SVG Sit Down: Upfront Coordination of Systems Integration, Architecture, Audio Is Key to Successful Control-Room Design

Representatives of the three disciplines explain how that works

As video-control rooms expand in both size and scope, the amount of coordination and coordinated effort required increases in both importance and complexity. Whether it’s a new control room or renovation of an existing space, everyone involved in the project — from the client to the architect and systems integrator to the acoustics supervisor and engineer — must be on the same page from beginning to end of the project. Of course, with so many moving parts and people involved, this is easier said than done.

SVG sat down with three industry leaders representing three of the most vital roles in control-room design and construction: Kevin Henneman, owner, KMH AV Integration, spoke to the systems-integrator perspective; Neil Tucker, principal, Design Republic, offered the architect’s point of view; and Ron Eligator, VP/project principal, Acoustic Distinctions, weighed in on the role of acoustics.

They shared how their disciplines currently work together and with the client throughout the design and build, what happens when a breakdown in communication occurs, and how coordinated effort at the beginning of the project results in satisfied customers at the end.

Kevin Henneman

Let’s start with the importance of a coordinated effort in designing a video-control room. What happens when that coordinated effort is missing?
Kevin Henneman:
The amount of coordination and, specifically, the amount of coordinated effort that needs to happen to make sure that all the components of either building a brand-new control room or modifying an existing control room to meet new workflows and requests is so important. If it’s not done properly, you [can] look at all the drawings and go through all the requirements and talk through everything for months and yet end up with a camera position that’s 6 ft. too low, a camera position that has a girder blocking it, or conduits that are not big enough to get the connectivity. All these little different components, if they’re not coordinated, will [result] in a product that the customer’s not happy with. Between Ron, Neal, Arthur [Metzler, managing principal of AMA Consulting Engineers, who was unable to join the conversation], and me, we’ve built lots of control rooms and lots of facilities. And we’ve been through the ringer on what happens when it isn’t coordinated. [What we want to do is] emphasize what needs to go into the planning and where our overlap points are [in delivering] a proper, professional finished product.

Control rooms, especially in a stadium or arena, used to be thought of as simply replay-control rooms. How much do you need to care about audio when you’re just putting images up on videoboards? I think those days are over, and, [for] every room we’re involved with now, we’re being asked to modify or adapt or turn it into something that can be used not only for replay but for broadcast. If you’re going to capture audio and video content, you should be planning that space to deliver to all the possible places it can be delivered to, budget and timeframe allowing. The replay-control room is becoming a broadcast center, and I think the four of us can offer some insight into how that gets done the proper way.

Neil Tucker

Neil Tucker: Ron, Arthur, and I participated in a panel at the NAB Show in 2011 where we represented the key consultants that should be considered at the start of a project. There was a lot of interest in it because you have a lot of folks responsible for either maintaining or developing and redeveloping facilities — whether a control room or a series of control rooms, audio-control room, mix room, or even studios. [We covered] what they should be thinking about even before they start down the path to matching real construction with integration, because a lot of their expertise might be in the integration end of things but not in the shaping of a room that has to perform acoustically, technically, and with a level of flexibility that’s going to serve them for years.

We talked about the steps of design from what we call programming through schematic design, design development, construction documents, [and more]. The very close work should be happening where we’re in lock step: with broadcast-systems integration at the same time we’re shaping spaces and rooms, first on paper and then in three dimensions, and then ultimately into construction. That coordination between broadcast-systems integration, architecture, engineering, and acoustical needs to be tight.

Ron Eligator

Ron Eligator: The benefit of something like this is to help people understand all the issues before they start thinking about integration. The planning — and from my point of view, we’re talking about acoustics — and the issues are fairly straightforward. There’s the background sound well, there’s the room acoustics, there’s noise control from air-distribution systems, and there may be some related vibration issues. There’s equipment sound levels, and, in these larger control rooms, you get into questions of what is each person in the room listening to. There’s the use of headphones and what signal are they listening to, what is the quality of that supposed to be, how do you keep multiple audio monitors from interfering with each other in a room, is everybody listening to the same audio channel or not, and how is that controlled?

