The installation of a Calrec Alpha 100 digital console at NBC's new control room 3A at its New York headquarters provides a glimpse of the processes of evaluation and coordination taking place during the transition from analog to digital.
Planning for the future
The new Studio 3A is part of NBC News' operations. It is intended to service all of the news operations, including the flagship “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw,” as well as news specials. The decision to make the new Studio 3A an all-digital room was the first step in an extended conversion process for much of the rest of the complex's technical infrastructure, and will serve as a template for future digital console upgrades.
The dictates of technology, not just the FCC, were at work. Even though the need for 5.1 surround audio mixes is implicitly limited in a news broadcast application (stereo audio is usually more than enough), the inevitability of multichannel audio in broadcast means that it must be considered in any current decision.
NBC always equips a facility for more than one type of production. Studio 3A can be assigned for entertainment or sports, and surround-sound monitoring equipment is already in place. For these applications, 5.1 capability will become more important as the network expands DTV projects. NBC was able to get a usable deliver date and still maintain all of the features necessary for future projects, like 5.1, by selecting a console with functionality that could be expanded.
The NBC staff needed easy access to function controls, and a maximum of one layer in addition to the active console layer. NBC is currently using 64 input paths in a combination of mono and stereo in most control rooms. Another important criterion was a mix-minus capability of at least 48 separate dedicated paths. The staff also specified a PFL section that engages by backstop fader control or with a dedicated button on the strip. In addition, they wanted a primary and secondary program path originating from separate electronic outputs to establish system redundancy at the console output. The console needed to integrate with various compressed audio formats and with routing systems planned for the room. Perhaps most important was the need for a clear upgrade path. Software upgrades will be the only cost-effective way to keep up with changing technical demands.
The implementation of the Calrec Alpha 100 took just over two years to complete, a reasonable window considering the comprehensiveness of the entire new digital suite. While Calrec was completing the Alpha 100's design, NBC used a Calrec S2 analog console as an interim platform. The studio was pre-wired for digital and operated in the analog domain during this period.
The Alpha 100 sets up quickly and can be programmed from a user-saved memory in seconds. It gives NBC News a platform that is a generation ahead of the manual recall available on its analog consoles. Operational training has gone smoothly. As might be expected in a fast-moving news operation, some training was reduced to trial by fire at the onset of a month of “unyielding nightlies” originating from all over the country.
Dan Daley covers the pro audio industry and writes for Broadcast Engineering's sister magazine, Mix.