Building the new while maintaining the old: MPR rebuilds

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Building the new while maintaining the old: MPR rebuilds

Jan 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Doug Thompson

New studios. It sounds like a lot of work, but what an opportunity. When Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) first considered expanding its building, the first thing that came to mind was all of the work it would take to replace studios that were already working pretty well � or were they? The possibilities then began to surface: we could fix all those things that we didn't like about the present studios and incorporate the things we've learned about studio construction since building them. We could take advantage of new and innovative technologies to accommodate program changes much easier and faster. We could even free ourselves from all of that old unused wire that was somehow never removed when it was no longer needed.

There are seven control rooms like this one in the new facility.

Each production studio can accommodate two people. There are 10 of these studios in the new MPR facility.

In early 2003, the new building plan was evolving to the point where MPR engineering began looking into how we would build and outfit the new facility. The organization decided to add on to our existing building, which introduced some real challenges by maintaining the live on-air facility while constructing studios at the same time and in the same place. This had the advantage of saving us time because we did not have to trek across town to work on the new facility.

It was easy to see that managing a project of this magnitude was going to be a time- and resource-consuming task. We decided to appoint one of our own staff as the studio project leader so that we not only had someone already familiar with our operation to pull the necessary resources together, but also to track the many facets of the project to keep it on time and on budget.

Our project leader first established a studio design group that included participants from multiple departments, providing a variety of input and viewpoints so that we would accurately assess the design requirements. The next task was to develop a project job list and timeline, breaking it down into manageable tasks and establishing dependencies so that we could identify high risk areas. Risk was defined as a higher level of uncertainty about the amount of time a particular job might take, the amount of money it might cost and the lack of knowledge that we already possessed about the task or technology. By beginning the high-risk parts of the project early, we could better anticipate and recover from events that did not go the way we expected.

How much space?

One of the planning issues that received a fair amount of attention was deciding on the size of the studios. Our present on-air studios were a bit tight (constrained by the location of the floor columns), and our production studios were about the right size but not laid out well for on-air work. We decided to hire a space planning consultant to help us. Northeastern Communication Concepts in New York helped us size the rooms and layout the furniture, based on information gained from interviews with the people who would use them. The rooms were also sized to work acoustically well.

The studio design group then studied many of the console/router systems that were available so we could make an informed decision. We sent requests for proposals to a number of equipment vendors and then matched the requirements we collected internally with the products offered. From the responses, we chose four manufacturers to come to MPR and give a presentation to our staffs on their systems. We diagrammed each system so we knew what was needed to meet our requirements, using each particular type of equipment. From the on-site demonstrations and questions that we asked we eventually narrowed the field to a finalist. This was not an easy task because we found several different and acceptable architectures that would serve our needs.

Based on our research, we focused on a system that none of us had seen before, the Axia Livewire system, which distributes audio via IP. We favored this technology because it gave us more flexibility in how we designed our system layout, better growth potential and offered a number of solutions for related parts of the project like house monitoring and feeding audio to locations other than studios.

Our senior design engineer then began the arduous task of diagramming our current systems so that the new designs could work harmoniously with the existing infrastructure that we intended to keep. Then we began building the transition plan that we would need to keep our four full-time services and multiple nationally distributed programs live and on-air during the project. Also, with a well-laid plan, we were able to give clear direction to the outside labor we hired to help us. The diagrams and drawings we prepared helped them come up to speed quickly and their time was well spent getting tasks completed without a lot of hand-holding.

Coordinated effort

Next was the job of coordinating with the building construction group so that we were not in each other's way, or holding each other up. We were fortunate to have hired an accommodating contractor who worked with us every step of the way � and he communicated well too. This proved to be an important aspect of the project, because even though we planned everything, things varied from what we had on paper. Because of the good relationship with the builder we were able to quickly work through issues that came up and move on to the next task.

