This article was prepared during the spring and summer of 2008 for Radio Guide. It covers the latest audio upgrade at the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts in Southfield, MI... www.specshoward.edu
PRODUCTION, NEWS & RADIO STUDIO RENOVATION ON A BUDGET
By Bob Burnham
What kind of work can there possibly be at a broadcast SCHOOL for an engineer? Ten years ago, that question may have been on my mind when I climbed aboard the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts in Southfield, Michigan. For those of you who have read my Radio Guide articles over the years, you know this has been my “day job” for some time.
Within my first couple years, I had carried more than 50 cart machines, cassette players, reel decks and similar obsolete technology to the dumpster. In the process, we had upgraded 15 “practice” studios, four radio stations and added six completely new studios. I handled the majority of the physical design and wiring personally.
The Production and News studios’ “time” had finally come (again) and we were ready for another cycle of radio station renovations as well.
The answer to the first question about what my work at the school would consist of should be obvious: My life has been a continuous cycle of upgrade projects and making sure the existing technology was behaving as expected AND that staff and students knew how to use it.
With a facility this large and comprehensive, another challenge has been keeping the technology CURRENT. The school is situated in the Detroit area, and is not immune to the soft local economy. Our relationship with many vendors and manufacturers, however, has helped to keep the budget under control.
My challenge is multi-fold: It involves figuring out what capabilities we need in the studio. Second, to select a combination of high quality industry standard equipment that falls within the budget. Finally, collect quotes and see if the grand total is a number within our range. If not, then substitutions or even design changes are made. There was a lot of that going on with this project.
NEW CONSOLES: OUT WITH MACKIE, IN WITH ARRAKIS
Production was originally set up several years back with two Mackie 1402 mixers (which had replaced a REALLY old rotary console). Two Enco DAD workstations and a couple racks of equipment were also part of the set-up. Those two Enco workstations were kept in service with updated displays.
As for the mixers, no one really understands how to use a Mackie mixer who is merely trying to record a quick radio spot. There are more adjustments on a Mackie that can (and did) ruin audio in the hands of someone in a hurry or lacking the kind of detailed knowledge that it seems only engineers possess. Also the out-in-the-open ¼” plugs on a Mackie encourage frequent re-patching by people who really have no clue of what they were doing.
So the decision was made early on to replace the Mackies with small broadcast consoles. The project had to be planned within a tight budget, however, combined with space limitations. So I couldn’t merely order a couple more digital consoles similar to those used in our practice studios: They were way too expensive AND large and it was basically over-kill anyway. The number of available small affordable consoles, however, had diminished. Manufacturers have focused more on their higher end digital products.
Elsewhere in the building, we use Audioarts and Radio Systems’products quite extensively. Obviously, both companies had options that would be suitable for Production, but with a two position, dual console environment and a limited budget we had to look elsewhere.
OVERVIEW OF THE CONSOLES SELECTED FOR THE PRODUCTION STUDIO
The new “ARC-10” series from Arrakis Systems seemed to be the best option for our application. Seemingly designed for small-market broadcasters, these consoles however, sported a sleek, low profile modern appearance that rivals higher-end equipment. This in itself was a major selling point as the studio being upgraded is in a prominent location adjacent to the front lobby prospective students see on a regular basis.
As a broadcast engineer, I am familiar with to almost every conceivable method of equipment termination. The ARC consoles are literally designed for plug and play. The plugs, however, are out of harm’s way.
The basic model is all RCA plugs with a couple of XLR connections. I ordered the balanced audio version at a slightly higher price (Model ARC-10BP) whose balanced inputs were modular CAT 5 style plugs, (although there were still several RCA connections required). I did not use most of the supplied RCA cables, preferring to make my own using metal Neutrik RCA plugs and the usual Belden 9451 cable. Arrakis supplies most of what you need with the console but I also ordered a few break-out cables terminated with XLR connectors.
The console also includes a USB connection that interfaces directly with Arrakis’ own automation software, “Digilink X-treme,” which is bundled with both the ARC-10BP and ARC-10UP models). A channel is dedicated to the USB function although it can be easily switched to standard use. Yet another Telephone-designated channel is fully balanced with in and out logic with the usual Mix-Minus capability.
