Historic Voices Carry:
The Maryland State House
By Stephen Murphy
If you have ever wondered, “What do George Washington and Peavey Media Matrix have in common?” as most of us have, read on:
It was two days before Christmas, 1783. General George Washington arrived at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, which temporarily served as the nation’s capitol. The Senate Chamber was packed with Congressmen, army officers and assorted dignitaries. The din quickly fell to a hushed silence as General Washington moved through the room.
Despite the dead silence in the room, Washington’s voice, choked with emotion, was barely audible. He stood before the somber audience and announced that, “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action; and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take leave of all the employments of public life."
At the end of his three-minute speech, Washington quickly left the State House and rode to the home he had scarcely seen throughout his eight years as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He arrived at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia just in time for Christmas.
Less than a month after Washington’s speech, the Congress of the Confederation met once again at the Maryland State House and ratified the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. Three years later, the Maryland State House hosted the Annapolis Convention. The changes to the Articles of Confederation discussed at the Annapolis convention directly led to the crafting of the United States Constitution the following year.
Not only does the Maryland State House building continue to stand as a witness of these and many other remarkable events, the magnificently restored edifice is still in use today, earning the distinction of being the oldest state capitol building in continuous legislative use.
Last fall, Lanham, Maryland-based contractor American Amplifier was engaged to update the Senate Chamber’s antiquated public address and inter-office audio distribution system. While not nearly as old as some of the great historic events that took place within the State House walls, the woefully inadequate and piecemeal audio system was destined for the history books.
Unlike General George Washington’s nearly inaudible resignation speech of 1783, the incoming state-of-the-art install – with a Peavey MediaMatrix system at the core – will ensure that all can hear every word spoken in the Senate Chamber.
American Amplifier and Television Corporation is one of the oldest and well-respected multimedia contractors in the United States. The company specializes in a wide range of expert systems design and integration, including audio-visual, simultaneous interpretation, multimedia conferencing, internal communications, broadband network, and closed circuit and master antenna television systems.
Established almost 75 years ago, American Amplifier’s list of high-profile installations in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area speaks volumes of its design and application expertise. The company’s impressive list of clients includes the federal government (White House Executive Office Building, Federal Reserve Board, United States Embassies in Cairo, Kuwait and Japan), international airports (Washington National Airport, Dulles International Airport), medical centers (Walter Reed Army Medical Center, V.A. Medical Center, Alexandria Hospital), major organizations (The World Bank, The Organization of American States, International Monetary Fund, National Science Foundation), theaters and stadiums (The Kennedy Center, Navy Memorial Stadium) and numerous hotels, houses of worship and large corporations.
American Amplifier is currently hard at work on a very large-scale MediaMatrix installation at the new National Air and Space Museum Annex at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The $300 million-dollar, 760,000 square-foot facility is scheduled to open in December 2003, and will feature over 200 aircraft and 135 spacecraft, including an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and NASA’s first Space Shuttle, Enterprise.
State House System
American Amplifier President Robert Burdett designed the Maryland State House system with Chief Engineer Ron Penick, who also led the on-site install. “The overall specification at the State House was to provide the public address and sound reinforcement system within the Senate Chamber and to provide multiple feeds out to press and web-casting areas, as well as to adjacent legislative office buildings,” he explains.
The current Senate Chamber is located in an addition to the State House built in 1904. The very regal, red-carpeted room measures approximately 50 by 60 feet and features a series of two-story marble columns and corresponding arches at the extreme ends. Two large visitor galleries are located on second-story balconies overhanging the front and back of the room. At the center of the decorative plaster ceiling is a large, 100-year old Tiffany & Co. skylight.
Requirements of the installation dictated that American Amplifier aim for as little disruption to the room’s appearance as possible. “As with any installation in a historical setting, the design had to take into account and balance the needs of the incoming system with existing architectural aesthetics,” says Penick. “In this case, it meant working around specific physical appearance limitations, and the substantial use of existing cable runs.”
At the front of the chamber are two large, wide wooden desks for the Senate President, desk officers and other staff. An open cavity at the rear of the President’s desk housed the previous system’s equipment rack. Since this is where all of the existing microphone and speaker cable runs terminated, the new system would have to fit within the same space, says Penick.
“The MediaMatrix Miniframe 208nt unit was the ideal choice for this installation because it can be used in a stand-alone configuration that can be easily placed within the existing site,” Penick explains. “The State House 208 is configured with seven MM-8802 Break-out boxes for a 56 x 56 I/O matrix.”
Penick used two 600-series 12-space Soundolier racks placed within the desk cavity to mount the MediaMatrix system and the other rack-mount gear. “For the MediaMatrix system, we used a small rack-mount NEC computer monitor that folds down into a single rack space drawer. The keyboard and mouse are in another single rack space drawer,”
The primary functions of the MediaMatrix system within the room is to control a large number of simultaneous microphone inputs and to provide general signal processing and control over the output to the room’s public address system. “Because the room is fairly dead acoustically, we did not need to do any special ambient level processing. We primarily used the system processing for auto-mix, equalization, delay and dynamics control,” says Penick.
