Facility Showcase, April 2010
As an internationally acclaimed producer and distributor of noncommercial news, talk and entertainment programming, NPR reaches a combined audience of 26.4 million listeners weekly. Member organizations operate 784 stations, and 117 public radio stations present NPR programming. In an effort to increase operating efficiencies while containing costs, NPR is in the midst of a dramatic multi-phase facility enhancement that places virtual console and audio networking technology at the forefront of the veritable radio station's operations. Designed to facilitate a high level of self operation for reporters and on-air talent, NPR deployed technology from Rastatt, Germany-based Lawo, with all sales and technical support coordinated through the company's North American offices in Toronto.
NPR's Interview Room features a Lawo Crystal core and dual touch-screen monitors for the user interface.
To a large extent, the upgrade revolved around Lawo's Crystal console and core, a Nova 17 router core, a Nova 73 HD router with VSM software, and VisTool software. By taking advantage of VisTool's programming and configuration capabilities (the software provides support for touch-screen displays, thereby enabling users to circumvent the complexity of learning signal flow on more conventional audio mixing consoles), NPR and Lawo were able to create an environment where users are largely self-sufficient in conducting interviews and producing content. The various interview and reporting facilities now revolve around touch-screen displays or small LCD switch panels with a minimum number of controls to simplify common tasks such as source selection, signal routing, level control and related functions. This virtual console technology -- in conjunction with Lawo's Nova 17 and Nova73 HD audio networking systems -- is dramatically affecting NPR's day-to-day activities.
Bud Aiello, NPR's director of engineering technology, is responsible for the design, development and implementation of the new systems. After an extensive review of NPR's previous production model, Aiello and his team designed an environment that makes use of virtual console technology. An interview room, a tracking room, six “phoner” booths and a remote San Francisco booth are all integrated with two administrative stations -- MCR (the master control room) and OPS (the news operations desk). Presently, the only rooms slated to have tactile, hardware-based faders are the newscast booths and production suites 3 and 4.
Bud Aiello, NPR director of engineering technology, finishing a system change.
"Our first installed system is called the Interview Room" Aiello explains. "Though not an on-air facility, this room utilizes a Lawo Crystal core and dual touch-screen monitors for the user interface. There are no physical push buttons. Here, a show host or a reporter touches the on-screen icons for his and a subject's microphones, or selects a phone interview. He or she also has the resources of the master control routing switcher and can communicate with anyone in any of NPR's remote locations around the world via IP, ISDN, satellite or other means of remote access."
In addition to input and output routing from NPR's production system, the operator is able to title cuts and start recording. Through the virtual console, the mix, mix minuses, and various feeds to the headphones and production system occur. The system judiciously applies compression and gain control to maintain consistent levels and prevent downstream overloads. A second component of the Interview Room is a producer area for logistically complicated interviews. Here, the producer can sit adjacent to the Interview Room and control the mix with a second touch screen.
"The challenge with the Interview Room was the process of creating all the necessary mix minuses to make this facility viable without a sophisticated mixing console," Aiello says. "The individuals using this type of room typically are not skilled console operators. With our new virtual system, this issue has been addressed and, in the process, a high level of self sufficiency is implemented."
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Facility Showcase, April 2010
Tracking Room/phone booths
Like the Interview Room, NPR's Tracking Room also utilizes a Lawo Crystal core, but with a Lawo KSC.LCD14P2 LCD switch panel as the user interface instead of the touch screen. The KSC14 is a 19" 1RU panel equipped with 14 tri-color LCD buttons and dual rotary encoders. Here, a reporter or newscaster can sit down in front of a mic and record cuts into the production system. If he needs to track and answer questions from an interview, he can play back the interview from the production system and talk/track in time with the previously recorded material.
Dennis Byrnes, NPR engineering services manager, and Engineer Bob Butcher discus Lawo Crystal programming.
NPR originally had five "phoner" booths being overhauled to incorporate Lawo's virtual console technology. "Several of these rooms have ISDN hardware," Aiello notes. "They were built using technology that hasn't worked as simply as we had originally envisioned. The equipment has not been user-friendly and the reporters are not equipped to address such issues. By moving to the virtual console setup, these shortcomings will be resolved. Because of the efficiency of the virtual systems, we will have six booths in the new configuration."
Utilizing two Lawo Nova 17 core routers as the system engine, the phoner booths are each outfitted with Lawo's KSC14 switch panels as opposed to the touch screens. The Lawo KSC switch panel is used for the selection of microphone, master control feed, hybrid, and IFB to MCR or OPS. These booths are configured so a reporter can enter the room, dial the phone number of the guest, and bring them up on a telephone hybrid while directing the conversation into the production system via the Nova 17 router. All the MCR router sources are available, if needed.
