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Top Technologists Discuss Studio Design

Technical executives offer advice on how to best modernize one’s radio studio

Radio World spoke to leading technologists from private and public broadcasters regarding what it takes to design and build an efficient, cost-effective radio studio. Those who replied to the questions below include Mirosław Ostrowski, technical director, Radio Wrocław in Poland; Gerry Pyne, general manager, Queensland Remote Aboriginal Media (QRAM), Australia; Gary Kline, owner and CEO, Kline Consulting Group, United States; Frédéric Bourgeais, technical director of Alouette, France; and Eugenio La Teana, head of Research & Development at RTL 102.5, Italy.

Radio World: What should the modern studio have?
Mirosław Ostrowski: There are many important questions to consider before building a studio. For example, what is the main purpose of the studio; will the studio be connected or separated from control room; how many audio sources are necessary; will listeners be broadcast live; how many mics do you need in the studio/control room; how many mix-minus feeds will you need to manage telephone hybrid/hybrids, OB vans, outside transmission links, inter-studio connections; do you plan to stream audio/video signals; should the intercom system to be in touch with the central control room and other studios; is signaling (red, green, yellow, blue lamps) required; where will the PCs be located? And of course, what’s the budget for the project?

Gerry Pyne: A modern studio should have a workspace designed to meet the workflow needs of the organization for which it serves. This will vary according to the type of use the studio will get, and in today’s industry there tends to be more production and voice tracking style activities and less live on-air work done in studios. Good lighting and acoustics are key. Of equal importance is the overall experience the studio provides for staff and guests. General layout needs to take into account good ergonomics, and increasingly we need to consider visual attributes such as sight lines between the operator and people sitting as various positions around the studio. Video/web cameras continue to play an increasing role in the modern radio / production studio. The equipment no longer needs to be a dominant feature of the console desk furniture, and this leaves more scope for imaginative design and room to layout documents and other things during studio sessions.

Gary Kline: It should have unparalleled capability to send and receive every form of modern media known today as well as be ready for the future. Skype, FB live, streaming, terrestrial, YouTube, Twitter, POTS, SIP, mobile device APP, iTunes, etc. The modern studio should be ready to accommodate written (i.e.; text, WhatsApp) or any audio/video method of communication that today’s audience uses often to interact. For sure, the modern studio should have cameras and easy-to-use integration to operate them. If it takes more than a few seconds to get a Skype guest on the air, then that is too long. There should also be an excellent social media aggregation tool in the studio with direct tie-in to, again, Skype, FB, Twitter, POTS, etc. One main command center to monitor and control all forms of communication. You should have many mix-minus busses and they should be automatic so every one local or remote and hear and speak to one another flawlessly.

Frédéric Bourgeais: For Alouette it is about the perfect mix between the two worlds: analog and digital. Analog because it gives us a clear, warm sound. Digital because music is all digitized today.

Eugenio La Teana: We believe multiplatform and cross media distribution are a distinctive part of our station identity. Therefore the studio has to be designed and equipped in order to properly allow and ease our multi-faceted distribution strategy. RTL 102.5 pioneered the visual radio experience many years ago in Europe, and we are continuously developing our visual concept, so the studio has to be flexible, in order to suit our evolving needs. The essence of the radio is being “live,” so the studio must be capable of instantaneously adapting to anything that happens: our studio is a large room, with cinema-grade video projectors picturing each studio wall with images capable to enrich the message we deliver. In the case of breaking news, we can immediately have graphics, archive material and any live video feed from the internet available for projection to the studio walls, surrounding the news presenters and giving the audience the capability to both understand how the situation is evolving, as well as to point out specific details on the “screens.”

Mirosław Ostrowski is technical director, Radio Wrocław in Poland.

