EDITORS CHOICE 08.06.17

Rock and Roll Stories: The British Music Experience chronicles UK music

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The British Music Experience has chosen a variety of AV technology to get across what makes music from the UK so special. Paul Milligan went to see how they did it.

Considering its comparatively small size the UK has overachieved in terms of producing some of the world’s most popular rock and pop music.  From the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, from Led Zeppelin to Elton John, music is one of the country’s most successful exports.  With so many leading acts and different genres of music originating in Britain, the decision to create a museum of popular music, called the British Music Experience, was a straightforward one, but one not without difficulty.  

“When it comes down to just what to include it was very hard to decide, but one of the things that’s helps is the artifacts we have available,’ says Olly Taylor, technical supervisor at the BME.  The core idea was to explore the rich heritage of British music against the social and political context of each period. “What we are very conscious of doing in the timeline areas is filling the gaps that aren’t covered by the artifacts,” adds Taylor.

The integrator for the project was visitor attraction specialist DJ Willrich, who was brought in due to a relationship stretching back to the award-winning Titanic Belfast attraction in Northern Ireland.  After an initial meeting with the exhibition designer Cubit 3D, DJW was employed and became part of the design team.

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The BME is housed in the Grade-II listed Cunard Building in Liverpool, and is the new permanent home of the BME, having previously existed in London’s O2 from 2009-2014.  Its previous existence influenced the client brief says Josh Miller, director from DJW.  “There was recycling of material from the O2. Clay Interactive and ISO Design (the two software design companies involved) wanted to use a similar format from the O2, even though that content was updated.  The idea was to have a chronological experience, with good quality audio, but also try and minimise noise bleed between the different zones.  Each zone has different music, we wanted it to be like Universal (Studios Florida), where you don’t notice the music changing from one zone to the next.”

The reception in the venue is where you catch first sight of the AV in the venue, two 8,500 lumens Digital Projection laser projectors combine to create a giant Union Jack.  Once visitors enter they move through British music in eight different Edgezone timelines, each split by a period of time, with the first running from 1945-62.  The venue also features four interactive music zones, the Gibson interactive zone and a main stage in the centre of the venue. With the whole experience based on music, trying to minimise noise pollution was a major part of the original brief to DJW.  “Anything that had a voiceover we would use headphones to stop sound bleed from one zone to the next.   We also encouraged the client to get acoustic rafts in the ceiling to minimise noise reflection. Trying to stop noise bleed and a cacophony of noise was the main brief for the audio, for lighting the brief was to give it a cool and funky look, the big thing was to have the wow factor for the main stage show,” adds Miller.    

The first interactive zone (Where It’s At) contains a Samsung 2x2 videowall in portrait with a giant map of the UK on it.  Using a stainless steel trackball the visitor can move to any point in the map and the musical history from that town will appear on the display.  “The trackballs were a wise decision, people will say ‘why isn’t there a touchscreen?’ as everything these days normally is, but actually in some respects it makes you think a different way and makes you operate it in a different way.  Even though only one person can use it at a time, that isn’t to say others can stand behind and watch,” says Taylor.  Before visitors move onto the next zone they are met by a huge arched window bay (2.5m x 4.6m), one of eight at the venue, filled with rotating images of different UK pop stars, each one being driven by a 6,000 lumens Digital Projection laser projector using Dataton Watchpax 2 software.  

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Because there is so much content to cover, DJW would occasionally run into space issues, which caused a problem in the Edgezone timeline interactives, as Miller takes up the story.  “We went through so many options for the timeline interactives, but we ended up using small Christie educational-type projectors, because it was the easiest way to solve the problem we had – we wanted the visitor close to the screen but we didn’t have a lot of space above us to hang projectors.  We did look at large LCD screens (80-in and above) at one point, but it was felt the projectors gave a nicer feel.”

The second interactive zone (Playback/Transmission) features a myriad of audio playback technologies throughout the decades, from 1950s radios to Sony Walkman cassette players to Apple iPods.  Again by moving a trackball visitors get information on each device on Samsung displays right next to them. 

