Ovation, Pyramix and Horus are essential components to drive the Amadeus multi-speaker installation at La Grande Gallerie, Paris, France
Renowned and prized by children and zoological specialists alike, the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution has been granted an outstanding technical installation which highlights and brings alive the hundreds of natural species on display in its cavernous space.
For 20 years, more than 13 million visitors have walked the aisles of the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, which is housed in the Museum of Natural History in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It was time for a complete upgrade of the sound installation and recently, Soundlightup Magazine was able to interview resident technicians Frédéric Rocard and Christophe Moisson, composer, sound engineer, acoustician and designer Marc Piéra, whose considerable involvement was key in bringing the new sound of the gallery to life, and Gaetan Byk, sales manager with Amadeus, supplier of all the components of the new PA system. This use case is an edited version of the article that was posted on the Soundlightup site in 2014 and can be read in French here : http://www.soundlightup.com/archives/reportages/la-grande-galerie-fait-son-evolution.html
The first stop on our visit is the control room, where past and present coexist. Here, ancient and now unused video, sound and lighting equipment from a prehistoric era—how fitting—sit alongside brand new systems.
Frédéric Rocard: In 1994 when the Grande Galerie was opened, sound and picture was controlled by DR4 units fitted with 2 Gb SCSI hard drives, a huge capacity for the time. The primary mission for the audio and picture machine room was technicians keeping the original equipment up and running.
SLU: But you were in charge of the soundtrack…
A view on the small audio editing room grafted to the machine room, where Frédéric can work on his soundtrack with two small Amadeus monitors and, more importantly, view and program the Ovation. Frédéric Rocard: We started working with sound for the temporary exhibitions. Then we managed to set up a room where we could record voiceovers and edit audio.
That room still exists. It’s now dedicated to Ovation, the program that controls sound and lighting in the Galerie. We don’t have a direct view of the hall, so we rely on two screens to monitor our work. Now let’s go to one of the passageways in the Grande Galerie, were we can talk about the place more comfortably. And so we make our way to a passageway surrounding the vast hall, through a well-hidden maze of doors and corridors, allowing us an immediate opportunity to appreciate the sheer dimensions of the space, and the acoustic treatment of the walls.
SLU: Is the acoustic treatment new?
Frédéric Rocard: No, it dates back to the original opening in 1994. However, we had it modified—changing the size of the holes in the wall panels, for instance, so that the sound from the subwoofers they conceal wasn’t muffled.
SLU: How does the sound and light show work?
Frédéric Rocard: It’s based on a 75-minute loop. This duration is sufficient for a typical family visit to the whole area. We are recounting a full day, from dawn to sunset, and then the night. There’s a storm sequence inserted in the morning phase. The loop is launched at 10: 15am and turned off at 5: 45pm, that’s six full cycles.
SLU: How was the sound track designed?
Frédéric Rocard: I had previously created the sound track for nine temporary exhibitions, and was offered the chance to design the soundtrack for the Grande Galerie. I had some pre-existing audio material and several atmospheres already completed. For some very specific sounds, we bought some high definition soundtracks from the US, although we couldn’t find everything we wanted. To make sure everything played is authentic, I had every ambiance reviewed by scientists from the Museum who were specialists in the specific environment illustrated.
Having the exact sound which corresponds to an animal isn’t enough. You need to make sure that a bird is singing at the right moment during the day, for instance. The Galerie management also reviewed the complete soundtrack before giving its approval. We have very, very punctilious visitors who like to leave comments in the visitor’s book (smiles).
SLU: The sounds seems to originate from everywhere. How many tracks do you have playing simultaneously?
Frédéric Rocard: The Ovation is playing 82 tracks simultaneously, but along with Marc Piéra, whose role was critical and worked well beyond his official capacity as an acoustician, we compiled several tracks together.
Marc Piéra: We compiled them so they would be easier to cue, and then the cues became multitrack. The goal was to be able to put any sound just where Frédéric wanted and not to feel restricted, given the fact that we have a system comprising 186 totally independent sources.
SLU: How to you distribute 82 tracks over 186 sources, is there a matrix set-up involved?
