Seating in the Colony High School auditorium varies, and the room is used for theatrical presentations, concerts, school and community meetings and, in some cases, church services.
“Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee, an actor’s life for me,” proclaimed the fox to the puppet Pinocchio in the 1940 classic animated Walt Disney movie. Alas! Despite his best intentions, the mythical, conniving, furry thespian, clad in a high silk hat and sporting a silver cane, had to act on stage without the use of electronic sound reinforcement. And it wasn’t that much better for Pinocchio, who shouted, “I’ve got no strings to hold me down” on stage to an admiring audience.
Fast forwarding to 2015, actor’s voices and musical accompaniment were heard clearly throughout the Flower Mound TX High School (FMHS) auditorium as the Tony Award-nominated Disney musical, The Little Mermaid, was presented by the school’s performing arts department. Indeed, the musical was also the first performance for the newly updated sound system, which we’ll be covering here.
Under the direction of Scott Taylor and Musical Director Mark Rohwer, more than 170 FMHS students were involved with the all-school musical production on stage, in the orchestra and with the technical crews. The Little Mermaid was presented by special arrangement with Music Theatre International.
In addition, Hebron High School recently presented The Comedy of Errors. These are but two examples of a thriving theater department in four high schools in the Lewisville TX Independent School District (LISD), which is comprised of Flower Mound, Hebron, The Colony and Marcus.
Robert Lee, acoustician, BAi, LLC, Dallas (baiaustin.com), who was a consultant on the project, believes that the Flower Mound and Hebron productions were chosen before the individual theater departments knew exactly what kind of system they were getting. “I think both productions have around 20 to 30 characters [on stage],” he said. “The new systems will allow the schools to increase the size of the productions and get more students involved.” Auditorium seating varies, with 850 being the average. In addition to theatricals, the space is used for concerts, school and community meetings and, in some cases, church services.
We’ll get additional viewpoints from Lee; Irene Nigaglioni, AIA, CEFP, LEED AP BD+C, Partner/National Planning Director, PBK Architects, Dallas (pbk.com), and Chris Jordan, CTS, President/Chief Steward for Electro Acoustics, Fort Worth (eavi.com). Electro Acoustics functioned as a general contractor, as well as an integrator.
The school district hired PBK Architect Nigaglioni, and the architect then hired BAi Consultant/Acoustician Lee. The architect also hired Theatrical Consultant/Owner Erich Friend, Teqniqal Systems, Fort Worth (teqniqal.com) for modifications to the stage lighting system. Based on Lee’s design specifications, Electro Acoustics won the bid for the integration.
“The auditorium updates were needed because the sound systems at these facilities were outdated,” said Nigaglioni. “This prompted the need to do a detailed assessment of each. Recommendations for improvements, both in lighting and sound, were provided to the district.” Nigaglioni noted that she was hired to review the conditions, and assembled the team of experts to design the new systems. “I served as project manager who oversaw bidding and construction. There were challenges schedule-wise because the rooms were used all the time. So, finding a month to get in and do the improvements was very tough. Other architectural considerations had to do with maintaining the look of the spaces because we added array speakers: Existing speakers were above the ceiling, so this was a change. However, it was one that was welcomed by all, due to the outcome.”
Jordan concurred that working in existing buildings used during the school week and working around school scheduling was by far the most challenging aspect for the integrator. “We had four schools with nearly $400,000 worth of work in each that had to be done between December 2014 and February 2015, for all practical purposes,” said Jordan. “However, we did have a bit of help with Christmas break.”
As mentioned, Electro Acoustics had dual roles of general contractor (GC) and integrator on this project. “Because we’ve been in business 30 years, we have developed great relationships with electrical contractors and firms that do light construction,” Jordan pointed out. “Because we are proficient with both audio and theatrical lighting, we decided to work as the GC, which would coordinate, oversee, perform and schedule the work.
“The result is twofold. First, it would save the school district the cost of an outside independent general contractor. Second, serving as general contractor streamlined the process, resulting in a more efficiently managed project. So, we could schedule all four schools, develop the schedule and work with all the crews. We were able to effectively and efficiently meet the deadlines. If you had independent companies under an independent contractor, the complexity would have multiplied considerably.”
Lee explained that two of the rooms were built in 1988 and the other two in 2001. “They were acoustically good rooms because of the amount of seating and overall ceiling height. They were all acoustically treated very well from the original design. The rooms are on the dry side, and great for musical theater.”
However, the main loudspeakers were in need of updating. “Essentially, they had clusters up front with a delay ring where most of the speakers had blown drivers,” he said. “They were installed over a period of time where DSPs were not really out and about yet. There was no protection for the speakers, and over the course of 10 to 20 years, they were all blown at some point. They had poor coverage. All the front-end gear, including the console, was old analog equipment.
“The need was to update systems to train students in technical theater, so they can put on productions and, hopefully, go on to college or out in the trade and apply their technical theater knowledge. We needed something a little bit better than your typical fixed array. SLS was able to meet our budget and give us the quality, coverage and evenness we needed. We really didn’t have to worry too much about side-wall reflections. The SLS basically tuned up right out of the box.”
