Keeping the BBC’s flagship classical music show at the top of its game requires serious engineering skill — and the ability to cope with the unexpected!
One of the key programmes on the BBC’s classical music station, Radio 3, is In Tune, broadcast live on weekday afternoons between 16.30 and 18.30 and hosted either by Sean Rafferty or Suzy Klein. I make a point of listening most days because it covers such an eclectic and interesting range of music; some is drawn from the BBC’s own archives and some from commercial releases both new and old. There are also fascinating studio and ’phone interviews with luminaries from the world of ‘serious music’ and, best of all, the programme always features several tracks performed live in the studio by at least two different (and usually quite dissimilar) acts.
These recitals vary from soloists — opera singers, pianists, and other instrumentalists — through countless trios, quartets, and quintets, and on to choirs of varying types and sizes, and even sometimes quite large world-music and jazz groups of all flavours, too. In my experience the sound quality is always outstanding, but I was fascinated to find out how the programme’s technical staff of just two cope with such wide-ranging recording challenges within a live show, working in a ‘general purpose’ studio under very finite time constraints, with minimal setup and rehearsal time, and with absolutely no option for retakes.
Of the 120 staff in BBC Radio’s Music Operations department, a team of around 25 are routinely rostered to work specifically on the In Tune programme, and they spend the rest of their working time on a wide variety of other music studio programmes for Radio 3, 6Music and Radio 2, as well as some location recordings and outside broadcasts. On June 1st, the day I visited, In Tune was in the hands of Neil Pemberton. Neil is a Senior Studio Manager (SM) — that’s ‘BBC-speak’ for a role that most would call a recording engineer — and he has worked at the BBC since 1980, almost all of it with Radio 3.
Like many of his colleagues, Neil’s work — which has garnered several prestigious Gramophone Awards — involves mixing orchestral concerts most days, both in recorded sessions and live broadcasts, and mostly across London’s many concert venues. He is also part of the team working every year on the BBC Proms (see Sound On Sound November 2014 for my article describing the technology and challenges involved in broadcasting this world-renowned concert series), and estimates that he works on In Tune about once a month. Not all of Neil’s work is in the UK’s capital city, though, as he often finds himself working in concert halls all over the country, as well as occasionally on international tours with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It all sounds like very nice work to me!
The first act appearing live on June 1st’s In Tune was to be Ricardo Ribeiro, a Portuguese Fado singer in London for his UK debut, supported by a trio of guitarists (Luis Guerreiro on Portuguese guitar, Carlos Manuel Proença on Fado guitar, and Daniel Pinto on acoustic bass guitar). They were due to arrive for a soundcheck at 15.45, and their opening performance was scheduled just three minutes into the show at 16.33 — which didn’t leave Neil with much time to set up!
In Tune is usually broadcast from a suite on the eighth floor of Broadcasting House called 80A. This is quite a large general-purpose radio studio which accommodates one of Broadcasting House’s two superb and well-maintained Steinway grand pianos. As well as In Tune, the studio typically hosts anything needing a piano (of course), as well as programmes like World On 3, Loose Ends, and occasional Woman’s Hour programmes for Radio 4, as well as a few Radio 2 ‘specials’.
In anticipation of the band’s (and my!) arrival, Neil had already set up four eight-channel Gear Technologies Hearback personal headphone monitoring units to enable the musicians to balance their foldback mixes to their own personal preferences. The source channels are derived from the individual pre-fade mic outputs from the studio’s mixing console, plus a reverb return. Neil explained that this foldback system was a quicker and more flexible way of working, allowing him to concentrate on finessing the broadcast mix, rather than worrying too much about optimising foldback mixes.
When Neil and I arrived in the studio, the next job was to rig the required microphones — and there were plenty to choose from in a long cabinet under the cubicle window (in BBC-speak, the ‘cubicle’ is what most would call the ‘control room’). Neil started with a near-spaced pair of DPA 4006 small-diaphragm omni capacitor mics to serve as a main stereo pair covering the guitar trio, whose seats were set up in an arc around the mic array. He supplemented this stereo array with AKG C414B-ULS ‘accent mics’ for each of the three guitar positions, and also rigged a BSS AR133 active DI box as a just-in-case option for the bass guitar. The vocal mic, a Neumann KMS105, was set up behind the stereo pair and facing away from the guitars to minimise spill pickup while also ensuring excellent sight-lines between the singer and the guitarists.