Kevin talked about how replay rooms are becoming broadcast centers and what does that mean. From my point of view, it’s a question of what does that mean for the audio: where are people sitting, who is talking to whom, on what kind of intercom system or talkback system? How do we keep all these audio signals separate so people can concentrate? A lot of that can be handled in the design, layout, and development of the space.

Of course, there are also issues of sightlines and the people who need to be able to see each other. A lot of issues can be handled in the early stage of design or at least identified as issues that need to be addressed. And working with an architect and a design team, those issues can be addressed in design before or parallel to the process of thinking about the integration.

KH: [Often,] it’s underestimated how valuable the upfront coordination is and that [it needs to be done] upfront. If you don’t do that, you’ll end up coming back later, and then you have to take the room down or interrupt operations because there’s an issue. Upfront coordination can save you big time: money, time, quality, aggravation, all that.

In an ideal scenario, in what order should your disciplines be brought into these projects? Is it the architect before the integrator, integrator before architect, or does it vary project to project?
Oftentimes, the architect is one of the first to get tapped, although there are projects where engineering will be tapped first and other projects where integration gets tapped first, depending on who’s driving the project and its complexity. For example, we just completed Telemundo’s headquarters in Miami, which is now called Telemundo Center. We were the first ones tapped in that case on the architectural end, and, soon after that or probably almost in parallel, Arthur’s team came on board. We brought on Ron right away because the building would have to perform acoustically: it was immediately adjacent to the airport and a very big building. But whether it’s a big building or it’s a small control room, the process is the same. Generally, the architect and the integrator will get tapped around the same time. But a lot of clients don’t always connect the dots and understand the importance of having everybody get around the table together to talk about the requirements.

The first step in the process, which we refer to as programming, is really a definition of need. We talk about the project requirements from the point of view of quantification: how many control rooms, how many edit rooms, how many open desktop workstations, how many studios? What’s supporting all of that in terms of potential office space and meeting space? Are there other needs, like storage? How about amenities, such as bathrooms and conference rooms? All of those go into a production environment.

Sometimes, it might just be a control room, which even by itself is one of the most complicated animals that you have going, and it’s usually paired with an equipment room. Then, you have to know the requirements for the control room in terms of the layout. Is it one tier, what is that tier doing, is it an automated production-control environment where you’ve got one person doing multiple things, or is it more traditional? Or is it going to be a whole new version that breaks the traditional model and looks at control in a new way?

I think to have all of the experts around the table hearing the client — hearing their needs, hearing their aspirations — allows us to quantify what we’re looking at and also qualify it from the point of view of workflow and understand that multiple workflows are involved in any production environment. While the control room has its workflow — which is arguably a technical workflow — there’s also going to be talent workflows, production workflows. There could be scenic workflows; there could even be audience if audience is associated with the content that you’re capturing. And it all has to be blended together. If you don’t have that team upfront to define that, you miss a lot of those things that could have an impact on your real estate and your real estate planning.

Plus, the amount of money being vested in the technical gear in the broadcast racked equipment room is so significant that to get that wrong and have to redo any of that is a very costly proposition. From our point of view, it’s money very well spent upfront to go through the schematic-design process where there’s just the small group of us planning things out. As you get into the development of the design and into the construction documents, you’re layering in more and more expertise, more and more consultants. That core group upfront is really critical to the success of any project.

KH: Having us in upfront and doing that upfront coordination allows us to be able to set the expectations for the customer. We all know that most projects don’t have unlimited funds. Trying to figure out how you’re going to fix a problem after the fact, which is extremely expensive and interrupts workflow, is not good. If you get the experts to the table upfront with the experience that can point out what you will likely run into, the customer can evaluate that decision-making process and make an informed decision in a proper timeframe.

RE: Our goal is to improve the experience of the people who are actually operating the systems in these control rooms. To do that, we have to understand what their goals are, how they work, what they are trying that works for them in terms of a listening environment, in terms of communication, in terms of workflow and access, and all these issues. Sometimes, we’re at a design meeting, and the powers that be are saying, You already know what to do, you know what we need, you’re the experts. Our focus at that moment is to try to help those people understand [that] what we really need to do is to get into those spaces and see how they’re [being used]. We need to understand what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, what their goals are, what they want out of the facility. An extremely important first step for us is to meet with the users and walk through their space. Maybe we need to do some benchmarking in terms of their existing acoustic environment and then develop criteria that we can design to.

