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Stadiums and arenas: The Gold Standard

Is there a compromise between Olympic-level safety compliance and good pro audio? Phil Ward tries to keep track with the stadium business…

As well as the main east London site, this summer’s Olympic Games will reach out to venues across the UK for the express purpose of football. Matches will be played at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Millennium Stadium Cardiff, Old Trafford in Manchester, St James’ Park in Newcastle, Wembley Stadium in London – and the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, which for the duration of the Games will be known as the City of Coventry Stadium. The renaming of the latter speaks volumes. Strict sponsorship policies continue to shroud the Olympic infrastructure in a surreal canopy: existing arrangements are set aside; new ones vie for position; and brand equity becomes a jealously guarded commodity. This year, especially, the mania for correctly sponsored real estate has pumped unusually high carbon emissions into the oxygen of publicity so, even in this magazine, don’t expect any mention of the pro-audio and AV kit spearheading the cause of a successful Games until it’s all over. That would be contrary to the Olympic ‘spirit’ of fair play. RELEVANT SPORTSAlthough, for many, football is the least relevant Olympic sport – ticket sales are slow – the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) has chosen from the top tier of British soccer for its venues, whose audio systems already comply with very high standards. No refurbishment of the stadiums has therefore been necessary to host this particular dimension to the Games. The general view is that, provided a Premiership-style stadium is being used, all regulatory standards are being met – an assumption that also applies to UEFA’s guidelines for the Polish and Ukrainian stadiums lined up for this summer’s European Championship finals. The basic requirements are safe means of evacuation, some sort of zoning, and a level of intelligibility that passes the standard Speech Transmission Index (STI) tests – not that any documentation supplied by a global body such as FIFA, UEFA or the IOC would have the capacity to delve into the technical niceties laid down by the redoubtable International Electrotechnical Commission Objective. The same applies to all sports, not just football, although some variations occur when the sport in question – beach volleyball, ice-skating, gymnastics, synchronised swimming – requires a musical interlude or accompaniment. That said, events of this kind are usually completed with some kind of temporary overlay rather than by using the permanent audio system. Which poses the question: if you’re building a swimming pool that you know will be used for synchronised swimming, for example, and which naturally requires intelligible VA, why use two different systems? For this year’s Games, there continues to be a two-tiered process of commissioning: one for the opening and closing ceremonies plus aesthetic daubs such as the aforementioned sonic backdrops for dressage and the like; and another for the permanent systems that take care of VA. ‘PA’ and ‘VA’, in fact, are separated by way more than a punctuation mark. The best presentationAnd this is odd because, thanks to the universal force of television, presentation is everything. AV is used in more ways than ever before, not just for the traditional adjuncts to certain sports but for the sponsor-friendly mechanisms of engaging the very audiences they need to attract, both at home and in the stadium. Today’s DSP-driven AV and pro-audio systems can supply that kind of high-quality content in abundance, so why aren’t they beginning to take over the entire landscape of stadium and arena installation? The answer may lie in European Standard EN54. It has largely superseded both BS 5839 and EN60849, the formerly established system performance specifications – as QSC Audio’s product applications specialist Martin Barbour points out. “Because of EN54,” he says, “as an industry we’ve moved away from system performance to product type testing, which is a completely different way of approaching the same problem. Under 60849, you were largely free to use any products as long as you could demonstrate the resilience of the completed system and its ability to meet intelligibility and coverage requirements. Now you’re restricted to products that carry a type testing certification.” This costs manufacturers a lot of money. EN54 became mandatory in April 2011, and had already prompted leading manufacturers to ensure that their products could, and would, be tested by an independent, accredited test laboratory and certified by an accredited certification body. Because the standard relates chiefly to all the components of a fire alarm system, naturally all the big names in VA were first out of the block: Bosch and TOA demonstrated early how big-corporate budgets help to steal a march on the competition. Others, like Ateïs, were more circumspect while acknowledging the developments with caution. But for those in pro audio with no irons in this particular building’s fire, so to speak, EN54 was largely irrelevant. Irrelevant, that is, until somebody wants, say, an L-Acoustics system to encompass all of the audio requirements of the project. “EN54 was developed by the fire alarm industry, with only some input from the pro-audio industry,” continues Barbour. “As a