-231b- The Whoops and Whoopies of Studio Design

Over the last couple of years, I have been involved with building two TV studios, one master control center, and an audio studio for my school. I had built four TV studios before this and felt confident that with my experince, these last two studios would come out perfect. Well . . .

"Experience is the comb that life gives you after you loose your hair" --- Judith Stearn

"Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted" --- Italian Proverb

"Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards" --- Vernon Saunders Law

So, with all this experience, let me share with you some of our smart moves and some of our dumb moves, just in case you are thinking of building an educational/industrial TV studio. Most of these ideas are common sense (there's a dozen nifty quotes I'll spare you on that subject) but are often missed by the "experts."

Whoopie !!

We built the TV studio bigger than it needed to be and included a large storage area contiguous with the studio. I know this sounds expensive, but let's not kid ourselves; television involves a lot of stuff and the stuff takes up space and has to be stored somewhere. That real estate could be at the end of a long corridor requiring you to bump through doorways and twist through hallways dragging things out to the studio, or the storage could be right there in the studio. Putting the storage in one place costs about the same as putting it in another, but having it share air space with the studio offers one extra advantage: sound waves think they are in a bigger room. The acoustics of a larger room are better than a smaller room, so why not let the air space in the storage area work for you?

Whoopie !

Even the smaller of our two TV studios was built with some extra storage space in the room. This was done not only for the reasons mentioned earlier, but also to reduce clutter in the room. Most small TV studios I've visited have been filled with too much stuff, including a sled named "Rosebud" in the corner. Most look like warehouses with a tiny bit of floor showing. Tall things eventually migrate to the walls where they lean against the curtains causing wear and tears. To my mind, TV studios should be absolutely stark raving empty; they get filled up fast enough with the people, props, cameras and cables that come with each show.

Whoops -

Our storage area consisted of racks of steel shelving, about 12 feet tall. Because the studio had a high ceiling, we decided to build a floor across the top of the shelving area, making more storage space plus a handy camera perch for high angle shots. Problem: ceiling-mounted fire sprinklers which normally can cover the area between the ceiling and the floor, are now blocked off by this mezzanine floor we've installed. The fire inspector now requires us to install extra sprinklers to sprinkle the shelves under the floor we built.


Whoopie -

The studio has an outside wall with big double doors. As a result, we can drive a car or small truck into the studio, allowing us to teach automobile mechanics, deliver large set pieces, or take a shortcut carrying junk between our storage area and the dumpster out back (a trip we should take more often). Meanwhile, it is also easy for us to shuffle our cameras out the door to shoot in the large open parking lot behind the studio.


Whoopie -

We built the ceilings extra high. This wasn't (as one might expect) so that we could get high lighting angles; our lighting grid, in fact, starts about ten feet from the ceiling. The space provides a big area for heat to go when the studio lights are on. This way we could save a few kilobucks by installing a smaller air conditioning system. Although the air conditioner can't keep up with the heat generated by the lights, when the studio is in use, most of the heat rises to the ceiling and hardly warms the studio floor for the first hour or two. After that, the room slowly passes from tepid to toast. Usually by then, the show is over, and everyone leaves while the air conditioner chugs away pumping out the remaining heat over the next hour or two. The extra ceiling height was cheaper to install than the extra tonnage of air conditioning capacity, especially when you consider that the air conditioning ducts also had to be overbuilt in order to move the air slowly and quietly, not creating a whoosh sound. Anything you can do to save on air conditioning will save both capital costs and operating costs. And again, the extra ceiling height expands the room, improving acoustics .. acoustics .. acoustics.


Whoopie -

I learned this one from other people's mistakes: make absolutely sure that the air conditioning compressors and fans are not on the studio roof and not in an adjacent mechanical room (the two favorite places of inexperienced architects). No matter what architects say about springs and sound dampening, the vibrations always come through. Furthermore, as the components age, they become less balanced and vibrate even more. Unless you're doing a scene from West Side Story, no rumble belongs in your studio. Other noisy things to watch out for: overhead classrooms and corridors, photo copiers next door or overhead, flushing bathrooms, tap dance studios, pyrotechnics laboratories. Morgues make nice neighbors.

