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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Ostrander Auditorium’s audio-video meets multiple needs

A detailed explanation of new venue's sound-video systems

New Ostrander Auditorium offers plethora of audio-visual systems.

By Jim Stokes, Sound & Communications Contributing Editor [published in Sound & Communications, trade magazine for the audio-video industry, Port Washington, N.Y., 5/27/2010]

“The room really has to be a Swiss Army Knife to be able to do all the various things that happen in there,” declared Scott Hagebak, operations director of Centennial Student Union at Minnesota State University, Mankato MN. That observation aptly describes the $1.6 million
renovated 350-seat Ostrander Auditorium within the campus student union.

Multi-use facility

The venue is one of the few multiuse facilities on campus that’s not dedicated to classroom use. Events include lectures, films, concerts and theater productions. In fact, it’s the first space that every student sees when coming to the university for freshman orientation. Because of that, Minnesota State Mankato wanted to offer a good impression to new arrivals.

Some additional functions include science fairs, religious services and tax-return seminars. Built in the early 1970s, the room was named after 1927 graduate Lloyd Ostrander. Some dignitaries who have appeared at the auditorium’s podium include Presidents Reagan and Ford and Vice Presidents Humphrey and Mondale.

Taking a broader view, Mankato Normal School was founded in 1868 and served 27 students. Located about 85 miles southwest of Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota State Mankato sits atop 303 acres overlooking the Minnesota River Valley. Greater Mankato city itself has a population of nearly 50,000. Latest facts reveal that Minnesota State Mankato has more that 14,500 students, including nearly 600 international students from 72 countries.

Improving the auditorium

“In essence, the room was stripped down to the bricks and girders and totally rebuilt so it can serve the campus effectively for the next 40 years,” said Hagebak. Over the years, a number of minor upgrades were performed to try to keep it current.

However, he reported, “there were lots and lots of problems. For example, we could not count on the lighting system. The house lights would start to flicker at different times in the middle of a presentation. The media system was cobbled together from a number of different sources. And, of course, the seating mechanisms were breaking. The seats were really showing their age and had to be upholstered. Unfortunately, the room was not giving a good representation to new students.”

In addition to the vast improvements in AV presentation capabilities, he had kind words for the new lighting system.

“We can run all the media equipment from the booth and from the stage. The user can select the house lights and spotlights for a presentation from a touchpanel. Thus, it’s very user friendly and cutting edge for us.” The theatrical lighting was completely replaced with an ETC lighting system.

“There’s a semi-thrust stage, so it’s kind of a half circle,” he added. “When the room was built originally, it was octagonal, semi-thrust with squared-off edges and steps that went up all the way around. We kept that same location for the stage going around. And the face is Mankato limestone with a new cherry wood deck on it. So it’s beautiful.”

Hagebak also noted that one important addition to the room is handicap accessibility. That required building an addition to the side, so there’s ramping from the back of the house to the stage. Along with that are new dressing rooms and a storage room.

AV design

David Peterson, CTS, AV Designer and upper Midwest Project Manager at consulting firm Shen Milsom & Wilke, talked about giving Minnesota State Mankato's auditorium an AV facelift because several technology systems had been installed over the years and had to be updated.

Born and raised in Mankato, he recalled other campus projects: “I’ve been crawling around those buildings and performing work on systems [here] for a long time, so I was a natural to bring SMW on board for this project.

“Acoustically, there were several issues,” he explained. “One of the biggest was mechanical noise. The facility received a completely new HVAC system, which was a mind-boggling project in itself.” Peterson related that the two huge air handling units above the stage are the size of an SUV. It was such a big operation that openings had to be made in the auditorium’s roof, lifting the old units out and bringing new ones in their place. “The new units were equipped with variable-speed fans, which helped us with the noise,” he added. “We worked closely with Mechanical Designer Kyko Leitch, Kyko Engineering in Mankato.

“Once the mechanical noise was controlled, the next step was to address acoustic issues in reverberation, reflections and absorption. We ended up tearing down an old suspended plaster ceiling, which allowed us to install new duct work, lighting circuits and a simple catwalk,” he stated. They developed a cloud system, which is fairly common these days, providing reflectivity during stage performances and dispensing it over the audience. The design came from Architect Eric Oleson of RL Engebretson in Mankato.

