London’s renowned Guildhall School of Music & Drama is now operating SSL’s digital broadcast System T platform and analogue Origin studio console – and they are busy: ‘We’ve got 72 live broadcasts taking place between now and the end-of-year,’ says the School’s Head of Recording and Audio Visual, Julian Hepple.

GuildhallRanked among the top ten performing arts institutions in the world, the Guildhall is a global leader of creative and professional practice, and one of those establishments where, despite its age – 140 in 2020 – it’s not surprising to find cutting edge equipment such as the award winning

‘We have two main campus buildings that are directly across the road from each other and within the school there are six large performance spaces built six and seven years ago – a concert hall, theatre, studio theatre, Music Hall, opera theatre, and so on,’ Hepple explains. ‘System T gives us access and lines from each one of those performance venues and 24 classrooms as well. We’ve got a big Dante network that sits alongside a big NDI video network as well, to allow us to pull in and out of any room we want to and push anything anywhere, as well as do big multichannel records and all that kind of stuff.’

The set-up has allowed the school to deliver the UK’s first full-scale, socially distanced symphony orchestra performance, with 94 musicians in four different rooms, linked together by System T. ‘They can all see a conductor on-screen via the NDI video network, as well as a multi-view of all the other rooms,’ Hepple says. ‘I think we’re the only people doing that.’

He jokes that the School has effectively turned into a video production company, but also points out that it has managed remarkable things in the face of a pandemic that has shuttered many institutions around it. That includes running its Gold Medal competition, which didn’t stop for either World War and counts the likes of Sir Bryn Terfel, Tasmin Little, and Jaqueline DuPré among its previous winners. And a lot of that is down to its System T installation and the way that it has helped the School navigate the problems that the need for social distancing can cause.

The school closed earlier than most at the start of the year, which gave it an early insight of what it would need to do. ‘That’s when the initial plan for the project came about and part of the reason I got the funding for the project was because I said I think we can still have the Gold Medal this year and we can use this technology to keep going though pretty much everything,’ says Hepple.

Hepple is a two-time Grammy-nominated producer/engineer, and through his wealth of contacts pulled together what amounts to a DIY installation of the new system. Liam Halpin from Datasound Consulting put in the Dante, Guildhall engineer Sam Ziajka was responsible for networking, and the project was managed by Dylan Bate Project Management. It was a two-day install by SSL followed by a further two days of training, and the team has been doing two gigs a day since the start of September.

‘We hit the ground running and we were off,’ he says.

GuildhallThe full kit list that went into the School over those truncated few months is headlined by its 32-fader S300 console supported by a T25 Tempest Engine. IO included SSL SB 32.24s, an A 16.D16 and an A32 stagebox that sits in front of an Origin console used primarily for jazz recordings and which sites it on the Dante network. ‘And then we’ve probably got 70 or so non-SSL Dante devices that sit on there too,’ Hepple says. ‘All our little classrooms have little rack mixers in them basically with a Dante card in the back. And we’ve got a whole bunch of two channel in/two out Dante no-tricks boxes that we can go and throw in a room.

‘The Origin allows me to teach students in a totally analogue workflow in there, so I can teach them proper gain structure and signal flow and all that kind of stuff,’ he continues. ‘So in one building we have this absolutely glorious SSL analogue environment. And in the other building, we’ve got this equally glorious SSL digital set-up. And the link between the two of them is just brilliant for us; it’s just really flexible.’

That flexibility has been the key to some of the School’s achievements in the past few months, with one of the biggest impacts being made by the TeamViewer application on the S300 and the way it enables remote working.

‘On the S300 I can sit and mix gigs from home,’ says Hepple. ‘I’ve got a member of staff that’s currently having to self-isolate, so they’re prepping all the show files and putting them on there. With a combination of wider access Dante networks, the S300 and a couple of streaming plug-ins, we can do stuff from anywhere, it’s absolutely brilliant. We had a big band gig last night and I mixed the audio from my home and one of my engineers vision mixed from his home. That’s fantastic.’

The socially distanced orchestra that has been set up at the School is a marvel of logistics that has been enabled by clever technology. 54 socially distanced strings sit in one room, with brass and percussion in another room, a 13-piece woodwind section in another (sitting three metres apart rather than the usual two due to the particulates that the players exhale), and so on.

‘Our low-latency network has allowed for meaningful large ensemble performance to continue – a vital part of our students development here at the school. We love it,’ comments Jonathon Vaughan, Vice-Principal & Director of Music

GuildhallThe key to managing a nigh-on 100-piece orchestra spread across numerous rooms is managing latency on the Dante fibre network that is threaded throughout the School’s buildings.

‘I can get anywhere on site to anywhere else on site in 6ms audio wise, which is quicker than the real world,’ says Hepple. ‘ If I am a conductor and I am 10m away from a trombone player at the back of the room, there’s a 30ms lag between them. If I put a close mic on that trombone player, I can get the sound in the headphones of the conductor before it would have got there in real time. And because the audio is so quick, that allows me to catch up on the video side of things. The video side runs at about 100ms latency, so you just have to do some common sense things to accommodate that. I don’t have the conductor in the same physical space as any of the instrumentalists for instance, so we are never fighting against the real world speed of light for a conductor’s downbeat; everyone’s getting the video at the exact same time.’

Overall the result is a tightly integrated and flexible audio production system that has enabled the School to function whatever has been thrown at it. And for young musicians that is vital.

‘It is brilliant it is for us to be able to integrate the Origin with the System T via that A32 box, because being able to do our broadcast work from an analogue console is brilliant,’ Hepple reports. ‘And as a teaching tool for the students, it’s brilliant. As well as all the multi-room stuff, the fact that we can just send stems of anything to a Mac lab, or to a specific student who’s recording using an orchestra; they just open Logic and I’ve already mapped the inputs out through the Virtual Tie Lines, they just log in and there are their stems. Everything is self-serving. I can do three things at once now because it is all flowing and it’s like night and day in terms of what we can deliver to the students in terms of digital and blended learning.’

In addition, he can swiftly switch between large-scale jobs and smaller ones, managing them all through the S300. And now that every room in the campus is essentially a live room, that flexibility is key as the console jumps between different projects.

‘We’ve learnt how to do the live orchestra now. At the moment I’ve got that event parked a few layers down on the S300, someone else is mixing a gig routed to another master output on top of it, and I’m remoted in from home. It’s like having six consoles.’

See also:
London’s Guildhall School rides out Covid with Dante


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