In 1987, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust faithfully restored the historic Stanley Theatre, a movie house once billed as "Pittsburgh's Palace of Amusement," as part of an ongoing transformation of the city's downtown into a thriving Cultural District. The Trust opened this stunning state-of-the-art playhouse as the Benedum Center, which today stands as the home of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and Pittsburgh Opera, among other national touring productions, and is prestigiously listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Benedum Center, which seats 2,890, and hosts over a half-million visitors each year, is one of the busiest venues in the country. After two decades of operation, and based upon usage and volume of visitors, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust responded to the needs for modernizing the theater's assistive listening system and began seeking funding for the new system. After receiving a generous grant from the FISA Foundation, a Pittsburgh foundation that works to improve the lives of women, girls, and people with disabilities in southwestern Pennsylvania, the Trust began work on the new system.
So it was natural for Chris Evans, the Benedum's sound engineer, to contact the supplier of the original system, Sennheiser, for an upgrade. Using their new generation of IR gear, Evans replaced the existing fourteen SZI 1019 emitters with an equal number of the newer SZI 1029 and SZI 1029-10 IR emitters and paired them with an SI 1015 IR modulator. The SI 1015 uses a higher sub-carrier frequency, 2.3MHz and 2.8MHz instead of the 95kHz and 250kHz with the older system, this allows for greater bandwidth while keeping the production friendly aspects of infrared.
"It was a conscious decision to continue to use infrared based assistive listening system over the RF based systems," Evans says. "In the theater world, infrared assistive listening systems are benign from a production standpoint." Hampered by an inability to relocate emitter suspension points used in the older system due to the center's architectural restrictions, Evans had to use the existing infrastructure to make the new system work. Evans contacted California-based IR expert, Jim Brown of Audio Systems Group, to lay out the system.
In the new system, four suspension points on the theatre's ceiling hold arrays of two SZI 1029 emitters. The additional six emitters are each suspended individually. "We had to figure out a way to array the emitters from the existing ceiling suspension points," Evans says. "So we doubled up on eight of the emitters from a series of specially designed brackets made to hold the 20-pound arrays securely over the seating areas. Typically, you hang one panel, but by arraying them we were able to expand the system's coverage pattern and eliminate the need for another suspension point."
The new Sennheiser emitters, modulator and receivers give Evans the ability to operate a two-channel, wide band system. One channel delivers program audio to traditional stethoscope-style receivers worn by individuals with hearing impairments. Another separate channel delivers audio description for those with visual impairments. The system uses HDI 302 and RI 250-J receivers from Sennheiser, the latter being one that allows either a headphone or an inductive loop to be plugged into it.
"We've tried to make the new system as flexible as possible in as much as it could accommodate people with a variety of disabilities. Those with hearing aids with telecoils use the inductive loop attachments, or if someone has their own headphones or ear buds they can use those. And of course the traditional stethoset is also available," Evans adds.
With the new system in place, Evans notes that the Benedum is well positioned to continue offering all Pittsburghers the opportunity to enjoy the sights and sounds of the historic theatre. "Sennheiser makes a great product; out of all the IR systems on the market they make the best," he says. "One of the traditional problems with all systems of this type is that manufacturers keep coming up with better mousetraps that don't work. But this new Sennheiser system works, and we made the right decision in sticking with them."