ASC network topology on the Ovation of the Seas
A detailed look at audio networking on board the cruise ships of Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class with integrator ASC, Shure Distribution and Royal Caribbean themselves.
There has been a lot of press attention surrounding the ships of Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class including a case study in InAVate EMEA exploring the AV and multimedia installation on the class’ lead ship Quantum of the Seas.
The attention is unsurprising. Quantum class ships are the third-largest cruise ships in the world and are built to prioritise delivering a varied mix of entertainment and extraordinary entertainment to its guests.
Previous reports have focused on the vessels' spectacular entertainment areas the most attractive of which is the Two70 with its 270-degree panoramic window and six dancing RoboScreens. Integrator Amptown System Company (ASC) partnered shipyard Meter Werft and shipping company Royal Caribbean International to take charge of the installation of media equipment in more than 40 public entertainment areas.
Asked what had posed the greatest challenge, the ASC team decided on something not so obvious at first glance. However, what they refer to is unquestionably at the heart of any media installation project and all of the varied entertainment actually depends on it.
ASC project manager Torsten Heuer explains that the team had settled on: “what the technicians on board Ovation of the Seas known as 'ASC Entertainment Network', an audio, video and control network.”
Heuer is a technical college graduate in media engineering and had been involved with the configuration and installation of the ship's networks from the start.
He explains: "The 'ASC Entertainment Network' is operated independently to the rest of the network infrastructure on the ship and, among other information, transports the Q-LAN data of a QSC Q-Sys network. A similar network was already established on the sister vessels Anthem of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas. The components installed on Ovation of the Seas are even more state-of-the-art as they conform to the standard that was latest at the time of the planning."
Clemens Sturm, commercial manager of Shure Distribution, acted as Heuer’s sparring partner for any issues concerning product specifications and application options. "One can definitely say that the network used on board Ovation of the Seas is the most extensive floating network based on Q-Sys components worldwide,” he says. “If comparable at all this installation is as comprehensive as one controlling a Dubai shopping mall. Doubtlessly however Ovation of the Seas features a network structure of technological excellence."
A seaworthy system platform
Data is transmitted within the digital QSC Q-Sys audio network according to a proprietary protocol based on network standards and transported via Gigabit Ethernet components. On the one hand the network ensures control and monitoring of the media components on board and allows for a supreme efficiency of signal transmission on the other. Approximately 80 input and output points are distributed across the ship, some of which are very distant from each another. The desired content, for instance the background music in a restaurant or in a shop of the Royal Esplanade shopping mall, can be selected locally on a touch panel or a PC.
"We have grown with the market," says Christopher Vlassopulos, director of Entertainment Technology and Technical Design at Royal Caribbean. “Ovation of the Seas is the first of our cruise ships to have been be fitted with a LAN system for the entertainment areas which meant that we were breaking new ground in many respects. Fortunately AV network solutions designed for multimedia purposes are available from manufacturers like QSC. [They] enable all components involved to communicate perfectly with one another without the technicians having to experiment a lot. The idea of transmitting all of the multimedia signals via a fibre optic network is enormously attractive where cruise ships are concerned."
The Q-Sys family
In the QSC Q-Sys family everything is structured around devices referred to as cores. All of the processing takes place in the DSP platforms. The cores are available in three different performance classes (Unified/ Integrated/Enterprise) so that it should be possible to find a suitable type for any project size. The series-produced mainframe version with the highest capacity is the Core 3100 model which supports up to 512 x 512 audio channels.
The operating system is Linus in a customised version; the hardware is based on Intel motherboards and processors. Q-Sys supports Layer-3 networking and hence connects to any existing network infrastructure unless the customer wants a self-sufficient network to be established. The DSP software developed by QSC features a program suite which contains processing options designed to ensure premium sound quality.
The integrated cores 250i and 500i can be equipped with various input and output cards supporting analogue and digital audio signals as well as several audio network protocols (CobraNet, Dante and AVB). Using a DataPort output card (COPD4) a connection to the cores can be established to remotely control and monitor suitable QSC channel amplifiers (e.g. from the CX series). I/O frames which can be equipped with up to four cards serve as external input and output points thus making available up to 16 inputs or outputs or any combination of these respectively. In addition a compact input and output unit is available under the product name of I/O-22.
Operation of the Q-Sys system is performed via the (UCI) User Control Interface tool: the Designer software enables suitable user interfaces to be developed which can be operated with stationary computers but also with mobile devices like tablet PCs provided that access points and WLAN are available. A 3.5-in touch screen controller (TSC-3), a 7-in type for wall-mounting (TSC-7w) or a tabletop model (TSC-7t) can be used as hardware control devices. Evaluation of GPIO signals is possible, too. The Q-SYS family is complete with network intercom terminals and a Virtual Page Station.
Q-LAN in XXL
ASC chose a QSC Core 3100 device to implement background sound reinforcement and connected six Core 500i units to it in a star-shaped topology – an approach which is referred to by QSC as a “system-of-systems” type of configuration. As each of the different venues of the ship is equipped with a Core 500i unit of its own, these cores would continue to be available for independent usage even if the ship's overall control network or the main core were affected by a failure. In many places ASC installed double cabling from the start so that the ship's technicians can conveniently replug the affected unit on the patch panel for data transmission by a parallel cable.