The console truly is a self-contained Radio-Station-in-a-Box. Adding a computer, microphones some source equipment and you are ready to go live. As Arrakis states, it is specifically designed for “On-Air, internet radio and podcast applications.” Production in an educational environment such as ours, therefore, should not be a challenge.
The real strength of this console, however, is the price. We were able to purchase two consoles for the price of what we might have paid for one.
HAVE TO TAKE THE BAD WITH THE GOOD…
There are drawbacks to this console. Arrakis had to find areas it could cut costs.
One area that is lacking is the control/logic functions of the console. The logic is very “stripped down.” For an extra fifty cents in parts, Arrakis could have done a better job rather than giving us a page of suggested “home-brew” circuits (such as for Start-Stop circuits). For these functions (and an On-Air light) make sure you order a couple LogicConverters from Henry Engineering. If you are considering this console, make sure you allow for budgetary items such as these (unless you really want to build your own interface).
In a typical environment, however, who has the time or patience anymore to cobble together a bunch of discrete transistors/diodes into a somewhat serviceable box? We are also reminded in the manual that “improper connection to console logic can damage the console.” So if you mess it up, it’s gonna cost ya’ !
Cosmetics. As mentioned, the console’s appearance is a major plus. On the negative side, the VU meters are only of average mechanical type (which are NOT lit). Again, cuts need to be made somewhere and this one area Arrakis designers chose to economize.
Console Maintenance & Repair Considerations
Arrakis suggests a call to their tech support department before beginning any type of repair. A few pages in the manual are devoted to a few troubleshooting basics. There was a major disappointment in this area: The most common failure component in any console is the slide fader. Arrakis notes the sliders on the ARC are soldered to the motherboard directly and the whole console must be returned to the factory for fader replacement. The rotary faders, however, are field serviceable. But save the shipping carton, just in case!
It is obviously my hope that the sliders are at least as durable as those in Mackie mixers that the console is replacing.
I did call Arrakis about this console regarding switching the USB input over to line level. The manual implies there is some kind of secret magic that tech support will somehow convey to you in a phone call.
There was no such magic, but the gang at Arrakis IS very friendly and helpful. Take off the handful of screws on the bottom of the console and you have complete access to the motherboard. There’s your “magic.” Now make the changes or repairs without messing anything up!
PREPARING FOR THE BIG PROJECT
No matter how much preparation and thought you put into a studio project, you can never do too much planning, but even the best laid plans will and do go south when unexpected problems arise. Although I did some of my pre-work, I had more than my share of unexpected “issues” with this project.
Projects that are put together totally “on-the-fly” always take more time, cost more money in one way or another and have even more problems or unexpected surprises at the end that have to be fixed.
Set priorities, budget limitations and specifically what you want to accomplish as early as possible. Develop equipment and supplies lists and specifically WHICH vendors to use to acquire this equipment. This is easily accomplished using a simple Excel file.
There may be surprises! Equipment models are frequently discontinued, alternate options develop that may be more expensive – or even less expensive. Manufacturers frequently modify their product lines, or they stop making products altogether.
For example, originally, JBL’s “Control 1” speakers were not supplied with any mounting brackets. The current model “Control 1 Pro,” INCLUDES the mounting brackets. Another surprise this year was discovering legendary microphone boom manufacturer, Luxo, recently stopped making microphone-related products. They still make arm-mounted copy-holders. O.C. White is the only remaining broadcast boom manufacturer.
Broadcast vendors will be helpful in getting your list together and there are many good ones who support this publication.
For this project, I used Broadcasters General Store (BGS), Broadcast Supply Worldwide (BSW), and for the odd parts, MCM Electronics.
Your list should ultimately contain cable, any connectors required, mounting hardware and cable control supplies. Punch blocks as well as extra drill bits should also be on the list along with saber saw blades and any tools you don’t already have at your disposal.
