Feature: User friendly upgrade
Feature: User friendly upgrade
Richard Lawn reports on an Australian school where two performance venues, key to its daily activities, are benefitting from an AV upgrade
Located north of Sydney, Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) is no ordinary school. Fundamental to its design is a sequence of multi-level pavilions beneath a 3,000m2 intelligent, “living” structure that generates energy through an 80kW solar system, harvesting rainwater and cooling the spaces below. In contrast, the ageing AV systems integrated into the Marina Pryor Centre for the Performing Arts (MPC) and City indoor/outdoor meeting space lagged behind the sophisticated building management system. Hosting an ever-changing programme of student assemblies, worship services, musicals, concerts and celebrations, both 800-capacity venues required extensive AV upgrades.
Requested by the music department to mix FOH for some end-of-year showcases, Production by Design (PxD) project manager Chad Keating had become familiar with both venues. “The school facilities are amazing, but the AV systems installed into the performance spaces were designed for a more professional end user,” he explains. “As the school had no recognised AV technicians on the staff at the time, it was left to the student team to create the performances. Rather than simply mix, I started working with them, training and identifying the challenges in the system and fixing faults on the fly. By the third event, the students were mixing the events for themselves.”
NBCS general manager and audiophile Alan Schultz then entered into discussions with Keating. “The MPC systems were designed in 2009 and the City systems in 2012,” says Schultz. “Technology has forged ahead and some of our needs have changed. The age of some components was apparent in the difficulty of operation. In addition, there were major differences between the MPC and City infrastructure and gear and the complex systems required significant manoeuvring and setup times. For NBCS, the usage for diverse live music, playback and speech remains unchanged. We required a long-term, cost-effective solution that continues to be inspiring and ultra-flexible. Given students are users of the systems, all components have to be user-friendly.”
A wish list was drawn up, including a new automated mixing interface with a simplified setup for assemblies in the City. More specifically, the proposed new projectors and centre screen for the MPC required conversion from an existing VGA/DVI signal path to a full HD workflow with full automation interface control. By creating standardised systems across both venues, the goal was to design highly intuitive AV user interfaces.
“Usability for the untrained end user became the centrepiece of the design,” continues Keating. “The high expectations placed on the performing arts productions was more professional than student in nature. The multifunctional venues needed to cover full-scale concerts and musicals at one end of the spectrum, and lectures using a microphone and screen-sharing wireless devices without technical assistance at the other. In basic mode, the school demanded a premium audio solution that could not necessarily be met by room automation systems. That basic setup demanded up to four UHF microphones and laptop playback, together with live AV streaming from the other venue.
“There are always issues to resolve in upgrades,” adds Keating. “In the case of NBCS, using the existing cable infrastructure and adapting some components of the old system within the new environment proved to be quite challenging.” Keating reveals that the project went smoothly because of open, honest communication with the school and particularly with NBCS AV specialist, Ben Carlisle.
Based on the PxD design created by Keating and resident Q-Sys programmer Chris Pierson, a flexible AV solution now meets all NBCS’ requirements. Supplied by Sydney-based distributor Technical Audio Group (TAG), the Allen & Heath dLive mixing system and Q-Sys AV control platform jointly promote system compatibility and Dante networking. “While it is highly recognised as a DSP platform, Q-Sys was adopted as the main GUI control interface and master controller,” explains Keating. “Q-Sys also controls all the visual routing via the Blackmagic SDI routers in each venue.”
Retained components in the MPC include the Nexo PS R2 15 and PS R2 8 loudspeakers, R15 subwoofers, NXAmp amplifiers and PSR2 10 and 8 monitors together with Jands stage machinery, lighting bars and drapes. In City, a d&b Yi10 and Yi7 speaker system, Vi-Subs, D80 amplifiers, Nexo PS10 monitors and LED walls remain in situ. Visual inputs and outputs across the venues are accessed from a pre-existing Blackmagic 1 M/E switcher and Atem broadcast panel. Additional Blackmagic Smart VideoHubs are installed into each venue, allowing presets to be recalled over Q-Sys in basic mode.
Once the consoles are stored away, Allen & Heath’s dLive architecture ensures the system can operate remotely. Serving as an instant camera director station, a portable vision control rack accommodating an Atem 1 M/E broadcast panel with 4K SmartView multiview interfaces with the newly installed visual infrastructure in both venues from a customised patch panel. The rack also includes three Mac Minis – two of which run ProPresenter software for playback – while a third Mac Mini is pre-cabled to livestream and record on a Blackmagic Hyperdeck Studio Mini. Crucially, the AV operations in either venue can be show-ready in 10 minutes.
Basic AV room control parameters for daily school activities can be activated from the programmed Q-Sys touchscreen panels throughout the campus. Teachers can access and select the AV source, microphone volume and room configuration without much technical knowledge. Carlisle, however, can maintain system processing from the dLive MixPad App on a wireless iPad. Every time basic mode is selected via Q-Sys, a GPIO trigger recalls the dLive so that all system settings can be reused by the next teacher.
For more complex events, NBCS invested in dLive S5000 and C1500 Surfaces for deployment in either venue, or as a combination to manage larger shows sharing the DM32 MixRack over Allen & Heath’s gigaACE protocol. Both consoles are stored in road cases for single-person setup. The C1500 has been fitted into a custom rack-mounted case with side tables and the S5000 is in a tilt station using gas struts to ensure no lifting is required to protect staff and students alike. The addition of DX168 portable I/O expanders enhances venue flexibility and an ME personal mixing system comprising an ME-U hub and six ME-500 personal mixers can be utilised by the young musicians.
“Moving to dLive has given NBCS the flexibility it needed,” comments Keating. “This upgrade has reduced the setup time for an end-of-year event from a day-and-a-half for an eight-person student crew to just two hours for a single staff member. The enhanced audio quality is immediately noticeable too – even for basic assemblies. By eliminating a lot of hardware clutter in the signal path, PxD has improved the FOH speaker systems to sound with the clarity they were designed to produce. By moving the brain of the audio mixing to the rack in each space, PxD has further created an elegant, powerful system that can handle everything NBCS previously did and more. There is no switching between complex systems for different events or users; the best quality audio is now always available. dLive’s user-friendly interface also allows the students to achieve outstanding results with the system.”
To ensure that multiple users are not working with legacy settings, PxD programmed Scope Recalls to reset the key system patching and processes, auto-correcting any critical mistakes.
“Dante is used for both audio and video transport, making NBCS one of the first schools to implement both elements across this network distribution,” explains Keating. “NBCS can now host a concert in the MPC and transmit it live on the big screen in City. AV transport across the school infrastructure has been achieved by fitting Dante network cards into permanently racked DM32 MixRacks in both venues. Seamlessly integrating over the same Q-Sys QLAN network, Dante AV also enables multitrack recording. Combining Dante with a remote DSP ensures that dLive can continue to process the audio via the Q-Sys control panel should the dLive control surfaces be out of operation.”
Adds Schulz: “NBCS has restored state-of-the-art audiovisual technology to its venues. dLive has given NBCS a high-quality product that meets our needs and offers a good return on investment. We have achieved our goals, freeing up NBCS staff to focus on students and their love of learning.”