All of the band’s mics and the DI were plugged into an eight-way stage box cabled back to a studio wall panel via big green Amphenol bayonet-locking connectors. The BBC has used these MIL 16-26 connectors for its seven- and eight-way stage-box multicore cables for as long as I can remember.
With everything rigged for the Fado group, Neil then went on to rig a pair of Schoeps MK21s near the piano in readiness for the second performance act of the day — although it later turned out that the piano wasn’t actually required at all. While rigging the mics, Neil’s assistant for the afternoon, another SM called Joe Yon, arrived and lent a hand, and once everything was set up, Neil went into the cubicle to configure the console while Joe stayed in the studio scratching each mic for identification.
Joe then went on to check the presence of each mic on the four Hearback systems, and then set about checking everything was working correctly at the studio’s presenter table — a special ‘acoustic table’ which is constructed with thick felt and fabric layers over a perforated metal mesh to minimise sound reflections. Joe meticulously worked through the plugging and polar pattern settings for each mic, the monitor headphones, and the green cue lights, and then fastidiously adjusted the position, height and angle of each mic, too. All five desk mics were more AKG C414s mounted on short ‘banquet table’ stands and fitted with foam wind gags as well as external fabric pop screens.
The desk layout was arranged so that the presenter Sean Rafferty sat at the back looking out across the studio, with a position for the newsreader to his right, and a clear view into the cubicle beyond. Three guest interview positions spanned the far side of the table so that the musicians could move quickly and easily between the interview table and the performance area.
By 15.40 all the studio rigging and system checks were complete, so while we waited for the band to arrive Joe took his position at the back of the cubicle in front of a SADiE DAW system, donned some headphones, and set about completing the editing of a long interview package needed for today’s programme. Meanwhile Neil had some time to show me around the studio’s Studer Vista 6 digital mixing console, which featured six bays and 40 faders, capable of accepting up to 48 microphone inputs.
In keeping with the tradition established with the old analogue Radio GP consoles (see ‘Studio 80A’ box), the leftmost console bay was set up as the master section, with faders for the stereo main output and four stereo groups controlling the presenter and guest mics (Gp1), the local replay sources (Gp2), ‘outside sources’ (Gp3) — meaning all external contributions from other studios or OBs anywhere in the country, as well as any telephone line contributions — and studio music (Gp4). The next two faders were configured as VCA controls for the different studio artist music balances, followed by a stereo fader for the output from the network router carrying the current on-air broadcasting studio (which is used through the programme junctions). The last two faders in this bay handled effects returns from a Lexicon PCM960 reverb. Interestingly, Neil appeared to have no compressors or limiters set up in any of the groups or main output: any required dynamic control was either implemented in the source channels, or done by his skilful and experienced hands on the faders.
The next fader bay in the console was set up with Sean Rafferty’s presenter mic, the newsreader’s mic, and the three studio guest mics, plus three dedicated outputs from the VCS dira! computer playout system. For this programme, though, all the pre-recorded music, interviews, and so on would be pre-mixed by Joe using a small Studer On-Air 3000 console at the back of the room with its own independent access to the dira! system. His mix appeared on the Vista console on a single stereo fader alongside the presenter and interview mics.
I noticed that Neil had dialled in some high-pass filtering into all of the studio table mics, to minimise thumps, rumbles, and plosive pops, and there was also some gentle compression and limiting to control peaks. Sean’s mic was panned centrally, as was the newsreader’s, with the three guest mics panned slightly left and right to give a little movement and width during discussions.
