BBC Radio Gets a Facelift
     

Exterior of the new Broadcasting House and new East Wing.
LONDON — The British Broadcasting Corporation operates a number of radio and TV networks throughout the U.K. The jewel in the BBC’s crown is Broadcasting House, once described as “that elegant stone battleship sailing proudly down Regent Street” — a reference to its striking architecture and imposing edifice. But time moves on.

Built in 1932 (a decade after the BBC was founded), Broadcasting House was considered to be in dire need of repair by the late 1990s. So the decision was made to close BH, and transform it into an all-digital broadcast center for the 21st century.

Over the past 10 years, Broadcasting House has undergone extensive redevelopment, seeing the addition of a major new extension and new East Wing — now known as The Peel Wing, in memory of the late John Peel, the highly-popular disc jockey.

The striking 860,000 square foot structure now provides digital-capable facilities for network broadcast and global staff working within the BBC’s TV, radio and World Service news and online services.

Challenges

At the heart of the new building is a large, open-plan newsroom and production area beneath an eight-story atrium, with acres of glass as the dominant architectural feature. “We have restored our original home and expanded it to create the largest live broadcast center ever,” said former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson just after the new building was opened.

The complex contains six TV studios and 140 acoustic spaces, as well as specially conceived zones for discussion and interaction.

But the numerous glass surfaces, which provide an open, airy atmosphere with excellent sight lines between newsroom staff on various floors, posed a number of acoustical challenges. The floor that houses BBC World Service’s news preparation areas and on-air studios — recently relocated from its long-time home in nearby Bush House — contains a variety of different-sized production and air studios designed by London-based Munro Associates.

As Andy Munro, the firm’s founder and chief designer, recalls, “We were given the task of developing a completely modular studio format that could be positioned anywhere in a standard office environment without placing demands on the building’s complex infrastructure; the construction equivalent, if you will, of ‘plug-and-play’ radio.”

The large open-plan BBC News Room within the eight-story atrium.

The BBC management expressed a strong preference for an “open, visually connected structure that was originally described to me as ‘studios without walls,’” he said.

Because Munro Associates was tasked with building a total of 30 studio areas in just six months, he opted for a modular construction technique. “Several companies offer interlocking, pod-type constructions but none of them could achieve the sound insulation and complete transparency that, from the start, was the client brief,” the seasoned designer continued.

“The only option was a completely new design from the ground up. It was also decided to build several prototypes and test every element of the structure before going into full production.”

In addition to several standalone areas, a total of 18 larger facilities are built into clusters of two and three studios with integral control systems that allow them to function independently or interact with one another to accommodate different program formats.

Two main design obstacles immediately presented themselves: sound insulation and acoustic conditioning. “These are difficult to perfect at the best of times,” Munro acknowledged, “but we had to achieve broadcast quality in a room with all glass walls, glass doors and without physical support from the main building.”

His solution was to construct a rigid floor platform with sufficient strength to support a steel frame that contains sealed-glass panels for the surrounding walls. “Ceiling panels would be locked into place by jacking them up to the underside of the frame beams, which allowed access to the various pipes and cabling located in the main ceiling voids.”

 
A look at one of the New Broadcasting House’s Studer-equipped on-air studios.

To avoid sound transmission into the production spaces from the surrounding newsrooms and control centers, each modular structure was floated on anti-vibration mounts.

For ventilation, a plenum system pulls cool air from the ceiling and circulates it within the space. “The main building has the chilled-beam ceiling with a water supply temperature of 61 degrees Fahrenheit that mixes incoming fresh air and ambient air to give an inflow to the glass boxes of around 65 degrees,” he said.

“We expect the rooms to work at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with a heat load of the equipment and bodies being 400–700 watts. Since that means we have to pull in enough air to give the required cooling effect, our fan speed can be varied accordingly. Fan noise is the limiting factor and we designed our plenums to reduce this to NR25.”

Because most of the heat-producing equipment racks are located outside each studio, Munro said, the heat load of each room is no more than the same space occupied by the news teams. “So the net demand on the building is unchanged. To install these studios with no gain in energy demand was an achievement of which we are particularly proud.”

The Munro Associates-designed ‘sausages’ hanging to absorb sound and create an even, diffused sound.

To balance the acoustic performance of each room and achieve “neutrality” without impacting the available views into or out of the studio areas, Munro came up with an innovative solution. “We opted to use trapezoid geometry,” he said, “whereby all the internal reflections are guided to a single row of hanging ‘sausages’ that have very high absorption. They also hang inside the room and so absorb reflections back from the glass, as well as the initial impact.”

The result, Munro reports, is a “very even, diffused sound with a RT60 of less than 0.2 seconds.”

Audio monitoring is handled by Dynaudio BM5A systems.

Enhanced flexibility was a design criterion for the new space, Munro noted, “accomplished by transforming dark cellular offices of the past into open plan workspaces with creative links nurtured by the close proximity of production teams to studios.”

