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St Paul's Girls' School

London-based St. Paul's Girls' School is one of the country's leading educational facilities. Over half of the “Paulinas” achieve all A*s in their GCSEs, its alumnae include several dozen high-achieving women across every discipline, and previous Directors of Music include English composers John Gardner, Herbert Howells and Gustav Holst. Housed within the school is the Great Hall; an English Heritage Grade II listed historic structure that features an original JW Walker & Sons pipe organ, installed in 1910.

As of October 2014, the Great Hall can also boast a sound system fitting of the school's distinction: the UK's first Meyer Sound CAL 64 column array system.

As Theatre Manager Ian Hawes explains, it was a long overdue upgrade for the 750-capacity space: “We always knew what was there was terrible. Essentially it was a single-line 100V mono amplifier which fed a chain of 16 speakers upstairs and downstairs on one channel. It was installed in 1987 we think, and was still struggling on for every assembly. It meant that the volume was always at its highest, any music you put through it sounded absolutely dreadful, and things quite often got drowned out if there was any noise in the room.”

The search for a solution to modernise the school's ancient A/V system in its flagship space began in the summer of 2012. The then recently-hired Head AV Technician, Jonny Burns, recalls his first impressions of the space: “When you come to a school that has such a reputation, you expect everything to be fantastic. In most of the spaces, that was case. But walking into the Great Hall and seeing what was being used, it was disappointing.”

The school had already worked with North London audio specialists Autograph Sales & Installations on a number of smaller installations when Technical Sales Manager Chris Austin invited Hawes and Burns to a CAL listening demo in March 2013.

“I distinctly remember sitting in the auditorium,” explains Hawes. “They started playing (the system) and we realised this was the perfect solution. Not only was it thin and discreet – being a Grade II listed building we wanted to keep it as discreet as possible – it also meant we wouldn't have to run huge amounts of cable though the walls and we could colour-match them in as well. Basically, we could put in a sound system without anyone noticing.”

Not only are the speakers discreet, they are almost impossible to see. Meyer Sound colour-matched each speaker to the existing oak wood of the Great Hall. As a finishing touch, Hawes had a scenic designer add a grain effect to the finish. The speakers are installed on the upper level of the hall, despite the majority of the seating being on the floor level. The main preset has a top beam with a five-degree vertical spread and a three-degree down tilt. For the main floor, the lower beam is a 25-degree spread with a 23-degree down tilt. A third preset is used to cover the back of the floor area as needed.

Completing installation are two UMS-1P subwoofers, hidden under the stage along with four small EM Acoustic speakers used as front fills. The front fills are powered by a Lab.gruppen amplifier, and QSC's Q-Sys System integrates the sound, with the recently-installed LCD screens and Da-Lite Ascender Electrol floor-recessed screen mounted inside the stage.

Crucially, the Q-Sys System has greatly improved Burns' workflow during events in the Great Hall. Previously, “FOH” was actually located to the side of the stage. “You couldn't see the stage, you couldn't hear how it sounded for the audience and you couldn't see what was on the projection,” explains Burns. “It was completely useless but there was no else to because that's where all the equipment sat. So this has been able to put me right back here as part of the audience and be able to hear and see how it should be.”

FOH can now roll on a portable cart to wherever it needs to be, and in Burns' absence anyone can prepare the space for an event, using programmed presets and simple touch-panel control. It's an elegant, and extremely modern solution not commonly found in an educational facility, to which Chris credits Ian and Jonny's enthusiasm for exploring new ways of working: “Sometimes clients can't wrap their heads around the possibilities whereas at St. Paul's, they're very eager to try everything that's new and really embraced it.”

Being the first CAL system in the UK, Austin admits “there was a period of verifying it actually did what it said it did, as accurately as it said it did...and it absolutely did.” What took him by surprise was the sonic quality, and the relatively easy installation. Austin explains:

“If you compare the specs to other column products, they look similar. When you actually listen to it, you realise that the accuracy of it – not just in terms of its beam steering but also just the tonal quality of the speaker – is in a totally different league to anything that has ever come before. There are column speakers out there that are a little bit more musical, but they sound like column speakers. The CAL sounds like any other Meyer speaker.

“What was nice is how you can put it up, EQ it and use it and blend it with subs like you would any other speaker, it's that predictable. You didn't have to treat it like it was anything special. Once you configured it, it was just a speaker, albeit one with a pretty unusual polar plot.”

Ian concludes: “It's exactly what we needed for the space. Quite often when you do an installation a few months later you think 'Wouldn't it have been nice if we could've just done that instead?'. We spent enough time thinking about what we needed in the space that at no point since then have we thought that. It's just a beautiful system to work with.”

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