Hub Of The High School


Live theater has come a long way, baby, from actors singing into megaphones and the likes of famed Broadway director George S. Kaufman yelling “talk louder” from the back of the theater during rehearsals. Indeed, we’ve technically advanced from large microphones hanging just out of sight above and behind the stage curtains to unobtrusive, often hidden wireless that allow audiences to clearly hear, as well as see, actors perform at their very best.

All AV Updated
Thus, microphones, refurbished speaker clusters, large consoles, smaller automatic mixers, lobby TV and lighting were among the updated AV in two high school auditoriums heavily into theater (see sidebar, “Lake Highlands’ Auditorium Activities”). Accordingly, AV and lighting were not bit players but major actors within the domain of live theater.

This is also a case study of the challenges and triumphs involved in making a new digital audio network operate efficiently, and connecting existing and new equipment along the audio chain during an AV upgrade. Such feats required cooperation among the designer, integrators and manufacturers.

Before we launch into the technical discussion, let’s get our venue bearings. Taking a wide view, the expansive Richardson Independent School District (RISD, in metropolitan Dallas is comprised of 55 campuses serving more than 38,000 students. The vast domain encompasses 38.5 square miles, which includes portions of Richardson, Dallas and Garland TX. The RISD claims a long-standing reputation for educational excellence that is continually recognized at state and national levels.

Founded in 1854 to educate the children of local farmers, small business owners and others who had settled near the railroad just outside of Dallas, RISD schools have been a focal point of the community for 160 years. Although the world has changed dramatically since railroads were the newest form of transportation across the United States, the importance of a strong educational system that provides children with skills to be productive citizens is still a priority.

Overview & Challenges
And now, it’s show time! Lake Highlands High School and Richardson High School, two of the district’s four campuses serving upper classmen, recently modernized the audio systems in their auditoriums, to further bring them into the digital realm. Both spaces seat about 1300. Richardson has a balcony. The AV for both auditoriums is similar. To avoid confusion, we’ll focus on the Lake Highlands install and point out a few differences at Richardson as our story progresses. Next summer, two other RISD high school auditoriums will be AV integrated by the same two integrators.

The consultants were Rene Garza and Greg Swindle, WJHW ( Two Texas-based AV integrators were tasked with the project. Quality Sound & Communications, Arlington (, an AV design/build contracting firm specializing in education systems, secured the contract for the upgrade. In turn, Quality Sound partnered with ESP of Texas to support the systems integration and programming of the audio network deployment. We interviewed the two integrators, as well as Lake Highlands High School’s Charles Crews, Director of Technical Theater.

According to Wendell Albracht, Quality Sound Vice President, the educational AV market comprises about 80% of his company’s business. “The school building market here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area is huge,” he told us. “In addition to RISD, we’ve previously done the Richardson football stadium, which is also a WJHW design. As for this RISD project, we were right in the middle of one particularly busy school season. We brought Mike [Utzman] on board to do our network and programming.”

Crews added, “Over the summer break [2013], RISD completely renovated the Lake Highlands High School auditorium for the first time since its opening in the mid-1970s.” He added, “This was to be an aesthetic upgrade, including seating, acoustic treatments, cloud ceiling and upgraded house lighting. Later in the process, the directors learned of the planned upgrade to the technical systems, as well.”

The project married new and existing equipment, with a common goal of making the audio operation more efficient. While utilizing and repositioning the existing loudspeakers and amplifiers, new Dante network-enabled digital mixers, signal processing equipment and microphone systems were installed, facilitating multiple audio channels to efficiently move between locations.

Utzman, Owner/President of ESP of Texas, noted that latency was the main challenge he experienced with past audio networking technologies. However, these challenges were put to rest with Dante. Utzman is convinced that Dante is a better-performing networking choice to minimize latency while also providing great-sounding audio.