Workflow

The current workflow for radio material produced and aired throughout the new complex is completely digital, with content capable of being repurposed for different listening audiences, including broadcasting, podcasting and beyond.

The BBC purchased Studer OnAir 3000 Modulo digital control surfaces and supporting racks for the radio areas, using various I/O and fader configurations that match the complexity of the tasks being undertaken within a self-op facility, for example, or in larger studios that are laid out with a separate control room for engineer-assist programming.

In line with current BBC equipment policy, the radio studios also include VCS Dira audio editing and automated playback systems, plus Prism Sound SADiE and Avid Pro Tools digital audio workstations. Various elements of the flexible VCS Dira automation, including newsroom and on-air productions, are integrated using the MOS — Media Object Server — protocol.

The original Broadcasting House’s ‘stone battleship’ façade. The building was built in 1932, a decade after the BBC’s founding.

Communications between production areas, BBC master control and the central lines and circuits control desk is provided by interlinked Delec Oratis intercom systems; talkback between control rooms and studios is based on modular Studer-supplied panels. The dira! system is also integrated with ENPS, the BBC’s main production tool for radio journalists, so that audio as well as text items appear in ENPS-generated running orders that are displayed in real time on each studio’s VCS playout terminal.

“We have cooperated with VCS [now SciSys] on a number of projects in the past, and we fully expect this collaboration to continue,” said Graham Boswell, Prism Sound’s sales director. “Both VCS and SADiE are focused on productivity; this makes our product ranges such a natural fit. We are also looking at ways in which we can meet future requirements for broadcasters, [including] support for metadata propagation.”

According to Oliver Giese from VCS’ projects department: “SADiE digital audio workstations and the LRX2 digital audio mixers have long been the mainstay of the broadcast community, thanks to their editing and location recording capabilities. SADiE is renowned for its speed and ease of use, making it ideal for radio drama production and news, where the emphasis is on a quick turnaround.”

All production and air studios feature a programmable intelligent display system from U.K.-based systems integrator IPE that uses conventional Ethernet LAN/WAN links to connect desktop IDS control touchscreens, in addition to a number of large screen displays throughout the complex. IP-based table lamps also provide status alerts, while other panels handle remote infrared control for studio TVs via the touchscreens.

The BBC’s Radio 1 pop music channel operates various studios and a live performance space — The Live Lounge — on the eighth floor of the new building, in which other floors also house the World Service and BBC News. IPE Systems equipped the new Munro-designed glass studios used by World Service and the BBC’s domestic news output with five more traditionally constructed general purpose studios and the six on-air studios shared between Radio 1 and its digital twin 1Xtra and two Newsbeat studios.

Interestingly, to ensure sound compatibility between recording channels and air studios throughout its radio services, and to reduce the costs of spares inventory, the BBC uses only three types of vocal microphone: Neumann KM 184 and AKG C414, plus the Neumann U 47 for Radio 1 DJs.

To ensure adequate sound isolation in the glass studios between the open plan newsroom and the smaller production areas that lack a separate sound lock, Munro sourced a novel door-closure system with dual-pane glass. “We specified cam locks that pull the door firmly into the frame and provide a full acoustic seal. We also specified longer door handles to provide easy access to handicapped staff and guests in wheelchairs.” The design offers between 40 dB and 47 dB of sound isolation, the designer said.

And to alert staff of the current status of each production area, large tricolor LED panels are illuminated above each cubicle. “Blue/white indicates that the area is powered,” Munro explained, “while amber indicates that it is ready for transmission, and red that the studio is live to air.” IDS DMX interfaces control the LED lighting.

Although Munro Acoustic’s “glass boxes,” as they have become known by BBC staff, are used at Broadcasting House for pre-records and on-air use, other applications are envisioned. “Their overriding advantage is mobility,” Munro conceded. “Any one room can be moved in a few days, and can be clustered together to form any type of audio-critical room in less than a week. The [modular studio design] can turn any standard office place into a creative production environment without blocking light, or altering the aesthetic design of a high-specification atrium space like the new Broadcasting House.”

Munro readily admits that “cost and performance are always relative,” and his BBC designs were slightly more expensive than conventional drywall construction. However, “given the flexibility and reuse possibilities they are actually very cost-effective. In fact, we have received a lot of interest in this new approach, with several broadcasters around the world expressing interest in our design concept. When they compare the pro and cons of our modular design vs. alternate solutions, many of them consider that our approach matches both their immediate demands as well as offering enhanced flexibility and future expansion.”

Mel Lambert is principal of Media&Marketing, a Los Angeles-based consulting service. Reach him at mel.lambert@mediaandmarketing.com. Thanks to John Sullivan, strand manager (audio), Major Projects Infrastructure, BBC, for providing access to the new facilities and providing the images that accompany this article.


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