The third interactive zone (Hey DJ) caters for DJs old and new.  It features a virtual record box, where visitors can flick through vinyl records and get information (and playback) of their favourites using an iiyama 42-in touchscreen (audio is via headphones).  The fourth interactive zone (Dance the Decades) gets visitors moving.   By selecting a different style of dance – heavy metal, rave, rock and roll etc – and following instructions on the screen (an 82-in Samsung LCD display) they can transport themselves onto the dancefloor of their choice.

The final interactive zone is sponsored by guitar brand Gibson, and features an array of Gibson (and Roland) equipment.  The effect of which may be longer-lasting than the two hours (on average) it takes to fully go around the BME says Taylor.  “It features top of the line guitars, a music shop won’t let beginners play these type of instruments, so for us it’s an inspirational thing having them here.  We could be inspiring a whole generation of musicians here.”  One of the two clever innovations in this area is that visitors can follow on-screen tuition for each instrument (available in easy, intermediate and expert) and record their performances and email it to themselves when finished.  The second innovation is that this area is virtual silent, a far cry from most music instrument stores. Playback for each instrument is through headphones, and the drum kit is an electronic one, so gives off little outside noise.

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The main stage features a performance from singer Boy George (with specially recorded vocals), but it’s not quite the one visitors would expect.  Josh Miller describes how the show came about, “At one of the early meetings with all the stakeholders we did a hologram test for them, and it blew everyone away, so it was decided to go with that concept for the main stage.  Then it was down to us to find the best projector within budget, to make it look at realistic as possible.”  Using Pepper’s Ghost technology, the main stage features a 12,000 lumens Digital Projection laser projector.  A 7th Sense media server feeds directly into the projector to give it the purest signal possible.

Getting it to look just right was not without its difficulties Miller confesses.  “One of the concerns with Pepper’s Ghost is getting the gauze to work, what we call ‘blow through’, i.e. getting a secondary image on the back wall.  When you project onto a gauze a lot of light goes straight through the gauze and hits whatever surface is behind that.  In an ideal world you would use an UST projector, and push the rest of the light onto the ceiling or down to the floor.  However in tests we found UST was losing too much light in the lens. It helped solve one problem but the image lost its punch.  We went with a 1:1 throw lens and had to deal with the blow through on the floor and the back wall.  During testing we found a solution were we could reflect the light onto the ceiling, so we effectively have a black mirror, which unless it gets dusty you can’t see the secondary image in.  If you can see the projection through the gauze it gives the illusion away.”

Given that it’s a show all about music, did this place more pressure on DJW to get the audio right? “Absolutely,” says Miller.  “Getting the sound absorption material into the outer zones (the timelines) was key.” For the main stage DJW chose Fohhn line array loudspeakers and amp, “For the main show it gives us a really tight directionality on the audio,” explains Miller.  “It has quite narrow dispersion, so as you walk towards the stage it almost drops off completely with about two metres to go.  That encourages people to stand back from the stage, which helps with the hologram show.” To make sure it was right representatives from Fohhn came to Liverpool for two days during the installation to EQ the system to the room themselves.

All the audio at the BME is Dante networked, and outside of the main stage Bose ControlSpace runs the majority of audio in the site.  The background audio in the café and retail areas is run by BrightSign players.  All the exhibits are run on Apple Mac Mini computers, chosen because of their small footprint, the ease of updating software and low heat production.

DJW began running projection tests on the project in September 2016, and installation took place as soon as the Christmas period was over, with the BME opening in March this year.  Going forward it is hoped the high level of lighting and audio kit installed in the main stage area will make it an attractive venue for evening hire and provide an extra revenue stream.  The venue also includes rooms which can be hired out for educational purposes.  Taylor is delighted with outcome, and is full of praise for DJW for creating a project easy to manage for his team, and easy to engage with for its visitors. “If you think about music, its an interactive thing, it has to be inclusive, that’s very important for us here. We want people to come, but we also want people to come back.”

Kit list

Audio

Behringer headphone amps
Bose FreeSpace loudspeakers and amps
Fohhn line arrays and amps
Sennheiser radio mics

Video

Chief videowall mounts
Christie Captiva UST laser projectors
Digital Projection laser projectors
iiyama LCD displays
Peerless mounts
Samsung LCD displays

Control

7th Sense video server
BrightSign video server
Dataton Watchout software
Extron DVI extenders
Icron USB extenders
Lindy USB audio adapters
Medialon show control
SY HDMI extenders