Don’t forget extra power strips, and don’t buy the cheap $6 fire-hazard strips from the corner hardware store! Most of my studios have at least one Furman (or similar) rack-mounted “line conditioner” per rack. By the way, the term Line or Power Conditioner is simply a better quality surge strip. If you’re on a budget, the no-frills entry-level Furman rack-mount model is just under $50 from a broadcast supplier
For mission-critical applications, invest in an APC or Tripp UPS (conditioner with battery back-up). If there is a computer on the equipment list, make sure it has its own adequate and dedicated UPS. Don’t load a bunch of studio gear on the same UPS as a computer. Both companies make UPS models that are rack-mountable.
When building a studio, when possible, I prefer to bolt everything in place rather than having anything loose behind the rack. That isn’t always possible, however, in the case of AC wiring, proper and neat routing is a crucial ingredient to doing a professional job. It can also impact performance of the studio. Most import (to you especially) it also makes the studio easier to service if everything is plugged into a central MOUNTED device.
The current Furman model (“Mx8”) also has extra spacing for a couple of wall warts (plug-in power supplies) as well.
While assembling the furniture, I added many cable-tie mounts and “loops” in anticipation of where I thought the wire runs would be.
The preliminary furniture assembly took place in an unused video studio to eventually be moved to the actual studios.
It’s time to make another of those Excel lists!
This part of the planning should start once you have ordered your new equipment.
Since I have built so many studios at Specs Howard and elsewhere I have settled on many standards (such as “wire #1 and #2 are always mono, MIC-1 and MIC-2”). Part of those standards also include labeling each and every cable that passes audio or control, pre-cutting most of the cables to length and adding the connectors BEFOREHAND – if required or if appropriate.
The Excel list includes a list of designated WIRE numbers, a separate column for the SOURCE equipment a column for any PUNCH PIN-OUTS and finally, the DESTINATION equipment, providing the equipment pin-outs if necessary.
A column for special remarks can also be included.
Since this is an all-analog installation, I used traditional wiring techniques using single pair Belden 9451, however, these same methods can be applied with the growing popularity of using Cat 5 (four pair) network cable to wire the entire studio. This studios being built are analog only which was dictated by budget and type of consoles. The only difference is each WIRE number represents four pairs and those pin-outs should also be shown on your Excel wiring chart.
A separate block diagram can also detail any special wiring that may be required.
Each wire run required for studio assembly needs to be pre-cut if you are building your own pre-wires in house and from scratch. In general, it is better to over-estimate the lengths required and allow extra length for a service loop (or cut the surplus off at installation time and re-label the wire).
Wire runs to various parts of the rack should also be pre-bundled with cable ties, even if your shipment of the actual racks hasn’t arrived yet.
Use good quality tools! This includes such things as the ever-present diagonal cutters. A small green-handled pair of FLUSH cutters will allow you to trim cable ties. The “cheapie” cutters are generally not of this type and will leave a little tail of the cable tie where you trim them. This “tail” can and will cut your hands as you pull wires through the nooks and crannies of the furniture. Spend $19.95 rather than $4.99 on your dikes and save your hands from being hacked up.
OTHER TASKS & TIPS…
Those O.C. White microphone booms need to be pre-threaded with the appropriate cable and XLR connectors added to each end. I use actual microphone cable such as from Canare or Belden, rather than the thin line-level cable. The XLR jacks can also be mounted on the countertop near where the boom base is located. Use a ¾” spade drill for the jacks, then 1/16” bits for the screws. I used the tiny #4 ½” flat head phillips screws for this application. Be aware of what is beneath the countertop before drilling. Drill the holes first, then put the screws in by hand. If you try to high-speed the screws, you will either strip out the very small amount of wood below or tear up the face of the screw.
If you selected Shure SM-7 microphones, use right-angle XLR connectors from Neutrik so the microphone can fully rotate. Right angle XLR’s can be a real challenge to attach to the end of a braided-shield mic cable. This is why these type of tasks are best completed BEFORE the actual construction begins, perhaps when you are less stressed, have more patience and can take time to do a really good job with tasks such as these.
It is important to take care of whatever details you can think of that can be pre-assembled before your studio furniture arrives. Once the studio construction begins, the many “little details” you forgot or didn’t around to will only add to your studio downtime.
