Nashville probably boasts more people in the music business per capita than any other place on earth. For such a demanding, discerning audience, public radio has to be at least a cut above – from design to performance.

So when WPLN-FM’s board of directors decided the station had outgrown its space at the Nashville Public Library, design excellence and top-to-bottom flexibility became the key principles behind building the new facility. A year and a half later, WPLN-FM’s new home is a showcase, both acoustically and ergonomically.

FROM LIBRARY TO NASHVILLE PUBLIC RADIO

WPLN-FM came into existence in 1962 as an offshoot of Nashville’s public library system, broadcasting first from a small, one-room studio in a branch library. As it grew, the station moved to a bigger facility in the downtown Nashville Public Library building.

In October of 1996, WPLN-FM became an independent community licensee, the not-for-profit Nashville Public Radio serving middle Tennessee. Nashville Public Radio broadcasts National Public Radio programs and classical music, and also produces programming for WPLN-FM in Nashville and WHRS-FM in Cookeville, TN – 80 miles away where the station has a repeater.

Besides feature-length stories for the local drop-ins to NPR programs such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Nashville Public Radio produces a half-hour book program, a one-hour bluegrass show, a one-hour program focusing on acoustic music, Nashville Symphony broadcasts and a weekly live classical performance. As if this weren’t ambitious enough, WPLN-FM plans to further expand its offerings.

Part of this plan calls for more in-house recording of live music and perhaps more elaborate productions for national distribution. One design goal of the new facility was to create an environment that could handle everything from talk shows to in-depth new to every type of live music, including acoustic, pop and classical. So, when Nashville Public radio grew up and out of the library system, the first order of business was a new home to accommodate a bright future.

Renovation of the existing space would not provide the needed acoustics, low noise level, sound isolation and layout. Thus, the decision was made to build from the ground up. Over the long run, the overall cost was also less to start anew. The board of directors charged the station with building a state-of-the-art facility that would serve its listeners today and in the future.

FLEXIBILITY ESSENTIAL

Every design and equipment choice made was based on the ability to handle a number of important tasks simultaneously and allow for future expansion. Taking into account the performance of the leading-edge equipment available, WPLN-FM’s new facility is a perfect hybrid of both digital and top-of-the-line analog equipment that can create the kind of quality sound a digitally conditioned world has come to demand.

In its list of design objectives, WPLN-FM emphasized flexibility – a focus the ultimate equipment choices reflect. First was the ability to originate multiple, simultaneous program feeds for both on-air and online. The staff also wanted to make sure the station could become a versatile distribution point for incoming programs that would either be broadcast live, on a delayed basis, or used in post production. Several elements were crucial: digital storage and versatile signal routing; a design that would accommodate a wide variety of programming formats; and the ability to originate live programming from the station’s studios.

WPLN-FM also aimed to create a pleasant work environment for the staff, enough space to accommodate expansion and the capacity to handle the all-important fundraising events the station relies upon for its continued growth.

With objectives in hand, the next step was to find a location. Something visible but practical was hoped for. Downtown Nashville proved, like many thriving urban centers, to be unaffordable, so WPLN-FM opted for an 11,500 square foot single story-building situated in Metrocenter, an office park about two miles from the city center.

Nashville Public Radio bought an acre and a half of land to build its new showcase, and the build got underway.

QUALITY DICTATES

Three specific equipment and design considerations stand out as part of WPLN-FM’s new facility. All reflect a focus on acoustical excellence and top-of-the-line performance. These three highlights are Russ Berger studios, Wheatstone consoles and furniture, and Quested speakers. The intent was to create a team or partnership approach between the station and the contractors and suppliers. Patten-Beers was hired as the general contractor, and Russ Berger designed and built the studios.

The project is an open, spacious and attractive facility with a natural flow of traffic and energy. The wide hallways and studio positioning reflects the station’s goal of complete flexibility. There are three main studios and control rooms and some extra room for future growth. WPLN-FM also has three smaller edit rooms, and the entire operation is angled around a technical control center, which includes the engineering shop and music library.

