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Thirteen/WNET's new5.1 AUDIO SUITES

An example of what public broadcasting's relationship with the rest of the entertainment universe might be in the future can be found at Thirteen/WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York City. The station generates an estimated 35 percent of PBS's content in the United States, including “Great Performances,” “Nature,” “American Masters” and the arts show “EGG.”

Over the summer, the first of two new digital audio recording, editing and mixing suites opened at WNET's Manhattan operations center, which occupies several floors of a 10-story West Side office building. The second was set to open by November. The suites were a joint venture between WNET and Cool Beans Digital, a commercial music production and post company headed by producer/composer/audio consultant Peter Fish and chief engineer John Arrias.

WNET provided the space and the capital to build two control rooms, equipped with a pair of Neve Libra digital consoles and fitted with Genelec speakers for 5.1 surround monitoring and mixing, as well as a comprehensive array of other digital and analog audio gear. Cool Beans contributed additional technology and its experience with the workings of the market, handling the bookings and scheduling and day-to-day operations of the new facility.

There was a precedent for this arrangement; seven years ago WNET established a similar joint venture on the video side with production/stage management company Chelsea TV and post-production outfit Betelgeuse.

In the instance of the new digital audio suites, the goals of the two companies were complementary. WNET needed better audio facilities and was tired of going out of house for certain services, and Cool Beans needed more space than the three studios they already had.

The original audio control room and voice-over booth in WNET’s facility became the first of the two new digital audio suites. WSDG side-loaded the new control rooms to increase the amount of space available.

WNET's existing audio facilities at the Manhattan operations center were limited: an audio control room dedicated mainly to on-air work, and largely centered on the frequent live pledge drives common in public broadcasting. It was adjacent to a small voice-over iso booth and a video control room. But there was available space to be culled from these and other areas of the building to put in new digital audio facilities, particularly after a high-definition video editing suite that had been set up in temporary quarters in that area moved into its newly completed space. The original audio control room and voice-over booth would become the first of the two new digital audio suites.

Walters-Storyk Design Group was chosen to design the new suites, based on a hierarchical agenda. WNET's needs, including on-air broadcasting for pledge drives and special events, mixing for the station's signature series, and digital multichannel surround audio mixing, were specified as primary, but Cool Beans' needs were also given high priority. These included the ability to quickly do audio scoring and post production for the independent production company's specialties, such as commercial spots, theme music for programming such as “The CBS Evening News,” “The Rosie O'Donnell Show,” and promos for the Sci-Fi Channel and HBO. This joint venture allowed WNET to do high-quality original music and effects in-house, in a world-class digital audio 5.1 suite, and gave Cool Beans space to work.

Public station Thirteen/WNET and Cool Beans Digital, a commercial music production and post company, teamed to produce the 5.1 audio mixing suite shown above, which met the needs of both companies for better, larger audio facilities. Image by Alex Dixey.

Design considerations

WSDG faced the usual issues of designing technical operations in the vertical universe of Manhattan office buildings. The three existing rooms were not configured correctly for conversion into two control rooms and an iso booth. To make better use of the space and to keep the individual spaces connected, WSDG side-loaded the control rooms, which nearly doubled the amount of space available. They installed the Neve Libra console facing the wall on which a large plasma video monitor was to be hung, a virtual window into the studio and anywhere else in WNET's studios that the tie-lined video lines were routed. The real window in each control room was placed to the left of the console and faced out on a newly redesigned isolation booth, one that had cable and visual connection to both control rooms, as well as to a broadcast control room. The team wanted to make the plasma screen the focus of the room, since in television the focus should be on a screen.

The decision to side-load the rooms also made it easier to position the 5.1 surround speaker array. This allowed WSDG to stick to the EBU specification for monitor placement, one of the goals of the project. One challenge that presented itself was that one of the audio engineers wanted the speakers exactly 7.5 feet from his center monitoring position, with the widely implemented 30-degree arc from the front array and 120 degrees for the surround speakers. However, the control rooms were intended for broadcast and post, and required a producer's position in the rear of the room. WSDG solved the issue by placing the two Genelec 1037 surround speakers — the front array was made up of a pair of Genelec 1038s, a Genelec 1038C center speaker and 1094 subwoofer — on motorized lifts that rise out of wings fitted to either side of the producer's desk. This arrangement maintained the integrity of the sweet spot, but kept the producer's position in its traditional location.

Walters-Storyk installed the Neve Libra console facing a large plasma video monitor and placed the real window in each control room to the left of the console, facing the newly redesigned isolation booth.

Acoustically, Storyk's mission was helped by the fact that the studio spaces were already atop a floated concrete slab floor, which was simply recut as needed to fit the new studio configuration. The noise generated by the air-conditioning system, which in the low-ceiling environment of an office building and with the control room's newly lowered noise floor would be that much more noticeable, was addressed with additional packing and an acoustical “cloud” hung in the control room to act as both a diffuser for A/V noise and an aesthetic mask for the ducting. Rear-wall full-frequency diffusion is accomplished with RPG 734 diffusers. The geometry of the room handles the rest of the mid-frequency diffusion, since the room is wider than it is deep, and the walls angle outward from the front. This helps handle the bursts, so less absorption is required.

Throughout the design and building process, the team kept track of the interconnectivity between spaces and equipment. The process was simplified somewhat, because a Citibank IT operation originally used the floors WNET occupies, and the computer flooring left behind greatly facilitated wire runs. The studio's Digidesign Pro Tools system was put onto a network, allowing it to be used from either room and to access the facility's server-loaded sound effects libraries. Using hard disk media recording also allowed WNET to opt for mini-machine areas in each control room, with tie lines to the station's main technical operations center.

WNET is now nicely positioned to handle 5.1 digital surround broadcasting in the future. But the real story remains the hybrid business model that was the genesis of the new studios. The rate structure is more complex than might be found in most broadcast operations — WNET sets its own rates for its internal clients, while Cool Beans independently negotiates its creative fees with both WNET and its other clients. The long-term benefit of the arrangement between WNET and Cool Beans is that it will keep the studios busy and allow for maximum return on their investment. Maybe in the long run, the arrangement will cut down on pledge drives and leave more time for Great Performances.

Dan Daley is a widely published journalist covering the pro audio industry.

Design team

Architecture and acoustic design: Walters-Storyk Design Group —

John Storyk,

Beth Walters, Scott Yates

Electric and lighting design: Robert Wolsch Designs

HVAC design: Marcy Ramos

Construction: Ernie Gabriele, M&D Carpentry

Thirteen/WNET's vice president/technology officer Ken Devine

Equipment list

RPG diffusers

TBC consoles

192-input Neve Libra digital mixing console

ProTools 24-I/O AVXL

Genelec 1038 5.1 surround monitoring system

Pioneer 50" HD plasma screen

ADC patchbays

Synclavier 24-output audio workstation

Roland XV5080

Roland VP9000 Variphase digital vocal processor

TC Electronic System 6000

Neumann, AKG, Audio-Technica, Electrovoice, Shure microphones

Dolby E encoder/decoder

Grass Valley Series 7000 router