“Dante eliminates [latency effects] due to its ultra-low latency and its ability to use standard IT networks,” said Utzman. “Legacy network protocols were fine in their day and, if not for them, we probably didn’t have other options. Dante has advanced networking capabilities and, more importantly, does what it is supposed to do.”

WJHW, the project consultant, was able to design the Dante network across multiple manufacturers’ products, delivering a high-performing, cost-effective solution to meet the school district’s budget. The complete Dante-enabled system installed in each high school includes a Shure SCM820 auto mixer, six Shure ULXD4Q wireless microphone receivers, a BSS Soundweb London Blu-806 signal processor coupled with a Blu-120 I/O expander unit for 28 channels of hard-wired inputs, and Blu-160 digital signal processors coupled with a Blu-120 unit to handle signal distribution to the existing amplifiers, along with a Yamaha CL-3 touchscreen console.

“I have done some smaller, stage box-to-console Dante projects, but this was the first one where we were intermixing so many different manufacturers,” said Utzman. “Quality Sound & Communications had a big enough room at their place, so we brought in the console, all the pieces of electronics, the switches and everything else. We made sure everything talked to each other before we ever put it on the jobsite. Once onsite, we just had to verify inputs and outputs, and start tuning the system. The ability to move these signals around in a multicast situation simplifies everything.”

The Shure ULXD4Q wireless microphone units interface with the Yamaha console. This provides local head amp control for the 24 channels of wireless mics from the desktop that Utzman said “acts just like an analog rig, but with far less cabling.” The entire audio path for this system is networked over a dual Cat5e wire with a redundant system setting; and married with two HP switches, primary and secondary.

Paid Dividends
Utzman has installed several Harman BSS systems but, with BSS’ new Blu-806 with Dante, he noted that this combination immediately paid dividends in saving costs for Richardson ISD. “The original specifications called for four BSS Blu-806 units, loaded with eight Blu-In cards for the hard wired inputs, and eight Blu-Out cards for signal distribution,” said Utzman. “But because of Dante’s high-channel capacity, we only needed one Dante card to move the audio in and out.”

The final Dante system was 56 in by 18 out. Utzman swapped some components so all of the inputs came in via a single Blu-806 coupled with a Blu-120 unit loaded with four Blu-In cards each. The signals are sent out via a Blu-160 unit, and coupled with a Blu-120 unit with four Blu-Out cards, each using Blu-Link to interface between the various BSS units.
Utzman stresses that the Dante networking solution sets up each high school for simple, sensible and flexible audio system growth as warranted. “We have some extra inputs and outputs on the BSS units for expansion at some point,” he said. “I just have to assign them into the Dante controller and call it a day. The only limiting factor for expansion is console capacity that, in this case, should not be an issue.”

From Speakers To Mics
Although we’ve alluded to audio equipment in Dante networking, let’s put the AV together now in the production chain. Wendell Albracht at Quality Sound walked us through these AV aspects. He explained that the existing EAW cluster at Lake Highlands was taken down, cleaned up, redesigned and re-suspended. That included exposed center cluster EAW KF750 and AX300 series cabinets. New speakers added include an AX366 and the companion AX122 subwoofer. The entire configuration is comprised of left, center and right clusters (see the equipment list for details). During renovation, Lake Highlands had a complete ceiling teardown where the cluster came down. That went all the way through the proscenium.

“The new ceiling required that the speakers be exposed below,” explained Albracht, “so we had to engineer them, remount them and support them structurally from above. We came up with a suspension system with the help of APE rigging.”

“At the same time all of this is going on, the general contractor is in there repainting the walls, working on all new seating and flooring,” added Utzman. “So, there were a lot of things going on at the same time. This is one of those traditional builds where you have to work well with others!”

Albracht added that, “In the Richardson auditorium, the proscenium was not remodeled per se. It was repainted, so we had to take out the existing grille cloth, and then tested the speakers, refurbished them and re-aimed them.” They also added two new QSC WL218 subwoofers.

