South Carolina State House

A Capitol Idea

by Gregory A. DeTogne
Sound & Video Contractor, Apr 1, 2001

The Gressette Building was designed in an age when networked systems weren't an architectural concern.

“At its present rate of progress, it will someday run real-time gigabits per second on linguine.”
— Techno-pundit George Gilder, on Ethernet technology

HARDCORE NETWORKING GEEKS REFER to it as IEEE standard 802.3. Others simply call it Ethernet. Whatever the nomenclature, South Carolina state senators have embraced the high-bandwidth LAN technology as one of the major elements responsible for revitalizing integrated systems within the Gressette Building, an office complex used for hearings and other legislative functions.

Named after legendary local politician Marion Gressette, the building is part of South Carolina's statehouse campus. It houses offices for every state senator, as well as 10 conference rooms for both public and private hearings; and all manners of bills and issues are discussed within the administrative facility prior to formal introduction at the state capitol building.

SENSE FROM SPAGHETTI

Built over two decades ago, the Gressette Building was designed in an age when networked systems weren't an architectural concern. As a result, the structure's needs for technology evolved within a framework outside of any all-encompassing plan.

“To accommodate the numerous systems that have been installed over the years, there is cabling running all over this building from floor to floor in anything that even vaguely resembles a cable chase,” said Sid Gattis of Gattis Pro Audio Inc., the Columbia, South Carolina, firm contracted to upgrade the facility. “Out of necessity, a constantly changing wiring scheme has followed the notion that if there's room to shove something through a hole in the floor, do it, so long as it meets code. As you would expect in such a scenario, cable bundles have grown to staggering sizes in many areas.”

Last year, when the building received some funds for an extensive audio-visual/multimedia upgrade, administrators called on Michael Schwartz of Boulder, Colorado-based Peak Audio [now Cirrus Logic] to pen a blueprint that would radically transfigure system functions and possibilities within four heavily used hearing rooms. As the firm selected to turn Schwartz's design into reality, Gattis Pro Audio followed a detailed spec and drawing set that would ultimately bring matrixed mix-minus audio, multiple audio and video teleconferencing systems, automated control and a full gamut of A/V presentation capabilities to the rooms in time for the beginning of the 2001 legislative session.

As part of the design, the Gattis crew would also install a computer-based electronic library to record and archive hearings occurring within the separate rooms as well as proceedings in the nearby Senate chamber. Available to senators and their staff, the library captures audio, video and either captioned or court reporter text, and indexes this data within a timecode-based, hard-disk recording system. Once in the hard-disk system, the data undergoes conversion allowing it to be stored within an online archive or streamed to the Internet in real time. Accessible from any authorized multi-media-equipped PC along the building's extensive PC network, the library is the brainchild of Karim Lakhani from Advance Interactive, Vancouver, British Columbia. Integrated into the audio, video, presentation, control and backbone subsystems, it is operated in each hearing room with one illuminated wall switch, or from a Panja touchscreen.

Since every word in the library is indexed, a search using an Internet browser within the online archive quickly yields a number of links. Click on any link, and a tape-recorder-style control panel opens, which can then be used to play the stored data back with audio, scrolling text, video stills and a date and time counter.

The library, just like the new shared teleconferencing network, room linking capabilities, and automated control systems that integrate all of the various subsystems, utilizes digital pathways forged by multiple Ethernet networks. The audio portion of these networks is based on RAVE 188 audio-to-Ethernet interfaces from QSC Audio Inc.

RAVE (Routing Audio via Ethernet) is a digital audio transport system that employs Peak Audio's CobraNet technology. Transmitting audio via standard Ethernet hardware and cabling, RAVE supports up to 64 channels of uncompressed 20-bit, 48kHz digital audio over a single line, thus simplifying installation by reducing the number of necessary cables. Due to recent advances in Peak Audio's CobraNet firmware, switched network topologies are now supported by RAVE, within which hundreds of audio channels can peacefully co-exist with asynchronous PC or control system traffic.

RAVE REVIEWS

The Gattis crew quickly became ardent boosters of RAVE's ability to dramatically limit the number of cables required in the Gressette Building's already cable-strangled environment. Deployed using CAT-5 cabling, eight RAVE 188 units were used in the building. One unit is found in each hearing room, while four corollary devices are located in a master control room. Welcomed at the hearing-room end of the equation within an 8¥8, 20-bit/48kHz architecture, source signals enter each RAVE unit's decoder, where they are packed and then routed to their destination in the central control room. Once in the control room, RAVE network decoders unpack the input signals and send them along to the electronic library or wherever else they've been directed.