Studio-to-studio wiring is primarily CAT-6e cable, which was installed by the same contractor who installed the computer network and phone wiring in the building. The contractor terminated the cables and tested them for us so that we could make the cross-connections. The Axia system requires far less actual wiring than with non-router-based systems, so more of our time was spent programming the audio input and output nodes. Axia helped with this task, and after several programming sessions, our staff was pretty good at the system setup. We intended from the start that we would be involved in setting up the Axia network because we would have to maintain it. This process resulted in something of a hands-on school in our own facility.

The Axia system has proven to be flexible and adaptable. We have worked closely with Axia to fine-tune the Element console, and in the process we were able to have the company develop some valuable features for us. For example, we use a ready-take permissioning system to switch studios when various program services need to change locations or when we need to combine staff (at night for instance). We are able to handle this from within the control surface, making it much simpler than using outboard add-on systems. We also needed a way to send EAS tests from the active studio to the correct program feeds. Axia helped us once again with a one-button method that is smart enough to know which studio the test is coming from and to which services it is to be broadcast.

Necessity of invention

I mentioned earlier that we wanted to incorporate some innovative ideas where it made sense to do so. One idea began from the realization of how many discrete clocks and timers we would need. We decided to display the information as a series of counters on a video screen mounted in the studios where everyone could see it. We then realized that we had other information that the announcer needed to see, so we built various messaging capabilities into the displays as well. Added to those needs were the building entrance door cameras and even cable TV, and we had just created what we now call the multi-image display. This has become one of the focal points in the studios because of the amount of information we are able to display in one location.

In the past, MPR has used an RF-based, in-house monitoring system that delivered multi-channel audio to each desk via dedicated coax. This was replaced by Axia's Iplay, which delivers full-bandwidth, on-demand audio to each desktop via the computer network that is already in place.

The next step for the facility will be to transition the operation from playing audio from CDs to a computer audio storage and playback system.

In retrospect, we're confident that the decisions we made throughout this project related to the equipment and systems we chose to use were well informed. That is saying a lot after close to three years of dreaming, planning, wiring and trouble-shooting. We initially felt that we may have been spending more time than we should seeking advice from and running options past people who would be using the studios, but it has paid off with few surprises and an excited and embracing air staff.

One of the more valuable aspects of the project that contributed to its success was the great cooperation and contribution between various departments within MPR. Our IT department ironed out a lot of the tricky networking issues and helped us develop custom software for the multi-image displays, as well as integrated our phone system into the new Axia surfaces. Our operations department provided a wealth of practical and hands-on input into our designs and ergonomic layout, the testing and troubleshooting of our initial installations, the training of announcers and air staff and handled the moving and upgrading of our Pro Tools systems. Our programming department contributed to the initial planning sessions and worked its busy scheduled around our construction requirements so that we didn't interrupt any of the program services that we produce. And, our engineering department served as the hub for the planning, design, coordination and installation of the new studios, pulling together the necessary expertise and resources to bring this project to a successful close.

We will probably iron out minor bugs for a few more months, and then we expect the people that use the facilities to begin coming up even with more ideas for improving the operation as they become comfortable with their new tools and systems.

Equipment List

AKG K240 headphones
Amco FX series and CQ series racks
Axia Element surfaces and nodes
Belden Cable
Benchmark HP2 headphone amps
Clark Cable
Clearcom intercom
custom metal work by Wireworks
Denon DN-C680 CD players
Electro-Voice RE20 mics
Englewoodworks furniture
ESE ES-185A/12, ES-150, ES-289 Fanfare FT-1AP
Genelec 8020A,8030A,8040A,7050B,7060A
Heil mic booms
HHB 830+ CD-RW
Middle Atlantic rack panels and shelves
Moseley Starlink
Musicam Prima LT
NEC LCD displays (15", 32", 40")
Popless mic pop screens
Tascam CD450 CD players
Telos 2101 phone system
Telos Zephyr and Zephyr Xstream

Thompson is director of engineering for Minnesota Public Radio, St. Paul, MN.