The BBC has a track record for adapting old film studios to its needs. From 1949 to 1991 the broadcaster occupied the former Gaumont Film Company site at Lime Grove in west London and in 1954 took over what are now the Riverside Studios, moving out in 1975.
In 1984 the BBC bought studios at Borehamwood, in the civil parish of Elstree to the north of London. These date back to 1914 and were used previously by several film companies and now long defunct commercial broadcaster ATV. Several more film studios exited in the Elstree/Borehamwood, most notably those built in 1925 and which now house Elstree Film Studios (EFS).
The BBC had concentrated its TV production at Television Centre (TVC) from 1960 until it was closed for redevelopment in March this year. BBC Studios and Post Production (BBC S&PP), which manages the broadcaster's studio facilities, is now using both BBC Elstree and EFS for most of its workload.
The majority of BBC Elstree is used to produce the soap opera EastEnders. The 11,200 square feet Studio D is being used by BBC S&PP for big audience-based programmes, including game shows. Danny Popkin, BBC S&PP's technical development manager, comments that the "box" - the sound stage itself - hasn't changed much but extensive rebuilding was done on the production, lighting and audio galleries.
Popkin says the opportunity was taken to move walls in the sound control room, making it bigger, and re-do the acoustic treatments on the side walls and in the ceiling. This room now houses the Studer Vista 8 and OnAir 3000 consoles that had been in the sound gallery of Studio 6 at TVC.
BBC S&PP offers facilities to outside clients, including commercial broadcasters and independent production companies, as well as the BBC, so more capacity than just Studio D was needed to fulfil its commitments. Arrangements were made with EFS to use some of its sound stages. These are predominantly for film production and so did not have dedicated control areas. EFS agreed for galleries to be added to the George Lucas stages, named after the Star Wars creator who shot parts of the original trilogy there, and Stages 8 and 9.
Production, lighting and audio control areas have been built into old dressing rooms and offices running alongside of the two Lucas stages and can be used for either space. The sound gallery houses a Vista 8 and OnAir 3000, which came out of Studio 1 at TVC and have been set up to be, says Popkin, "almost identical" to those installed for Studio D and Stages 8 and 9.
Sound supervisor Andy Tapley (pictured) explains that the Vista 8 is "the core" of the sound gallery (pictured above), and is used for mixing, while the OnAir 3000 is both the "grams mixer", taking feeds from SpotOn play-in machines and the means of routing all studio inputs and outputs.
This takes the place of an AES router, with MADI connecting to the Pyramix digital audio workstations used round the facilities. Control of audio routing is through the overall BNCS (Broadcast Network Control System) program used by the BBC.
"We've moved away from copper lines to the studio from the gallery and take MADI over fibre optic connections," Tapley comments. Five wall boxes have been installed in the studios for multiple connections. The stage can accommodate big light entertainment shows like ITV's Your Face Sounds Familiar and Strictly Come Dancing, a BBC stalwart that will be going into the George Lucas stage later this year.
Tapley says the sound gallery can handle "up to 240 mic circuits" and adapt to the needs of the production. "We can take multiple feeds," he observes. "The days of running single cables are long gone."
Popkin comments that the new approach to cabling and routing means there only has to be three audio bays in each control area. "These days there is more CAT5 cable than audio cable," he says, "although I think there will be a mixture of BNC and CAT5 for some time."
Connectivity on a larger scale is more complicated, linking the BBC's facilities at EFS to its Elstree studios and then on to Broadcasting House in central London, from where feeds go to both the Red Bee Media play-out centre and BT Tower.
Installation of the galleries for EFS Stages 8 and 9 was done by Dega Broadcast, while a team of freelance engineers worked on both the George Lucas control areas and Studio D at BBC Elstree. EFS itself also upgraded the floors of Stages 8 and 9.
Studio D will continue to be used by BBC S&PP after the three new studios at TVC come into operation, which is planned for 2015. The galleries at BBC Elstree have been designed to last for at least another five years. The new control areas on the EFS stages have a similar projected lifespan, which may be used if S&PP does not move back into TVC immediately. Refurbishment of other parts of TVC, which will include apartments and offices, is due to continue past 2015, which wouldn't be ideal for the brand new studios. There's few more off-putting things for TV ballroom dancers than the sound of drilling...