Melting pot

Chris Fitzsimmons reports on the trip of a lifetime to South Africa, to witness preparations for the FIFA World Cup Finals at Soccer City in Johannesburg, where he finds an African solution, to an international project.

There’s something special about standing pitch-side in a stadium, even an empty one. Something to do with the architecture, and the way that every single seat is designed to give its occupant a perfect view of the sport you’re standing in.

It’s a very unnerving experience the first time you do it, and even having stood in that position at a few different stadiums in my career the sensation doesn’t diminish. Soccer City, is no exception. The 94,700 seat venue is set to be the focus for arguably South Africa’s greatest sporting win yet – the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Now topping even the mighty Wembley Stadium in its capacity, the arena has been completely redesigned and rebuilt from its old incarnation as the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. Even before rebuilding work began in 2004, this stadium has played an iconic role in South Africa’s history, playing host to Nelson Mandela’s homecoming rally in 1990. On that day 100,000 people swarmed the stadium to hear him call for a unified South Africa.
It’s fitting then that in it’s new guise, the stadium will host both the opening ceremony and final of this year’s soccer world cup.

On that momentous day in 1990, another man was playing a key role at the FNB Stadium – Mark Malherbe, technical director of audio distribution and installation company was desperately attempting to operate a PA system to carry the words of Mandela to 100,000 people. 15 years later, his company was successful in bidding for the job to design and install the PA system not only for Soccer City, but for eight other world cup venues as well.

One of the major challenges facing Prosound’s Mark Malherbe and his team was the budget. The city of Johannesburg simply doesn’t have the resources that English FA had for Wembley or that the Germans had for their 2006 venues. Thus forced to get creative Malherbe drew on the experience of 30 previous stadium installations, as well as considerable support from Loudspeaker suppliers Electro-Voice in Germany, and the team at Peavey Media Matrix.

For the main arena sound, Malherbe designed a distributed audio system consisting of 20 speaker clusters located high up in the roof, and concealed by a semi-acoustic mesh. The clusters are made up of a pair of EV PX2122 speakers throwing long to the pitch side seating, a second pair firing at the middle-distance and finally a pair of EV PX2152s for the shortest throw distance towards the back of the stands.

“The 15-inchers are passive boxes, with a wider dispersion for the shortest throws, whilst the 12-inchers are active, and give a much tighter pattern for the longer throws,” explained Mark.

The four corner-located clusters are a little bigger, each with an additional pair of PX2152 speakers included. These point pitch-ward to provide voice alarm cover to the players and officials.

Malherbe’s choice of the Phoenix speaker family raised a few eyebrows at EV HQ, and he was told that he’d probably chosen the wrong box, however given the budget restraints Mark was adamant he’d made the right choice, and an achieved peak SPL of 107dB with +/- 2.5 across the stadium is surely vindication of his decision.

The speakers are driven by Crest CKi series amplifiers, located in 10 racks. Each one powering a pair of speaker clusters. The amplifiers are all located close to their loudspeakers, again way up in the roof of the stadium. Mark explained why:

“I wasn’t allowed to put too much weight up in the roof, so we had to make some compromises. If I’d gone for longer speaker cable runs, and mounted the amplifiers more remotely, I’d have lost a huge amount of power in the cables, no matter what gauge I used. This would have just ended up in my having to put more speakers up – and more weight.

“Locating the amp racks just off the maintenance gantry meant that my runs were much shorter and the power losses were much, much smaller. I didn’t need extra amplification or speakers to compensate.”

The upshot of this is that the signal path is overwhelmingly digital. Runs of Cat6 and optical fibre connect the CKi’s with their parent MediaMatrix Nion6 DSP controllers, and from there to the sources and Midas Venice mixer in the controller room.

“We chose the Peavey/Crest combination for a couple of reasons,” explained Mark. “First, there is almost seamless integration between the amps and the DSP, secondly they complied with the life safety requirements of the spec in terms of redundancy, and finally my technical guys are more familiar with the MediaMatrix solution.

“We’ve got six Nion6 processors to control the system, which provides enough overhead capacity for redundancy. It’s not quite double, as we do some resource sharing in emergency situations – we cut down on processing facilities.”

