Desert Gem - Sound & Video Contractor

Desert Gem

Once known primarily for its glittering casinos and nightlife, the Las Vegas Strip has undergone a transformation that has seen convention centers pop
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Desert Gem

Jul 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Rod Falconer and Christopher Buttner

Once known primarily for its glittering casinos and nightlife, the Las Vegas Strip has undergone a transformation that has seen convention centers pop up in order to serve the growing business clientele of Nevada's shining city. The new Mandalay Bay Convention Center was developed to capture a large share of the expanding Las Vegas convention business by providing the highest level of operational technology. Owned by the Mandalay Resort Group, the convention center is geared toward supporting dozens of simultaneous functions. The result is one of the five largest convention facilities in the nation.

In order to accomplish the goal of a large and flexible convention center in a highly competitive market, the owners sought to provide as much in-house technical production support as possible. The idea was to reduce a potential client's costs, because outside system rental costs would be commensurately reduced.

Thus, the design criteria requirements incorporated a distribution infrastructure capable of supporting everything from a meeting room's podium mic to corporate blowouts, including broadcast video; fully cross-patchable audio, video, and room control; production intercom; CATV and MATV; DMX for production lighting control; video RGB distribution over twisted pair; and multiple 100Base-T drops. In addition, the system needed to be visually and operationally unobtrusive, and configurable from a number of positions via TCP-IP over an in-house Ethernet LAN. “In this competitive marketplace, groups are looking more carefully at what features a convention facility offers that make it more attractive over other facilities,” says Paul Whitney, director of convention services at the facility.

The fulfillment of those objectives was the task facing Michael Cusick, president of Specialized Audio-Visual (SAVI) of Clifton Park, New York. SAVI, an established company that supports both tour production and permanent installations throughout the nation, had been working with the owners for several years. The history of projects successfully completed by SAVI for the owner was extensive, such as the Lance Burton Theater at the Monte Carlo, the Luxor Theater (Blue Man Group), the Mandalay Bay Showroom, and the Mandalay Bay Special Events Arena.

With this successful track record, SAVI was retained to develop a performance spec and plans for the new facility. The construction schedule was intimidating: one year for design development and one year to complete construction and open the facility. Given the size, scope, and projected timeline for the project, Cusick knew that virtually any company's resources would be stretched thin. Drawing on an existing working relationship, SAVI approached SPL Integrated Solutions (SPLIS) of Las Vegas to partner in the project. The result was a strong team capable of successfully tackling the mammoth design/fabrication tasks and opening the facility on schedule.

Developed over an eight-month period, the design culminated in a 125-page specification with more than 50 drawings. To minimize second-guessing and the “if only” scenarios, the last two months were spent closely coordinating specific functions and features with Michael Kurcab, the facility's technical services system supervisor. Because the owner wanted a competitive bid, the SAVI-SPL bid specification had to be neutral, unbiased, and highly detailed with all equipment, wiring, conduit, termination, programming, and operational details clearly defined for any qualified contractor to execute with a predictable outcome.

Ultimately, the SAVI-SPLIS team was chosen to execute the project. Tod Butler, Dale Condit, and Mike Mead coordinated a team of more than 50 IBEW low-voltage electricians that was led by Robert Buntjer of Dynalectric. Close communication between the A/V contractor and the electrical contractor (Dynalectric of Nevada) and constant on-site installation monitoring made this fast-track installation successful.


Any way you look at the complex, it's huge. The numbers are hard to bring into perspective, but start here: the center spans four levels, with 138 room areas covering nearly 2 million square feet spread over almost 60 acres. Function spaces include six separate exhibit halls totaling nearly 1 million square feet of space, as well as four ballrooms. Of these, the smallest occupies 31,800 square feet, and the largest is the largest hotel ballroom in the nation at more than 100,000 square feet.

One of the most difficult challenges faced by the design team involved determining the best methods to deliver the flexibility and quality levels required while maintaining a modicum of budgetary control. Standalone audio systems were developed to provide world-class performance for the most basic configurations, with big-ticket items (concert speaker systems, video projectors, and so on) being allocated to outsourced rental services. The biggest design considerations revolved around creating an infrastructure capable of providing sufficient flexibility while maintaining the appropriate signal quality.