How important is it for you to interface with the client not just at the beginning but throughout the project? How often do you check in, and how often do you want that face-to-face with the client?
It’s pretty critical. We prefer to work with whoever is the vested interest, the ones that are really the champions for the project. Typically, we want to get to the person that’s the most responsible for the project no matter who that is. We want to understand their vision for it. You sometimes have these control-room spaces that are meant to make a statement, and, if the design is good, it will actually help production. Whether it is the relationship in a control room between the TD and director, where there are clear sightlines, sightlines from the control room into the audio control to the board-ops position, or the adjacency of board-ops audio-control position to a music mixer or sound-effects room, it’s understanding what the client needs.

Then, the look and feel of the control room has to support [what the control room is used for]. The control room might have a techie feel, or it might have more of a lofty feel to suit the type of show or type of content that you’re producing. The acoustic performance is very much dictated by what’s being produced. Is it recording the human voice or music? Is what’s being recorded located in the building; is it near a mechanical room? We may have to physically isolate even more of the space — or the building itself — to create the best environment to allow quality production to happen.

Speaking to the mechanical and electrical component, these spaces are very critical in terms of their power consumption, grounding requirements, infrastructure, and pathways for cabling. That’s all the responsibility of the engineer to make sure that the [systems integrator] has a way to get cable to and from different places; that the power is appropriate to all that’s installed; that it’s going to be clean power, not dirty power; that it’s going to be backed up on UPS so that it never goes down or, if it does go down, it can go down in a controlled way.

KH: Everything the architect does — planning the space out; choosing the surfaces, the finishes; determining the sizing, the angle of the walls — affects what I can design and put in. Then, the stuff that I’m trying to design and put in needs to be cooled and powered. And it all ties back to acoustics that need to be reviewed. It’s really a balancing of all four of areas — architecture, systems integration, engineering, and acoustics — to get the right blend. If you haven’t been through it, you can easily make a pretty big mistake, and that will cost you, financially and/or performance-wise.

It sounds like it’s important to communicate and coordinate directly with one another as well as with the client. How do you maintain your relationships and awareness of what each of you is contributing to the project?
We’ve worked together, the three of us — the four of us, with Arthur — and each of us also with others in the field, so we know what to expect from each other’s disciplines. I think we have developed working relationships that enable us to help clients stay out of trouble, and we also know when to call the other one in and say, We need the expertise of the architect or the integrator. We need to meet together [and] have discussion and dialogue with the client to achieve the [project’s] goals, do it on budget, and keep the schedule. We don’t work independently in silos; we work collaboratively to make that happen. It’s very important.

KH: In a more practical sense, everything Ron just described ends up in a drawing package. Ron’s company’s input, my company’s input, Arthur’s company’s input: all that information gets pulled together and ends up in a final documentation set. Then, if I see something going a little sideways in acoustics, I get ahold of Ron. If the client wants to add more console space or more racks, I talk to Neil. We all reach out to each other to make sure it’s coordinated.

That’s on a point-to-point level as part of an interactive dynamic project team. But there’s a piece at the very end that has to happen, and I think it often gets overlooked or pushed along too quickly: the actual drawing coordination — actually looking at what the A/V guy put together on his drawing, looking at what acoustics recommended, what engineering recommended, what the architect originally planned out for the space, and reviewing that before [the control room is built]. If you don’t do that coordination piece, you’re risking that somebody has shown a 2-in. conduit or 2-in. penetration when it should have been a 4-in. When you have thousands of those happening on a project, it adds up really quickly. Mistakes happen, oversights happen because we’re all human, but you can’t take those shortcuts. You might have to take the extra couple weeks and get it right, because, otherwise, it is a nightmare. It’s important to respect the process and the different disciplines as they weigh in and can coordinate with each other.

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