Fragments of an informal History of Broadcasting
Recording at the BBC
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Carts and Darts
Tamil service signature tuneAlthough pressed gramophone records were unsuitable for general use in broadcasting, they did have a use for long-standing signature tunes. The practise of having a recognizable piece of music at the beginning and end of a programme had come into use in the 1930s, and was common by the late 1940s. The Overseas Service language broadcasts mostly had their own signature tunes, and 78rpm (and later LP) pressings provided the most convenient way of providing these. Of course it was always possible to put them on tape, but this was operationally less convenient.

However by the 1970s the cost of making the pressings, and the difficulty in changing signature tunes, was leading to tape being used: the practice of using 'stings' (short musical phrases used - often over-used - to punctuate a programme) was coming into fashion and was very much less convenient to handle on tape.

American radio stations had already faced this situation, coupled with the need for a single person to be able to present, play records and stings: here tapes would be impossible to operate. The solution was a tape cartridge with standard inch was fitted in a continuous loop. When a sting was recorded onto it, the machine placed a short burst of tone on a separate cue track, just before the actual recording: on playback, the machine played until it found this tone, stopping so that it was set up ready to go. The cartridge could easily be removed and replaced with another, so that it was quick and easy to select a sting and get it on air.

Cart machineThese came into use in the BBC World Service around 1990 (Radios 1 and 2 had already been using them for some time); the World Service was late in getting them because of the sheer size of the operation (with over 40 studios any change of equipment was bound to be a long process) - and indeed just as we were installing them I remember we had a visit from an American broadcaster who told us that his station was just ripping them out and replacing them with digital versions.

On the whole the cartridge - or 'cart' - format served us well. They were reliable - the only problem was that as the tape wore out there was a tendency for the machine to miss the tone and go right round again. The intention of their original design was that each cart would contain only one sting: a number of producers went for carts with several stings in succession with the intention of reducing the number of changeovers. However, with this it was impossible to tell where you were, and if you played the cart to check it and found it was the item you wanted, you had to step round all the others - counting them carefully - and work back to the correct one. As you can imagine, this led to the wrong sting being played on many occasions.

Dart machineThe replacement method, installed several years later, got round all these problems. The ASC digital cart - rapidly abbreviated to 'dart' - used standard high-density floppy disks, then standard in all computers. They used a proprietary format (so they had to be formatted in the machine) and could record a moderate length of audio. More than one track could be recorded: the tracks could be titled, so that though you still had to step through them you could see what you were doing, and you didn't have to wait while it spooled through. This method was a vast operational improvement on the old carts, and was widely used not only for signature tunes and stings but also short inserts into programmes, such as excerpts from politicians' speeches, or other 'actuality'.

Zip cartridge and standard floppy diskThese worked well for us, but the next step turned out to be ill-advised. The machines stayed the same, but the disk-reading mechanism was changed to accomodate 'Zip' cartridges. These were invented by Iomega and intended to replace the 1.4MB floppy disk with more storage (in the days when 100MB seemed an awful lot of space). They would therefore store a lot more audio, and the operation was the same (though loading was slightly slower). However, Iomega had designed the format for moderate domestic use, not for the heavy duty required in broadcasting, and after a time the mechanisms and the cartridges started to give problems. Because of the usual delay in equipping the World Service spares became difficult to get, and we were stuck with them until the availability of proper digital systems.

CartwallDigital systems will be examined on the next page: the specific issue of stings was addressed by the 'Cartwall' section of RadioMan. Here all the stings for a programme could be loaded onto a screen (left) and accessed immediately either using a mouse in the traditional way or with a custom keypad: just hit the correct key and the sting would play. The selection of stings could be saved to be brought up whenever required, and it was straightforward to add new ones as necessary.

The development of digital recording and playout will be examined in the final page.
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