Whoops -

Studios get hot and need air cooling, even in the winter. For this reason, TV studios need air handlers, separate from the rest of the building. Thus, when the building's air conditioning is shut down, the studio can continue to function. We, in fact, built one air conditioner for one studio, another air handler for the second studio, and had a third to serve the rest of the building. This idea was great in theory, but it had one flaw: the air conditioners were the "chiller" type; in other words, the heat radiators on the air conditioners are designed to have water sprayed over them to cool them down, increasing their efficiency. So what happens when it's freezing out? The chillers cannot be operated, thus the air conditioners won't work, and the whole plan goes to pot. A second caveat: watch out where you run your ducts. If the same duct that cools your studio also cools your control room, you may end up with a frigid control room as you try to cool down your studio.

Each area needs to be cooled independently, and your studios need to be cooled by conventional (non chiller type) air conditioning units, or have some way to duct in winter breezes.

Oh, by the way, what happens in the summertime on weekends and evenings? Will your air conditioners eat power 24 hours a day cooling your equipment? If they shut down, guess what happens to the humidity in the rooms? Everything gets damp and clammy. Tape oxide will start to shed. VCR head drums will start to corrode, and the video heads will clog on the tiny grains of corrosion. Dew lamps will go on and videotape will get sticky. Computer drives, especially floppies and Zips will malfunction until they warm up and dry themselves out. Switches and potentiometers will corrode and become noisy, while circuit board connectors will become unreliable from the expansion and contraction of the circuits. Even your steel racks will show rust, especially on unpainted corners. Yoyoing humidity and temperature is no friend to a studio or control room. Your system needs a setback, allowing some form of air conditioning when idle.

Whoops -

We thought that building a scene shop next to the studio, separated by heavy soundproof double doors, would be handy and also save us from wrecking the studio floor as we built, dribbled, dropped and dragged things. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a soundproof door. Maybe five feet of solid concrete would work, but soundproof doors will not kill the brrring of a circular saw or the whacka whacka whacka of a hammer. You'll need to schedule construction and production so they don't conflict.


Whoopie !

Doors are a pain in the wrist, especially if you go through them 100 times a day and have to open them each time (I've tried with no success to pass through closed ones). They're especially a drag if those doors are heavy and soundproof, and your arms are full, and the latch is hard to turn with your knee. We did away with most of the swing doors between the control rooms and the studios, replacing them with double, sliding glass doors. The double doors are soundproof, and can be left open while you are traveling from room to room (90% of the time). When the show actually begins, you close the doors. The sliding doors have additional advantages:

1. When they open, they don't sweep a wide area like regular doors, wasting valuable real estate that has to be kept clear.
2. The doors make nice windows, adding to the aesthetic beauty of the area. You also don't end up flinging your door into someone's face as you race, "Broadcast News" style, to a tape player.
3. The non-moving part of the door (the other half that the first half slides into) can always be removed along with the sliding part of the door creating a double-width opening through which to move bulky consoles, etc. Can't do that with a swing-out door.

Whoopie and Whoops -

At Disney World, I enjoyed witnessing some of the behind-the-scenes activities from their glassed-in viewing areas. We built our studios with huge picture windows facing a public corridor, then added a raised observation deck that looks down into the studios, control rooms, and master control area. Countless students have enjoyed our scenic overlook to the information highway. Visitors are dazzled by rows of colored monitors and switchers, or TV cameras aimed at a colorful set with a huge bright blue chroma key curtain backdrop. Our courses advertise themselves and increase enrollment at the school.

On the other hand, the exposure drives some of our instructors crazy. They don't like having students and visitors looking through the windows watching them while they teach. One of the instructors has demanded that we install black shades that he now pulls down over the windows whenever he teaches. I guess publicity isn't for everyone.

