Anna Mitchell heads to Birmingham to explore the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, winner of the Education category of the 2018 InAVation Awards.
The demands Birmingham City University placed on AV, lighting and signal distribution needs at its new £57 million (approximately €64 million) Royal Birmingham Conservatoire outlined an installation so bespoke and complex that it was enough to put off many integrators.
Those specific needs also meant it was quite a surprise when the company that did step up to the challenge and was awarded the contract was Vanti. The local AV and IT integration firm has a solid list of high profile installations to its name ranging from corporate, to education and even another of Birmingham city’s recent flagship projects: its multimillion pound library.
But, notably, its CV included no theatres, no concert halls and – crucially – no projects that could demonstrate it had the specific skills demanded by a project heavy on the need for specialist lighting and trussing installation and the specific acoustic requirements demanded by a world-class conservatoire.
What the company did have – led by technical director, Raj Patel – was an irrepressible inability to turn down challenges and a willingness to spend hour after hour methodically pursuing solutions to each obstacle. Equal to the company’s attitude and problem solving skills in making this a successful project, was its decision to bring in the required skills by taking on permanent staff with specific knowledge, as well as an ability to work effectively with expert specialists from outside the company.
But, what were those challenges and how exactly did Vanti (along with technical partners) overcome them to go from a company initially dubbed by a building contractor as “the biggest risk to the project” to one that solved seemingly impossible problems, drastically expanded its scope and ultimately delivered a resounding success in time for a high profile first season of events?
The facility took two years to construct and includes five public performance areas and a number of function rooms and performance and recording studios as well as lecture theatres and classrooms. The credit for AV integration in the lecture theatres and classrooms goes to ProAV who at times worked closely with Vanti to achieve the integration required between the spaces.
Design consultancy on the project was provided by Hoare Lea who worked with Vanti throughout the construction process with Mike Bedford and Dave Parsons (Hoare Lea Electro-acoustics), and Michael Witcroft (Hoare Lea Acoustics) providing support.
Another major player in the success of the project was Meyer Sound. The US audio manufacturer acted as a sponsor of the project and, as well as donating technology, devoted the time of its experts in setting up and tuning systems in performance spaces. Meyer Sound’s EU technical support manager Michael Pohl was an integral part of the project while Andy Davies, who handles technical support for Meyer Sound in the UK, assisted in setting up the systems in the Concert Hall.
Other sponsors were Solid State Logic, Bowers & Wilkins, Prism Sound and PMC.
While performance areas had the same exacting requirements as you would expect from any top class venue, the specific needs of the conservatoire also had to consider teachers and students. At times internationally renowned, established musicians would be delivering performances with teams of experienced sound engineers. At others, students would be experimenting and learning.
“At an end user level we had to consider students,” says Patel. “They’re not AV experts. They are technical but some functions needed to have a level of automation behind them.”
Crestron kit handles building-wide control with at least one touchpanel provided in every room and DigitalMedia 16×16 matrix switchers are installed in each of the four rack rooms. Some AMX SVSi kit is also installed as Crestron NVX was not available during the planning phases of the project.
The Crestron touch panels are designed for use by teaching staff during lectures as well and the Crestron system uses PIR sensors in every room to manage automated lighting systems. Lighting desks are integrated with the Crestron control so, when switched to ‘Show Mode’, PIR control of lighting is turned off.
Another unique need of the spaces – required to function as classrooms and practice areas as well as recording and performance spaces – is that of sound reinforcement. “They have to be tuned for live music but PA is also necessary,” notes Patel. This also meant it was important to offer VGA and HDMI connections.
The requirements for recording were even more precise with implications for acoustics as well as all installed AV equipment, cabling routes, air conditioning and air handling. Even lighting was subject to acoustics tests. The lighting specified initially failed these tests, prompting Vanti to custom design acoustic hoods that could be clipped on to lights when spaces were used for recording.
“All rooms had to meet background sound level design requirements PNC 15 and NR20 and there could be absolutely no noise between rooms,” confirms Patel.
Vanti handled all in house lighting opting for GDS MainsSystem for a theatre quality installation product and ArcPro for house lighting. ETC is used for performance lighting. All lighting is computer controlled. All trusses are motorised. Vaddio cameras are included in every room.
Visuals in the rooms are delivered by 1920 x 1200 resolution NEC PX1004UL laser projectors housed in heavy duty enclosures to meet the required noise limitations. The units fire on to retractable projector screens in custom-built housing.
One of the many complexities in this project were some hefty signal routing demands. “Signals have to come out of every room to video production suites for vision mixing and then fed back to the room, or any other room in the building,” notes Patel.
But, it doesn’t stop there. “Birmingham City University required signals to be routed to, not just any room in the conservatoire, but to any room in its citywide campus. Furthermore, every channel, in every room had to be split so it was available in analogue and (via Dante) digital. We routed about 14km of Van Damme cables,” says Patel.
Channels come in to a central rack room where they can be patched back out. For ultimate flexibility large connection wall panels are located throughout the spaces in the building. Kit is also designed to support touring rigs that will come in when the performance schedule starts. The technical students get hands on with the signal routing and part of the teaching programme includes a scheme that allows students to work with sound engineers.
The control room also houses QSC equipment (Q-Sys handles all audio processing), Focusrite and Prism Sound kit for recording and Meyer Sound Galileo Galaxy networkable loudspeaker processors. All audio is networked over Dante, with Audinate providing assistance to help add an additional layer of security that was necessary to allow students the freedom to access certain functions, while others could be locked down. The Dante network is completely separate in a move that provides full redundancy; the university network can be used as a backup.
