For most engineers, building a showcase studio can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I've been lucky to be involved in a couple of them during my broadcast endeavors, but my last project was the biggest to date and will probably be the biggest of my career.
Production 1 has a clear view into the main studio and the desk where Tom Joyner sits.
Joyner''s desk as seen from the performance/guest area.
The view from the big chair. Joyner has clear sight lines to production 1 and the control room (right) with the performance area to the far left.
Close-up of the Wheatstone talent turrets with GP-8 and GP-16 panels for control of headphone and studio monitor feeds, a GP-4 for Joyner''s mic logic and a GP-3 for his headphones and volume control.
The technical operations center houses the racks with computers, clocks, router, phone hybrids and transmission equipment. Each rack has a Powerware 3KVA UPS and extra battery pack.
The voice-over booth has three Heil PR 40 mics and Aphex 230 mic processors.
The voice-over booth has three Heil PR 40 mics and Aphex 230 mic processors.
Production 2, centered around a Wheatstone G-6 with the Audio Vault, Pro Tools and DAW screens, faces into the voice over booth.
The TJMS control room is built around the Wheatstone G-9. The Vox Pro, Audio Vault, Stac and other auxiliary equipment are naturally within easy reach of the operator.
The Tom Joyner Morning Show has been housed at ABC Radio Networks in Dallas since it became a syndicated morning show about 14 years ago. The studio it occupied had been its most current home for about the last 10 years. After that much time in one studio, it was time for something new. The old studio was holding up great but the show had outgrown it.
When Joyner formed Reach Media to be the new parent company for his show, he made the decision to build a true showcase studio. It would be state-of-the-art, open, comfortable and most of all functional.
The layout was unique due to the shape of the space. The performance area (main talk studio) is triangular-shaped with a space at the end that becomes the performance area when live performances are scheduled. Tom's custom-built desk is centered in the right angle corner of the room with direct line of sight to the three critical areas of the studios. Those areas are the control room, call screeners and the on-air production room.
The performance area was designed with the idea that at some point in the future Joyner may want to create segments for his TV show from the studio. The extra-high ceilings can support a lighting grid. Because the TV aspect was a proposed future upgrade, we retained a theatrical consult to provide some minimal planning for the light grid and potential sight lines for cameras. Our intent was to not get backed into a corner in the future.
The center of attention
Joyner's desk is the centerpiece of the room. Sitting on a slightly raised platform, he has clear sight to the entire room, and the producers and call screeners can see him over guests and other cast members seated around the desk.
The desk was custom built by a local millwork shop. The wood is bird's eye maple and the top is Avonite. Joyner is seated in the middle of a semi-circle with four monitors in front of him as well as controls for studio monitor selection, headphone selection and remote starts for the Audio Vault playback. The selectors and remote starts are handled through Wheatstone GP-8 and GP-16 IP-based router controllers. At just over 12 feet in diameter, the counter provides more than enough space for the electronics on the surface and still provides the show room to spread out.
At the heart of the show is Joyner's interaction with the public. An Audion Labs Voxpro is used to record all the phone calls for immediate playback. The calls are exported to the Audio Vault so that while one call is playing, Joyner can take another call. Operating in tandem with the Voxpro is the call screener system.
The screening functions are handled through a Web-based interface embedded in the Comrex Stac system. Joyner has a dedicated monitor from the back of the Stac while everyone else logs into the Web interface when needed. Because this is a Web application, more than two people can access it at the time. This allows the producers to track where Joyner is going next with the phones.
Also on Joyner's desk is a duplicate of the on-air Audio Vault screen. This allows him to see the log and make changes on the fly so that he doesn't have to communicate every change to the producers.
At the back end of the host desk on each side is an equipment rack that holds mic processing, amplifiers and KVM switchers. A Wheatstone satellite cage is housed here as an input/output device for audio and control. Middle Atlantic security covers with smoked Plexiglas ensure that the equipment is kept out of reach but the cool factor of the lights shows through. The entire inside of the arc around Joyner's chair opens completely to allow full access for wiring.
The center of the system
The master control room is focused on the Wheatstone G9 surface with a satellite cage. This room has the ability to stand-alone should the router fail. With 28 faders the G9 is nearly loaded. While it might not seem necessary for that many faders in today's studios, the number of people, remote feeds and Audio Vault feeds that are going on at any given time makes having that many faders a requirement.
The surface rests on furniture built by Studio Technologies with Corian counter tops. An equipment pod on each end of the console houses the most frequently used equipment including CD players, CD-RW, DAT and yes, a cassette deck. With the amount of archive material that the show has from its long run, keeping the older formats around is necessary. However, there are no reel-to-reel decks.
At the other end of the console, the pod holds three Telos Zephyr Xstreams and the Eventide BD-600E delay. An ESE timer connected to a Broadcast Tools SRC-8III provides timing information from the closures that are sent to the affiliates to trip their automation systems.
The production rooms are nearly identical. Wheatstone G6 surfaces with eight faders share center stage with a Mac-based Pro Tools HD system for editing. Each room also has the ability to access the same studio phone lines as the main studio through their own Comrex Stac system. Each room also has its own Audio Vault system. A voice-over booth complements the second production room.
Most studio complexes today are centered around two main systems: the router/console system and the audio storage system. This facility has a third system that is critical, the KVM switch. The Raritan Paragon II system controls all of our keyboards, video and mouse functions. This allows instant reconfiguration of monitor placement and redundancy of monitors and functions. Only a couple of dedicated monitors exist in the facility for Pro Tools and the Comrex Stac.
