Submitting Demo Tapes to Radio Stations
A thorough study of the 'do's' and 'don'ts'.
Sending a demo tape to your local radio station only to have it rejected, and for no apparent reason, can prove a frustrating undertaking for any home recordist.
As Chief Engineer of Wiltshire Radio, Quentin Howard listens to many such tapes sent in for review, but invariably rejects the majority on technical quality, as simply being too poor to broadcast.
In an effort to help bands discover exactly what is expected of them, Quentin outlines the broadcast requirements which should be followed in order to increase the chances of radio airplay.
Having sweated buckets over the writing, bust a gut in the playing, spent a packet in the recording and writhed in ecstasy on the hearing, isn't it disappointing when you send the demo tape of your songs to the local radio station and nothing happens?
The reason nothing happens is likely to have nothing to do with the song, its lyrics, your playing or the musical taste of the radio station's Programme Controller. It is a fair bet that the technical quality of the recording let you down, which may sound crazy these days as most home studio equipment is better than professional equipment was 15 years ago, yet old records are still played. Unfortunately "Technical Quality" covers a multitude of sins, and it is the most subtle of points that will let you down.
So, let's look at where a demo tape can let you down on quality, how you can improve matters and how this will help persuade your local (or national) radio station to give you some airplay. First let's look at local radio in this country, the methods used to broadcast material, and why quality is so important.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to most people is that both national and local radio adopt virtually the same high technical standards, and that these are probably the best in the world. Local radio is not the 'poor relation' of the industry, in some cases it actually sets the standard that others follow. Of the two broadcasting administrations in the UK, the technical parameters of commercial radio are contained in a published document called The Code of Practice, or COP. The COP specifies the minimum standards that radio stations in the ILR network must achieve on a day to day basis and it covers all tape recorders, grams, cartridge players, radio links, landlines, microphones, loudspeakers, acoustic properties of studios etc. The COP forms part of the contractual agreement between the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the local radio station and it ensures that the technical quality of local radio will always be consistently high.
Another important point to remember is that radio in this country provides a dual service. AM broadcasts are transmitted on medium wave and the limiting factors of quality lie in the receivers everybody uses, coupled with a need to cram as many radio stations as possible into a limited wave band. AM radio will always sound dull compared to the other type of broadcasts on VHF bands. The FM system of transmission allows near perfect reproduction of broadcasts in stereo.
If you have the right equipment, it is possible to hear programmes which are indistinguishable from the original studio sound. It is because all radio stations in the UK broadcast on VHF as well as medium wave that the technical standards are set for the higher quality medium, ie. VHF Stereo, and by doing this the standards required for AM services are covered. Other countries run dual standards as some stations only broadcast an AM service which allows for a lower standard, and some countries have no standards at all. We tend to take radio for granted in this country, but if you have lived in some other countries the comparison is evident. The differences are similar in television. Compare TV here with some of the pictures we get from the States, particularly newsreel, then imagine that difference in radio.
Local radio is quite sophisticated, and in order to maintain its standard uses equipment at the top end of the market. Turntables cost around £1500 each, reel-to-reel tape recorders from £3000, cartridge (jingle machine) recorders come in at about £4000 a piece, and mixer consoles in studios run out about £15,000. Some stations spend more, some get away with less but the law of diminishing returns applies to equipment; spending twice as much on a tape recorder does not double the quality you get.
No radio station to my knowledge uses cassette machines for broadcasting, except for news gathering, and then it is dubbed onto standard tape. The reason for this is that hardly any cassette machine is capable of meeting the COP standards for tape recorders and maintaining it day in, day out.
Unfortunately, most demo tapes are submitted on cassette and for a station to broadcast it, a reel-to-reel transfer will have to be made. This is where most demos get the heave-ho as the cassette quality is usually appalling. So is it better to submit demos on reel-to-reel? Yes, is the short answer, but it isn't as simple as that. There are several reel-to-reel formats, all different, all non-compatible, and to make it easy for the radio station your demo reel must match their standard.
Whatever you do in submitting a demo, if it is a hassle for the radio station to get it on air, they probably won't bother!
Lesson 1, therefore, make it so easy for the radio station that they will fall over themselves to broadcast it. The easiest format is disc! It is definitely worth considering sending an acetate or lacquer for a special broadcast or competition. If you can't afford a small pressing run (and who can these days?), see if you can persuade a small local cutting plant to do you a lacquer using lower grade lacquers or get them to cut you a 7" on a reject 12" that was started but left the inside untouched. It may not be cheap, but the gimmick will impress the radio station. The lacquer cutting can be played quite a few times despite what you may have heard.