Radio World: How should it be designed?
Ostrowski: Technical directors should listen carefully to the future users of the equipment and follow up with them during the design process. Ergonomics is very important. Everything should be within reach. Sound is the most important thing in the studio and in radio. It is therefore imperative that there are no “noisy” devices like computers or fans nearby. They should be installed behind the studio walls but as close as possible to shorten cable connections. For the connection of PC keyboards, screens and mouse devices, use KVM extenders to send all the signals via one Ethernet cable or fiber. To save space, it’s useful to use a keyboard switch for the control of four or more PCs. Tablets can also serve as a small mixing console, and the clock, loudness meter or intercom are just one click away. We use the DHD touchscreen module. In addition, studio furniture should combine aesthetics and functionality, cables should be easily accessible and special attention should be paid to the glass window separating the studio and control room. It shouldn’t be mounted vertically for acoustical reasons and it’s better to tilt the glass so dust doesn’t accumulate, while considering the reflection of light, which could impede visual communication between the studio talent and the sound engineer.

Pyne: The studio should be designed with a primary focus on the user experience rather than past practice of featuring a large and complex looking console at the center of the room. Technology advancements have opened up new frontiers previously not possible in studio design and today’s studio can be a far more inviting environment for workers and guests. Flexibility in design is also increased through the flexibility that new technology brings to the industry. Studios no longer need to consider space for a range of traditional items from the past such as CD players, reel to reels, cart machines, turntables, etc. This can all vanish into the digital realm in a modern studio design.

Kline: It should be designed with the highest standards in quality and engineering practice. This should include acoustics inside the room, acoustics between rooms, lighting (especially for visual radio), ergonomics including low-profile mics and low-profile computer monitors, and well-planned layout with plenty of room for talent and guests. Don’t forget about clocks, monitors and other interior design choices. In fact, hire an interior designer if your budget permits. You can build a studio that looks so much different and cooler than the old standard four walls with sound panels and a few track lights overhead — today’s modern studio should incorporate much more. Look at ESPN or the BBC or TV5. When you show your studio on TV (or someone’s computer or phone screen) it should look really cool and well integrated into the frame. Stand out from the rest. There are some amazing radio studios doing this today. Capital Radio in London and Nash Radio in Nashville are a couple of examples.

Frédéric Bourgeais is technical director of Alouette in France.

Bourgeais: Our station is situated near the Atlantic coast so we designed our studios like a beautiful, wooden ship, with some nice curves and maple and cherry wood. This provides quite the atmosphere and generally very good acoustics, which is very important. Our goal is to provide a warm welcome to our guests and that they feel comfortable when broadcasting live from our studios and working with our team.

La Teana: Radio is basically “live,” and can tell the listeners about facts in the very moment things are happening, but it is also “alive,” with people at the core of it. Therefore our studio is a large open space: the main desk for the presenters stays in the center of the studio. At the back, we have the desk for the news presenters and the technical room is inside the studio, with nothing in the middle: We believe the visual and, in general, any non-verbal interaction between the on air talents and news reporters, as well as between the presenters and studio engineers, can enrich the overall message our station delivers to our listeners. We chose to remove all the chairs: Presenters stand in front of the mics, they are free to move and walk across the studio. Our voice reflects the movements of our body, so this way our presenters, being free to move and “gesticulate” as if they were talking to their friends (Italians love to gesticulate, you know), can deliver a richer message through their voice. In addition, through our visual feed, their movements and their look, enrich the listening experience.

Radio World: What are your “go-to” choices for equipment?
Ostrowski: There are many great, cost-effective products out there. It’s important to test certain products in the context of one’s studio because it needs to fit into the feel and tradition of that particular station and also be accepted by station staff. Sometimes you have to make compromises because a product may fill most but not all requirements. Most stations are on a tight budget but you should be prepared to pay the necessary amount for essential gear, such as a console, which you’ll be using for many years. As a public radio station, we are obligated to follow regulations when purchasing gear. It’s not always easy to provide a detailed description of our requirements to our superiors without stating the brand names, etc.

Gerry Pyne, general manager, Queensland Remote Aboriginal Media (QRAM), Australia.

