Live Sound

Satellite Soaring

XM AND SIRIUS BRING PRO AUDIO TO DIGITAL RADIO 4/01/2006 7:00 AM Eastern

Where's the spirit of radio? Instead of looking for invisible wavelengths originating from tall terrestrial towers, focus your eyes on the skies. Train a high-powered telescope in that direction, and you just may grab a fleeting glimpse of the satellites that carry the commercial-free music and adventurous programming of SIRIUS and XM. Stock prices at both companies may be pitching up and down, but when it comes to the operational philosophies and technology driving their premium original content, there's no question about the direction: full speed ahead.

One of XM’s two Earth station antennas

For both satellite providers, the pressure is on to prove to stockholders and subscribers that they're on the cutting edge of content development. Each has its maze of production spaces for programming and automating playlists for the seemingly endless number of stations. But in the past year, each has also made significant moves to offer original content, including live music events and — well, we've all heard about Howard Stern.

Accordingly, each company has beefed up its production facilities to handle the demands of live music and special-guest “DJs.” SIRIUS added Stern's new 2,400-square-foot penthouse facility within its New York City headquarters, along with upgrades to the digital backbone. XM purchased one of the industry's leading remote recording facilities, Effanel, and occupies the newly designed recording facilities at Jazz at Lincoln Center (New York City).

Although most visitors are aware only of the live venues at Jazz at Lincoln Center — including the highly versatile Rose Theater, the brilliant Allen Room with its 50-foot glass wall overlooking Central Park and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola — there is a hidden recording, mixing and production paradise built inside the structure, connected to all the rooms.

SIRIUS studios at company headquarters in Rockefeller Center (New York City)

Three control rooms designed by studio architect John Storyk (of Walters Storyk Design Group) were included in the center's design, though the audio production facilities were conceived with no specific tenant in mind. Instead, the plan was to launch JALC and find the right audio production entity to occupy and manage the control rooms.

That tenant, as it turned out, would be XM, which in early 2005 had acquired Randy Ezratty's mobile production powerhouse, Effanel Music. Seeing as how Ezratty and partner Joel Singer's philosophy has always been to record and live-mix productions with their L7, OSR and ob/u mobile units, and then remix later on a matching system for subsequent broadcast at a dedicated studio, the prospect of taking things to the next level at JALC's then-vacant control rooms made perfect sense for all parties involved. XM Productions-Effanel Music would archive all of JALC's performances so that XM could broadcast many of them, while still being free to work on any other incoming work they wanted — from mobile productions to 5.1 DVD projects.

Add it all up, and you've got a fulfilling gig for the engineers who get to work at this wide-ranging, fiber-interconnected facility. “The uniqueness of being able to come to work every day for the Mecca of jazz and all styles of music is incredible,” confirms Rob Macomber, chief engineer of XM Productions-Effanel Music, talking from the spacious surroundings of the facility's Studio A. “There really isn't another 5.1 mixing room like this in the city, and we have the ability to record in these beautiful-sounding, acoustically designed facilities that are right in the middle of the art form. The fact that we're working with XM, pushing this content to all of its stations, makes the scope here all the more interesting.”

XM’s John Storyk–designed facilities at Jazz at Lincoln Center (New York City)

For those familiar with Effanel, the most noticeable shift is a move away from an orientation around Neve Capricorn consoles and toward total Digidesign Pro Tools — with a twist. The fact that Macomber puts his hands on a 48-fader ICON in Studio A, or on either of two 32-fader ICON integrated consoles in Studios B and C, all provided by pro audio integrator Tekserve (www.tekserve.com), is not so unusual. However, XM Productions-Effanel Music's practice of simultaneously running triple Pro Tools|HD systems during recording sessions — one as a mixer and two as recorders — most assuredly is.

The approach feeds off the considerable expertise that Macomber, who often serves as a certified trainer for Digidesign, has with Pro Tools. “When I started working with Effanel, I brought in and solidified the idea that Pro Tools could work not only as a recorder, but as a mixing environment,” Macomber explains. “The folklore out there is that Pro Tools isn't stable and you can't use it for live recording, but Randy's outlook then is, ‘I'm going to make it work because they said I couldn't — and it can.’”

At XM Productions-Effanel Music, all live audio comes out of a MADI router into two Pro Tools|HD recording systems (for redundancy) and a mixer system. “The idea of a separate mixer stems from the fact that there's certain things you can do in Pro Tools when the transport is not moving,” says Macomber. “That way, in the mixer, you're not pulling at all on the CPU. You're doing less with a Pro Tools mix session like that than working in Excel. In an environment where all the variables of software and plug-ins can play a part in causing an error of some sort, this ensures integrity and stability.”

Rob Macomber in XM Productions-Effanel Music’s Studio A, which includes Digidesign ICONs.

If the mix/record environment seems well thought out, the signal path that the audio takes to get there from any point of origin in JALC is just as careful. Starting with a massive 110-plus microphone collection of B&K (now owned by DPA), Neumann, Royer, Sanken, Schoeps, Telefunken and more, the sound captured in any of the live venues then travels to a Radial transformer-isolated splitter. From there, it heads toward the mix and record Pro Tools systems, as well as monitoring, if need be.

