked to do one.

    Long live the live presenter.

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    1. Hi Robbie - my 2nd attempt at VT'ing went *much* better than the first. I found having only one ear over my headphones helped and not bothering to listen to my Mic channel.

      Like David said above, you just find the way that works best for you.

      Live radio is great - but I can see the benefit of voicetracking. It forces you to prepare extra well and if you mess up a link, you simply re-record it and there's no way to 'crash' a vocal as you want adjust the next track start time 'on-the-fly'.

      Even when I'm doing a live show - I can see myself recording a voicetrack for a couple of the links.

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