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Opinion: the importance of making yourself heard

test 19 November 2008

After well over 30 years working in professional audio there is a lot to say about the amazingly fast development, digitisation, and cost reductions due to changes such as manufacturing moving to China. There are sections of the market, though, that are still slow to change, develop and improve.

This is especially true in the tendering and management of sound equipment in public spaces, sports arenas and the like. For the most part, development has stood still in Sweden, mainly due to complicated public tender regulations – ALOS (tendering in the academic and public sectors), LOU (laws governing public sector purchases) and others – as well as the lack of clear and mandatory regulations describing what is required in a modern sound system.

To limit this article to a reasonable length, we have chosen to describe a hypothetical project concerning the purchase of a football stadium, which involves sound for public areas indoors and out, fire alarms and security.

The consultation phase

The hypothetical arena will be of a respectable size, accomodating 20,000 visitors. It should also be able to host athletics events and music concerts. When a project of this scale is announced, there is a great deal of activity where consultants are concerned. Electroacoustic and acoustic consultants normally disappear in the process and, at best, have a loose advisory role.

The public address system often ends up being the responsibility of the electrical consultant, who generally lacks the skills and knowledge required to design a modern installation. The more sensible electrical consultants usually seek assistance from a distributor or other audio company, which is then promised some form of preferential treatment in the forthcoming tender as compensation for their efforts.

Already, at this early stage of the process, the ability to be objective has disappeared.

In recent times there has been some improvement in this situation due to the requirement for voice evacuation alarms in arenas, and the availability of more coherent regulations to guide the process. However, this doesn’t always work. For example, Stockholm interprets the national recommendations differently from Gothenberg when it comes to the use of fireproof loudspeaker cabling.

Svensk Brandskyddsförening (the Swedish Fire Protection Association), which issues these recommendations, could provide more guidance regarding public address systems but instead leaves it to consultants to independently arrive at solutions for large outdoor public address systems.

However, it is clear that voice evacuation system design according to the SVBF document Utrymmningslarm 2003, and even the European standard EN60849:1998, is missing a real connection with larger and outdoor systems.

It is common for both a voice evacuation system and a public address system to be installed, increasing costs unnecessarily and resulting in deficiencies in co-ordination of the two systems.

A suitable set of guiding criteria is missing. Voiced alarms would appear to be the exception, but these regulations are also unclear in many aspects. The sound technology aspect of the arena is often badly handled due to this confusion.

Fundamental design decisions regarding the construction of the sound system are often completely missing from the tender documentation: for example, which areas shall be covered, sound pressure level requirements, zoning for announcements, systems for the hard of hearing and so on. This means that received bids are extremely diverse, both technically and financially, and are therefore impossible to compare on a level playing field.

When the design and use of technology for the hypothetical stadium doesn’t meet even the most fundamental requirements at the consultation stage, things are very bad indeed. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.

Tendering

The tender process can vary substantially. Often things go very smoothly, occasionally the tendering regulations completely dominate proceedings and the sound system becomes of secondary importance.

When it comes to examining the content of the bids, the person responsible usually delegates the job to someone who is also not suitably knowledgeable. Consequently, a consultant can be drafted in to read the bids, but even here, relevant knowledge is often shallow.

Many consultants – both electrical and acoustic – like to claim they have great skills in electroacoustics. The truth is that there is only a handful of people in the whole of Sweden who have an acceptable level of knowledge in this demanding field.

All of this means winning a bid always boils down to the most important criteria – the price! Everyone can understand which bid has the lowest price, but few have the ability to see what they are really getting for their money. Many of the bids that arrive are very low when it comes to cost, sometimes due to pure ignorance and sometimes in the hope that they can make a case for additional costs later.

We have seen this year after year; many of the bids ought never to have been submitted due to failure to reach the criteria and lack of knowledge in the subject. The remaining serious offers are filtered out as being too expensive, even though the numbers are more realistic. In other competitive tenders it has been noticed that the process has favoured one particular supplier and the other bids have been taken to make proceedings look transparent and proper; a practice that is not particularly respectful.

Installation

The installation is often the painless part of the project, so long as the various contractors work as they should. However, certain elements require careful monitoring.

A well-documented description of the electrical supply for the sound system is often missing. For larger installations an isolated three-phase system is required, but it is often incredibly difficult to have delivered, especially if it’s not specified from the beginning. Then comes the question of who should pay?

The outcome is often that the sound system ends up sharing a supply with other services resulting in noise and interference in the audio signal.

Audio equipment is also commonly installed in places that are not completed due to other contractors’ delays. Another problem is that audio cables are routed too closely to high-voltage cables.

This is understandable as the electrical contractor most often installs the cable basket a long time before the audio contractor even gets on site and the requirements for audio cabling may not have been considered fully. By calling all contractors in at an early stage, many of these problems can be avoided.

Once the installation is completed and commissioned, it needs to be inspected. The inspector is usually a wizard at checking cable pulls, the fixing of the cable to basketry, that high and low voltage cables are well separated in the racks, and that electrical safety is upheld.

However, a modern public address system can consist of:
l     Optical fibres
l     Cat5e, Cat6 and even Cat7 twisted pairs
l     Programming of control systems and DSP
l     Integration of sound and evacuation systems
l     Computers and control over the internet.

Only a small number of people know how all these disparate systems function, and those few are often part of a contractor or supplier, meaning a conflict of interest can occur.
For a public address system to be put into operation, staff must receive some form of training.

It is common that a responsible person is not designated or those that are have a distinct lack of subject knowledge. This is common even though in Sweden we educate sound technicians to a good standard in high schools. However, the focus there is mainly on studio techniques. At least these youngsters have an education that is heading in the right direction – employ one of these!

Another small but essential matter is that the announcer has a suitable voice for the job. He or she must also know how to use a microphone, even when in an excited state. Education is required even for this person.

Post completion

A common misconception is that ‘such an expensive installation should take care of itself’, an idea that is completely wrong and can be devastating to the system in the long run. The public address system must be maintained. An effective maintenance programme ought to exist, and this applies to every installation.

‘Effective’ means regular inspection of all hardware, cabling and terminations, and ensuring the correct functioning of control and fault monitoring systems: all in conjunction with detailed logging of testing and faults. This permanent record is invaluable to the troubleshooting process and can even be part of an examination of events after evacuations.

With the recent publication of sections of the European safety standards document EN54 regarding voice evacuation alarms, it is likely that these will be more often integrated with public address systems.

Through this we should see arena public address systems in Sweden that compare with those we heard from Switzerland and Austria during this year’s Euro 2008 football championships. Even if we don’t think that we need to conform to the regulations of football governing bodies such as FIFA and UEFA, we must respect our audiences and give them sound that they can hear clearly, and evacuation systems that work as they were intended.

All of this is achievable, but the correct requirements must be put in place: the budget for the public address system must be suitable and the design team and installers must have acceptable levels of competence.

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