If you are contemplating large windows for your studios, consider sun infiltration. Our public corridor was adjacent to a library reading room which had a glass wall facing east. If we hadn't built a baffle wall to block the sunlight, we would have had a problem.


Whoopie -

Most studios and control rooms are dark much of the time; not much to see from the scenic overlook. We installed a small floodlight in each room or added track lights on a dimmer so that when the rooms were unused, a puddle of light would illuminate them with a sexy glow. TV equipment looks fascinating even when it sleeps.

Big whoops -

The following may apply to you depending upon circumstances. The instructional media department used to operate one small TV studio which it shared with television classes. There were numerous scheduling conflicts and the equipment was never appropriate for both parties; The TV classes needed equipment that was simple, foolproof, durable, and not necessarily the most expensive or highest quality (you don't give a Stradivarius to a youngster taking his first fiddle lessons). The students didn't need broadcast quality just for practice and it was impossible to maintain equipment to perfect specifications when used by inexperienced people on an everyday basis. Meanwhile, the instructional media department needed for its use equipment that was maintained exactly on spec because a lot was invested in each show, the images had to endure several generations of editing, and would be seen by many. Everything had to look right. Furthermore, the media department professionals were happy to learn every nuance of a complicated piece of equipment, and wanted the most flexible and reconfigurable gear they could get. When we vacated our old studio and built two new studios, one for the students and one for the professionals, we thought our problems would end. And Murphy chuckled.

We built a 38 foot by 38 foot studio for the professionals and for the students built a studio about 40% that size. We populated the professional studio with professional gear and the student studio with industrial gear. Want to guess what happened next?

Naturally the students and faculty coveted the larger studio and felt shortchanged with the "lousy" studio. Even though it was much bigger and better than the one we both vacated, the small studio looked like a Yugo next to a Beemer. Swapping the two studios wouldn't be too feasible because the student studio has access to public corridors where the larger studio is buried in the bowels of the instructional media department meaning the students would have to file through the master control, production control, and edit rooms in order to get to the studio, ruining all sense of security and any kind of a working atmosphere for the professionals. If I had this one to do over again, I would have done it the other way around putting the big studio out for the students and using the small studio for the professionals. After all, 95% of our professional TV productions need only a small area anyway. How many times are you going to bring in a large band, a horse, a truck, or record a ballet? One could say the same about the student productions; they don't need a large studio either, but human nature being what it is, leaves the perception that the big studio is a whole lot better than the smaller studio. Next time around, if I live so long, I'll build the big studio for the students and buy new cameras and new gear (not necessarily more expensive or complex) for the students and buy used gear (the best quality I can afford) for the professionals. That way I'll have fewer people angry at me. Studio design is more than just nuts and bolts, it's psychology too.

Console design -

We found it wasn't hard to find used racks and consoles available for 10% the cost of new. Racks don't wear out, they just get scratched and look old. For about $25 each, we had our old and hand-me-down racks electrostatically spray painted, along with a few cabinets and desks. Now everything looks like new and matches in color.

Traditional console placement leaves space behind each rack so technicians can reach the backs of things. This is fine when rooms are big, but when rooms are small no real estate can be wasted. We've placed many of our consoles and racks on casters, then pushed the works up against the wall. Dressing the wires with a stress-relieving loop and tying them off the floor kept them safe. We used big coasters where a weight was a factor. We learned that non-swivel casters are easier to use than swivel because:

1. Direction of rack travel is either in or out, seldom sideways.
2. It's a hassle reorienting the swivels when you change directions.
3. Non-swivel casters take up less space under the console and can be positioned near the corners of the base providing greater stability.

Whoopie, but not for long -

Industrial TV control rooms usually contain switchers, audio mixers, patch bays, VCRs, time base correctors, and other gadgetry. Editing rooms also contain VCRs, TBCs, maybe patch bays, maybe switchers and mixers. Notice that there is a lot of duplication here.

