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SSE, Wigwam, Brit Row step up for Papal visit

Catering for the crowds across the country during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI involved a congregation of technologies and brands, writes Paul Watson

The visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to UK shores in September was pre-empted by a mixture of controversy and apathy. It was the first time a pontiff had visited the UK since Pope John Paul II did so in 1982; it was also the first to be designated a state visit due to the Pope being invited by the Queen rather than the Church. However, following a string of allegations against the Catholic Church this year, no one was quite sure what would happen at the public Masses – or if the faithful would actually bother to turn up.

Three big rental houses were charged with supplying gear for events around the country: SSE supplied the gear for the landmark sermon at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, which 65,000 followers attended; Wigwam Hire served in Cofton Park in Birmingham; and Britannia Row kitted out London’s Hyde Park (a location that seems to be the company’s second home).
 The Glasgow event featured a 2.5-hour long mass, an 800-piece choir, a 35-piece brass band; and even pre- and post-show performances from Britain’s Got Talent star Susan Boyle.
 A total of 130 digital channels were used to project the audio across the 0.5sqkm seating area in Bellahouston Park using the main FOH Soundcraft Vi6 (running in 96-channel mode using stage racks and an additional DSP card); and a Soundcraft Vi1, which was brought in at the last minute to deal with sub-mixing. Feeds from the Vi1 were then sent back to the FOH console and sent as a L/R monitor feed to the second Vi6, positioned next to the stage.
 SSE’s project manager, Dan Bennett, says he rates the Vi6 highly, favouring it over many other consoles because of its audio quality and interface. FOH engineer Craig Pryde – who along with monitor engineer Kevin Sparkes found the event to be “the most surreal show he’d ever done” – says having access to a Vi1 at such short notice was very handy.
 To distribute the audio, SSE used 21 x 150m fibres over more than a 2km Optocore ring. Fed by Dolby Lake processors, all the distribution was handled by Optocore’s workhorse DD32E.
 Bennett explained: “WIth 100-plus LA-8 amplifiers feeding 20 hangs of L-Acoustics K1, V-DOSC, KUDO and KIVA, we needed to be able to individually call up and health check the amps remotely. To be able to do this via Optocore’s 100Mbit/sec Ethernet tunnel was amazing – that was the real selling point for us.”
 “This is the biggest system I have designed – and fibre is the only thing that will run over those distances,” Bennett confirmed. “The Optocore system was rock solid and provided a fantastic solution.”
 In Birmingham the Wigwam Hire team was faced with a different challenge: needing to integrate their Avid VENUE mixing console into the network, and enable control of the d&b audiotechnik proprietary remote network.
 Wigwam’s Rob Priddle, who specified the system under the direction of Chris Hill, designed the solution. He engaged new firmware developed for Optocore’s DD4ME MADI network device, which enabled the BNC ports to function not as MADI, but as Digidesign VENUE’s proprietary coaxial digital snake.
 Four of the software-modified DD4MEs were used as stand-alone devices – two each in the Stage and FOH racks. While the main FOH console was a 56-channel Midas XL4 this was supported by a 96-channel Avid VENUE D-Show, which handled the vast number of choir inputs, and the Optocore fibre covered the 150m distance to the 112-channel DiGiCo SD7 desk at the stage (supported by a Yamaha PM5D).
 Britannia Row sub-hired in London-headquartered System Sound as the principal audio contractor for the London Mass, which was attended by tens of thousands of people and included a post-event solo performance by 14-year-old Britain’s Got Talent 2010 finalist Liam NcNally. The main PA system consisted of 12 boxes per side of L-Acoustics K1 and three dV-DOSC boxes per side; eight boxes per side of KUDO for the outer hangs; and K1 and V-DOSC for the four delays. The consoles were by Midas and DiGiCo: two XL8s and a D5. Simon Biddulph, System Sound’s managing director, says putting on an event like this is not as easy as it might look.
 “They’re very demanding in terms of dynamics,” he says, “so we like to control as much of what happens in the audio world as possible: installation design; system set-up; delays, EQ; everything.”
 Pryde and Sparkes spent the two load-in days building up their desk templates so that by the time it came to rehearsal day in Glasgow they were fully prepared for anything the production might throw at them, which included renditions of I Dreamed a Dream and the hymn How Great Thou Art by Susan Boyle; and an appearance from the Pop Idol 2003 winner, Glaswegian-born Michelle McManus.
 All Glasgow’s pre- and post-event entertainment was fully sound-checked, and during the Mass (which was delivered in part-English, part-Latin from seven mic positions) Pryde took cues from an interpreter from the Vatican, who accompanied him at mix position. In total, Pryde says he spent an astonishing 11.5 hours solid at FOH; thankfully, he only had to endure McManus and Boyle for a matter of minutes.