If you don't like the idea of a disc, go for reel-to-reel ¼ inch tape. This is the next most convenient format for radio stations to handle but their tape standards may not match yours.
For a start, radio stations use only one track format, called ½ track stereo. This means that the top half of the tape width carries the left channel and the bottom half carries the right. The full width of tape is used for the recording and the tape travels in one direction only. Tape speed is either 7½ or 15ips (19 or 38cms), and noise reduction like Dolby or dbx isn't used for broadcast tapes.
The other important standard is the equalisation. There are two widely used equalisation standards for tape, called NAB and IEC (or CCIR). Most recording studios use NAB, radio stations use IEC. However, many two track tape recorders have a switch to change the equalisation, so make sure that the radio station copy is to IEC rather than NAB standard.
We're not out of the woods yet, as many home studios use multitrack recorders which pack 4 or 8 tracks onto ¼ inch tape. It is tempting to mix down using a second multitrack machine, such as a 4 track as the master recorder, paralleling tracks to produce a quasi-two track master. It may be equally tempting to send a 4 or 8 track dub in as a demo tape too, but this doesn't make it easy for the radio station. They are unlikely to use a 4 or 8 track machine, and do not really want to bother with an unmixed multitrack.
If it does get broadcast on a conventional two track, some tracks will be badly mixed as there is no control, and some tracks won't be heard at all as the two track heads will not cover the 4 or 8 tracks equally. In addition, many ¼ inch tape multitracks use all sorts of odd equalisation and noise reduction techniques to pack the information into the limited space, and on replaying the tape on another machine, things can sound pretty horrible.
If you send a ¼ inch demo, make sure that it has been recorded on a ½ track stereo machine, not ¼ track (domestic standard). The ¼ track format is really a 4 track but uses two tracks in the other direction to economise on tape. When played on a ½ track machine, the two reverse tracks will be heard as well, but backwards.
Always use virgin tape for demos, or bulk erase it at least. Tape with other material recorded may not be fully erased by the heads of another machine as they might not line up exactly, or might be slightly narrower than the other machine. So, although your mastering machine replays the tape cleanly, another machine may pick up residual recordings from the previous machine and it will ruin your demo. The demo recording should be recorded at 7½ips or 15ips tape speed if you can afford the tape. Use standard play professional tape such as Ampex 406, not the fancy chrome types, or long play thinner tape. Standard play tape thickness is 1.5 mil. Tape record equalisation should be IEC or CCIR rather than NAB, so check your machine instructions, and switch out any noise reduction system. These may be great on your own machine, but are notoriously bad for compatibility between machines, and radio stations don't use them all that much.
There is one other major problem with demo tapes, called azimuth alignment. This problem applies to both reel and cassette recordings and warrants a piece on its own, so I'll deal with azimuth a bit later.
Assuming you have recorded the demo reel as close to how the radio station likes it as you can, don't ruin it by stuffing the tape in an envelope with a hand-written note. Presentation of the demo is just as important as the tape, and a little care will make all the difference.
If you are sending up to 30 minutes of material in at 7½ips, use a 7" plastic reel. These are easier to handle than 5" reels, but if the tape runs at 15ips, use a metal 10½" reel with NAB centre. The tape should be leadered properly. There is a standard colour code for leader tape, and in ILR stations it is as follows:
Start of tape: Red/white striped leader for stereo. Green leader for mono.
Bands between tracks: White leader.
End of Tape: Red leader.
Use about 2 yards of leader at the start of each song, as the station may cut the tape into tracks. Another useful aid is a burst of line-up tone on the tape at the front. Leader this tone track too and record about 30 seconds of 1kHz tone at 0 VU level, and if possible a burst of 10kHz tone and 100Hz tone too. This allows the station to line things up, and they may tell you if something is wrong with your machine.
The box in which you submit your tape should be clearly labelled with tape title, your name and address, each track title, duration, and enclose full publisher details too. State on the box the tape speed, IEC or NAB equalisation used, type of noise reduction if you have to use it at all, state none if none used, state also track format [eg. ½ (stereo)], brand of tape, and list the test tones, durations and recording levels if you put them on. Also stick a label onto the reel itself identifying the tape if it gets separated from its box. All this will take you a few minutes but makes all the difference when it arrives at the radio station. You can buy stick-on tape labels which are ready printed for this information, and it is a worthwhile investment.
If you can't run to a reel demo, the next best thing is a cassette. And, of course, there should be less of a problem with cassettes as they are all the same... aren't they?
