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Autograph Sound parties at 35,000ft for World Pride

Celebrating World Pride in New York, on the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Autograph’s Special Events Department was charged with providing the inflight sound system on Virgin Atlantic’s celebratory ‘Pride Flight’ (VS69) from London to New York on 28 June. Neutrik’s Xirium PRO made it all possible.

“Production company One Green Bean approached Autograph to facilitate DJs and other entertainment onboard the flight,” said Autograph head of special events, Andrew Hedges. “The brief was for ‘a big party atmosphere’. At the same time Virgin Atlantic’s engineering team presented us with paperwork covering the rules and stipulations as to what was and what was not permitted onboard a civil aviation flight, ensuring that whatever equipment we were going to use would in no way interfere with the operational safety of the plane.“

Among other things, this prohibited fixing anything to the structure of the aircraft and the use of cable runs in the cabin. Signal transmission to any PA speakers therefore had to be wireless but restricted to within the 5GHz WiFi band, to prevent potential interference with the aircraft’s own wireless communications, and ruling out use of conventional mobile RF systems. With no suitable mains power available throughout the cabin, the system had to be self-powered, fully portable and completely stowed away during take-off and ascent, and descent and landing.

Transmitting uncompressed high-resolution audio in the 5GHz band, Xirium PRO offered a potential professional solution. “We had used it on one occasion before, on a theatre production,” continued Hedges, “which bore little relation to the requirements of this project, with an airplane full of people congaing up and down the aisle.”

Xirium PRO operating instructions stipulate line-of-sight operation. “It is the only available product with very low latency operating in the 5GHz band, and the receiver units have a 10-hour battery life,” added David Prosser, who engineered the event in the air with Adam ‘Fabulous’ Taylor. “But effectively operating in a cylindrical tube full of people, there would be little or no line of sight to the receivers.”

A series of tests on the ground with a demo unit from Neutrik UK, including onboard the aircraft itself, established that the system would work successfully despite the operational constraints of the venue. “With the demo unit in the actual aircraft, we decided on a system configuration that we determined would work to best effect under the circumstances,” confirmed Hedges. “A transmitter positioned FOH with the DJ equipment, in the bar area – where a 110v mains supply was available – with a repeater unit halfway down the cabin and seven receivers coupled to the rear of a Mackie FreePlay Live battery operated speaker system, placed under seats along the left hand aisle and firing out across the cabin.”

The viability of using the system confirmed, Autograph purchased its own from Neutrik UK’s southern area Xirium PRO reseller Everything Audio. “We purchased a Tx, and four Rx system for our production inventory. This formed the basis of the system on the flight, with Neutrik UK loaning the additional components from demo stock,” said Prosser. Each speaker and its corresponding receiver – along with connecting cables – were individually flight-cased for transportation, and to be stowed in overhead lockers during take-off and landing.

On the day of the event it was entirely down to Prosser and Taylor to get the system aboard and stowed for take-off, to break it out and set it up, engineer and operate it during the festivities, and break it down and stow it back in the lockers for descent and landing. “A lot of the unknown was in respect of logistics; like getting it all through security, which required special clearance and still raised a few eyebrows,” explained Prosser. “We managed to get onboard ahead of everyone else and get all the kit in the overhead lockers, and to set up a secure WiFi network point, so as to be able to connect up and monitor the system using iPads, on the 2.4GHz band system control layer.

“Combined with the high-resolution signal quality of the Xirium PRO, the high spec of the FreePlay Lives, relative to their really compact form, meant we were able achieve the sense of a real club sound, as opposed to the probable alternative of using a bunch of small Bluetooth speakers. With a speaker and receiver unit under every fourth or fifth seat it worked well. With the repeater unit halfway down the plane, and the directional receiver antennae pointing up the cabin to get the maximum signal strength, there were no dead spots.

“As an event, it was certainly one of a kind – even in the special events category. It was quite nuts! We were very impressed with the Xirium PRO, which suited us down to the ground, even though we were deploying beyond its normal intended usage. And between them, Everything Audio and Neutrik UK’s technical product manager, Charlie Cook, provided great support at really short notice.

“When you work with a tool as well thought out as that, you start to see its wider applications; especially on events where aesthetics are a concern, or where cable routes are either prohibited or impractical.”