"We chose the Lawo KSC14 panel because of its LCD display," Aiello says. "We now have dynamic identification of the buttons and we can have multiple levels appear on the panel. The buttons change color for each function and there are two rotary encoders that are used for headphone and monitor level control. There are also buttons identified as MCR and OPS -- the two administrative locations in this system -- that serve as intercom to the respective locations. Unlike the touch screens, this arrangement provides a tactile interface to the virtual console."
John Ydsti, correspondent/host, conducts an ISDN interview in the Interview Room.
These systems are built on Lawo's Nova 17 digital routers for audio networking and are interconnected with MADI. Because of the routing capability within the Nova 17, these rooms are integrated into a common system and can easily include all the sources and destinations on the Master Control routing switcher.
The MCR and OPS both use Lawo's VisTool software to provide visual interfacing for the entire NPR system. Similarly, each station has VisTool oversight for the Interview, Tracking, all phoner booths, and the San Francisco booth via WAN-IP. This software enables the techs to have a picture of the virtual consoles on their display: all meters, knobs, etc. From these locations, technicians can make adjustments to connections and configure various room setups should users encounter difficulty. The technicians have the ability to route any source on the master control router to any designated station. The Lawo Nova 17 creates the mix minuses and mix, and sends the mix to the appropriate recorder or other destination.
"NPR's remote San Francisco booth is particularly noteworthy," Aiello explains. "The second system that we actually implemented was a field replacement for our production booth in the San Francisco office. I felt very confident with the Lawo systems -- enough so, that we utilized a Crystal core, integrated it in a small cabinet along with an ISDN codec, a phone hybrid, and a KSC panel, programmed everything and shipped it to San Francisco. Upon its arrival, the booth retrofit was completed -- including the connection to the NPR corporate IP network so that we can administer the system from Washington. As expected, it all worked flawlessly.
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Facility Showcase, April 2010
Phase two: automated rollovers and stream monitoring
As part of a planned second-phase facility enhancement, NPR is also on track to deploy a Lawo network audio/data routing system built around the company's Nova 73 HD large format router with L-S-B Virtual Studio Manager (VSM) software. Scheduled to be fully operational by Sept. 30, this is part of the Master Control Room application for centralized audio and streaming. The system will provide full apology, DSP, routing, and metering from multiple sources in Washington and other NPR content sources.
NPR Interview Room host screen shot
Under its current mode of operation, NPR in Washington provides show rollovers to the various time zones across the country from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily to accommodate NPR's various programs. The new Lawo/VSM system will complete the automation of this programming operation. The blueprint calls for roughly 125 sources to be interconnected to this system, including the output of automation systems, live feeds for shows, backup feeds and a variety of additional feeds. Through the apology system in the VSM software, the automated system continuously monitors the primary feed routed to a specific output. If that feed ceases, there is a planned sequence of four backup levels that the system can choose from to maintain the feed's continuity to its defined destination.
"The purpose of this system will be to improve the level of continuous programming to member stations under total automation," Aiello says. "In addition to developing programming to member stations, we also develop several 24/7 automated streams for satellite delivery to Europe, Armed Forces Radio and TV, three channels for Sirius Satellite Radio, cable systems in Japan, and Radio Berlin, an FM broadcast frequency in Berlin, Germany programmed from Washington, DC. This new system will handle all of this with an initial capability of 48 automated streams."
Light at the end of the tunnel
Robert Jackson, NPR tracking room engineer supervisor, checks the operation of the room.
Aiello comments on NPR's selection of Lawo audio and networking technology: "In August of 2009, we created a test project and invited several equipment manufacturers to present their solutions. Lawo was chosen because of the company's user interface design and its custom solution capabilities. We were very concerned about being able to operate in a manner that we deemed best for what we need to accomplish as opposed to trying to work within the constraints of a less-versatile or customizable environment. With Lawo's VisTool software, we can custom design the system and its user interface for simplicity and friendly ergonomic use. Lawo provided the best interface, flexible networking capabilities, the highest level of customization, and an extremely capable and mature product solution. Virtually all of the user traps associated with our previous equipment have been eliminated."
Dennis Byrnes and his Engineering Services Unit (ES), including Bob Butcher, Dennis Coll, plus the rest of ES team assembled the hardware, wired it and made it work. Shawn Fox provided guidance through the senior management level and production flow models.
While the mixing/routing system is the heart of the installation, additional equipment is part of the NPR installation.
Belden wire and cable
Black Box Network Services Servswitch ACU6001A
Cisco Systems ESW24
Dalet 5.1 audio production system
DB Engineering custom headphone control interface
Digigram 824, 924
Henry Engineering USB Match Plus
JBL Control 1+
Lawo Crystal, Nova 17, Nova 73
Radio Design Labs STA-2
Studio Technology studio cabinetry
Telos Systems One
Tyco/Elo Touch Screen Monitors ET1515L
Maycock is the owner of Mountaincrest Communications, Downey, CA.