Did the Wharf move for you?

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In terms of the unexpected, Québec City’s Image Mills event provides more than its fair share of surprises and engages quite a number of superlatives to boot. Staged across the south facing elevation of the enormous Bunge grain silo complex, the visual panorama extends in excess of one kilometre. It would be a disservice to call this merely a son et lumiere; Image Mills is easily the longest and largest projection surface ever used (Guinness Book of World records 2008) since it was first mooted as part of Québec City’s 400th anniversary celebrations in that year. “The city soon realised they had a runaway success on their hands; we were getting up to ten thousand people a night,” said Jacques Boucher, the renowned sound engineer enlisted to bring this spectacle to the ears of the assembled throngs in coherent fashion. “By the end of that first summer plans were already underway to repeat the display for the next five years. That, of course, presented quite different challenges to the original brief.”

In simple terms the Image Mills project is a colossal scale video projection portraying four hundred years of rich Québécois history. Some twenty 25k lumen Christie projectors cover the giant concrete silos in lavish imagery, more than one hundred and ten d&b audiotechnik loudspeakers broadcast to the audience. The auteur behind it all is Robert Lepage so perhaps we should not be surprised by the audacity and scale of presentation. “Robert and I were known to each other,” said Boucher, “but curiously we had never worked together before, so this was a special project for us in many ways.” Lepage and Boucher are of similar age, Lepage forged his career in theatre, Boucher in music; entirely complimentary skills for the job in hand. “That first summer we had rented sound, light and projection equipment, but with a five year performance opening up ahead of us that business model was less attractive. Production Manager, Mario Brien, determined to purchase the equipment, which in turn gave me the latitude to reappraise the design, improve the sound quality, and specify the ideal sound system.”

Boucher consulted heavily with composer René Lussier, “I wanted to elaborate his work; I developed a concept that put the audience listening into discreet 300 square metre squares. Using d&b loudspeakers was the only choice for me, they are a company that has developed more and more different loudspeakers that address all possible applications; even something as large as this.” Because of concerns for the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood the audience zone was compressed down to 400 metres from the original 1.2 kilometres, even so Boucher’s design was not simple.

“The audience are stationed across the marina from the silos. This is a huge dock, 3-400 metres wide and is large enough for ocean going vessels. I needed sound from the central region of the far Northern shore to keep the sound associated with the image, but with the main delivery being arrayed on the South shore.” As such the sound track played on the North shore is pre-delayed to the video by 0.87 of a second, “For the audience squares on the South side I have used d&b Ci80s, E8s and B2-SUBs to create the L/R principal source, with two surround systems in each square. This means any audience member is never more than a few metres away from a sound source. What has proved most exciting for me are the subwoofers; because the audience stands directly upon the wooden wharfs I conceived a plan that allowed us to control costs in the purchase of the B2s and deliver a fantastic physical experience for the listener. We firmly attached the B2s to the underside of the wharves. This means they excite the wooden structure, transmitting sound directly, and because the contact is physical we can use fewer cabinets because there exists almost no time delay, the whole wooden structure transmits tremendous bass simultaneously across the whole area. One B2 is enough for three square listening areas.”

On a technical note, Boucher controls and aligns the loudspeaker array digitally; signal distribution over Cat5 cable via Media Numerics’ RockNet equipment, the d&b systems regimented by five R70 Ethernet to CAN interfaces, “Even over this large area we had no problems with set-up, it was all very easy to do. This summer was the second year; we just plugged it up, used the same set-up memories and it all worked perfectly first time.” The system is now packed away till summer 2011 when once again the harbour-side will tremble for the assembled throngs. It’s an event not to be missed so we’re lucky that Québec City has the vision to give all of us the time to visit and be amazed.

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