Waves in the Tanks
The Midas Heritage-D HD96-24 console paired with a precise d&b sound system proves a winning combination for this unique war-era venue.
Story: Derek Powell
Photo (above): Tanks Arts Centre
The very name “Tanks Arts Centre” puts you in mind of a military connection and indeed, there is definitely a wartime link to the Tanks – but it is not what you might think. These Tanks aren’t connected with army fighting vehicles but rather refer to giant concrete fuel tanks built for the navy in Cairns during World War II.
To reduce the possibility of enemy attack, it was decided to locate the bulk fuel oil storage facility well away from the port area at Trinity Inlet. A site was selected on the lower slopes of Mount Whitfield and three huge 30m-diameter concrete tanks were dug into the side of the mountain where they could be more easily camouflaged. A 5.6km underground pipeline connected the site to the fueling jetty. The tanks remained in service supplying fuel to Allied Navies until 1987.
In the early 1990s the mountainside site was redeveloped into Botanic Gardens, with the three concrete reservoir structures emptied and transformed into a Community Arts hub by the Cairns Regional Council. Tanks 3 and 4 were converted to serve as a function venue and an art gallery, while Tank 5 was transformed into a fully equipped performance space, complete with a stage, PA and lighting rig, green room and a fully equipped bar.
Capable of holding up to 650 patrons, the quirky and atmospheric Tank 5 is much loved by locals and artists alike. The structure itself is Heritage Listed and retains not only the metre thick, 8m-high circular concrete walls but also a veritable forest of oil-soaked timber poles that hold up the refurbished roof structure. While the reverberation has been somewhat tamed by the installation of a massive woolen curtain hung around the perimeter just in front of the curved concrete wall, the acoustic challenges of the space remain, shall we say, potentially formidable.
TANKS ON TOUR
Despite its location, far from capital cities, Cairns remains a popular destination for touring acts, and following the 2018 redevelopment of the Cairns Performing Arts Centre (CPAC), in 2021 Council issued a public tender for an upgrade of Tank 5’s ageing house PA equipment. This was to cover the installation of a modern digital console as well as a new, state of the art, front of house speaker system. The key requirement was to deliver a rider-friendly, no compromise PA that would continue to attract top flight national and international acts to the venue, without them having to truck in their own production.
Crucial equipment in the new system had already been determined by the Tanks Arts Centre staff and included in the brief. Having evaluated the performance of the d&b line arrays newly installed in CPAC and with years of experience of their existing d&b M4 monitor wedges, the speaker systems were to be selected from the current d&b audiotechnik range. Moreover, Midas was to be the preferred console as the Council already operated a fleet of Pro Series consoles and stage boxes.
The tender was awarded to local integrators AVLX in association with Entertainment Production Supplies – the same team who had recently completed the fit-out of the Performing Arts Centre. Working with longtime suppliers NAS Solutions, the team’s first task was refining a detailed plan for speaker coverage.
DESIGNING WITH d&b
The most striking feature of the venue – its huge circular walls – was a major consideration in the design of the speaker coverage according to NAS technical specialist Doug Pringle, who commissioned the system.
“Tank 5 has a lot of character being a circle,” he points out. “But that shape could be very problematic, so directivity is a huge thing. Directivity helps you get the sound to the people without exciting the room as much.”
“No one is as keen on directivity as d&b,” Doug continues. “Directivity is all about tonality. Tonality on-axis – everyone can do. But tonality off-axis, where as much of the frequency range as is physically possible attenuates together, is d&b’s specialty, meaning that their tonality off-axis is also good, which helps with feedback. A lot of products out there have side lobes that really colour the off axis response and can trigger feedback at certain frequencies and at certain angles from the PA.”
Doug explained how the array design was executed in house by NAS using d&b’s proprietary tool ArrayCalc. “ArrayCalc shows where the sound’s going. If you can minimise the spill onto surrounding surfaces and maximise the coverage of the audience, you’ve won the acoustics war.”
To cover the various seated and standing audience configurations at Tanks, the final speaker complement comprises left and right hangs of three Vi8 and three Vi12 line array boxes, with a pair of Vi-SUB cardioid subwoofers flown in a separate column behind the main array. Augmenting the main array is a single point source V10P as centre fill plus V7P left and right outfills along with four d&b B22 subs mounted under the stage. Finally, six 8S coaxial point source speakers on quick release brackets are positioned along the lip of the stage. These serve to bring the image back down to stage level and also help to address the first few rows of the audience seated area. Processing and system power was provided by nine of the four channel d&b 40D amplifiers. These are rack mounted in a separate air-conditioned equipment room.
Knowing the venue constraints, and with advice from d&b distributor NAS, the team proposed the crucial addition of d&b ArrayProcessing to the specification. ArrayProcessing software calculates and applies a series of FIR and IIR filters to each individual cabinet in the array to control the behaviour of the line array across the entire listening area. It is especially useful in difficult and reverberant spaces. Reviewing the system performance after commissioning, Doug Pringle is satisfied that including d&b ArrayProcessing was the right move for the unique construction of the tank.
“It keeps excitation of the room down and tonality consistent through the room,” he observed. “You can be in front of the PA with a microphone and no frequency is going to jump out, so level before feedback is improved. It’s a good clean system. It’s not just a beast for the heavy acts. It performs consistently at all volumes.”
Graham Hicks, Entertainment Production Supplies chief, agrees. “The difference between turning the ArrayProcessing on and off is just unbelievable. The whole thing is so tight now at the bottom. Speech is incredible. Acoustic guitars are crisp and transparent.”
