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Bars, Clubs Restaurants: Separate tables?

Something slightly curious happened at the SIB International tradeshow in Rimini, Italy, in April. For the first time, the biennial festival of entertainment technology introduced a hall dedicated to commercial and residential AV. The innovation was in keeping with SIB’s stated goal of embracing new markets, and it went down well with exhibitors.

As Ennio Prase, co-owner of specialist installed audio distributor Prase Engineering, put it after the show: “SIB was fantastic and really positive for us – the right exhibitors, the right visitors, the right environment. Would we go back in two years’ time? Unquestionably, yes.”

Other exhibitors in the ‘AV’ zone echoed Prase’s comments but, elsewhere at the show, the mood was less uniformly positive. Some moving- head lighting manufacturers had already defected to the rival ShowWay event in Bergamo earlier in the year. Those who remained found themselves in halls which, while they buzzed and boomed to the tune of the local DJ community strutting its stuff over the weekend, didn’t seem to deliver much that was new in the way of solid business. All of which raises a question. If the audio side of the entertainment technology industry is so happy to embrace the new breed of AV-oriented customer, why doesn’t the lighting side of it see the same potential? Is the much-vaunted convergence between commercial AV and entertainment really happening? Or is its progress being impeded by the conservatism of the manufacturers and their supply chains?

On the ground, there’s little doubt that entertainment venues themselves are increasingly demanding convergence. Mike Glover, whose Essex Sound & Light company specialises in integration for night venues, sums up the situation when he says: “The AV and video side of things is really picking up now. People are grabbing hold of the idea and running with it. And most of these customers would rather we came in and took over the whole job – the sound, the light and the AV.

“That’s especially true if they’re new to the industry and it’s their first venue. They get worried, and they want one person to manage all the technical aspects of the installation. It’s so much easier for them if we can be a one-stop shop, and they have only one number to call if something is not right.”

Return to Mayhem

The March 2008 edition of Installation Europe showcased one of ESL’s most comprehensive installations: Mayhem in Southend-on-Sea. The company revisited the nightclub to extend the AV and lighting infrastructure to newly opened areas, after completing the initial project in 2005. From an integration perspective, it’s hard to imagine a nightclub that has taken the convergence of sound, light and video more seriously. At Mayhem, Glover’s company used the Green Hippo Hippotizer Express media server as the main source of AV content, and the ShowCAD Artist show-control system as the primary means of controlling it.

“ShowCAD triggers everything – we use it as the main controller for all our installations,” says Glover. “And we’ve found the Hippotizer to be one of the best media servers on the market. It’s not the cheapest, but we’ve found it to be the most reliable. Green Hippo is happy to get involved and will amend anything that needs to be amended to make it right for each particular job.” Yet it’s interesting to note that neither ShowCAD nor Green Hippo are exactly a household name within the commercial AV community. Both companies tend to promote their offerings through established entertainment industry channels, rather than AV ones. By the same token, established names in multimedia sourcing and control in the AV world, such as Crestron and AMX, have yet to make much headway in the world of bars, lounges and clubs. Glover thinks he knows at least part of the reason why.

“At Mayhem,” Glover explains, “they had four leather-clad VIP pods that had TV screens inside them. Initially those screens were showing the same content as the rest of the club. Then the owners decided that the customers using the pods should have channel selection for their screens, and we were going to use AMX for that, linking the controllers to the Kramer AV matrix switcher that was at the core of the signal distribution in the installation. But it was going to be expensive, and we were concerned that in a club environment, the touchscreens wouldn’t be rugged enough.”

Having rejected an AV solution to an entertainment problem, ESL then decided to take the opposite tack. “We’d installed some BSS controllers in the pods for audio source selection, and there was a pot on each of them that we weren’t using,” Glover recalls. “We wanted to connect the BSS Soundweb London DSP controller to the Kramer matrix via RS-232 so that we could use the pot to select video as well as audio. BSS told us we couldn’t do it. Two weeks later, we called them to tell them how we’d done it!”

Broader options

ESL has used Crestron and AMX controllers on a few occasions, but Glover says he would generally view them “as an add-on, not as the main platform for the system”. In contrast, Chris Gunton at CGA Integration, another ‘one-stop shop’ company with an impressive track record in the entertainment industry, is something of an evangelist when it comes to the broader media control and building management options that a Crestron or AMX solution can provide. Then again, that may be because CGA’s business has diversified substantially in recent years, and now embraces locations such as hotels, fitness centres, and even people’s homes.

“There are more one-stop shops in the residential market than in the commercial one,” Gunton observes. “That’s partly because there still needs to be more convergence on the part of the manufacturers. If you look at Crestron products, for example – they understand lighting dimmers, but they don’t understand DMX.”

In many ways, this is the other side of the ShowCAD/Green Hippo coin. Both Crestron and AMX were happy to take the plunge into SIB’s new-look show this year, but they were firmly in the ‘quiet AV’ hall, where DMX (which, for all its limitations, remains the technological lifeblood of entertainment lighting) would be dismissed as irrelevant, if it were understood at all.

Like a fair number of entertainment- industry integrators, Gunton began his career as a DJ. He designed sound and light installations for dozens of what he calls ‘high street’ venues in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, before realigning his business to cater for higher-end customers requiring a more bespoke solution, among them top-name hotels and restaurants. He sees him- self as “a mediator – someone who pulls people from different disciplines together”, but accepts this isn’t appropriate for every client.