By using RAVE units as the audio ramp to the network from each hearing room, the Gattis crew was able to connect other CobraNet-equipped products called for in the design (such as a MediaMatrix system from Peavey) to a centralized CobraNet backbone. Within the Gressette Building systems upgrade, this backbone is used to reliably route signals throughout the hearing rooms and to and from the central control room, and another control room located in the nearby statehouse building.

The RAVE/CobraNet backbone suffers no degradation over distances; and it is significantly more cost-effective than conventional cabling. “If we had tried to complete this project entirely with regular cabling, the quality wouldn't have been nearly as high,” Gattis is quick to point out. “This would have been especially noticeable in the case of the electronic library, where a highly optimized signal source is really a necessity, not a luxury.”

MIKING THE WORKS

A total of 94 permanent microphone positions exist within the four hearing rooms upgraded by the Peak Audio design, all of which were outfitted with 18-inch MX418C gooseneck mics from Shure. Two of the rooms (numbers 207 and 209) are identical, with 19 mic positions spread out around a horseshoe-shaped dais, and two more at a witness stand. The largest of the lot, hearing room 105 features a pair of horseshoe-shaped seating areas situated one inside of the other, with the outside horseshoe at a slightly higher elevation. Given over to 15 and 10 mic positions respectively, both platforms face a single mic position at a witness stand. Last among the rooms to feel the effects of Grattis-led improvements, the fourth hearing room, number 308, eschews the horseshoe format in favor of a staggered tri-level arrangement of raised, rectilinear seating areas. With 26 mic positions of its own, it's not quite as large in dimensions as room 105.

Beyond the MX Series gooseneck mics, an SC Series wireless package was also provided by Shure. It “floats” from room to room, generally for use by those in the gallery wishing to comment at an open hearing. Working in a similar capacity, eight of Shure's hardwired SM58 microphones came to the project as well. These mics can be plugged in at various locations as the occasion warrants.

Within any closed environment where scores of open mics in close proximity to loudspeakers are the norm, there are a number of common problems. The potential for feedback looms large. To adequately deal with this and related pitfalls in the hearing rooms, the Peak Audio design relied upon a cleverly crafted mix-minus matrix scheme in which every set of two microphones was given its own zone. Providing the processing to make this scenario work is a Peavey MediaMatrix 208NT mini-frame working in conjunction with multiple MM8830 interface units and A/A-8P mic preamps also selected from the MediaMatrix family of components.

“We can have every mic on in the house, and these systems will work flawlessly,” Gattis says with justifiable pride. “The way we have it configured, when a senator speaks, his or her microphone remains off in their own loudspeaker, while those in adjacent seats are down by various amounts to create a cone of silence. Full-duplex conversations are, however, still provided from seat to seat, as no speaker is ever muted. The house gallery, and all other members not near a given senator's mic, hear that senator at full volume. Each room works so well that the four bands of parametric EQ we have at hand for each speaker were used just to smooth things out a bit. There has never been a need for serious damage 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 on to the loudspeakers, or take the QSC RAVE/Ethernet highway leading to control room destinations such as the electronic library. Activated via a simple EAO switch found at each senator's hearing room position, the Shure gooseneck microphones can be selectively turned on with the push of a button, which sends sound throughout the house, or muted just as easily when a senator wants to speak privately to a neighbor or legal counsel. Proceedings are heard throughout the audience gallery of each room over a multi-zoned distributed system utilizing CDK model 803, 8-inch ceiling-mounted coaxial speakers. Senators listen in on wedge-shaped monitors enclosed in the baffled, mahogany cabinets mounted at each of their respective positions next to their microphones. As further testimony to the efficacy of the matrix/mix-minus design, these custom-built loudspeakers (which are loaded with 4-inch coaxial drivers) are literally aimed into the rear patterns of the gooseneck mics without producing so much as a squeak, peep or chortle.

VIDEO FEATURES AND TELECONFERENCING

Video presentations in each of the hearing rooms can arrive from several sources, including a portable multimedia cart with VHS/DVD and dual-cassette capabilities, which can be shared between all of the rooms by plugging in a single multipin cable carrying audio, video and control signals. Multiple PC interfaces at strategic areas frequented by laptop-toting Powerpoint fanatics are automatically switched to the display monitors and videoconferencing system. Regardless of the source or room, a 42-inch Sony PFM-510, 1280¥1024 plasma screen serves as the medium for viewing by the senators. For the audience, portable display carts can be plugged in and shared between rooms as required. Each of these is equipped with Sony PFM-42B plasma monitors.

