National Public Radio, headquartered in Washington, D.C., needslittle introduction. Established in 1970, NPR has grown during the pastthree decades to become a well-respected multimedia outlet employingmore than 700 reporters, producers, editors, and online andadministrative staff. Today, NPR programming airs on 709 radio stationsoperated by close to 300 member organizations. At a time when many newscompanies are reducing operations, NPR News has expanded and todayextends over foreign and domestic bureaus.
But until earlier this year, an important part of the jigsaw wasmissing: NPR lacked a substantial presence on the West Coast.“Given the importance of the West Coast as a news source,”says Bud Aiello, NPR’s director of engineering technology, “werealized that a full-service facility was required within the LosAngeles area.”
A building was located in Culver City, just south of Los Angeles, ina space that recently housed an Internet video production andteleconferencing firm. It came complete with production suites, supportsystems and technical build-out. The presence of an existing technicalinfrastructure that included a high-power UPS, large-capacity AC,generator transfer switch, a central facilities room and provision forsatellite dishes dramatically streamlined the conversion for radioproduction.
“Because this building already offered a number of areas thatwe could modify for production and broadcasting, we could save a largeamount of money,” notes Aiello. The 25,000-square-foot facilityis the first large-scale production center NPR has established outsideof Washington, D.C. Eventually, NPR West will house a staff of 90,including a Los Angeles News Bureau. It opened officially on November2, 2002, just in time for coast-to-coast coverage of the fallelections. Reported cost for the NPR West project, including the $8million purchase of land and a two-building facility, was $13million.
As NPR’s second-largest facility, NPR West also provides backup tothe network, which produces, acquires and distributes some 120 hours ofprogramming a week to stations around the U.S. “September 11thmade it apparent in a very urgent way that we need another facilitythat could keep NPR going if something devastating happens inWashington,” says Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior VP forprogramming.
DESIGN AND MODIFICATIONS
The new complex comprises five self-contained production suites,plus two on-air studios with companion control rooms. A centralTechnical Center links all of the areas via control and audio datanetworks, and provides access to incoming and outgoing satellite andrelated circuits to Washington and other locations, as necessary. (A40×40-foot area with associated control room is currently underconsideration for use as a large recording studio or video productionstage.) Architectural design for the conversion project was by studiobau:ton of Los Angeles, with principal Peter Grueneisen serving as leadarchitect/acoustical designer and Charles Irving as project manager.Virginia-based TGS Inc. provided system design and integrationservices.
According to Grueneisen, “[NPR’s] architectural plan calledfor serious acoustical improvements, which were accomplished withfloating floors and new, heavy room shells in the two larger studiosand with isolation cuts in the slab around the smaller rooms. Althoughthe layout of the building did not need substantial changes, the roomsessentially had to be rebuilt.” To provide enhanced soundisolation within the three edit suites and pair of production areas,modular, prefabricated broadcast booths from Wenger Corporation wereassembled inside the existing areas.
“For the larger control rooms and on-air studios, we decidedto raise and float the concrete slabs,” adds Irving. “Foracoustical room treatments, we used three products that were selectedfor their economy — not only as material, but also for ease ofinstallation. On the walls, we used a combination of Bonded AcousticalFabric Pad (BAFP), which is a Fiberglas-free material produced fromrecycled cotton rag, and Porous Expanded Polypropylene Panels (PEPP).These panels were either bonded directly to the gypsum board surfacesor, where we needed to cover acoustic wall and ceiling cavities, weemployed a system of wire-mesh backing or exposed wood battens. On theceilings, we specified a combination of PEPP and Sonex, using similarattachment methods.” Acoustical Surfaces Inc. supplied the BAFPand PEPP products, plus Sonex. TGS Inc. supplied the various studiodesks and control room furniture.
In terms of the new facility’s production equipment, NPR went withwhat it had in Washington and New York: Dalet Digital Media Systemsnetworked hard disk editors and asset-management systems, and the KlotzVADIS II Audio Network, with a variety of control surfaces tailored tothe specific needs of each production and on-air studio. This way,staff can move freely between these locations and control of criticalfunctions can happen remotely.
