When I was creating this post and video, it was obvious that only one title would do: “We Told You So!” Please don’t mistake this for arrogance. What you are hearing is frustration. We have been telling people this for a lot of years.
I had to go out last week on a site visit for a client for whom we designed a variety of systems some 15 years ago. The design included dimming and lighting controls. We did video. We did audio. We did electronic acoustics. I don’t remember everything we designed for them, but it was a lot. Absolutely for sure, as we do with all of our clients, we always warned them “You are getting all this new stuff and, if you’re lucky, it may last 10 years.” Sounds dismal, doesn’t it? They just got new. They haven’t even had time to play with it and now we are giving it an expiration date? Well, if we are going to do our job right, we have to tell them that! With upgrades, and plain old “wearing out” a day will come when things will begin to fail.
So, as the end user you have to think about a lot of things. Number one, we always tell people when they get an audio console, DSP or a lighting console, which has memory capability, they have to make incremental backups to USB drives. And by “incremental” we mean at least weekly.
So, over 10 years time that will be 520 back ups! “That’s too much work” you say. Well, how much will it cost you if you have not backed it up and with time it, most probably, will fail and no longer be usable? The smart person who follows through and makes the backups will be able take that file and load it into another product of the same type. This will get you up running again.
That best-practice was the good way of looking at things, right up until Covid. The pandemic added a new urgency to those methods, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
So anyway, let’s get back to the client I was just telling you about. First of all, the dimming system we recommended for the job was substituted to save money.
Sadly, they bought a product that we did not want to allow on the project. Unfortunately, New York State’s equal bidding process never takes into account serviceability and long-term reliability of equipment. Experienced consultants know the likely pitfalls and will guide their customers toward better decisions. Nobody asked us when the substitutions were made on this one.
So, as a result, the dimming system they have is now failing. To add to it, all of the lighting in their room is still incandescent because it was installed 15 years ago and LEDs pretty much didn’t exist at the time. (The ones that did exist were pretty poor.) This is now an auditorium where at any moment they could have a single-point failure, taking out all the lighting in their room. Any single point failure we mean the dimming rack control modules.
A typical dimming rack has lots of dimming modules and they just do what they are told. They get their signals from a brain ( control module). And if that brain fails, you are toast! All of your lights are nonfunctional.
That is one of those events that we were warning you about. We have always told people to buy the rack and buy a spare control module, as well. There are 96 dimmers in it. The chances of all of those failing simultaneously is relatively slim. The chances of the control module that runs the whole thing failing is a lot higher. So, please, just buy a spare.
At the time the cost of a spare control module was a few thousand dollars on a multi hundred thousand dollar installation. Seemed like smart move to us. You put it in a box, store it somewhere, have it available for a time, like now, where bad things are happening all over the world.
Of course, they didn’t do any of that. The other thing they did not do was make any backup to their audio console and, therefore, they weren’t saving backup files of what is in their audio console.
They now have an older digital console that is failing. It’s sad.
And there is the added problem of signal, which is how it gets from point A to point B. We’ll talk about that a little bit more in a minute. To recap, you have these single-point failures: the console dies, audio system is down, dimmer rack, front end dies. All are down.
As well as the digital signal processors that tune their line arrays. Same thing here. Speakers are going to last a long time. Amplifiers are easy to replace, and you don’t have to have the exact same amplifier that you had when you put the system in. The DSP is very specific and requires a file load. If the DSP fails all the precise tuning of the stem is gone.
They didn’t buy a DSP either because the idea of having backups and support is not something that school districts think about for auditoriums.
So, they have this equipment failing and now that it has become a critical situation, so they came to us.
They told us they had a $30,000 budget to do something but, here is a new wrench in the plans, there was Covid. With the supply chain debacle, most of the things that are needed to remedy their situation cannot even be purchased. There was the China problem, the people who went out of business problem, the “you can’t get parts for things” problem. So where it should have been doable, now our clients were faced with only $30,000 they could spend and $200,000 worth of problems.
With all of those obstacles in the way, it was time to figure out workarounds. And we’ve been figuring out some pretty crazy workarounds for people lately to help them get past some of these things.
Workarounds are nice, if there are any. Sadly, there will be no way out for a lot of people.
It is time to get back to some of the things we have been telling people for years and, from this point on, everybody should take this advice more seriously.
