One of two new Visual radio studios at RTÉ’ in Dublin Ireland. Both were designed for comfort and operational flexibility.
RTE’s move to new studios prompted a project to add more sophisticated video capabilities to its new radio studios, reflecting a global trend towards the consumption of radio online.
These “visual radio” rooms would be adding video cameras to create a new experience for listeners/viewers. It’s a trend that has spread around the world as radio broadcasters look to expand their reach and create new content for their sister TV and online platforms. When successful, you add more technology but not more staff, and the content can be repurposed in a myriad of ways.
This project however also included a layer of complexity to the installation as it was within an existing mostly analog broadcast facility. Creative Technology’s Systems Integration Division (CT SI) in Ireland was asked to help build the two new radio studios for Irish national broadcaster RTE’s radio division.
Although RTÉ has been presenting a visual feed for much of their radio programming for the past 10 years, the impetus to create the new studios actually came from a property move. The media company recently sold some land, so the initial driver for this project was to move some radio studios from that end of the campus down to the other end.
Richard Waghorn, RTÉ’s CTO, said that “not only did we build new studios, but we’ve moved radio teams over to the building where the TV teams are and starting to get content teams working together across radio and TV.”
Indeed, the new studios are now supporting radio production as well as providing high-quality video content for use on social media, online and TV.
The RN3 studio features six talent positions with voice-activated microphones for hands-free switching between people. The fully automated video mixer works in much the same way.
Marrying Analog And Video-over-IP Infrastructure
Interestingly, the new studios incorporate both traditional baseband and IP infrastructure. The cameras are all 4K with connection over NDI but there’s also an SDI mixer as a backup.
“If you think about radio, traditionally, they'd have maybe three people in the control room,” said David Board, Senior Commissioning Engineer at CT SI, part of the NEP Group worldwide network. “They'd have the sound engineer, the producer or editor. And then there's also a broadcast coordinator who's kind of does everything else in in the studio. In this case RTÉ wanted to add in video, but they didn’t want to necessarily increase the headcount.”
The fist room, RN3 studio, was the first to go live in the summer of 2022, a full year after the project CT SI was first discussed (with the pandemic affecting the timeline significantly). It’s a six meters squared room built within one of RTÉ's existing (and mostly analog) broadcast facilities on its campus in Donnybrook—a suburb of Dublin. It features six presentation positions. The control room has an internal area of 5.2m x 4.7m with direct line of sight to the studio for the sound engineer and production team. The room now hosts such highly rated RTÉ radio programs as “Morning Ireland,” which airs at 6-9 a.m. every day and “News at One.”
A second, slightly larger but technically identical radio room (located next to the main newsroom) called “S7-1” was completed in the fall of last year and is designed for one presenter with four to five guest positions. It’s used mainly for current affairs, talk shows and an arts programs and consists of a 6.1m x 6.6m studio accommodating 6 microphone positions and a control room.
[Of note: At RTÉ, radio broadcasting began on January 1st, 1926 while television began on December 31st, 1961.]
A Radio First Approach
“These rooms were designed to enhance RTÉ’s radio output,” said David Board, Senior Commissioning Engineer at CT SI. “So it was important to get the audio side rock solid and not compromise the audio side for the sake of video.”
This meant first building a solid AES67 audio-over-IP network and distributing all audio signals cleanly through a Calrec Audio ‘Type R’ radio mixing board. Audio monitoring is Genelec throughout. Then they added an NDI network hosting eight Panasonic PTZ cameras, a software-based VMix vision mixer, Bionic Director automation system from Broadcast Bionics, and a 12m long LED video wall made up of a 1.5mm Absen LED screen controlled via a Novastar H5 video splicer. The LED wall runs around three sides of the studio to provide an immersive visual experience to the radio programs.
The new studios include a 12m long LED video wall made up of an LED screen that runs around three sides of the studio to provide an immersive visual experience to the radio programs.
The audio and video reside on separate networks and are combined at the NDI-compatible VMix PC. In addition to the two video feeds from the TV station router, they’ve also put feeds back out to the station router with direct links to the TV side. This way they could put things out directly on the main television channels. For example, the “Morning Ireland” radio show also goes out live on the ‘RTÉ News’ TV channel every day.
No Room At The In(puts)
“When figuring out how we were going to integrate these new studios into the existing facility, we were faced with an existing analog audio router that was full,” said Board. “There was no space in it to add inputs and outputs for two new studios. So, the plan was to duplicate everything that was going into the router, into IP, and then we just had to add a few return feeds coming back from the studios onto the router to allow them to get back into the analog domain. In the end we brought over 400 sources from the old Harris Platinum 512x512 analog routing frame.”
With the new IP matrix they simply replicated the feeds of the existing router.
“We actually migrated everything over while keeping it all live on air, which was tricky,” said Board.
Radio Production Automation
Next, they installed a voice-activated microphone system that is tied to the vision mixer so that when one person in the room talks, the camera dedicated to that person is displayed. When another person talks, the switcher takes the next camera. It’s also set up so that if two people are talking at the same time, the system will take a wide shot camera to keep them all in frame. They’ve got two routing paths for visual lines going into each studio from RTE’s television station analog router. And then they’ve got two Mac Minis in the studio so they can bring in guests via FaceTime, Zoom, Teams, or Skype. Graphics are delivered via Broadcast Bionic’s ConTEXT system, which is integrated with their Virtual Director system.”
“The important thing with these rooms is that RTÉ wanted the talent to focus on creating the show, so the technology had to be relatively hidden and easy to use,” said Roland de Groot, Director, Systems Integration at CT SI. “That’s why automating the vision mixer from the audio levels was important. This was complex technology, but via common user interfaces, it became very simple to use.”
Minding Your PTPs
However, one of the challenges that they faced, according to Board, was to ensure that everything was in sync, so the lights, the cameras, the LED panels, were all set up and tuned to ensure color tones are correct.
“On the audio side, whenever you're dealing with, AES67 or any of these modern IP media over IP standards, the number one thing to be aware of is precision time protocol [PTP],” he said. “Getting that really resilient and solid is the bedrock which everything else builds on. If you have any problems with your PTP, you're going to suffer, and the equipment won’t communicate with each other correctly on the network.
“For these studios we had to be sure that the video is all synced with traditional black and burst,” said Board. “Because that's what video in the facility is currently based on. Then we have frame synchronizers and software converters to keep the audio and video playing nicely together.”
He said that tweaking the LED touchscreens and locating the cameras a “safe” distance from the screen was also very important to avoid artefacts appearing on the screen and to facilitate the immersive visual experience the network was after.
A Beautiful (and Acoustically Sound) Result
“At the end of the day the goal was for each radio program it to look fresh and airy and light,” said CT SI’s Board. “Traditionally, radio studios have been sort of underground. No, windows and totally focused on acoustics and all that stuff, which is of course still important. And those requirements were met in these new studios as well. But at the same time, the client wanted to make these new places look good and also be a nice comfortable place to work. For example, there is now some natural light in the control room.”
“Ultimately, we want to become more virtual production based,” said RTE’s Waghorn. “It helps with the storytelling and it helps the attractiveness of what you’re looking at. It’s also good from a sustainability point of view because we’re not building physical sets all the time. It’s helped us to simplify our turnaround between productions. We can get the show up and running quicker and with ultimately less resources. So, it’s also enabling us to be more efficient. And I think the radio studios can start to play that efficiency in and unlock those spaces to do other things over time.”
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