Marc Piéra: The Ovation handles it. Once the mix is complete, track by track, the Ovation sends it over one or more outputs. The audio is then converted to MADI, and is sent to the hall to the various amplification points. The previous install was using AES/EBU, a high-end choice made over 20 years ago, which proved reliable, even though certain lines were inactive for various reasons.
SLU: Re-using them wasn’t possible?
Marc Piéra: No, especially since there are no drawings of the old cabling still in existence, and some ducts are located in hard to reach places, beneath certain species, for instance, or architectural elements that can’t be touched. Don’t forget the building is listed. It was decided to change everything and use fibre-optics everywhere.
Frédéric Rocard: There’s a fibre-optic cable for each floor, feeding 21 technical cabinets. This involved a considerable amount of patching and routing.
SLU: Speaking of work, Marc, what did your job entail at that point, and what does it consist of nowadays?
Marc Piéra: Nowadays I am no longer here! (laughter) My role ended the day the installation was delivered. I’m not part of the Galerie’s permanent team. I was contacted by the previous technical director, who wanted to look into the feasibility of overhauling the previous install, the associated costs and the necessary time.
Despite the choice of well-known brands and the use of rather modern technologies for the time, even though I would have chosen other speakers, I quickly realized that it would be faster and no more expensive to change everything.
SLU: What was wrong with the old speakers?
Marc Piéra: They were sound projectors, and above all, they had been assigned to individual species. The problem is that means you can’t move the animals afterwards, and makes it very apparent when one specimen is missing. Following my first assignment, the Grande Galerie offered me a consulting job to complete preliminary studies for complete replacement of the Grande Galerie public address system.
This took me several months, with the help of Frédéric and Christian, as I needed to understand the way they worked and their expectations, before designing the best solution after exploring all the available routes. We were able to start from a virtually blank slate, and to this day this install is only used to 10% of its capacity. It has the potential for much, much more, and it’s now the responsibility of the artistic team to take in this set-up and, through mixes and more elaborate tweaks, create interactivity and make a better use of its potential. I’m confident they will be up to the task.
SLU: What was your philosophy when designing this sonic space?
Marc Piéra: For me it had to be a working tool. I didn’t want an installation where everything is set in stone but rather a very open, flexible, and scalable tool. I also suggested what equipment was in my opinion best suited for the task, you might say the ideal equipment within “reasonable” price limits. After that, contractors submitted their bids to win the contract.
SLU: How and why did you prescribe Amadeus?
Marc Piéra: Amadeus wasn’t the only solution I prescribed. I offered several options based on what I wanted to get in the end. Few French brands offered the quality I need, the willingness to adapt or create a particular piece of equipment, with total responsiveness and reasonable prices.
SLU: Who was the project supervisor?
Marc Piéra: The Grande Galerie. I wasn’t chosen to take care of this side of things, so Christian was appointed and was perfectly up to the task.
SLU: Transitioning from sound projectors to Amadeus speakers is somewhat radical…
Marc Piéra: I’m speaking under Fred and Christian’s control, but from the onset, every one of us advocated going with quality equipment. This is public money, something I’m totally aware of. Rather than going for the lesser bid, as it’s generally the case, we went for products offering 6 or 7 years of manufacturer warranty, which insures the continued existence of the install.
I also wanted everything to be made in France, something we nearly were able to fully achieve. It was impossible for Show Control, and even though I would have liked some of the interfaces to be made in France, it didn’t work out and SSL was chosen. Which of course, is an excellent choice! SSL were nearly twice as cheap and they proved incredibly more responsive than French manufacturers.
SLU: You used the term “mixing”. How do you mix in a place like the Grande Galerie, when the room that houses the Ovation in charge of Show Control is detached and doesn’t have the acoustics of the Galerie, of course. Do you use a tablet to remotely control the mix?
Frédéric Rocard: Yes, we just took delivery of a large tablet. We used it quite a bit a few days ago, during an evening event with guest attendees, to adjust the general levels per floor, for instance. The tablet gives you full control over the Ovation, as if you were seated in the control room. As the Ovation handles everything, from playback to mixing with effects, from matrixing to processing, this really lets you work comfortably.
SLU: Given that the Ovation handles all the tasks, do you have a fallback system?
Frédéric Rocard: No, it’s not necessary. The software is extremely stable and the equipment itself is very robust. The hard drives are SSD. From August 15 to September 4 it was thoroughly tested as we carried out a huge number of operations. It never crashed. Not once.
