A Capitol Idea
Apr 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Gregory A. DeTogne
The Gressette Building was designed in an age when networkedsystems weren't an architectural concern.
“At its present rate of progress, it will someday runreal-time gigabits per second on linguine.”
— Techno-pundit George Gilder, on Ethernettechnology
HARDCORE NETWORKING GEEKS REFER to it as IEEE standard 802.3.Others simply call it Ethernet. Whatever the nomenclature, SouthCarolina state senators have embraced the high-bandwidth LANtechnology as one of the major elements responsible forrevitalizing integrated systems within the Gressette Building, anoffice complex used for hearings and other legislativefunctions.
Named after legendary local politician Marion Gressette, thebuilding is part of South Carolina's statehouse campus. It housesoffices for every state senator, as well as 10 conference rooms forboth public and private hearings; and all manners of bills andissues are discussed within the administrative facility prior toformal introduction at the state capitol building.
SENSE FROM SPAGHETTI
Built over two decades ago, the Gressette Building was designedin an age when networked systems weren't an architectural concern.As a result, the structure's needs for technology evolved within aframework outside of any all-encompassing plan.
“To accommodate the numerous systems that have beeninstalled over the years, there is cabling running all over thisbuilding from floor to floor in anything that even vaguelyresembles a cable chase,” said Sid Gattis of Gattis Pro AudioInc., the Columbia, South Carolina, firm contracted to upgrade thefacility. “Out of necessity, a constantly changing wiringscheme has followed the notion that if there's room to shovesomething through a hole in the floor, do it, so long as it meetscode. As you would expect in such a scenario, cable bundles havegrown to staggering sizes in many areas.”
Last year, when the building received some funds for anextensive audio-visual/multimedia upgrade, administrators called onMichael Schwartz of Boulder, Colorado-based Peak Audio to pen ablueprint that would radically transfigure system functions andpossibilities within four heavily used hearing rooms. As the firmselected to turn Schwartz's design into reality, Gattis Pro Audiofollowed a detailed spec and drawing set that would ultimatelybring matrixed mix-minus audio, multiple audio and videoteleconferencing systems, automated control and a full gamut of A/Vpresentation capabilities to the rooms in time for the beginning ofthe 2001 legislative session.
As part of the design, the Gattis crew would also install acomputer-based electronic library to record and archive hearingsoccurring within the separate rooms as well as proceedings in thenearby Senate chamber. Available to senators and their staff, thelibrary captures audio, video and either captioned or courtreporter text, and indexes this data within a timecode-based,hard-disk recording system. Once in the hard-disk system, the dataundergoes conversion allowing it to be stored within an onlinearchive or streamed to the Internet in real time. Accessible fromany authorized multi-media-equipped PC along the building'sextensive PC network, the library is the brainchild of KarimLakhani from Advance Interactive, Vancouver, British Columbia.Integrated into the audio, video, presentation, control andbackbone subsystems, it is operated in each hearing room with oneilluminated wall switch, or from a Panja touchscreen.
Since every word in the library is indexed, a search using anInternet browser within the online archive quickly yields a numberof links. Click on any link, and a tape-recorder-style controlpanel opens, which can then be used to play the stored data backwith audio, scrolling text, video stills and a date and timecounter.
The library, just like the new shared teleconferencing network,room linking capabilities, and automated control systems thatintegrate all of the various subsystems, utilizes digital pathwaysforged by multiple Ethernet networks. The audio portion of thesenetworks is based on RAVE 188 audio-to-Ethernet interfaces from QSCAudio Inc.
RAVE (Routing Audio via Ethernet) is a digital audio transportsystem that employs Peak Audio's CobraNet technology. Transmittingaudio via standard Ethernet hardware and cabling, RAVE supports upto 64 channels of uncompressed 20-bit, 48kHz digital audio over asingle line, thus simplifying installation by reducing the numberof necessary cables. Due to recent advances in Peak Audio'sCobraNet firmware, switched network topologies are now supported byRAVE, within which hundreds of audio channels can peacefullyco-exist with asynchronous PC or control system traffic.
The Gattis crew quickly became ardent boosters of RAVE's abilityto dramatically limit the number of cables required in theGressette Building's already cable-strangled environment. Deployedusing CAT-5 cabling, eight RAVE 188 units were used in thebuilding. One unit is found in each hearing room, while fourcorollary devices are located in a master control room. Welcomed atthe hearing-room end of the equation within an 8×8,20-bit/48kHz architecture, source signals enter each RAVE unit'sdecoder, where they are packed and then routed to their destinationin the central control room. Once in the control room, RAVE networkdecoders unpack the input signals and send them along to theelectronic library or wherever else they've been directed.
