As radio and audio services continue to expand, broadcast engineers are searching for ways to put stations on air ever more quickly and cheaply. The studio for Bauer Media's latest offering, classical channel Scala Radio, uses both virtual IP technology and existing spaces to achieve this, as Kevin Hilton reports...
A new digital radio station goes on air in the UK this month in the form of Scala Radio. With the aim of "offering classical music for modern life", new national service joins competitors BBC Radio 3 and commercial channel Classic FM in a market largely dominated by rock and pop stations. Its launch on March 4 has attracted attention due to former BBC Radio 2 presenter Simon Mayo being among the weekday line-up, but behind the scenes it is also notable for coming from a studio with a glass wall, as well as being based on virtual audio and control technology.
Scala Radio will broadcast from parent group Bauer Media's One Golden Square headquarters in central London. This houses 14 on-air studios based on Axia Audio consoles and an audio over IP (AoIP) networking/ distribution infrastructure. The London Broadcast Centre already houses Bauer's other 'brands', including Absolute Radio, Magic, Kiss and Heat Radio, plus the recently launched Hits Radio and Greatest Hits Radio.
Alongside these is a smaller studio built into a former meeting room that went into operation last year, which will be used for Scala Radio broadcasts, and can be seen as a precursor to more fully realised 'virtual' facilities that Bauer is planning to put on air in the near future. The Glass Studio, as it is known, was originally conceived as both a multi-purpose facility for podcasts and voice tracking and a proof of concept exercise for the design of the proposed studios. The room designated for the studio has three solid walls with a glass partition dividing it from a main office area.
"It was originally built as an R&D project to prove we could build an affordable studio from glass in a short four-week time frame," explains Mark Farrington, senior broadcast systems engineer with Bauer Media. "The idea was for it to have a touch-screen mixer and allow us to extend the studio space for Golden Square, as well as being a proof of concept for future projects in London and elsewhere in the UK."
The studio was specified and designed by Bauer's in-house projects team, including Farrington and broadcast engineer Hannah Austin, and built by the broadcaster's contractor, Transmation. Like the existing studios, the new booth sits on the London Broadcast Centre's AoIP infrastructure, which is carried entirely using CAT6 cables. "There are no legacy audio ties in and out of the studio," says Farrington. "Golden Square is fully AoIP between the studio and the transmission chain. This enabled the addition of a fully IP studio quickly and easily because it was built on the strong foundation provided by our existing infrastructure."
Bauer already uses Axia broadcast mixing systems, but extended the concept of IP operation that the manufacturer is known for by opting for a touch-screen instead of a conventional on-air desk with physical faders. Broadcast Bionics, which distributes Axia in the UK, worked with Bauer in both supplying equipment and designing the presenter interface. "We've been working with Broadcast Bionics to make the touch-screen as user friendly as possible for live operation," says Farrington. "This is an ongoing piece of work responding to user feedback." The studio equipment makes up one rack, with all links going to the Broadcast Centre's central technical area (CTA) on the IP network.
"With the touch-screen mixer, we wanted to be innovative but also save time," comments Austin. "It is based on the same Axia engine as the desks in the other studios, and it looks the same."
Glass studios are not unusual in radio – the BBC World Service had a series of booths using the notoriously difficult material at its former Bush House headquarters – but they still have to be approached carefully. Farrington explains that -50dB of isolation is used in relation to the Acoustic Glass partitioning. "The solid walls are of a more traditional construction, with acoustic treatment to reduce reflection and deaden the space." To further prevent reflections, the glass wall is tilted and a window is angled, while ceiling tiles provide additional absorption.
Microphone selection was another serious consideration, with Neumann KMS 105 super-cardioids eventually specified for the presenters and guests. "We've found these to be the optimum mic choice for acoustic performance," recalls Farrington. "They have a directional and close pick-up in the Glass Studio. There haven't been any complaints about sound quality from those that have already used the studio."
The Glass Studio will be fully dedicated to live broadcasts of Scala Radio; other studios will be available for production work, including pre-recording shows. Farrington comments that some "cosmetic and usability changes" have been made to the facility to tailor it for Scala Radio, including the installation of cameras for 'visualised radio' and specific station branding. With the concept of virtual radio studios proven, Mark Farrington reveals that Bauer is working towards commissioning more studios that also take the template of the Glass Studio, possibly during the third quarter of this year.