Strawberry Field Forever

Strawberry Field is known by music fans all over the world, Paul Milligan visited the site of a new visitor attraction in Liverpool bringing one part of The Beatles history to life.

Strawberry Field, a former children's home in Liverpool, is a well-trodden landmark for all Beatles fans coming to the city. The site became world famous in 1967 with the release of The Beatles single 'Strawberry Fields Forever', written by John Lennon, whose childhood home in Menlove Avenue backed onto the field.  Strawberry Field and the original Victorian house were gifted to Christian organisation The Salvation Army in 1934 as a temporary home for Liverpool’s most vulnerable children.  The site, apart from its iconic red gates covered in messages from Beatles fans from all over the world, has been derelict since 2005.

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Russell Stewart, the owner of design consultancy Cubit3D takes up the story of what happened next; “The Salvation Army always had felt they ought to be doing something with the site, so formulated an idea of building a training centre for disadvantaged kids.  They engaged an architect and put together a design for the building. They then started to wonder about how it was going to be financed, and that’s when Jerry (Goldman) got involved. He had experience in building visitor attractions, so he put the two ideas together, kids can work in the café and learn about food service.” Jerry Goldman, a former director of The Beatles Story attraction in Liverpool came out of retirement to see the project to fruition. The site actually has three aims, to continue the site’s legacy of care and support through a new training hub for young people with learning disabilities, offer a visitor attraction exploring the site’s history and links to John Lennon, and a café and gardens for spiritual reflection. 

Cubit3D had worked with systems integrator DJ Willrich (DJW) before on the British Music Experience so was a natural choice for this project. “We were introduced to Jerry early on because they had to put a design together. We worked with Cubit3D to go through what they wanted to achieve and see how it matched the budget,” says Josh Miller, director, DJW.  The site is surrounded by beautiful gardens, and visitors enter the site through the café and shop area.  The actual space for the exhibition is relatively small, but still manages to cram in 24 different screens, more than 2.5 hours of content and a painstakingly-created digital replica of the original Mellotron keyboard used to great effect in 'Strawberry Fields Forever'.

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The design concept behind the exhibition layout according to Stewart is “imagining you're inside the head of John Lennon, with lots of abstract thoughts. We were very fortunate because Strawberry Fields building was built at almost exactly the same time the Salvation Army was founded, so chronologically it works out really neatly, so the timeline moves in a logical fashion.” The content is a mix of the site’s heritage as a children home, mixed with the personal history of John Lennon, including interviews with his childhood friends who used to play with him on the field.

When visitors enter the exhibition, they are given headphones and a tablet with a 5-in screen by Imagineear, which is used a tour guide and prompt for the content. “The idea was to try and mix up moving images and still images and keep the amount of text to a minimum.  There's close to two and a half hours of material on the media guide, so you can really immerse yourself in all of it,” adds Stewart. “We wanted it to have a three-dimensional feel. We used smaller screens for the interviews because it means the person you are watching is life-size, and because they were smaller we could afford more of them, which makes it more interesting.”

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The tour guide syncs with the videos playing on each screen; “You tell the tour guide I'm stood in front of screen number 17, all the videos are on a loop and it knows that video started 18 seconds ago, so it jumps to that part of the audio track and does a handshake with it behind the scenes,” explains Miller.  “What we do is we trigger the BrightSign video servers by the Medialon system and then the individual BrightSign server restarts the loop so it independently sends out an IP command to the Imagineear system saying we've started video.” There are 24 trigger points dotted around the exhibition, each one run by its own BrightSign video server. The exhibition features a mix of projection and LCD displays throughout, including a whole section devoted purely to the song. “In terms of projection we’ve installed some UST lenses so you can get as close to the wall as you like,” says Miller. Dotted around the walls and ceilings are 8 Epson 5,000 lumens projectors. 