EQUIPMENT CHOICES

The three main control rooms each house a Wheatstone A 6000 console. There are 28-input models in Control A and B and a 16-input model in Control C. A primary consideration in console selection was the need for multiple program and mix-minus bus outputs. WPLN-FM needs as many as five separate mixes for productions from live studios at one time. Particularly, this arrangement comes into play during the station’s bi-annual membership campaigns. Control and Studio A are primarily for on-air and interviews. Control and Studio B were designed for production and interviews; the C complex is the largest of the three. With 750 square feet of space, Studio C was created especially for live music recording and production, and it has its own Control Room. Control D is for future growth.

Studio and Control C are the cornerstones of WPLN-FM’s facility. Situated at the corner of the building, they are designed to accommodate living recording sessions with musicians and a live audience. A small Wheatsotone A 6000 is in the control room. Live multitrack recording can be done in the studio using a Mackie SR24-8 mixer.

Two of the three smaller edit rooms have AudioArts R-16 consoles. These rooms are used for smaller production projects, primarily providing sources to the Sadie editing system and playback to the edit-room monitors.

MAXIMUM VERSATILITY

Store-and-play and editing production are handled with a Broadcast Electronics AudioVault, making WPLN-FM a cart-free facility. The Tech Center houses the CPU, with redundant servers for backup. The AudioVault automates overnight programming, which is Minnesota Public Radio’s classical service. It also handles timeshifting of NPR programs such as CarTalk and FreshAir.

For production, the station uses Sadie digital editing systems. An SAS audio router sends audio between control rooms, and Wheatstone AudioArts Das are used throughout the facility.

The rooms are designed not only for their individual functions, but also to be pressed into service as needed for the various types of programming Nashville Public Radio may want to handle down the road. There’s an element of versatility, which means the rooms are interchangeable as well.

Rounding out the equipment choices are Denon DN961-FA CD players, Tascam DA-30 MKII DAT machines, Audio-Technica AT4033 microphones, a Gentner SPH-10 telephone hybrid and Telos Zephyrs. Cable TC and other audio and video sources for internal monitoring are also part of the setup. The Tech Center at the hub of the control room and studio section of the facility houses all broadcast computer CPUs, satellite receivers, audio routing and distribution.

An extensive conduit system interconnects all studios, control rooms and edit bays through the Tech Center. Each control room and its respective studio has self-contained wiring and only inputs and outputs to and from are cross-connected via router and/or audio DAs in the Tech Center.

An online 30kW UPS powers all of the technical equipment in the facility, including studios, control rooms, edit bays and the Tech Center. An emergency generator is on hand to power the UPS during an extended power failure, including lighting and HVAC for Studios and Control Rooms A and B, the Tech Center and the edit rooms.

MONITORS AND FURNITURE

Two other examples of excellence in WPLN-FM’s design are its top-quality, state-of-the-art monitoring and its custom furniture.

The station’s aim in selecting good speaker/monitors was to eliminate the variation from room to room, which can result in mixing errors and, ultimately, uneven on-air sound quality. Having already paid careful attention to getting just the right room acoustics, it was equally important to select an audio monitor that would complement the clean, unaffected acoustical characteristics of the room. Quested 2108 powered studio reference monitors were chosen for the job.

Their small size allowed mounting the monitors on Sound Anchor speaker stands and their 210W bi-amplification provides enough headroom to avoid the need for peak limiting to prevent clipping distortion. For the remaining rooms and edit booths, the Quested F-11s were chosen.

The shape of the rooms was unusual, and thus the furniture had to be as well. The trapezoid shape of the rooms was dictated by acoustical concerns. The front ends are narrow and flare out at angles of 99 degrees. The Wheatstone furniture mirrors this layout. This not only gives the operator more room, but also allows for a rear producer area with equipment rack space below for DATs, router controls, phone hybrids and other equipment.

READY FOR THE FUTURE

The entire project – planning, building, installing and going on-air – was accomplished in only 18 months. To evaluate the results, it’s important to consider the station’s future. What will public radio be like in 10 years? No one can answer that question, but the staff of WPLN-FM believes it has a facility that is flexible enough to accommodate different kinds of programming, whatever they may be. The station that started in a single room in a public library has become a radio showcase in the music capital of the world.

Russ Berger

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