Pyne: Our policy is to transition to an all IP digital network, so any time we upgrade a studio or build a new facility we only look at IP solutions. In the Black Star Network we have made the choice of basing systems on the Wheatstone/Wheatnet platform. This extends to accessories and other equipment and where possible we will use Wheatnet-compatible equipment as a first choice and fall back to AES67-compliant equipment. Having a network where every piece of equipment can be configured to communicate over the wire to every other item is very desirable and allows for a highly flexible and resilient system. In our case it is also important to use equipment that can be remotely monitored via SNMP and web GUI. Our network playout system is based on RCS Zetta, GSelector and Aquira, and these products all integrate well with each other and with the Wheatnet platform.

Kline: That depends on the purpose for the studio (on-air, production, video, voiceover booth, newsroom, etc.). Generally, though, I always go for an AoIP console with a fully IP-based workflow and infrastructure. No punch blocks, very few XLRs, and loads of redundancy and backups. For phones today, always SIP/VOIP with excellent call screening software and — as stated above — tie in to a central social media platform for total control. I always work with trusted vendors and manufacturers who have taken care of me in the past and who I know will be there if there are problems, questions or very tight deadlines.

Bourgeais: We look for quality and reliability when purchasing gear. We are not here to reinvent the job, but to find the right products for our station.

La Teana: We don’t have a “must.” First we develop our vision for a specific improvement or completely new design. Then we look for equipment capable of turning our vision into reality. Sometimes, we are unable to find the right product to fit our needs from manufacturers of radio broadcast gear, so we also search for products outside the radio realm, for example by looking toward the cinema industry. What really matters though is our ability to successfully implement our vision. The equipment follows the concept, so we don’t have “mandatory” nor “forbidden” choices. We have to turn ideas and projects into reality, so nobody cares if we need to design and create a “new device” which was not previously available. One thing is certain however, we always opt for professional-grade equipment.

Radio World: Where do you start? At the console and work from there?
Ostrowski: We first define our requirements. In a digital world, there are various philosophies about how to construct and manage audio consoles. If you already have one and can configure it, then it won’t be easy to change it for something new. For us, we prefer to let our talented engineers manage the digital consoles we already have. We are sticking to our DHD boards. We broadcast three 24/7 channels and need to reconfigure the mixing consoles quite often following the changes and requirements in the program itself and sometimes in the way our talents or DJs run their shows. Before making a decision about the console you have to know how it should cooperate with the rest — playout systems, signaling, intercoms, other studios, OB vans, telephone hybrids, mics, PCs, headphones and video systems. Today’s consoles are flexible and configurable, but they sometimes use different technologies (AoIP, Dante, AES/EBU, MADI, etc.). Protocols such as Ember+ facilitate communication between different devices and it’s important to be sure that the console can interoperate easily with your other studio gear.

Pyne: We always start by looking at the required workflows for the studio. From there we work and design the hardware to match rather than allow the technology to determine the overall design and workflow.

Kline: Typically, yes. But it really depends on the size of the facility that’s being built and what the purpose is. I think it might be more accurate to say I always start with a customer needs analysis and then work from there. I know that I am going to use an AoIP console so it’s more a matter of what size and model will go in each room. How many inputs/outputs are needed overall in the plant and what special needs are required. For example, will the facility be running a sports network with many feeds or will it be internationally focused with different music beds fed to different locations? And if so, are there copyright issues and do I need to plan for that. Or perhaps, there will be live broadcast video and radio coming from the same room — so that may require some thought before you get to console selection. No matter what though, it’s going to be IP, and everything I purchase will support that somehow.

Bourgeais: It depends on one’s budget. But for us the mixing desk is fundamental. Therefore, we start from there and build the infrastructure around that. Generally, we have the same mixing desk in every studio, each with different options.

La Teana: Unlike TV, radio can’t rely on a different studio for each show. Typically, in radio a single studio has to fit all the possible genres and kinds of programs being produced. So we start from the center of the studio. Radio has to be at the heart of everything, so the desk for the on-air talents stays in the middle of the studio. The rest, including technical equipment, stays around the core of radio, so along the walls of the studio.