The center of the facility
The tech center ties everything together and houses the entire Audio Vault system as well as the Wheatstone Bridge. For redundancy, the Audio Vault inputs and outputs are split with half of each room's complement of I/O running directly into the room to the Wheatstone satellite cage, while the other half enters the router in the tech center.
Because we deal with numerous signals coming and going, we use a wide variety of remote equipment. This assists us in being as flexible as possible to assist affiliates when they need an alternate feed should they have satellite reception problems. Codecs from Telos, Musicam, Comrex and Tieline are all available in various POTS and ISDN modes.
Without something to tie all this equipment together it would all be nice to look at but really kind of useless. For this, I went with Radio Systems Studio Hub+. I've used CAT-5 wiring a couple of times in the past and had good luck with it. I've heard the presentations from wire and cable manufacturers on the benefits of using it for audio. Meanwhile, having been educated in an analog world I still had my doubts even though they were extremely small.
My doubts were soon laid to rest once we started installing Studio Hub. It plugged together and worked well. I chose to use the pre-built trunk cables from Radio Systems but instead of using the connectors on both ends, we punched the tech center end down to custom fit the cables. Because I had to order the Studio Hub parts before our final cable paths were in place the lengths were in question. Ordering them all one length allowed us to keep the cables dressed in the furniture and use the factory installed connectors in the tight areas under the furniture but still dressing the cables in to a custom length and punching them down to the Studio Hub panels on the back wall of the tech center. It also allowed us to get to runs from each cable with minimal excess cable.
The patch panels make quick work of cross connecting sources and destinations. The biggest lesson learned with Studio Hub — and it was something that I already knew but forgot just once — is that you cannot run any unbalanced source through it. When you do it you'll hear it and you'll know where it comes from right away.
My only other issue with Studio Hub is that no matter how you plan, the cross connect cables are always either too short or too long. Short is easy to fix but it always seems to be fixed into the too long category. Be prepared to have excess cable to deal with. Extra long service loops and wire duct are helpful in hiding the excess.
Centered on the affiliates
Because we support 115 to 120 affiliates at any given time, being on the air is critical. Redundancy was added wherever possible and more is planned. Each equipment rack in the tech center has a 3kVA Powerware UPS with an extra battery module. The control room also has one in the room. In the next couple of months we'll be installing a generator that will be able to carry the entire facility.
The Audio Vault features dual redundant servers and 3.2TB of storage to cover the years of archive material that we have at hand. All audio going into the Audio Vault is in real time and is linear. Unfortunately in today's world linear audio is not always possible. With the proliferation of MP3 audio and the vast number of free or inexpensive audio editing software packages it is difficult to control a lot of source material. By keeping the Audio Vault linear at least we can control content we create. The music library was dubbed in real time to correct for level and channel differences where appropriate.
Since moving into the new studio in January we've suffered from massive growing pains. Being in a studio for 10 years under the care of a team of highly talented engineers and then picking up and moving to a brand new studio under the care of a single person has caused some serious retooling of the show from behind the scenes.
Adapting to the new hardware, new software, new facility and making the overall break from “the way we did it” has been one of the biggest tasks undertaken. Keeping our growth as transparent to the listener as possible while keeping our affiliate family happy has always been one of the first and foremost thoughts on our minds. Not only was this a new studio, it was a new concept in a router-based facility, a new audio storage system (we did not use Audio Vault in our ABC studio) and new consoles.
Having a documented plan for what we thought would be best moving forward made changes easier as we discovered how to best implement the technology. As a result, the studios we built represent the plan we devised.
The other key factor in a successful move is staff training. We went through several weeks of working with the hardware and software to make sure that it all worked as needed. In addition, we made sure that our staff knew what all the new knobs and buttons could do for them as well as learning a whole new nomenclature and thought process in respect to how a router works. There are still days when the functionality of the facility is not fully appreciated or used but those days are getting to be few and far between.
Every build out provides a learning experience. Technology is changing so rapidly that the way you did it a couple of years ago may not be the best way or even be possible today. One thing that has not changed is that adequate planning is still the key ingredient to a project. It's important to have a plan, document the plan and try to stick to the plan. Changes will occur but having a road map makes the changes easier to implement.
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Kramer is director of engineering for Reach Media/Tom Joyner Morning Show, Dallas.
Kevin Travell, Merriman and Associates, Dallas, TX
Mike Martin, Martin Ringle, Dallas, TX
Mark Genfan, Acoustic Spaces, Martindale, TX
Schuler Shook, Dallas, TX/Chicago, IL
Joyner Studio Equipment list
Audion Labs Voxpro
Broadcast Electronics Audio Vault
Broadcast Tools SRC-8III, PBE, WVRC-8
CDQ 220 Prima
Comrex Matrix, STAC
Digidesign Pro Tools HD
Harris Intraplex T1, WorldFeed Panel
Heil PR 20, PR 30, PR 40, PL-2T booms, SM-2 shock mounts, DT-1/WM-1
Henry Digistor, Matchbox-HD, Micromixer
Moseley Starlink T1
OMT Imediatouch Imedialogger
Powerware 9125 UPS
Radio Systems Studio Hub+
Raritan Paragon II KVM Switch
Studio Technologies furniture (production and master control)
Tascam CD-01U, CD-RW901
Telos Zephyr Xstream
Tieline Imix G3
Wheatstone Bridge Router, G6 G9