DIY Edit Suite Design Pointers

The lower cost of gear opens more opportunities for independent editors, so it’s time to look at some good practices for DIY edit facilities. The considerations in designing and constructing your own suite include power, HVAC, ergonomics, acoustics and equipment configuration. This article is intended for the small-to-medium post production user on a limited budget.

Power

Modern electronics don’t push power demands the way they did in the days of racks loaded with video gear. Most electrical circuits intended for standard office and even home use will be adequate to support the average nonlinear edit suite. If you have the ability to bring in an electrician and improve the service, then you will want a dedicated circuit (or two) for each editing room. These should be “home runs” direct from the outlets in the suite to the circuit breaker box.

Uninterrupted power supply (UPS) units are a “must have”. I recommend the larger (1200 series and up) APC units for each workstation, storage array and equipment rack. These not only supply short-term battery back-up in the event of power failure (long enough to safely close your project and power down), but also maintain a stable frequency for your electronics. Most units include outlets that are both back-up by battery and others that are merely controlled pass-throughs. Your computer, storage and the primary display should be on the battery back-up outlets, but peripherals, like video monitors, mixers and speakers may be plugged into the other outlets.

HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning)

You typically won’t have much control over HVAC in an existing building, but be sure your service is adequate for the needs. With modern editing workstations the biggest heat generators will be large storage arrays, as well as the monitors and displays. The computer itself doesn’t generate that much ambient heat. If you have the ability to relocate large storage arrays from the room into an adjacent room or a centralized location (in the case of a SAN), then it will be easier to control the airflow, temperature and comfort in the edit suite. Likewise, the more humans in the room, the warmer it gets, so suites designed for a single editor with the occasional client won’t demand as much cooling as one that routinely has half-a-dozen folks in there working. If you can specify the HVAC design and installation, then go for a system based on high volume and low velocity. Such units move a lot of air at slower speeds through the ducts and are better for sound-sensitive situations.

Ergonomics

Comfort is important when you’re in a room for hours on end. Make sure monitor position, desk height and the chair design are optimal. The proper height for the desk surface should be between 26” and 29” to the top. When you are seated, your eyeline should be at the top portion of the computer display. These guidelines actually mean that placing a computer monitor (with its own stand) on the raised bridge of a custom tech console forces the operator to look slightly upwards, resulting in shoulder strain. I prefer consoles with no bridges or if budget permits, adjustable ones, like those from Biomorph, with a bridge unit that can be put lower than the table surface. There are no hard and fast rules, but a large flat table surface is often preferable to many of the custom tech consoles. These can be purchased at most furniture outlets or custom-built by a local millwork shop.

Chairs are a subjective choice, but it could be the most critical piece of gear you buy. There’s a reason Herman Miller Aeron chairs decorate most tech companies and it’s not just the design. These (and similarly designed products) are durable and provide back comfort over long periods of work. If you are so inclined, there is some research that indicates working while standing up is healthier. Walter Murch is a huge advocate of editing at a stand-up console. You may wish to look into this as an alternative approach and modify these recommendations accordingly.

Acoustics

Controlling sound waves boils down to issues of transmission and treatment. We are talking about edit suites and not recording studio spaces, so the acoustics don’t have to be perfect. Clearly, you want the room to be as free of annoying equipment fan and air conditioner duct noise as possible. Moving storage arrays out of the suite and using a low velocity HVAC system will take care of the bulk of that. You are mainly concerned with keeping the noise from the suite from bothering neighboring offices, as well as keeping most exterior noise out while you are working. This means adopting some studio design concepts without going overboard.

Mass is your friend. The easiest fix to cut down sound transmission is to double-up on the drywall. This means two layers on the inside and outside walls of the room. Use soundboard if you like for at least one of these. Insulate the space in the wall (spray-in foam is a good idea). Screw the drywall to the studs instead of nailing it, caulk all joints and offset the seams between the two layers. If you want even more isolation, then build a double-thick wall, with two set of studs and more insulation. Don’t forget the ceiling, since a simple, suspended ceiling won’t prevent sound from going up and over the wall. You can cap the ceiling with drywall as well, effectively creating a room within a room. Lastly, remember the doors. Use solid-core wooden doors and tight weather stripping around the jam and at the floor.

