Note: This article was originally written in 2003.
NLE suites have followed a trend started in music – becoming the “project studios” of the video world. Like their audio counterparts, NLE suite designs run the gambit from world-class installations to a rack full of gear in a spare bedroom. Five factors must be taken into consideration to properly design an NLE suite: space, acoustics, ergonomics, power and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning).
I asked two pros for a little input. John Storyk (Walters-Storyk Design Group, New York) is a renowned architect who specializes in audio studios and media facilities. He has designed more than 1500 facilities for over 30 years, starting with Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Most recently he designed several rooms for WNET (New York). Bob Zelin (Rescue 1, Orlando) is an electrical engineer who has made video engineering his life’s passion. Zelin has built almost 1000 post-production suites, including most of the Avid rooms in Manhattan and Orlando.
Avoiding the pitfalls
As an architect, John Storyk faces the challenges of acoustics and space on a daily basis. Edit suites end up in lofts, offices, warehouses and any other place you can imagine. John gave me some pointers to avoid some of the pitfalls these spaces can present. “We are designers, so we always prefer to be involved in the design process as early as possible. More mistakes take place in the earliest stages of design than you can imagine. Even in a low-budget project, correct decisions should and can be made that could have large acoustic and economic implications. Architectural and programmatic requirements of the room should always be solved first. Good seating, non-glare lighting, correct location of doors (for instance, not in the rear center of the room), correct amount of glass, daylight control, quiet air conditioning, etc. are some of the items that need to be accounted for. These are ‘married’ to good acoustic design to create a successful edit suite. Boundaries between video and audio post-production suites are overlapping, so more edit rooms include audio recording and mixing capabilities. Even ‘scratch-track’ audio is expected to be an accurate representation of what will be heard at the end of the project. “
John offered some tips to aid in site selection:
Height – try to get a space with extra height. This will come back to aid you in HVAC ductwork, as well as lighting and acoustics. Low frequency control in small rooms is the key.
Try to avoid wood structures. These are tough to isolate – they are relatively lightweight (most of the time). Usually it is better to locate in a building that has concrete slabs of some sort.
You have a better chance of making a quiet room if you locate in a quiet site. Don’t choose a warehouse location that is directly adjacent to a manufacturing tenant!
If there is a choice of sites, choose the one that is a slab-on-grade location (ground floor – concrete on earth). This is usually going to result in better (and more economic) isolation, as well as low frequency control.
Since equipment is a huge noise generator inside the room, John adds, “Try to put the noisy equipment out of the room. In some instances the creation of a central machine room solves the problem. When this is not possible, a machine closet will work. Watch out for HVAC in those areas. Separate rooms or closets for equipment also allow you to direct more of the HVAC to these spaces in a fashion that does not have to pay that much attention to system noise (since the rooms are noisy to begin with). This will usually save money – and, of course, create a quieter edit suite.”
Don’t forget the equipment
Bob Zelin offered these insights on some of the changes he has seen. “Modern NLE, audio and graphics suites do not suffer the problems that were incurred in ‘the old days’. Power requirements, cooling, physical space, etc. are no longer the great concern, as when conventional machine rooms were required to house multiple one-inch VTRs and racks of video electronics. Today, in smaller installations without a central machine room (housing racks of equipment for multiple suites), everything runs on simple desktop computers, that use conventional office power and existing building HVAC. The best types of installations are like the world-class facilities that John has built. My clients want to have the same performance, but spend less money to accomplish the same end result. Although, I have been fortunate to build some beautiful facilities, I have also had to build facilities where the machine room had no air conditioning and operated at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The client finally took my advice to spend the money on proper air conditioning when the equipment started to fail due to overheating!”
Bob went on to explain some of the typical equipment selections that go into the rooms he designs. “The most common mistake is that people do not think about their infrastructure because these items are not billable, yet they are all critical in making a properly working system – and a facility or boutique that is presentable and comfortable for their clients. The best way to learn about building edit suites, is to observe the existing edit suites of your competitors. Certain ‘standards’ have been created, simply because of the enormous popularity of these products. Items such as Sony PVM-20M4U monitors, Mackie mixers, Sigma blackburst generators and Sony UVW-1800 Betacam-SP VTRs have all become extremely popular because they are seen everywhere. Often these are ‘standards’ because they are the most cost-effective piece of equipment for the job. Items that are often left out of the installation are essentials like audio distribution amplifiers, waveform monitors and vectorscopes.”
Part of designing a successful suite is dealing with the issues of ergonomics and client areas. The room has to work for the operator, as well as the client. According to John Storyk, “Get a great chair – you can’t beat that. Try not to have furniture any higher than thirty-six inches. This will acoustically block the speakers. The suite should have great lighting. Task lighting works the best. Watch out for glare. Lots of edit rooms like natural daylight, which is nice, but it can be a liability. The best place for a daytime view is (believe it or not) towards the front of a room.” Bob Zelin is a strong advocate for pre-fab consoles. “The first thing I tell people who want to build a beautiful facility is to consider a console from a company like Forecast Consoles, which make the ‘same old equipment’ look fantastic.”
The editor’s POV
I’ve also built a few editing suites in my time and have had to work in countless others, so I’ll offer some of my own insights.
Console ergonomics. I prefer consoles with plenty of desk space around the keyboard. Keep the monitors twenty inches or more away from the editor so that there is plenty of space for scripts, a coffee cup, notes, etc. You see a lot of consoles with monitors on top of a bridge. This places your eyeline at higher than a horizontal plane when you are looking at information at the top of the screen – causing neck strain. Go for something that places the monitor on a flat desk surface, or – even better – somewhat recessed into the console surface.
Client space. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to keep the client from encroaching on the editor’s space. Client consoles don’t often achieve this and U-shaped editor’s consoles seem to cause the opposite effect. The last room I built had a convex, semi-circular editor’s desk (the radius turned away from the editor). The producer/client desk was on a riser and featured a separate set of LCD monitors that were duplicates of the editor’s displays. The editor had a broadcast-quality, twenty-inch color monitor, plus there was a 16×9 flat panel screen mounted in the wall for viewing by the clients seated on the back sofa. Client phones and Internet access completed the package. This gave clients a comfortable and separate working space, yet they didn’t feel the need to “be in the editor’s lap”, just to follow along on the timeline or look at bin information on the screen.
Power conditioning. I firmly believe in using UPS systems like those from APC or Tripplite. Get a beefy one – not a general office version – and make sure you keep a good battery in it. This is more important for power conditioning than electrical failure. Electrical current in most places tends to fluctuate frequency, which causes file corruption on hard drives and premature shortening of the lifespan of your media drives.
Room noise. Computers, drives and VTRs generate noise. A modern Mac or PC is pretty quiet, but often NLE manufacturers, who use internal PCI cards, have to add fan kits to keep these machines cool. You can remove your computers and drives to a central machine room by using Gefen or Extron products to extend your keyboards and monitors. If the computer has to be in the room with you, maybe a computer enclosure, like those from Raxxess are of interest. Media drive arrays are the main noise offender, so you might consider fibre channel drives, which can be located a considerable distance from the computer.
According to Storyk, “The good news is that surface-applied acoustic products, such as pre-fab diffusors and acoustic absorption have become increasingly available over the past five years and (more good news) have gone down in price! More interestingly, progress has been made in relatively thin and inexpensive low frequency treatments.” The web offers plenty of resources for the do-it-yourselfer. There are tons of slick photos and floor plans to be seen on the home pages of many outstanding facilities. This is a good starting place to get inspiration for your layout. Then bring in the pros and turn your dreams into reality.
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)