Music aficionados who fancy “MTV Unplugged,” “VH1 Storytellers” and the like would be drooling if they saw — or, to be more precise, heard — the sounds emanating from XM Radio, a high-tech radio studio that was recently unveiled in the nation's capital.
On a scorching June day, in the satellite radio service's new $2 million, 1,500-square-foot performance studio at Washington, D.C.,'s Eckington Place, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is telling war stories between strums of his acoustic guitar during a taping of a segment for XM's Fine Tuning channel. He's one of a growing list of notables, including celloist Zuil Bailey, keyboardist Ben Folds and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who have already performed at the state-of-the-art space.
The studio can accommodate an audience of 50 or a 40-piece orchestra, and is designed to simulate a chamber concert hall. XM VP of operations Tony Masiello, who helped design the performance suite and oversaw construction, says the room easily doubles as a premier recording studio. “It has its own acoustic signature,” he explains. “It's not a flat room. It has some reverb.”
THE BIG IDEA
The performance space was constructed with diverse surfaces, most notably a floor-to-ceiling glass diffuser that allows passers-by to observe the goings on while it eliminates reflections that ordinarily bar the use of large expanses of glass in studios. The back wall is canted, angled and contains diffusers, as well. Masiello calls it the “sweet spot” of the studio.
Building from scratch proved a critical advantage for Masiello and a team that included Northeastern Communication Concepts (NCC) and the Francis Daniel Consulting Alliance, allowing them to employ some old and new design concepts.
For instance, the studio and the control room are fully floating, with a steel floor sitting on rubber isolators that Masiello says are akin to “big hockey pucks.” Maple and mahogany form the surface. There are also silencers for the air conditioning, an extensive theatrical lighting system by Barbizon, and wall and ceiling Diffusors built by Upper Marlboro, Md.-based RPG, including the OptiCurve and FlutterFree models.
The control room is what's called a “zero-environment” room, lined from floor to ceiling with louvers around high-density plywood so that unwanted reflections are quashed. A 96-channel Sony Oxford digital mixing console with full automation is the centerpiece. Recording is to Pro Tools|HD. In the studio are Coles 4038 ribbon mics, the limited-edition and custom-made DPA 4004 transistor mics (only 100 of which exist worldwide) and a handmade vintage Neumann/Telefunken U47 “vocalist” condenser mic.
WHAT YOU DON'T HEAR… AND WHAT YOU DO
According to Masiello, NCC was brought in to keep the sound out, and Francis Daniel Consulting Alliance was onboard to keep sound in. “What was unique about it for us,” observes NCC design associate Philip Altenburg, “is that it's the largest studio we've ever built using Acoustic Systems pre-engineered enclosures. For that reason, there were some unique structural challenges, like creating the floating 6.25-inch-thick steel floor that's topped by wood, which is glued to itself, not the steel underneath it. It's strong enough to drive the forklift around on top of it.
“It's definitely the quietest room I've ever been in. You can't hear any noise from the loading docks, any of the diesel generators or — and this is key — music from the adjacent control room.”
The walls sit on the floor and the roof sits on the walls, without any connections to the surrounding structure. “If condos were built this way, neighbors wouldn't complain so much,” Altenburg says with a grin.
Francis Daniel, principal of his West Palm Beach, Fla.-based company, says, “I want to point out that the concept underlying the design of the control room is very unusual in this country. It's used all over Europe, but it's rare here,” adding that all such studios built domestically were, until now, designed by Tom Hidley.
Producing an average environment today is meaningless, Daniel stresses, because music is listened to in such an incredibly wide range of acoustic environments, from headphones to multichannel sound systems. What to do? “Get as direct a pipeline from your ear to the source material as possible. That's what this ‘zero-environment’ concept is about.”
“There's an amp for every transducer,” states Russell Sherwood, general manager of Eagle EKSC in Olathe, Kan., parent company of XM Radio. “In that system, there are 80 amps and 80 loudspeakers, so they're designed to work together for greater control and very low distortion.”
For P.A., XM has installed Studio Live arrays employing 25 mid/bass drivers and four high-frequency drivers, with bass supplemented by 10 drivers in five On Stage subwoofer cabinets, powered by 7,550 watts. “Our goal is to produce a loudspeaker that has less distortion than the ear,” Sherwood says. “Our speakers in that room at XM produce the lowest frequency and time distortion you're likely to hear.”
As for the studio, the live room is designed to maximize diffusion, which is “a key element in any performance space,” Daniel says. “Even walking around the column (by the door), you still basically hear the same balance. It doesn't get any better than that, if I do say so myself. And I do.”
For his part, Hackett seems impressed. “Acoustically, it's lovely. That means there's nowhere to hide, of course,” he muses, adding a thought that seems to harken back to playing with his old bandmate, the skins-pounding Phil Collins. “Sound carries very well. You'd go deaf very quickly in here with a rock drummer.”
Mark Smith is a freelance writer based near Washington, D.C.