Installation Profile: Conferencing in Style
Feb 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Daniel Keller
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Boardroom Goes High-Tech
“I'd like to thank the Academy….”
Anyone who has ever watched the Oscars has heard this phrase as an indispensable part of every winner's acceptance speech. But few outside the motion picture industry give it a second thought, and even fewer really understand the role the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) plays in the day-to-day workings of our beloved movie business.
While the annual Academy Awards presentation is clearly the non-profit organization's most high-profile function, the Academy works tirelessly throughout the year to aid those involved in the making of motion pictures on many levels, from education and preservation to financial grants and fellowships. The Academy is home to the Margaret Herrick Library, housing one of the world's most extensive research collections on the subject of motion pictures, as well as the Academy Film Archive, hosting more than 15,000 film and video items dating from the earliest days of cinema. AMPAS also runs the Academy Foundation, established to organize and oversee educational and cultural activities within the industry, and the Science and Technology Council, to aid in the movie industry's interfacing with the myriad technical developments affecting us all. From the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting to the Student Academy Awards, AMPAS keeps up a behind-the-scenes agenda that has it deeply involved in the industry and in our lives in ways we can barely imagine.
Needless to say, the daily machinations of AMPAS, as with any large organization, require a regimen of meetings and conferences, many of which take place inside the organization's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was with this in mind that the Academy recently undertook an expansion and modernization of its main conference room, home to the AMPAS board of governors.
EXPANDING AND ENHANCING
Redesign of the AMPAS meeting room was overseen by West Hollywood-based Offenhauser/Mekeel Architects, the award-winning firm behind a number of high-profile projects such as the restoration of Los Angeles Union Station. International builders Warner Constructors, the firm behind many of the Walt Disney Company's most high-profile theme parks, undertook construction. To create the room's audio and video systems, as well as provide the room's acoustic design, Offenhauser/Mekeel brought in Topanga, Calif.-based Menlo Scientific Acoustics, which has brainstormed acoustical and presentation systems designs for such high-profile venues as the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters building in downtown Los Angeles and facilities at both the Getty Center and the Getty Villa, as well as countless performance and sporting venues. Menlo principal Neil Shaw worked closely with AMPAS and Offenhauser/Meekel in the design, and El Segundo, Calif. engineering firm Thomas Gregor Associates executed the AV concept.
The existing conference room, on the top floor of AMPAS' headquarters, had always been considered somewhat cramped and had become increasingly unwieldy as the board grew.
“The old room had a U-shaped table,” says Offenhauser/Mekeel principal Fran Offenhauser. “It had gotten to the point where some of the board members were actually sitting with their backs to each other.”
The new design called for incorporating an adjacent storage area to the west, effectively doubling the size of the space. Naturally, the plan was not without a few minor logistical challenges.
“The building is very limited in terms of floor-to-floor height,” says Offen-hauser. “In order to integrate a dome in the ceiling, as well as the speakers and lights, we had to be diligent in locating every single pipe, electrical wiring, and HVAC conduit in advance.”
OUT OF THE WOODWORK
The meeting room is based around a stunning, hand-crafted wooden conference table, painstakingly designed by Offen-hauser and her project designer Lukas Peter. “The space and the number of chairs was specified by the client,” Offenhauser explains. “Lukas was positively ingenious in his ability to get that many people to fit comfortably around the table.”
Sun Valley, Calif.-based Columbia Showcase and Cabinet Company, the master craftsmen responsible for such memorable pieces as the intricate wooden ceiling sculpture inside the recently completed Disney Symphony Hall in downtown Los Angeles, completed the construction of the table. Covering an open oval of some 40ft. in length, the 44-seat table is a work of art in every sense, creating a sleek, modern yet warm and intimate environment that truly envelops the entire room.
“The room is really all about the table — kind of like when you put a king-size bed into a motor home,” says Greg Kirkland, principal, Thomas Gregor Associates. “All the millwork is extremely high end. These people are truly artisans.”
“All of the system design was created in close cooperation with the cabinetry design,” adds Shaw. “Everyone involved in the project had a common goal to make this room look and sound simply exquisite. Form and function truly go hand in hand.”
LIFT YOUR VOICES
Creating a sonic environment on par with the room's aesthetics meant designing an AV system that was as efficient as it was invisible. “One of our stated goals was to create a sound reinforcement system for the room that had a natural sound while providing clear audio reinforcement, so that people sitting around the table could hear the sound from any point in the room in a natural manner, as if they were sitting right next to the person speaking, rather than at the other end of the table,” says Shaw.