Mounted at the top of the console, right in the centre, was a pod containing a pair of traditional Sifam Type 74 dual-twin PPM meters. The left-hand meter displayed the left and right channel levels on red/green needles (respectively) against the classic BBC 1-7 scale, while the right pair showed the sum and difference levels on white and half-orange needles. Although the meters themselves are analogue, their movements are driven by custom electronics accepting a digital input. Immediately below these meters, built into the desk, was a DK Technologies MSD meter with its familiar goniometer (vector) display, and below that a large screen showing the EBU integrated loudness and loudness range values. This last screen is really only informational at this stage — the BBC hasn’t yet adopted loudness normalisation for radio broadcasting — but Neil told me that his programmes generally came out at around -25 LUFS , a little lower than the current target loudness for HDTV broadcasting.
The bay to the right of the console centre was set up with the direct outputs of four CD players, three outside source lines, and two Telephone Balance Units (TBUs), with the 10th fader left unallocated. The TBU channels were configured with some peak limiting and high-pass filtering, as well as some presence EQ to improve intelligibility, but the OS channels were left flat, presumably on the assumption that whoever was sending those sources would have already optimised the signal quality.
Over at the extreme right-hand side of the console, the final fader bay was set up with the studio’s music mics. I was surprised to see that the two omni mics overlooking the Fado guitarists were brought up onto separate mono faders panned hard left/right, rather than a stereo channel, but Neil explained that this approach afforded more balancing flexibility in a situation where time to adjust the mic positions is very limited. The next two channels handled the two piano mics (although these were not needed for the Fado group, of course), and the remaining faders carried the vocal mic, the three guitar close mics, the bass DI, and a spare unused input. The bass guitar’s close mic and DI, as well as the vocal mic, were all panned to the centre, with the other two guitars’ close mics being panned about 8dB left and right. All of these channels were set up with some purely protective peak limiting (which was never activated) and gentle high-pass filtering.
As 15.45 — the allotted arrival time for the band — came and went, I sensed no rising tension or panic. Clearly, this wasn’t that unusual an experience for Neil and Joe, who were obviously confident of their ability to cope with reduced soundcheck time. However, eyebrows were definitely raised when, around four o’clock, the programme’s producer Hannah Thorne and assistant producer Michael Rossi arrived and explained that there were some “transport issues”. The three guitarists would apparently arrive imminently, but the vocalist and his manager had taken a separate taxi and were “several minutes” behind them!
The three guitarists duly arrived about 10 minutes later, and were quickly installed in the studio. Neil and Joe both introduced themselves to the band members, outlined the plan, established that they didn’t want to use the headphone foldback system, and sorted out music stands and suitable chairs (very neat designs with adjustable-height legs). With the musicians seated and busy tuning their instruments, Neil positioned the close mics — all at the tail ends of their respective instruments, pointing up towards the bridge — and showed the bass guitarist where to plug into the DI box. Neil then went back to the cubicle to start balancing the ensemble, leaving Joe to make sure everyone was completely happy in the studio before he also returned to the cubicle.
Looking over Neil’s shoulder, I noticed that he dialled in a little overall compression and some gentle shelving HF boost in all of the close mics, and used a medium hall reverb preset with a short decay tail. After about five minutes of fine-tuning the mix and reverb settings he professed himself happy with the balance of the guitars, and all he needed now was the vocalist...
However, it soon became clear from the increasingly harassed-sounding ‘phone conversation going on between the assistant producer and the band’s manager that Ricardo Ribeiro was essentially lost in transit and wouldn’t arrive until around 17.10! Consequently, the show’s planned running order had to be scrapped, and Hannah quickly set about completely restructuring the show’s first hour to allow the Fado group to perform later on. Of course, that’s not as easy as it might at first appear, since the show’s second live act, the Pavel Haas Quartet, was supposed to be installed in the studio for soundchecking at 17.36, ready to play live at 17.47!
As if this last-minute rescheduling wasn’t complicated enough, Hannah also had to incorporate a number of studio and phone-in interviews in recognition of the death that day of the former chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bêlohlávek (aged 71). Impressively, though, despite the extra pressure this major reorganisation must have placed upon everyone, I still perceived no impression of chaos or panic anywhere; it was clearly all in a day’s work, and Neil calmly got on preparing for the programme’s live transmission as Hannah discussed with Joe her alterations to the running order of music scheduled in the dira! system.