result it’s really written around systems that are expected to look like a fire alarm panel. It’s for audio systems of that type. So for manufacturers of pro-audio hardware, EN54 compliance is like trying to get a square peg into a round hole.” This wouldn’t matter but for the increasing requirement of stadiums to deliver the kind of performance levels that, with the best will in the world, are beyond the reach of the traditional, industrial style of systems. The scale of these projects is simply too large. Furthermore, says Barbour, the market is demanding a more streamlined approach. “There’s a real drive from the customer base to install with just one system that covers both safety and performance requirements,” he says. “Otherwise you’re paying for two sets of hardware, two sets of infrastructure and two sets of control and programming. But then the pro-audio system not only has to meet the acoustic requirements but also the fire alarm ones, and that’s where it gets complicated.” SPEAKERS’ CORNEROne good example of a high-end pro-audio supplier grappling with this issue is French pioneer L-Acoustics, a company currently expanding rapidly into arenas and stadiums from a solid grounding in concert touring. Whether or not that might include a certain Olympic stadium north of the English Channel is not our concern, for now. But Cédric Montrezor, who is director of application, install at L-Acoustics, knows exactly where the demand is coming from. “The expectations of the end users and clients in the stadium and arena market are rising all the time,” he says. “What’s actually happening is that the stadium owners and management want to use it not only for sport but for their own productions – using the same system. You can do this, provided you minimise the overlap between boxes and guarantee good intelligibility, but the issue now is that one system will have to be used for voice evacuation as well. The old 60849 standard was fulfilled by all our systems, but now EN54 Part 16 and Part 24 have to be applied if the system is to be used for voice alarm at all. “This creates two possible scenarios. If another system is alongside for voice alarm, all we have to do is ensure automatic muting of our system – which is not an integral part of the alarm system. We have full IP control and monitoring of our systems directly to the amplifiers, so it’s just a matter of sending a standard control signal. But if there is no other system it’s very tricky. EN54 has been written for 100V speakers, and as far as I know there are no low-impedance speakers that can fulfil this requirement. Part 16 is the main difficulty, because it effectively demands that somebody like us switches from being a sound reinforcement manufacturer to being a voice alarm specialist. Well, we’re not going to do that, so there is no other solution than to use a third-party system – or else come to a special agreement with the venue management, which I do see happening in the market sometimes.” INSIDE THE MATRIXWhen it comes to venues Peavey’s MediaMatrix is exactly the kind of technology at the thick of it, and James Kennedy, commercial audio operations manager at Peavey Europe, is currently navigating a path through these very woods.
 “EN60849 and its British equivalent BS 5839 are still the main two regulations that concern our product offering and our sector of the industry,” he confirms, “but I would say that EN54 Part 16 and Part 24 are becoming more visible at tender. At the moment, we don’t have any products that are Part 16 type-tested so there could be an issue for the more pro-performance systems like MediaMatrix. There is a divide between the typical VA solution – from Ateïs, Baldwin Boxall or Bosch for example, that is compliant with everything under the sun – and those that offer the greater dynamics and sonic performance of a MediaMatrix, a Biamp or a QSC.
 “More often than not, in 60,000-plus seater stadiums such as Wembley, it’s necessary to employ higher grade systems such as MediaMatrix NION or AudiaFlex alongside the VA solution. Generally there are two systems needed. However, there are plenty of stadiums out there, with MediaMatrix doing both jobs, that satisfy EN60849. MediaMatrix can be configured to meet those requirements. As far as I know there are no European stadiums using MediaMatrix or MediaMatrix NION, so far, since EN54 became mandatory in April last year.” It would clearly be a travesty of bureaucracy if pioneering and proven technology from leading manufacturers like these were to lose ground, simply because the luxury of complementing one system with another became unaffordable or contrary to the oft-quoted demand for simpler integration. But there may be a way around the issue, says Kennedy. “NION can be configured as part of a kit system within EN54 Part 16, so that kind of complex controllability and DSP algorithm power is available for these large-scale stadium or airport projects. As stated in the guidelines, this would be a special case: the system would be compliant although the actual kit is not ‘type-tested’ compliant.”
 Complicated. But one thing’s for sure: these stadiums warrant the dynamics and control that is available without unnecessary compromise. Nothing leads to hazard like confusion. “We’re still in a state of flux,” concludes Barbour. “It’s very difficult to apply those standards to pro-audio hardware. That’s why so many of us in this situation are taking time to bring pro-audio products to this marketplace.” n