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Preserving Tradition

Bringing control and order to the audio system at the Virginia House of Delegates.The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond is on record as being the second

Preserving Tradition

Sep 1, 2000 12:00 PM,
Joyce Jorgenson

Bringing control and order to the audio system at the Virginia House of Delegates.

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond is on record as being the second oldest state capitol building in the country and the first to combine both its House of Delegates and Senate chambers under one roof. Designed by Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clerisseau, the structure was completed in 1788, and it is additionally significant in that it is one of the earliest examples of U.S. architecture that incorporates classical European design motifs. Also of historical note, its rotunda houses the only to-scale statue of George Washington. A magnificent solid-marble likeness for which the President posed at Mt. Vernon in 1796, it was created by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon.

Between 1904 and 1906, the House of Delegates and Senate were moved respectively to east and west wings flanking the original structure where they have continued to serve the Commonwealth of Virginia for nearly a century. Rich in history and art, preservation of the Virginia State Capitol is taken seriously by administrators who are responsible for maintaining the tradition, decorum and procedures of the House of Delegates and Senate chambers. When the time came last year to upgrade the sound system in the House chamber to accommodate its 100 delegates, they naturally questioned how modern technology could be adapted to the chamber’s time-honored traditions and aesthetics.

The answer was provided by the capitol’s long-time A-V services provider, Richmond-based Independence Communications Inc. (ICI), which successfully completed the installation shortly before the annual 2000 session of the General Assembly held between January 12 and March 10.

Nelson Hoyt, ICI systems designer and general sales manager, said that in finding practical solutions to meet the Capitol’s needs, ICI had to push the creative envelope to develop high-quality, multi-functional systems that are essentially transparent to anyone entering the building.

Founded in 1956, ICI is one of six offices in the Mid-Atlantic owned by Independent Publications. An A-V systems integrator, ICI provides turnkey solutions for courtrooms, churches, corporations, universities and athletic venues, and its client roster includes the Virginia Supreme Court, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Atlanta Braves’ AAA farm team stadium, local Fortune 500 companies Reynolds, Philip Morris, DuPont, and hundreds of prominent houses of worship.

ICI began designing the new sound system for the House of Delegates chamber in the summer of 1999 while still in the throes of five other large projects for the Virginia State Capitol, among them sound systems for the Senate chamber and the nearby Executive Mansion.

Upon its initial evaluation of the 20-year-old sound system within the House of Delegates chamber, ICI found a number of deficiencies that resulted in poor voice intelligibility. Arranged in semicircular groups, there are 100 delegate desks in the House chamber, each of which is equipped with a mic. Four more mic positions are located at desks occupied by the speaker of the house, clerk of the house and other officials.

When Independence Communications conducted its first in-depth survey, Hoyt discovered that although high-quality Electro-Voice 649B lavalier mics had been added to all of the desks during the previous year, the aging audio system remained configured in such a way that the room’s 104 mics were parallel-wired in various groups and then fed to a mere 12 mic inputs at an automatic mic mixer. Everything was fine as long as only one mic in one of the groups was activated at a time. As one would expect, as more delegates activated their mics, the audio integrity would deteriorate dramatically.

To take care of the situation effectively, Hoyt insisted on a design that included pulling new cable from every desk back to the central equipment cabinets. The plan also called for a number of other upgrades, such as supplemental sound reinforcement to provide better coverage throughout the legislative chamber, including an area where delegates are seated directly under a balcony. Because there had been a series of media feeds added over the course of many years going to other parts of the building and the capitol grounds, ICI also seized the opportunity to establish a new, more efficient media-distribution network. The extensive renovations needed to achieve these objectives involved cutting open the floors to install new wiring and conduit systems. A seemingly costly venture, Hoyt said that the process was made more affordable by combining it with other construction upgrades already in progress.

Clerk of the House and Project Supervisor Bruce Jamerson said, “We had just started what we called t he chamber automation project, which necessitated building a new conduit infrastructure to support both a network of laptop computer interfaces at each desk and an electronic voting system. With this work already taking place, we felt that there would never be a more convenient time to bring in wire for our proposed audio improvements.”