“[Oleson] was very open to ideas,” Peterson offered. “He asked our opinion about the perfect placement of loudspeakers and lighting fixtures.”

Excellent imaging

The result is an excellent imaging of the left and right surround speakers above the stage, out to the audience, which we’ll cover next. Thus, the cloud system’s pleasing décor complemented the auditorium’s overall physical fix up while also providing excellent sound coverage.

Black components integrated into the wall system, which are flush and perfectly coordinated loudspeaker covers, match the architectural element. “So, architecturally, it was a well collaborated project. I’m very happy with the results, acoustically and aesthetically,” Peterson said.

Peterson specified a Crestron touchpanel control system based on the DM solution. “This product helped us establish the digital media distribution. Analog product was also specified along with the control system components.

Of course, the control system components helped us create the event recall and simple presentation platform.” He’ll discuss these aspects in greater detail later.

Surround sound

Let’s start with the audio. The 7.1 house surround sound system uses Innovox linear line arrays. “We mostly selected them based on their coverage pattern,” declared Peterson. “Because it’s a line array, it provides wide horizontal coverage and narrow vertical coverage, which is the exact pattern of the audience seating. The architects love them because they’re so easy to hide with the room architecture. The [Innovox arrays] are not large cabinets that would be hard to hide away.”

Basically, there’s a distributed “exploded” center cluster, side and rear channels, and a subwoofer. There are left/center/right J-array CLA-9s flown in an arc above the stage created by the aforementioned cloud system. “So they’re arranged in coordination with the ceiling clouds,” said Peterson.

Then, we have a distributed center channel, designed to cover the entire seating area. And it’s used for voice.”

The SB215 subwoofer is located above center stage. “The dual sub performs fantastically,” he added. An SLA-6.1 recessed line array is mounted on both sides of the 20-foot stage opening.

Augmenting the 6.1s is a pair of SLA-4.1s, which extend the left and right image to the audience. They’re located about eight feet above the stage behind the black speaker grilles on the wing walls. “We went to the 4.1 because they are closer to the audience and they didn’t need as much control there,” said Peterson."

Moving on to the eight SL-4.1 US low profile, two-way surround sound speakers covering the side rear of the room: They’re configured as two on the left and two on the right side. In addition, there are two in the rear, and two in the lobby for overflow coverage.

Other speakers

Regarding other speakers and amplifiers, Alesis M1Active speakers are installed in the control room for the audio mix position, and the lighting control position has two Alesis monitors. The four stage monitors are Electro- Voice. There’s a Quam ceiling speaker for back of house. Six QSCs provide power amplification to all loudspeakers.

Assistive listening is via Listen. The auditorium is a multipurpose space that sees three basic categories of use: presentation, film and theatrical. For instance, the side and rear channels are used for film. And we’ve already mentioned that the center array works very well for voice.

“The facility is used by many presenters,” explained Peterson. “Our biggest challenge is accommodating all the users. There was the fast turnaround where the space would be scheduled for four hours in the morning and then four hours in the afternoon by a different presenter, and another event in the evening. So, the staff has to come in and make changes quickly.”

Mixing and routing

To accommodate the diverse events, Peterson’s design incorporates automatic and manual mixing systems. The ClearOne automatic mixer allows a presenter to come in and simply start talking. It’s used for audio conferencing, as well. There are several Shure wired and wireless mics from which to choose. Thus, there can be a complete question and answer scenario, all operator-free.

Minnesota State Mankato has an active theatrical group. With the updated AV equipment, they easily can bring on a very sophisticated show or performers within the space. For a complex scenario, such as a staged theatrical performance with multiple cast members using head-worn per former mics, music and sound effects, there’s an Allen & Heath 32-channel console.

“We decided to go digital because of the ability to recall along with the fantastic mixing features,” said Peterson. “Some events occur each year. So a technician can come in and recall those events, re-ducing the setup time. The essential production intercom for staff communication is the existing Clear-Com.

