10. Second Round

1988-1990

Following the success of the new Studio F, the Workshop was destined to build a second circular console, this time for Peter Howell, one of the main proponents of the original idea.

During 1989, the BBC was in a state of turmoil, suffering several one-day strikes. The secretary, the late Maxine Blythe-Tinker, was surprised at the deductions made to her pay for these strike days. Brian commented ‘that’s the price of solidarity’, which has an element of truth. At this time there was also a threat to remove House Services, the staff that maintained electrical and other equipment.

Even the best of us do silly things at times, and composers are no exception. In the same year, Peter Howell experimented with the Pitchrider, a sound to MIDI converter, but couldn’t make it work. He was acutely embarrassed to discover that it didn’t have an inbuilt microphone and that he’d spent a considerable amount of time singing into its front panel! Mark Wilson also got into an impossible situation: he tried to tell a joke, but made such a mess of it, the result was funnier than the joke!

Location, Location…

During the latter part of 1988, Brian Hodgson had measured Studio B in anticipation of installing a second circular console. To his horror, he found that the room wasn’t big enough and soon retreated to his office to ‘stew’ over the problem. Consideration was then given to expanding the area into an adjacent corridor, but this wasn’t permitted on the grounds of fire safety.

At the beginning of 1989, Ray Riley fitted a switching card in the central bay that muted the studio loudspeaker (SLS) in the Piano Room whenever the red light was activated. As soon as he’d finished his work, it was agreed that this area, already occupied by the ‘lash-up’, would be used for the second circular studio. Understandably, the composers weren’t too happy at losing their main ‘acoustic’ area, along with its grand piano. And during construction, the ‘lash-up’ would occupy Studio B.

The old Studio B was dismantled in the spring of 1989. Meanwhile, the Soundcraft Series 200B mixer was incorporated into the ‘lash-up’. This provided twin-track tape monitoring, a source of test tone, talkback and all the other ‘standard’ studio facilities. In addition, the cables for the new studio arrived. These had been created ‘off-site’, saving the engineers a tremendous amount of work.

The new area wasn’t cheap: the total cost was £35,000, building work came to £10,000 and the electrical installation consumed £8,500. By the summer of 1989, a huge-looking new electrical switching system had been fitted on the wall in the corridor between the Piano Room and Studio D. Apparently, this provided a revamped source of power for the old Studio B, the new Studio B (formerly the Piano Room), Studio C and Studio D. Meanwhile, the temporary installation in the Piano Room was dismantled, the not-so-old connection pattress removed and building work began.

Although acoustically an ideal size, the new area was rather narrow for the new circular console. This meant that shallow acoustic boxes, which were less effective at sound absorption than the deeper variety, had to be fitted in its vicinity. The final layout is shown below.

All the technical equipment was powered via the four 13 amp sockets located to the right of the console. The twin-track (2TA) and multitrack (MT) machines were powered via cables running out of the console. The other two 13 amp sockets, although on the technical supply, weren’t intended for technical devices. Instead, they were used for table lamps, but controlled by the technical isolator.

The building work, contracted out to Harts, went very well. However, during the very last stages of construction, Ray Riley was working on various cables that had to enter the studio via the roof space. To gain access, he had to work via a tile lifted out of the suspended ceiling. Without any warning, and without any wrongdoing on his part, the ceiling collapsed, leaving a man from Harts bravely holding it up as it turned into a sagging wedge shape. The room was soon abandoned and Brent Ceilings, the sub-contractor responsible, were called back. Apparently, some wood screws, driven directly upwards into the ceiling, had torn through their holes whilst others, fitted with rawplugs, had simply fallen out. The ceiling was refitted in three days but the author’s accident report indicated that the BBC should never use the company again. The Corporation’s final report quoted him word for word.

As in Studio F, ‘eyeball’ lamps were used in the suspended ceiling. Unfortunately, an extra halogen lamp, located above the main working area, caused some aggravation. Firstly, Brian didn’t like its location because it lit the top of the equipment instead of the front panels, resulting in a heated conversation with the author, who, at cross-purposes, thought the problem was due to shadows. Secondly, the high-frequency ‘switching’ transformer had been placed inside the studio (against the author’s original inclinations) and produced an excessive amount of noise. Much to the electrician’s annoyance, the transformer had to be moved to the outside wall of the studio and connected to the relocated lamp via a very thick cable.

In this area, the author’s strategy of using spaced groups of acoustic boxes was fully developed. Its effectiveness led Jonathan Gibbs to comment that this studio had the ‘best stereo image yet’.