Jamerson, along with Deputy Clerk for Administrative and Support Services George Bishop and House of Delegates Telecommunications Coordinator Aubrey Stewart, met with Hoyt to lay out the sound system requirements. Stewart served as a liaison between ICI and capitol administrators, relaying day-to-day communications while Bishop coordinated the multitude of electricians, computer companies and construction crews working on the project. Because of time constraints and the sensitivity of the project, it was essential that all of the trades coordinate their activities and work together as a team. Hoyt pointed out that ICI’s success on the project was largely attributable to the cooperation and assistance provided by the electrical contractor, Bagby Electric, Richmond, VA. Ultimate responsibility of orchestrating all subcontractors and bringing the entire project in on time was that of Bill Lamp, consulting engineer of the local contracting firm Engineers Plus.

ICI’s installation manager, Alan Bailey, spearheaded the sound system installation and was responsible for coordination and communications among representatives of the House, the consultants and contractors. Although just about every technician working for ICI had a hand in the project, the bulk of the installation was completed through the hard work and long hours contributed by Bailey, Dave Hunt and Trav Moncure. Hoyt added that the piles of receipts for late-night pizza deliveries are testament to the overtime hours required to meet the January deadline. ICI’s director of engineering, Tripp Matthews, who played a key role in the engineering of the sound system, helped in finding solutions for the many unforeseen changes and problems inherent in a project of this magnitude.

Work began in earnest in July of 1999. The first order of business was the careful removal of the House’s 100-year-old desks, which were taken off-site for refurbishment and for the electronic upgrades required to support the computer and voting systems. At the same time, the under-floor wire and cable systems, largely from West Penn Wire, were installed in a delicate fashion respectful of the floor’s age. Flush-mounted floor panels equipped with mic and auxiliary inputs, electrical outlets and computer connections were also installed. Assigned one per each group of five desks, the small panels supplied the wiring for audio, the computer network and voting system, plus the necessary connections to the central equipment room located adjacent to the chamber.

Another critical design decision made early on concerned the actual equipment for handling the chamber’s 104 mics. With more than 100 possible voices, the client’s key requirement was to provide equalization and control of individual mics. Commenting on their options, Hoyt said, “We immediately ruled out any large mixing consoles with those capabilities due to size, complexity and the need for an unattended system. Instead, we looked for a more practical and cost-effective solution in a DSP-based product that would give us everything we wanted in the way of signal processing, control and programmability.”

To meet these needs, Hoyt and the ICI engineering team ultimately chose a design based on the VRAMeq Variable Resource Automated Mixers from Biamp Systems, which enabled them to provide three-band equalization on each mic channel and a host of other functions. The VRAMeq is an enhanced version of Biamp’s VRAM, a Windows-based, 1 RU, automatic mic/line mixer with eight mic/line inputs, two balanced auxiliary line inputs, a programmable automixer and an RS-232 serial port.

The remote functions offered via the logic inputs on the Biamp VRAMeq allowed ICI to incorporate automatic priority functions and capabilities to tie into the computer network. By simply pushing a remote button on their desks, the speaker of the house or the clerk of the house can mute all 100 floor mics or either of the two mics located at the speaker’s position.

Each delegate’s Electro-Voice lapel mic is coupled with an elaborate reel assembly, which allows it to be pulled up as the person stands and then automatically retracted when he sits back down. Delegates can bring the cord up and either attach the mic to their lapel or hold it in their hand as they speak. The mic is wired to an on/off button located on the upper left-hand side of the desk, while the desk’s built-in electronics supply a request-to-speak button and such voting functions as “yes,” “no,” and “conflict of interest.” “Page” buttons are also tied to the computer network. The speaker of the house can easily monitor the requests and delegate votes as they appear on the computer screen.

For sound reinforcement, ICI used the chamber’s existing Bose model 32-7 loudspeakers, four of which were located in the ceiling 28 feet (8.5 m) from the floor over the main seating area. As part of the new sound design, they were designated as the inner overhead loudspeakers, while four newly specified 32-7s were installed at the same height but nearer the balcony to form an outer overhead supplement for the main seating area.

Replaced were the old system’s 8 inch (203 mm) ceiling loudspeakers that were part of an under-balcony zone. ICI swapped these for Atlas-Soundolier C803A high-quality coaxial loudspeakers, which were time-aligned to the over-head ceiling loudspeakers. There is also a separate group of existing overflow loudspeakers, which are located in various staff offices throughout the building, with two more positioned on the clerk of the house’s desk.

Within the new scheme of things, mic input is fed to the VRAMeqs, all 14 of which are linked. The final output from the 14th unit travels to a Biamp MSP22 stereo multichannel processor for gain management and equalization. From channel one of the MSP22, the signal is sent to a Shure DFR-11EQ5 digital EQ and feedback reducer, on to a Bose 102C controller and finally to a Biamp ANC 22 ambient noise compensator. The ANC 22 controls levels leading to a Crown CT210 amp, which powers the main inner/outer overhead loudspeaker system. Also included in this configuration is an Audio Technica AT933PMW/ML noise-sensing reference mic, which was hung inconspicuously on the balcony ledge over the main seating area with its signal routed directly to the ANC 22.

