A pioneering regeneration project led by legendary producer Sir George Martin has seen the inauguration of the new state-of-the-art Montserrat Cultural Centre. The centre will provide a national focal point for the islanders and an international centre for cultural excellence and education.
Conceived in the wake of the devastating effects both of hurricane ‘Hugo’ in 1989 - which destroyed 90% of the Caribbean island’s structures - and the eruption six years later of the Soufrière Hills volcano, the Cultural Centre officially opened it’s doors in May last year.
Sir George initiated and drove the project because of his love for Montserrat, which stretches back thirty years. “I first visited the island in 1977, the peace and tranquillity provided such a contrast to London and the other worldwide centres of music-making,” he says. “Within two years we had built Air Studios, which saw the recording of many albums by some of the world’s biggest artists over the next eleven years. Following the dreadful effects of natural events we decided to support the islanders and the island by creating a place where people could meet, learn and rebuild some sense of community.”
Initial core funding for the project was generated following a star-studded benefit show at London's Royal Albert Hall, featuring many artists who had previously recorded on the island. Further funds were raised by the sale of 500 numbered lithographs of Sir George’s score for the Beatles song 'Yesterday’, each signed by himself and Sir Paul McCartney.
The multipurpose Montserrat Cultural Centre comprises the 450 seat Sir George Martin Auditorium, conference rooms, a bar and restaurant area, changing rooms, rehearsal rooms, offices and an area for open-air performances. All the areas presented serious audio challenges to the project team.
Well-known UK tour manager and sound man Chris Runciman was drafted in early on by Sir George to manage the project and he was able to make necessary changes to the design as the build progressed. “We paid a lot of attention to the materials used in the suspended ceiling, the floor coverings and seats so that the room sounds good even when empty.” he says. “When the time came to think about the installation Yamaha were able to come up with a sound guy’s Christmas list that was unbelievable. Their history is pretty much unrivalled, so it was a case of one-stop shopping.”
Following initial meetings between Nick Cook, Yamaha Commercial Audio’s UK boss, and Sir George and his audio advisors, they and the Commercial Audio team worked closely on a solution for the exacting audio requirements.
“Given the diverse brief we were given for the venue, we decided that only by supplying the complete audio solution could we guarantee the necessary system flexibility, reliability and audio quality”, says Nick Cook. “We were also conscious of the fact that this was to be the first auditorium in the world to bear Sir George’s name! In addition, the system needed to go together quickly and easily, and, most importantly, be straightforward enough for non-expert operators to master.”
A combination of fundraising initiatives and generous third-party donations ensured that Yamaha’s desire to help could be fully realised by providing equipment that met the specifications but also stayed within the necessarily limited budget. The final system design includes full surround sound and a tremendously flexible mixing system.
The MCC is intended to be a focal point for Montserrat and is designed to host events ranging from parliament sessions, weddings, beauty pageants, cinema shows and local concerts to DJ club nights and annual celebrations of the Queen’s birthday. In addition, it is anticipated that guests, including world-famous musicians who had previously used Air Studios Montserrat, and personal friends of Sir George will come in to perform at benefit events for the Centre.
Amongst the most important aims of the MCC project are education and training - offering the islanders choice. Commercial Audio installation manager Scott Fraser, who designed the audio system, explains, “Opportunities for young Montserrations are limited. MCC now gives them a chance to learn about commercial audio and lighting - skills that they can then earn from both on and off the island. It was all about giving Montserrat a hand up, not hand outs.”
Scott continues: “To facilitate those aims, we had to use contemporary components which are cutting-edge as far as audio technology goes. But then we also needed to present the system in a way that was non-threatening to young people with limited exposure to commercial audio systems. We had to be careful not to have a system that scared novices off, but at the same time had sufficient depth and versatility to allow the seasoned pro to feel at ease and not be frustrated by any lack of facilities. It was quite a challenge!”
To fulfil this tough brief, Scott designed a comprehensive and highly configurable system, but one that features a number of preset, easily-switched scenes to cater for most applications.
At he heart of the system are a pair of Yamaha DME64N digital mix engines fitted with a combination of four 8-in/8-out MY8-ADDA96 analogue cards, three 8-out MY8-DA96 analogue cards and an 8-in MY8-AD96 analogue card.
Front of house and monitor mixing is taken care of by an M7CL-48 digital console, with an MY8-ADDA96 card for optional 8-in/8-out analogue inserts.
