How to build world-class studios

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Photo of WSSM St. Louis by William Mathis of Mathis-Jones Communications and courtesy of the Murray Company, St. Louis.

Great studios aren't just wired, they're built from the ground up. First, size does matter. While other constraints often force studios to be smaller than optimum, it is easier to build and to service equipment in a room that was not previously a closet. Find enough space to have the studio furniture away from two walls and preferably three. This provides good options for reaching the back of equipment racks and for punch block access that does not require you to become intimate with the on-air talent.

For the best sound isolation, use double-wall construction between different studios and staggered-stud construction on outside walls or between studios and the rest of the facility. All studios should have hard ceilings. Even if a suspended ceiling is installed for acoustic purposes, the walls should go up to the building's hard ceiling and be well sealed at the top. Use commercially available sound isolation doors or build copies of them. The same is true for windows. Double- or triple-pane windows should use glass panes of different thicknesses. This provides the maximum efficiency to prevent sound transmission because the panes will resonate at different frequencies. Make sure the glass rests on rubber gaskets, too.

Studio furniture serves as the equipment support structure and must also provide sufficient ventilation and cable access. Photo courtesy of Wheatstone.

Air handling is a vital but often overlooked component of sound isolation. Make sure that the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor understands the issues of sound isolation and wind noise. Low-noise registers in a sufficient quantity will ensure low air flow velocity. Sound baffles or multiple bends in the supply ducts will reduce blower noise. Use a minimum of 25 feet and three bends between any blowers and a studio. Each studio also needs its own return register with baffles or multiple bends. Do not use the plenum space above a suspended ceiling as an air return, it will result in sound leakage from studio to studio. I have successfully used pigtails on plenum return systems, which consist of about 20 feet of flex duct snaked with several bends in it in the plenum space. One end is open to the plenum and the other is connected to the return register. This provides excellent sound attenuation while not impeding air flow.

Construction details

Studios should be fairly dead, acoustically speaking, but the best live mic sound is obtained when there is some warmth to the room and instead of being completely anechoic. There are some studio acoustics basics that should be kept in mind.

Different acoustic treatment techniques work better at different frequencies, so use a mix of different types. A suspended ceiling that does not cover the entire room, typically floating about a foot from all the walls, is an excellent bass trap and is unobtrusive. For an aesthetic touch, paint the hard ceiling above the float black or some other dark color. Sound absorption panels are available in different thicknesses and colors to match the decor. Wooden baffle-type sound diffusors, while expensive, are excellent acoustics treatments to prevent slapback echoes on walls behind talent, and they can be quite attractive as well. Another trick that enhances acoustics is to build the studios with non-parallel walls, although this usually takes some serious explaining to management. The offsets don't have to be large; a foot longer on one wall than the opposite wall is enough offset to reduce acoustic standing waves, but odd-shaped rooms take some getting used to. One way we dealt with this in a recent station-cluster project was to build all the studios as wedges around a circle. This worked well acoustically and looked impressive, too.

Maintaining an organized wiring scheme is not difficult (above), but it requires sticking to the original design plan and not taking short cuts, like what was done in the photo below.

I prefer wood floors to carpet because they are more durable if a sufficiently hard material is used. This will put more strain on the rest of the acoustic treatment, especially the ceiling. Use a hard wood, such as oak or Australian cypress, and do not use the pre-finished type. Instead, have it sanded, finished and sealed after installation — this makes for the toughest, spill-resistant floor. Wood floors last much longer when chairs with special wheels intended for wood are used, so make sure the person who specs the studio chairs knows the difference.

Equipment layout

Get the people who will be using the studio involved in the design process of that studio. Draw a set of studio layout sheets for each studio with the proposed rack layouts, equipment placement and console channel assignments generated with input from programming and production staff. Then submit this documentation to the client. Have the client's general manager or program director sign off on the design — literally. Have him sign each sheet. This allows a minimal chance for misunderstanding, and if any last-minute changes are wanted, it's easy to document justification for additional labor charges, if needed.

There is enough prefabricated furniture available for just about everyone's taste and budget, so I don't see much point in having a local carpenter of unproven experience with broadcasting build furniture. Either way, make sure that the cabinets are deep enough for the equipment, that the placement of equipment suits station personnel, that there is sufficient access behind and underneath equipment for servicing and ventilation, and that there are large built-in wiring channels and punch-block areas. Look for quality details like inlaid Formica or other surfacing, and real wood instead of pressboard. Free-standing furniture can be shifted as needed and can be disassembled without ripping it from the walls in the event that the studio must be moved. Generally speaking, built-in furniture cannot be moved. It involves too much hassle, too much damage to the furniture, and too little likelihood that the new room will be the same dimensions as the old one. Free-standing furniture can move relatively easily.

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