High-speed DS3-level connections to Washington provides wide areanetworking of the Dalet playback and Klotz routing systems, in additionto enabling real-time digital audio transfers. “A reporter willbe able to enter [NPR West’s] Production 4 or 5 and have a technicianin D.C. handle the interconnect from 3,000 miles way,” Aielloexplains. “A total of nine MPEG Layer-2 [data-compression] codecsoperating at 384 kbits connect [NPR West] to Washington. Codecs 1through 4 are normaled to the stereo outputs from the main on-airstudios A, B and C [A is currently under consideration], plus the TechCenter. The remaining five ports are used for various mono/stereofeeds.” At the Washington, D.C., facility, the outputs from NPRWest’s studios and Technical Center appear as dedicated inputs on therouting switcher, which connects to the facility’s various productionareas and satellite distribution network.
The use of close to 60 Dalet workstations for audio recording,playback and asset management, plus eight Klotz digital consoles forlevel control and routing, dramatically streamlines the networkingprocess. Dalet playback ports are normaled digitally to Klotz inputs,and outputs are routed to recorder inputs; various system topologieshave been developed to let radio journalists run the five productionsuites by themselves, while conventional operators are used in thelarge-format studios.
“We designed the five production suites so that reporters andproducers could handle everything from a central, self-containedlocation,” Aiello explains. “Suites 4 and 5 are slightlydifferent since they also house a Telos Zephyr system that can feedmaterial directly to Washington, for example, via a [bidirectional]ISDN network connection. In this way, we can also go live to thenetwork from any of these rooms, if necessary.”
DIGITAL CONTROL SURFACES
NPR West’s Klotz digital mixing engines comprise a series of DCIIControl Surfaces linked via high-speed Ethernet LANs connected to VADIS(Variable Audio-Distribution Interface System) processing cores androuters located in a number of technical areas throughout the complex.“NPR West’s central mainframe houses the VADIS 880 DSPcontroller/router that handles assignment of the control surface’svarious shaft encoders and programmable switches,” says KarlSchoning, Klotz’s director of engineering, adding that the system isconfigured with a number of mic preamps, analog inputs, AES/EBU andS/PDIF digital inputs, MADI, ADAT optical, RS232/422 serial control andother ports.
“By creating a two-layered system in VADIS, we have separatedaudio from control,” stresses Klotz project leader JonathanBurtner. This configuration allows for the routing of logic/machinecontrol information, audio signals, serial information,program-associated data information and digital sync, while eliminatingapproximately 90% of traditional inter-room cabling. “And our TDM[Time Division Multiplex technology] has allowed us to design a systemwith scalable DSP that results in an unlimited busstructure.”
While audio is distributed from one VADIS frame to another viafiber-optic cables, logic/machine control information travels over aclosed Ethernet-based LAN between individual consoles so that operatorscan create a customized logic control topology. VADIS frames andcontroller engines can be located remotely or in the same room as theDCII surface, or both, depending on the user’s requirements. Thecombination of TDM and fiber optics means that an unlimited number ofvirtual control surfaces can be connected to the system.
The universal VADIS 880 mainframe accepts a variety of audio, dataand DSP modules without limitation to inputs or outputs. All VADISframes can act as a master digital audio sync, but can also slave toexternal house clock references, including the facility’s NVisionNS5500 Universal Sync Generator. The frame comes standard with a dualfail-safe power supply and dual-redundant digital audio syncmodules.
Each of NPR West’s five production suites features 4-fader VADISDCII console surfaces, while the two on-air studios and the TechnicalCenter were supplied short-loaded with 20-fader surfaces. Any sourceconnected to any console surface can appear on any fader; entireconsole setups of sources, mix-minus, dynamics, EQ, bus assignments andso on can be recalled at the push of a button. Typical mixer layoutsprovide source selection per fader or several fader channels connectedto the external router. TFT screens in each room display systemsettings and graphics for EQ/dynamics parameters. Each DCII can addressfour stereo output buses — PGM, AUD, UTL and Mix-Minus —plus various mix-minus DSP options, each with an individual talkbackfeature and stereo/mono configuration.