Sound treatment involves eliminating standing waves (reverberation or echo) caused by hard parallel surfaces and managing bass response (so the mix isn’t too thin or too boomy). If you have control over the room construction, then avoid true parallel walls by slightly slanting some of the walls as well as adding an angle to the drop ceiling. The more items in the room, such as furniture, bookshelves and wall hangings, the more natural interruption there is to the bounce of sound waves. Furthermore, you can purchase a variety of prefab sound treatment kits and ceiling tiles that will help to mitigate reflections and control bass. Auralex and Primacoustic are popular manufacturers. The good news is that many leading studio designers post examples of their rooms all over the Internet, complete with floor plans. Fifteen minutes of web searching will yield an entire library of studio design options for the ambitious.

Equipment configurations

Thanks to new technologies like Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors and Apple’s Thunderbolt protocol, the footprint of modern editing workstations can be smaller than ever. A small shop’s post suite that doesn’t need to handle legacy hardware, can easily be powered by an Apple iMac, MacBook Pro or an HP EliteBook or Z-1. Personally I still prefer a workstation, like a Mac Pro or an HP Z-series machine, but it’s no longer a given that such a unit will provide the fastest performance.

If you are building a new room, it’s insane to even contemplate purchasing a VTR of any sort. So much acquisition and delivery is file-based, that it makes better business sense to utilize outside services like Digital Service Station or a similar local vendor for the few times a year when tape is a requirement. This means racks of terminal gear are reduced or even eliminated and the “747 Cockpit” staples of the edit bay, like scopes and banks of monitors are overkill. It doesn’t hurt to integrate a wiring harness and space for one VTR, though, in the event that you need to accommodate a rental deck.

The current trend in small suite design is to build a room that’s very client-friendly and not intimidating. Usually this involves a workstation with one or two displays, near field audio monitors, a small mixer (mainly for volume control) and one or two video monitors. I like to work with dual displays (like two Apple 20” LCDs), but a single, larger monitor, like a 27” or 30” is also quite functional. In fact, a lot of the newer software, like Smoke for Mac, Final Cut Pro X and DaVinci Resolve, is optimized for single displays. Just remember that smaller, but higher-resolution displays, mean that the type sizes are also smaller. For example, the 1920×1200 pixel display of a 17” Apple MacBook Pro yields tiny text on screen.

The topic of scopes and broadcast video monitors sparks lively debates among pro editors. I’ve been pretty happy with the results I get from internal software scopes in FCP, FCP X, Media Composer, Resolve and Color. A good option if you want more is Blackmagic Design’s Ultrascope. Naturally if you need external monitoring, you’ll need a capture card of some sort. That’s where Thunderbolt comes in, which allows you to daisy-chain storage (like the Promise Pegasus array) and monitoring. For instance, a single Thunderbolt port would let you connect storage, an AJA Io XT and an external Apple 27” display all in a single path. Then use the AJA unit to connect the Ultrascope and broadcast video monitors.

Color-accurate, broadcast display choices depend on your budget, need and tolerance. Sony’s OLED monitors are beautiful but pricey. I would suggest Panasonic, JVC, TV Logic or Flanders Scientific as good alternatives. If you want a large, wall-mounted screen to “wow” the client, then go with one of the Panasonic presentation-grade plasmas. Even their high-end consumer plasmas provide a wonderful image. A really nice layout – which still maintains that “bridge of the Enterprise” look – would place a 27” iMac (or 27” or 30” display) at the center of the console, with a 17” broadcast grade LCD (for video monitoring) to the left and another display with the Ultrascope signal on the right. This would be capped off with a 50” Panasonic plasma mounted on the wall.

Originally written for DV magazine/Creative Planet/NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters

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