Thursday, February 10, 2011

Regarding the studio technical problems

My inbox is occasionally plagued by comments, complaints and some suggestions about how to fix the audio problems on the TV show. Thanks.

It's come to my attention that some people simply do not grasp the situation...

We do this show from a public access studio. These are studios that were built when the cable companies first started in order to promote free, community-run programming. These studios are old and vanishing...very few cities have studios and even fewer support live shows or call-in shows. We're fortunate to be able to do the show at all. (Just ask the Seattle Atheists...)

The studio equipment is largely beyond our control. We can't rewire the studio and while we've spent quite a bit of money on our own equipment, you can have the best equipment in the world and if you're plugging it into antiquated or improperly configured gear, it won't make a bit of difference. Their recent $1M renovation doesn't seem to have involved any significant improvements to the audio.

The studio uses a Telos digital telephone hybrid but the soundboard at the studio isn't properly wired for a mix-minus setup and doesn't have sufficient discrete channels.

We use the studio on Sunday afternoons and it's used by many other people throughout the week. Those people change settings. They break things. They attempt to "fix" the problems that others have created...which creates more problems. They have different needs and requirements for their show, so they reconfigure things to suit them.

Every week we show up an hour (or more) before the show, run cables, configure lights, set up the table, reconfigure equipment, figure out what is broken and try to find a way to fix it before the show starts.

Every week we're walking into an unknown configuration and doing our best to get it back to "our" setup. We're talking lights, sound, camera, CG, DVD recorder, background, telephone (and more)...and most of it has been "adjusted" by someone else during the week. (I can count, on one hand, the weeks where we've had nothing to fix.)

Additionally, there are settings we're not allowed to change (though it doesn't stop other people from messing with them).

We then do a 'test call' - which seems to work just fine, though it doesn't seem to indicate whether or not all of the calls on a given show will work fine. The problem is intermittent. Some calls are worse than others...some have NO feedback, some have a little and some have a lot. Some calls seem to only be working in half-duplex, some are full. We've found no discernible pattern (I do suspect that cell phones are a huge part of the problem as they're notoriously horrible at full-duplex and signal quality).

If you think we're unaware of the problems, you're wrong.
If you think we're not MORE frustrated than anyone who watches or listens to the show, you're wrong.
If you think we wouldn't love to fix the problems and aren't doing everything we can, you're wrong.

This isn't just a matter of finding the right expert or throwing more money at it. (I'd recommend watching the Super Bowl half-time show for a prime example of how knowing what you're doing and having money to throw at something is no guarantee that things are going to work correctly.)

I appreciate the feedback and the suggestions. I appreciate that people care enough to try to improve the show....but I'm also baffled at how anyone could think we're unaware of the very problems we've spoken about countless times on and off the show - often WHILE the problems are happening.

One recent letter added a rather ironic note (which did make me laugh):

"Please fix the phone problem! (This is your money maker, and it's ruining discussions. Stable and clear sounding phone-lines are crucial"

Wow, I've never thought of that! The irony of using the phrase "money maker" when referring to a show that we actually pay to produce and freely donate thousands of hours to, is sadly humorous.

Don't misunderstand - I'm not writing this simply to bitch at the people who are writing us about this problem, I'm just expressing my own frustration and letting people know that e-mails that are essentially pointing out the elephant that I'm riding have been read, and won't be getting individual responses.

We'll also continue to look for solutions, but I wanted to give people a taste of what we're dealing with in order to avoid some of the suggestions that aren't very helpful.


  1. So... I shouldn't have sent you that stripper with the audio wiring diagram tattoo?

  2. It just wouldn't be the same if the audio was ok. I'd miss the tinny, ditorted echoes and the occasional complete muting of all sound.

  3. We know that people want to be helpful. Some make suggestions that reflect genuine concern, and some come across as jerks who seem to have this idea that we're a bunch of clueless n00bs who turn up at the studio ten minutes before airtime, turn everything on and trust to luck. As Matt points out, the problems are manifold, more complex than you realize, and something we're all too aware of.

    The only alternative solution at this point is for fans to do an en masse donation to ACA to help us pull together 400 or 500 grand to build our own studios! After all, that's how the Christians do it. :-)

  4. The things people say in calls hurt my ears way more than any sound problem.

  5. Well now I feel bad! I posted a (light-hearted) comment asking why can't the phones be fixed already because it seemed simple enough but obviously its not that simple or it would be done. If throwing money at the problem could resolve it, then I will make a donation to the ACA and encourage others to do so. Couldn't you just buy your own phone with audio outs and disconnect theirs and plug yours in? (understanding I have no idea what I'm talking about) Is there a monthly contribution set-up? Even a modest $10/month from 1000 viewers would net you $10000a month! Audio issues aside, the hosts deserve to get paid for what they do, not have to pay for being on the air.

