Monday, January 15, 2007

Staying On-Air When No One's There - part 2

There's been some discussion lately on the listservs about automation systems, so I'm going to do something of a series paraphrasing those discussions. The first entry talked about Winamp Radio Scheduler, one of the better freeware solutions.

Next up on the list is 11software's JockeyPro solution. JockeyPro is not quite freeware, but it's very low cost: the software is $600, and a turnkey (complete hardware solution) runs from $1000 to $1300. You can also purchase a "light" version of JockeyPro called (appropriately enough) JockeyPro LT for $99. Separately, you can buy the VoiceTracker LT plugin for $50.

That's unique in my experience...I don't know any other automation system that has voicetracking capability for about $150. The price alone makes this an attractive option for many smaller operations.

Unfortunately, JockeyPro has some definite limitations. It can't handle very many file formats - WAV, MP3 and MP2 are pretty much it. Worse, there's a lot of reports that MP3's ripped with certain algorithms...notably the free (and common) LAME algorithm...will crash JockeyPro. Supposedly the Fraunhofer MP3 algorithm is safe, though...but of course you'll have to pay for that encoding algorithm and you'll have to screen your incoming MP3's very carefully.

The VoiceTracker LT plugin is also very limited; doesn't allow preview of the stuff in the playlist (which can make recording your voicetracking a little tricky) and apparently you can only record the actual voicetracks as 56k mono MP3 files...which is marginally sufficient but I'd prefer better audio quality (to survive cascading algorithms later in the airchain, like HD Radio). But it does have the advantages of a simple user interface, and it works.

One "bug" that's also a "feature" is how much work it takes to load each track into the JockeyPro libraries. You have to assign a genre and set incue/outcue points for each track. That can take a looooong time to set up if you've got a big music library. But at the same time, you really should be doing that work anyways. It's essential to making your automation sound good enough to mimic a live operator (a reasonable standard to set).

Now I mentioned this can be a $150 solution (not including hardware costs). So when it comes to support, you're getting what you pay for. That is, you don't get support. 11software is essentially a one-man operation (that happens to have two or three guys working there) and they don't have the greatest track record for support. I've heard several disappointing stories, and a few months ago I tried to download a trial version only to find their website was down. Understandable, except the site was down for several weeks. That's not so understandable. But again, and I want to stress this, you're getting what you pay for, and you're not paying much.

If your station has the consistent IT support to the point where you don't need to worry about support from 11software, then you're all set. If your station doesn't have any stable internal tech support (and you can't consider any student help as "stable"; they'll always graduate eventually) then I'd recommend investigating a solution that provides more tech support, such as BSI's Simian or Broadcast Electronics' AudioVault or Vault2...just to name two.

Back on the positive side of things, JockeyPro also comes with an inherent live-assist method of operation (DJ's manually playing music from your hard drive). It's pretty good overall, and includes a one-click-to-play "JockBox" that's ideal for often-used, short clips (less than 10-20 seconds). The only significant limitation on the live assist side is that it can only make use of one sound you have to manually mix things using the volume sliders within JockeyPro. That's mildly annoying, but I give JockeyPro a lot of credit for making it relatively easy to do; adding support for multiple sound cards would undoubtedly make it a lot more expensive.

Turnkey systems? Generally I recommend getting a turnkey system whenever possible. While technically you might be able to assemble your own hardware more cheaply, you probably aren't getting good hardware and it's a distinct possibility you'll get hardware that isn't as compatible as you need it to be with the software. After all, this is a mission critical system - not a place to skimp! Plus usually when you buy a company's hardware, you'll get better tech support.

BUT...of course there's a but...

But, I'm not sure I recommend 11software's turnkey systems; the specs aren't impressive and given 11software's reported issues with tech support, I'm not sure they're doing much more than buying the hardware and installing JockeyPro on it for you. You can do the same thing with Dell and get a much better 3-year warranty from Dell.

One thing I would recommend: is buying a high-capacity UPS/Battery Backup and also some external storage that's highly redudant. I'm a fan of LaCie products, so while I haven't used their "Two Big" standalone 500GB RAID array, I'd wager it's a pretty good product. GET TWO OF THEM...the 2nd RAID disk is an emergency backup, not your standby "protection". There are lots of handy little backup programs out there - I've heard SecondCopy is quite copy and a trial I demoed once worked excellently for me. Although at home I use SyncToy, a handy free mirroring utility from Microsoft...I think SecondCopy's probably more appropriate for a mission-critical operation, though.

Conclusion: JockeyPro is basically the next logical step up from Winamp Radio Scheduler, but mostly the same restrictions if you felt WRS wasn't for your station, JockeyPro probably isn't going to be for you either. If, however, you think WRS is for your station, but you really want either A: live-assist capabilities and/or B: some basic voicetracking, then Jockey Pro is an excellent option.

Not sure? Well, here's one basic criteria I'd base my judgment on: if you have a professional GM and perhaps a pro tech guy/engineer; someone who can help make sure all the students & volunteers stick to the overall music ingestion & management system you'll have to create...and also to deal with the inevitable tech support issues and to handle the additional tech knowledge you'll likely want to network the system and manage the storage systems...if you've got that, then JockeyPro is a great "real world teaching tool" because it's pretty easy for the basic DJ to use, and it does allow you to teach the concept of voicetracking. If you don't have those pros at the top to provide consistency and guidance (and a place to call when Murphy's Law hits) then I'd spend more money up front to get better tech support from the vendor.

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