Learning curve

Learning curve

Published: MEA

Designing an A/V system for a school will always raise questions about value for money, longevity and ease of use. James Ling takes a trip around the region to see how different establishments are tackling this.

The market for technology in educational establishments in the Middle East is currently very buoyant. From kindergartens to universities, every level of teaching facility is looking for the latest A/V equipment to aid its pupils’ learning. Whether this is in the form of interactive whiteboards in the classroom or a full on professional theatre setup it can mean good business for manufacturers, distributors and systems integrators alike.

The place where this is most clearly witnessed is in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is one of the largest markets for audiovisual equipment in the region, and the education market accounts for approximately 70 to 80 per cent of the business. This is hardly surprising given the emphasis the Saudi government has put on the education sector over many years to make it a cornerstone for sustained economic success.

High profile projects such as Princess Noura University and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology have made headlines with both the volume of technology they have taken and the cutting edge uses it has been put to. But with a reported 5.7 per cent of the Kingdom’s GDP spent on education, there are numerous projects of all scales and sizes which are proving lucrative for companies all the way through the audiovisual signal chain.

Away from Saudi Arabia, the market is in a very healthy state across the rest of the region too. For higher education, Qatar’s Education City has seen several new teaching establishments being constructed, as have the numerous projects in other countries for international universities entering the Middle East with satellite campuses. Further down the tiers of education, there are regular new additions to the school and kindergarten sector which also require A/V systems.

Not all business in the education market will be on a grand scale though. Projects can range from the simple addition of a projector and screen to a classroom to a campus-wide PA refit for a school. Regardless of size, they are adding up to a significant and valuable section of the A/V business in the Middle East.

It is fair to say that while each venue will always present its own unique challenges, there are a few key factors that are common across the sector. In the education market, elements such as intelligibility and coverage are often considered the most important while music reproduction and style of speaker are often much lower down the list than they would be in a hotel or nightclub for example.

The best thing about the pro audio industry is that there are so many different ways to tackle these issues. Frequently integrators will have their own favourite brands, or systems that they feel the most comfortable with. But this does not make other options wrong, just different.
In our travels around the region, Pro Audio Middle East has visited many schools to look at the newly installed systems. Using a few of these sites as examples, we shall take a look at how different establishments have used their A/V systems to tackle various challenges that are common in the education market.

Oman Medical College

One of the most common areas for university installations is with sound reinforcement in a lecture theatre. The obvious key factor for this is speech intelligibility in the room – if a student can’t hear properly, how are they expected to understand and learn? There are numerous possible solutions, and these will of course depend on the room itself.

Oman Medical College is a private co-educational establishment dedicated to the training of doctors and pharmacists. In February 2012, the college opened a new auditorium at its Baushar campus. Providing the equipment for this job was local company OHI Electronics. The company had worked on previous installations for Oman Medical College, so this project was repeat business.

The auditorium that needed to be reinforced was a large single level room which OHI opted to cover by using a Bose Panaray 802 Series III full range speaker solution. ‘They mainly have speech here and sometimes they will show films and presentations by the students,’ says Hitesh Bhimani, senior manager of projects at OHI. ‘They have put in the podium with a Shure condenser mic because different people talk at different levels. We have a Behringer mixer, Australian Monitor amplifiers, and a Bose system controller. It has been designed for speech mainly, not live performance, but you could use it to put on a small band.’
The new auditorium’s Bose sound system is in an LCR configuration with a stacked pair of 802s installed left and right of the presentation area and a further single cabinet installed underneath in the middle of the room. Also positioned under the stage after a slight repositioning are the Bose subwoofers. ‘The subs were supposed to be in the corners. We had to move them due to the position of the stairs, but it was not a major thing.’ explains Mr Bhimani.