Get backup equipment.
You just have to buy it.
Do not delay.
Buy critical components.
Here is a real life scenario: there is an audio console with eight physical inputs on it and digitally up to 164 inputs coming in from stage boxes. I was out at another job site the other day where their stage boxes failed. That means that they have no physical connections at their console. They have stage boxes and they can’t get the stage boxes to talk to their console. (not all stage boxes speak the same digital language )
So those who have depended on only one way to get their system to work truly are in jeopardy. A catastrophe is lurking around the corner.
When the digital revolution began we would tell people “If you’re going to put in a digital console, leave your analog snake somewhere. You might want it.” I think I actually said, “Someday you might want this.”
Well, someday is now. If they listened to the advice, I could have walked in with some old whatever, like a Mackie 1604, and at least have gotten sound out of a system for them. Now they have no way to get signal from the stage to the booth because they wanted their analog snake gone. “It’s old technology. We need to get rid of that.”
Enough ranting about that. So when you look at the single point failures in audio systems, you’ve got stage boxes, you’ve got consoles.
Let’s say you own a Behringer wing, which is working at the moment, and I back up files. The question is can I rent or buy a wing if I have to?
So, the first thing you want to think about is using equipment that is available on rental from people nearby who rent equipment. But unfortunately, in the bidding market, they can’t use that as a parameter for why you do or do not accept a substitute product. So, you might end up with, let’s say a lighting console that fails and in the future your files won’t go in any console you can rent. Now, being that things are DMX, in most cases you can usually get things up and running if you happen to be using CAN that can be a little more difficult if your console doesn’t work well with the version of ACN that somebody may have installed.
But if you don’t have any of those options, you are just out of luck. You have no lights. So, at that point you’re getting out candles or you’re getting out flashlights, which is lots of fun.
In many cases the average high school we do could have like $1.6 million worth of new equipment going into a project. And the backup equipment they ought to own is let’s say $35 – $40,000 but they don’t buy any of it. And then something like Covid comes along, which no one ever expected. In this scenario, manufacturers may or may not even survive.
Now let’s talk about that a little bit because in the middle of Covid (in our world we are still in the middle of it) we have multiple installations going on right now that are stalled waiting for key products to come in that can’t be delivered.
So let’s just say you had a very specific audio console that needed to be this many inputs to work with these kinds of stage boxes and let’s just say the stage boxes showed up but the console didn’t. And the stage boxes are Dante and the console you were going to get was Dante.
But now you can’t get that. So, now you have to buy another console somewhere or get a console that is Dante but maybe you can’t find one. And now you’ve got cat 5 wiring, which is great, but you own a bunch of stage boxes that won’t work with your console.
In the current climate, one of the new things is a new wrinkle beyond just backup. It’s the “which standards am I going to work with?” wrinkle. So if I’m going to work with old school DMX, which to be honest I think in a lot of applications is smart, if you don’t need tons of channels. You won’t have to worry about a console specific ACN network and whether or not your system will talk to it, you can just hook up DMX and use anybody’s controller to get something to come on.
With audio analog snakes, they’re a great idea. Have analog backups running from your stage to your, your stage rack where, worst case scenario, you patch a bunch of XLR’s together and you can actually get sound out of things.
So, it’s kind of interesting looking back at the many years we’ve told people this and everybody ignored us and now we’re being faced with multiple people contacting us. Very recently it’s been starting to happen with “I got this problem” and “I’ve got that problem.”
I was just at one the other day, their digital signal processor on their PA system died. They never saved any of the files. So, they don’t know what any of the filters were when it was fine tuned by a bunch of experts years ago and they can’t get the DSP that was in their system anyway. Even if they had saved the files, they are still toast.
So if you own something that is using whatever filters, patching, whatever it might be, here is your homework (due immediately.) Create Hard copy Excel spreadsheets of settings. They’re a pain in the to do. Most consoles and equipment will not spit them out for you in any fashion. But having that information such as “how is my dimmer rack patched?” in a pinch is pure gold! How is the DSP set up in my system? Hard copies are paper copies. And I know that’s like it, it’s like, they’re saying this ? “You must be a dinosaur talking about paper.”