Crestron controlled illuminated signs are situated outside rooms to indicate when recording is taking place. Vanti also provided a paging and show relay system.
The main Concert Hall spans four storeys and supports outside broadcast units. Touch controllers are provided at front of house (FoH), lectern, and control room positions. Video presentation can be controlled by a movable lectern that can be plugged into three floor boxes on the stage. It also offers limited control of lights and audio. Wall connection panels are located around the stage.
A huge NEC PH1202HL laser projector is installed in the control room of the main Concert Hall in a feat of heavy engineering that sees a gigantic projector enclosure raised on a steel frame. It fires on to a Projecta 316-in Electrol projector screen that has to be completely out of sight when not in use. It rolls into an enclosure before being raised to well above the level of the lighting. Vanti staff had to abseil down to fit the screen.
There is a certain amount of flexibility offered in this 500-seat space. Twenty-six seats can be flattened and placed under the stage and the speakers can be repositioned to change the acoustics. In addition banners can be lowered to reduce reverberation time.
It features a 20.2 routable sound system using nine Meyer Sound UP-4XP, 13 UPJunior, four UPA-1P, four UPA-2P loudspeakers with four 500-HP subwoofers. The entire system is controlled by a pair of Meyer Sound Galileo Galaxy networkable loudspeaker processors and an RMServer to support Meyer’s own proprietary network management system, plus MPS-488HP power supplies and MDM-832 power and signal distribution units.
The 150-seat Recital Hall is specifically tuned to the requirements of piano recitals. It also has retractable seating that can make it exactly the same size as the concert hall stage so it doubles as a practice area for orchestras.
Eight Meyer Sound UPJunior-XP loudspeakers, four MJF-208 floor monitors, four UPA-2P, two more 500-HP are installed and run from a Galileo Galaxy / MPS-488HP / MDM-832 control and distribution network.
An NEC PX1004UL laser projector fires on to a 243-in retractable projector screen. The video feed can also be linked to a 55-in LG screen.
Eastside Jazz Club is the UK’s first permanent conservatoire-based jazz space and seats 80 people. Audio is delivered by Meyer Sound MDM-832 / Galileo Galaxy controllers feeding a pair of UPJ-1P and two 500-HP subwoofers. It has an NEC PX1004UL laser projector and 159-in projector screen.
One of the specific needs of The Lab, a black-box studio space designed to support experimental music, was great flexibility. The space can be tuned for many different kinds of music and used in a variety of ways. This placed additional demands on the trussing system, where some clever engineering had to be deployed to manage the cable lengths required to get the Meyer Sound loudspeakers attached to the truss down as far as required.
That audio system included eight Meyer Sound UP-Junior-XP loudspeakers, four UPA-2P and a pair of 500-HP subwoofers, with system control, power and signal distribution provided by a further Galileo Galaxy, MPS-488HP, MDM-832 and RMServer.
“The space has a very low 0.8 reverberation time specifically for experimental music, we’ve flown subwoofers for a hefty front of house and there’s a 10.2 routable sound system,” outlines Kezia Nathan, project co-ordinator at Vanti.
It also has an NEC PX1004UL laser projector, 159-in retractable projector screen, four wall connection panels and plug and play microphone connection.
Despite its small size, the 100-seat Organ Studio, had to deliver cathedral acoustics and contains two organs. Audio was the only requirement in this space and it uses a pair of Galileo Galaxy-controlled UPJ-1P speakers.
Recording studio integration was initially meant to be handled by a specialist integrator but, after an eye wateringly expensive quote – that smashed the five-studio budget for just one room – Vanti stepped in.
Throughout the five editing and mastering suites it has provided Prowave mixing console desks, Avid D-Command mixing consoles, Genelec monitors, Modson mixing desk furniture, B&W Diamond 800 loudspeakers and Classe Audio CA-M300 amplifiers.
The main foyer space also featured Meyer Sound kit with six MM-4XP miniature loudspeakers controlled from a single MPS-488HP power supply.
Many trades simultaneously worked to complete the project and Vanti realised that if it started on site around midday it had enough crossover to work with other trades before having the site to itself. That often meant working through the night but it was ready to hand the site over to the University on time.
Shortly after Professor Julian Lloyd Webber, renowned cellist and principal of the Conservatoire, opened the facility in September 2017, it was granted Royal status.
The full concert programme starts this spring but – when it comes to the technical systems – this is an ongoing project. Vanti has intentionally created a system that can be added to as budget allows and fundraising for Constellation systems has started with Meyer Sound already pledging further support.
Avid D-Command mixing consoles
Bowers & Wilkins Diamond 800 loudspeakers
Classe Audio CA-M300 amplifiers
Genelec monitor speakers
Meyer Sound Ultra series and MM-4XP loudspeakers, 500-HP subwoofers and Galileo Galaxy processors
Prism Sound recorders
Prowave mixing console desks
QSC audio processors
Robolights connection wall panels
Solid State Logic mixing desks
Van Damme Blue series multicore cables
Crestron touchpanels and DM switchers
LG 55-in display
NEC PX1004UL and PH1202HL projectors
Projecta Electrol projector screen
Vaddio PTZ cameras
Crestron illuminated signs
ETC performance lighting and control desks
GDS MainsSystem and ArcPro lighting