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Allan Slaight Radio Institute: Readying Ryerson Students for the Air

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By Kevin Young. Photos by Scott Norsworthy

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Professional Sound

Newly reopened as the Allan Slaight Radio Institute, Ryerson University’s radio facility has been completely upgraded, both technologically and structurally.

Named after the broadcast pioneer and former president and CEO of the Standard Broadcasting Corporation, the new facility will allow students – those studying at the RTA School of Media and others – a space that is purpose-built to reflect the reality of the current industry in terms of both technology and the evolving role radio plays in our lives.
A generous gift from The Slaight Family Foundation was integral to the creation of the space – funds that also underpin newly created student awards such as the Allan Slaight Entrance Awards in Radio and provide support for independent student productions via the Allan Slaight Radio Institute Student Production Fund.

Radio studio hallwayLocated in the Rogers Communications Centre in Toronto, the revamped space includes new radio control rooms and audio production suites in a modern environment designed to foster creativity and collaboration and to aid students in gaining practical, transferable skills in a state-of-the-art broadcast and teaching facility.

As Manager of Production and Facilities at the RTA School of Media, Shawn Haswell’s responsibilities include overseeing any projects related to facilities and equipment; consequently, he was heavily involved in guiding the project from conception to completion. Being a university, Haswell explains, a number of departments had a stake in the outcome. “So I worked very closely with Ryerson’s Campus Facilities and Sustainability Department, the central body that any kind of renovation or construction project goes through,” he shares.

An overhaul of Ryerson’s radio facilities had been in the works for some time, but discussions ramped up in November of 2014. After the funding was confirmed in early 2015, the goal was to complete and open the facility for the 2015 fall term. “And we achieved that – a few weeks later than we’d hoped, but we did,” Haswell adds. Haswell notes that a variety of goals motivated the renovation as well as system design and choice of AV technology for the space, one being the age of the building and the length of time since its previous upgrade. “Our building finished construction in the early 1990s, and our radio area hasn’t had a substantial overhaul since.”

Haswell continues: “At the time this building was constructed, it was common that radio facilities be placed – deliberately so, for sound isolation purposes – in hidden parts of the building. Now, people are putting radio facilities on street level with the idea that they can be accessible, connected, and visible, and that was something that was really desirable to us with this new space.”

Essentially, Haswell and Ryerson wanted to create a space that would function as a dedicated learning facility, but without sacrificing the look, feel, and function of a current, state-of-the-art broadcast facility – to mirror the form and function of the kind of radio facilities students in the program will work in after graduating. “So we didn’t want to partner with an architect that’s only built classrooms; I wanted a firm that’s built radio stations. That’s why Quadrangle Architects were a great partner for us, because they’ve obviously done this in many places.”

Inside studioQuadrangle was the primary consultant on the project, says the company’s lead for the institute, Ted Shore, who worked on the feasibility and layout with Ryerson and then headed up the team, which included Aercoustics Engineering Consultants LLC and mechanical/electrical consultants The Hidi Group.

As a result of Quadrangle’s previous experience on similar projects, they brought a deep understanding of creative spaces to the table. “And by that I mean collaborative spaces that foster creativity and cross pollination,” Shore explains. “So not only have we got the content media experience and the technical background, we’ve also done a lot of spaces for various clients that want to foster learning. This is an academic situation, but from a facilities point of view, creative and collaborative spaces are very similar and you’re seeing a merger of that in education, where they’re copying some of the better models of the workplace in their new facilities.”

While that obviously had an impact on the audio and associated technologies that would inhabit the space, facilitating the process for recording and broadcasting the kind of content Ryerson wanted its students to be able to create went well beyond the gear.

“It’s an interesting building,” Shore says. “It’s built around a dramatic four-storey, skylit atrium space.”

As Haswell noted, however, the media/education facility, although located on the building’s main floor near its main entrance, didn’t previously open up visually or physically to the atrium.

“So,” Shore explains, “one of the goals of this project was to inject some excitement into the atrium and show what they do [in the space]. Those are themes we’ve been working with since the 1980s with CityTV and later with Corus. In those cases, we were using those facilities to animate the outdoor street. In this case, we animated the indoor street, so there are windows open into the studios and the space where Ryerson’s digital radio station, Spirit Live, is produced. It’s right in the atrium so people see what they’re doing and how it works.”

Mic tableWhile the building was originally created for a variety of programs that fall under FCAD, Ryerson’s Faculty of Communications and Design, the radio component was built at a time “when radio was radio and television was television,” Shore says, “and all of these groups were separate and distinct.”

Educational techniques, like the gear involved in production, have changed dramatically, Shore continues. “So we sat down with Ryerson’s core team and led them through the process of realizing their vision for what they were trying to do academically within their space requirements. Then we went through about eight to 10 different plans, refined their wish list with the reality of space that was allocated for renovation in mind, and went back and forth in an integrated design process to try to find a plan that worked best for their needs.”

The main challenge, he says, was that the space allocated was fairly tight and limited by the boundaries of other already functioning academic spaces that couldn’t be encroached upon.