TEST THE NEW EQUIPMENT...
If necessary, assemble cables specifically for testing. As mentioned, the control / logic of the Arrakis ARC consoles selected needs extra attention. Work out the details of what is required to make it work and bench test the console. I also played music through the console for weeks while it was on the bench and tested each input. This is not always practical, but modular plugs for this model made it easy.
One of my tasks some 30 years ago (back then I was “Assistant to the Chief”) was to frequency sweep and measure distortion on all the inputs of our Pacific Recorders consoles. These tests were performed and the results recorded PRIOR to installation and last I heard, those consoles are STILL in service some 30 years later.
Today, manufacturing methods including quality control, technology and simply available time make these tests less important or at least less practical. If you can feed some audio in from a CD player and simply confirm it passes and sounds okay, calibration is in the right neighborhood AND take care of this BEFORE installation, you are ahead of the game. If you catch something flakey, it’s easier to send it back to the manufacturer before it is installed and while you haven’t gotten around to throwing out the shipping cartons! If you buy one of these ARC consoles from Arrakis, however, it is important to hang on to the shipping carton. More on that later.
DEMOLISHING THE OLD STUDIOS
This project had to be coordinated with carpet people and painters as well as our own staff and student needs. The first step was to remove any equipment that was going to be kept in service. Existing small racks were moved to a temporary storage area.
Countertops which were mounted on every wall also had to be removed and disposed of. This in itself was no small project. Equipment in the meantime, was salvaged from the old racks that was intended to kept in service.
A wall corner cut-out impacted the overall re-design of the room and we decided to make that side of the room a utility work corner with a matching countertop. Non-racked equipment and secondary voice-over microphones were located here.
As far as physical wiring, my preference was to do the Production studio first, as some of the tasks performed in the Newsroom could be done in Production while we were re-building the Newsroom.
THE STUDIO FURNITURE (SPECIAL NEEDS)…
Our Production studio is unusual because it contains TWO operator positions with two consoles and two of almost everything else. That made the furniture requirements very specialized and combined with an odd-shaped room, limited our options.
We had worked with Rod Graham in the past. Formerly building furniture for Arrakis, Rod now calls his own shots for Graham Studios. He has a depth of real-world knowledge and experience having designed and built broadcast furniture for decades.
My experience with his products at other facilities had also been a big selling point. Also, our success at Specs Howard with Graham’s help in turning six tiny video editing suites into six AUDIO studios was a major factor as well. His furniture continues to serve its purpose well, looks good and lasts a long time despite constant abuse.
OUT OF CONTROL DELAY FACTOR...
Unfortunately, for this project, furniture that was due for shipment on a June 6th …wasn’t. The delay would stretch into several more weeks. The simple result was our whole project came to a screeching halt.
Painters, carpet layers and a whole department not to mention basically my life had to be put on hold. Major projects delays such as this are common, but it is frustrating when they come at an unexpected time. I had even coordinated some personal time off from the time we placed the order to the expected ship date. Obviously, things didn’t work out as expected.
In any project, working and planning ahead of time is the key to success. Unfortunately, there are always factors that WILL be out of your control. Building in time allowances (where possible) for the unexpected is helpful but it doesn’t always work. I was ready for a few days or even a week of “slop” time, but not a month.
On the plus side, the school did not have a “hard and fast” deadline for when these studios HAD to be “up and running”, so we can cut quite a bit of slack, especially considering the product ordered was completely customized to our needs.
Obviously, this was one of those “out of control” items.
I was grateful to all other vendors who delivered everything else in some cases within days of placing the order. They are listed at the end of this article.
As noted, for our new studios, the new furniture could not be installed until the existing set-up was demolished, and new paint and carpet was installed. Typical of all studio installations, the sheer weight and size of the furniture requires assembly in place although most of the Graham furniture is modular. So as mentioned, we pre-assembled the modules, in another location, without bolting the furniture modules together. Using two-wheel dollys and a furniture moving dolly, the furniture modules were later moved into their final location.