Like everyone else on the In Tune team, Hannah and Michael work on a variety of different programmes, and Hannah told me she typically produces one In Tune show a week, taking turns in a team of five ‘mixed-portfolio’ producers. Normally, the production team for each programme pre-load all the required audio items — CDs, pre-recorded music, interviews, and so on — onto the BBC’s massive playout server system well in advance, and then ‘schedule’ each item into the VCS dira! in the correct playout order. Each item in this playout list can then be triggered to play either by the SM at the mixing console, or by the Assistant Studio Manager at the back of the room (the preferred option for the In Tune programme).
As I mentioned earlier, different tracks can be assigned to play via any of three separate stereo output channels to allow manual crossfades between consecutive items, if necessary, and in this case Joe would take care of any segues and crossfading by playing the VCS tracks through the Studer On-Air 3000 console at the back of the cubicle.
As you might expect, the ‘now playing’ track information that appears on DAB and FM radios, as well as on the digital TV feed and the BBC web site, comes automatically from the metadata associated with each item pre-loaded into the VCS server: this is an enormous database of information recording all the performance details, as well as all the relevant scheduling information. However, where items are performed live in the studio or played in live from CDs (or when changes are made in the scheduled material, as was the case in this programme), it is the assistant producer’s responsibility to enter the relevant information via a dedicated computer program controlled through one of the many display screens in the cubicle, to ensure the ‘now playing’ information is kept up to date.
With about five minutes to go before the show’s on-air time, Neil got phoned by a colleague in another studio in Broadcasting House that was currently broadcasting a programme called Afternoon On 3 directly into the Radio 3 transmission chain. This programme was coming from Studio 40B on the fourth floor, an area that a decade or more ago might have been referred to as a ‘continuity studio’. Back then, each radio network had its own dedicated ‘continuity studio’ which acted as the controlling hub, playing out pre-recorded taped programmes, routing other studios or outside sources to air through its console, and often broadcasting live links and news, as well as some simple programmes, from its own small studio — and always with a studio manager listening to the broadcast output as a final point of quality control at all times.
Today, things are done rather differently, and it has become the norm to route individual broadcasting studios — and even some outside sources — direct to air using highly resilient digital switching technology. The control system used to manage the on-air switching of different studios (as well as controlling a wide range of other ancillary studio services and facilities) is called Broadcast Network Control System or BNCS. I first came across this ingenious BBC-designed software over 25 years ago when it was a genuinely revolutionary control system, operated through computer touchscreens (which were a novelty back then!), with each display screen being custom-configured to bring the operation of many separate but related media technologies and devices together.
BNCS can control pretty much anything, from the cubicle lighting, to activating talkback circuits, selecting outside sources and routing destinations, starting remote playback or recording devices, and much more besides! The operator can control all manner of remote equipment through a small number of logically laid-out touchscreen displays, each uniquely designed to simplify the operation of specific (and often very complex) operational tasks. Today, BNCS is developed and marketed by an information technology company called Atos, and it is used all around the world — and not just by broadcasters! Back in Studio 80A, a BNCS control screen sits to the right of the mixing console where it is used (amongst other things) to control the studio’s on-air signal routing.
The process of putting the studio on air starts with some manual pre-broadcast checks to confirm that the studio’s output is reaching Studio 40B correctly (checked with both line-up tone and studio sound), and that 40B’s cue-light signals are being returned to 80A. The reason for these checks is that In Tune is firstly put on air through studio 40B at the end of its Afternoon On 3 programme.
Neil starts the network change-over process by pressing a button on the BNCS panel to ‘request’ access to the transmission chain. Then, once In Tune is up and running, the Studio Manager in 40B presses a button on their BNCS screen offering to ‘release’ control of the network, and in Studio 80A the BNCS system displays this status by illuminating an ‘accept’ button. Nothing actually changes until, at some convenient moment, this button is pressed in Studio 80A, at which point the studio is routed directly and seamlessly into the transmission chain, releasing Studio 40B to do other things.
