With almost 4,000 speakers driven by 400kW of power and in use for 20 hours a day, the sound system for the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina requires almost constant attention and upgrades. The current solution was originally installed 25 years ago, and despite the best efforts of the grand mosque’s dedicated audio team, it can be a real challenge to keep it in peak condition.
The pressure that this kind of usage can put on a system means that various components need to be regularly replaced and upgraded. This happened with the grand mosque’s mixing consoles in a project that had to be completed in time for Ramadan 2015.
“Normally live consoles are used for approximately five to 20 hours per week. However, at the Prophet’s Mosque we use them every day almost non-stop,” explains audio consultant Ahmad Tekin Topuzdag, who has served as the sound system manager for the two holy grand mosques for over a decade. “That comes to around 130 hours per week throughout the year without a break. This constant use of consoles makes them very worn out within five years.”
Having logged around 31,000 hours of usage over this time, it was time to make a console change at Medina. “At the Prophet’s Mosque we cannot afford even a single second of audio loss. All the equipment should be performing at its best at all times,” states Mr Topuzdag. “We have to keep in mind that during our peak season we service almost 1,000,000 worshippers daily. Not to mention we are always live on TV and radio across the world. As the old idiom goes: ‘Prevention is better than cure’. So my principle is to change the consoles every five years, whatever condition they are in.”
This prudent decision gave Mr Topuzdag the opportunity to start looking properly at the advantages a modern digital console could offer the grand mosque. “When it was time to replace our old consoles, I wanted to get the benefits of going digital. So I took the opportunity to look for something more versatile,” recalls the sound system manager. “I really wanted to have a headend that had an integrated audio analyser system, as well as a multichannel recording option. Also having plugins was a must for me. I am a keen user of notch filters, exciters, limiters, reverbs, GEQs as well as other processing equipment, so to replace all of them along with the new consoles would have been very costly. This meant that included plugin options was an important aspect.”
With these major parameters set down, Mr Topuzdag looked at potential solutions on the market. This led to the purchase of a pair of Avid VENUE | Profile desks. “Considering the requirements I had and the price point of view, Avid VENUE | Profile consoles were the perfect match,” he says. “They have a Flux analyser built in, which is not only useful for live sound but also has a beautiful GUI. Taking the step up from a good old school Klark Teknik DN 6000 to the Flux multichannel environment felt as cool as stepping on the moon for very first time. The integrated Pro Tools recording and playback as well as the virtual sound check functionality just made me smile even further.”
With all the work required for the ongoing maintenance of the system, it was a relatively long project to install the new desks. “Overall, the installation took more than six months as there were times when I had to completely stop this project and take care of other emergency works,” reveals Mr Topuzdag. “The installation itself was pretty straightforward. What was challenging was the need to create a total of 114 snapshots to match the various combinations of nine Imams and 11 Muazzens. That alone made 99 snapshots for every possible occasion during prayer sessions.”
The scale of this challenge makes it impressive in its own right, but what makes it more remarkable is that this part of the project had to be done live while the grand mosque was in daily use. “It had to be set up entirely in live events, without a sound check,” confirms Mr Topuzdag. “I had to do all the input gains, gates, compressors, graphic equalisers, parametric equalisers, exciters, limiters, enhancers, reverbs, notch filters, monitor speakers and routing to almost 4,000 speakers in a certain order in the live environment.”
“There is no way to interrupt the ongoing services to do a sound check to set up the consoles,” he continues. “Just imagine you are live to 1,000,000 plus people in Ramadan, as well as to many millions around the world via satellite TV and you are setting up the various parameters live. Many people would say this could not be done, or that it would be an insane act. But in this case someone had to do it, it happened to be me.”
With the desks now installed and in constant use, the sound system manager is positive about the affect they have had on working life for the audio team. However, this does not mean he didn’t have reservations when they were first installed. One of the critical things that the new desks have achieved is reducing the amount of processing equipment in use at the grand mosque. While this provided an immediate benefit, it did also raise a number of questions for Mr Topuzdag.
“Being free from almost a kilometre of interconnection cables and not having racks of processing equipment, yet having up to 100 new signal processers as plugins made me suspicious regarding the capabilities of the VENUE | Profiles. Was it too good to be true?” he questions. “Well, it was not. It worked like a charm.”
Away from the processing capabilities of the new system, there was also a very practical element which has proved important for the grand mosque. “One of the key points for me when I chose the VENUE | Profiles was having a dedicated separate screen. As we all know, digital consoles offer great versatility, but they also have their limitations and those limits are layers,” says Mr Topuzdag. “During sensitive live operation you never want to lose control of the VCA or input faders. But there are times when you have to adjust the GEQ and to do that you need to go to another layer. This means you can lose control of the VCA and input faders due to fact that the same fader is also used for the GEQ frequency bands,” he reasons. “However, with VENUE’s screen, while an operator is using the console during a live service, I can fine tune the system with a mouse by using these screens without him losing his VCA and input controls or breaking his concentration.”
A final feature that has been important in the improved systems at the Prophet’s Mosque has been the remote control functionality. “With a switch and three access points set, I can use these Avid consoles from anywhere in the vast indoor area of the Prophet’s Mosque, from its roof section or the basement, as well as the piazza area all from my iPhone,” says Mr Topuzdag. “Thanks to the VNC app, I have a copy of the screens on my mobile phone’s screen. This is every live sound engineer’s dream. Being able to hear what the audience can hear even in the remotest position and fine tune the sound accordingly, in real time. That’s clearly a “wow” factor.”
As you would expect, this is not the end of the project for the audio systems at the Prophet’s Mosque. The solution deployed at Medina is in constant flux. For example, at the same time as the console installation, the grand mosque also added an Extron MAV Plus 6448 audio matrix switcher, 50 Shure Beta 58A microphones, eight Bose L1 compact portable line array powered speakers and couple of Behringer XR16 mobile digital mixers. And it will not stop there. Mr Topuzdag is always looking at what is available on the market and one technology has particularly caught his eye.
“Now there is a new kid on the block, called AVB. I keep seeing it included in things like audio mixers, speakers, microphones, amplifiers, routers and matrices,” he states. “I think it would be wonderful to have an AVB core system here. All the gear being able to communicate with each other using nothing but Ethernet cable. Over 700 audio channels flowing within one cable. And you can just hook into the system from any point with either a laptop or a tablet and manage it. I think that’s where pro audio is heading.”
It’s clear the console change is just one small part of a much larger ongoing project taking place at the Prophet’s Mosque. The five years that the VENUE | Profile desks will be in use for are set to be very interesting indeed.
A special thank you to James Ling from ProAudio Middle East who conducted the interview