Central command at Perth Concert Hall

Now entering its second decade, the challenge for one integrator at Perth Concert Hall was to pull 10 years of individual AV systems under central control at a hugely versatile venue.

On the face of it Perth in Scotland is an unlikely location for a busy concert hall. With  a population of just 45,000, it sits in between Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Up against  ‘big’ city competition it is even more impressive that Perth Concert Hall has not only survived, but positively thrived since it was opened by  Her  Majesty Queen Elizabeth  II in 2005. 

In the last decade its hosted a diverse programme of concerts, performances,  contemporary  art, political  conferences  and  corporate  events.  In that time the (very busy) tech team has naturally had  to  adapt  to  changing  client  demands and changing technologies. As a result the venue was home to a variety of different AV systems, many of which didn’t talk to each other. The client brief was to bring everything (legacy equipment and new kit) together.

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“We had seven different audio systems in the building, and numerous different lighting controls. Just turning on sound  and video in one room was a major mission, now it’s all achievable on an iPad.” says Patrick Dalgety, production and technical manager, Perth Concert Hall.  And this is where integrator Autograph Sales & Installations enters the story.

Last year an audio consultant was engaged (Theatreplan) to help start the process of bringing all the AV under one central control. Once this initial design was completed a tender process began and was won by Autograph. At the heart of the new install was the decision to go with QSC’s Q-Sys Designer software.

Walking into the foyer the visitor is immediately struck by Scotland’s largest dedicated  digital art  installation. Consisting of  22 side-by-side screens, the system is run by  22  Brightsign players (which replaced the same amount of Mac minis). The foyer displays show a mix of art and advertising (promoting future events) and is fully programmable and linked to a central calendar which controls all the lighting and sound.

The busiest room in the venue is the Norie-Miller Suite. The room can accommodate 120 people, or be split into two (for 50 or 60 people), and is home to workshops, music shows and AGMs.

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AV in here is controlled by panels in the wall. If the team needs to split the room a single button press will instruct Q-Sys the room is now in two. Depending on which  code the operator enters into the panel, the operator can access different levels of control. For those events where the tech team  needs a bit more control, the  consultant specified JLCooper control surfaces, which take command of visuals, light and sound from one custom board. “This is one of the more custom pieces of this project,” says Chris Austin, technical sales manager, Autograph. “The JLCooper control surfaces came as a completely blank canvas, so we had to write our own integration into Q-Sys for that.”

The  level  of  control  the  tech  team  now  has with Q-Sys has obviously made a huge difference to their working lives, as Dalgety demonstrates: “All the Shure radio mics can be used anywhere in  the  building.  You  just  go  to  the  space  you want and select the mic you want and that setup will come out in the right space. The inclusion of the automixer means we have presets.”

Having  Q-Sys  in  place  means  Andy  Kidd, head of production and IT at the venue can do complicated pre-patching  (even  off-site if he wishes too)  the day before a big  event, so it’s ready for the team the next day when they arrive in. With so many events going on between 9am and 10pm every day, communication between incoming and outgoing staff was a problem in the past says Dalgety.

It’s not a small task managing what’s going on, as around the venue there are 130 channels running on Q-Sys, with around 60 running on Dante. Austin estimates there are around 200 channels of audio on the network in total, running at a continuous  300Mb/s, ‘it’s a heavily trafficked network,’ he adds.

The installation took place over a few months earlier in the year, but was a difficult process because of the venue’s full calendar.  Before the installation took place Kidd spent two months working with Autograph to fine-tune Q-Sys.

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One of the first things Autograph did at the venue was install a whole raft of Cat5 cabling says Austin. “The existing infrastructure didn’t put enough  emphasis  on  networks, because it was10 years ago and they didn’t see it coming, so we put in a lot of extra network points and speaker points, because we knew the PA was going to be replaced.” 

The  new PA installed in the 1,200-seat Main Auditorium uses d&b Y Series  line  arrays, which  replaced  a  Meyer Sound system which  ‘was too small  for what  we  needed it to do’ says Dalgety.  In keeping with the theme of versatility  of  the venue,  the  tiered  seating  can  go  completely  flat, via airlift wagons which go down 5 metres into the floor,  to create a standing venue for 1,600 people.

The  Main  Auditorium  is  another  busy  room, and  the  loudspeakers  had  to  reflect  that,  says Austin.  “The  PA  has  to  change  quite  a  lot, there are two options for front fill, we can have a big front fill for gigs, or a little front fill for conferences, which is a little more discreet. There are three points the PA can fly from, and there are six d&b Y subs on the bridge above, which can  be  brought  down  for  a  concert.  When we
commissioned  the  PA  we  did  it  for  all  these permutations, so up in the control room you only have to go to the screen and say ‘I want this with this’ and the PA is ready to go.”

Upstairs at the Concert Hall are more conference rooms, with the 16-seatre Tay Boardroom. Again, due to the flexibility of the space, Q-Sys has been programmed  to  reflect  this;  “Every  morning  at 4am everything gets set back to default. So the staff coming in first thing in the morning have consistency,” says Dalgety.

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The benefits of the new technology are clear says Dalgety, “We have a faster turnaround, and fault-finding is easier.

“The scale of the network and the resilience required was quite a challenge,” continues Austin. “Getting it to manage Q-Sys and Dante channels running seamlessly was tough. If it was a closed shop and we had total control of the network, it would be quite straightforward. The challenge here is I can’t control who is going to plug something in and where they are going to plug it. If  a visiting engineer comes here with a Dante-enabled  sound  desk it’s fair game for them  to plug it into the network.  Getting  the workflow right and the resilience right so they  can  do  that  without  fear  of  bringing everything down was something we had to work quite hard on.”

Austin is generous in giving the consultant a lot of credit for the initial design; “The consultant used user stories to do the spec, so it would say ‘the engineer must be able to bring up a fader’ etc, we just had to hit those goals.

What Autograph brought to the party was our expertise in how people use systems. There are plenty of people who can plug it in and make it work, but how can we make it resilient?”

Austin is also keen to give credit to the hard work and enthusiasm of the venue’s tech team, in particular to Dalgety and Kidd; “What’s really great is sometimes you put in a system and there isn’t  much  buy-in  from  the client.  Because it became clear that Q-Sys was the only tool that was  going to work here,  Andy and Patrick are really invested in the system, so there’s a lot of development they have done. It should never be set in stone,  we haven’t passworded the IP of the design, it’s an open design, that’s what the customer has paid for.”  

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