As a way of further facilitating his client's video needs, designer Michael Schwartz gave thoughtful consideration to the realities of teleconferencing. As modern communication goes, senators find this technology especially beneficial for times when their schedules won't allow them to be seen and heard in person. Hardware supporting the Gressette Building's teleconferencing network is comprised of three Gentner GT 1524 units, which, as previously mentioned, rely upon the RAVE 188 Ethernet network for signal transport functions and MediaMatrix units for selective routing between rooms. Video teleconferencing codecs will be added in the near future to facilitate communication between the room and up to four remote users, either over the Internet or ISDN lines.

READY FOR THE FUTURE

Using the QSC RAVE/Ethernet links between all the rooms, Gattis envisions a future with no boundaries at the Gressette Building. “The senators are just now getting their feet wet with the technology we've provided,” he says. “As each day passes, they understand more about what can be done now and what kind of other possibilities exist. It's just a matter of time before they will be streaming video between all the rooms on a regular basis, drawing from the electronic library at will, doing more data networking and using the teleconferencing system in new, creative ways. Fortunately, whatever tomorrow may bring, with the RAVE network in place, we have the infrastructure ready today.”


Gregory A. DeTogne is a freelance writer, communications consultant and owner of an editorial public relations firm in Libertyville, Ill. that specializes in pro audio accounts.

Gressette Building Controls: Simplicity Itself

CONTROL ISSUES WITHIN THE HEARING ROOMS, AS WELL AS from the control rooms back to the hearing rooms, fall under the central direction of a Panja/AMX Accent 3 Pro mainframe in each room, tied together through Panja Ethernet gateways, and a Panja NetLinx controller, through a dedicated Ethernet network and 3Com switch. These controllers use a combination of IR, RS-232, data inputs and relay contact closures to interface all in-room equipment with illuminated wall-plate switches. To make the rooms come alive, all a staff person needs to do is flip a green switch to power the system up and a red switch to start recording. Both hardwired (at the chairman's and staff person's positions) and wireless ViewPoint touchpanels from Panja/AMX are at hand for more involved source selection, room control and volume adjustments. The control system was chosen for its simple, non-technical user interface and reliability. Eric Bozard of CMC Communications in Atlanta provided programming for the control network, under the consultant's direction.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

CDK
www.cdkint.com
Circle 121 on Reader Service Card

Gentner
www.gentner.com
Circle 122 on Reader Service Card

Panja
www.panja.com
Circle 123 on Reader Service Card

Peavey
www.peavey.com
Circle 124 on Reader Service Card

QSC Audio
www.qscaudio.com
Circle 125 on Reader Service Card

Shure
www.shure.com
Circle 234 on Reader Service Card

Sony
www.sony.com
Circle 126 on Reader Service Card

The Fast-Working, Flexible Crew

GATTIS PRO AUDIO BEGAN WORK ON THE project in earnest in November 2000, shifting their efforts into warp drive during December. The crew, which, in addition to Gattis, consisted of Bruce Leeper, Scott Shealy and Ken Snyder, put in 14-hour days to keep the job on a fast-forward pace. With the senators back in the building on January 13 for the first 2001 legislative session, the work moved from room to room, with the needs of the politicians overriding construction. “They'd give us notice when they needed 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 we were before. It may sound trying, but with everyone's cooperation, business went on uninterrupted for the legislators, and we never got tired of being in the same place for too long.”

The job was completed following the successful resolution of some rather troublesome cable-routing issues in hearing room 105, which were worked out with the aid of two of the main Senate liaisons on the project, Craig Smith and Bosie Martin. “Right away, we started getting compliments from the senators on how much better the rooms sounded,” Gattis is happy to report. “The senators were telling us they had been working with less than ideal systems for so long that it came as a shock to experience something of this quality. There really is new life in this building now, and it goes well beyond politics as usual.”

Also lending their talents to the project on behalf of Peak Audio were Deb Britton, Zebeth Parks, Ray Rayburn and Rich Zwiebel. Initiated by former Clerk of the Senate Frank Caggiano and his assistant Hogan Brown, the upgrade was part of a larger 3-year plan that was designed to modernize all the hearing rooms in the Gressette Building. The program continues to receive support from current Clerk of the Senate Jeff Gossette and, as previously noted, is well-appreciated by members of the South Carolina Senate.

© 2001, IndustryClick Corp., a PRIMEDIA company. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of IndustryClick Corp.