For a project such as this, intelligibility would be the main concern. However, at Oman Medical College there were extra factors that needed to be considered when setting up the sound system for the auditorium. ‘We have the 802 and the subs under the stage covering the front of the room. The VIPs sit in the front area closest to the stage. The culture is to give importance to the VIPs so we had to balance it. Those will cover the front and when you stack them the directivity is more so further back the levels are a little bit lower,’ says Mr Bhimani. ‘There is real directionality from the speakers, so you get a different sound at different places in the room.’

As with many educational projects, an important part of the installation came with the A/V connectivity. The college required a lecturer to be able to control the entire system from the stage. Facilitating this is an Extron panel which can be used to manage the entire A/V system including room lights, the NEC projector and the motorised Draper screen. ‘There is full integration with the system so a lecturer can plug their laptop in at the podium and the projector will display it on the screen,’ says Mr Bhimani.
While this has been a fairly routine job for OHI it has provided its challenges. ‘The biggest problem for us was that the dimmer panel was very close to the podium so the mic would pick up the noise,’ notes the senior manager of projects. ‘We have reduced the noise but we still get a hum from the isolation transformer.’ Despite this, both the installer and the college are clearly very happy with the project.

Université Saint-Joseph

Another university looking for a sound reinforcement system for a lecture theatre was Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. For this project the lecture theatre featured steeply banked seating, so Amac, the company responsible for the installation, opted to use a line array system flown left and right of the stage to cover the room.

One of the unique features for the install at Université Saint-Joseph was that the whole room was to be covered without the use of near fill speakers. ‘In the lecture theatre we have installed two Electro-Voice line arrays. It was the only way to cover it without near fills,’ explains Amac operation manager Abdul Razzak Assafiri. ‘This was the first installation for EVA speakers in Lebanon and we have installed the 118 TX subwoofers under the stage.’

The room was designed in-house by the university, and its arrays have a steep J curve. ‘Normally you would not have the last cabinet, you would have near fills on the stage but they wanted to have everything from the array,’ notes Klaus Seitz, director of sales ProSound/CCS for Bosch Middle East. ‘What’s nice with these EVAs is that it is covered on the sides so you don’t see the connection between the cabinets. It’s very nice for the eyes as well as the ears.’

The visual aspect of the project has indeed been important for the university. Behind the stage is a full length window that looks out onto the main campus walkway, making it imperative that the work was done to a high standard and the final system looked tidy – something Amac prides itself on.
While the solution needed to be visually impressive, it also had to serve its purpose to provide adequate coverage in the auditorium. ‘For the size of theatre, the speakers are more than what we need, but we were obliged to use a greater quantity to have better coverage,’ continues Mr Assafiri. ‘We had restrictions installing the array in the centre, the architect wouldn’t allow it. But we have full coverage. We measured the sound after the installation and there is only a drop of 1dB as you move from the edges to the centre of the room.’

In the control room there is further evidence of the quality and care that has gone into this project, as well as a wealth of equipment. ‘We have used a combination of what I believe are the best brands. You start with Electro-Voice. You have a Netmax 16x16 matrix system for channel processing and CPS high-end amplifiers,’ says Mr Assafiri. ‘We have used Extron for audio and video switching, a DVD player from Denon, a solid state recorder and player from Marantz, a source CD player and tuner from RCF and Shure microphones with an antenna distribution system.’

Added to this there is a Telecor TWIR TX900 four-channel infrared language distribution system as well as a Mackie CFX20 MkII mixer and monitor for the control room. ‘On the lighting side it’s Selecon from Philips with dimming and control from Strand,’ adds Amac sales manager Wissam Hayeck. ‘The dimmers and the mixer are small because the installation doesn’t require anything bigger.’
As with Oman Medical College, the project at Université Saint-Joseph required a good level of connectivity from the stage. ‘They wanted a high-tech solution where people could connect their laptops without an operator. They wanted to be totally automated with a very low budget,’ recalls Mr Assafiri. ‘For inputs we have stage boxes – it’s plug and play without any operator.’