A total of 33 I/O frames is used for the input and output of audio signals. Most of them are located in smaller areas as for instance in the Boleros bar. The following plug-in cards are used in the cores and I/O frames: 60 CIML4 (input card for microphone and line signals, switchable +48V phantom power), 13 CIML4-HP (variant of the CIML4 with special high-quality preamplifiers and broadcast- quality A/D converters) and 83 COL4 (analogue line output cards). All in all ASC installed 67 type TSC-3 touch panels on the ship to operate the system. In the larger venues stationary PCs are provided allowing for a QSC UCI viewer to be started via an application software – which is more convenient considering that the PC screen surface is significantly larger than that of a TCS-3 touch panel.
Choosing suitable switches with the required performance and quality of service (QoS) is essential for continuous uptime and operational efficiency. Extreme Network products have shown to be very reliable in this respect, so a high number of them was used on Ovation of the Seas: Core switch is a summit X460-24x type which is supplemented with three Summit X440-8p and 35 summit X440-24p switches. Conversion to fibre optic signal transmission is ensured by 38 type 1000BASE-SX SFP-Hi converters. Multicasts ensure that data traffic within the network is kept low – one source can distribute data to several drains without the data volume being “inflated”.
In view of the huge dimensions of the ship fibre optic cables were adopted to interconnect the Q-Sys network nodes. It is true that while installation work is going on, fibre optic cables need to be handled with special care. On the other hand from the operating company's point of view this potential disadvantage is more than compensated by benefits like the considerably lower weight compared with copper cables and the high immunity to interference.
“The Q-Sys network and the fact that signal distribution is ensured via optic fibre makes things very much easier for us,” Christopher Vlassopulos says, adding that even a VPN access can be provided if required which would enable ASC service technicians to access the ship's own network via remote control from Hamburg.
In view of the complexity of the overall system, technicians on board tend to go by the motto every computer expert is familiar with: “Never change a running system”. Firmware updates for individual components which undoubtedly make sense onshore wherever a configuration is not self-sufficient are always considered with some reservation on the ship.
Sound reinforcement via the network
The signals for entertainment purposes are not the only ones to be transmitted via the Q-Sys network on board Ovation of the Seas. In many areas the emergency broadcast system (PA/GA, Public Address & General Alarm) which would be activated in an emergency situation if it became necessary to evacuate the ship relies on QSC components as well. The PA/GA loudspeakers are integrated into a Q-Sys network of their own based on a ring topology. There is a core-to-core connection between the PA/GA core and the Core 3100 used for sound reinforcement in entertainment applications so that streams can be distributed to and within both systems in any desired fashion – in the fitness centre for instance the subwoofers built into the ceiling are operated via the entertainment network whereas the standard ceiling speakers are connected to the PA/GA ring. It goes without saying that the ceiling speakers are authorised for PA/GA usage – the required STI values are attained without difficulty even in environments which are challenging acoustically like the enclosed Pool Deck. As is common practice emergency broadcasts have priority over music transmissions.
“All things considered the network design is really smart,” says Christopher Vlassopulos. The fact that many kilometres of cables are saved and that no additional evacuation speakers are required is appreciated as a significant cost advantage by both the Meyer Werft and Royal Caribbean. The architect was also happy about the “speaker sharing arrangement” between entertainment and PA/GA – fewer holes in the ceiling, fewer visible speakers.
The use of multimedia content on Ovation of the Seas is largely predetermined so that the need for unplanned modifications won't normally arise unless a special event is about to take place in a clearly defined area. As a rule AV content feed is provided by a central control unit on the ship. If required it is also possible to retrieve content from media or hardware devices which are available locally, such as in restaurants or other venues. Variations of the volume level are possible using compact QSC TSC-3 touch panels which can be provided on request.
In the DSPs of the Q-Sys systems volume limits were stored which are active on ordinary cruises. However if the ship is externally chartered by corporate clients the settings can be changed to allow the sound reinforcement components to deliver their full potential if agreed upon beforehand. In the past additional speaker systems had to be brought on board for special occasions. With modern cruising ships like the Ovation of the Seas there is no need for that any more.
“The permanently installed sound system leaves sufficient headroom so that even music for 'hot' parties can be supplied at the desired sound level,” says Christopher Vlassopulos.
Feeding the music centrally or retrieving it locally
Usually on Ovation of the Seas background music is fed to the various receiving stations by the broadcast centre which is equipped with I/O frames and suitable cards. The network ensures that the various audio data is distributed across the whole ship. In the individual venues the desired stream can be selected on a TSC-3 touch panel or via an UCI Viewer. A number of input points are available in most of the locations which means that if there is a special occasion microphone signals can be input on the spot, and MP3 players brought along by the guests can be connected as well. Afterwards the signals can be routed elsewhere, for instance to any of the ceiling speakers installed in the various locations.
Shure UHF radio links can be remotely controlled and set using the Shure Wireless Workbench software. Remote access is enabled via the “ASC Entertainment Network” which apart from other protocols such as Q-LAN will transmit the Shure control data as well.
“Meanwhile three ships of the Quantum class, Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas and since April 2016 Ovation of the Seas, all of them equipped with an ASC entertainment network, are cruising the seas of the world,” declares ASC project manager Torsten Heuer. “For all its complexity the ASC entertainment network is very stable and definitely a perfect choice for any application involving signal transmission and distribution. Cruising ships are only one of them.”