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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — In late 2020, we planned to upgrade two of our on-air studios to bring us up to speed with current radio broadcasting technologies and workflows. The plan seemed simple, given the network’s considerable muscle. Astro Radio is a private commercial radio network based in Kuala Lumpur and owns 11 FM stations, eight satellite music services and 61 online radio stations, reaching approximately 15.6 million weekly listeners.
Things got interesting when the interior designer proposed that our studios’ internal and external structures, soundproofing and M&E services remain untouched. However, they said we needed significant changes to the exterior studio walls. They planned to replace the entire external fabric wall panels with full height tempered glass panels with RGB LED lights installed behind the glass outer wall along the floor and ceiling.
After the tender process concluded in mid-2021 and we appointed the successful bidder, builders and fitters took possession of the site on Sept. 1, 2021. The schedule of works suggested it would take eight weeks to complete the outfitting. System integration would then take four weeks with a projected handover date of Dec. 4.
So far, so good
The construction drawings for the project were very detailed. Demolition and site preparation works went on smoothly and as per schedule. In the first three weeks, the fitters made some minor changes to wall fabric and carpet selections due to long lead times for the materials we selected. They also made minor design changes to the studio’s internal wall fabric panels.
We opted for floor-to-ceiling wall panels, which looked good, but had certain drawbacks. The frames can warp if they’re too flimsy. Also, the frame outline can show through if the fabric is not clad correctly. Furthermore, the fabric can be loose in the center if not clad firmly onto the frame. Thankfully, our fitters knew what they were doing.
The main challenge we faced with the project was the novel external glass wall we decided on for the two studios. The fitters took a prudent approach and built a miniature mock-up of the “light-box,” which presented the design sufficiently well, and we signed off on it. The design also required the light-box not to be too thick as the external wall would take up space in the adjoining corridor.
When they built a section of the wall, we noticed an issue. The lighting along the floor and ceiling was dim and didn’t “radiate” to the center; it mostly shined outward. Consequently, each glass panel had “shadows,” and the lighting effect was muted. It didn’t help that the studios faced the building windows and the morning sun.
Three main design factors were ease of use, gear lifespan and flexibility.
After much deliberation, we made incremental improvements, bringing us closer to the desired finish. They fitted the inside of each glass panel with frosted stickers and replaced the RGB LED strips with wall-washer RGB LEDs. They also mounted the wall-washers on top of an acrylic strip to help reflect the light upward.
We repurposed the wall-washer LED strip along the ceiling to function as the on-air light. So, with the studio microphones off, the upper portion of the outer wall is white in color. When the mic switches on, the wall turns bright red, which looks very cool. To achieve this, we designed and built an electrical circuit with relays for switching (triggered by the mic on/off GPIO signal).
Supply chain and workmanship issues
The project coordinator decided that custom-made stainless steel perforated ceiling tiles would look very impressive inside our studios. We agreed, but the ceiling tiles were heavy and required bespoke frames for support. Although the builders could make the frames locally, the tiles had to come from China because their Malaysia factory was temporarily closed due to the COVID pandemic.
To cut delivery times, the factory sent the tiles by airfreight. This significantly shortened the time but increased the cost. One of the biggest issues came with installing custom-made membrane ceiling lights inside the studios. Not only was it time-consuming, but the membrane ceiling design was somewhat flawed, the workmanship atrocious and the finishing well below par. It took the sub-contractor multiple attempts to get it right. These delays also affected the project timeline.
In late 2021, with the project nearing completion, Malaysia started recording an alarmingly high number of daily COVID-19 infections. Astro Radio had procedures and precautions in place to protect staff and contractors. However, despite our best efforts, there was a breakout toward the end of November, and several contractors were infected. We issued a stop-work order of 15 days, and outfitting work only resumed on Dec. 8.
Overall, the webcast system proved the most technically challenging, but satisfying to work on. We spent considerable time identifying exactly what our stations needed to create and produce great video content daily from inside the studio.
Three main design factors were ease of use, gear lifespan and flexibility. Expensive video gear is nice but tends to be obsolete in five years. Also, our on-air talents don’t want the added pressure of working the cams and video switchers during their shows.
Our solution was to deploy small, but high-quality consumer-grade HD cameras with wide angle lenses, small and slim webcam LED lights and elegant and discreet mounts for the cams and lights. We installed these on the studio table and an HD webcam on the wall facing the talents for a wide-angle shot. We installed small, slim user-friendly video switchers on the producer table outside the studio and connected them all via HDMI.
With this system, the on-air talents can do webcast interviews from inside the studio with the webcam at the press of a few buttons — no need to mess with cam angles, lighting or audio levels. For more complicated in-studio — or with remote guest — live streams, a producer seated outside can switch between five different camera angles and mix mic and line audio levels independently.
In addition to these, we moved all equipment racks out of the studio to maximize space. Our studio console is literally two touchscreens with a ton of smarts built into the virtual console software.
Jude Isa Dawson is senior manager for Eng & Tech, Astro Radio, and Bala Murali Subramaney is chief technology officer for the network.