Forget for a moment that it's football. You'd be hard-pressed to name any single facility outside of Hollywood that offers as wide a range of audio services as NFL Films: music composition, scoring, editing, mixing, location recording, dialog cleanup, sound effects, transfer, live recording, audio for DVD-Video, record production, re-recording, and archiving; for clients like HBO, ESPN, Fox, History Channel, A&E, Sony Music and a number of commercials and industrials. This year, NFL Films will produce more than 400 hours of highly dramatic, authentic-sounding football highlights for broadcast, and all of it is captured, produced and mixed in-house. NFL Films is a busy place, and they don't just do football.
In the 14-room audio wing on a typical weekday in September, every room was busy. Gary Winger had premix work on a Good Charlotte 5.1 music DVD, while Vince Caputo was in D mixing NFL Films Presents for ESPN and Steve Moseley was in B mixing Inside the NFL for HBO. Composer Tom Hedden was in Studio A tracking Middle Eastern instruments for a series of NFL spots; the day before, it had been the site of the first full-blown orchestral mix on their SSL 9000 J Series board. Music-selection rooms were busy, narrations were being recorded in Studio F, the band The Roots was shooting on the soundstage for NFL Under the Helmet (a Fox Saturday afternoon TV show), scores were being written, and the transfer department was working 24-hour shifts. Yet in the hallways, there was nothing but the hum of quiet efficiency.
Today, the NFL Films complex stands as one of the great recent achievements in facility design, a stunning architectural and technical display. It's hard to imagine that until July, this same frenzy of activity took place in a patchwork collection of 1986-style rooms three miles away.
ADD-ON OR GROUND-UP?
In 1995, vice president of audio Jerry Mahler approached the executive team and said that he needed another mix suite. It was evident that both video and audio were outgrowing their space, and the wheels were set in motion to undergo a major expansion. The only decision was whether to tack on or build anew.
“A confluence of factors really drove this decision to build new,” says Barry Wolper, chief operating officer. “First, we were simply out of space at the old building. We had cannibalized every broom closet and open space that we could. Second, the NFL was in the middle of negotiations for new television contracts, which included a lot of NFL programming for the League's television partners. And third, with the FCC's DTV mandate, we knew we had to create an electronic infrastructure to be able to accommodate the new digital programming, especially hi-def.”
The first move Wolper made was to hire The Staubach Company (owned by former NFL great Roger Staubach) and principal Joseph Fetterman for project management and feasibility studies. Wolper, Fetterman, Mahler and Jeffery Howard, vice-president of operations/engineering, became the de facto “building team,” and after garnering League approval, they began scouting locations and viewing possible floor plans. As they will readily admit, nobody on the team could have foreseen the complexity of the four-year “fast-track” project.
As it stands today, the 200,000-square-foot NFL Films plaza consists of a tech wing and an admin wing, bridged by a two-story glass-and-steel connector that Mahler calls “Main Street.” The Russ Berger Design Group, which has enjoyed a 15-year relationship with NFL Films, handled the entire project, interior and exterior, headed up by principal Robert Traub.
“As we walked around the 26 acres on our first visit to the new site, I was immediately taken by the shape of the land, the backdrop of the wetlands and the view angles from the street as cars drove by,” Traub says. “Conceptually, the master plan was formed right then and there, with the idea of two building elements tied together with a bridge to house the personnel that literally spanned the two distinct cultures in the organization.
“Then on the technical wing, there exists an audio world and a video world,” he continues. “Not that these two universes don't collide on occasion, but functionally, the distinction between them needed to be made clear. Main Street allows easy circulation off of a central thoroughfare to let users venture into either area based on their daily needs to coordinate sight and sound.”
Groundbreaking took place — in the middle of a soybean field at the edge of a corporate park in Mt. Laurel, N.J. — in July 1999, and the ensuing three years tested the team's ability to focus on the macro and the micro simultaneously over a long period. The result is an exterior/interior worthy of Architectural Digest and a technical infrastructure worthy of the AES Journal. It's quite simply a production model for the next 25 years — and you can't see the wires.
