Studio secrets

Building studios has become a multi-million dollar business as sound quality and sound attenuation is now crucial to broadcasting. And yet, when it comes to guidelines or quality standards for designing studios, there are very few. Digital Studio asks some of the industry’s leading studio providers to discuss some of the dos and don’ts of designing state-of-the-art studios.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  July 7, 2005

I|~||~||~|As TV broadcasting becomes more competitive in the Middle East, regional broadcasters are taking a closer look at the technology they are using to produce, edit and telecast their programmes. As part of this effort, broadcasters are also beginning to realise the importance of investing in state-of-the-art studios. So far, there have been very few guidelines or quality standards for designing studios. One principle reason for this, according to Ian Rich, manager of studios for IAC Limited, is that the industry is so diverse that most broadcasters do their own thing and set their own criteria. IAC, which has built several studios, editing rooms and voice-booths for international as well as regional broadcast organisations including the BBC, BskyB, Channel 4, Reuters, and the Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel and Space Channel, says that each of these broadcasters have a host of acoustic and design requirements — some of which are unique to each of them. However, not all end users understand the various criteria involved in building a studio and fewer still know how to choose an efficient consultant. This could result in a studio that is flawed both in terms of design as well as later operations. James Baker, who is an architect in studio designs with the UK-based company, Building Design Partnership, enumerates some of the common flaws. “Poor workmanship and concealed elements that bridge acoustically isolated elements can cause immense problems, as can poor integration of architecture, servicing and acoustics. Likewise, lack of headroom and flexibility within studio spaces can be very constraining. Also, an understanding of business disruption is crucial, so that the needs of the business can be met at all times. In particular, remote access to the plant is critical,” he says. Baker adds that underestimating eventual loading of lighting tracks and grids can mean that the possibilities of making some programmes will be limited. “Flexibility is key here, so that the developments in lighting technology and changing programme making can easily be absorbed,” he explains. It’s interesting to note, however, that though the acoustic requirements of broadcasters have only gone up, design itself has become a lot simpler than it used to be. “This is partially the result of the reduced need to record acoustically, with production done increasingly in the digital domain, with reduced need for recording facilities,” explains BDP’s Baker. ||**||II|~||~||~|However, both Baker and Rich stress the importance of involving an acoustic expert in the studio project right from the stage of conceptualisation. Rich also recommends choosing a consultant that has worked with industry leading broadcasters. “The BBC, for instance, has put in place a host of acoustic criteria for all of its studio projects. Any provider to the BBC is, by definition, a company that ‘knows its stuff’,” he says. “Naturally the stakes are higher with a public service broadcaster like the BBC and clearly, the higher the budget the higher the acoustic performance of a studio space that can be achieved. In the private sector, an acoustic expert will advise and steer the client to maximise the performance achievable on the budget available. Without this guidance right from the start of the project, a client could end up with something that resembles a studio but whose sound acoustics are as poor as those of a tin box.” Rich delineates three primary acoustic considerations when planning a new studio. The first of these is sound insulation. This refers to sound proofing the room and keeping all extraneous noise out. “Here, it is important to analyse the location of the building itself, whether it is affected by noise from a road beside it, an underground railway below it or a flight path above it. All of this will impact on the acoustic specification of the studio. Clearly, choosing an intrinsically quiet location reduces the studio spec required and the costs involved,” he says. The second important factor is structural isolation. Locating the studio structure on a floating floor (as done for a recent Al Jazeera studio) prevents noise from travelling through the building structure. A ground floor situation will avoid the requirement for such a ‘floating’ floor. The third, called reverberation time or the internal acoustic relates to the quality of sound inside the space. Overall, locating a studio in a new building rather than an existing one is ideal, says Rich. TV studios, for example, can be very large and a new building means that the studio space will not be encumbered by supporting pillars in awkward places. Building a studio in an existing building can create a number of headaches: loading capabilities of the structure, and the space available can have considerable impact on the studio design. ||**||III|~||~||~|All of these criteria make it important to choose a company carefully to build the studio. More importantly, it is imperative that four or more individuals be involved in this project. Ideally, the consulting team should comprise the end-user (the broadcaster); his architect; his mechanical consultant and if necessary, the turnkey equippers as well. These people are best described as ‘studio consultants’ and can help the client in terms of both recommending the broadcasting equipment as well as the necessary acoustic requirements. “A