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Solutions: Pink Floyd ‘Their Mortal Remains’ exhibition

The latest exhibition from the Victoria & Albert Museum with a musical theme has audio from Sennheiser, strong visuals and an immersive finale. Paddy Baker paid a visit

With sales of more than 250 million albums worldwide, Pink Floyd are one of the most successful rock bands ever, as well as one of the most influential. Their history and legacy is explored in The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains, the latest music-related exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. It is organised as a chronological journey through the band’s career, from their origins in the psychedelic scene of the 1960s through to their mid-1990s albums The Division Bell and Pulse.

Like in 2013’s David Bowie Is, audio partner Sennheiser makes a twofold contribution: it has created a 3D audio upmix of a classic recording, and it delivers a soundtrack to the exhibition. As you enter, you are given a body pack and headphones, and as you move around the exhibition space, the relevant audio fades in on your headphones – synced to any video that is playing.

The audio zone around each exhibit is bounded by a loop laid in the floor. Around 40 videos – historic performances and interviews both old and new – are playing on a mixture of Samsung 22in and 40in and NEC 24in displays. As the visitor approaches one of these, transmission of the corresponding audio stream is launched by an inconspicuous trigger unit.

Audio and video content at each of these exhibits is housed on a BrightSign HD223 media player local to the screen, with the audio is sent over a balanced audio pair to a Sennheiser guidePORT transmitters in each gallery’s AV rack location. These then send an RF signal to antennas in the ceiling and elsewhere. Small trigger units, placed near the exhibits, known as identifiers, tell the bodypacks which audio stream to receive or play.

Alan Macdonald, managing director of Media Powerhouse, which installed the Sennheiser system, notes: “The great thing about leaving the BrightSigns local to the displays is you just need a short HDMI cable, and just run the audio back. All the Brightsigns are networked so content uploads and updates have been really simple to achieve; in the lead-up [to a show like this] there are always little changes of content – but we were able to manage that quickly and effectively.”

The exhibition occupies the same physical space as the David Bowie exhibition and last year’s You Say You Want a Revolution. This means that Robert Génereux, business director, system design at Sennheiser, who had overall responsibility for the programming of the guidePORT system, was familiar with the quirks of the room’s construction – in particular, the metal sheets under the floor which make propagation of RF signals harder than it would otherwise be.

Génereux comments that the guidePORT system makes for “a fully automated yet entirely personal tour, as the exhibition can be explored in whatever order and at any pace whatsoever. The audio is always played at the right time for each visitor, and gently faded in and out when they enter or leave an area.”

Technology and visuals

A broad range of exhibits are on show at the exhibition: documents include early photographs, diaries, handwritten lyrics, letters and contracts; there are also musical instruments, and audio technology, including the Quad Panner built for the band by Britannia Row to handle live quadraphonic sound.

Pink Floyd’s visual identity is also given full rein – including classic cover artwork by design studio Hipgnosis (co-founded by Aubrey Powell, who led the exhibition design), and the inflatable characters, developed from Gerald Scarfe cartoons, that were used in the stage show of The Wall.

Five projectors, displaying content from BrightSign XT243 media players, are used to create a 3D rendering of the iconic cover design of the Dark Side of the Moon album, where a triangular prism diffracts a ray of white light into the colours of the spectrum. This is a Pepper’s Ghost illusion, designed and created by Cinimod Studio and installed by Media Powerhouse.

Dotted throughout the exhibition are telephone boxes decorated with newspapers, magazines and other printed media – giving a social historical context to the band’s catalogue.

Pink Floyd were renowned for being experimental in the recording studio. Visitors get the chance to appreciate the different elements of the song Money by playing with the levels of eight different channels: two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, vocals, saxophone and cash register! A number of Formula Sound Que-18 mixers are provided for this purpose, with the output sent to the individual visitor’s headphones via guidePORT.

Performance Zone

The climax of the show is a showing of the group’s performance of Comfortably Numb from Live 8 in 2005, the last occasion they played live. This has been upmixed by Sennheiser using its AMBEO technology to an 18.3 mix, and played through18 Neumann KH 420 midfield monitor speakers and seven Neumann KH 870 subwoofers.

The monitors in the Performance Zone are placed at three different heights: at 2m, there are three at the front of the room, two at the back and two on each side; at 4m to 5m there are three at the front, two at the back and two at the sides; and two are deployed as a ‘voice of God’ about 6m high at the centre of the room. Three subwoofers are positioned at the front, two at the back, and one on each side.

The feeling of immersion is increased by video being projected on all four walls of the room: ten Panasonic 6,200-lumen laser projectors, edge-blended, beam a continuous band of video 45.5m long and 3.5m high. (The total canvas is 15,824 x 1,200 pixels.) Content is driven by three Dataton Watchpax 4 media servers.

Moving-head fixtures in this zone create a light show that both adds to the live ambience and also at times nods to the liquid light shows that accompanied the band’s earliest performances.

Media Powerhouse supplied the video equipment for the exhibition, and is also the on-site operative running the show. Much of the video installation was designed by Richard Turner of Lucky Frog. He describes the Panasonic laser projectors as “quite astonishing – I’m very pleased with them.” He describes himself as “a fan of Panasonic”, and cites the projectors’ reliability as well as the long life – without the need for lamp replacement – that laser technology affords. “I don’t see that anybody is going to be going for anything other than laser light-source projectors within the year – especially in the rental market.”

Panasonic laser projectors are used for most of the projections within the exhibition, apart from the ceiling projection in the exhibition’s first room, which has a psychedelic theme. This uses Optoma GT1080 projectors because their lensing worked better to cover the whole of the ceiling, Turner explains.

The content for that projection is delivered by Tachyon media servers from Canadian company VYV – in what is believed to be their first outing in the UK. “They’re my latest favourite media server people,” he says. The Tachyon solution is “fundamentally Nvidia Shield 4K gaming boxes, Android driven – each one becomes a display head. They’re well worth a look – their tracking and alignment procedures knock everybody else out of the water, quite frankly.”

He adds that he would also have used the VYV system for the Performance Zone projection, but “to get a couple of hundred gigs of storage on them was getting problematic on the software.”

Alan Macdonald declares himself very pleased with the overall outcome. “I think this has been the most well-received exhibition we’ve worked on – the press reviews were great, it’s potentially got great longevity to it, and hopefully we’ll move on as it tours through Europe.”

He continues: “It was an amazing project – we were very lucky to be involved in it. I think the end result from a creative and technical point of view was first-class. The story that’s told is very good – the whole thing is done very well.”