Trust me, it makes sense. I had one of our who clients contacted us where their DSP failed at a site down in Washington DC. We had to dig out a Windows 95 laptop to open the files, but we had copies of the files that they didn’t have. So we were able to send them a hard copy spreadsheet of all the parametric EQ settings, delay settings, all the, all the tricks that were used to tune their sound system so they could get a new DSP and get it up and running again.
Time to Be The Champion
Please, I cannot stress this enough. Be the champion. Backup, backup, backup. Back up equipment, data hard copies, these are the things that save you and get your venue running when everybody else is scrambling.
WXXI TV reached out to AVL Designs Inc. to design the interior acoustics and assist with noise control in their product 225 control room. They had recently purchased an AVID S4 Yukon console for the suite and wanted a control room that provided a better mix environment.
LIMITED HEIGHT The space is an unusual shape with some features that cannot be changed. The oddly trapezoid room with one glass door to the side of the mix position, and a large window to the live room that could not be relocated, was limited in height. It also had an electrical panel that could not be covered for code reasons.
NOISE The first order of business was HVAC noise control. The background in the space was NC 40+. Ductwork design was what you see in office spaces, not studios. Working with their mechanical contractor we determined to enlarge ducts, change diffusors, move VAV’s, and control velocities. The result ticks in at NC20.
LAYOUT The new space was to have a mix position and a client listening position in the rear of the space, where it narrows considerably in a “V”. To even out response, we determined to use high order quadratic diffusors on the back wall. An electrical panel presented a problem. It could not move and had to be accessible. Some of the broadband quadratic diffusors were designed into a custom designed rolling cart. This allows them to go over the electrical panel but be legal as they could be moved. This allowed matching the rear sides of the space with broadband diffusion. GUD high frequency diffusors on side walls and the ceiling over the mix position to enlarge the mix image area back to the client desk. The sound at the client desk is just as linear and only down in level by 3dB from the main mix position. All products were from Real Acoustix LLC. Due to the door location and the “V” in the rear of the room, typical placements for bass traps were negated. We decided to use bass traps within the celling system, a bit unusual but it worked. Overall response is very linear, and only two subtle filters were used to final tune the Rogers LS3 main speakers.
One note: Most of the install was done by in house WXXI audio engineers. Andrew Croucher and his team did a spectacular job on this mix suite.
AVL Designs Inc. first became involved with the Liverpool Central School District in 2007. We were asked to investigate echo problems in their auditorium. When someone would play a snare drum or any other percussive instrument on the stage, you could hear 7 to 12 discrete echoes that were hard to miss. It was like bang…… bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Of course, this was a problem. The echo occurred in certain areas of the room, not every area of the room, but it was so noticeable that this defect got in the way of most musical performances.
We corrected this by testing the space and then placing specific acoustical panels on sections of ceilings and side walls, effectively eliminating those echoes. When you add absorption to a room, you lose some of the liveness. It is an inevitable trade off when getting rid of the echoes. You lose some of the reverberation.
In the process of time, we talked with the school district about other corrections that were available in the realm of electronic acoustics, which we have done successfully for other schools. After meeting with the music department, we decided to implement an electronic acoustic system in the space. Due to budget constraints, it was ceiling installation only. No side walls, no stage shell, but it was designed to allow a much more immersive sound quality for certain kinds of music.
The room was lacking low frequency response. The reverb time was around one second in the midrange, and it needed the ability to go to higher reverberation times for certain styles of music and types of theatrical performances. Once the system was installed, the school was thrilled. They were so enthused about it that they became a major proponent of this technology, sharing their experience with other schools we met with in the future.
As 2016 arrived, a major renovation was planned for the Liverpool Schools. They were enlarging the entire auditorium, refurbing the music department and adding some additional rehearsal spaces. As a result of our prior experience and success with their existing auditorium, AVL Designs Inc. was brought in along with the architect, on the early stages of this project.
Electronic Acoustics added almost everywhere.
There were a number of goals for the project, the first of which was to include electronic acoustics in many locations. It would not only be the in the auditorium and on the stage, but also in the large rehearsal rooms for orchestra, band and choral ensembles. That way the singers and musicians would be able to rehearse in environments similar to what they would experience in the auditorium.
So, that became the initial driving force for the acoustical design. We had to look at how to treat the main auditorium to get the reverb time low enough and flat enough that when we implement the electronic acoustics, there will not be significant problems with frequency balance and reverberation curves.