Speaker Summary
Here’s a summary of other new speakers added, as well, in the Lake Highlands auditorium. JBL ceiling speakers include 24s in restrooms and 26s in the lobby. Wall-mounted Electro-Voice (EV) EVID 4.2s are in the restrooms and backstage. Meyer MM4 flush-mounted in-wall speakers in Lowell enclosures are installed along the apron of the stage, providing front fill for the first four rows. The MM4s have a dedicated sensing processor, which augments the cluster. Effects are heard over wall-mounted Tannoy VX12s. EV TX1152FM portable wedge monitors are stage floor monitors.

Tying it all together, newly installed QSC power amplifiers were added to the existing ones. All processing is BSS.

The Yamaha CL-3 FOH digital mixing console and the Shure SCM820 eight-channel digital automatic mixers are all enabled with the Dante network protocol. The CL-3 operates from its vantage point booth located at the rear of both auditoriums. “The previous Yamaha M2000 was six feet wide,” said Crews. “Now, with the CL-3, we are able to have a smaller booth, so we can get more people in and make room for more AV looking down the road. It’s an awesome change to the CL-3.”

The Shure auxiliary mixers are located in the stage manager’s rack onstage. “Typically, the system is set up to switch functions between the Yamaha FOH mixer for dramatic or theatrical performances,” explained Albracht. “When they want a simple mixer for a simple meeting to run a microphone or maybe a CD player, the system will switch to that auxiliary mixer on stage.” There are two TASCAM CD players: one onstage and the other at the

FOH mixer location.
As can be expected in a live performance theater auditorium, there are many microphone options, including six Shure Quad base receivers, 24 backpacks with low profile Avlex headworn mics, two Shure handheld SM58s and eight Audix OM35 handheld wired mics. A Clear-Com production intercom with lobby and backstage paging ability and a Listen Tech assistive hearing system are other essential components in the audio chain. The Atlas main amp rack was reused.

On the video side, Albracht noted that an Orion high-definition fixed camera is mounted on the back wall of the auditorium. “That takes a wide angle view of the stage, which shows in the lobby,” he said. “It’s for people who happen to come in late, so they can hear and see the program going on.” The camera feeds a Samsung display. Video format conversion is via an AJA HI5 device.

Regarding existing equipment, video playback is provided by two Sharp XR-30X projectors, which are brought in on stands to each side of the stage apron. The pair shoot onto collapsible 14’x14′ Da-Lite projection screens mounted directly on the proscenium walls. Alternately, video can be projected onto two motorized Da-Lite 16’x16′ screens installed on the adjacent auditorium walls. A Roland VR-3 AV mixer feeds signal to both Sharps.

According to Crews, lighting received the new ETC Sensor Plus controller, a few more dimmers, LED house lighting, uniformed stage pin raceways, expanded DMX porting and a DMX network. The FOH lighting position is now one continuous wall-to-wall opening with more than 50 circuits.

“On the architectural side, we were upgraded from the Unison controller to the Paradigm family by ETC, sporting two color LCD screens backstage: one in the booth and button panels near the house doors,” he said. “We were also able to acquire three Marin Mac 250 Entour Spots and two Robe ColorSpot 1200E A/Ts to supplement the two Mac 250 Entours already on hand, which gives us a total of seven fixtures at the ready in house.”

We’ll close with an encore summation of installing Dante networking. “There was a pretty good learning curve,” said Albracht. “This was our first time. We spent hours with tech support with every one of the companies [connected to the Dante network in this project].

Shure was the one we spent the least amount of time with, getting everything hammered out.” He added, “Everybody had Dante, but no one had really mixed everything together.

We’re going to be so much faster on the next schools, now that we have figured out all the issues. The next systems are going to be truly plug and play. That’s the big selling point of Audinate, besides the advantage of sounding better and the latency issues. We’re going to be installing the next two, next summer.” Those will be Lloyd V. Berkner and J.J. Pearce, which are also within the RISD.

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