With a green cue light, Sean Rafferty launched into a brief introduction and the In Tune programme started with a recording of Martinu’s Seren da No. 2 for strings conducted by Bêlohlávek. With Neil accepting control of the network, the studio was now broadcasting live to air and Hannah had a three-minute hiatus to explain the running order changes she wanted to Neil and Joe and, via talkback, to Sean in the studio.
The atmosphere was very calm and professional, and as the Martinu track progressed, Joe gave clear warnings at a minute, 30 and 15 seconds to run. Moreover, Neil confirmed when he had completely faded out the dira! play-in source, allowing Joe to cue up the next track.
This is all part of the BBC’s traditional Studio Manager communication protocol, which ensure the programme’s smooth running, and it was a joy to observe. Other traditional studio features included the red lights built into the clock displays in the studio and cubicle which illuminate when the studio is on air, and when any studio microphones are faded up. Neil also used a footswitch under the console to flash a green cue light in front of Sean, indicating when he should start talking. Operating a radio broadcast console is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time — perhaps it’s no wonder that so many studio managers also seem to be classical organists, able to get their hands and feet to do different things at the same time!
So, with the Fado vocalist still missing, the planned first song from the Fado group was replaced by Sean introducing the seven-minute interview package that Joe had been completing on SADiE earlier. This interview was recorded at the home of Dame Beryl Grey, the great prima ballerina now in her 90s, and was book-ended with around five minutes of music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. While this package was on air, Stephen Bryant, the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was ushered into the studio, and when the interview package concluded, Sean conducted a five-minute live studio interview with Stephen about his experiences of working with the late Bêlohlávek. This section of the programme was then neatly completed with a recording of Bêlohlávek conducting the BBC SO performing Beethoven’s second concerto for piano and orchestra, with Paul Lewis on piano.
While all this had been going on Michael, the assistant producer, had slipped quietly out of the cubicle to collect Ricardo Ribeiro from Broadcasting House’s reception and escort him and his manager to the studio. However, by the time they arrived it was almost five o’clock, and nearly time for the news. A short ‘trail’ for Katie Derham’s Sound Of Dance filled the gap up to 17.00, allowing newsreader Neil Sleat to collect his script from a laser printer in the cubicle and then take his seat beside Sean Rafferty in the studio.
The news was followed by a six-minute recording of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, and this was Neil Permberton’s opportunity to finally get Ricardo set up in the studio and to balance his voice against the guitar trio, who had been waiting patiently to play for over half an hour. Neil’s soundcheck was all done using the console’s stereo pre-fade listen facility via the main monitor speakers in the cubicle, while Joe monitored the music still playing out to air on headphones as a safety check!
As the Purcell track came to a close, Sean picked up in the studio and linked straight into a live phone-in interview with Radio 3 presenter and former In Tune host Petroc Trelawny about a concert the latter was hosting in Manchester that evening with the Hallé orchestra, in support of the family and friends of the victims of that city’s recent terrorist attack. This interview was followed by a recording of the Hallé orchestra performing an excerpt from Elgar’s Sea Pictures, with Alice Coote singing, which provided Neil Pemberton with just under four minutes to finalise his balance of the complete Fado group.
At the end of the Elgar track, Sean did a short introductory interview with Ricardo and then asked him to take his place with the trio. We heard the first melancholic Fado song, ‘Soneto de Mal Amar’ by Vinicius de Morales, at around 17.18 rather than the scheduled 16.34. From where I was standing in the back of the cubicle it sounded utterly fabulous, with clarity and detail set within a convincing perspective and appropriate acoustic courtesy of the Lexicon! At the end of the first song Ricardo returned to the interview table for some more chat with Sean, and then performed his second song, ‘Eu Sei Que Sou Demain’ by Joaquim Pimentel.
At the conclusion, Sean Rafferty thanked Ricardo and his band, and then introduced a recording of Ashkenazy playing a JS Bach partita, giving just three minutes to clear the Fado group completely out of the studio in readiness for the second live performance act, the Pavel Haas string quartet — who were already waiting patiently in the green room down the corridor behind the cubicle.