“The AMPAS board is a very hard-working, active, and very collegial group,” says Offenhauser. “We were very conscious of the fact that, by spreading them over a larger room, we'd have to mic them, and we wanted to be certain that doing so wouldn't cause them to lose that personal contact with each other. The change in the room could not be allowed to change how they would interact. What Neil [Shaw] achieved was to take the expanded boardroom and have them still feel like they're conversing. They don't suddenly become formal with the presence of a microphone.”
Simplicity was another important concern. “At any given meeting, there are at least a few people who have never been in the room before,” says Offenhauser. “The system is so simple to use that virtually no one has been intimidated by it. You don't have to know what you're doing to use the room.”
The voice-lift system is based around a mix-minus-one concept, which creates separate and independent audio mixes at each position, each of which includes the entire mix but excludes its own remote source, thereby reducing feedback potential while maintaining a natural sounding environment. “The design is such that people can lean back and speak at normal conversational levels, and everyone can hear at that same level anywhere in the room,” Kirkland says. “It's completely transparent in terms of its operation.”
After auditioning a number of different conferencing systems, the Sennheiser Installed Sound (IS) system was declared the undisputed winner. Twenty-two Sennheiser ME 34 condenser microphones, a cardioid-patterned mic, and MZH 3042 15in. gooseneck mounts comprise the system. Two Sennheiser ME 36 mics, a lobar-patterned mini-shotgun from the same IS line, mounted on MZH 3015 low-profile goosenecks were installed on an adjacent staff table.
“We performed several listening tests with conferencing mics from a number of leading manufacturers, and the Sennheisers turned out to be the best fit for this project in terms of sound quality, aesthetics, and ease of integration,” says Shaw.
Aesthetics were a significant consideration. “The industrial design of several of the other candidates simply wasn't acceptable to the architects,” says Kirkland. “Some were simply too large, had unappealing goosenecks, or just didn't have the look they were after.”
“The ME series really is Sennheiser engineering at its finest,” says Shaw. “The audio quality is head and shoulders above anything else we tried for this application. Plus, its industrial design has a very high-end look and feel, which was particularly important to this client.”
“The Sennheiser system really turned out to be one of the high points of the entire installation, in terms of audio quality, styling, and ease of installation,” says Kirkland. “Just plug it in, and everything works. That's what you want in a conference room system — once you install it, you should never have to come back.”
Audio is run through a MediaMatrix Mainframe 960nt unit, connected to four MM-8802 breakout boxes. Processing is then provided through three MediaMatrix DSP-RJ modules, which configure each position's unique mix-minus-one audio content. Each mic station uses a Happ Controls momentary push-button and LED.
Mounted above the seating area are 22 JBL 24C in-ceiling speakers, positioned to follow the oval outline of the table. Each speaker receives its own unique mix based on the mics that are currently active.
“The system worked so well, we only had to add minimal EQ — just a bit of high cut,” says Kirkland. “We're also running the video playback through the system, which calls for a slightly different EQ. The system allows us to easily reconfigure for whatever input is currently selected.”
Three Lectrosonics PA8 8-channel amplifiers drive the speakers. The system components are housed in a single Middle Atlantic 44-space rack, with an additional 40-space Middle Atlantic slide-out rack custom mounted in the millwork near staff for easy access to the video source equipment.
HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, KID
Though the room's primary video needs are modest — PowerPoint and other ad hoc presentations — it was difficult for the designers to keep that aspect a lower priority.
“In every planning meeting they kept saying, ‘We've got four other screening rooms, the video doesn't need to be very high quality,’” says Kirkland. “At one point I remember saying something to the effect of, ‘Don't you people realize who we think you are? We can't do bad video for you!’ After all, how could we bring ourselves to design anything less than a high standard of video for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?”
Originally the architects had wanted to install a plasma screen along one of the room's long walls, with media projectors on the two short walls. For a variety of reasons, that plan was voted down. Various other design concepts were considered, including screens at the room's four corners. In the end, it was agreed that the most viable solution would be a high-definition projection screen in the center of the long wall.
The video solution is based around a Sanyo PLV-70 native 16:9 video projector, delivering a very respectable 2200 ANSI lumens to a Stewart Filmscreen SEL100H Stealth Trap Door ElectriScreen with a GrayHawk surface, which is mounted approximately 4ft. above the floor for optimal visibility throughout the room.
An Extron Electronics System 7SC seven-input scaling switcher provides for program input from the various sources, most of which are provided from equipment the Academy already owned. “It was a mix of consumer-variety gear — DVD and VHS decks, a cable TV box — and a few more interesting pieces like an old 3/4in. U-Matic video player,” says Kirkland.
Three Extron HSA 200SE computer AV interfaces are also available for connecting to laptop outputs.