Radio World: How do you handle room and acoustics design?
Ostrowski: The goal is to get the best sound possible for a radio program so good acoustics are necessary. I suggest employing an experienced company to handle your studio acoustics. It’s more expensive but your listeners and your staff will appreciate a good audio atmosphere. If you have a very limited budget then there may be no question of acoustics. What I would suggest in a case like that is to use low-sensitivity, but still good, dynamic mics, such as the Shure SM7, and speak into them from a close range. That solution is not ideal however, particularly with guests or when you have a few people in the studio. If at all possible, consider acoustics in the design. Also, don’t forget about acoustical isolation and check for holes in your studio walls. And remember, noise can be transferred by floors and sneak through windows. You could “wall up” the window, but the best, albeit expensive solution is to build the studio as a box in the box. Some larger broadcasters do this for their most important studios. This type of setup is particularly useful for control rooms and studios, which are being used for sound recording purposes.

Pyne: This will depend on the location and design of the environment the studio is being built. Main considerations come down to the protection of the studio from outside noise intrusion and mechanical noise through building structure, flooring, ceilings etc. and then the internal treatment that ensures the right “vocal sound” is achieved. Other considerations include air conditioning and equipment noise within the studio.

Gary Kline is owner and CEO of U.S.-based Kline Consulting Group.

Kline: It’s a multi-person and multi-stage process. For starters, I work with the client to determine required STC/noise ratings and evaluate cost versus benefit. In a perfect world, we would build to Abbey Road standards, but how many stations need that, or can afford it? Some can. Many can’t. So, everything starts with a spec on acoustic requirements. Then, I work with an architect to design those acoustics into the room(s). Over the years I have developed construction standards, which are my baseline for any studio build. I usually then hire an acoustical engineer (I have a few go to professionals I have worked with before) and then review the drawings for any tweaks. I’ve even been known to hire an acoustician to bring in test equipment to measure vibrations and natural resonance frequencies in base building construction before finalizing the design. We also choose (together) things like studio doors with specific sound ratings, ceiling material, floor construction (floating in certain cases), sound panels, etc. In this process we also review the chosen elements for look and feel so that the studio colors, fabrics and other elements remain congruent. The GC or construction supervisor is also part of the process so no one is left out. This is especially true as you evaluate costs versus benefits (as mentioned before).

Bourgeais: We use ABSO, a specialized acoustic company based in Paris.

La Teana: Room design must provide the highest flexibility. We decided to go minimal as regards furniture and chose to not install “fixed” furniture but to get the maximum in terms of visual impact using video projectors to give the walls a different look, depending on programs being broadcast. This lets us immediately change the shape and the look of the studio, or even of a single part of it. We outsource acoustic design, and we supervise their activities.

Radio World: Who handles the installation?
Ostrowski: In general, for the installation of equipment in the studio and the back room, we carry out most of the installations ourselves. This allows us to know the configuration in its deepest details. We also know the habits of our station staff and the expectations of our editorial staff. Fortunately, we have some really good engineers in house who are curious, capable and willing to implement the newest technologies for us. When it comes to complicated installations such as that of virtual disk arrays, virtual platforms for servers or data back-up systems or multi-modular production and playout systems, we use outside resources with highly specialized engineers. This is also a way for our engineers to accumulate more knowledge so they can manage the systems after the installation is complete. Often times, training courses are needed to run the ICT infrastructure, which evolve incredibly quickly. We are on air 24/7 so there is no room for issues. I would say, that it is imperative to have experienced engineering staff under a radio broadcaster’s roof if possible.

Pyne: In our network this is generally handled internally.

