Mark Cunningham talks exclusively with Sir George Martin C.B.E. and Yamaha's Nick Cook about the technical installation at the recently-opened Montserrat Cultural Centre...
Over the last 10 years, TPi has closely followed the regeneration progress of the hurricane and volcano-torn Caribbean island of Montserrat. A major part of that process has finally reached a joyful conclusion with the opening of the new, multi-purpose Montserrat Cultural Centre (MCC), which features state-of-the-art technologies provided by a number of leading companies, including Yamaha Commercial Audio, which supplied the complete audio infrastructure.
Comprising a 700-seat auditorium, conference rooms, a bar and restaurant, changing rooms, rehearsal rooms, offices and an area for open-air performances, the MCC will provide a much-needed national focal point for the islanders and an international centre for artistic and cultural excellence and education.
Throughout the long but ultimately triumphant story behind the venture lies a man who needs no introduction to the vast majority of adult music lovers across the universe. For the other three of you, however, Sir George Martin C.B.E. was the man best-known for signing The Beatles to EMI, and helping to inspire generations of musicians by producing some of the greatest recorded work of the 20th century.
In 1977, Sir George fell in love with Montserrat and decided to build the ultimate get-away-from-it-all recording studio there. Opened in 1979, AIR Studios Montserrat offered all of the technical facilities of its London predecessor, but with the advantages of an exotic location.
For more than a decade, AIR Montserrat played host to classic recording sessions by a who’s who of rock, including Dire Straits, The Police, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ultravox, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath and Eric Clapton.
Then, in 1989, disaster struck when Montserrat was dealt a devastating blow by Hurricane Hugo which destroyed 90% of the island’s structures and brought the studio’s glittering story to an abrupt end.
Six years later, the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano, took out the island's only town and seaport, Plymouth, the airport and much of the industry and agricultural land. Thousands of islanders lost their homes and livelihoods, and were forced to migrate to America and the UK. Others lost their lives.
Sitting with Sir George in his London apartment, it is clear from his gaze that the impact of the destruction still haunts him. “It was truly dreadful,” he says. “They so desperately needed new housing and roads. We helped the refugees initially by raising $1.5m through the Music For Montserrat concert at the Royal Albert Hall [in 1997], for which I gathered many of the artists who had recorded at AIR, like Paul, Elton, Eric, Phil Collins and Mark Knopfler.
“Once a lot of the urgent reparation was done, it was clear that what the people really wanted was a community centre, because they had nowhere at all to meet. So I promised them I’d create a building for this purpose, much more than the average community centre, of course, and it’s turned one of the biggest projects of my life.”
The $3.25m needed to build and equip the Montserrat Cultural Centre has largely been generated by fund-raising initiatives. A limited edition of 500 framed lithographs of Sir George’s string quartet score for ‘Yesterday’, signed by him and McCartney, fetched $2m.
Similarly, a one-off orchestral score for a new version of George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (from The Beatles & Cirque du Soleil show, Love), autographed by the surviving Beatles and widows, was auctioned in Arizona for $60,000. “It’s the last score I’ll ever write for The Beatles,” said Sir George. “Olivia Harrison encouraged me to auction it and it was a great idea.”
Another initiative — a Fred Astaire tribute concert organised by Martha Mitchell, a friend of the famed song-and-dance man’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie — generated around $145,000.
How did the locals react to Sir George’s substantial promise of a state-of-the-art venue? “Well, they’re very nice people but they never believe what you say you’re going to do. When I told them I wanted to build a recording studio, back in the ’70s, they looked at me as if I was mad and said, ‘oh yeah, that’s good’, not thinking that it would happen, but it did.
“Of course, it took a long while for us to reach this stage — eight years, in fact — and there were occasional snide comments in the local paper, such as ‘what’s Sir George Martin doing with all the money he’s raised?’.
“I’ve leaned on a lot of people,” said Sir George. “Our efforts of fund-raising, some large, some smaller, gave us most of the money we required for the Centre which is now open, thanks to a lot of people in your business who have given us wonderful deals on equipment. We’re still about $40,000 short of target but we’ll make it!”
MONTSERRAT’S UNSUNG HERO
Early on, veteran UK tour manager and sound man Christopher Runciman was drafted in by Sir George to manage the project and he was able to make necessary changes to the design as the build progressed.
“Chris loved the island when he first visited years ago and he was recommended to me for this project by Dave Harries, my colleague from Abbey Road and AIR. Dave told me that this was a guy who knew more about putting on shows, technically, than anyone, and that he’d be a great help.
“All we did was build an empty shell with seats, but we had no experience with the rigging of lighting and designing a really good sound system. A theatre is much different to a recording studio! Chris was the one to advise us on all of these things and he’s turned out to be vital all the way through. He pretty much ran the place to start with and has worked incredibly hard.”
Runciman, whose work on the island was acknowledged by the TPi John Peel Unsung Hero award in 2007, said: “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. 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.”
THE ROLE OF YAMAHA
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.
“Yamaha have been wonderful,” smiled Sir George. “When I told them how desperate I was to get good equipment into this place and asked them to help us, Nick went away and talked to his people, and called me a week later with a plan. They’d taken all the dimensions of the building and come up with a computer rendering of a bespoke sound system design, including the number of loudspeakers and desks. My jaw dropped!