Sorry, but they are far from 'the same', in fact there are more differences to contend with in cassettes than reel-to-reel tapes.
Cassettes were originally invented as a simple and relatively low quality recording method. Then the Hi-Fi brigade got hold of them and caused a good deal of work for manufacturers who attempted to squeeze the ultimate in quality onto the tiny cassettes. Now we have ferric tape, super ferric, chrome, ferrichrome, and metal tape types, Dolby B, Dolby C, dbx, ANRS, DNR... you name it, cassettes have it. Now there's two recording speeds, 4 track format and digital just around the comer to add to the confusion.
Thankfully, the accepted cassette standard is stereo at 1⅞ips tape speed, and if you send in a cassette demo, this is what will be expected. The problem as far as quality goes revolves around the multiplicity of formats for tape, noise reduction and the weakest link of all, the actual cassette itself.
As you won't get something for nothing in this world, don't expect a cassette to match reel-to-reel performance. It can't. In order to approach reel quality on a tape which runs at a quarter of the speed and uses tracks only 1mm wide, a number of trade-offs have had to be made. One is distortion and cassettes will distort much more readily than ¼ inch tape, so there is less room for error; noise is the other major trade-off which is countered by noise reduction systems which themselves introduce other problems.
Then there is the tape itself. Conventional tape proved to be too poor for cassette use so a range of new recording tapes has been developed, bringing with them more fancy and unconventional recording techniques and trade-offs. The big problem with these is that to work properly, the recording machines have to be aligned very precisely to match the tape being used, and every type of tape is different, as are similar tape types from different manufacturers. The potential for error is very great, made worse by the fact that domestic cassette recorders are never lined up accurately by the suppliers. A cassette recorded on one machine may sound terrible on an identical machine because all the errors between tapes, levels, noise reduction, equalisation, bias, azimuth, alignments etc., etc. are compounded to reduce the quality.
There is not a great deal you can do to improve cassette quality without completely re-aligning every cassette machine you use to a known standard, and ensuring that you stick to one format, tape type, noise reduction system and in effect create your own standard. Even then it probably will not match the radio station's cassette machines perfectly, as they will have done the same re-alignment process to their machines, but at least it will be closer.
For cassette demos, always use a top quality branded cassette. It doesn't have to be chrome or metal, any of the super-ferric well-known cassettes are excellent, if used properly. There is more chance of producing a bad recording using metal and chrome tapes because cassette machines are often aligned badly for these tapes.
Never use unbranded, bulk-packed or 'bargain offer' cassettes. The tape they contain is inferior and the mechanics of the cassette housing jam up easily. Maxell UD or TDK AD are typical of the better ferric tapes to use. Some demo studios will give you, or sell you, cassette copies of your master tape and will insist that theirs is a special 'studio quality cassette'. Studios will often buy-in bulk-packed, unmarked cassettes in quantity and these are wound with very basic tape of below average quality. They may tell you that it is Ampex Grand Master, which is a top grade tape available to cassette bulk packers, but check this with them very carefully.
Better still, insist on TDK, Maxell, BASF or any of the top labelled cassettes. Don't be fooled by the flash cassette machine the studio may have - the more knobs and bells it has on it, the more chance that the cassette can be recorded badly. The only practical way to check cassette quality is to take a demo cassette and try playing it on as many other machines as possible for compatibility. If it sounds below par on other good machines, take it back and try a different brand of cassette. This will give you some idea of how it will sound to the radio station. The same rules apply if you produce your own cassettes - try them on a variety of machines.
It is very easy to over-record cassettes, so watch the level indicators and keep out of the red. It is better to be slightly noisy than grossly distorted. You don't have to use noise reduction, but if you do, use Dolby B, or check with the radio station first to see if they prefer some other type. All noise reduction systems increase the chance of distortion and of losing out on high frequencies, so care must be taken when recording.
A good way to check a cassette is to play it back alongside the master tape from which it was recorded and switch from one to the other. This is called A/B comparison, and in an ideal world you shouldn't be able to tell the difference. Listen particularly for hi-hats and percussion as these give an indication of higher frequency recording. Listen for bass drum, tom-tom or bass guitar for clarity, as this will give an idea of distortion. Sibilance in a voice (the 'sss' sounds and 't' sounds made with the tongue and teeth) also shows distortion up clearly, and points out weaknesses in noise reduction systems. If the sibilants are clear, all is OK, but if they crack or sound 'lispy', you are probably recording at too high a level.