Here’s how the DSP routes. DSP4 is designated as the aforementioned ClearOne presentation mixer. Everything that happens on stage is mirrored in the control room. Regarding Symetrix CobraNet, DSP1 handles all the more manually controlled stage connectivity presentations and other media. DSP2 is almost identical and operates out of the control room. And DSP3 is located in the amplifier rack to route all the signals to the B&K surround sound processor and amplifier channels.

“We now have the ability to route sound effects, for example, into any of the center, side or rear channels,” said Peterson. That’s the electronic routing. However, another way of managing media is via the media cart. This is a rolling rack located next to the presenter’s lectern; it handily accommodates a touchpanel, user laptop, document camera and a full range of media formats, including VHS/DVD combo, Blu-ray, CD/cassette and auxiliary inputs. The equipment housed on the cart leaves the auditorium’s lectern unencumbered.

A similar cart is located in the control room so it can be brought down with the Allen & Heath console via elevator to mix in the house. Relocating is simple. The mixer can be plugged into a Cat5 connection in the auditorium to keep the system flow to the main distribution.

Summing up the audio system, Peterson pointed out, “The big driving factor is that this is a very nice listening environment right now, with the new acoustics and equipment. The loudspeakers perform quite well. We designed them to be efficient both in cost and power.”

Flash back, flash forward

It’s a user-friendly AV system, but there’s a lot more than what meets the eyes and ears. “This is an extremely complex space,” emphasized Peterson. “You can come in as a presenter, plug in your laptop, select it and you’re off and running. Audio follows and so forth.

That kind of presentation is straightforward. We have a Crestron control system that was nicely programmed to provide simple, intuitive functionality there. And there’s a Panasonic confidence monitor for the presenter at the lectern.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. According to Peterson, “When the university and I sat down, they said to me [in effect]: ‘We have to remodel this space and bring in new technology. Can you please help us?’ They wanted us to develop a system that was going to work for them farther down the road.”

Peterson continued, “Of course, we don’t know exactly what’s happening in the future and what the trends will be. That’s kind of the whole guessing game that we play. What we did was look carefully at the equipment the university used now and what they might encounter in the future. The result is that we ended up developing an analog distribution system.”

He explained that there’s the ability to route a VCR tape, which is still a common occurrence. There’s a mix of DVD as well as VHS. And the document remains a popular display source. Extron matrix switching allows routing for which there are convenient inputs and outputs in every floor box and at the stage. “Thus, they can bring in a projector and use it as an effect source on stage. Then they can put a monitor on stage for some theatrical event. Analog video, including composite, S-video or RGBHV, can be accommodated.”

And on the digital distribution side, they have the ability to receive DVI or HDMI and route it through the building, as well, via the control room equipment rack. A new Sanyo DLP HD 16x9 and 4x3 aspect ratio projector with longthrow lens joins the existing Sanyo 4x3 projector and the huge Da-Lite center stage projection screen for film showings.

Looking to the future, there’s an owner-furnished Polycom videoconferencing codec.

Integrator’s point of view

Terry Dahl, President/ Owner, Visual Services Inc. in Mankato, offered his perspective on the auditorium install, noting that the AV integration company has worked on several projects for the school, including the renovation of the student union. Regarding Innovox speaker mounting, he explained that the ceiling clouds were already in place. They were built onsite and comprised steel studs and sheetrock.

“The auditorium staging had scaffolding, so we worked from the top of the scaffolding in between the clouds to hang all the speaker hardware and rigging. The speakers were recessed between the seams of the clouds. They were unsightly and it was a tight fit for us. However, the installed speakers aren’t visible and look really nice because they successfully blend in with the clouds.” The speakers themselves are concealed behind black coverings.

He also noted, regarding the digital media that resides on a network, it was a challenge to make sure it didn’t function intermittently. VSI ensured that the mobile media cart could be conveniently accessed via input and output plug-ins from several locations in the facility, including onstage floor boxes, an out-of-sight backstage rack and a back-of-house connection point. Another access point is the existing press box where the press can select in/out connections to record a function.

And, finally, “The new AV system is working very well for us,” summarized Minnesota State Mankato's Hagebak. “It has given us excellent sound quality. The media system has a tremendous picture. It’s simple for all our users in the building. So we’re very pleased so far.”

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