Technologies such as digital signal processing (DSP) — based signal processing and fiber-optic distribution systems are typically cost-effective when used in large systems such as this. Any equipment based on these technologies, however, required an extensive (and successful) track record. With the prominence of the venue, SAVI's system designers reflected the owner's perspective that any equipment selected would have to meet stringent requirements for both robustness and quality. Some of these technologies were familiar to the design staff, whereas others involved extensive research to determine which product was most suitable. This approach carried over to all aspects of the system design, including DSP processing, remote amplifier monitoring, ceiling speaker systems, and remotely addressable control systems and crosspatch matrices.

The total infrastructure design was evaluated from a cost/performance/flexibility perspective. For example, a multitude of video signals of various quality levels are routed throughout the space. Multimode and single-mode fiber-optic cables were used to transport both video and audio signals between the Central Control/Central Patch (CCCP) room and distributed equipment rooms, and copper cabling was used for distribution from the distributed equipment rooms to the function rooms themselves. Broadcast video is distributed to a number of production panels on triax, medium-quality video is distributed on coax, flat-panel display RGB signals are distributed over twisted pair, and so on.


The production panels located throughout the facility serve as an interface to several systems. A total of 42 panels provide interconnection for triax camera feeds, production intercom, analog video, analog audio (in and out), multimode fiber, A/V LAN ports, a video display transport non-EIA Cat-6 connection, and DMX lighting control connection. Analog audio and video signals are routed to patch bays in the local equipment rooms over copper cabling, providing a cost-effective level of distribution within the level served by a particular equipment closet. In addition, if longer feeds are required, each equipment closet provides the capability of converting analog signals to digital for routing over fiber patch bays. This method also supports remote signal processing, sending signals to the CCCP room for processing and returned via fiber wherever required. Each equipment closet was also provided with a TCP-IP-addressable 32-by-32 cross-point stereo A/V matrix router, facilitating further routing and distribution. Each router is thus controllable and configurable from the CCCP room.

These routing matrices represent another example of the results of SAVI's investigations. Manufactured by the Norwegian firm Network, the THOR software package provided with these matrices provides an elegant interface to visualize the routing and distribution of 32 channels of video and 32 channels of stereo audio signals to and from the remote equipment closets and the CCCP room. In addition to providing TCP-IP addressability, these units are also Internet accessible, enabling long-distance support.

The visual display transport infrastructure is another example of the facility's forward-looking capabilities. As flat-panel video displays become more common for corporate functions, an efficient method of distributing video signals was required. Rather than supplying individual home-run coaxial video cable drops throughout the ballrooms, the video display transport system provides an inexpensive method of distributing RGBS video over Cat-6 twisted pair, fed from any of the facility's production panels. As flat-panel monitors are mounted for a given function, each is fitted with an interface unit and attached via RJ-45/Cat-6 connectors to the nearest production panel.

Rounding out the infrastructure, an extensive CATV/MATV system services the function and preassembly spaces. Local cable services were distributed as a CATV system but left little bandwidth for locally originated programming. Therefore a second modulated video distribution system was provided, appearing as a second set of F-connectors. This MATV system opened up channels for in-house productions, message boards, and so on. Single-mode fiber was used to distribute modulated signals to the local equipment closets, and coax feeds were used to distribute signal to more than 300 locations in the facility. Local video origination equipment included two DVD players, two VHS decks, two cable-TV tuners, and two DSS satellite tuners. All signals were fed to a Network routing switcher for distribution, capable of being addressed through TCP-IP over the A/V LAN, enabling remote programming of the MATC channel lineup.


Considering the distances from the CCCP room to some of the outlying areas, it quickly became apparent that a single central amp location was not a workable solution. The use of a fiber-optic signal and control distribution system enabled the amplifier racks to be distributed to equipment closets on each floor while being monitored and controlled from a central location. Although it was a fairly typical application of remote amplifier monitoring and control, it saved nearly $250,000 on the cost of speaker cable alone.