By using RAVE units as the audio ramp to the network from eachhearing room, the Gattis crew was able to connect otherCobraNet-equipped products called for in the design (such as aMediaMatrix system from Peavey) to a centralized CobraNet backbone.Within the Gressette Building systems upgrade, this backbone isused to reliably route signals throughout the hearing rooms and toand from the central control room, and another control room locatedin the nearby statehouse building.
The RAVE/CobraNet backbone suffers no degradation overdistances; and it is significantly more cost-effective thanconventional cabling. “If we had tried to complete thisproject entirely with regular cabling, the quality wouldn't havebeen nearly as high,” Gattis is quick to point out.“This would have been especially noticeable in the case ofthe electronic library, where a highly optimized signal source isreally a necessity, not a luxury.”
MIKING THE WORKS
A total of 94 permanent microphone positions exist within thefour hearing rooms upgraded by the Peak Audio design, all of whichwere outfitted with 18-inch MX418C gooseneck mics from Shure. Twoof the rooms (numbers 207 and 209) are identical, with 19 micpositions spread out around a horseshoe-shaped dais, and two moreat a witness stand. The largest of the lot, hearing room 105features a pair of horseshoe-shaped seating areas situated oneinside of the other, with the outside horseshoe at a slightlyhigher elevation. Given over to 15 and 10 mic positionsrespectively, both platforms face a single mic position at awitness stand. Last among the rooms to feel the effects ofGrattis-led improvements, the fourth hearing room, number 308,eschews the horseshoe format in favor of a staggered tri-levelarrangement of raised, rectilinear seating areas. With 26 micpositions of its own, it's not quite as large in dimensions as room105.
Beyond the MX Series gooseneck mics, an SC Series wirelesspackage was also provided by Shure. It “floats” fromroom to room, generally for use by those in the gallery wishing tocomment at an open hearing. Working in a similar capacity, eight ofShure's hardwired SM58 microphones came to the project as well.These mics can be plugged in at various locations as the occasionwarrants.
Within any closed environment where scores of open mics in closeproximity to loudspeakers are the norm, there are a number ofcommon problems. The potential for feedback looms large. Toadequately deal with this and related pitfalls in the hearingrooms, the Peak Audio design relied upon a cleverly craftedmix-minus matrix scheme in which every set of two microphones wasgiven its own zone. Providing the processing to make this scenariowork is a Peavey MediaMatrix 208NT mini-frame working inconjunction with multiple MM8830 interface units and A/A-8P micpreamps also selected from the MediaMatrix family ofcomponents.
“We can have every mic on in the house, and these systemswill work flawlessly,” Gattis says with justifiable pride.“The way we have it configured, when a senator speaks, his orher microphone remains off in their own loudspeaker, while those inadjacent seats are down by various amounts to create a cone ofsilence. Full-duplex conversations are, however, still providedfrom seat to seat, as no speaker is ever muted. The house gallery,and all other members not near a given senator's mic, hear thatsenator at full volume. Each room works so well that the four bandsof parametric EQ we have at hand for each speaker were used just tosmooth things out a bit. There has never been a need for seriousdamage control like pulling out big feedback rings.”
All audio is routed in and out of the MediaMatrix mini-frame.Exiting the outputs, signals either travel to the amplifiers and onto the loudspeakers, or take the QSC RAVE/Ethernet highway leadingto control room destinations such as the electronic library.Activated via a simple EAO switch found at each senator's hearingroom position, the Shure gooseneck microphones can be selectivelyturned on with the push of a button, which sends sound throughoutthe house, or muted just as easily when a senator wants to speakprivately to a neighbor or legal counsel. Proceedings are heardthroughout the audience gallery of each room over a multi-zoneddistributed system utilizing CDK model 803, 8-inch ceiling-mountedcoaxial speakers. Senators listen in on wedge-shaped monitorsenclosed in the baffled, mahogany cabinets mounted at each of theirrespective positions next to their microphones. As furthertestimony to the efficacy of the matrix/mix-minus design, thesecustom-built loudspeakers (which are loaded with 4-inch coaxialdrivers) are literally aimed into the rear patterns of thegooseneck mics without producing so much as a squeak, peep orchortle.