This installation also presented its own unique challenges. The first major obstacle came with winning the deal. As Mr Assafiri explains, Lebanon is a small country with fierce competition for reference projects such as this, so he believes winning the contract was an achievement in its own right.
Aside from this, there were also technical obstacles to overcome with the installation. ‘We had a very tight deadline with this, we did the whole job in less than two weeks. It was a challenge to get it done so quickly,’ says Mr Assafiri. ‘Other than the timescale, the biggest challenge was the budget. With the high-quality equipment we installed, we could only overcome this with the help of our suppliers. We squeezed all the margins. Sometimes for a reference project you have to do this.’

The end result is one that everyone concerned is clearly very satisfied with. ‘I am happy with how everything is working and so is the client – they have no complaints,’ says Mr Assafiri. ‘It’s good to be working with professional people. They are professional in the university, the contractor was professional and the end user was professional so we all got along.’

Zayed University

While lecture theatre sound systems play an important role in the education A/V market, they are far from the only solution establishments are looking for. One of the vital components for any large site is a networked PA to cover the campus, as can be seen at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.
It is hard to underplay the importance of systems such as this within the education sector. There is the obvious everyday use for planned messages and school-wide announcements. However, the most important part comes with the ability to broadcast emergency messages around an extended campus.
‘We worked on the university with our partner Bond Communications. We have used the network-based SX2000 system,’ says TOA business development executive Ali Ullah Sabri. ‘The project itself has around 32 different education blocks, so the main requirement from the client was to have a network connection between each block to have centralised broadcasting of messages – either emergency or BGM or any announcements.’

To achieve this, the company used its specialised network adaptors which convert the audio signal to digital and transmit it over the network to other buildings. ‘We put one NX100 adaptor in the main control room and another in the remote building, so they communicate to each other over the network. When we send a signal to the block it acts as one zone for us,’ explains Mr Sabri. ‘We have used 64 network adaptors to connect 32 buildings. This has proved to be a good solution because if you use a local mixer amplifier it will be connected to the speakers in the building and act as a distinct system. It also has the capacity to connect to the building’s fire alarm so it takes the local fire alarm plus the central one as well.’

With the usual concerns about meeting budgets, Mr Sabri is clearly very satisfied with the solution he has been able to offer. ‘It has proved to be a cost effective and suitable design for this kind of project. If I would have put digital systems in each block, my cost for the project would have been very high. It had to match the client’s budget as well.’ He is also full of praise for the work done by the engineers from the partner systems integrator, ‘It was very flexible working with Bond for the project.’

While the TOA system could meet the technical requirements and the client’s budget, this did not mean it was a guaranteed selection for the project. ‘The requirement for the project was not just a product, it was a solution. Providing a solution means a lot of explanation from the manufacturer side so that if Bond is convinced then they can convince the client,’ says Mr Sabri. ‘That was a big challenge for us on this project and we have successfully done that. The network adaptor has proven a correct solution for us.’

Mr Sabri is clearly pleased with the solution, although it did create one issue for the installers. ‘The main challenge was when 64 network adaptors are sitting on one network ring, then assigning the IP address and communicating to one another,’ explains Mr Sabri. ‘On that one single ring, different audio streams are passing and it has to go to the dedicated zone itself, it cannot cross to other buildings. That was the big challenge, and it is performing very well.’

The education market is certainly a sector Mr Sabri will continue to target and he believes Zayed University will prove to be a valuable reference for the manufacturer. ‘This could be an opening door for us for other remote sites and future projects. There is a lot of work in the education sector, we are working on other projects.’

Mubarak bin Mohammed School

Staying in Abu Dhabi, but moving down significantly in age groups, the Mubarak bin Mohammed School is a kindergarten that offered a very large project for local systems integrator Systech Middle East. Rather than supplying a small portion of the A/V systems for the recently constructed school, the kindergarten called on Systech to provide the entire audiovisual setup for the whole facility.