The distribution of audio within the overall facility during a function was another significant concern. Again, scale was the key factor. With main ballroom dimensions of 422 feet by 37 feet — the ballroom alone is nearly 1½ football fields in length and nearly 80 yards wide — dealing with traditional analog audio snakes was not a viable solution from technical, sonic, or budgetary perspectives. SAVI therefore developed a solution involving portable production racks. Once again, because of the size of the project, the traditional rationale for the use of fiber optics versus copper (zero signal loss, limitless routing potential, perfect isolation, and so on) was bolstered by significant cost savings.

The objective was to facilitate routing of audio signals quickly and cleanly with a minimum of exposed cable. The solution developed into a fleet of 24 portable carts capable of being patched to any one of a series of production or broadcast interface panels located throughout the facility. Locating the expensive fiber-optic digital interface units in the production carts instead of in each potential position saved significant costs. Eight of the production racks were fitted with a 64-channel Telecast Fiber Systems Concert Series analog-digital interface unit patched to a nearby production panel. Each production panel provided four multimode fiber links to one of three equipment closets, allowing these feeds to be rerouted throughout the facility through a fiber-optic patch bay. Additional racks provide broadcast audio and video fiber interfaces, industrial-level audio and video links, and RTS/Clearcom interfaces (also by Telecast) over fiber-optic cable.

The CCCP room became the home for a large Peavey MediaMatrix system. Four MediaMatrix 980 mainframes were installed, each with the maximum allocation of 8 CN-DSP cards, for a total of 128 DSP chips. The system was configured for 330 inputs and 340 outputs, with each of 138 zones programmed with at least two inputs (mic and line) and two outputs (room audio feed and line output feeds).

Functionally, the system uses more than 500 parametric equalizers and more than 150 mixers with 1,000 VU meters. Including display monitors, keyboards, UPS systems, audio monitors, and mainframes, all processing gear was mounted in four racks. As calculated by SAVI, this amount of signal processing, using traditional outboard equipment, would have occupied approximately 22 equipment racks.

Network engineering, including Peak Audio CobraNet and MediaMatrix programming, was provided for SAVI by Paul Daoust. With fully populated mainframes and a considerable amount of traffic between DSP modules, the challenge became how to manage communications within the frames. Using techniques from the Advanced Concepts in MediaMatrix course, Daoust worked with Peavey's course instructor, Joe Kurta, to optimize network and internal bus communications.

The result allows a single operator to quickly and easily monitor all system inputs and outputs and configure any parameter of the system. The development of the software took nearly a year, with the last two months spent in conjunction with the system operators making operationally specific modifications. Extensive use of CAD-developed floor plans presented graphic views of the function rooms, enabling quick visual references.

The CCCP room also provides control of 100 Crest CKV-series 70V power amplifiers via a Crest NexSys system, piggybacked with the audio signal via CobraNet over switched fiber-optic networks. Providing in excess of 96,000W, the amplifiers were located in four amp closets and connected to the distributed speakers via 8-gauge cable. Each of the CKV-series amps are fitted with three interface bays, which in this case are filled with NC-IPN input modules, NC-NXS NexSys interface modules, and NCSLM load monitoring modules. The modules provide remote precision attenuation control, solo, muting, input and output VU metering, and load monitoring capabilities. With a facility of this size, these remote functions saved literally miles of walking during system commissioning and greatly increases the effectiveness of the facility staff during routine operations.

Controlled by a master computer, the MediaMatrix and NexSys software provides seamless integration at the software level. Four individual, independent CobraNet networks were then used to link each of the four amp closets with the four MediaMatrix mainframes in the CCCP room for signal distribution and amp monitoring and control. In this way, redundancy was provided so that a problem on one network would not affect any of the other three networks. This seamless software integration was a key factor in the selection of the MediaMatrix/NexSys configuration.

Although the CCCP room-based system operators are responsible for system configuration and routing, in-room controls were also needed to provide production personnel with direct access to a select group of operational controls. This was provided in the form of AMX control panels, located in more than 90 positions. These keypads provide master volume control, background music volume control, music source selection, and a master volume control level indicator. In addition, each panel was fitted with a default Recall Preset button to restore the system parameters to known values.