Before bringing the quartet into the studio, Sean conducted another live phone-in interview discussing the life and work of the late Jiří Bêlohlávek, this time with Josef Špaček, the concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately the mobile phone line quality wasn’t great, making the conversation quite hard to follow, but to illustrate some of the points discussed Hannah had slotted in a recording of Bêlohlávek conducting the Czech Phil playing Dvořák’s violin concerto.
It was this lengthy recording that gave Neil and Joe a (generous?) 10 minutes to dash into the studio and set up the chairs and music stands for the Pavel Haas string quartet, comprising Veronika Jarůšková and Marek Zwiebel (violins), Peter Jarůšek (’cello) and Radim Sedmidubsk (viola). With the musicians in place (in that order) and tuning their instruments, Neil and Joe worked quickly and skilfully to place the microphones before returning to the cubicle to work up a balance using the console’s pre-fade listen again.
For speed and convenience, Neil reused the DPA 4006 near-spaced omnis as a main stereo pair and supplemented them with the three AKG C414B-ULS microphones used with the Fado group, plus a fourth connected in place of the previous bass DI. These C414s were rigged as close accent mics in front and slightly above each instrument. In fact, most of the sound in the mix actually came from the near-spaced omni array and the Lexicon reverb, but the close accent mics were used at a low level to enhance the definition slightly.
By now the clock was showing 17.46 — the precise time the programme’s original running order had listed the Pavel Haas quartet’s first performance — and as the Dvořák recording came to a close, Sean introduced the quartet to play Beethoven’s string quartet no. 12, which lasted about seven minutes. It was now about 17.53 and, as there wasn’t enough time to continue with the quartet’s second piece before the news, Hannah had already primed Joe to segue together a couple of tracks from two CDs by the King’s Singers. This was followed by another programme ‘trail’ from the dira! system to fill the time up to the news at 18.00, which was read live in the studio by Vaughan Savage.
The programme continued after the news with a rather unusual recording of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ performed by Anoushka Shankar (Sitar) and Milos Karadaglic (guitar), commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. I did say the music on In Tune could be quite eclectic! This was followed by Sean conducting a very entertaining interview with Veronika and Peter of the Pavel Haas quartet for about five minutes, and then they rejoined their colleagues for another live performance, this time of the first movement of the Shostakovich string quartet no. 2.
For the closing 10 minutes of the programme, Sean thanked the quartet and then introduced a pre-recorded telephone interview with Swedish opera singer Nina Stemme, again discussing what it was like to have worked with the late Jiří Bêlohlávek. During this recording the Pavel Haas quartet were cleared from the studio, and afterwards Sean introduced an excerpt from Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde performed by Stemme with Bêlohlávek conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne.
All that was left to do after that was to play a trailer for the BBC Music’s Introducing project, seeking new classical musicians, and then Sean talked about the highlights planned for the following day’s programme before handing over to the following programme, Composer Of The Week with Donald Macleod. This is actually a repeat of the programme broadcast in the morning, and it is played from Studio 40B again. So while the Nina Stemme interview was playing out, Neil used the BNCS system to ‘offer’ control of the transmission network back to Studio 40B, which was accepted and taken during the Wagner track, meaning that Sean’s closing comments were actually broadcast through Studio 40B.
However, the afternoon’s work was still not quite complete: after the programme had finished Sean went on to record some trails for the next day’s programme. Only once that was done could Joe and Neil set about resetting the studio, tidying away all the chairs, music stands, mic stands, cables and, of course, the microphones. And with that we said our goodbyes and each went our separate ways. I am indebted to Huw Robinson for affording the opportunity to observe the making of In Tune, and to Neil, Joe, Hannah, Michael and Sean for making me so welcome and for answering all my questions, especially given that things didn’t go quite as planned behind the scenes — not that anyone listening would have had the slightest inkling of all the on-the-fly rescheduling.
It’s always an enormous pleasure and privilege to watch consummate professionals at work, in any discipline, and that’s precisely what I observed here. It all looked very easy and unstressed, but that can only happen when everyone is at the very top of their game and has total trust in their colleagues. If you get the chance, I thoroughly recommend listening to In Tune, not least to appreciate the high standards of sound from the live performances, achieved on a daily basis in frighteningly short timescales and with no safety nets! You may also find interesting a series of videoed performances from In Tune programmes available on the BBC web site at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02wnb0m — although access may not be available overseas.