Kline: Installation of equipment is usually a mix of the local engineer, local contract engineers/integrators and possibly engineers from within the same company but from another market. I only work with people I trust and usually bring in subject matter experts for various aspects of the installation. For example, I may bring in IT gurus to help with router and firewall programming, broadcast IT gurus for AoIP setup and design, video experts for visual radio, etc. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have excellent IT staff working on the project, before, during, and after. Bad IT design will lead to problems — sometimes in the future at the worst time and can be confusing to solve. Most everything in a modern studio is IP based so it must be done well and done efficiently. Different IT experts have different opinions sometimes about how something should be handled (VLANs, PORT assignments, etc.). There may not be one single way to do something but there are bad designs and implementation — avoid it. We’ve all been there — walked into a plant where we started shaking our heads.

Bourgeais: Our in-house technicians manage this for our station.

La Teana: We design the overall installation plan, then we often work with third-party professionals to get the job done.

Radio World: Do you invest in staff training?
Ostrowski: Yes. When possible, our engineers visit manufacturers’ premises to learn more about their products and participate in training courses. This is especially necessary for the more complex equipment like mixing consoles, which need the user to configure everything. For less complicated gear, we depend on user manuals for the most part, or contact the manufacturer in the case of a specific issue. Our station also provides English-language courses for our employees. This helps them to understand documentation, which is usually in English, and also makes people, especially the older and more experienced ones, more open to contacts with the outside world.

Pyne: Staff training is very important to us and we do invest in external training provision for new systems and equipment wherever possible.

Kline: Some. It depends on the skill level of the staff, in addition to other factors. If a new automation system is part of the install, which nobody has seen before, then definitely, yes. If visual radio (video) is a new addition to the studio then the answer is yes. New phone system with lots of new buttons? Yes. In some cases, I have built a single temporary studio with all the new gear at the old facility so staff can train and work out any possible issues before the move to the new facility or studio.

Bourgeais: Not very much. But that’s just because our staff is always so busy. We do however take the time to attend major exhibitions in the United States and Europe to be sure we keep up with the latest trends and technologies.

Eugenio La Teana is head of Research & Development at RTL 102.5 in Italy.

La Teana: Yes, but not in the conventional sense. RTL 102.5 loves to explore new territories, trying technologies and pioneering new ways of making radio. So our people are asked everyday to find the best way to find a solution to a new, unconventional requirement. Many times they can’t immediately find inspiration from within our industry, so they are obligated to start designing and sourcing from scratch. This commonly indicates a trial-and-error approach. We invest in this particular form of training on the job. Basically, our people don’t have an “everyday task.” We ask them to dig further into something they (and essentially nobody) is familiar with, and to look for the best possible resolution, also from a budget-wise point of view.

Radio World: How is IP technology affecting the radio studio?
Ostrowski: IP technology is becoming more central to radio broadcasters. I have however seen some reluctance in implementing the technology because two various worlds are trying to connect into one — IT and radio. The two different teams of specialists need closer cooperation between them. IT specialists need to move closer to the audio world and understand an essence of sound, while audio professionals should get closer to IT issues. IP brings many advantages, such as easy audio access, ubiquity and flexibility.

Pyne: IP technology has touched virtually every part of our studio design criteria. It introduces flexibility and workflow that have not been possible in previous generations of technology and it also introduces a new scale of reduced cost to the design. Studio builds are now simpler and take less time to complete and when studios are redeployed to different uses they can be reconfigured within the digital domain simply and quickly — often at the simple push of a button. IP technology has had a profound effect on all areas of the broadcasting industry.

Kline: IP has made it easier and more efficient to multitask and create a much more exciting product on-air. The technology has also made it much simpler (and cheaper) to install gear, configure everything, and modify things in a hurry. It can also make it a little more confusing to troubleshoot a problem or trace out a workflow — no more analog wires to troubleshoot with a simple tester. You’ll need some IT knowledge and a good computer skillset (and a laptop!). But I think most engineers in radio today have all that — it’s been over a decade since things started moving to IP in radio. Hard to believe, I know. IP is not in its infancy anymore.

Bourgeais: IP technology has facilitated our lives. Five years ago we virtualized our entire premises. The technology allows us to exchange, control or remote-control gear, share songs and files. It’s very reliable for our needs.

