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In late 2016, a full 13 months before the event, The Industry, an independent, artist-driven company known for creating experimental opera productions, contacted Bexel with an unusual request: assist artistic director, Yuval Sharon, with the recreation of the “War of the Worlds” simulcast across Downtown Los Angeles. This production called for a unique and challenging set of requirements, which is expected of Sharon’s artistic opera performances. This time, the historical value of radio and metal relics from World War II were the key creative elements.
The ambitious performance piece “War of the Worlds” was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s reincarnation of Orson Welles’ famous 1938 fake radio news broadcast about a Martian invasion of Earth. At the center of the action, World War II air raid sirens refurbished at three outdoor sites transmitted the jarring sounds of aliens, along with instrumental music and news reports back to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, to broadcast to a live audience.
Having supported The Industry on special projects previously, Bexel understood that enabling a production of this scope would come with challenges. The challenges centered around three main categories:
The ultimate goal involved commissioning an opera using the sirens as central set pieces, from four simultaneous performance locations, that could transmit the audio in near real-time, as if the performers and audience were in the same room. It was a tall task to effortlessly convey audio artistry and ingenuity. Led by the Bexel audio engineering team, Andrew McHaddad (chief audio engineer), Rod Allen (project manager), and Jim Turner (system design and senior engineer) were ready to help make this unconventional production a success.
At first glance, getting 48k/24bit, near-zero latency, multi-channel, bi-directional audio from three remote sites into the concert hall looked like existing solutions could work. However, early research and conversations with potential technology providers led to roadblocks due to financial, scheduling, or technology limits. After several months of comprehensive analysis and cost comparisons across a wide spectrum of potential solutions, it became clear that Bexel would need to create a new solution that had never been tried before. This project required synergy between technologies from unrelated sectors. Both telecommunications and the performing arts have vastly different approaches to serving their respective markets, and this was another obstacle that Bexel needed to overcome.
The audio requirements called for ultra-low latency and ultra-high fidelity. Since each of the remote sites were city parks or empty parking lots, there were a number of setbacks from the start: (1) pre-existing high-capacity data network connections were not present, or even nearby, (2) each site was potentially capable of having business-class internet service delivered by the local internet service provider, but the required symmetrical high-speed capability was not available, (3) after testing and analysis with several potential data network providers, not even the best codec-based data compression devices could not meet the high audio quality standards.
The next idea was to look at metropolitan dark fiber networks which are common in major markets. Bexel surveyed the area with extensive dark-fiber cabling present in overhead and underground configurations. Each of the potential sites were explored for the first time using a map that identified the locations of fiber cabling; however, the map did not disclose any demarcations for connectivity. Access to the fiber cabling nearby would require excavating the streets at a very high cost, but more importantly, the production team would need to commit to that site more than six months in advance, and this was not a limit Bexel was willing to place on the creative group.
Comparison Chart of Existing Audio Technology
It was evident that some other form of connectivity solution would be required – a solution that did not constrain the creative team to performance sites too early in the project, was not dependent on an internet service provider’s data rates or latency measurements, would have fixed costs to stay on budget, provide an accessible and reliable support structure needed for a live performance, and most importantly, sound amazing.
It was becoming apparent that Bexel was going to have to create their own private network that included a combination of traditional copper, fiber optic, and long-range Millimeter wave radio transmitters. Although existing technology could support audio transport, there were unique factors to this project that made them poor choices.
The key to making this production work was identifying technologies that have synergy – especially when they have never been used together in this manner. Since audio networking has increased in deployment across a wide spectrum of the audio production landscape, it was worth it to test a combination of audio solutions. The audio networking protocol used was Audinate’s Digital Audio Networking Through Ethernet (Dante) and Multichannel Audio Digital Interface (MADI). This proved to be a winning combination for both latency and audio distribution management. The decisive factor left was to discover if the telecommunications industry could provide off-the-shelf wireless equipment that would support the protocol.
