Washington, DC-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), operating under the oversight of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent, autonomous entity responsible for all U.S. government and government sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting, recently installed an Axia Livewire Audio Network in their Bangkok, Thailand offices. Consisting of one SmartSurface and four Element control surfaces with an assortment of Axia Audio Nodes, the revamped facility recently came online and its broadcast operations are more streamlined than ever. We caught up with David Baden, RFA’s Chief Technology Officer, and John Penovich, Senior Technician for RFA.
Axia: Tell us a bit about your operation and the nature of the facility.
David Baden: RFA is a private, nonprofit corporation that broadcasts news and information in nine native Asian languages to listeners who do not have access to full and free news media. The purpose of RFA is to provide a forum for a variety of opinions and voices from within these Asian countries. The Axia installation is in our Bangkok office. This installation represents a significant overhaul of that facility and is also serving as a test bed for our main facility here in Washington, DC.
John Penovich: At the time of the installation, we had four small single-person studios that we call mini-studios. We then added a larger production studio, and this is where the first part of the Axia system was installed. We configured our production studio with a SmartSurface controller, along with one Analog Line Node and an AES/EBU Node. Further, the room is equipped with a MiniDisc player, a Telos ONE phone hybrid, a PC, a CD player, a microphone preamp with four mics, two headphone amps, plus monitors. The area consists of a talent booth and a control room.
For the most part, this is where we handle production of more complicated hour length program blocks. Before our new production studio was established, the staff was creating bits and pieces of their programming and transferring the files via FTP to our facility here in Washington, DC. When we built the new production studio, we wanted the ability for the staff to have adequate time to assemble an entire one hour long program, as well as to eventually stream it live, if desired. All of these goals were realized with the new Axia system.
So if I understand correctly, you now have five rooms—the main production studio plus four mini-studios. How are the mini-studios equipped and configured as part of the Axia system?
John Penovich: We now have a total of five rooms, four of those being the mini-studios, which are also part of our Axia setup. The mini-studios are all equipped identically and, for the most part, are configured like the production studio—with the main difference being the choice of control surface. In these rooms, we have Axia Element surface controllers, each with four faders in a twelve-position frame. The mini-studios are utilized for a lot of phone interviews, while the majority of our on-air activity takes place in the production studio.
To tie the system together, we purchased two Allied Telesyn Ethernet switches and, given the nature of the smaller studios, we didn’t find it necessary to run Gigabit Ethernet to the studio engines for those. We do, however, have Gigabit Ethernet for the production studio, as there are far more Livewire streams running there.
What led to your decision to use the Axia system for your facility? Were there any technical aspects of the system that concerned you and, if so, how did the new equipment address them?
David Baden: The consoles we had been using were approximately ten years old and rapidly approaching obsolescence. Basically, they were first-generation digital boards, but not specifically designed for a broadcast environment. In changing the system over, we knew that the new technology utilizing shared network resources on the consoles was what we wanted, but I had always been reluctant because of the de-centralized wiring point of the switch-type hub—where everything was tethered. I had a philosophical issue with this type of arrangement and always felt that a hybrid console should exist where local wiring could be kept local rather than run outside the room to a central location.
The Axia system addressed those concerns and gives us the best of both worlds. It’s configurable, we can put all the wiring points in the places where they’re most needed, the system is easy to expand the number of I/O options, and it provides network switchability, where all points are accessible from anywhere on the network.
How has the use of CAT-6 cable on a network audio configuration impacted your operations as opposed to the more conventional wiring approach?
David Baden: The use of CAT-6 Ethernet cable has had a substantial impact. Even though we were using digital consoles previously, they were not network savvy—so we still had a traditional cabling environment where there were a substantial number of lines interconnecting the various pieces of equipment. Now, of course, the entire system operates via Ethernet.
It's equally significant that the Axia Network Audio Driver for Windows interface functions like a virtual PC soundcard. It connects PC audio directly to the network via Ethernet—without the necessity of a soundcard. It also provides General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) capability such as start and stop. We now have a higher level of functionality, with a fraction of the cabling. Most importantly, our Axia setup is far easier to maintain.
How did your Axia system installation go? How long did it take, and did you require technical assistance? What was your experience?
John Penovich: With any new system, you inevitably encounter a few hiccups along the way, and when we hit a snag, Axia’s tech support was extremely responsive. In the two months between the initial installation of the production studio and the follow-up installation of the Element consoles in the four mini-studios, Axia provided us with updated drivers that improved system performance, so we were extremely happy.
The time frame for installation was 2-3 days for the main production studio, and the mini-studios took 1-2 days of setup and configuration each. As for the cabling infrastructure, we did need to run a series of CAT-6 lines, which we did intermittently over the course of a week. Overall, the Axia system installation was very quick.
How is the new Axia system working for you? How did the staff respond to the equipment? Was there much of a learning curve to overcome?
David Baden: While there is engineering support in the production studio, our broadcasters handle their own engineering, so in this respect, we’re quite a bit different from most conventional radio operations. Our on-air talent has been extremely impressed with the Element controllers— due in large part to the fact that the user interface is far more intuitive compared to our previous consoles.
The Elements are about as easy to use as one could hope for. Because they’re so easily configured, the staff has started to take advantage of the ability to set up the consoles to their liking.
John Penovich: In reality, there was no learning curve. It took us about 45 minutes to train each broadcaster on the use of the system—and that included powering the system up, loading their individual profiles, and actually using the Element controllers. We configured the hybrid channel on all of the consoles to easily turn on and off, and this was a big hit with the staff.
Please tell us a bit about your experience with the SmartSurface and Element control surfaces. What aspects do you find most appealing and how do you find working with these as opposed to the more conventional console approach?
John Penovich: Both the SmartSurface and the Elements have worked out really well for us. Both controllers are laid out in a very intuitive fashion and, as a result, they’ve been quite easy for everyone to adapt to.
We’re particularly fond of the Elements because of the ability to interface them with LCD displays. By having an external display connected, there is a tremendous wealth of on-screen real estate, and the amount of visual feedback this arrangement provides is terrific. Further, the Elements can be configured for 4, 8, 12, or more channels—however many you might need for a given studio setup. This enables the board to easily adapt and grow as the studio’s requirements evolve.
What about your future plans for the studios? How might the Axia system fit in?
David Baden: Aside from the fact that everything has been working very well, the Bangkok facility also served as a proof of concept for us. Here in Washington, we have a total of 30 studios and a master control operation. When we replace these consoles, we’ll be looking to Axia to handle our requirements. We have every intention of upgrading our Washington facilities with Axia, and we’d also like to upgrade our other facilities throughout Asia with Axia.
Based upon your experience with Axia’s networked audio system, what advice might you offer other broadcasters who may be resistant to the new networking technology?
John Penovich: The configuration process is considerably different from that of a conventional studio. While it’s not hard, configuring your I/O setups on the PC is a very different approach that takes getting used to, but this should not be reason for anyone to shy away. System configuration via the web interface is fantastic because you can do it from any location. At some point, we may even offer remote administration of the Bangkok system from here in Washington. We’re not there yet, but this isn’t a far-fetched concept at all. On that note, I’d say, “Jump in, the water’s fine!”