Originally, this top-floor studio area in Broadcasting House was called Studio 8A, and it differed significantly from all the other main studios in Broadcasting House. These are housed in a structurally isolated ‘tower’ which forms the central (quiet) core of the building, each studio floor being originally supported on massive cork pads to provide acoustic isolation.
The Concert Hall sits at the base of the ‘tower’, occupying the lower ground up to the first floor, and above that, a variety of different-sized studio spaces are located on the third, fourth and sixth floors, with some studios on the third and sixth floors also being double-height spaces. However, the building’s original mansard roof structure meant there was no space for the ‘tower’ to reach up to the eighth floor, and so the high-ceilinged Studio 8A was built separately on the Portland Place side of the building, and ‘floated’ from the building’s steelwork below to minimise noise transmission. (The mansard roof has now gone, replaced with new office space added as part of the 2006 Broadcasting House refurbishment.)
As Studio 8A was originally intended for ‘band music’ programmes, the fact that it wasn’t housed within the quiet ‘tower’ and would be exposed to external street noise wasn’t really much of a concern, and the studio’s location at the outer edge of the building had the benefit of porthole windows high up on the outside wall, making it unique in Broadcasting House as the only studio with natural daylight!
Studio 8A was the first to be completed, and thus hosted the first music programme to be broadcast from Broadcasting House, in March 1932. It also served as the testbed for several early BBC mixing consoles, including the first Type A (1944) and Type B (1957), both built with near-vertical control panels carrying large rotary faders. Amazingly, that Type B console apparently remained in use right up until 1989, when it was replaced by a ‘modern’ Calrec-built GP mixing desk.
There were at least 10 evolutions of this BBC Radio GP (general purpose) console, from the first prototype in 1975 to the Mk4+ variant in the late 1980s, with BBC equipment codes ranging from DK 4/26 to DK 4/40. Although the basic configuration was broadly constant, they were constructed with different numbers of input channels and outside sources to suit individual studio requirements, and they remained in in use well into the 2000s when they were gradually replaced with digital consoles. The core design of these fabulous consoles was developed by the BBC, but over 65 consoles were physically built by either Neve, Calrec or Audix Broadcast in roughly equal measures, and employed in BBC radio broadcast studios all over the country, and even further afield.
In the 1970s Studio 8A was remodelled as a drama studio, latterly accommodating most of the Schools’ Music and Drama programmes, but 12 years ago it received another major refurbishment as part of the ‘digitisation’ of Broadcasting House, taking on the form we see today when it was rechristened Studio 80A.
Today, most of the studio’s floor is wooden parquet, but a carpeted corner area in front of the cubicle window and alongside the outside wall provides a slightly deader acoustic. This is where a large hexagonal ‘acoustic’ discussion table sits, equipped with up to six microphone positions. A comprehensive range of acoustic treatment modules cover all four studio walls and the high ceiling, creating a very neutral-sounding space with a relatively short reverb time: think large rehearsal space rather than concert hall!
An equipment storage room is located through a door in one corner of the studio, while in the opposite corner, a door leads out to the entrance corridor, which also provides access to the cubicle. A large window provides excellent sightlines between the studio and cubicle, and a similar window on the opposite wall opens onto a second, smaller production cubicle. Although this second cubicle can access the studio’s mic tie-lines it tends to be used mostly for unrelated pre-production work.
Studio 80A’s cubicle is dominated by a Studer Vista 6 digital desk, with a ‘fairy-dust’ effects rack to the left and a producer’s desk on the right-hand side. An assistant producer’s position is set at 90 degrees against the left-hand side wall, complete with a laser printer for generating scripts and news reports. Across the full width of the back of the room are facilities for the assistant studio manager, with a trio of CD players, a SADiE DAW workstation, and the VCS dira! Scheduler, Onair playout and Cartplayer tools, all of which can be routed through a small Studer On-Air 3000 submixing console.
