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Living in the Future

May 8, 2014 10:26 AM, By Tim Kridel and Cynthia Wisehart

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The auditorium at River Bluff High School is the centerpiece of a Dante-networked facility that includes classrooms, and recording and TV studios.

Officials in Lexington, S.C., wanted the new-build River Bluff High School to be a school of the future, both educationally and technically. Systems design discussions started five years ago, which is a long time in AV dog years. The strategy to defer final equipment decisions until the building was completed in 2013 allowed the design to track with technical innovation, especially in AV networking.

For students who graduate from the 520,000-square-foot, $138.9-million River Bluff High School, college might seem like a step down. The science labs, for instance, are better than those at many universities, as one River Bluff biology teacher told the local newspaper.

That same level of aspiration applies to students in the competition-level marching band, and those pursuing careers in music technology and recording, technical theater, and TV and video production.

At a 2009 meeting between the architect and theatrical systems integrator Productions Unlimited, the school’s superintendent found inspiration in what was the recent past. “She told our president Brian Phillips that she wanted her space to include technologies used in the Chinese Olympics opening—that scale,” says Kevin Little, AV engineer at Productions Unlimited, which designed and installed the AV rigging, and lighting systems for the school’s Center for Media Arts, Design, and Production.

“At the time,” Little recalls, “the center didn’t even have a name yet. It was really just an intention to have the latest and greatest media technology systems.” Over time that intention matured into an integrated facility with a 900-seat auditorium/cinema; a black box theater; small lecture hall; choir, band, and orchestra rooms; and a digital recording and television studio—all sharing a common Dante network and Crestron DM control system, across thousands of feet of cable.

“It was a big job,” Little says simply. “It was one of those big opportunities to stretch.”

From the outset, Productions Unlimited envisioned an integrated, flexible system that would allow teachers and students to easily reroute signal throughout the entire media building. Exactly how that would play out in rooms that were not yet defined or built was a moving target as the facilities took shape over several years, as an empty patch of dirt became a high school. Today, the auditorium can be a stage, a cinema, or a classroom; the music rooms can feed the recording studio, auditorium, or both; the spaces can be flexibly sized and reconfigured, and can support live or automated media or both. The school auditorium also serves as the community’s professional performing arts center with its Yamaha CL5 console, 7.1 surround sound Nexo NXAMP amplifiers, Nexo Geo S12 line array (see sidebar) and PS series sound reinforcement, and a 20K Digital Projection Titan projector.

“Multi-use is becoming increasingly important,” says Chris Hinson, a Yamaha Commercial Audio Systems technical marketing specialist who collaborated on River Bluff. “So when the system needs an operator you have a high performance venue. But you also have straight-up, simple operation for administrators and teachers. You might like to do the CL StageMix wirelessly on an iPad. We’re asking our systems to do a lot nowadays.”

“Originally we had EtherSound in mind for the network,” Little says. But, as with many decisions in the multi-year project, the arrival of new technology changed the direction of the design. “When Yamaha came out with the CL console with integrated Dante, that turned the network towards Dante.” It also began what would be an education in modern network design and implementation.

Steve Seable, systems applications engineer and Dante specialist for Yamaha Commercial Audio Systems who collaborated on River Bluff, puts the network into perspective: “Not very long ago this type of network would be supporting the Olympics or a Kenny Chesney tour. Now it’s possible at the high school level.”

Seable’s not exaggerating; he’s supported Kenny Chesney tours. He explains that River Bluff was one of several early, cutting-edge projects in the fast-moving evolution of networks. “There were a number of projects in recent years where we really learned and formalized techniques for making a network work, including switch specification and configuration. River Bluff benefited from that work and contributed to it,” Seable says.

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