Monitoring the Situation

Although the monitoring unit in Studio F worked well, the author had reservations about long-term reliability and the amount of hardware. To streamline the system, timecode, VCR audio and ‘click’ circuits (the last two of which could be added to a musician’s ‘cue signal’ via headphones) would be separated from the main monitoring. Peter Howell devised a method whereby an ‘overdub’ signal (consisting of previously recorded material but not the sound of a musician being recorded) could be sent to the cue circuit. This could be accomplished by using an ‘Addset’ command in Cue Card.

The new monitoring unit itself contained a microprocessor-based controller card that operated an extra DP3200 matrix and a Twister MIDI-controlled amplifier. The card was the Cavendish Automation 8051 Microbeeb, programmed using Multi-BASIC and incorporating an EPROM burner. Its RS-232 serial ports were wired to a RS Universal Keyboard Encoder (UKE), a fluorescent display unit and a home-grown MIDI interface card. In addition, Ray Riley constructed a computer-controlled tone generator. The analogue to digital converter (ADC) in the Microbeeb card was used to convert the settings of rotary controls on the monitoring unit into digital data that could be sent to the Twister.

Digital Doughnut

Whilst Studio B was under construction, the ‘lash-up’ maintained its role as a test bed for further developments, especially in the area of digital recording. In the spring of 1989, a DAR Soundstation arrived, a digital multitrack recording device with four AES/EBU digital audio inputs and outputs.

The Soundstation was accompanied by two Yamaha DMP7D mixers, the digital form of the DMP7. Each DMP7D had a stereo AES/EBU digital output, as well as an AES/EBU input for channels 7 and 8. In addition, all the channels accepted signals via Yamaha’s own proprietary mono digital interface. The ‘lash-up’ was updated by replacing the ‘main’ and ‘multitrack’ mixers by the DMP7Ds. The multitrack mixer was then provided with a ‘format converter’ that took the four AES/EBU outputs of the Soundstation. The input to the Soundstation, which could be assigned to any ‘track’, was fed from the main DMP7D. This mixer also fed a Yamaha DA202 digital to analogue converter.

The various ad hoc digital connections weren’t always successful, mainly because digital audio normally required a ‘genlock’ synchronisation system. Connecting two digital devices was easy: the ‘slave’ device accepted the ‘clock’ within the incoming signal. But when digital audio signals travelled in two directions, or where more than two devices were involved, problems were inevitable. In this studio, the multitrack mixer received a Yamaha clock from the main mixer. The output of the multitrack mixer then fed the ‘auxiliary’ DMP7 mixer which then ‘cascaded’ into the main mixer.

Eventually, Ray Riley provided a switch box that allowed channels 7 and 8 of the main mixer to be switched between the AES/EBU output of a DAT recorder and the output of the multitrack mixer. Unfortunately, this also caused complications: whenever the switch was operated the main mixer would shut down as it tried to lock to the selected source. Worse still, although the DAT recorder happily synchronised with its incoming signal whilst in ‘record’ mode, it created its own clock in all other modes. As a result, one PCM2500 DAT machine had to be sent away in the autumn of 1989 to be modified so that it would properly accept an external clock signal via its AES/EBU input.

Other experiments met with similarly varying degrees of success. For example, Ray Riley persuaded an Akai video matrix (a companion product to the DP3200) to work with S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital audio signals, although this facility was never used in practice. His attempt to connect the ‘Y format’ stereo output of a DMP7D to the input of another DMP7D was less successful. Although the data structure was suitable, the recipient mixer only accepted signals from the left-hand channel.

Complications were also introduced by ‘pre-emphasis’ or ‘emphasis’, a process that boosted high frequencies before conversion to digital. Although this reduced the level of background noise, not all devices or digital interfaces were aware of the ‘flag’ that indicated it was in operation. For example, the DMP7 mixers always used emphasis, but it was switchable on the DMP7Ds. Since the installation contained DMP7s the entire studio had to use emphasis. However, the DAR Soundstation wasn’t aware of the emphasis flag on its AES/EBU inputs, which meant its output sounded ‘hissy’.

In September 1989, the author attended a conference that addressed many issues concerning AES/EBU digital interfacing. This succeeded in proving that digital audio was still in its infancy.

Completion

By August 1989, Jeremy Quinn had installed his second console at the Workshop. He also warned the engineers that the dust caused by cutting medium-density fibreboard (MDF) was dangerous!