The second channel of the MSP22 processor takes the sum of the combined VRAMeq output and feeds it to a Sabine GRQ-3101 feedback controller and then out to a second Crown CT210 amp for powering the under-balcony loudspeakers. The MSP22’s built-in delay functions allowed ICI to make time adjustments to signals traveling to the under-balcony speakers. Channel two of the same CT210 amp receives input from a Biamp DP/M28 28 distribution preamp/mixer, providing a signal line to the overflow loudspeakers located in offices throughout the capitol building.

To bring a sense of order to the existing media distribution network, ICI used the DP/M 28 and eight Biamp IT-B isolation transformers to provide isolated media feeds and a distribution network throughout. A Shure UC24/58 frequency-agile UHF wireless mic system with handheld and lavalier mics was specified to accommodate the sergeant of arms for daily opening of the sessions and guest speakers or, when the House is not in session, tour guides. For background music during public tours, there is an existing TEAC W-760R tape deck and TEAC PDD-2200 CD player, both of which find inputs on the final VRAMeq.

Live audio feeds from the DP/M 28 distribution amp are also routed to a downstairs transcription center where a new Williams infrared assistive listening system was installed. The system replaces the old jack/headphone method used for many years. Shared by both the House of Delegates and the Senate, the Williams system allows stenographers to move freely about the room without cumbersome head-worn gear.

Rather than build a large equipment room to store all three systems – sound, computer network, and voting – it was decided that the chamber’s existing but small equipment room just off the main floor would be used. The fact that ICI was allotted roughly 70 inches (1.8 m) of vertical real estate made the decision to use the 1 RU Biamp VRAMeqs all that much more sensible. Once the equipment was in its Middle Atlantic rack, ICI’s technician Trav Moncure began the three-week task of interconnecting the components and making the connections from each mic cable and switch assembly to its respective VRAMeq.

When the delegate desks were returned and reinstalled in the chamber, the next phase of the project was abruptly brought to a halt by a film crew that came in to shoot a scene for the soon-to-be released political thriller “The Contender,” starring Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, Christian Slater and Sam Elliott. Because the Virginia House of Delegates so closely resembles the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., it is used on an average of two times per year for the production of feature films. After a 72-hour pause in the installation process to film “The Contender” scene, the project resumed and was completed on January 8, 2000, four days before the annual session.

With the system up and running, ICI’s intention was to bring in small groups of arriving delegates and set up the equalization and gain settings on their respective mics. Hoyt said, however, that organizing the proposed sessions proved to be somewhat of a logistical nightmare. As an alternative, ICI technician Dave Hunt came in during the first three weeks of the annual session to make adjustments to each delegate’s mic during the live sessions. Using the MSP22 and a connected laptop, he was able to call up any one of the VRAMeqs and adjust each of its eight channels as well as the gain on that particular unit. He could also simply call up each individual mic to make equalization and level adjustments.

“The system was preset and locked beforehand, so the subtle adjustments were fairly transparent during the live session,” said Hoyt. “It was a unique challenge because we obviously didn’t know who would speak next. The process took three weeks because not all the delegates spoke on a daily basis. We used a map of the delegate desks, referencing each one as they spoke and quickly calling up the microphone on the system.”

Commenting on future expansion options now available to the client, Hoyt said that all entities capitol-wide can be easily linked to a centralized control system. “One of the underlying benefits of the sound system design for the House of Delegates is its flexibility,” he said. “Both the Biamp VRAMeq and MSP22 have RS-232 serial ports and are Windows-based, allowing them to easily integrate with other control systems including AMX and Crestron. Long-range advantages include the client’s ability to control the House system via a touch screen from the clerk of the house’s position or via the master panel in a central control room.”

Jamerson said, “We originally thought that we would have to spend more taxpayer dollars to achieve this high level of sound quality. When Independence Communications came back with this design, we were impressed with the savings. The result provides us with a modern system and exceptional performance, plus software capabilities, which allow us to easily make adjustments ourselves if we need to do so in the future. With the old audio system, our Aubrey Stewart was constantly in the House chamber during sessions trying to correct the sound. At my position in the chamber, if anything went wrong, I immediately had 100 pairs of eyes looking at me. I no longer get those looks.”

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