Marc Piéra: Is redundancy really necessary? We aren’t really doing a live show. Should a failure happen, it wouldn’t be the kind of disaster that warrants the high cost of having a fallback Show Control system. We went for quality and reliability.
SLU: How was the speaker placement devised?
Marc Piéra: I chose to favour a clear sonic image within which the creative team could build a themed sonic space. The speakers are positioned and oriented so that the various sounds can be played back in stereo and precisely positioned within that space.
SLU: How do you carry 186 source signals over fibre-optic cable? MADI seems a bit lacking in that area…
Marc Piéra: We have three MADI channels over 4 fibre-optic cables. Each Alpha-Link MX 4-16 picks the channels it needs from the MADI feed, 16 per SSL rack. There are one or two in each technical cabinets, along with the amplifiers feeding the speakers.
These amplifiers where custom designed by Amadeus for that particular purpose, and will soon join their product line.
Amadeus also developed a new speaker for us, the PMX 4, now part of their product line, that can be angled very easily, even in low-ceiling situations such as the marine area, or can be set and forgotten, thanks to its very compact size.
SLU: How do you handle phase issues given the number of sound sources?
Marc Piéra: I don’t have to deal with phase in a system such as this one. Of course, on any given location, sound must be in phase, but the audience is always on the move. I focus myself on building a network, with space between the ears of the public and the sound source.
One of the many PMX 4 cleverly mounted under the ceiling of the marine area. Then, I make sure my speakers are set and correctly positioned to avoid that certain sounds, especially ambient sounds, that may be used in several places, don’t add too well when played back. Having said that, problems or unavoidable reflections can sometimes be heard. I particularly like the task of angling and tweaking the speakers.
SLU: The solution would be playing a different sound in each speaker…
Marc Piéra: Yes, absolutely. What you are hearing now is an early mix, that will undoubtedly be enhanced. I designed and set the system so as to favour clarity throughout, even in places where little flaws may exist.
SLU: How are crossover duties handled?
Marc Piéra: Through Ovation, thanks to the team at FLUX who are long-time developers of filters for Merging technology. There are strong links between both companies. Therefore, I asked that Ovation featured a third, new filter version, with original features.
Gaël Martinet, who was very responsive, is an integral part of the project success, which shows how we were able to gather a great team of people and companies behind us, who fully played the game. Beside that new filter, FLUX made changes in the 6-band filters on the 186 outputs, that can be automated and are thus extremely power-hungry. As we use these filters to EQ the speakers, when only 3 bands are used on one output, the other three aren’t processed, which gave us back some breathing air.
SLU: I guess the wood and colour choices for the speakers was a custom job…
Marc Piéra: It was, and Amadeus should be congratulated, as in the case of the speakers in the sea beds, for instance. To perfectly match to the ceiling colour, a great number of prototypes were necessary. The same goes for the speakers laid on parquet floor, that replicate the shade of the wood almost perfectly, so that it blends with it.
SLU: The sound pressure of the soundtrack doesn’t seem very high. Why isn’t the level handled in line with the background noise?
Marc Piéra: The early measurements I took with some visitors present gave a noise level around 55 to 70 dBA. This is due to the presence of numerous children and groups. We have a limited dynamic headroom to carry the message across and that’s also one the reasons why good speakers were needed. To answer your question, we also chose Ovation because of the ability to control the levels automatically. This is up to the Grande Galerie decision makers. It would be also possible to have the sound level vary according to the time of the day, to coincide with known attendance peaks. For now, it’s done by hand.
Christophe Moisson: Ideally, the level could be lower on a per zone basis, to make it easy on lecturers and specific groups.
Marc Piéra: Everything is possible, the tool offers a high level of flexibility in set-up and operational choices.
SLU: Given that sounds aren’t played through dedicated speakers for each animal, I don’t understand why speakers are installed in passageways on floors with little or no species.
Marc Piéra: First, we don’t know how the Grande Galerie exhibition could evolve. Plus, even though we don’t play back the sounds corresponding to the numerous animals on the ground floor, we do play back certain specific ambiances, such as dawn, and we reinforce and even build the storm from the top down. It’s a sonic element that needs power and space to reach its full dimension. The speakers on the ground floor are all assigned to play back the falling rain, as raindrop impacts must come from the ground, not the top.