The main left/right system comprises three per side I Series IF2115/64 mid/hi loudspeakers, two IS1218 subs per side and a single IS1118 sub per side. A pair of IF2112/64s act as main hall delays, while six IF2108s are used as fills above and beneath the balcony. Amplification is from four T5ns, three PC2001Ns, a PC6501N and a PC9501N.
Further loudspeakers comprise the full surround sound system, these being six IF2208s, four IF2112/ASs and a pair of IF2108s powered by four PC2001n and a pair of PC6501Ns.
Finally, Yamaha provided seven IF2112/AS mid/highs and an IS1118 sub for stage monitoring, powered by four PC9501N amps.
Once the logistics of getting all the equipment to site had been achieved (a not inconsiderable task), the next challenge was to install it. There was no shortage of willing helpers but, as many were inexperienced, time spent with the Yamaha manuals was critical.
“Skype is fantastic.” says Scott. “I’m not sure it would have been possible to do the installation without it, given that the distances involved meant I couldn’t just pop by as often as necessary once the installation began.”
The Montserrat team spent several days just reading manuals to completely familiarise themselves with all the equipment, how it went together and how the system worked. “If everyone in the UK did as much homework as those guys did, then the standard of UK installs could be so much higher!” adds Scott, with a wry smile. To supplement the local team headed by Dave Williams, several UK volunteers were also drafted in including Dave Harries and Dave Black who was an early recruit and who had already worked with Chris installing the lighting system before the Yamaha kit arrived.
Despite the MCC being of mainly concrete construction, the fact that Chris Runciman had had an acoustically treated ceiling installed meant that many of the potential acoustic problems never materialised. So, with the system successfully installed, testing began with a couple of nights of training for local engineers. And immediately the Yamaha equipment demonstrated its reliability, working faultlessly and exceeding the expectations of the team at MCC.
“When the sound system was fired up it just made me smile!” says Chris. “It really worked; just like it said on the packet.”
Adds Scott “It’s very loud, reaching an average of 104db at the rear of the hall mix position, with peaks +18dB above average still leaving 6db headroom in the system.”
“There were initially some concerns because, as yet, as there’s no air conditioning in the facility.” he continues “But we ran the whole system pretty much flat out for eight hours one day when the ambient temperature in the shade was in excess of 32ºC and, although the amps were hot to the touch, they were still comfortably operating within their safe (green zone) temperature range. The only thing affected by the heat was me!”
As for the versatility, many things that the system is configured to do would not be possible using an analogue console or, indeed, many other digital consoles.
At present Fridays and Saturdays are cinema nights at the MCC and for the extended 5.1 surround system, the audio from a decoded DVD player goes into Channels 33-38. The individual channels are then routed directly to the Matrix sends of the desk - not via busses - and are routed to the M7CL’s outputs, which then go to the DME64N and are processed from a standard 5.1 mix to a much larger matrix to facilitate the size of the room. When the ‘Concert’ scene is selected, however, the same M7CL outputs are used as monitor sends.
This flexibility and ease-of-use ensures that a trained audio engineer doesn’t have to be on-site for the cinema shows. But the system design caters for potential users’ differing knowledge levels.
“We’ve set up three user levels on the M7CL,” explains Scott. “The first is a guest level, allowing recall of scenes and limited editing. Second is ‘gig level’, where you can recall scenes and save your own scenes, but not change output assignments etc. Finally there’s Administrator level, where you can do whatever you want. Each level is accessed by a combination of password and/or USB key.”
Everyone involved is rightly proud of what has been achieved at the MCC; a previously undreamed-of facility has been created in the very heart of the Montserrat community to provide a focal point for the islanders.
Chris Runciman comments: “The Yamaha system has put the icing on the cake! I never thought the room would look and sound so good. We have provided in the building a legacy for the people of Montserrat - both to enjoy as an entertainment and cultural centre, and to benefit the younger generation by providing a place for them to learn and hone the skills they will need to compete in the world of production and entertainment.”
The final word must, of course, go to Sir George Martin: “It was a great relief to be able to rely on the expertise of Yamaha to deliver the bulk of the sound system for the MCC. It was also very gratifying to me that they clearly grasped the importance of the educational aspect of the Centre and were able to design a system that was both easy to use and comprehensive enough to meet all the requirements that we envisaged for the venue. I very much hope that our centre can play a positive role in regenerating the Island and we are all immensely grateful to our friends at Yamaha, not only for their technical expertise and excellent equipment, but also for the obvious passion they showed in helping us realise our aims.”