The timeline was also tight, Haswell puts in. “Some people here [at Ryerson] thought we were out of our minds for wanting to turn around such an intense project so quickly, but Quadrangle were great partners, so we said, ‘If Quadrangle tells us we have a problem, it’s at that point that we have a problem.’ Until then, we just went full speed ahead. It was aggressive,” he admits, laughing, “but we’re used to that.”

StudioAchieving the necessary sound isolation wasn’t a huge challenge, Shore says. “We gutted the whole space. The standard we were given from an acoustic separation point of view was to make this as good as it was previously, and in that regard, [the previous space] functioned adequately. Then, working with Steve Titus of Aercoustics, we found the most efficient and thinnest wall materials we could use to achieve the ratings they were looking for.”

Saving space was of prime importance, Shore emphasizes. “There are a number rooms and suites we had to get in from a capacity and teaching point of view, so every inch counted and we were able to find a wall that was relatively thin for its performance and used that as the base for all of the acoustically isolated rooms.”

“Aercoustics was very important as well,” Haswell adds. “The needs of a production space are different from that of a chemistry lab, classroom, or office, so the sound isolation and acoustics in a room were key to us. Quadrangle understood that implicitly and engaged Aercoustics, for which we’re grateful because the space sounds great.”

The finished facility houses five production control suites, including Spirit Live’s control room and a larger multi-purpose studio/control room that plays home to the Global Campus Network Initiative. These spaces surround a central commons, which serves multiple purposes, including performances and events.

“In effect, we took what had been one small classroom space, three control rooms, three announce booths, and one interview suite, gutted them, and now we have five control rooms, two interview suites, and two announce booths surrounding a large common space that can be used as a collaborative environment for our students to come in and think about or work on radio, podcasts, and audio projects,” Haswell says.

The layout of the commons was deliberately planned to serve a variety of functions, with a large video screen and chairs and tables for seminars, workshops, and events. Essentially, it was designed as the epicentre of the space and to serve both classroom and incubation purposes. “We were able to incorporate the two into one,” Shore says, “so you could be in the production spaces watching something going on in the common space, or you could pop in and out. Also, if a professor wants to go to a whiteboard or screen, they can go into the common area and have an adjunct breakout session.”

Spirit Live’s studio is now the most visible room in the whole operation. “You walk down a corridor in our building and that’s the first production facility you see – a space where our students are broadcasting live 10 to 12 hours a day,” Haswell says. The station, however, broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, featuring both live and taped original content produced by students of the RTA School of Media.

The commons may also be used as a teaching space, but its primary function is broadcast – “because we don’t want to pre-empt students’ shows,” Haswell says. “The whole space is called the Allan Slaight Radio Institute and we deliberately called it that because we want to encourage students to be doing more radio, podcasting, and audio work. Also, we provide our students with more access to these facilities than we do with other production facilities in the building.” The result is that students wishing to use the space don’t necessarily have to be studying radio to do so, thereby fostering more collaboration and creativity.

In addition, the multimedia control room is also the home base of Ryerson’s TV station, RUTE. “The master control for both of those operations exists out of that space and the teams overlap,” Haswell continues, adding that the Global Campus Network is akin to Spirit Live: “Where students have shows and can pitch them and produce them, but the Global Campus Network is really meant to be a hub of activity for multiple partners and universities all over the world so students can create live programming and other initiatives and international co-productions with our [approximately] 112 partner schools globally.”

Like the room that’s home to the GCN and RUTE, every space boasts robotic cameras. Their inclusion reflects the increasing importance of video technology and content in radio. “The reality of the industry now is that there’s a merging of audio-based information and entertainment and video-based information and radio has had a resurgence thanks to digital broadcasting and Internet radio,” Shore says.

Industry wide, many traditional radio rooms are used for video as well as audio programming – a concept Quadrangle is eminently familiar with from a variety of spaces, which, more than in the past, require the consideration of overall aesthetics as well as acoustics.

In old school radio, the rooms did not have to look pretty. “So that did put a different spin on it,” Shore says. Luckily, he adds, modern cameras are small and often run off a single data cable. “In our case, we required power [cables] as well, but the cameras are very unobtrusive, which helps this merging to happen.”

While the footprint of the video gear allowed them to keep the rooms compact, it did add complexity, Shore continues. The gear, both audio and video, was specified by Ryerson, but Quadrangle’s role was to ask questions that ultimately helped nail down what equipment would inhabit the space. “I couldn’t go pick the best camera for a room,” Shore says, “but I can meet with the people that can and say, ‘What’s the angle of this lens? How high do we want it?’ We can visualize the kind of throw and angle they’re looking for and help to get the best coverage of the room and the people in it.”

The merging of audio and video in radio education is necessary in order to teach students to function in the current industry, he continues: “It’s the production equivalent of what’s happening on the technology side. When I started in broadcast in the early 1990s, there were radio engineers, broadcast video engineers, and then there were IT engineers – three different camps with three different opinions and, often, three different facilities. That’s changed. Now you have an integrated engineering department that understands all the components.”