broadcaster who is planning a new build will certainly be using the services of an architect. But an acoustician must also be involved in the studio project right from the early stages to ensure the end result performs as it should. Larger companies offering turnkey services will have their own acoustic engineers as part of the team,” explains Rich. Although the key components of a studio complex will vary from one broadcaster to the next, all of them will include at least one Voice Booth. The qualities of the human voice make it the most challenging of sounds to record making an acoustically controlled space of just 2m by 2m an essential requisite. Other parts of a suite may include control rooms, editing suites, post production suites, TV and radio studios. Any studio requires careful individual consideration, says Rich. A TV studio, for example requires special flooring known as ‘camera tracking’ flooring. “These are superflat floors for smooth filming,” explains Rich. “Lighting grids will be needed across the ceilings, and in a TV studio, infinity curves are created using specialist paint that visually eliminates the ‘break’ between the floor and ceiling and allows backgrounds to be electronically projected behind a speaker.” Another issue that needs to be addressed is the noise created by the air conditioning, which has to cope with the huge amount of heat generated by studio equipment. “The remedy for this is a ducted solution with a remote plant room,” explains Rich. With all these elements to source and install, most end users today prefer to commission a turnkey supplier to handle everything from the civil aspect through to commissioning. Such a provider will also offer decoration and technical wireways to ease the task of the specialist electricians and may even go as far as providing the finishing touches such as light fittings. The build itself can be undertaken in one of two main ways: traditional build — the long drawn-out bricks-and-mortar approach, or the modular approach that uses acoustically-rated, prefabricated panels. Although the traditional bricks-and-mortar approach appears to be the cheaper option and renders a permanent result, Rich says it has several disadvantages. “Get ready for messy wet trades on site,” he warns. ||**||IV|~||~||~|“It takes a long time to construct with studio downtime; cabling and fitting acoustic doors and windows into the structure are more difficult. The overall predictability of a traditional build approach is quite low: if sufficient mortar, for example, is not used when laying the bricks, this can greatly affect the sound attenuation characteristics of the shell and may necessitate inordinately increased internal measures to compensate,” he explains. Rich himself favours the modular approach, which he says offers rapid, clean onsite construction, with the option to dismantle and relocate at a later date. “The pre-fabricated panels are acoustically proven, therefore, giving the project a ‘head start’ in terms of acoustic solutions. The components can be assembled to create structures of virtually any size and shape. When constructed inside an existing building shell, the shell’s own acoustic properties are less significant. Acoustic doors and windows are easily installed.” BDP’s Baker agrees. “Flexibility is key in a constantly changing studio world — a fixed studio size is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Also, faster design-to-completion periods are demanding the use of new materials and prefabrication and these tried and tested boxes are the way forward. This change in the industry will also open up the possibilities for more creativity among designers, architects, engineers and acousticians,” he says. Whether the broadcaster finally chooses the bricks-and-mortar approach or the modular approach, Rich reiterates that choosing a consultant with experience building studios for leading broadcasters is the best. “If they have done work for top broadcasters, that’s a good indicator of their ability. A company with turnkey ability — one able to deliver the complete spec from design to commissioning, along with walls, floating floors, ceilings, and electrics and air conditioning — will have a distinct advantage over its competitors. With everything in the equation, it’s easier to predict the build time needed and the risk involved.” Baker adds that such consultants will also be better prepared to think outside the box and add some innovative touches to a studio to enable it to remain unique. “There is a move to higher aesthetic quality and a recognition that traditional black box studios may not provide ideal working environments. Openings or windows out, integration with the public and high quality finishes are moving to centrestage. At the BBC Birmingham, windows were introduced into the studios to a substantial public space, bringing the audience closer to the producers, and revealing the creativity of the organisation beyond. These little touches make one studio unique from another,” he explains. Baker also adds that an aesthetically pleasing environment is crucial to retain and recruit the best professionals in the industries. “True state-of-the-art studios will have this in addition to acoustics. They will not be an add-on feature,” he says. A studio builder that has worked with international clients will also often choose products that meet or exceed EU quality standards, and this again is a criteria to keep in mind. Lastly, Rich recommends that Middle East broadcasters seek out a supplier company with a manufacturing capability within a GCC country — either Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE or Saudi Arabia. “This will avoid delays in cross border movement of goods — a valuable aspect of any time sensitive project,” he says. ||**||

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