‘We are taking care of the low current systems only – networking, security system, access control, the PA system and the bell system, the master clock, all these kinds of things,’ says Systech general manager Malek Ghorayeb. ‘Everything related to audio, projection, public address, master clock has been our installation or customisation.’

The main auditorium features the most obvious components of this job. Flown to the left and right of the stage are hangs of four JBL VRX928LA line arrays with a further four cabinets used as centre fills and Eons used as stage monitors. Also in use for the auditorium are mics from beyerdynamic, a Crestron AV2 control system processor, and video scalers and matrix switching from Extron. In the control room a Yamaha MC32/12 analogue mixing desk is put to use, while for lighting, the dimmers are from Strand, there are LDR luminaires and an Avolites control system.

Completing the auditorium setup is a Christie projector which fires onto a motorised Da-Lite screen. Away from the low current system, the main contractor also fitted acoustic panelling to the room to aid with the reverberation time.

‘The auditorium was a section of the project and you can see many things installed by us in the room,’ says Mr Ghorayeb. ‘But we also did the network structure, as well as projectors and interactive whiteboards in the classrooms.’

Indeed, away from the overt equipment in the auditorium, the project required a great quantity of discrete equipment. On the security side, Systech has installed a camera system from Bosch and CMI Genus II attendance management units for pupil registration. Also installed is a TOA public address system consisting of around 200 ceiling and wall-mounted speakers around the campus which has been connected by several kilometres of cabling from 3M and Belden.

‘We have used good quality brands for the project. Usually we ask the client what they want. Our first question would be about the quality and then the budget,’ explains Mr Ghorayeb. ‘If he can locate a suitable budget then he should be able to choose good quality for some brands.
‘We always concentrate on the quality of a product. We try as much as we can to have good face and a good reputation, that’s why we have a minimum standard,’ he continues. ‘It is our reputation which is the key thing for continuing to do business. If we did projects with equipment that broke quickly or wasn’t fit for purpose, then we wouldn’t last very long.’

The general manger is keen to stress that this doesn’t mean that other brands not selected for this project aren’t of suitable quality. ‘Usually we work with the brands which we have very good access to. TOA, Yamaha, Extron and Crestron all have local offices and JBL have a good distributor. It all helps with them having stock and being available to us during the project. We always try to use brands that can provide us with the equipment quickly. That was also one of our main reasons for the choice of the installed brands.’

The ability for manufacturers to offer support during the project was a key factor for Systech, particularly because Mubarak bin Mohammed wasn’t the only school it was working on in a limited timeframe. ‘We had eight out of the 18 schools that were being worked on in Abu Dhabi. Three of them were complete systems. So in six months we had to finish three school systems completely,’ he explains. ‘The remaining five were to deliver equipment partially, but it is a challenge to deliver in six months three parallel complete system projects.

‘We are happy with everything we have done for this project,’ continues Mr Ghorayeb. ‘We are particularly satisfied due to the period we realised this project in. It was a very big challenge to complete three schools with a complete system like this in six months. It was great because our work needs expertise more than manual labour does, and each of the schools was similar in size and scale.’
The examples seen at these institutions cover just some of the potential uses for A/V equipment in an educational setting. Other equipment such as teleconferencing for remote teaching and countless different presentation systems make the role of technology in the modern classroom incredibly important. Most importantly, the technology available is constantly evolving, creating new solutions and different ways to aid learning.

The competitive nature of the education market in the Middle East means that as new facilities with this superior technology come on line, rival institutions will look to match or improve on the equipment on show. This can only be good news for the pro A/V industry. When the rate of building new facilities slows, as it inevitably will, there will still be plenty of business out there with retrofits to bring older institutions up to the expected standard.

Saudi Arabia may be leading the way in the region for the size of the educational market, but there is plenty going on in other countries to suggest it will continue to be an important part of the industry right across the region.


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