Classic design techniques serve well in world of multimedia studios

At the 2011 NAB Show, I had the opportunity to interview Russ Berger, president and founder of Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG), which has designed and installed literally thousands of audio, video and multimedia facilities over the years. Berger offered his reflections on the state of acoustical design in today’s world, balancing the changing media needs of a diverse client base with the fundamentally constant principles of acoustics and good design.

“It surprises some people to learn that there are still a lot of recording studios being built,” Berger said. “About 40 percent of our work is independent production facilities, primarily because content suppliers have had to cut their costs. So, content providers have had to sort of ‘go guerilla’ in their work. The content still has to be produced somewhere, so it makes sense for production talent to build their own facilities, and we’re seeing a lot of that.”

That’s not to say that large facilities aren’t being designed. Recent RBDG studio projects include facilities for NFL Films, the NFL Network and a full TV production facility at Brigham Young University. Two other current major projects fall outside the boundaries of their sweet spot in the broadcast and recording studios: the George W. Bush Presidential Library and a lab facility design for Apple.

“The Apple project is very cool, but I’m on a non-disclosure with them, so we can’t talk about that. But, the Bush Library is a great project as well,” Berger said.

Intended as both a traditional scholarly research center and an active event center, the library will contain a presidential library and museum, along with the George W. Bush Policy Institute. Berger’s firm was called in to deal with the electronic media requirements, which will go beyond presentation systems to feature full professional audio and video capture, with hot spots throughout the facility to enable interviews and that tie back into the presentation system. The center will occupy about 25 acres on the campus of Southern Methodist University and is scheduled to open in 2013.

“This will be a major departure from any existing presidential library, and we’re quite excited about it,” Berger said. “It’s being called a policy library, with a policy institute incorporated along with all the archives. So, there will be lectures, debates and other presentations, plus a full production facility on-site. It’s very multimedia oriented, very sophisticated. It’s been fascinating to work on and a lot of fun for our team to put together.”

While Berger is the titular face of RBDG, he is quick to point out that a team approach is the key to the firm’s ongoing success.

“It’s all about people and collaboration,” he said. “Project management, acoustics, architecture — it all has to work together to create a design that works for the client. Where we really excel is in our understanding of production processes. We’ve done so many different kinds of facilities; we know that whatever physical design we leave behind has to address people working collaboratively together. I think of it as creating a happy home for both the equipment and the people who live in it.”

Berger specifically mentioned lead architect Blane Kelley and design principal Richard Schrag as key team members whose skills contribute to a cohesive, holistic approach that seamlessly blends the technical and aesthetic aspects with the workflow design and project management required to create a “happy home” that stands the test of time.

“Timeless is a good word for our approach,” Berger said. “The principles of good design transcend the technical changes of the industry. Good planning, good infrastructure, proper grounding and, again, keeping the focus on people for things like servicing equipment and traffic flow. Picking materials that last and using them in creative, cost-effective ways that make a facility sing. These are the things that matter in the long run.”

A good example of applying classic design techniques to the needs of modern facilities is an OB truck design RBDG is currently doing for MTV Networks.

“One of the problems with OB trucks is that the rooms are so small, which is especially problematic for audio,” Berger said. “So, we’re designing a leaky room. Basically, it involves borrowing some volume from an adjacent space to create a bigger room, in this case using the belly pans under the truck. It’s free space if you know how to use it. It’s just a matter of doing some tricks to get the floor to leak in the right way. It’s a technique we developed years ago and have used in a lot of studios, but it’s never been applied to an OB truck before. This will be the first.”

This, in Berger’s view, is a good example of the RBDG template for success.

“We’ve always shared our ideas. In fact, we published a paper on leaky walls 20-odd years ago. If we have a secret, it’s that we’re really good at managing the process of getting the design right and shepherding it through. It’s just experience and planning, with execution — and having the right people. It always comes down to that.”