Jerry Mahler is a stickler for details, and he's not afraid to offer his opinions on everything from light fixtures to main monitors, fabrics to consoles. He's also a big-picture guy who knows where he wants to go. He knew from the start, based on his experience mixing at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, that he wanted lots of wood and natural light. He also knew that he wanted impeccable acoustics. That combination, more than anything else, determined the tech wing's layout.
Video and audio each occupy a leg of a T-shape, and each is based around a central machine room. Because it is cheaper to build up than out, it was determined early on that all rooms that demanded isolation, including the online video-edit suites (which have identical acoustic specs as the audio premix rooms), would be on the first floor. Anything else, including telecine and the massive UPS system, would be bumped upstairs. Surrounding the audio central machine room are 14 rooms: all isolated, all with floating floors, all with windows (save Studio D, the dubbing stage).
The other major design consideration was determined by Studio A, the tracking room pictured on this month's cover. For the past 15 years, Mahler and his team had traveled the world, tracking and mixing orchestras to capture that signature, anthemic NFL Films sound. They had been to Abbey Road and CTS in London, The Warehouse in Vancouver, Westlake in Hollywood, Nonstop Studios in Utah, Time Machine and countless others. They now wanted their own stage.
“We needed a room that could handle 70 to 80 musicians and would be just large enough to get the reverb sound we wanted,” Mahler says. “It turns out that Abbey Road Studio Two had the reverb time we liked for our style of music and the size of the orchestra. Right from the beginning, Russ determined that the ceiling height needed to be 24 feet, and we weren't going to give an inch. Without the volume, we couldn't accomplish anything. So steelwise, the entire audio wing had to be that height, and all of the acoustic spaces benefited.”
WIRE MANAGEMENT AND CMR
Once NFL Films signed off on floor plans — “The last thing we ever signed!” Mahler jokes — construction began in earnest. Tons of dirt and gravel were moved, trailers were brought in, and Mahler and Howard, despite their day jobs of running a working facility, moved on-site to oversee every last construction detail, from months spent on welded corners to walking amid the studs and modifying the wire-management scheme.
Wire management was being developed in parallel as plans were being finalized. The only thing that Mahler and his longtime studio colleague, chief engineer Rich Markowitz, knew at the beginning was that they needed a central machine room, if only for video laybacks. And they wanted it soffited against the walls, with a rear entrance for techs. But then, after looking at the way they produce programs — where five rooms might be working on a project simultaneously and mixers might hop from an SSL Avant to a 9000 to an 8000 to a Sony DMX-R100 in the course of a single day — shared resources became paramount.
“We have to accommodate timecode, machine control, and audio and video in both analog and digital formats, from multiple rooms,” explains Markowitz. “That's where you start thinking about a router and large patching areas, where you can reconfigure your console quickly. In the old building, we had localized 8×8 routers for each control room. Today we're at 512×512. That's a big jump! And that determines the entire infrastructure in terms of how all the audio control rooms are going to operate.”
The router consists of an NVision NV3512 512×512 75Ω AES frame, an EnVoy 6128 128×128 Serial Digital Video frame, an NV7256 256×256 timecode frame and an NV3256 256-port serial control frame. All of the patch panels in all of the rooms are set up identically and mirror the CMR patchbay. In addition, the CMR houses a Fairlight Medialink server with just over half a terabyte of RAID 5 storage to accommodate 18 Fairlight QDCs and Audiobase, the library search system from mSoft.
Though the decision to go with a central router came later in the game, Markowitz was charged with setting up the unique wiring scheme, and he had to have it done before slabs could be poured. “Over the past three years of working on this project, our task was to design and build an audio post-production facility the likes of which we had only imagined before,” Markowitz says. “I was to design, document and build the infrastructure — the cables, the gear, the guts. I had done rooms before, but one at a time, and I had done a facility before, but over a 10-year stretch.