WHEN THINGS REALLY GET OUT OF CONTROL…
At the time I would have LIKED to have started the actual wiring project, the old studios were quite heavily in use. The trick was in the timing and unfortunately, that “timing” turned out to be a bit of a wait. Any station renovation has to be concerned with the day-to-day operation of the facility, unless they have the luxury of re-building in a completely new location.
As mentioned, much of the pre-wiring and partial furniture assembly took place in a back room. The most time on the Production studio, since this was the dual console configuration with the Arrakis ARC-10 consoles I wasn’t as familiar with.
The delay would not have been so bad had it not been for yet ANOTHER little personal inconvenience: The doc says I need to go to the hospital for a routine procedure. Unfortunately, the hospital messed it up, which took ME out of circulation. Further unfortunately, they forgot to give me enough antibiotics and on the day the old studio demolition began about 10 days later, I was told to check into the ER immediately. My blood was choked with bacteria! Nothing is more frustrating to an engineer than delays – except for maybe not seeing the completion of a major project at all due to being hospitalized or dead!
So the demolition crew was about half way through their task when I left the building expecting to return in an hour or two on that fateful day that I checked into the hospital.
The demolition guys had NOT been told how I wanted a certain console that was to be kept in service removed. This would create a few extra days of work later. The console mentioned is a Radio Systems Millenium analog board. We have hopes of doing the digital conversion offered by RS at a later date.
Because the uninstall was without my direction, I had to recreate all the analog wiring. The console also had several minor prior problems that had gone unreported that I had to fix. Additionally, I converted six console inputs to microphone level. That’s easy to do with the RS consoles if you have extra plug-in DIP’s for the consoles. I did. For parts, Radio Systems and Cecile at Broadcasters General Store gave their usual great service.
This (the WJMZ studio), as it turns out, was also a studio Rod Graham had provided the super-deluxe premium furniture for, without charging the super-premium price (Thanks Rod!). This studio now looks like it’s ready for talk radio in any top 10 market. This was actually the second studio I was able to work on. Production was the first. I actually re-used a great deal of our older equipment – merely cleaning it up and repairing it. The impression is everyone thinks it’s ALL brand new. If it was, we would have needed a much larger budget.
WORKS IN PROGRESS
Specs Howard’s Production, News and WJMZ studios are actually renovation works in progress. Further technology upgrades in all studios are both anticipated and necessary.
Where possible, however, we have provided the infrastructure necessary to support additional equipment. Extra computer keyboard drawers in the furniture is an example of this support.
Those who read this publication hopefully already realize technology that supports our industries will never stop advancing at speeds that will challenge our minds and budgets.
It is hoped through my work, broadcasters of tomorrow as well as anyone reading this will find a means to stay on top of the advances and do so affordably in this tight economy.
PARTIAL EQUIPMENT LIST
2 Electro-Voice RE-20 microphones
2 Arrakis ARC-10BP consoles
2 Denon DN-C635 CD players
2 Tascam MD-350 Mini-Disc Recorders
1 Tascam CD-RW402 CD copier/recorder
2 Dell flat screen monitors
1 Henry Logic Converter
2 Behinger Powerplay ProXL headphone amplifier
2 Furman M8x line conditioner
2 ART SLA-1 power amplifiers
2Advocent Longview KVM Extenders
2pairs JBL Control 1 monitor speakers
1 Shure SM-7 microphone
1 Radio Systems Millenium 6-A console
1 Dell computer, keyboard and mouse
1 ART SLA-1 power amplifier
1 pair JBL Control 1 monitor speakers
WJMZ Radio Studio
4 Shure SM-7 microphones
1 Radio Systems Millenium 12-A console
2 Denon DN-C635 CD players
2 Tascam MD-350 Mini-Disc Recorders
1 Sony MDS E-12 Mini-Disc Recorder
1 Behringer HEADAMP headphone amplifier
1 Furman M8x line conditioner
1 Samson Power Amplifier
1pair JBL Control 1 monitor speakers
PEOPLE TO WHO HELPED MAKE THIS PROJECT POSSIBLE
Tom Profit, Operations Manager, Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts
Rod Graham, President, Graham Studios LLC
Cecile Gibson, Broadcaster’s General Store
Paul Schweiger, Broadcast Supply Worldwide