Outside of the stadium bowl, Prosound specified a combination of RCF and Dynacord loudspeakers. RCF PL60 ceiling speakers are located throughout the concourses and also in the suites. These act as either part of the emergency system or are linked to the streamed media output on the digital signage network, providing basic programme sound.
In the access corridors, staircases and some exterior, Dynacord DL800/25T horns are employed. These too are driven by the Crest CKi amplifiers, and are arranged as part of 60 zones.

Accompanying the sound system is an extensive, and well spec’d video distribution network. Soccer City boasts two 86m2 LED screens made up of Lighthouse R16 I/O II panels.

The system was installed by System Solutions, under the leadership of managing director Sean Stewart. His company also won a tender process, run on behalf of the municipality of Johannesburg by consultants Quality Assistant.

System solutions were required to deliver a system to the specification supplied by QA, with the major emphasis being the requirement for a fully HD infrastructure.

“We have a totally independent media network on the site,” explained Stewart. “We’ve got our own core and then layer three switching at each level. There are fibre runs linking each switch to the control room and then Cat6 cabling does the last few yards to the displays. It’s all single mode fibre, and the entire system is running at 1920 x 1080p resolution.”

Sitting at the heart of this vast fibre and copper web is System Solutions’ secret weapon, a Christie Vista Spyder control system. Every video signal in the stadium is handled by a Vista URS 1608 routing switcher configured with 16 inputs and eight outputs. The URS replaces the usual racks of scalers that would be necessary in such a situation, and was instrumental in getting System Solutions the contract.

The processors take a complex series of feeds. Eight HD SDI inputs are received from the OB Compound and pitch, a further four HD DVI feeds from System Solutions’ AV Stumpfl Wings Platinum media servers’ and two HD component feeds from Blu-Ray players.

Meanwhile, four outputs from the URS feed the Spyder 344, two outputs feed a pair of HD IPTV encoders which broadcast two dedicated stadium channels, with live coverage of the game and InfoTainment / Emergency channels respectively. There are also further outputs dedicated to a Source multi-monitor and a utility output presently used for source configuration. However, this could be re-deployed for use in other areas, such as screen feeds or scoreboards.

Video is relayed to either the digital signage, for public information display, IPTV in approximately 200 private suites — and to the LED big screens in the stadium itself.

Every single video source has its own preview monitor on the wall of the control room, and there are also preview monitors for the output of the Vista URS.

The relays to the concourse areas are handled directly through the digital signage system, as this system can decode the IPTV streams generated by the stadium. The hospitality areas receive a mixture of pure IPTV screens and digital signage displays, depending on location.

AV Stumpfl ISEO has been selected as the main control platform pulling all the elements of the installation into one master control system. This has the ability to operate and communicate with all systems, devices and applications as well as monitoring devices and systems and provide fault reporting to the property and building management systems in the stadium.

ISEO will also control the video mixing and switching as well as all play back devices in the system and will allow a single input to control the entire video flow to the main LED screens, digital signage and IPTV systems.

Hanging on the end of this distribution system are Sony 40” professional displays, with MultiChoice HD These screens are mounted on a huge array of mounting products, largely supplied by Chief.

“We really liked some of the features of the Fuzion series,” remarked Sean. “The post fixing adjustment tools are great, as they allow us to install quickly and easily adjust the displays to be positioned spot on.”

“AV Stumpfl Wings servers are running all the media content to the LED screens and the IPTV system,” explained Sean. “We are also using the Sumpfl ISEO2 digital signage system over the screen network, their biggest roll out to date of the software.”

The IPTV content carries a mixture of standard digital signage fare – tickers and advertising, as well as live streaming content from a match in progress.

ISEO2 is also used to provide this content. It picks up the live feed from the Exterity encoder and adds it to the media mix. Control of the score boards is also done via Stumpfl’s software – System Solutions also wrote some custom code to link it to the Lighthouse LED screens.

Returning to the emotional response that stadiums always seem to elicit in me, it’s hard to judge objectively a venue that has such a profound effect. Perhaps that’s not a problem, surely the purpose of an arena is to inspire those inside it to greater feats, and certainly it has inspired those involved in its media systems to just that.

It’s a matter of considerable pride, to both companies involved, that this stadium has been built by South Africans, its systems designed by South Africans, and its contents installed by them. Whatever the rumblings about the state of the pitch, or the readiness of the country as a whole to host the World Cup, one thing is certain. The media systems are ready and waiting.

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