Don't Settle for McRadio

Publish date:

Don't Settle for McRadio

Aug 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Gary Blau

Studio G, the air studio for 101.5 Lite FM

Studio A, the air studio for Majic 102.7

Control Room D, the control room for 790 the Ticket

Production Studio P is used by 790 the Ticket

Production Studio C serves Majic 102.7

This pull-out bracket from Mager Systems allows easy access to the PCs.

The punch blocks are mounted in a cabinet that is easy to access.

The facility for the Lincoln Financial Group's Miami stations was an older one, originally built in 1980. At the time it was intended to house two stations, but now handles three with its eight sub-divided studios. Built the old fashioned way with Bob Hansen acoustic design, floating floors, box-within-a-box isolation, redundant HVAC and isolated UPS tech power, it was done right. The wiring was multi-pair cables and 66 punch blocks. The consoles were the original Ward-Beck analog models and were suffering from Schadow switch disease among other geriatric maladies. They served us well, but now they were maintenance money pits. The time had come for a makeover.

We would not be able to simply replace everything all at once because the cost would be prohibitive and we still needed to operate the stations in the same space in the meantime. So, we embarked on a plan to upgrade all the rooms over a few years, renovating one or two rooms per year. This allowed us to focus on each room with a great deal of individual attention without disrupting current operations or strangling the life out of our capital budget. We began in 2000 and finished the last of eight rooms in December 2005.

A few key decisions were made early in the process. The first decision related to style and function. The second was determining the best technical choice for the heart of daily operations: the audio consoles. We began the process by identifying which rooms had the greater need and priority in refurbishment. This would drive our schedule during the next few years. An important aspect of this was involving the programming and operations departments in the process. When the station across the hall is getting its room rebuilt, the other guy is going to feel neglected unless he knows what the big picture plan is because he had a hand in crafting it.

The initial steps

Before making equipment decisions, we had to determine how the newly rebuilt rooms should work, feel and look. Our three stations are proud of the fact that they each have strong identities in the market, are active in the community and are staffed with actual live people producing live radio. In an age where canned, automated McRadio is produced in look-alike radio factories seems to be the norm, we wanted to emphasize what we think is not only a unique feel-good experience for our listeners and employees, but also a competitive advantage.

We decided to craft each room by how the room would be used most effectively by our teammates who would have to work in them. The end result was eight rooms with eight layouts, color schemes and personalities. All the rooms had to be able to function as an on-air or production studio if the future required it. Some are stand-up; some are sit-down. All have style, but function came first.

Central to the design process was involving a top-notch custom studio cabinet and furniture manufacturer throughout the multi-year process. We worked closely with Mager Systems in Phoenix, AZ, to develop each room's furniture design and layout, and solve some of the challenges that appeared. We also chose Mager's furniture because of the lumber components and build quality, and solid surface countertops that can be maintained into the future against scratches, unlike laminate.

Senior Engineer John Morris, who built the original facility in 1980, worked in Autocad LT to design the various room layouts, then worked with Mager and our operations personnel to be certain we had all the details covered. Morris' planning at this stage was vital to ensure fatal flaws were not overlooked and that the rooms would satisfy the end users.

Throughout the past 20 years a lot of equipment was replaced as technology changed, but the old furniture remained, looking shabby and not optimized for new needs. This is typical in that the last item considered in a studio project, as well as the last item that's ever replaced, always seems to be the furniture. Changing studio furniture is usually a disruptive undertaking so most people put it off or just live with what they have. Over time this tends to devolve into a less than attractive, sometimes even embarrassing, facility. Usually all the design effort and money is already spent on hardware with furniture being almost an afterthough. By then the decision is reduced to a commodity pricing exercise.

The fact is, you're going to be living with your studio furniture longer than almost every piece of equipment in the room, including the console. It's the one item that's going to receive the greatest abuse and still be expected to perform and look good. Suffice it to say that consideration of furniture design and construction is just as important as any other technical item in a facility.

Once we had our room functions and needs decided we looked at equipment. When the project began in 2000 the console market was still in transition. Router-based consoles were just coming out and choice was limited to a small number of models. We wanted a console that could be used as a stand-alone as well as integrate with a router. We did not want or need to rebuild the entire audio infrastructure of the facility at the same time. We wanted to be able to incorporate such a router-based backbone at our leisure in the future.

For our first rooms we chose the Wheatstone D-5000 for its simplicity of operation and capability of working with the then-new router whenever we were ready for it. Midway through our multi-year process a corporate decision was made to standardize on Harris consoles, causing us to finish the remaining projects with five more Harris BMX Digital consoles. This decision worked in our favor as we ended up with extremely capable consoles, and because we had not yet purchased a router to replace our trusty SAS 32000 there was no harm done. When the need arises we can easily incorporate the Harris Vistamax router system.

A little ingenuity

Because we had to fit everything into existing building space and room sizes, we had to create a few solutions. One is the need for significant numbers of computers in the studios. Our main distribution frame (MDF) room is a small one built before PCs were invented and when the biggest items to accommodate were patch bays and distribution amplifiers. There simply was no room to install dozens of PCs in a centralized fashion as is the common approach today.

In each studio we had to fit four to six computers for the Mediatouch automation, Vox Pro and Pro Tools audio editing, Metro Source news, Telos call screening, weather radar and utility PCs for Web browsing. Mager designed custom computer cabinets in each room, inventing pull-out rotating mounting brackets that allow full access to all computer connections for servicing. This eliminates the need to crawl into a cabinet to reach the rear of the computer. We also routed a tap of low-velocity cool air from each room's air conditioning feed into the cabinets to keep the machines at reasonable temperatures. Otherwise, placing multiple machines into a closed cabinet will eventually cause thermal problems. This is especially important with today's hot-running CPUs that will overheat quickly if not ventilated.

Some of the other unique things that Mager created for us were custom mic boom risers that mount into Ergotron mounting bases, custom solid-surface console end bells, and contactless touch switch guest mic controls built into the solid-surface counters.

We also standardized on a shallow, wall-mounted, floor-to-ceiling wiring and punch block cabinet for each room. This lets older guys with bad knees easily work on the wiring in each room without resorting to crawling into a cabinet or taking Oxycontin. All of the console inputs and outputs, including control wiring, are brought out to high density Bix blocks, and all cross connects are completed inside the cabinet, making future changes easy.

The final room, finished last December, was the Majic 102.7 air studio, which we wanted to make special for the people who patiently waited until last to get theirs. Because the station regularly has guests during the Rick Shaw morning show, we had to provide talent and guest space, as well as make the room more functional for the rest of the day. Our solution was a motorized turret for the morning show that houses the telephone and headphone controls, clock and timer. This can be lowered for the rest of the day to reclaim needed countertop space.

The end result of our slow but steady project is we're in good shape for the next decade and beyond with studios that are unique, functional, versatile, stylish and built like a tank. It's a facility with a strong sense of personality that we are proud of.

Blau is director of engineering for Lincoln Financial Group's Miami stations. Photos by William P. Gaines.

Equipment List

360 System Shortcut, Instant Replay
Bix blocks
Digidesign Digi-002 Pro Tools LE
E-V RE20
Harris BMX Digital
HHB CDR-850Plus
Mager Systems studio furniture and cabinets
Marantz PMD570
Neumann U87 condenser mics
OMT Imedialogger, Imediatouch
Rode Broadcaster
SAS 32000 intercom and router
Sony CDR-W88
Tascam CD-RW2000
Telos Profiler, Direct Interface Module, Delta, Zephyr Xstream
Tieline Commander G3 POTS/IP codecs
Vox Pro v4
Wheatstone D5000