Typically, it is the responsibility of the radio service provider to determine what path the RF link(s) would take, but since this type of transmission had never been attempted before, Bexel engineers examined possible paths by researching rooftop locations and developing the required relationships to determine the best combination of high-rise sites in Downtown Los Angeles. These proposed paths were reviewed by the radio service provider, but deemed unlikely successful. Bexel engineering was now more determined than ever to make it work, while up against stiff headwinds.
Rooftop access, while physically possible, had a wide range of documents, fee requirements, and logistical challenges that had to be considered.
Permissions: The City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety required engineering design documents to allow the installation of the radios. Once these needs were satisfied, all the obstacles for Site #1, across the street from the Concert Hall, were cleared.
Work Flow: The radio service provider revealed their installation procedure would not allow the installation of any equipment until all contracts were signed, whether they were related to that particular radio link path or not. This delayed any real-world testing of the radio links until all the contracts were approved and submitted.
Radio Installation Logistics: Bexel had to coordinate all the entities involved to get the radios installed on the rooftop over two days, this included Bexel engineers, professional riggers, radio service provider technicians (on two buildings at a time), delivery vehicles, building management representatives, facility management personnel, production staff, and site representatives.
Contract Verification: The contracts were signed one week prior to Site #2 and Site #3 rehearsals. This put Bexel up against the clock to ensure the radio installation logistics, equipment preparation, and site testing were all finalized in less than seven days.
Venue Access: Considering the venues were all parking lots in Downtown Los Angeles, the sites were open to the public, with the exception of scheduled rehearsal and performance days. Equipment racks were temporarily mounted to the back of Bexel vehicles, so this required calculated maneuvering to access the sites and find a location adjacent to the building for testing.
Power: Since power was not accessible at these locations, Bexel engineers deployed gas powered generators and battery powered inverters to power the transmission equipment for testing.
Deployment: Knowing the locations were public spaces, the systems were designed to enable quick deployment and tear down so the equipment could be operational in less than two hours. The systems were also compact in size so they could easily be transported to all three remote sites each day.
Although Dante networking was critical for this project to work through the radios, MADI was used as the primary means of signal distribution at each site, and at the Concert Hall. From a technological perspective, it would have been possible to use a single Dante universe to connect all the devices without MADI, providing nearly unlimited connectivity options; so much, in fact, that limiting the routing options was becoming the concern.
One of Bexel’s early decisions was to isolate the transmission-path circuits from the onsite audio distribution equipment. Segregating the radio network technology to its own realm was mandatory to keep the project moving, allowing the Bexel team to focus their efforts in two parallel workflows: the transmission path which operated as a “Bexel only” workflow, and the audio distribution where Bexel worked closely with the audio design team to route and manage all the audio and communication sources independent of the transmission path.
Bexel provided the MC-32 from Direct Out Technologies to supply the onsite analog I/O and to get signals in and out of the sound reinforcement system. Additionally, a Direct Out Technologies 2.XT Line Level 32×32 MADI interface was used for the 4-wire communications circuits so the stage managers and technical crew could stay connected to the intercom system at the Concert Hall. To keep all the MADI signals mapped, each site was equipped with Direct Out Technologies M.1K2 MADI router, enabling remote gain control and metering of individual microphones at all locations through the Dante converted MADI stream from its connected interfaces. The live, on-screen metering of the audio interface inputs and outputs proved to be a powerful tool for quality control and signal verification. Additional metering on the Dante side of the system occurred through computers equipped with Audinate’s Virtual Sound Card, and a metering application by Darkwood Designs, out of the United Kingdom.
Facilitating the communications for the technical crews and stage managers from the Concert Hall with the three remote sites was critical, and needed to be near real-time. For this, the data-radio networks were also used to carry the intercom audio circuits to create a common channel of communications which allowed all four stage managers to communicate. Bexel also provided audio technical circuits, a conductor talkback, and a stage-announce to all sites. At the Concert Hall, a Clear-Com Eclipse Pico 36-Port digital matrix was used to merge the signals from each site, and five Clear-Com V-Series key panels were placed at key locations for personnel. For the lead stage manager at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Bexel used the venue’s existing in-house Telex BTR-800 and interfaced it along with the Clear-Com Party-line system into the digital matrix.