The key Midas design philosophy is no matter what they do with new features, with interfaces, software and so on, the Midas sound will never change
MAKING IT FIT
Perhaps the most complex task for the AVLX installation team, led by Andrew George and project manager Jason Pellizzaro, was the design and fabrication of a custom suspension grid for the speakers.
“It was a challenge, to say the least” recalls Graeme Hicks. “Tank 5 is a heritage listed building. So we weren’t even allowed to drill a hole into the concrete floor of the tank. And we weren’t permitted to drill a hole to attach anything to the wooden poles that support the roof. Several years ago the Council put new tin roof on the roof and reinforced a lot of the existing timber struts up there, but they didn’t reinforce it enough to hang a PA system. We had to come up with a suitable means of ground support, but without drilling a hole in anything!”
“Quite a bit of engineering went into that. The overhead grid had to be basically self-supporting and freestanding. From the engineering plans we had done, Jason Pellizzaro from AVLX, who is a consummate tradesman, welded a precision steel framework to hold everything in place. He also devised and manufactured custom clamps that go around the timber posts without drilling into them.”
Meanwhile, on the console front, the timing of the project allowed Tanks to take advantage of the newly released Midas Heritage-D HD96-24. The new console had recently been demonstrated in Cairns at a Stage Queensland event and looked to be ideal for the upgrade project. Alongside the console the specifications included three flexible stage boxes – one Midas DL231, a 24-in/24-out Active Mic Splitter with two Midas preamps per input; and two Midas DL155s, 16-in/16-out Stage Boxes with eight Midas preamps and an AES3 Digital Interface.
David Sullivan, Midas brand manager for Australis looked after delivery of the Midas equipment and afterward provided initial training for Tanks staff. He was sure that the Heritage-D HD96-24 would be a perfect fit for a multi-purpose venue such as Tanks.
“It’s very easy to set up,” David points out. “Using the 21-inch touch screen as your control centre, it is very simple for new users to get their shows configured and be mixing quickly. Moreover, the console is completely configurable. That means a user can adapt the console to suit their workflow, not the other way around. You can use it any way you want, whether you like mixing with rotary encoders or you prefer changing settings with the touch screen. You can work with POP(ulation) groups or layers, whichever you like. Plus, there’s lots of Midas and TC Electronic plugins in there – the classic reverbs and delays and so forth, and then a number of other plug-ins that pay loving tribute to classic equipment.”
“By downloading the offline editor, which is an exact replication of the HD96-24 software, you are able to pre-design everything,” David continued. “The console has built in Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port for networking. So when it’s connected to the internet an engineer can log in to their Midas Cloud account and it’ll download any shows they’ve created directly into the console. And whilst they’re using the console, it will create snapshots every time you make a major change. So you can roll back, if something goes wrong, to a previous version of that show file.”
Because of Covid border closures, David conducted training sessions with the Tanks production staff via Zoom from his demo console in Melbourne.
“There were lots of core features that I took them through.” He reported. “There’s quite a unique feature on the on HD96-24 called Manchino, where you can make changes to multiple channels very quickly. You might select eight channels, name them as say, ‘strings’, tell it to auto number and colour them, and at the press of a button all those channels are named, coloured, ready to go. That was quite cool. They liked that. We also went through Channel AI, where the console can profile an incoming signal and using AI, identify what instrument it is then give you EQ; compression; and channel setting suggestions.”
“For most users, when you walk up to a new console, it’s kind of overwhelming. But by the end of the training they were really pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to navigate the HD96-24 and get around and set it up.”
one of the engineers got up, walked around the room and came back and said, ‘Well, I won't bother doing that anymore – it sounds the same everywhere I go!’
PROOF OF THE PUDDING
The outcome after commissioning has more than met the exacting tender specifications and garnered praise from all, including touring acts, who love the atmosphere generated in the unique performance environment. But according to integration partner Graeme Hicks of Entertainment Production Supplies, the value of the upgrade is perhaps best judged by the sound that visiting acts have achieved since the new system was installed.
Having listened in on a sound check for Amy Shark, who finished her See U Somewhere national tour at Tanks, Graeme pointed to a particular benefit of the d&b system: its midrange clarity. “A lot of PAs aren’t kind to female vocals,” he noted. “There is a crossover point between the mids and the horns that in other systems is often not reproduced well, but in there it was just so smooth. While I was listening, one of the engineers got up, walked around the room and came back and said, ‘Well, I won’t bother doing that anymore – it sounds the same everywhere I go!’”
But Graeme wasn’t through yet. “And I went to the Hoodoo Gurus show at the beginning of their new tour,” he recalls. “I can tell you that having heard the Hoodoo Gurus touring when they first started, I’ve never heard them sound so good.”
“Hoodoo Gurus have got a guitar sound that’s reminiscent of the Oils – that sharp, edgy, sound. It was just all there! And the drum kit on stage acoustically was beautiful. Everything was just replicated so well out the front. I was knocked out. The HD96-24 console gives so much control and so much clarity. It sounds so good that, mark my words; it will become a classic like the original Heritage. The functionality is incredible.”
“Midas has always been renowned for the Midas sound,” David Sullivan agreed, “which comes from their warm, musical sounding preamps – and that is still the same. The key Midas design philosophy is no matter what they do with new features, with interfaces, software and so on, the Midas sound will never change.”
NAS’s Doug Pringle believes that the investment will unquestionably achieve the “rider friendly” goals for the upgrade. “For Tanks Arts Centre, it’s definitely an investment in the quality of show they want to have.”