“Because of the VADIS system’s distributed processing andclosed LAN topology, there are no slaves and masters as such,”says Greg Mensching, former Klotz digital sales engineer andsystem/technical designer for the NPR project. “Any consolesurface, in theory, can control any processing element anywhere in thebuilding or, with access to the L.A.-to-D.C.-wide area network,anywhere in the NPR system. Integrating consoles, audio routers,logic-follow capabilities and distribution of digital audio sync can bea formidable proposition; VADIS networking is designed to dramaticallystreamline that process for NPR West.”
As with the New York and Washington facilities, NPR West featuresDalet Digital Media Systems editing workstations, along with severalhigh-capacity digital audio servers. The Dalet 5.1 Advanced Pro Systemcomprises an array of 55 workstations connected via a 100-megabitEthernet LAN to five servers that communicate with central hard drivesvia a high-speed Fibre Channel topology. (NPR has also installed 280Dalet workstations throughout its main Washington, D.C.,facilities.)
According to Ken Tankel of Dalet, “The system providesreal-time sharing of all digitized media files that NPR [journalistsand producers] generate for their programs. For high-demand systemsrequiring a terabyte of more of storage, we specify IBM SeriesFASt-T500 storage [arrays] configured in RAID-5 topology to ensureinstant recovery from any hardware failure.” Windows-based PCsare used for desktop editing and programming. A dual-loop Fibre Channelconnection to each of the arrayed hard drives provides additionalnetwork redundancy. A total of 5 terabytes of digitized audio andmetadata can be stored in the NPR West facility. “This is not thelargest Dalet server array [being used by] a radio customer,”notes Tankel. “XM Satellite Radio, for example, which provides100 channels of [U.S. satellite delivery programming], features 28terabytes of data — some 1.8 million songs — shared by atotal of 350 workstations.”
Dalet’s system uses a client/server architecture to providereal-time audio playback at any of the networked workstations,reading/writing audio files directly to NT/2000-based servers arrayedon a TCP/IP-driven LAN. Dalet’s media asset-management system providesan integrated digital audio environment for recording, editing andstoring audio, plus log creation and automated/live playback. All ofNPR West’s production studios, voice-over rooms, news preparationareas, producer areas and central control rooms are networked throughthe media asset- management system. Industry-standard TCP/IP and FTPprotocols are used for most data transport within the network andto/from external sources.
Sybase SQL Professional ASE Microsoft SQL serves as the database fordigital audio files and asset management; a single database referencesaudio, text, multimedia files and other program- associated data. TheDalet system can edit and play out linear PCM, MPEG Layer-2 and MPEGLayer-3 data-compressed files, in stereo or mono, interchangeably.
“Our editing software handles eight stereo trackssimultaneously,” Tankel explains, “and eliminates multipletranscodings. The Dalet editing software generates EDLs that areexecuted when a ‘project’ is saved. The EDL is executed onthe MPEG files in dedicated DSP or using the workstation’s CPU.”Transcodings only occur if the finished format is different from any ofthe formats in the project.
Various software components handle specific functions within theDalet server and workstation network. For example, manual recording;automated recording; 2, 4 and 8-track editing; and manual and automatedplay-out are all modules that can appear on the desktop. A flexibleuser rights-management system allows user access to specific tools anddesktop environments tailored to specific needs and skills.
“NPR West is the one of the most significant developments inNPR’s capacity to provide programming services to stations andlisteners in the past two decades,” says Kevin Klose, NPRpresident and CEO. “Years of thoughtful analysis, months ofcareful site selection and detailed facility planning have gone intoNPR West. This means a huge expansion in our capacity to bring timely,comprehensive news of the West to our national newsmagazines, newscastsand cultural programming. The unique sounds and energies of thisstoried region and its people will be heard in lively new ways from NPRWest.”
Mel Lambert heads up Media&Marketing (www.mel-lambert.com), a full-service consultingservice for pro audio firms and facilities.
Bonus Images from NPR West
plans for the 25,000-foot facility
improving quality of life at work