Most equipment was in place, although some minor work remained. For example, a switching box was needed to divert specific tracks on the 16-track machine for use with VCR sound and click signals. Also, the 8-way DIN cables used for cascading DMP7 mixers weren’t long enough, so Ray Riley created several 8-way couplers using pairs of sockets. And, although the MTI MIDI to Mac interface worked on 12 volts, it had a 3.5 mm jack socket with ‘reverse polarity’ wiring. This meant that a special adaptor cable was required to run it from the console’s own 12 volt distribution system (as used for MIDI mergers, the MIDI Thru unit and other devices). Ray Riley also manufactured a three-way video switcher that allowed two S550s and a Syncwriter to be used with a single monitor.

The inline XLR adaptors used for audio devices were wired to the British and European convention. Hence pin 2 was used for the ‘hot’ wire. In effect, this meant that the Workshop, having previously adopted the American ‘pin 3 hot’ standard, had to reverse its policy. Most of the time this didn’t matter but in this studio an Audio & Design compressor was installed, and this had to be modified.

Studio B was opened at 5 pm on Wednesday, January 3, 1990. There was a excellent display of ‘flying faders’ to impress the BBC management and a fine time was had by all.

Further Advances

Although essentially complete, Studio B remained a test bed for new technology. Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1990, a range of devices were tested in the old Studio B. These included a Studer A800 multitrack machine, a Fostex D20 DAT recorder and an Akai DD1000 digital recorder. Around this time, a Sony digital 48-track machine was demonstrated in Maida Vale Studio 5, but the cost of such technology was way beyond the Workshop’s budget and was based on old-fashioned tape.

The DD1000 was much more interesting in that it used erasable optical disks. It had two audio input channels and four outputs. When fitted with ‘add-on’ drives it occupied 7U of rack space. Initially there were problems in driving it from an external source of timecode, although Peter Howell got it to work by feeding it with timecode from one track of a Studer A80 stereo tape machine. It turned out that the DD1000 simply didn’t like the timecode provided by the Opcode Studio 3 MIDI interface.

This new machine was soon installed in place of the temporary DAR Soundstation in Studio B. A Yamaha DA202 digital to analogue converter that had been used with the Soundstation was also removed at this time. The AES/EBU digital outputs of the DD1000 had to be converted into eight separate circuits in ‘mono’ Yamaha digital format, as connected via a 25-way D connector on the DMP7D. This conversion was provided by a special interface box known as an IFUD2. Unfortunately, this would only allow stereo material to be connected to channels 1 and 2 or channels 5 and 6 on the DMP7D. This meant that channels 3, 4, 7 and 8 of the mixer couldn’t be used at all.

Yamaha also provided a CIU (Custom Interface Unit) that digitally combined signals from the four DMP7 input mixers. This reduced the background noise and simplified the wiring of the console.

The system shown above was developed following a series of painful hit-and-miss experiments. The final arrangement accommodated digital transfers of material from outputs 1 and 2 of the DD1000 to the DAT recorder (via the first AES/EBU output of the DD1000 and a buffer in the IFUD2). It also allowed digital transfers in the opposite direction. However, other recordings into the DD1000 were made via its analogue inputs to avoid complications with the synchronisation of digital audio.

Initially, the DAT machine was used as a ‘master clock’ for the entire digital system. Although the DMP7D mixers could work at sampling rates of 44.1 or 48 kHz, the DMP7 version could only be used at the lower rate. This effectively set the studio rate to 44.1 kHz. Unfortunately, the DAT machine always reverted to running at 48 kHz whenever there wasn’t a tape inserted in its slot!

Further updates were made later in the same year, including relocating the ARP Odyssey and associated MIDI to CV converter, the provision of separate record feeds to all tape machines, the installation of a KM802 eight-channel mixer for the TX816 and the addition of an Emu Proteus.

Around this time, the monitoring unit started giving problems. For inexplicable reasons, the battery-backed RAM that held the program would lose its contents. Funnily enough, this fault also turned on the studio’s red light! The problem was held at bay for a couple of years but in 1993 the unit was replaced by a Peavey PC1600 MIDI Command Station, although this was far less flexible.

The diagram below shows how the equipment was positioned on, in and below each mini-rack. As you can see, the ‘interface’ unit for each PCM2500 DAT machine was separated from the ‘transport’ section.The former was then positioned out of the way beneath the console surface, releasing space in the mini-rack that could be used for additional devices such as the Proteus.

On Spec

Based on the knowledge gained in Studio B, the author devised a standard specification for future Radiophonic studios, although it was never fully applied to the last Radiophonic area, Studio X. This chapter ends with a summary of this information, shown below in slightly modified form.

General

Electrical

Technical

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©Ray White 2001, 2004.