DJW also chose four LightScene 2,000 lumens projectors, Miller explains why; “You've got lots of photographs on a long wall, all of the graphic panels are a square shape, so we are projecting square format video onto those.  The images didn't work at a large size so the projector doesn't need to be that bright, and budget is always a consideration. The LightScene units are very good in terms of all the things that we don't usually want to do with projectors, keystone correction and all that kind of stuff, we’re projecting funny angles a lot of the time, and they are very good at tidying that up.”

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All LCD displays on the site are by Panasonic, in a mix of sizes (32-in, 43-in and 55-in).  Audio on the site is represented by four Apart column speakers, placed either side of six screens in the café in case the owners want to hold an event there. In the exhibition the majority of audio is run through the headphones, but you’ll also find 16 Bose DS40F flush- mount loudspeaker overhead. DJW commissioned a special soundtrack for this job which is the sounds of the garden merged with a Salvation Army Band playing in the bandstand that used to be on the site. “They wanted it so that if you took your Imagineear headphones off it wasn’t completely silent, so if you listen carefully there's the sounds of birds tweeting etc,” says Miller.

The highlight of the exhibition from an AV perspective is undoubtedly the Mellotron replica, which was a labour of love for all concerned.  DJW enlisted the help of John Bradley and Martin Smith from restoration specialists Streetly Electronics to bring it to life. For those unaware, the Mellotron is an electro-mechanical tape replay keyboard originally developed and built in England in 1963. “It has tapes in it, so when you actually play the keys you are playing a real recording. When you hear brass its someone playing brass,” says Bradley. “When you read about the song, it always come back to how central the Mellotron was to it, so we thought we would knock up a virtual one, without actually thinking about how complicated that might turn out to be,” adds Smith.


The one at the exhibition combines a bespoke cabinet with a 6,000 lumens Epson projector pointing from the ceiling down to a 65-in 100-point-of-touch Displax foil. The biggest challenge says Miller was making sure that the touch surface worked reliably without fail; “The difference between just drawing on a page and doing single touches is that if just one of those touches of the keyboard is missed, and you are doing them quite fast, you lose the performance completely. Because we were putting that Displax touchfoil underneath the Hi-Macs acrylic surface the big challenge was finding the ideal compromise between strength and accuracy in terms of that material.  We got some samples of different thicknesses of Hi-Macs material and sent them over to Displax in Portugal, it did some tests with the foil in its factory and found the 6mm fabric worked ok but wasn’t 100%, whereas the 3mm thickness was absolutely rock solid.  We then had to go back to the people building the base unit to say we need a substrate to make sure that we can actually sandwich the foil in between your substrate and our surface, so that nobody's going to break it by sitting on it.”

It was worked on for six weeks, and when near completion was taken to a local keyboard player to test it to see if it played like a real keyboard. “The big breakthrough in terms of making this work as well as we hoped was finding John and Martin. They’ve got all the original tapes that were used by the original Mellotron company, so being able to use those samples gave us a real authentic sound to it,” adds Miller.

The Mellotron is an undoubted highlight of the exhibition, but all concerned should be delighted with the final outcome, which has combined Beatles history with the Salvation Army’s Christian beliefs, which is not the most obvious synergy on paper.  “From a design point of view, we've done loads of stuff where it's purely commercial. This has a more serious purpose to it,” says Stewart. “It’s nice to be involved in something that works on different levels.”


Kit List

Apart Audio COLW41 column speakers
Aten CL1000 LCD KVM console
Blackbox AV local amplifier, audio extender
Bose DS40F loudspeakers
BrightSign HD224 video servers
Displax 65-in touch foil
Epson EB-L1105U, EB-L615U, EV-105 projectors
Lindy 8-port HDMI splitter
Medialon Showmaster LE software
Panasonic 32-in, 43-in and 55-in LCD displays
Peerless-AV 40-in to 55-in LCD mounting brackets
SY SY-HDBT-100-SLIM-SET HDMI extenders
Unicol Sinterflex projector mounts