SLU: Besides the tablet, what are you using to tweak the sound and particularly its spatialization, given the 186 sound sources available? A joystick? A 3D model of the Grande Galerie? In comparison, the Atmos and its 64 speakers look a teeny bit smallish!
I’m not scared! A PMX 4 and in the background, an ML 8 laid on the floor, amidst the animals. Marc Piéra: Ovation version 6 is on the way and we’re hoping for good news. Merging technologies is working on a 3D panner, and given that the mixing features in Ovation are derived from Pyramix, we will get a console allowing 3D space modeling as well as handling sources as objects in a 3D space. For the time being, simulating the movements of a bird and its wing beats still needs to be done manually, by programming every output, which is complicated.
Hats off to Fred, who had to start working on the atmospheres with Samplitude while we were still defining the broad outlines of the project, a task far from being simple, and means he had to make a lot of time-consuming corrections later on. Hats off also to Merging Technologies, who are attuned to their users and designed custom functionalities for us almost on the fly. That’s not very common.
SLU: Were you all trained on Ovation?
Frédéric Rocard: Yes, that was handled by Franck Voiffray. We had two three-day sessions. The first was devoted to the basic handling of the program, the second delved more in details on programming, not theoretical programming, but something much closer to our needs.
SLU: Does Franck have a good knowledge of Ovation?
Frédéric Rocard: Franck knows everything (laughter)! Both those sessions were very useful. Tiring, but useful.
Whether in the Savannah, under the ice, along the coast or under a downpour, the sonic universe created by Frédéric Rocard and arranged for playback by Marc Piéra is cleverly designed and quite immersive even if the samples and recordings used to create these atmospheres are uneven in quality. Some bird sounds are strikingly beautiful, while others, such as a simple wave breaking on the shore, would deserve to be replaced. The sonic networking is a success and a perfect complement to the visit.
One can sense the efforts put into speakers positioning and the very rare wavefronts accidents are the exception to the rule. They could be solved by enriching the ambiances and avoiding playing the same signal in several places. One would like the level to be higher, especially in the open areas, by an additional 3dB maybe, and to have automatic pressure control using a few measurement points on a zone to zone basis so that visiting groups don’t mask the sonic atmosphere, without necessarily starting a sound level escalation throughout the site.
Given that the maximum capacity in the Grande Galerie is approximately 4000 visitors, you can imagine the potential noise level. The storm, for instance, could be slightly shortened, better scripted and strengthened, using the 12 inch and the 20 kW allocated to them. When asked what was going to change in the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, Frederic immediately answers “the sound”, as it’s clear that the installation has a much greater potential, in view of the quality of the speakers, their number, the dynamic headroom available, and the 3D spatialization functionality envisioned. If you picture a scale with the typical American-style show on one side and complying with the scientific aspects and the immersive quality of the sonic message on the other side, it’s clear that the Grande Galerie leans towards the latter.
Let’s give Frédéric and the artistic and technical team the time they need to take in the remarkable tool they have. One can assume they will find a way to illustrate and disorient a little more, without getting the scientists in a whirl or harm the educational purpose of the place. One can also hope the upcoming Ovation V6 will allow editing faster and more intuitive editing and offer mixing abilities that makes it easier to build detailed and complex soundtracks, dynamics and space. This V6 can rely on a powerful V12 that’s ready to roar!
Frédéric Rocard and the entire team of the Grande Galerie wish to thank:
Claude Anne Gauthier, the Museum’s director of exhibition areas who supported the creative and technical team from the beginning, and committed herself completely.
Hats off as well to Thomas Grenon, managing director of the National Museum of Natural History as well as Pierre Pénicaud, former interim director of the Galerie whose help was invaluable in the search for the hard-to-find sounds, and his role in the approval process as an intermediary with the scientific team.
A special thank-you to Marc Piéra for his total commitment, his availability and the numerous varied designs and finds!!
Following the comprehensive visit of the site, here are the numbers. 186 speakers are deployed throughout the Grande Galerie 60,000 cubic meters.
Amadeus also supplied the amplification, a major first. Several amplifier models that will soon join the product line of the French manufacturer.
This gives a total of 28 kW.
For more about Grande Gallerie de l'Evolution check out these links: