All The World’s A Stage
Whilst prestigious theatre audio systems receive the glare of publicity and the wrath of the critics, back of house infrastructures are rarely mentioned. But over four decades on since the Sydney Opera House first opened, the iconic venue is now turning heads following the integration of its new Stage Management System (SMS).
The SMS was designed to not only perform all the complex front of house and back of house functions required in one of the world’s busiest venues, but also to capitalise on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to prepare the house for the production of content for all its major clients by integrating broadcast quality high-definition camera and video systems along with an audio distribution network, communications systems and new studio facilities.
Theatre and events director David Claringbold recalls he made an assessment of the infrastructure projects required to ensure the Opera House’s key systems were not only functional but prepared to meet the increasing demands placed on the venue including the need for content production, web streaming and recording. The increased demand for online content to service a range of programming streams was initially highlighted following the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project in 2010, which was watched by 32 million viewers.
These infrastructure plans were being formulated at the same time as plans were underway to transform the Opera House’s operations with the construction of new loading docks. ‘The loading docks are located three storeys below sea level,’ explain Mr Claringbold. ‘An elevator connecting the ground floor was earmarked to link with it by going through the existing audio studio. We were left with no other alternative but to relocate the studio deeper inside the venue. At the same time, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to upgrade the studio to modern broadcast standards as our resident companies were starting to request more sophisticated broadcast and recording work.’
Following the engagement of Arup for initial consultation discussions, Marshall Day and Theatreplan were then commissioned in 2009 to detail the system specification. They began by compiling a detailed and extensive record of functional requirements, which led to the development of the technical specifications. This comprehensive document highlighted more dynamic requirements to be implemented at back of house with references to dressing room allocations, the needs of the audience, paging and comms, camera control, show relays, cue lights, entry signage and such like.
Upon publication, the resultant design document concluded that the previous system installed in 1996 would have to be wholly removed and replaced with a fibre backbone integrated into the architecture, which would not disrupt any ongoing productions. In addition, a larger studio space would be required in comparison to those facilities that had served them previously. A control system was stipulated to link back of house (BOH) functionality such as vision switching, IPTV, cue lights, stage entry signage, cameras, archives, recording and broadcast suites, paging and comms with the front of house paging system, show bells, show sequences, foyer speakers, IPTV, show sound and video relay, venue entry and signage. Ultimately, an interface with a touch screen control surface such as an iPad was sought that would bypass the need to scroll through endless menus.
In 2013, the six venues within the Opera House hosted 1,800 performances to a combined attendance of 1.36 million, but it also drew 8.2 million visitors to the site and 310,000 people took paid guided tours.
‘The public demand is very different from before,’ explains Mr Claringbold. ‘All the venues are fully utilised, so selling extra concert tickets is not where the growth is. However, tourist numbers are increasing and online content continues to spike demand. This trend provided us with a powerful business argument with which to upgrade the Stage Management System with a fibre backbone that would more than last the foreseeable future with cutting edge broadcast-based architecture utilising fibre-based technology.’
Following an RFT for supply and installation in 2011, Rutledge AV was successful in its tender bid. ‘We had confidence in their abilities and were familiar with their professional high standards during the concert hall sound system upgrade,’ furthers Mr Claringbold. ‘We then called upon Salzbrenner Stagetec AudioVisual Mediagroup (SSAVM). They had already installed a Nexus router audio distribution system into the Drama Theatre and so we knew that they could provide a highly flexible and scalable system for our bespoke needs. We then appointed Riedel to supply a high definition video platform, which routes any incoming HDSDI signal to any output, in our case via third party control.’
Rutledge AV’s systems engineer Tim Arrell was called to site in November 2011. ‘We decided to install a decentralised network in the Sydney Opera House, so that if anything goes wrong, we can localise and fix the problem without it affecting the entire venue. We conducted a number of meetings with SSAVM and soon discovered that there were a number of requests made by the Opera House that didn’t exist in their software control. So we realised that they would need to customise their GUIs to accommodate all the user requirements from the feedback report. Upon visiting the Bolshoi in Moscow and their factory in Germany, it was apparent that they were the company to turn to for this project.’
Having been appointed to install a bespoke SMS solution for the Sydney Opera House, SSAVM established an office in Sydney in order to properly manage the entire project. Led by Treva Head with assistance from Wil Stam and Mark Lownds, Stagetec Mediagroup Australia worked closely with the management and engineering teams in Germany led by Wolfgang Salzbrenner and Reinhold Friedrich. The commitment of all involved in seeing the project through to finalisation over two years later stands as testimony to the German manufacturers’ willingness to listen, adapt and incorporate new ideas. Ultimately, the investments paid dividends with a realisation of new products, as the Opera House project took on the form of a working R&D project over that period.
Sydney Opera House’s manager, technology projects, Brad Maiden, was a commanding central figure throughout the upgrade. ‘We asked Rutledge and SSAVM to adhere to five major design philosophies,’ explains Mr Maiden. ‘These were the provision of a fully redundant network and infrastructure topology, HD video and audio, an elegant touchscreen interface, comprehensive error management and importantly, a failure in one venue should not affect another venue. Also, future-proofing was an enormous consideration as we wanted this upgrade to last us well into the future.’
After a series of design and development workshops, the technology was then fine-tuned. Audio would be distributed via Dante over a new Cisco network, whilst HD video would be distributed via Riedel Mediornet and paging via Delec Oratis.
Let the works begin
Having commenced works in late 2011, the Rutledge AV team, headed by MD Michael Rutledge, Tim Arrell, Matt Edgcumbe and Rob McCormack, established a project team that would work closely with the key suppliers of d&b audiotechnik, SSAVM, Riedel and Cisco. Implemented in 13 phases, the Australian SI developed a design document comprising 223 sheets of data and 221 high-level block diagrams.
‘Naturally for such a globally renowned arts venue, there was a host of site constraints and restrictions that needed to be identified before going on site,’ furthers Mr Arrell. ‘In order to deliver the technical solutions, the equipment installation needed to be carefully planned beforehand. We would have to comply with access restrictions, undertaking the majority during hours of darkness following the evenings’ performances.’
In addition to Rutledge AV and Stagetec Australia, industrial designer Charlwood Design, electro-acoustician Indigo Systems and power and containment specialist Network Electrical were fully briefed in order to coordinate their efforts. The back-of-house audio network comprises 229 rooms supplied by 117 Networked Amplifier Module (NAMs), using Dante audio across a network of 136 zones. These are broken into five Dante ‘subnets’ to ensure that the ‘island topology’ is maintained. Comprising four channel power amps within their design, the Stagetec Australia-designed NAM offers audio monitoring and speaker detection from the decoded Dante audio stream. For the Opera House, live pages and pre-recorded announcements from the server are broadcast via Dante directly to the loudspeakers in the dressing rooms and foyers. ‘All the rooms were painstakingly mapped out beforehand, for which the individual needs were listed including where the loudspeakers would be positioned,’ Mr Maiden continues. ‘Heritage constraints also ensured restrictions as to where the equipment could and could not be installed.’
‘One of the key advantages to this implementation was an idea that we developed with SOH to install and commission the NAM BOH audio system during the build and well before we migrated the actual SMD consoles,’ further explains Rutledge AV’s Tim Arrell. ‘David Connor offered a set of techniques whereby we measured the actual volume of every room and estimated the reverberation time. This allowed us to calculate the NAM gain and the FIR EQ beforehand, which greatly sped up the commissioning process.’
Selected for offering the best bandwidth and highest degree of flexibility, a 6U 19-inch Nexus audio router with I/O boards supports performance audio routing with a redundant network in the Central Control Room (CCR). The decentralised Nexus Star topology routes audio and control data signal inputs via two single mode OS1 fibre 24 cores to the base devices and external MADI equipment. These are located in the Opera Theatre (256 channels), Broadcast Suite (two Nexus devices with 512 channels), Drama Theatre (128 channels), Concert Hall (256 channels) and Studio/Playhouse (two Nexus devices with 256 channels). Up to 256 bi-directional channels can be transported per optical fibre, supporting sample rates up to 96kHz. In total, 900 single mode fibre terminations transport all the video, audio, comms and Ethernet from any input to any output via steel contained conduits conforming to British standards.
Video production cameras either operate over single mode fibre or on the Mediornet network, for which all the venues are linked to the EVS server in the new Recording and Broadcast Studio allowing HD archives to be offered to clients. In total, Rutledge AV dedicated 25,000 man hours alone to the project, installing over 1,000km of cabling, a 96x96 video routing matrix, a 128x128x5 Delec Oratis intercoms matrix and seven equipment racks.
