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Lawo, NPR Partner for Audio Production

Company’s digital technology platform powers new Washington HQ

NPR’s Studio 31 Control Room uses a Lawo 24-channel Sapphire control surface. The studio, home of “Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition” and “All Things Considered,” has natural wood sound diffraction panels and indirect lighting. Photos by Bob Kovacs. The new headquarters of NPR in Washington has an extensive digital infrastructure supporting three broadcast studios, 10 production studios, six production booths, a high-end recording/events space and a centralized technical logistics center. It includes Lawo mixing consoles, routing matrices and I/O units as central components.

Radio World asked Herbert Lemcke, president of Lawo North America Corp., about the project.

RW: What was the nature of Lawo’s role?

Lemcke: Back in 2009, NPR contacted us to discuss a small project, providing some equipment to outfit a new studio. They were looking to test a production environment without traditional consoles with faders and buttons. A crystal console core with a number of touchscreens running our VisTool software was installed to prove the viability of this concept for NPR’s operations.

This project set the stage for a number of others, where new workflows for the future NPR building were prototyped and vetted.

With NPR’s move from analog to digital, there were several challenges that emerged. As we worked through the initial design consultations, the project evolved from design of a single studio into the creation of a comprehensive infrastructure that would power NPR’s entire production operations. Together we designed an overall concept and a plan for the installation of radio on-air mixing consoles, routing matrices and I/O units, as well as specifying a customized equipment configuration.

Lawo provided knowledge transfer for management and technical staff, trained the operators and the service teams, and ensured that we had adapted the installations to accommodate NPR’s unique workflow requirements.

RW: With whom did you work most closely on the NPR staff?

Lemcke: Shawn Fox, senior director engineering; Bud Aiello, director of engineering technology; Robert Butcher, engineering; Mitch Eaton, manager technical systems; and Dennis Byrnes, engineering, were our major counterparts throughout the various stages of the project. The systems integrator on this project was HA Design Group.

RW: Describe the technical infrastructure of the system.

Greg Gavin, broadcast recording technician at NPR, controls audio using a Lawo Virtual Mixer panel, foreground, and iZotope audio processing software in the Master Operations Center, adjacent to the open newsroom. The large center screens show status of the Lawo routers, including alarms (lower display) and signal levels (upper). Lemcke: NPR wanted to upgrade its broadcast and content production facilities, transitioning from remaining analog and legacy technologies to a fully digital infrastructure. The move was more than just a facility-wide system upgrade. Newer technologies were required in order to be more flexible and to meet the changing needs of a 24/7 news operation.

It was a dream project for Lawo, since we specialize in providing flexible architectures for networking audio systems designed to support a customer’s workflow requirements. In this case, we were able to work with the engineering and operations teams at NPR to address their needs and concerns, providing them with a system that allowed them to transition seamlessly into a flexible and interconnected digital environment.

The final design supported NPR’s current operational needs but also allowed for expansion and addition of new capabilities without requiring a retooling of the basic architecture.

In addition, concerns about ongoing maintenance and upgrades were dealt with through a structure using two redundant Lawo Nova73 HD central audio routers and several connected redundant I/O units. This arrangement allows for smooth switching and servicing of I/O units and router boards, important in a 24/7 operation.

There are three large live production studios, five production and edit areas with four studios each, six telephone booths and a modern and open MCR area for quality control as well as support for the production facilities. There is a large multipurpose production area that can handle any challenge, ranging from concerts to large discussion panels or various special events.

Any of these facilities can go on air at any time, with access to all resources in the facility including the necessary communication infrastructure.

The final design includes a centralized, redundant routing system with two Nova73 HD routers, 70 Nova17 routers and seven Nova 29 routers. Each router type works with the others and supports unique work surfaces and software, enabling creation and exchange of files between any number and type of contributors, no matter where or how they choose to work within the facility.

Audio signals are distributed by the routers to the production areas by the Nova17 audio matrices. Work surfaces include three sapphire radio consoles, 20 eight-channel crystal consoles, 10 four-channel crystal consoles, and a large-format mc²66 MKII production console to handle special events.

One of the unique elements is the use of LSB’s “Virtual Studio Manager” for centralized, network control of routers and studio configurations, controlled in turn by a LineScheduler from DSA, which schedules and automates program-related routings and manages a large pool of codecs. This concept of multi-interlinked systems with overall accessibility allowed the most efficient use of studios, control rooms and edit booths.

In NPR’s 10,000-square-foot Tier 3+ Data Center or “codec farm,” the majority of remote lines integrate into redundant Lawo audio routers. This router frame is named “Little Herbie.” RW: Are there comparable Lawo installations in North America; and how does the company, headquartered in Germany, provide tech support?

Lemcke: We’ve done a number of similar projects, including some MCRs for the CBC in Toronto and Montreal,that are of comparable size. That said, the NPR facility is an exceptional case where Lawo and its partners LSB and DSA were able to supply the majority of the linear production technologies as well as the control and management systems that tied it all together. It’s a very rare opportunity to build a complete radio broadcast production facility of this scale in a brand-new facility.

In TV broadcast, Lawo has provided not only consoles but complete router-based infrastructures for customers including Turner, NBC, Comcast, Fox and MTV. Lawo’s subsidiary Lawo North America Corp. takes on project design, project management, developing concepts and technical structures and delivering, installing and servicing technical equipment. The services we provide include configuration and training for technical staff and operators. In addition to North American headquarters in Toronto, Lawo maintains sales and support teams in New York and Los Angeles.

For this project I have to highlight Milo Woodhouse’s role. He is one of our most experienced project managers and system specialists from Rastatt, Lawo’s headquarters in Germany, who was stationed for 15 months in Washington to support the NPR team throughout this challenging task. He did a tremendous job, and along with the Lawo North America team, played a crucial role in making this project a success.

For more on this project see the story “Profile: Garrison Heads NPR Tech Operations” at, keyword Garrison.