At first glance, the Nashville-based Opry Mills Mall would appear to be another upscale shopping center with over 200 merchants, covering over 1.2 million sq. ft., albeit one adjacent to the Grand Old Opry. Once inside, the most stunning difference between Opry Mills and the mall du jour becomes glaringly apparent - the space features an 18'-diameter stage in the round inside the common area that is encircled by a total of 30 Mitsubishi 80" rear-screen televisions. A 20'-diameter media cluster sits above the stage, housing video, audio, and lighting elements. The space itself can be utilized for live performances, and is currently showcasing two preprogrammed video presentations, The Country Music Experience and The Tennessee Sports Spectacular.

This "shoppertainment" concept was developed by the Mills Corp., a national retail developer located in Arlington, VA, and is being showcased for the first time at Opry Mills Mall. To execute the entertainment portion of the mall design, the Mills Corp. called on themed entertainment veterans Edwards Technologies Inc. of El Segundo, CA, and Scenery West of LA.

Early on in the project, the Mills Corp. management turned to Edwards Technologies for concept development as well as implementation of the audio, video, and lighting systems in the space. "We designed the space so that it could be a prototype of how public spaces like this might be done in the future," says ETI president Brian Edwards.

"In order to enhance the retail experience," adds Scenery West vice president Stewart Zilberberg, "the Mills Corp. took a common gathering space and created an entertainment venue of their own, one that isn't imposing any additional expenses on the customer. I think it's a very progressive idea for a mall developer to incorporate common space into an entertainment area."

The original concept for the Opry Mills stage was to use it predominantly for live performances, with an audio system designed by Edwards. "Brian sat down and basically planned the project out on a napkin in the lunchroom here," ETI audio designer Troy Ross explains. "And I'll be darned if that's not what it ended up being."

The focus of the project then shifted to using the area mostly for the preprogrammed video presentations, which changed the equipment list considerably. "The acoustic energy from a live performance stage is a whole different monster than just using point-source speakers for audio playback," Ross explains. Consequently, there was a change in the gear required for the project. "At that point, we got rid of all the big speakers, the support equipment, the stage gear, and the floor monitors," Ross explains. Then the focus of the stage returned to live performances, which meant that the ETI team brought back all of the live sound reinforcement equipment. The rig consists of six EAW KF 300s above the stage, six EAW JF 100 delay speakers, located on the farthest points of the ceiling trusses, and four EAW SB 150s mounted underneath the stage. An additional six JF 100s rigged under the 80" monitors acted as point-source speakers to support the A/V show.

Because this sound system is located within a retail environment, one of the concerns Ross had to deal with was beam spread. "We pulled the KF 300s back for a much steeper angle than you would do in a typical installation," he explains. "We were trying to contain the sound in the specific stage area, so we rigged the front speakers down pretty hard and then we just decided that the outside ring of speakers would be able to fill in for the people who were standing farther back," Ross notes. "Basically, to keep peace among the mall tenants, we had to control the sound."

One of the biggest challenges for Ross was the fact that the stage is located within a mall, which isn't necessarily the best place to hear live audio. "It was a pretty difficult space sonically," he admits. The facility is filled with hardwood, glass, and large skylights, none of which are very acoustically friendly. As a result, the reverb time in the space clocked in at nine, maybe 10 seconds, which is far from ideal. "The fun meter was not running on this project," he adds. "We really needed a second and a half to two seconds' reverb time at the most, so I knew that the system was going to take a lot of tweaking."

To cure his reverb problem, Ross needed to access the Peavey MediaMatrix in the rack room, which isn't particularly close to the mixing booth. "I thought it was going to take a long time to adjust the system," he admits. Luckily, show control programmer James Renard helped Ross out. "James managed to put Net Meeting on my laptop, which enabled me to control the desktop of the MediaMatrix from the mixing booth," he says. "I used my laptop as a MediaMatrix remote. James saved my life - I probably would have still been there working on it."

Using an FFT-type program called Spectra RTA, which was developed by NASA, Ross managed to tweak the system, control the delay problems, and, with the addition of some Whisper Wall acoustic treatment, bring the system up to Nashville standards. "Believe me, before they put the last band of the Whisper Wall around, I could tell the difference," he remarks.

While Ross was completing the audio portion of the project, Edwards was working on the video aspects, which were used for the preprogrammed shows, as well as for image magnification of the live performances. After deciding on the Mitsubishi rear-screen TVs for the perimeter of the area, he needed a video unit that would fit easily into the giant media cluster that dominates the space. "To fit the TV into the centerpiece, we didn't have the depth available, so we needed the thinnest possible monitor - that's why we went with the NEC plasma screens," Edwards explains. "The plasma screens are small and I can get a lot of image without a lot of back-of-house space, so to speak."

The media cluster is home to a bevy of other equipment - including ETC Source Four Parnels, Martin Roboscan 518s, Source Four ellipsoidals, and Martin Robocolor Pro 400s-but it's far from being a simple utilitarian element in the space. It can also be seen as a type of stylized chandelier that hangs above the stage, adorned with numerous guitar parts. "It's an abstract design, which was intended to indicate guitar bodies and necks, but in an abstract form," says Zilberberg. "The guitar seems to be symbolic of country music, as well as a natural icon for the Opry." The cluster itself is done in monochromatic hues, which works in conjunction with the lighting of the space. "We really wanted the lighting inside the space to change the mood, so the idea of using monochromatic grays and silvers was an important part of that," he adds.

The massive media cluster isn't the only scenic element within the Opry Mills Mall. As one looks up at the ceiling, there are 12 large, petal-like pieces that fan out from the media cluster over the audience. "The petals that come off the ceiling structure and branch out into the common space were inspired by the logo of the Opry Mills," Zilberberg notes. To illuminate the decorative petals, ETI lighting designer Jason Rowley looked to Martin Professional for the answer. "The most challenging aspect of this job was trying to get the 12 scrim petals illuminated from above in a cost-effective manner," he reports. The instruments are a mere 6' away from the petals, making an instrument with a wide beam spread an absolute necessity. "Nothing gave me any sort of beam spread," Rowley admits. After a process of trial and error, the LD hit upon the Martin Robocolor III. "We used four Robocolor IIIs above each of the petals," he says. "We can do chases, and we have a fixed flower-type pattern projected on the back of the petal."

In the ceiling, the media cluster is surrounded by twelve 20' pieces of 12" box truss that radiate out from the media cluster, rather like spokes on a wheel. The trussing, which has a trim height of 20', is lower than one would expect. "We were hoping for a higher trim, but the truss is basically bolted to the bottom of the existing facility truss, so there wasn't a way to get any more height out of it," explains Rowley. The dimmers are also located on the trussing above the ceiling, due to the lack of available power on the floor.

Overall, the Opry Mills lighting package relied heavily on Martin gear. "Because of our budget, we used the Martin equipment, because it gave us the most bang for the buck," explains Rowley. A Jem 2000 smoke machine and six Reel FX DF-50 hazers augment the package. There is also a large mirrorball located inside the media cluster. "The client wanted it to look like the chandelier is exploding, so we used an old standby for the effect - a 4' mirrorball, which is actually quite impressive."

Since the Opry Mills Mall opened in May, a wide variety of performers have graced the stage, including Charlie Pride, Little Jimmy Dickens of the Grand Old Opry, and the cable talk show Crook and Chase. "We're doing live TV broadcasts, as well as radio shows," reports Rowley. "It's turning into quite the performance stage."