Forty-eight grammar school-like antique wooden desks, complete with hinged desktops, are arranged in four rows fanning out from the Senate President’s desk area. American Amplifier installed a total of 50 Shure 545SD cardioid dynamic microphones in the chamber: one for the Senate President, one for the desk officer/senate reader and one for each of the 48 desks occupied by the state senators. The Maryland Senate is actually comprised of only 47 senators, but since the desks are grouped in pairs, there is one spare.
Penick says the Shure 545s were used for the install because they matched the specific taper shape required to work with existing configuration constraints. “Each desktop has a plate with a grommet-ed hole to stow the microphone when not in use,” he explains. “Senators are required to stand while speaking to the chamber, so they take their microphone and pull it out of the recessed holder. A weight on the microphone cable pulls the mic back into the void in the desk when not in use.”
Penick is using an AMX NXI NetLinx integrated controller system in conjunction with the MediaMatrix Miniframe for microphone switching duties. “The individual mic switches are tied into the AMX control system, and that system in turn operates the channel mutes within MediaMatrix. So we’re using the MediaMatrix auto-mixing functions more as a fail-safe.”
The 50 microphones make up the bulk of input sources running into the MediaMatrix unit, says Penick. “The only other input devices going to the 802 are an electronic chime which the Senate President uses for signaling to Senators within the chamber – for instance, when it’s time to take a vote – and a session warning bell which rings throughout the building.”
The MediaMatrix output feeds a Crown CTs 8200 eight-channel 200-watt amplifier, six channels of which drive the speakers within the Senate Chamber, with one channel driving ceiling speakers in a few rooms adjacent to the chamber and one channel as spare.
American Amplifier installed Panaray MA12 line array speakers from Bose for the main floor speaker system. “We’re using a matched pair of the MA12s on mounted on either side of the room. The MA12s are bolted directly to the marble columns,” says Penick. “I have to say I was a little nervous about drilling into the marble, but everything went perfectly and the installation looks great
We actually had the speakers faux-painted to match the adjacent marble surfaces – they did a great job with the painting. It goes a long way in minimizing the profile of the cabinets in the room,” Penick adds.
The original mains in the Senate Chamber room were soffit-mounted speakers that were fitted into the front wall and sealed in with painted fabric. “They weren’t accessible at all. They were going to have to get a building contractor in to cut into the walls,” explains Penick. “It was determined that to remove he old speakers would be far to disruptive to the original finish in the room. The new speaker installation saved a lot of trouble for the State House and significantly improved the fidelity at the same time.”
Installing the speakers for upstairs balcony area was not quite as demanding as the main arrays, says Penick. “For fills in the visitor galleries, we’re using Bose 302s. We were able to mount them behind columns so, appearance-wise, they are mostly obscured, but still provide the even coverage we needed in the balcony areas. Again, this was an area where we had to work within the existing system’s installation constraints.”
In addition to providing output to the senate public address system, the MediaMatrix Miniframe also sends out individual line-level feeds for the press, real-time webcasting and for inter-office distribution and monitoring. “The office distribution feed goes to the AMX/AutoPatch-based monitoring systems we installed in the two adjacent legislative office buildings,” says Penick.
“Each office space wired up gets an RDL [STA-1M] amplifier and an AMX control panel and an Altec speaker,” continues Penick, “Listeners can select to monitor the Senate Chamber room MediaMatrix feed, one of seven hearing rooms or one of four meeting rooms within their office.”
The Maryland State House Senate Chamber install took about nine weeks from design to fabrication to testing the system on site, Penick estimates, “But its tough to fix a hard date for the completion. We continue to work closely with the State House and other related Maryland State legislative offices on both new installs and improving existing ones, so it’s really an ongoing process,” he adds.
The Senate system is completely self-contained, requiring no on-site operational personnel. “It’s locked off for the most part. We did train a State House technician to be able to make rudimentary adjustments, just in case…” says Penick.
Both American Amplifier and The Maryland State House are extremely pleased with the successful install and overall quality of the system, but that does not surprise Penick – he attributes a good deal of the success of the system to the 802nt Miniframe at the core. “I can count on the MediaMatrix to perform well in every major install application. And as the chief MediaMatrix engineer at American Amplifier, I have come to know the system inside and out.”
He continues, “Because this install required using existing materials and maintaining the historic millwork in the room, the Miniframe unit was the best choice for the requirement – a small-footprint, large I/O-capacity stand-alone audio matrix. We improved upon the performance and flexibility of the old system by 100-fold, while utilizing the same amount of space in the cabinet!”
Following the completion of the State House Senate Chamber system, Ron Penick and American Amplifier have been concentrating their efforts on other high-profile installations, including a recently completed MediaMatrix PageMatrix system at the National Science Foundation in Arlington and the massive MediaMatrix install at the National Air and Space Museum Annex at Dulles.