The main contact Quadrangle dealt with in that department was Attila Jagodits, lead media systems specialist for the Rogers Communications Centre, who designed the audio and video systems for the space and specified the gear.

While most of the technology in the space was new, Jagodits says, a few pieces were repurposed, including some mics and one console. Still, he approached the design of the audio and video systems for the new space from scratch. “Everything is based on an audio over IP network. We use the Dante network because all the gear is compatible with that, so all of the consoles are tied into Dante and all the microphones are sitting on the network. The whole concept behind this was that we wanted complete flexibility. In fact, any of those devices can be sent throughout the building because we’re flattening everything in the building onto the Dante network, so the entire network is addressable.”

Among the technologies he speci­ ed in order to achieve that, Jagodits says, are Focusrite RedNet 2s for line level input and output and the RedNet 4, a mic preamp added to the network to bring in or send out large amounts of audio and mic inputs. “Also, in the hallways, to bring audio in and out, we have Lectrosonics DNTWPs, which provide two line outputs from the Dante network and you can put two line inputs into there, both mic level, which ­ t into an outlet in the walls.”

Four of the ­ ve control rooms are equipped with Studer OnAir 1500 mixing consoles, but one uses a repurposed Studer OnAir 2500 that Ryerson already owned. “But the 2500 doesn’t have the Dante interface, so we used a [Focusrite] RedNet 6, which is a MADI interface, and tied that into the Dante network.”

Additionally, in every space, Heil PR40 dynamic microphones are deployed – two per room for interviewers and guests. In each of the control rooms, the Radio Institute is running OMT’s iMediaTouch On-Air, Production, and Pix software modules. “We have two workstations in each of the control rooms; one is a PC running the iMedia software, and the other is a Mac Mini to run Pro Tools,” Jagodits adds. “I should also mention that the workstations have Dante virtual soundcards so they can be brought into On-Air and so we can use Skype through the workstation.”

Each space, with the exception of one, is out­ tted with a pair of Tannoy Reveal 502 monitors. The remaining control room is equipped with JBL Control 25s. In the interview rooms, Studio Technologies 5204 and 5202 interfaces are deployed to bring audio in and out. In the main room, two RedNet 4 mic preamps and one RedNet 2 are also used. Additionally, in the Global Campus Network space is a Behringer X 32 console and two Yorkville YSM8 active studio monitors on the room’s walls.

The speci­fication and installation of AV gear was handled by Jagodits and Ryerson’s in-house technical group; however, Quadrangle tends to co-ordinate content media projects such as this very closely with their in-house partners, and necessarily so, Shore explains, to ensure the equipment, the millwork, and walls, for example, complement each other and that the infrastructure – particularly for cable routing – can be accommodated and, later, upgraded with ease.

Essentially, Shore says: “They lay out the design, specify the equipment, ­ gure out their technical needs, and then we get a hand in it to coordinate routing, cabling, and mounting. And, again, all of the audio is on the Dante network, so you just route it to your desired On-Air console, and the cameras as well, we have video routers and all the control is over IP, so they can just select the cameras they want to control.”

In this project, unsurprisingly, connectivity was key. “Their strategy for the equipment was that, essentially, they wanted everything to be connected to everything else so any control room could control any space within the suite and be interconnected with their existing television and larger volume studios,” Shore says.

An existing raised ‑ oor in the building was a key element – one that allows the Institute to change wiring out quickly and add cabling in the future as their program and the technology inhabiting the space evolves, providing ‑ exibility while, in essence, physically future proo­ ng the space. “So it won’t be costly if they want to run a new device; they’ll have all the routing seamlessly under the floor and up into the rooms,” Shore says.

“More and more gear is running on Cat-6 data cabling,” he continues. “It’s not like the old days where you’d have multiple types of cabling for di erent devices. Most of the equipment is connected via data cabling that goes back to server racks, so it increases‑ exibility and reduces the number of cables required. You used to need a 12 x 12-in. patch panel everywhere you needed to provide connectivity. That’s now changed to a few data wires.”

“Each room has the ability to control adjacent cameras and also the adjacent interview suite or announce booth, but we’ve taken it to the next level,” Haswell notes. “We said, ‘What we want is the ability for any of those rooms to control any of the other rooms,’ so if somebody wanted to integrate a show bridging multiple control rooms or controlling multiple interview suites, they can do so. And with the larger, more robust multimedia control room, if we do something on a larger scale, we’d have that multimedia control room as a master control room to control them all, but really, the other control rooms could provide that same function. It’s just that the multimedia control room can take more inputs.”

Ultimately, Haswell says, the result for students is increased access to the radio facilities – regardless of whether they are in the radio program or not – as well as access to a space that’s not so much a classroom as a working radio environment on par with those existing in the industry at large. “So the big bene­fit for students is that they’re being trained on a board and automation system they’d actually see in radio and getting skills on technology that’s now out there in the industry.”

END

Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer.

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