“It was important for them [Academy board members] to be able to send program from laptops based at any point on the conference table, as well as the auxiliary staff table,” says Shaw. “PowerPoint presentations are pretty much a daily occurrence, and the Extron interfaces also allow for LAN and telephone connectivity when needed.”
Kirkland gives Extron high marks for their support. “We had some minor setup issues early on, but once they opened a trouble ticket, they kept calling us back until they were certain everything was resolved.”
TIME IS TIGHT
As is inevitably the case, the project's schedule started out tight and became progressively tighter.
“The project went from demolition to commissioning in only seven weeks,” says Shaw. “Warner Constructors are pretty good at doing that. They do a lot of projects for Disney, and are used to the compressed schedules typical of theme park projects.”
The intricacy of the table and surrounding millwork necessitated the usual hurry-up-and-wait scenarios. As is typically the case, the systems integrators tend to be the ones who feel the crunch and absorb any schedule slippage.
“We were less than a day from commissioning the system, and there was still plenty left to do,” says Kirkland. “I found myself on the job site, laying under-the-table terminating button connections along with my crew. Neil [Shaw] came in after lunch and saw me down on the floor, and without a moment's hesitation he took off his jacket and got down there and pitched in. We both had a laugh about it — there we were, the design consultant and the boss of the systems integrator, under the table terminating cables, really getting back to our roots, so to speak.”
AND THE WINNER IS …
As any professional will tell you, last-minute surprises, time constraints, moving targets, and other challenges all come with the territory. Like all consummate professionals, each of the companies involved rose to the occasion and delivered a premiere product, on schedule, and as promised.
The client's reaction to the system has been nothing short of ecstatic.
“It sounds great, it looks great, and it works great,” says Ric Robertson, Academy executive administrator. “The system is so simple to use. Most of the time we don't even realize it's on. You can hold a normal conversation among 40-plus people, as if each of them is sitting right next to you.”
As satisfied as the Academy is with the final product, the system designers are equally complimentary on their experience with the client.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of this project was the fact that the client really appreciated what it takes to create a system like this,” says Kirkland. “The AMPAS people are accustomed to dealing with so many creative and technical clients, so when it came time to discuss any details of the installation, they were right there with us, totally supportive and understanding of the fact that what we do is also art.”
HEARD BUT NOT SEEN
The Challenges of Miking Conference Rooms
Few will argue the importance of good sound in a conference room. After all, we're talking about a setting designed purely for the purposes of communication. A meeting of people who can't hear each other clearly is a potential recipe for disaster. Even if a statement isn't directly misunderstood, the need for repeating or raising one's voice can lead to mental or conversational fatigue or, at its very least, a misinterpretation of the speaker's emphasis or intent.
Conference room sound has its own set of rules, unique and often misunderstood. Aesthetics has always been given a prominent role, sometimes at the expense of good audio. This had led to compromise in both system and microphone design.
On the system side, the logistics of efficiently miking the subjects are often directly at odds with the logistics of getting the results back to them. Mics on the table can be both unsightly and intimidating, not to mention their tendency to pick up rustling papers and nervous fingers. Some systems designers respond by mounting the mics overhead, an option that can be both ineffective and feedback prone.
In terms of microphone design, sonic quality has traditionally tended to take a back seat.
“Historically, the microphone element was never a high priority in conferencing systems,” says Anthony Buzzeo, Sennheiser's product manager for wired microphones. “Most companies have traditionally treated conferencing and MI/wired microphone design as somewhat separate disciplines.”
But as systems become more complex, we're beginning to see more and more of an overlap between these design concepts.
“In an installation like the AMPAS boardroom, for example, there's a demand for a higher degree of both audio quality and aesthetics,” says Buzzeo. “With the Installed Sound (IS) line, including the ME 36, we took our original [proprietary] shotgun technology and worked to bring a studio-quality fidelity to it for installed applications. The tight, focused pattern of the shotgun mic provides better pickup of the subjects, while increasing the rejection of undesirable surrounding noise. We also took into consideration the increased demand for a more modern, streamlined design. It's clear that the conference mic of the future is a far more sophisticated product, both technically and aesthetically.”
The increasing sophistication of audio technology overall has led a number of manufacturers to follow this same path, with the result being a significant raising of the bar in both the look and performance of conference microphones and a closer alliance with their pro-audio brethren.
“I believe we will see the needs of these markets converging in years to come, with the result being better quality capsules in conference systems,” says Buzzeo.
For More Information
Columbia Showcase and Cabinet Company
Menlo Scientific Acoustics
Middle Atlantic Products
Stewart Filmscreen Corporation
Thomas Gregor Associates
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