On the way to Pro Tools, the signal will travel through some of the 96 channels of Grace 802 remote-control preamps and/or Millennia HV-8 preamps (soon to be upgraded to remote-control versions). Next are Apogee AD-16X 16-channel 192kHz A/D converters, clocked by an Apogee Big Ben 192k master clock. Following that, the now-digital signal goes into an RME ADI-648 MADI-to-TOSLINK converter, which allows easy transport of MADI streams of the multiple channels over the 48 strands of fiber that connect all control rooms, performance venues and rehearsal spaces to each other within JALC. With all fiber leading to a patch panel at the studios' Technical Operations Center (TOC), the MADI stream hits an RME MADI bridge that routes everything off to the three Pro Tools systems for recording/mixing.

Whether the audio has been recorded at JALC or flown in from one of the Effanel trucks, it winds up on the facility's 4.2-terabyte Studio Networks Solution SAN, after which broadcast clients can walk away with their final mix following a simple transfer to a FireWire drive. If the mix is destined for XM, then it travels via Ethernet to XM's headquarters in Washington, D.C., before being beamed up to the three Boeing satellites in orbit around Earth.

SIRIUS’ control room, where programmers manage its fleet of three satellites

“A lot of what they've done at XM Productions-Effanel Music is cutting-edge,” observes Chris Payne, director of professional audio sales for Tekserve; he also helped outfit XM's two performance studios and 12 production rooms in Washington. “They're saying, ‘Now we want people to be mixing more in the desk.’ They're not investing in outboard hardware so that they can work within the computers, and that's where the industry is going — if it's not already there — with the quality. Also, this way all of the facilities are identical, so their engineers can go from one room to the next and create one environment, so to speak. It creates this constant workflow.”

Payne and Tekserve are also intimately familiar with the Coke to XM's Pepsi, SIRIUS, having worked on multiple facilities within their world headquarters a few avenues away from JALC in New York City's midtown. With more than 120 original 24/7 radio stations to manage, plus an in-house content juggernaut in Stern, a closer look at SIRIUS uncovers the unique logistical and maintenance issues that come with satellite radio.

“What distinguishes satellite radio from traditional radio is its scalability,” points out Jake Glanz, director of broadcast maintenance and operations for SIRIUS. “Even the big radio clusters tend to max out at a half-dozen stations under one hood; we are 120 under one hood. Solutions that work on a small scale don't often scale up so nicely. It's a whole world of possibilities, but you have to look into the future more carefully so you can sleep better without worrying about your decisions. We currently have 37 studios here, and you want them to be as multipurpose and as flexible as possible due to the sheer volume of production that takes place here on a daily basis.”

Although XM Productions-Effanel Music seems to have multiple Pro Tools HD racks everywhere but the bathroom, Glanz makes no apologies for his multitude of Pro Tools LE and Mix TDM systems, married to a 250-plus workstation system tied together with one of the largest Prophet Systems automation networks in existence, connecting Manhattan via point-to-point T1s to smaller facilities in Houston, Memphis, Nasvhille, Cleveland and L.A.

SIRIUS’ main broadcast studio at its New York headquarters

“For radio-style production, realistically, the powerful combination of high-speed CPUs with upgraded host-based technology means that the big decision these days is, ‘Do you need the high-end HD systems or can you just live in the 44.1/48k world and not make that jump?’” notes Glanz. “That decision is blurred with the powerful LE-type systems. That format is adequate and will be for some time. Although there have been some very promising tests done at higher sampling rates — 96k production with higher bit-rate encoders for instance — there's a cost analysis that has to be taken into account when considering these upgrades. The host CPUs like G5s have improved so much that it really blurs the need of going to a dedicated TDM system for low track-usage production.”

Although Glanz didn't personally head up the construction of Stern's 2,400-square-foot facility within SIRIUS' headquarters, he observes that the integration of the “King of All Media” into the fold took some troubleshooting. “Like everything else in Manhattan, it boils down to a real estate issue,” Glanz says. “The transition was full of your typical building-inside-a-non-ideal-office-building issues. However, it was well-planned and executed on time. One thing that's not to be overlooked was the fact that it had to be integrated with a TV studio. In terms of complexity, that added greater electrical AC load requirements for the lighting system, as well as acoustic solutions for noisy video gear.”

Although so many stations constantly creating fresh content are a boon for the subscriber, the dirty little secret behind their production is the constantly fragmenting hard drives that the DJs and program directors leave in their wake as they rush forward. “You never have enough storage: The bigger the trashcan you get, the more they fill it with,” Glanz says bluntly. “So there's always a battle with the production department to maintain themselves and get their spinning disks cleaned up of stuff they never use. We have migrated away from local SCSIs almost universally and have adopted FireWire on the local machines in the studios, although whatever's SAN-based is still Fiber Channel.

“As our facilities evolve, the drivers are always reliable and compact in functionality, aside from the obvious sound quality. We don't have much margin for error when it comes to studio down time.”

SIRIUS and XM are currently running very different facilities, but the sense of adventure that comes with satellite production is a common thread for the people involved. “I'm definitely in my dream job,” Macomber reflects. “We're marrying technology with the arts in a user-friendly, creative environment, using state-of-the-art systems to do high-definition archiving. This atmosphere is conducive to everyone charging forward and creating great musical productions.”

“I'm part of a very excellent broadcast engineering team,” Glanz adds. “We're all taking part in something that's never been done before. But since we're reinventing the wheel, the real challenge is simply having enough hours in the day to come up with solutions on a large scale.”


David Weiss is Mix's New York editor.

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