“So I spent days agonizing over what would make the most sense to the mixers, what would be easiest to use,” he continues. “We talked endlessly about new concepts, we tried stuff in the shop, we tested different types of cable, we mocked up systems, we tested demo gear — I could imagine nothing worse than putting all of these parts together and having something not work.”
It works. Essentially, the wiring scheme is built around a system of pits, tubes and troughs. Six 4-foot-deep pits were strategically placed to connect all 14 audio rooms, with access to the video wing across the hall. Through these pits runs a system of six 6-inch PVC pipes, which, in turn, lead into local machine rooms (all located in the hallways) and a series of troughs running into the rooms.
Floating floors were poured to flatness and tolerance levels that the contractors had never seen before, walls began going up and rooms were being finalized. Meanwhile, an entire working facility was going full-bore three miles away, and executives were trying to plan a piecemeal move that wouldn't interrupt their seasonal workflow. Plans were made and scrapped based on construction; then, it was decided in summer 2001 to put all contractors onto the admin building, so the staff and producers could move in, and leave post intact off-site. Later, all resources would be concentrated on the tech building.
Then, last December, three months away from the move-in date, NFL Films took on the final stage of system integration; the off-site prep work had been handled by The Systems Group of Hoboken, N.J. “What makes NFL Films unique is that it's designed around a hybrid operational model, whereby control rooms are available as operational islands, providing for separation and independence typical of most recording facilities,” says Chris Mehos, TSG president. “At the same time, they use centralized, shared resources typical of broadcast centers. It is the most well-planned and detailed audio production and post facility we've been involved with.”
Starting after the Super Bowl last January, the NFL Films audio staff began the wiring and cable pulling. First to go in was the CMR. It was to be followed by Studio A, because that was all-new equipment. But because of the need to get the previous season's highlight reels finished, plans flip-flopped, and it was decided that the two premix rooms, two transfer rooms and four music-editing suites needed to be up and running. Mixing would stay at the old facility. No vacations for the crew. Six-day weeks. The advantage? The engineers know every wire in that building.
What was supposed to be the first room up, Studio A, turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle. With all due respect to Studio D, the theatrical-style, multiformat, SSL Avant-equipped re-recording wonder room, Studio A is the crown jewel of NFL Films. The natural light streaming in through the geometric windows has already elicited praise from musicians. The Argentinean mesquite floors and blond-wood ceiling and walls lend comfort and richness. The five custom-designed mic panels make for smooth and quick setup. And the sound of the space, while still being experimented with, is accurate and true.
“The idea of the curved exterior wall with different-sized windows worked from within the room and as part of the architecture,” Traub says. “Determining the right window sizing and organization was partially inspired by the unforgettable imagery of Le Corbusier's Ron Champ Cathedral in France, where windows are cut out of masonary wall at different heights and sizes to allow sunlight to react to the interior spaces differently depending on the time of day. Large-scale wood frames were then added to the openings to enhance the diffusion on that side of the room. The giant 14-foot corner window was an element we promised Jerry early on. As he works in the control room, he can look out beyond the studio and see the building landscape and the background of wetland trees. It's quite a view!”
Inside the control room, which must pull triple-duty on tracking, mixing and re-recording dates, sits an 80-in SSL 9000 J Series console with an NFL Films custom scoring panel. There are 72 channels of Fairlight QDC, 64 channels of Pro Tools, a Studer analog 24-track and DLP projection, with source switching among multiple video formats. Monitoring is through PMC BB5 mains powered by Bryston 7B and 4B amps. NFL Films had made the switch to Bryston power about eight years back. The PMCs are new, and either BB5s or IB1s now sit in all rooms, with the smaller speakers and all video displays on monitor lifts.