“I said to Nick, ‘hold on, this is going to cost a fortune’, but he assured me that because it was such a worthwhile project, a very attractive deal could be offered. They’ve turned our auditorium into probably the finest-sounding venue in the whole of the West Indies. We saw a showing of ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ one night, and the surround sound was incredible — as good as anything you’d experience in England.”
Cook quickly realised that only by supplying the complete solution could Yamaha guarantee the necessary flexibility, reliability and audio quality. “The other way would have been for a number of different manufacturers to each provide certain elements, but potentially that might have ended up with lots of ‘sticky tape’ fixing a number of interfacing problems. It seemed to us that as we had everything to provide a complete solution, it was logical to fully embrace this project and give as much support as possible.
“Also, as a big, multi-national corporation, we feel a sense of duty to help communities, and this was a great opportunity for us to help Sir George within his fund-raising capabilities. We were very 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.”
SPECIFICATION & TRAINING
Amongst the most important aims of the MCC project are education and training. Yamaha Commercial Audio installation manager Scott Fraser, who designed the audio system, explained: “Opportunities for young Montserratians are limited. MCC now gives them a chance to learn about 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.
“To facilitate those aims, we had to use contemporary, cutting-edge components. But we also needed to present the system in a way that was non-threatening to young novices, 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 pre-set, easily-switched scenes to cater for most applications. At the 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 PA system comprises (per side) three I Series IF2115/64 mid/high loudspeakers, two IS1218 subs and a single IS1118 sub. 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 PC9501 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,” said 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 team spent several days just reading manuals to completely familiarise themselves with all aspects of the equipment. “If everyone in the UK did as much homework as those guys did, then the standard of UK installs could be so much higher!” added 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 ‘Rev’ Dave Black who had already installed the lighting system with Runciman before the Yamaha kit arrived.
Despite the MCC being of mainly concrete construction, the fact that Runciman had an acoustically treated ceiling installed meant that many of the potential acoustic problems never materialised. With the system successfully installed, testing began with a couple of nights of training for local engineers. 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!” laughed Runciman. “It really worked; just like it said on the packet. It’s the icing on the cake — I never thought the room would look and sound so good.”
Scott added: “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. 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,” explained 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.”
Peter Filleul — the executive director of the APRS and one of the first people to record at AIR Montserrat (with the Climax Blues Band) — has also played a major part in the project since its inception with his spearheading of the Montserrat Equipment Quest.
Thanks to his rallying, a number of people have come forward with donations of quality ex-rental kit or attractive deals on newer stock. Dave Black and Chris Runciman got together with Noreen O’Riordan at Entec to specify a lighting system for the Sir George Martin Auditorium from Entec’s inventory.
This comprised six Martin MAC 300 and six MAC 250 moving heads, six bars of six PARs, four bars of six ACLs, six CCT Silhouette 650W Profiles and six CCT Fresnels, two ETC Source Fours, six floor cans, a Pani 1200W HMI followspot and an Avolites 48-way dimmer rack. Entec also supplied A-type and Astralite trussing, while Avolites provided a Pearl lighting console.
Allen & Heath also contributed to the Centre’s overall sound infrastructure with a Xone:32 DJ mixer, and Fuzion supplied a number of custom stage boxes and looms.
The auditorium’s Litedeck staging and risers were sourced from LiteStructures, and Robin Wealleans at The Picture Works came on board as a consultant and supplied a full Sanyo projector package, complemented by screens from Harkness Hall. Rockdrops’ GCB also assisted with the provision of drapes, secured through various sources.
Other companies who made valued contributions included Adam Hall, Aluminium Access Products (Tallescope), PSAV Presentation Services and Eat To The Beat, whose Tony Laurenson advised on kitchen design and provided refrigerators. Equipment was kindly shipped to Montserrat by Rock-It Cargo.
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.
Since the MCC opened, how have the locals been using the facilities? Sir George said: “As well as the film shows for adults and kids, they will be using it for weddings, dinner-dances and conferences — there was an Inter-Caribbean conference [Cari-Com] recently that attracted people from all of the islands.
“The island has taken the Centre to its bosom and they want to do all sorts of things with it that we never thought of. The multi-purpose nature of the Centre means it can turn its hand to so many different types of function, and the hire rates fluctuate depending on its use.”
The MCC will also stage annual celebrations of The Queen’s birthday (Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory) and it’s hoped that the Centre will help boost tourism to the island, not least due to its historical connections with rock’n’roll.
“I do plan to feature a visual display that will represent the old AIR Studios in an interesting way,” explained Sir George, “and also a wall display of hand prints of the principal artists that helped this project, as well as other items of memorabilia.”
Does the legendary Beatles producer expect some of the major AIR recording artists to return to Montserrat to perform at the MCC? “I haven’t asked them, to be honest,” he replied. “Everyone I asked to support the refugees with the Music For Montserrat concert instantly came forward for that show, 11 years ago. They were so helpful that I’ve been reluctant to ask for any more support to raise awareness of this building. But I might do... one day.”
Finally, Sir George once again extended his gratitude to every company and individual who has contributed to the project. “It was very gratifying that they clearly grasped the importance of the educational aspect of the MCC. 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, and everyone else, not only for their technical expertise and excellent equipment, but also for the obvious passion they showed in helping us realise our aims.”