Of Pizzas and Processors

Daniel vs_Air_Aura_2560 

By Daniel Hyatt (a/k/a Dangerous Dan), Director of Engineering, Jack FM 107.1 and Jammin' 101.5, Denver, CO.

In early 2013, I set out on a mission to make my Rhythmic A/C and Jack FM the loudest and most clear sounding stations in the market. Under normal circumstances this would be an easy task, accomplished by purchasing any one of the latest and greatest processors from any of the top brands, then making a few adjustments beyond a preset. However, I am in Denver where the loudness war never ended. This meant I had to have the ability to take things two steps further in loudness, while somehow preserving the integrity of music that spanned decades.

Like many of you reading this article, I am the Lone Ranger of engineering for my cluster. I have a trustworthy IT sidekick, fortunately. It was up to us to transmit nothing less than amazing audio. After nearly five months of testing, with input from management, program directors, air talent and a sample group of listeners, we found the perfect solution for our processing problems: the AirAura X3.

Ingredients of a Good Processor

The testing was broken down into a number of categories, including cool factor, learning curve and manipulation, audio quality/loudness and technical support. The winner in each category was without question the Vorsis AirAura.

Our first test was the "cool factor." The AirAura X3 nailed it with the Star Trek-ish background of the cosmos on the control screen and stack of graphic interface choices on the second screen. Yes, there are actually two screens on the face of the AirAura X3! The numerous choices in graphic display are actually test screens ranging from a 3-D plot of the audio spectrum to a loudness meter. Our staff jokingly gave the AirAura a 9.9 out of 10, as it's still missing the flames that shoot out when we hit the peak on the loudness meter.

The second test performed was "learning curve and ease of user manipulation to achieve a desired result." The test was performed without reading the manual or calling tech support for help. That was a bonus because, as we all know, in the real world, sometimes you're stuck on a mountaintop fending off snow, mythical creatures and sleep deprivation just to turn up the bass. After years of dealing with strange settings and trying to figure out what a delta-threshold-realignment mid-high-sample-enhancement-reducer knob did, it was a relief to know the AirAura X3 was designed with straightforward controls that appeal to anyone with a basic audio background. The front panel of the box provides basic setting controls to get you on the air and sounding good. An easy-to-digest and very realistic appearing GUI allows full control of all parameters any user will ever need to get the exact sound they want, and allows you to make those adjustments remotely, even from a man-cave while eating Chinese carryout.

The third test was titled "loud and clean, a.k.a. destroy the competition." In the past, I've had to rely on a rack of pre-processors to get the manipulation I really needed. With the AirAura X3, I have a complete toolbox of pre-processing, enhancement, equalization, compression and limiting at my fingertips. For a conservative approach on a format such as classical or jazz, a user can choose to bypass one or more stages of processing while keeping the 31 band limiter in line to retain complete control of peaks while providing listeners of HD and analog with an aural experience that is non-compromising of critical detail. For aggressive markets like ours, users can capitalize on all the horsepower under the hood.

No Burnt Pizzas Here

My personal approach to audio processing is to prepare it like a pizza, in which the assembly of ingredients in perfect fashion are like pre-processing and the baking stage is like the final processor. In short, all the effort has always gone into getting the audio sounding correct before the main processor, while using compression and limiting as a way to simply finish the product by producing loudness. With the AirAura X3, I have a complete pizzeria in one box, and the pizza never comes out burnt.

The four-band parametric EQ allows for a pre-processor style tweak to get the audio the way you want it to sound before the compression and limiting stages. Five bands of AGC, compression and stereo enhancement finish off the pre-processing stage. Both the AGC and compressor feature independent attack, release and threshold settings for each band. Back off controls and inter-band coupling adjustments are also available to allow minor, but often critical, adjustments for the AGC. The AirAura X3 features a stereo enhancement control that allows not only overall drive, but independent control of five enhancement bands. The enhancement section is a game changer that gives the user the ability to reach out and grab the listener through adjustment by format; it's not just an up and down knob.

The AirAura's 31-band limiting section sets it so far apart from the competition that to invest in anything else is simply a waste of money. Independent control of threshold, attack and release of each band, plus the ability to couple or decouple any of the 31 bands to each other will satisfy the most detailed engineer. The 31-control creates a listening experience in which every detail is heard. Gone are the days of a kick drum sounding like a bad exhaust pipe; mids and highs are open. After listening to the AirAura X3, you will hear instruments you've never heard in songs and detail in vocals that will make you feel as if you've pulled the cotton plugs from your ears.

An added detail to the limiting section is the Bass Tools. Much more than just an enhancer, the Bass Tools is an actual side chain bass control. One program director commented that he wanted more kick. He came back within minutes of our adjustment to the Bass Tools, commenting on how his factory stereo now sounds like he has a subwoofer and still sounds cleaner than any station on the dial.

Our final test was tech support. After listening to my processing theory, the Vorsis staff took time to explain different methods of adjusting settings that fit my approach. They took time to help adjust settings and even build presets to help me get started and moving in the right direction. Quite the refreshing change from past experiences with other manufacturers.

A colleague once told me, "The listener can turn up the volume, but they can't turn down the distortion." The days of choosing between loud or clean are over. The AirAura X3 is the Holy Grail of audio processing, so much so that it should have its own theme song in my opinion.

*Editor's note: In case you're wondering, we're told that Dan is called Dangerous Dan because of his turntable skills.



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