“The decision on the PMCs was mine,” Mahler admits, with a nod to the Genelecs that many of his mixers were used to. “I had visited a lot of Berger-designed rooms, and when I got to Hank Williams' place in Nashville [MasterMix], I said, ‘I want those!’ I'd never heard anything like them.”
IT JUST KEEPS GOING
The preceding has been a grand overview of what it takes to build such a large and technically proficient facility. And this discussion doesn't even include the video end of the operation, which dwarfs the audio side and includes a modern film lab, six telecine bays and a 60-seat Avid plant on a Unity server, with 7 terabytes of storage. It also has some of the best camera operators and producers in the business.
Suffice it to say, this is an organization that does things right. NFL Films has brought home 82 Emmy Awards since 1965, 12 of them in audio and music. The League shoots more film than any organization in the U.S., and it has a foot in hi-def production. Now they have a facility that mirrors their product and sets the standard for production techniques in the digital age.
Because he drove the project and signed the checks, the last word goes to COO Barry Wolper: “It was certainly the project of a lifetime. We know how special this place is. We know that we've accomplished something extraordinary here. We're proud of the sport and the League and the organization, and we're grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the success of the League for the next quarter-century — long after we're gone.”
Tom Kenny is the editor of Mix.
THE 14-ROOM AUDIO TOUR
Because mix engineers work in all rooms, all the time, Jerry Mahler's first mandate to Russ Berger was to “make all of the rooms sound the same.” Equipment-wise, the main mix stages all include SSL consoles, Fairlight QDCs and PMC monitoring with Bryston amps. All rooms use Gefen XtendIt to keep all noisy machines in the hallways. Here is a brief control room tour, with travelogue by chief engineer Rich Markowitz:
Mix A: For me, Mix A is our crowning achievement. The new SSL 9080, PMC BB5 speakers and acoustic design combine for the best-sounding control room I've been in. As well as the usual complement of QDCs, DigiBeta, DVC and V1 video playback, Mix A has accommodations for additional analog or digital multitracks and 2-tracks. Lots of tielines, lots of outboard gear, natural light — everything Jerry and I ever wanted in a control room ended up in Mix A.
Mix B: The SSL 8048 console from our old facility has found a new home. Mix B has two voice-over rooms, as well as access to Mix A's recording space.
Mix C: This is next year's project.
Mix D: This “Hollywood-style,” all-digital mix theater turned out great. The Fairlight QDCs, SSL Avant console, PMC BB5 speakers and hard disk video playback provide a great way to do any type of multiformat mixing.
Mix E/F: These two rooms were designed as premix/voice-over rooms based around the Sony DMX-R100 console and Fairlight QDC. To standardize our voice-over signal path, we installed a pair of Focusrite 110 preamps and dbx 160SL compressors within arm's reach of the engineer.
Transfer 1/2: Probably the most complex rooms to design, our two sound-transfer rooms needed to be capable of accommodating any source format for transfer to just as many destinations. These rooms are equipped with QDC, CD, DAT, MD, DVC, analog 2-track and 16mm mag, as well as the ability to import and export all the latest computer-based file formats. We designed a lot of the switching and monitoring pieces for these rooms in-house.
Music Composition 1/2: Our two music-composition rooms feature identical Pro Tools MIXPlus systems with Pro Control. With all the new developments in software synths, we've been able to build a very uncluttered, yet powerful music-scoring room. These rooms also include Fairlight QDCs and PMC IB1S speaker systems.
Music Edit 1/2/3: Used for editing music, these rooms all have Fairlight QDCs and custom, NFL-designed monitor selectors.
Music Selection: This room is used primarily for music selection and editing. An 8-track QDC, Sony 40-inch plasma display and 5.1 audio monitoring make this a great place to review our work in a living room (upscale) kind of environment.
Mix S, the soundstage: We moved the SSL 6032 from a mix room in the old facility to our new shooting stage. With the Fairlight QDC, PMC speakers and video monitor wall, Mix S is capable of handling both weekly shoots and post-production mixing duties.