‘It was important to standardise systems throughout the venue so that they could be future-proofed with lots of capacity,’ explained Mr Arrell. ‘Furthermore, in terms of servicing, the Delec paging router and MediaControl platforms are perfect for the Opera House. You can control the entire system remotely via software, there’s an in-built diagnostic system and all the audio interface cards are hot-swappable for redundancy.’
Not a cut and paste
Following the publication of the design document, SSAVM rose to the challenge of crafting a touchpanel concept specifically for the Opera House’s staff.
‘We wanted the user to assign functionality via an iPad-type touchscreen rather than having to toggle through 100 keys,’ further explains Mr Maiden. ‘In the end we used the touchscreen to assign functionality to tactile buttons and we stipulated a three touch rule, which means no more than three touches on the touchscreen to achieve a function.’
Based on a 100V PA system, the C.A.S. was SSM’s first SMS which was upgraded to the C.A.S. 300 when Nexus was devised. Following on, PerformanCeTRL SMS provides venue wide stage management and intercom functionalities. This development interfaces third-party systems with a digital media control system (MediaControl) together with the Delec Oratis intercom and commentary system as its audio platform at back of house. The actual performance venues utilise a Riedel Artist communications network for stage comms, which is integrated via Madi to the paging router and also to the Mediornet video routers.
Included within PerformanCeTRL stage management, an Antares software configuration tool was developed to provide a full integration of all audio and paging functions within the Oratis audio matrix. As such there are no system boundaries between the stage management and intercom systems. The intuitive user interface comes with individual key assignments together with stored and recallable presets. Designed for round the clock operation, defective modules can be replaced in a live system without affecting operations. The intercom panels also handle individual stage management functions such as cue light control, paging functions, video routing and camera PTZ control, in addition to intercom functions such as the selection of call groups and push to talk.
‘It’s a logical control that allows paging over a matrix,’ says Mr Maiden. ‘To my knowledge there aren’t many paging systems out on the market currently operating over fibre with Madi I/O and broadcast clocks. You can also tap into the cameras for recording and streaming should you need to.’
Prior to the Opera House project, SSAVM had not incorporated touchscreen technology, but this introduction to their console interface took performances to a new level. The resultant GUI provides a clear, self-explaining structure of screens, which has been further optimised to enhance quicker screen reactions and handling. A control GUI was also designed to offer remote access into most functions of the Stage Management System. In terms of new product realisation, SSAVM developed the NAM, Delec Oratis Dante interface card, a number of new DSP functions (level, delay, FIR-Filters, dynamics), advanced show control functions with key selection recall and network redundancy of core systems as a direct result of this project.
The consoles were only shipped to the Opera House from Germany following a six to nine month rigorous factory acceptance period. Remotely networked to the SOH, a warehouse was established in SSAVM’s Buttenheim factory, allowing Mr Maiden and his colleagues to keep in contact. Once accepted, the equipment was shipped in batches and slotted straight into the Opera House’s network once the evening’s curtains had come down. The desks were then booted up before a spread-sheet of various test scenarios was run again. With the system now up and running, both Rutledge AV and SSAVM can easily log in and access each individual console to perform updates, troubleshooting and to add new features. ‘There were so many positive synergies between SOH and SSAVM,’ confirms Mr Maiden.
From source to mouth
‘When a pre-show audience congregates in the foyer areas, they are expecting a great experience,’ declares Mr Claringbold.
Memorable for their distinct backdrops of the city and the dazzling waters of Sydney Harbour, the foyers often host a wide range of performances in their own right, from fashion shows to speeches by the Prime Minister.
‘Our audiences should always hear the highest quality audio that they feel is synonymous with a venue such as the Opera House,’ Mr Claringbold adds. ‘The sound and vision has to surpass their expectations. However, these are large, complex spaces with acoustical challenges and as a result they required accurate measurements.’