The electronic acoustics system is based on Yamaha acoustic field correction devices. It is implemented with speakers located onstage, in overhead ceilings, in under-balcony ceilings, and on sidewalls. These systems are providing reverberation as well as early reflection support for the room. The system can also add voice lift to allow for events without sound reinforcement.
Bigger auditorium, curved walls and NEW balcony.
The auditorium was being dramatically enlarged, shaped with curved walls plus adding a balcony. To deal with that condition we developed a custom absorptive diffusive wall treatment. It consists of series of wells of different depths with perforated materials and solid materials, creating a diffuse sound field within the auditorium and generating a relatively low reverberation time for the size of the room. This design criteria was also used for the music spaces to produce similar reverberation curves for their base conditions. That way, when the electronic systems are commissioned, there will be tunings for each space that will mimic each other to the degree that you can mimic a smaller space to a larger space. In addition to the electronic acoustics and physical acoustic designs for this auditorium, AVL Designs Inc. was contracted for stage rigging, theatrical and house lighting, and sound and video in the space.
Huge Speakers? Here’s why …
One of the unusual features of the room is the incorporation of Danley Jericho loudspeakers. The Jerichos look huge and indeed are huge, but they are actually a replacement for line array technology that many auditoriums would implement, at a lower cost and a higher performance level. The Jericho combines a large number of drivers in a single large enclosure, creating an output pattern and sound pressure capability similar to a 12 element tall, mid to large scale line array.
Admittedly, it looks a little odd to have boxes this big in a high school auditorium however the pattern control over the wide frequency range of the speaker allows it to cover most of the main floor as well as the balcony without the need for other devices.
*We did, however, install over and under-balcony delay fill speakers. This was primarily for potential special effects for theater use, and also to add the few frequencies that would be missing as you go by distance to the back of the room.
The audio system is being fitted with an Allen and Heath D Live console, which is a substitute for a Yamaha console originally specified. (Due to Covid issues the Yamaha console is not currently available) The D Live is a great console and will do a fantastic job for the school in the new application.
Theatrical lighting consists primarily of Electronic Theater Control products and High End systems, with some Strand and Phillips fixtures as well.
Stage rigging is a combination of Brick House counterweights and Electronic Theater Controls Prodigy hoists. The Prodigy hoists are used for onstage electrics, as well as a front of house moving head electric.
All of the music rooms are used as green rooms, so we have a combination of intercom, call lights, and video feeds to each of those spaces from the main auditorium.
Quite a few of these systems are not fully online due to product availability problems in the current post-Covid world that we are living in. We hope to get all of them online toward the end of the year. The owner is very impressed with the space currently. They will be really excited when all of the final details are worked out. The transformation from the original room to what it is now is dramatic.
When the Burnt Hills Ballston Lake High School made the decision to renovate their auditorium, the architect requested that AVL Designs Inc. join their team. This appeal was initiated by the owner who had been involved with another AVL Designs Inc. project at a different school. AVL had designed the performance systems which worked so well that they wanted to have us involved.
During the schematic phase, it was determined that the auditorium would have to be entirely gutted. The space would be converted to a “black box” style space with the addition of a balcony and wrap-around catwalks with lighting positions.
Room acoustics were to be managed with the use of electronic acoustic systems. For electronic acoustics to succeed, there must be very low noise in the space, and an acoustically neutral response from the room itself. AVL incorporated acoustical absorption on the roof deck and walls to control the room response.
Working along with the mechanical engineer, AVL Designs Inc. was contracted to do ductwork noise modeling. The final system is so quiet that it is inaudible.
Audio systems include an Allen & Heath Avantis Console, Danley Loudspeakers, Ashly Audio DSP and amplification, and Shure QLX D wireless systems.
Video includes projection as well as LCD screens with controls by Crestron and Blackmagic Design, and Robotic Cameras by Panasonic.
Lighting is based predominantly on products from Electronic Theater Controls, Hi End Systems, and Strand Lighting.
The electronic acoustics system is based on Yamaha AFC. Due to covid delays, the commissioning will be this fall.
Covid related product delays also forced AVL to assist in coming up with workarounds as some products will arrive 6 months or more after the facility begins to be used. Such is life these days, but workarounds are getting the job done.