Regarding the SLS and JBL main loudspeaker configurations, Chris Jordan of Electro Acoustics explained that there are 11 elements in each SLS stereo line array, which are flanked to the left and right of the stage. “That covers the entire room with no delays, front row to back row. Two JBL subwoofers are ganged together and installed in the center between the two arrays.” Speakers are driven by Crown power amplifiers. In addition, Electro-Voice portable monitor speakers are used for dance companies onstage so they can hear themselves. Monitors are also used as front fills, as needed.
Updating the main speaker system was one challenge. Another challenge was the lack of conduit in the rooms, according to Lee. In prior days, “[The rooms] were not designed with as much conduit as we would put in a job nowadays,” he said. “On top of that, the original electrical contractor, especially in the two oldest rooms that were built in 1988, left out a lot of conduit. It’s one of those things where the original designer probably showed up on the job, and then the original AV contractor showed up when the job was almost done, installed the systems and realized there wasn’t enough conduit to make the pulls. So, trying to overcome [that problem] from more than 20 years later was a challenge. We put everything on a Dante network with the console, which really helped a lot in installation.”
“Part of our contract was that we had to add quite a bit of conduit,” declared Electro Acoustics President Jordan. “We hired electrical contractor Morgan Electric Company of Fort Worth to work under us for that portion.”
A mixing console for theatrical events had to be selected to accommodate a large number of mic inputs and to supply music and special effects production cues. Drama departments need a hearty console for teaching technical arts, so students can learn on the same equipment used in the professional world. Thus, a Yamaha QL5 was installed in the four ISD auditoriums because it is one of the industry standard workhorses that students would more than likely operate in the real world.
“The QL5 digital mixing desk has 32 microphone inputs,” said Jordan. “The Rio remote in/out box has an additional 32 mic inputs and 16 outputs, which gives them 64 channels in the system. Then there’s the R18-D with eight additional mic inputs connected with the Dante network, for a grand total of 72 microphone inputs. The Dante interface has the remote stage boxes linked to the digital mixer. For DSP, we used the BSS London BLU link.”
In addition, Cisco allows connection of an iPad to the Yamaha console for operation elsewhere in the room. And because each auditorium is different, the console location differs from floor level to up a level. Two Tannoy VX 8 nearfield speakers are used in the control room. A Littlite gooseneck light extends over the surface of the console so the knobs can be seen in the dark. Music and sound effects cues can be played back on two TASCAM CD players. One is a recorder/player for making digital recordings of stage productions. Regarding the Middle Atlantic equipment racks, an electrical room just outside the auditorium houses all the amplifiers. Wireless microphone and program source rack equipment are located in the control booth.
Speaking of wireless, there are Countryman omni EarSet mics for Sennheiser bodypacks and Sennheiser 500 Series lapel wireless for G3 bodypacks. The numbers of mics are in keeping with professional theater requirements. “The program wanted students with speaking parts to have their own wireless to accommodate a large drama production,” said Jordan. “Sometimes, they visually don’t want to see a headset, so they’ll use a lapel mic for that.”
“There are 32 Sennheiser wireless,” declared Lee. “This project is probably the first one we’ve done in a while with that many wireless. But we’re seeing more and more of it. We used to do basically 16 at every high school facility, and now that’s not enough.”
He mentioned that the heavy reliance on wireless brings its own challenges, especially in the Dallas/Fort Worth market. “Everybody here is broadcasting something, it seems. So, we needed a system that can monitor the frequencies and change them easily. Sennheiser was able to really bring that net capability to the table.”
Accordingly, Sennheiser came to each campus to monitor frequencies and determine which bands or combinations of frequencies to go with. “We had no problems with the bands they selected once we got out there and actually commissioned the systems,” said Lee. “My understanding is that a school will actually rent another 10 or 12 wireless on top of that for productions.”
Other systems at the site include a Clear-Com production intercom and Listen assistive listening. According to Lee, most of the lighting upgrade involved infrastructure. “In the next round of improvements, where there’s more money available, fixtures and a new lighting console could be added. However, for this upgrade, it was mainly electrical upgrades and infrastructure upgrades.”
“Rob Lee with BAi did an outstanding job with the design,” Jordan said. “It was certainly very easy to implement. We’re happy to see that consultants like BAi require CTS certifications, and on this project, BAi required CTS-1 project leads. Electro Acoustics has been in business more than 30 years and is glad to see certifications required for bidding projects.” Summing up, Jordan acknowledged, “Electro Acoustics has worked very hard to become a CTS Diamond Level Certified Company. Our engineers are CTS-D, and project leads CTS or CTS-1.”
Electro Acoustics’ technical staff for this project included Project Engineer Doug Viere, Field Manager Ian Cresswell, and Project Leads Preston Meyers and Peter Herb.
Michael Todd, Assistant Principal of Colony High School, stated, “Before Electro Acoustics installed our new sound system, we were constantly embarrassed with [the existing] system going out in the middle of performances or presentations. The [new] system has done wonders for our performances. You can now actually hear everyone on stage. We had an issue with one of the cordless mics and they quickly fixed the problem. They have done a great job with installation as well as customer service.”