Indigo Systems’ David Connor performed numerous acoustical measurements throughout the foyers and other BOH venues, before modelling in EASE 4.2. Following the success of the J system that was installed in the Concert Hall in 2008, a d&b audiotechnik speaker system was then selected for installation in the majority of over 200 individual speaker channels with control via R1 software. Owing to its 40m height apex, a Tannoy Q Flex column solution has been discretely fitted into the panelling of the South Foyers. Symnet Edge digital signal processors are used in all the foyer areas, creating a Dante bridge from each Delec mainframe, whilst performing gain structure settings, processing and ambient noise processing.
The highly variable background noise in these spaces requires an effective system to achieve the correct SPL in each space without continuous user intervention. As such, Ashly Audio MX501 analogue mixers are integrated into each foyer space for use in simple productions, although AES3 links have also been provided for more significant productions. This is all controlled via the Delec audio matrix using customised Stagetec control panels with programmable LCD keys. Elsewhere, a boardroom to the North can host conferences and has been equipped with d&b audiotechnik 4s speakers and 12s subs behind the horizontal roof beams. The Delec Desk 16 panels can be plugged into any venue and most functions such as paging, cue lights, recorded messages, no entry signs and such like can be controlled locally via the network.
The Opera House’s in-house and visiting stage managers operating the six bespoke Stage Management Desks (SMDs) across the venues can control and coordinate performances using paging, comms and HD stage views. The basic product architecture of the console allows different electronics modules to be easily serviced or upgraded in the future, negating the need to develop new models. The individual consoles can now share any feed from the entire network. For example, a Stage Manager in one venue can access the camera feeds from another venue, can page to that venue’s dressing rooms, take a return feed from the recording studio of any source and such like.
Activities in the pre-function areas can be viewed using the remote control functionality of the Sony HD cameras that are fed to the SMDs. As the clock ticks down towards the curtain raiser, FOH calls can be sequenced for 10, five and one minute call times together with pre-recorded messages in the zoned foyer areas.
‘It’s just another example of how the new SMS has now liberated the FOH managers,’ says Mr Claringbold. ‘It frees up their time as they can watch the audience flowing through the Mezzanine on the HD monitor rather than personally herding them from the foyers to the performance areas.’
Named in honour of the great Opera House architect Jørn Utzon, the multi-purpose Utzon Room, located in the easterly section overlooking the harbour, is characterised by a sequence of floor to ceiling concrete structural beams. With the fibre backbone in place, the venue is sometimes used for small productions in addition to serving as a backdrop for remote distance learning. Live streaming from this room now allows Australian and overseas schoolchildren to remotely tour the Opera House from their classrooms, led by drama experts and tour guides.
Meanwhile, the relocated recording, broadcasting and postproduction studio suite is home to the rebuilt Euphonix System 5 console. The studio is connected to every on-site location via the same fibre-optic based Nexus network.
‘Brad drew inspiration from looking at Teatro Real in Madrid and the Berlin Philharmonie in addition to other studios such as Roundhouse in London,’ explains Mr Claringbold. ‘We wanted to be able to fit the standard of equipment found on board a mobile truck into this concrete space, so that OB operators would be comfortable and able to work freely. Most broadcasters rarely operate from their vehicles on site anymore, preferring instead to work in the comfort of our facilities.’
With the creation of the customised stage management systems, the stage managers can now contact the directors and various technical departments with regards to lighting, sound, costumes, make-up, the stage crew and props. Being responsible for the smooth running of a performance requires meticulous coordination and cues from the console in all technical aspects of a live production. Having completed the largest technical infrastructure development since opening in 1973, the Sydney Opera House is more than equipped to cater for its current 8.2 million visitors per year.
‘The future is all about engaging and developing audiences via the multiple platforms the digital world now enables,’ confirms Mr Claringbold. ‘We approached this project as building a new stage for our artists and to fulfil our strategic goal to share the content of Sydney Opera House, while providing the best possible experience to our audience, wherever they may be.’
Not only can multiple audiences in the foyers, Green Room, Concert Hall, Opera Theatre, Drama Theatre, Playhouse and Studio be flexibly entertained by this system, but so can a greater audience stretching beyond the concrete venue.
‘The beauty of this great design is that you don’t notice that it’s there – it just works,’ enthuses Mr Maiden. Having ensured a running engagement with its team of stage managers before consulting with Salzbrenner Stagetec Audiovisual Mediagroup, Rutledge AV and the other sub-contractors, the Sydney Opera House has ensured that the world is now its stage.