VIDEO FEATURES AND TELECONFERENCING
Video presentations in each of the hearing rooms can arrive fromseveral sources, including a portable multimedia cart with VHS/DVDand dual-cassette capabilities, which can be shared between all ofthe rooms by plugging in a single multipin cable carrying audio,video and control signals. Multiple PC interfaces at strategicareas frequented by laptop-toting Powerpoint fanatics areautomatically switched to the display monitors andvideoconferencing system. Regardless of the source or room, a42-inch Sony PFM-510, 1280×1024 plasma screen serves as themedium for viewing by the senators. For the audience, portabledisplay carts can be plugged in and shared between rooms asrequired. Each of these is equipped with Sony PFM-42B plasmamonitors.
As a way of further facilitating his client's video needs,designer Michael Schwartz gave thoughtful consideration to therealities of teleconferencing. As modern communication goes,senators find this technology especially beneficial for times whentheir schedules won't allow them to be seen and heard in person.Hardware supporting the Gressette Building's teleconferencingnetwork is comprised of three Gentner GT 1524 units, which, aspreviously mentioned, rely upon the RAVE 188 Ethernet network forsignal transport functions and MediaMatrix units for selectiverouting between rooms. Video teleconferencing codecs will be addedin the near future to facilitate communication between the room andup to four remote users, either over the Internet or ISDNlines.
READY FOR THE FUTURE
Using the QSC RAVE/Ethernet links between all the rooms, Gattisenvisions a future with no boundaries at the Gressette Building.“The senators are just now getting their feet wet with thetechnology we've provided,” he says. “As each daypasses, they understand more about what can be done now and whatkind of other possibilities exist. It's just a matter of timebefore they will be streaming video between all the rooms on aregular basis, drawing from the electronic library at will, doingmore data networking and using the teleconferencing system in new,creative ways. Fortunately, whatever tomorrow may bring, with theRAVE network in place, we have the infrastructure readytoday.”
Gregory A. DeTogne is a freelance writer, communicationsconsultant and owner of an editorial public relations firm inLibertyville, Ill. that specializes in pro audio accounts.
Gressette Building Controls: Simplicity Itself
CONTROL ISSUES WITHIN THE HEARING ROOMS, AS WELL AS from thecontrol rooms back to the hearing rooms, fall under the centraldirection of a Panja/AMX Accent 3 Pro mainframe in each room, tiedtogether through Panja Ethernet gateways, and a Panja NetLinxcontroller, through a dedicated Ethernet network and 3Com switch.These controllers use a combination of IR, RS-232, data inputs andrelay contact closures to interface all in-room equipment withilluminated wall-plate switches. To make the rooms come alive, alla staff person needs to do is flip a green switch to power thesystem up and a red switch to start recording. Both hardwired (atthe chairman's and staff person's positions) and wireless ViewPointtouchpanels from Panja/AMX are at hand for more involved sourceselection, room control and volume adjustments. The control systemwas chosen for its simple, non-technical user interface andreliability. Eric Bozard of CMC Communications in Atlanta providedprogramming for the control network, under the consultant'sdirection.
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The Fast-Working, Flexible Crew
GATTIS PRO AUDIO BEGAN WORK ON THE project in earnest inNovember 2000, shifting their efforts into warp drive duringDecember. The crew, which, in addition to Gattis, consisted ofBruce Leeper, Scott Shealy and Ken Snyder, put in 14-hour days tokeep the job on a fast-forward pace. With the senators back in thebuilding on January 13 for the first 2001 legislative session, thework moved from room to room, with the needs of the politiciansoverriding construction. “They'd give us notice when theyneeded one room, we'd clear out our tools and clean up the place,then run out and work in another room for a couple of hours,”Gattis described the crew's somewhat unpredictable schedule.“Then, when they needed that next room, we'd go back where wewere before. It may sound trying, but with everyone's cooperation,business went on uninterrupted for the legislators, and we nevergot tired of being in the same place for too long.”
The job was completed following the successful resolution ofsome rather troublesome cable-routing issues in hearing room 105,which were worked out with the aid of two of the main Senateliaisons on the project, Craig Smith and Bosie Martin. “Rightaway, we started getting compliments from the senators on how muchbetter the rooms sounded,” Gattis is happy to report.“The senators were telling us they had been working with lessthan ideal systems for so long that it came as a shock toexperience something of this quality. There really is new life inthis building now, and it goes well beyond politics asusual.”
Also lending their talents to the project on behalf of PeakAudio were Deb Britton, Zebeth Parks, Ray Rayburn and Rich Zwiebel.Initiated by former Clerk of the Senate Frank Caggiano and hisassistant Hogan Brown, the upgrade was part of a larger 3-year planthat was designed to modernize all the hearing rooms in theGressette Building. The program continues to receive support fromcurrent Clerk of the Senate Jeff Gossette and, as previously noted,is well-appreciated by members of the South Carolina Senate.