La Teana: We’ve been implementing IP now for a decade. We started our visual experience within the analog domain, but a couple years ago, we transitioned everything to IP, including our video feeds.

Radio World: How is visual radio changing the way you design your studio?
Ostrowski: We now have two studios that feature visual radio. Each studio is equipped with an automated system with four PTZ cameras. The software controlling the camera movement and changing scenes is very nice with some artificial intelligence elements. But when it came to designing the studio, we had to predict where the cameras would be installed. It was difficult to find a compromise between the best camera positions and ensuring they didn’t interfere with the studio’s daily normal operation. After defining the best camera positions we had to plan the routes for all cables (video, power supply, control and spare). All the cables end in a separate small equipment room where the computers are located. The room also houses the machine for video streaming, converting and recording. Now we use live video streaming to the internet and we can record any part of the program, especially when we have some famous guest or very interesting discussions or debates. Then we use the material as on-demand content on our website. Lighting is important. We use good video cameras, but without the proper lights the video wouldn’t be acceptable. We consulted on the subject of lightning with a TV and film specialist and he advised us to use LED panels. One pair for one person in the studio — the first panel illuminates the person from the front, the second from the back. It makes the picture more natural and spatial. There is also a LCD screen to show what the streamed video looks like and it’s possible to carry out corrections. When streaming video from the radio studio you also have to consider the scenography. It’s not enough to tidy up the studio and turn the lights on. We use scenography lighting made of colorful LED tapes. It allows us to quickly change the colors and overall look of the studio.

Pyne: To cater for the increasing demand on visual features within the radio studio we need to consider a range of visual aspects within the overall design. Camera angles need to have clear sight lines to talent and this needs to mess together well with the placement of screens, mics and mic stands, seating arrangements and this all has the potential to affect the room acoustics. These things need to be well planned from the beginning. Cameras need to be positioned in a way that does not cause talent to “play to the audience” and things such as multi-angle cameras instead of multiple cameras can help with this.

Kline: It means we pay attention to the design of the room, the layout, for example. You’ll want to have great camera angles — none of this wide-shot stuff with mics in front of people’s faces. That’s a pet peeve of mine — mics covering a major portion of the frame. You want wide shots when appropriate but also intimate close-up angles. You need excellent lighting — I usually hire a lighting designer and install TV studio lighting — not too much but enough to light up the room for HDTV. You should also think about where the video switcher will go and who will operate it. Much like you place your call screener in the room. Have plenty of flat screens for promoting that special guest’s new album or book, or to pull up a listener calling in on Skype. Make sure you have enough internet bandwidth in the facility to handle uploads or live HD streaming. Choose a great visual radio system — there are a few good ones out there. Make sure you have graphics and logos well thought out. Your system should easily incorporate those into the shot as well as Twitter and Facebook feeds and advertising. Don’t forget about monetizing the product! One more time: lighting — don’t cheap out on the lighting! If you can’t afford a designer, find someone from the local TV station or production studio and buy them lunch for some insight and advice. I pre-wire every studio I design now for camera positions, even if they aren’t a part of the initial budget.

Bourgeais: Today, we use live video mainly for coverage of our one-off live events. We like the mystery radio offers so for now there are no cameras in our studios. Audience ratings show us this method is working.

La Teana: Our studio was designed to be a visual radio studio. Everything, including lighting, walls, furniture, the fact the presenters don’t stay seated but stand in front of the mic, was designed to ensure the best possible radio listening experience and a great visual experience. Visual is a key part of our message. Today listeners can find so much attractive content to listen and watch, including on the internet. So we have to stay competitive. It’s not just a matter of offering fantastic “radio,” it is a matter of appeal. Radio has to be designed and produced in order to be successful nowadays. Various web services, including YouTube, offer audio and music content. We have to convince listeners to stay within our channels, notwithstanding the platform they choose. That’s why even a video we post on Youtube, or anywhere else, can’t only be just great “radio” — it has to be engaging in a wider sense.

Davide Moro contributed to this article.