Presentation of the demo cassette to a radio station is as important as for reel-to-reel tapes. Label the cassette itself clearly using blank cut-outs which you can buy in specialist shops. These should be typed if possible with the name of the band and the number of tracks on the cassette. The noise reduction system used should be stated on the cassette too.
The inlay card may not be big enough to hold all the necessary details so cut out a longer one and fold it in the same manner as in music cassettes. Type, for preference, the information and include the band name, address, recording venue, noise reduction, recording date, titles of all tracks, their duration and full publishing details. It may be helpful to include some short bursts of test tones on the cassette, and an opening announcement to identify the cassette.
Never use C120 cassettes; they just snap, as the tape is too thin - the toughest are C60s. If you include written details, keep them brief and assume that they will be stuffed in the cassette case too, as handwritten scraps of paper will only get lost. Pack the cassette in a Jiffy bag, not a simple envelope and there is a better chance of the tape arriving in one piece.
There remains only one problem with all tapes sent into radio stations - Azimuth Alignment. For a tape to record or play back, it is essential that the heads are aligned so that the tape passes over them at exactly 90° to the minute pole gaps. If they are not, then high frequency response suffers quite dramatically and this problem gets worse the slower the tape speed, which adds to the problems facing cassettes.
To put the azimuth problem into perspective, imagine a cassette recorder is trying to play back a high frequency signal of 10kHz from both channels. If the head is mis-aligned, the signal will be reproduced by one channel slightly before the other. If you listen to this tape in mono, the two channels are combined and the effect of adding a signal to another identical signal slightly out of time is to start a cancelling effect (ie. you lose part of your signal). This cancellation would be totally effective on such a cassette at 10kHz if the angle of the head to the tape was 0.13° out of true. Heavy handed cleaning of a cassette head alone can move it by 2 or 3° so it is easy to see why cassettes are a problem when it comes to azimuth.
In a stereo system, this azimuth error is not apparent as the recording remains in stereo, and the only effect of this 'phase shifting' of the stereo signal is to alter the stereo image slightly, and it is unlikely that anyone could detect this shift anyway. However, radio stations broadcast in mono as well, in fact most people listen in mono, and it becomes critical to make sure that this azimuth error cancellation effect does not occur.
The audible effect of azimuth error depends on how bad it is, ranging from slight loss of high frequencies for mono listeners if the error is less than 0.07° in our example above, to a peculiar effect where there would be no transmission of signal at all at points around 2kHz, 4kHz, 8kHz and 16kHz, due to the nulling effects of an error of only ½ a degree in head alignment! If you want to hear what that sounds like, play a recording through a graphic equaliser and set the controls alternately high and low, and it will give you some idea of what your demo tape would sound like to most listeners through no fault of the radio station. Alternatively, fill your ears with wax, stuff the cassette player under a pillow and see if you like what you hear!
Azimuth misalignment is the biggest enemy of tapes and cassettes, and it is the most common problem with demos. Broadcasters always check for mono compatibility, and if the error is too great, the tape gets rejected.
The only way for a broadcaster to correct the error is to re-align his playback machine to match the azimuth of your recorder, and as this is a time consuming and skilled job, he won't do it. The answer lies with you, and unless all your machines are lined up to match the broadcasting standards, the best you can do is try a variety of tape recorders and play the tapes back on other machines, but press the mono button and listen to the effect on high frequencies, particularly the hi-hats, percussive instruments and sibilants in vocals, as already outlined.
The test tones on the front of a tape are there not only to establish recording levels, but to identify azimuth error. A broadcaster can look at the waveforms of the test tones on an oscilloscope and determine the amount of azimuth error, and may just tell you where the problem lies. The worst offenders for azimuth error are cassette machines and reel-to-reel demos that have been recorded on 4 track machines.
Remember too, that every machine will exhibit some azimuth error, and every time you dub from one to another, this error is increased, so check for mono compatibility at every stage once you have mixed down to stereo. This azimuth error exists on record heads as well as playback heads, so there is already likely to be some error in any 3 head machine. Don't try to correct this error unless you have the proper equipment including test tapes, oscilloscope, test set and the proper service manual. It is not a job for an amateur and poking around will make it worse, not better. Unfortunately, most tape recorder workshops do not align machines anything like carefully enough, so don't assume that an expensive service will cure all.
Next time you send in a demo and the radio station decides not to play it, don't blame them or their musical taste. Just remember that they are not in the business of broadcasting anything which is likely to let either them or you down. But, if you take the trouble to get it right, then they will take the trouble to broadcast it, unless, of course, their musical taste differs from yours, but that's another story...
Feature by Quentin Howard
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