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Not child’s play: A Yamaha installation on an epic scale for new National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham

Sound system designer Rob Harris talks Jon Chapple through his ultra-complex yet idiot-proof Yamaha/Dante audio install

The National Videogame Arcade (NVA) in Nottingham is the world’s first cultural centre for video gaming. Designed as both a games museum and an educational resource to get young people into programming and games design, the NVA, which opened on 27 March this year, is described by The Guardian’s Simon Parkin as gaming’s own ‘national gallery’.

Created as part of the EU Regional Development Fund-backed CQ Connect initiative, the NVA is located in a converted lace factory in Nottingham city centre. It features four floors of playable galleries, plus a cinema, café and lecture/event space, covering over 3,000m².

“We built the NVA because the world needed a place to celebrate and explore the extraordinary creative potential of videogames,” NVA co-founder Jonathan Smith – best known in the games world for his work on the Lego series for TT Games – tells PSNEurope of the project’s genesis. “We want everyone in the world to understand how interesting games can be, and we want as many people as possible to be able to play them together, so we needed a permanent building which could house a continually changing set of exhibitions and playable exhibits; be a social space and venue for games-playing; bring families together; and be a base for our educational work with schools and students. We get people to play new games, we treasure and rediscover games from the past and we teach people to make entirely new games.”

Rob Harris, the owner of audio/technical creative agency Red Brick Red, was commissioned by Smith to design, specify and install the NVA’s ambitious sound system, based on products from Yamaha’s Commercial Installation Solutions (CIS) line. “It’s a complicated building, basically in two halves with a courtyard in the middle, with each having a variety of different spaces and corridors,” explains Harris.

“We needed a system that would effectively route any audio to any room or combination of rooms, but one of the fundamental remits of the design was that the whole system had to be controllable by non-technical users.”

Harris is a long-time user of both Yamaha processors – he describes himself as “a big fan” of the DME series, which seem to sit tirelessly in venue back ends” – and Dante AoIP networking – “I also do a lot of live multi-tracking, so I work regularly with Dante devices; in my opinion, it is the best audio networking protocol”. Harris says that when he discovered the Dante-enabled MTX processor line, “I asked Yamaha to let me have a play!”

After also being impressed by Yamaha’s newly launched VXS series of surface-mount speakers, and exploring the scalability of the MTX, he specced the kit for the NVA, purchased directly from Yamaha Commercial Audio UK.

What Harris calls the “heart and mind” of the NVA system is a pair of Dante-networked MTX5-D matrix mixers, two redundant network switches and two XMV4280-D and two 8280-D power amplifiers, which drive over 70 Yamaha speakers, including VXC ceiling models, VS4, VS6, VXS5 and VXS8 full-range units and a selection of VXS10ST subs, all in a mixture of 70V, 100V, 8Ω and 4Ω configurations.

System control comes from six wall-mounted DCP4V4S wall-mounted units, while an additional three PA2030s power amplifiers drive systems in break-out teaching spaces, and the system also integrates with some existing AV technology.

“The audio brief was actually incredibly complicated, as” – as mentioned above – “they wanted anyone to be able to run events with no technical knowhow or any kind of musical ear,” Harris continues. “As I’m involved in the venue/studio world this gave me all sorts of worries, as events always have a house technician present.”

Using a selection of Yamaha DCP panels, Harris created custom patches which allow any user to turn devices on and off and the volume up and down: “For instance, in the venue there are two panels that control four mics, house music, HDMI-extracted audio, send to Skype and iPod in. The end user sees a lovely shiny panel, but in the back end I’m hacking out the room modes […], dropping in comps and feedback suppressors, creating crossovers, re-voicing speakers, creating local volume limits and implementing duckers for announcements.

“All this is going on in the back end without the end user knowing anything other than that the mics go loud and don’t squeal!”

The second part of the brief was no less complicated: “They also wanted to be able to create numerous local zones of audio, announce to the whole building, have layers of automation and have a system that can be tweaked and addressed by other devices.” This was achieved via a redundant Dante digital bus connecting both sides of the building, along with a Yamaha YDIF I/O for internal system bussing and additional routing.

Aside from “addressing the need for ‘non-technician’ events [where no sound engineer is present]”, Harris highlights “getting cables and services around the building” as the greatest challenge when speccing the system. “There were so many sound, light, power and networking services that we actually came up with a system that would expose the wires and allow people to see the systems in play,” he explains.

“It’s been dubbed the ‘Axonic Cascade’, but is essentially a four-story scaffold sculpture that we built in the middle of the old stairwell which allows cables to tumble in free-fall before shooting off to their respective floors. On other levels we erected a huge network of flying tray that meant cables feed out of the cascade and essentially reach from anywhere to anywhere. This also allowed us to distribute mains electricity in a new way and provide perfect high platforms for lighting and computer systems.”

Axonic Cascades aside, how difficult would it be designing a system like the NVA’s in a pre-Dante/digital audio networking world? “I actually don’t think it could be done in the same way. I think even older matrix systems had to have more of a set design/usage brief at the beginning, and then that was more or less that.

“Using Dante as the core distribution system has meant I could design a fully redundant system which can be expanded and tweaked as the building evolves. I’ve hooked up visiting [Behringer] X32s and multitrack recorders all without touching the main core systems, as well as bringing other areas online as the NVA explores new room uses and event types.”

However, having such a versatile audio system has its drawbacks – not least in the sheer amount going on behind the scenes. “The system has so many different uses that a huge amount of processing is needed,” explains Harris. “People think that pressing a button on one of the DCP4V4S wall units is just switching a microphone on and off, but it’s also causing the system to set compressors, EQ, gain levels, inputs, outputs and so on. And that’s all going on behind the scenes, without anybody being aware of it.

“Nearly all the available sends, Dante channels and DSP are being used. The system is also fully redundant and has facilities like automated, scheduled overnight amplifier shutdowns and switchovers.”

The NVA set-up is configured so its designer has remote control – “I have secure access and, on one occasion, configured the system for an event on my iPhone while sat in the pub!” – but, fortunately, Harris hasn’t had to spend too much time propping up the bar since the install: “I am very rarely onsite, and considering there are thousands of visitors and events most nights, I have had to make almost no repair visits other than to implement new ideas and workflows, which the system allows. We are addressing about 80 speakers and around 33,000sqft of space, all in a very esoteric way, so I’m really happy how it’s turned out.”

Harris says he’s also satisfied with the mix of both analogue and digital patching present in the install: “Every zone is like a mini venue, with ties that feed a studio patchbay and then the digital I/O, so with a combo of presets and hard patching we can turn zones into remote event spaces with very little notice and work.”

Harris’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed: Jonathan Smith is full of praise for both his sound system design and the performance of the CIS equipment. “Sound creates emotion [and] music brings people together, and the ability to put on a show was always integral to our plan for the building,” he says. “We have this incredible former lace factory spread over five storeys, and right from the start we wanted to add AV layers that were both exposed and accessible to creators.

“Rob’s design and installation of the Yamaha system gave us an incredible level of power to shape and control our visitor experience. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the outcome.”

All photos: Karl Christmas