  6. OK I'm an idiot, there is a monthly donation set-up, I should have checked, but seeing how I don't live in Austin I only read the blog and the archive page. I'm on it

  7. Most likely, it's due to an unrelenting prayer attack.

    Some lead shielding should do the trick.

  8. I've wondered before if there could be someone who is opposed to atheists having a TV show, who sabotages the equipment setup. Not that I think that's likely, it just crossed my mind one day.

    I know that some of the crew are Skype-knowledgeable, and I'm not, but I've been wondering whether a VoIP phone solution over some wireless network (WiFi if it's available at the studio or 3G if not) would be a more practical end-run around the studio phones. I pay only ten bucks a month for my home phone service (T-mobile VoIP over my existing cable Internet connection).

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Martin, Matt, and everyone else at ACA, your show is awesome and incredibly valuable to us even with the occasional audio problem. We know you are doing your best under less than ideal conditions. Ignore the whiners and keep up the good work.

  11. I have been a producer on community TV. Our access was pulled, funding was shut off, and the station shut down. This is happening all over. We are so fortunate that you have been able to stay on the air. I totally empathize with your problems. To all those who are complaining let me suggest that you kindly STFU!

  12. Skype isn't out of the question but we don't tend to get theistic callers that way. We used it when we did the show from my place and you can sample those shows for the harsh reality.

    We're looking into it, but it may not fix a thing (or even be viable) given the limitations we have on what we can change/connect.

  13. The internet in the studio is not that great or reliable. Those of you who were watching the live feed last week should be aware of this already, because the feed just cut out completely about five minutes before the show ended. That wasn't a technical boo-boo by our guys: The whole internet went out. I couldn't hit any web pages on my laptop either.

    There are a very limited number of things we can change. And while we can fool around with the hardware on our end (phone systems, routers we brought, etc.) it's not like we can just pay for a whole new freaking ISP for the studio or change their phone provider.

    Again... they just spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS (cue Dr. Evil finger) on new equipment, and that is not the kind of money we are ever, ever going to have as a donation-supported non-profit.

  14. Is there any way the tech folk or producers from the shows across the station can get together as a group or union to combat the issues? Or does this already exist?

  15. What so many don't realize is that you guys are just average Joes who donate hours of your time and, often, money from your pockets both to run the ACA and do the shows. With no pay. And, often no reimbursement of your expenses.
    I have been on the Board of an educational non-profit for years and sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry, and sometimes you get mad at how casually people offer useless advice. People who won't offer a few hours of their time to fill a Board position are always the first to offer advice, then get huffy when you don't take it.
    Someone suggested we tape out meetings to post to our website. The mind boggles at both the cost (for video & sound equipment) and the time to tape, edit & upload it every month (plus the hassle of getting permission from our guest speakers.)
    And I can't even get people to buy a $10 calendar or a $5 coffee cup to raise some funds for our Club.

  16. have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?

  17. Thanks for chiming in, Sharon. My experience with an all-volunteer organization is that there's never a shortage of people who have great ideas for projects that OTHER people should do. (Myself included. I used to be a member of the board of directors, but I haven't even run for the position in years.)

  18. Matt, some people just need to be bitched at, especially if they're lacking in sense that a team of intelligent people with actual real time access to the equipment in question haven't thought of the same suggestions they're sending to you.

    So yeah, bitch away.

  19. skype really would seem like a good alternative, considering that it apparently worked quite well in the completely improvised dillahunty studios. yes, you dont get many theistic callers that way, but maybe that could be fixed by setting up a skype-in-account. that way, your skype account can be reached via a traditional phone number, but you still get all of skypes technical benefits (on your end, anyway, but that seems to be the problematic one often enough id say, especially after what matt just described in the article).

    where i live, such a skype-in number is roughly $7 per month.

    sorry if this has been suggested before...

  20. Derek: Did you not see what I said about the internet connection in the studio?

  21. i saw that, but considering the number of shows where the phones didnt work at all vs. the number of shows where the live stream was lost (i assume the stream working is a sign that the internet connection didnt fail, which of course may be a wrong assumption), having a skype-in account might at least be a good "plan B" setup?

    not trying to argue here, just trying to find things that maybe havent been considered before. matts post that mentioned skype as a technically worthwhile but largely "theist-free" option sounded a bit to me like he wasnt aware of the option to call skype over a traditional phone number...of course i could be wrong, just thought id mention it :) in a "one improvised skype-in line is still better than no phones at all" kind of way, if you will...

  22. Yeah, when I mentioned Skype, I was thinking of the option to call in from the POTS phones so caller's wouldn't have to be on Skype, they'd just call from their regular phones.

    What I don't know is whether there's capability in Skype to have multiple people call in and be in the queue.