One thing that immediately strikes you when viewing a modern broadcast studio is the sheer number of computer screens: every staff position seems to have at least two, and some even more. Avocent KVM matrix switches are employed to allow the users to independently select and control as many as a dozen different computer systems ranging from their personal ‘BBC Desktop’ for accessing email and basic office tools, through the VCS dira! Scheduler and Onair playout tools, BNCS broadcast equipment control systems, mixing console configuration screens, and so on.
BBC technical and production staff are constantly moving from one studio to another, so consistent monitoring quality is essential. With the refurbishment and ‘digitisation’ of Broadcasting House starting in 2004, the BBC wanted to replace their (much-loved) in-house-designed LS3/5 and LS5/8 monitors, which had served as the high-quality monitoring references for decades. After a very lengthy and comprehensive EU procurement procedure, BBC Radio eventually selected Dynaudio’s digital Air 20 and Air 6 (and analogue BM5) loudspeakers as the reference monitor in most of its studios. The main cubicle monitoring speakers are thus Dynaudio Air 20 three-way active units with digital inputs, with smaller two-way Air 6s on hand for the assistant position at the back of the cubicle as well as in the studio. Very sensibly, I noticed that all these monitors had all been fitted with spring clips on their sides near the bottom, which secured them safely to their speaker stands.
A long storage cabinet mounted directly under the cubicle window stores Studio 80A’s dedicated mic collection, and it contains enough to make most drool with envy! Highlights included a pair of DPA 4006 omnis, four 4011 cardioids and two 4015 hypo-cardioids, along with half a dozen Neumann KM100 bodies with KM40 (cardioid) and KM43 (hypo-cardioid) capsules, a pair of TLM170Rs, and a KMS105 vocal mic. There was also a pair of Microtech Gefell M950s (hypo-cardioid), and lots of Schoeps CMC5 and CMC6 bodies with MK4 (cardioid) and MK21 (hypo-cardioid) capsules.
However, it seems the go-to workhorse microphone — for Neil Pemberton, at least — is the AKG C414, and the cabinet contains no fewer than eight B-ULS versions and four XLS models. Neil commented that he preferred the older, mechanically switched B-ULS models, mainly because you can’t check or change the polar pattern on the newer electronically switched XLS models unless the mic is plugged in and powered up — which isn’t very convenient when the mic is being flown on a catenary wire far out of reach above the audience!
Not everything in the cabinet is an expensive capacitor mic, though. Alongside a single Coles 4038 ribbon are Beyer M201 and M88 dynamics, and trios of Shure SM58 and Beta 58As, plus a lone SM57. I also saw a few Sennheiser e604 clip-on drum mics and a K6/ME66 short shotgun mic, as well as sE Gemini and R1 ribbons, too. There are also a couple of Canford mic splitter boxes, a collection of BSS AR133 active DI boxes, and a generous assortment of stereo bars and other mounting hardware — more than enough there to handle most bands and musicians likely to appear in the studio, I think!
Most of the studio’s mic stands are heavy-duty K&M types of various sizes and formats, but there are also a few vintage bronze and grey BBC ‘Agrippa’ STM16 stands lurking in the back with their big round bases and fixed boom arms — they don’t make mic stands like that any more!
BBC Radio 3 is broadcast on several platforms. The longest serving, of course, is the national network of FM transmitters, but the UK Government has plans to remove the national stations from FM within the next decade, allowing the band II spectrum to be used for mobile data services as well as low-range community FM stations. For that reason the DAB digital radio service is considered the flagship broadcast network, and BBC Radio 3 commands the highest bit rate (and thus highest technical quality) — at 192kb/s — of all of the BBC’s DAB channels.
However, BBC Radio 3 can also be found on digital TV platforms (FreeView/FreeSat channel 703, and Sky channel 0103), again at 192kb/s. It is also streamed on the Internet through the BBC’s web site at 320kb/s. On digital platforms, BBC Radio 3 is free of all transmission processing, but the FM service is subject to (relatively gentle and benign) five-band Optimod processing. The BBC will also offer a lossless (FLAC) Internet stream for the Proms concerts this year following successful pilot trials in May.