“There are some people I only do audio for, because they already have a regular lighting company,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the customer’s mindset, and there’s no point arguing with them if they have specialists who they trust, working in a particular field. There are lighting designers out there who are doing stuff that you couldn’t do unless you were fully focused on lighting. There is the argument that if you want someone to do your books, you don’t go to a plumber who is also an accountant. So I can see both sides of the argument.”

Bigger picture

Gunton does admit to getting frustrated, however, when a customer’s inability to see the bigger picture results in a project not being realised in the most technologically complete – and financially advantageous – way. “We did a pitch recently to a hotel that was spending £8,000 a month on electricity,” he says, “and reckoned that by putting in a Crestron control hub and a room management system to automatically turn power on and off, we could save them 30% of that. Not only could we have saved them power, but we could also have reduced maintenance costs by having remote management of that, too.

“The problem was that the accountants couldn’t see beyond the through-the-door cost of the system – it was just too high. So now we’re doing the lighting, someone else is doing the AV, and someone else is complaining about the electricity bill!”

In these days of spiralling energy costs, the ability of systems integration to reduce customers’ electricity bills could yet act as an important catalyst for further convergence of AV with entertainment technology. Using a central control hub for lighting and AV in a hotel environment is one example. Another is the increasing adoption of LED – a favoured technology of the AV fraternity – by traditional sound and lighting contractors, in preference to more conventional light sources.

“LED saves you running costs, but it can also save on initial installation costs,” says Glover. “In the past, if we went to fit out a venue that had 100A or 200A three-phase electricity coming in, the chances are that wouldn’t have been enough. They’d have had kitchens, high-power audio and so on, and if you put conventional coloured lights on top of that, you’d need a bigger mains feed. “LED lighting draws a lot less power, and it means we’re no longer having to use things like generic PAR cans, which draw an enormous amount of power. So in many cases, we can now use the existing AC mains feed without any problems at all.”

A perfect example of this is the restaurant and nightclub at 50 Dover Street in London (see case study, left), where the ESL team has undertaken a complete overhaul of the lighting system, which is now exclusively LED-based and draws just 10A of mains power. But simply installing a series of LED panels into such a venue would not, on its own, have been sufficient to take the place of the previous lighting set-up. It is ESL’s expertise in video servers, show control and AV signal distribution that have enabled the LED effects to rise above those that preceded them, and make the project a creative triumph – as well as a financial success.

To put it another way (and use something of an industry cliché), content is king. “We don’t personally get involved with the programming of content, but we sub-contract it and work very closely with the people who do,” says Glover.

Gunton tells a similar story: “We work with two or three companies who are specialists in their field, because customers are starting to recognise the importance of having a proper music or AV profile for their venue. A good profiler will come back to the venue after the content has been supplied, to see how it’s working, whether it suits the ambience, whether the customers are enjoying it. It’s not like a pub chain where you can specify the music for the whole country. It’s a bespoke job that requires a bespoke approach. I liken it to the skill of a DJ working a room – being able to react to what the crowd is doing. How do you keep the atmosphere going? Or how do you change it if it’s not working? That’s where specialist knowledge of content comes in.”

But, as Gunton says, if you’re serious about content, you need integration. “Everything needs to be brought under central control if you want the venue environment to be consistent. You need time clocks to reduce or eliminate the staff requirement. If everything – audio, AV, lighting – is triggered off the hard drive, the venue can still trade if the manager takes the day off.” This interest in the ongoing wellbeing of a venue, long after the technical installation has been completed, is often what helps differentiate a true integrator from a disinterested contractor. “We look after the service side for every project we install,” says Glover. “We have a big in-house repair team, and we carry loan stock that we can supply to a customer to replace equipment that has failed. It’s basically a complete package, from drawings and content design through to looking after the venue after it’s been completed.”

Yet the broader the range of technologies an integrator embraces, the greater the risk that something they have supplied will fail. “We should be looking at more multi-faith, multi-disciplined systems,” says Gunton, “but we need standards. We need redundancy because when everything comes down to one interface, if it falls over you have a problem.

“We should be telling manufacturers that we need more redundancy, more split processors. And we should be saying to end users: consider the cost of ownership, maintenance and backing up. This gear doesn’t go on forever. People change the computer in their office every two years, yet these same people expect their Crestron or AMX touchpanel to keep going for more than a decade. And it’s working 24/7, it’s in a harsher environment, you’ve got all sorts of people using it, so it’s going to be subjected to more abuse. Why do people expect it to last so long?”

The situation is probably best summed up like this. Pro-AV and entertainment technology are certainly converging, not least in the way that integrators themselves align their businesses and their skill sets. But manufacturers still have some R&D to do before the process is complete, and once that is done, they will need to think harder about how they position themselves in the market. Can lighting companies, for example, continue to promote the ‘wow factor’ of individual products, rather than the potential of their range to play its part in a total, integrated system solution?

At the other end of the food chain, too, there is still some progress to be made – not just in how customers perceive these technologies, but in how they buy and use them. Gunton says it is now “absolutely normal for digital signage to sit alongside LED lighting in a hotel bar”, but he worries that corporate end-user structures are standing in the way of better systems.

“There is a management issue. When you look at a hotel, the different areas, such as the lobby, the conference rooms, the restaurant, the nightclub, and the guestrooms themselves, are often managed by different people. So the potential that you have for putting in a joined-up system, one in which the digital signage can tell people where to go for tomorrow’s meeting, wherever they are in the hotel, and is linked to the same control platform as the lighting, might be limited.” In essence, then – and to use Gunton’s somehow very apposite buzzword – it’s not just a question of having joined-up technology. We need joined-up thinking, too.