    For an Internet connection, my wife when she's at her office, uses her Android phone tethered with a USB cable to her PC, to give her Internet access through the 3G network. She says she doesn't notice any speed differences between that and using our network at home.

  23. I think you should perform an exorcism on it.

    (but go easy with the holy water)

  24. @curt: a problem with 3g tethering connections is that they, while having totally fine bandwidth (depending on where you are), usually have latencies that are quite a bit higher. doesnt really make much of a difference while youre surfing, but for VOIP its...well, now that i think about it, id still say its better than no phone calls at all. like an oldschool overseas call maybe :-)

    but i have to agree with MAtheist, that an excorcism is probably the most promising solution of all.

  25. OK, you guys are clearly struggling and you need my help. You've not thought of a bunch of things, I can tell. Just send me a direct message and I'll sort it all out for you.

    My main idea involves some pirate radio knowledge I obtained through the study of seminal classics like Pump Up The Volume and Sharktopus. Be aware that while it'll fix your phone problems, you may be required to occasionally fake a masturbatory session, and fend off attacks from various government projects that involve animal blending technologies. It's possible you'll have to kill some high school girls named Heather too, although I could be misremembering that.

  26. If Skype (or some other VoIP) has an ability to queue multiple incoming calls, then we'd definitely be interested. There will be a time (probably in the not too distant future) when ChannelAustin will shut down, and it would be nice to have the alternatives worked out in advance.

    John I.
    AETV crew

  27. @john:

    It costs, but I'm sure a blog post to raise donations would do the job considering how many people voted on those "best podcast/resource" polls.

  28. I wonder if something like this might help:
    or some of their other software.

    I have this fantasy that you folks could just walk in with your own system on a laptop plus a router box or something, plug it in and away you go, bypassing the studio's phone system altogether. Of course there's the internet question. And this may not help at all with feeding back in the studio anyway.
    I'm just being that guy with the unsolicited, inexpert tech help. *cringes Igor-like*. Have mercy. It's what we hunchbacks/geeks do.

  29. you lost me at 'mix-minus'! :)

  30. @matt - right back at ya, buddy

  31. I'm picturing Matt and Jeff jumping up and down on the desk hitting the audio board, like the computer scene in Zoolander.

  32. All your hard works seems to have paid off last Sunday. Excellent audio. Excellent show. It was even up for download soon thereafter. Ahhh, bliss

  33. 3G could maybe handle a single call under optimal conditions, but even then the latency would probably ruin the call.
    We should all pray for good LTE coverage in the area (praying helps. true story).
    I have done a bit of testing on LTE here i Norway (different frequencies, but basically the same tech) and the latency is almost as low as a good DSL. Bandwith should not be a problem, even just on OK coverage.
    The only real problem with LTE might be the data plans and maybe shared bw if there is a lot of other people using the same transmitter at the same time, but that's unlikely tho have any practical effect within these needs (as long as you have coverage in the first place).
    Combine this with something like and you have a mobile switchboard.
    It will cost you a bit of money and possibly quite a bit of work, but at least it would be yours and not the studios'.
    And yes, I am fully aware of the irony in focusing my entire comment on giving advice when complaining and stupid advice was the thing that made you post this in the first place :p
    That being said: Keep up the good work. Most of us understand that you do what is possible to make thing go as smoothly as circumstances allow.

  34. At the risk of coming across as one who wants to complain about the quality of the end product that is either broadcast, or on offer via a download (the latter being all that is available to me), the problem that I guess I understand the least is the feedback problem.

    When people use the word "feedback", it can mean a lot of things. It can be used to describe obnoxious noises being created by speakers & microphones, or it can also mean perfectly clear audio that is being fed (mixed) accidentally into another signal.

    I'm not an audio engineer, and I've never used a mixing desk, but I do understand that as a general rule of thumb, you're asking for trouble whenever you have a microphone anywhere near a speaker in the same room. I've noticed, whilst watching previous episodes, that occasionally one of the hosts will ask for an adjustment on the speaker volume from which the caller's voices can be heard. I assume that this is NOT the same audio "stream" as viewers of the program hear, but one that comes directly from the phone. (I'm assuming the audio that viewers hear is mixed in to the stream at the mixing desk, so that levels may be controlled, etc).

    If this is the case, then I would think that this is one possible cause of noxious noises heard by viewers.

    As I haven't seen all episodes, I have no idea if the idea may have been attempted, but if I may be so bold, I would suggest that the hosts try using ear pieces of some kind to hear the caller on the phone. This would, I would think, eliminate the possibility of direct feedback between the telephone speaker in the studio, and the hosts' microphones... IF that is one of the potential causes of feedback.

    Just trying to help. Best of luck, and thanks for all your efforts in bringing the show to those beyond the city of Austin.

    Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia


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