Each of the in-room panels is linked to the CCCP room over another dedicated fast-Ethernet network, known as the A/V LAN. Color AMX touch panels in the CCCP room and various termination/equipment rooms provide graphic control over each of the function areas, including room combining and machine control for the record/playback sources. In addition, the AMX software provides Web-enabled room control via TCP-IP over the A/V LAN. Staff can configure room functions using their laptops throughout the facility. The extensive AMX system programming was provided by SPL's Kevin Ruud, and it ran to over 29,000 lines of code. Initially configured as an AXlink bus over fiber, system performance wasn't as fast as desired because of the extensive size of the program. After consultations with the AMX support team, an AMX Netlinx master was installed to handle network traffic. According to Ruud, support from AMX was seamless — various members of the support team were able to jump into the project as required to provide the necessary answers.


Many equipment choices were made based on obtaining the most for the least. For example, the necessity of delivering clear paging messages within the enormous exhibit halls required the use of a total of 1,050 Atlas Sound AP15T units, which provided cost-effective voice-only reinforcement. In addition, the facility used 1,322 Soundolier C803T167 ceiling speakers for general background music and paging in hallways, prefunction areas, and meeting rooms.

The scale and the high visibility of the property also drove the selection of the ceiling speakers in the ballrooms. With ceiling heights up to 30 feet, it was imperative that the speakers be capable of delivering sufficient SPL while providing the quality levels desired by the owners.

SAVI set out to evaluate a number of high-power coaxial speakers, including virtually all of the major manufacturers. Its search eventually led it to B&C Speakers, an Italian OEM manufacturer of speaker products, most notably compression drivers. The B&C PS12CX speakers were ultimately selected for the ballroom ceiling systems, based on their cost-effectiveness and the level of performance delivered. Using a 12-inch woofer with a 1.4-inch compression driver and mounted in a 1-cubic-foot enclosure, these units have a stated frequency response of 50 Hz to 20 kHz. As installed in the ballroom with its 30-foot ceilings, each is capable of generating more than 100 dB (continuous program) at ear height. The dollar-per-decibels-per-square-foot ratio was extremely important, and the performance levels of the B&C unit were judged to provide the greatest return for the dollar, Cusick says.

Given the size of the ballrooms, 394 of these assemblies were needed. Tuning these systems required an extensive amount of preplanning and flexibility. SAVI developed a wireless system-tuning package, using both SIA SMAART software and a wireless link to the MediaMatrix system to individually tune each of the rooms (see the sidebar “Going Portable”). Michael Kurcab, functioning as the facility's audio system supervisor (and self-described audiophile), gave the system's handling of speech reinforcement and program-material playback high marks.


At the end of a project of this magnitude, it's almost required that you step back and evaluate what was involved and reflect on the lessons learned. One of the primary impressions from this project was the continued integration of various forms of technology, Cusick says. Audio and video systems are only a part of the picture, with disciplines now encompassing buildingwide systems.

Contractors are thus faced with being able to accommodate fiber optics, fast Ethernet systems, MATV systems, triax cabling, production intercom, video distribution, lighting controls, and so on to serve their customers' needs. Increasingly, as was the case on this project, this multitude of disciplines will have to be addressed. The challenge is to determine which low-voltage subsystem disciplines it makes sense to be involved in. “But that's what makes it exciting,” Cusick says.

Rod Falconer,a 20-year veteran of the pro audio and A/V industry, is a freelance writer for Pacific Woodworks ( Christopher Buttneris a freelance journalist. He can be reached


Tuning a project of this scale involved unique tools. In this instance, the sheer number of systems and extensive area being covered demanded a flexible solution. To accomplish this, SAVI mounted two laptops on a portable cart. The first was fitted with SIA SMAART as the initial tuning tool, while the second was fitted with MediaMatrix control software, feeding a PRAM 802.11 dual-diversity wireless Ethernet interface. The cart also contained a mixer, a CD playback source, a pink-noise source, and an Earthworks measurement reference mic. A Sennheiser wireless mic transmitter was then used to route signal from the cart to an audio input anywhere in the facility. Each MediaMatrix zone could be configured from anywhere within the facility. Everything on the cart was battery operated, making the unit completely wireless.

Each room section was thus addressed individually, with final tuning resulting from a reference CD and the spoken word. Initial settings between similar rooms took advantage of cut-and-paste functions where appropriate, though each system was individually verified. A considerable amount of labor was saved, with the best day's work consisting of tuning 43 rooms over a 10-hour period.

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