The overall concept was to have audio routed to and from each of the three sites from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Additionally, the microphone gain on the preamps at each site needed to be controlled from the Concert Hall, which meant the design would have two parts.
The main system or “hub” was located at the Concert Hall, which included a Yamaha CL5, a Yamaha DM2000, a Direct-Out M.1K2 MADI Router, Focusrite and Yamaha Dante to MADI converters, and Direct-Out MADI I/O.
The Yamaha CL5 was used as the sub-mix/fold-back console. It pre-mixed the elements from the remote sites to feed the Concert Hall’s front of house DiGiCo console and created the mix-minus signals sent back to the remote site’s performers. Signal transport between the CL5 and the Concert Hall front of house DiGiCo mixer was Dante using Focusrite DN64R Dante/MADI bridges. Bexel include the Yamaha DM2000 audio console solely as a QC tool to listen to the signals on the network
At each of the sites, Bexel implemented a racked solution that contained a Yamaha DM1000 for QC, a Direct-Out MADI Router, Focusrite and Yamaha Dante to MADI converters, and a Direct-Out Andiamo MC microphone preamp. To enable communications, Bexel used the Clear-Com Helixnet hardwired intercom paired with a Freespeak II or Tempest wireless intercom system.
The site’s systems were configured to allow the local engineer flexibility in the event of a failed link (which was not experienced during the rehearsals or performances). The engineer had the ability to route local signals, manage communications for the site, and QC any audio signals, which could all be done independent of the Concert Hall if needed.
Bexel engineers collaborated with the audio design team and the technical production staff at the Concert Hall to develop a plan that fit both the workflow and the resources available at each site. Bexel ensured the system was fully tested and programmed prior to leaving the warehouse, a standard practice for the engineering team. The production scheduled their testing, rehearsals, and performances over 5 consecutive weekends, which meant the sites were set up and torn down each time.
Site #1: A parking lot conveniently located across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall at 131 South Olive Street. After close inspection, a 2,000 foot fiber path was identified, enabling the use of a standard fiber optic conversion, and eliminating the need for an RF link.
Site #2: A parking lot adjacent to the San Fernando Building at 400 South Main Street. This site became the co-location point supporting Site #2 and the second relay point for Site #3. Each day, a fiber optic cable, a CAT6 cable, and power cable were deployed from the second story of the building. The cable could be left partially installed, reducing deployment time.
Site #3: A parking lot adjacent to a building at 740 South Olive Street. Site #3 proved to be the most challenging. The first radio link was mounted and aimed at the first radio “hop” location at the One Wilshire building. From there, the second radio link was aimed at Site #2 for its final radio link back to home base, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Each day, the fiber optic cable and power cable was deployed and retracted using a custom rigged solution that took less than 15 minutes from its location on a 13-story building.
Both radio hops at Site #2 and Site #3 were aimed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion since the radio service provider already had a presence on the rooftop that made logistics and permissions easier, and the Pavilion had an existing fiber path (via 4 patch points) that reached the Concert Hall.
The Concert Hall’s busy schedule allowed for very minimal time to access, set up, and test the system. Bexel installed the main hub in one day, with an additional day for testing and programming. The systems for the remote locations were delivered each morning of the rehearsal or performance, set up, and deployed by a Bexel engineer stationed at each site, while a system engineer verified connectivity at the Concert Hall.
The other-worldly performance of “War of the Worlds” resulted in a large-scale, city-wide collaborative experience presented by the LA Philharmonic and co-produced by The Industry and NOW Art LA. Bexel’s involvement in this audacious experiment helped bring a notorious radio drama to life by creating a solution for an audio broadcast that had never been done before.
The end result was 16 channels of bi-directional audio to each remote site with only 4.75 milliseconds of latency in each direction. For all three exclusive performances during November 2017, with the help of Bexel, the production team successfully created “War of The Worlds” using recommissioned World War II sirens located throughout the city to broadcast the action live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and surrounding locations. It was an idea that, at first, seemed too far-fetched, or out of this world, but entertained a population of Earthlings.