At my school we parked the editing room next to the TV control room with enormous glass doors between the two. With the doors open, both areas become one, allowing us to invest in one switcher and one audio mixer to serve both production and postproduction areas. Furthermore, the VCRs could be parked in the edit area (keeping the control room quiet) and also serve two purposes, production and edit. Granted, there would be times when edit and production would both want to use the same time base corrector or VCR, but these scheduling problems could be worked out. Closing the doors allows the editing room to be independent of the production room.

This was a great theory, especially as it was designed five years ago. Who would have guessed that switchers, mixers, waveform/vectorscopes and time base correctors would become inexpensive circuit boards in computers and that affordable edit controllers could have their own switchers? With nonlinear editing coming of age, the editor doesn't need most of the paraphernalia found in the conventional TV control room; it's already in the box, as long as the disk drives don't get too humid to run. Thus the edit room could be placed just about anywhere.


Whoopie !

We clustered our audio and video control rooms and studios and put doors between them all. Studios are like churches, they are dark most of the time. That doesn't mean your staff isn't working, they just are not burning lights in the studio. With the TV studio positioned between the TV control room and audio control room, the studio can do two jobs: it can be the audio studio and the TV studio with very few scheduling problems. Meanwhile, we placed another very small audio studio adjacent to the TV studio and audio control room. Since 90% of the audio work is voiceovers and requires very little room, our "little room" handles most of our audio needs. Meanwhile, if a TV production needs the services of a sound booth, we have one adjacent to the studio with its own door and window. In fact the windows were positioned so that you can see from the TV control room through the TV studio into the little audio studio in order to give cues.


Whoopie ! !

When you are operating several studios, you often find yourself borrowing signals from one room to use in another. Unless you can afford to equip all rooms with everything, you'll probably give each room a specialty. Our audio control room has the best audio gear while the TV control room has just the basics. Although we have two TV studios, we have installed our Dubner character generator and Eclipse special effects unit in only one of them. The other studio will have the Matrox, the Toaster, and the better cameras. There will be situations when we will want to mix the good camera signals with the Eclipse special effects. How do we do this? Through patch bays of course. But where do you route the signals? There are too many permutations for anyone to guess.

Our solution was to build a local patch bay to handle the signals in each control room. Then we added to the patch bay a dozen or so "straps", lines that run to another patch bay in our master control area. If we wish to send a signal from one control room to another, we first patch the signal to a strap which carries it to master control. In master control, we patch it to a strap leading to a patch bay in another room.

What do we do about video synchronization? You can synchronize camera, character generator, effects, and other signals to enter a local switcher all at the same time, but you cannot simply "borrow" one of these signals to use in another studio going to its switcher; the signal won't be synchronized with the second studio. One could try using delay lines to synchronize everything, but delay lines are expensive and it is sometimes hard to get exactly the amount of delay you want.

Our solution was to install a local sync generator in each studio. Running on its own, the sync generator creates all the pulses needed to drive all the cameras, switchers, and widgets associated with that studio. Meanwhile, in master control, another sync generator sends "house sync" to the other sync generators which can genlock to the "house". Now, if we wish to borrow a signal from control room A, we simply patch it through and of course it arrives out of sync with everything else in the room B. Not to worry --- we simply crank sync generator A's phase backwards or forwards in time, moving everything in the room A backwards or forwards in time, until it matches B. We'll repeat the trick when we add a third or fourth entity such as edit room and electronic graphics room. We may wish to borrow RGB signals from a camera for electronic graphics or use animations from our Iris workstation in one of the studio productions.

The other option would be to use time base correctors to phase the asynchronous incoming signals with the local signals.

In some cases, this may actually be easier than using sync generators, but breaks one cardinal rule of videomaking: Process the video signal as few times as possible. Sync alignment allows you to use a device's signal directly, whereas a TBC processes the signal adding a layer of electronic noise and distortion.

Knowlege is the small part of ignorance that we arrange and classify --- Ambrose Bierce

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