Cris Alexander On Technology Disconnect

Cris AlexanderYou know that big disconnect where you have new technology on the way in and old technology on the way out, and a budget that doesn’t quite cover it?

We’ve all experienced awkward technology transitions. But there are some engineers, like Cris Alexander, the DOE for Crawford Broadcasting, who seem to manage these better than most. Cris has been using Wheatstone consoles and network systems since at least 2005, when he purchased our TDM router with G-6 consoles. He’s been known to get a budget to stretch like taffy across five major markets and several decades of technology.

We asked him for a few tips and got back these useful Cris-isms:

Reuse, recycle, reclaim. His solution for the big disconnect between existing TDM technology and newer IP audio networking is classic green economics: bring the most dated studios up to current technology using network hardware that can be repurposed.

Until this past fall, the three production studios for the Denver cluster were all analog. Updating these to new Wheatstone surfaces with WheatNet-IP audio network was a no-brainer. But deciding how to connect them to the four on-air studios and the newsroom that would remain with TDM routing for another five years required some strategy. “We thought about using a MADI card to bridge the WheatNet-IP with the TDM router in the interim, but we’d never be able to get the useful life out of it,” he said.

Instead of MADI, Cris tied the two systems together using the I/O in a standard BLADE access unit that could be reassigned to another studio or part of the network once the facility went AoIP throughout. “MADI for us was life limited, whereas the (WheatNet-IP) BLADE I/O unit could bridge the two easily and cost-effectively, and still serve a useful life after we converted everything to WheatNet-IP,” he explained.

Extend the life of what you have. Cris isn’t in any rush to replace the cluster’s Wheatstone TDM Gibraltar network, however. “It still works and looks like new, is in excellent condition and has years left on it,” he said of this TDM workhorse that remains in the four main studios and newsroom. Just recently he replaced the hard drives on the routing system, which reset the depreciation clock back to almost new and will give him at least another five years of useful service out of the system -- or more. “Actually, we could probably keep this system for another ten years,” he added.

Get same in upgrades. His TDM routed studios have G-6 console surfaces. When it came time to upgrade the production studios to WheatNet-IP, he looked for – and found – the IP equivalent that would give his talent the same feel and function they were used to in the G-6 console. “The E-6s were very similar and we even got the classic style E-6 that matched the appearance of the G-6s. It makes all the difference in bringing together the facility,” he said.

But get the best. In almost all cases it is best to go with the latest generation of equipment if you can afford it, according to Cris. For high-availability access points in the new AoIP network, he went with WheatNet-IP BLADE-3 I/O access units rather than the second-generation equivalent in order to gain a few helpful features that will reduce acquisition costs in the long run. For example, while second generation BLADEs had removed outboard DAs from the balance sheet because of built-in utility mixers, stepping up to third-generation BLADEs at certain access points gave him this, plus audio processing at these access points that will eliminate outboard processing in many cases – and contribute to a better sound overall.

Incidentally, for the access points that use second-generation WheatNet-IP BLADEs, Cris made sure to upgrade their CPU software in order to squeeze every ounce of performance and usability possible from these I/O units.

Look ahead for any disconnects down the road. This is where product design and technology standards in general can make a difference. For example, Cris likes that Wheatstone’s WheatNet-IP BLADE-3 I/O units are AES67 compatible, a standard that Wheatstone engineers helped ratify in 2013 as part of an industry effort to provide interoperability between systems and equipment. “That’s just another thing that helps future-proof our radio stations,” commented Cris.

Once you’ve perfected your approach, duplicate it. Cris tests and perfects new technology transitions at the group’s Denver cluster, where he’s located, and then rolls out the proven results to Crawford’s four other clusters in major markets. There are several new BLADEs and E-6 control surfaces on the way to him as we write this, all of which will be used to upgrade Crawford stations in Detroit, Birmingham, Chicago and Los Angeles.

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