Solving Unique Challenges in Parliament's West Block
Engineering Harmonics Partners with GerrAudio & DPA to Create Custom Mic Solution for Canada's interim House of Commons
Author: Kevin Young
When Martin Van Dijk (Senior Consultant/Partner at Engineering Harmonics Inc.) approached GerrAudio about a custom microphone solution for the Canadian government’s interim House of Commons, Geoff Maurice, GerrAudio’s Technical Sales Manager, was intrigued and accepted the challenge. It’s not the first time GerrAudio has done a project like this, Maurice states: “In 1979, Bob Snelgrove (GerrAudio’s Founder and President) created the Ontario Legislature’s first microphone auto-mixing system.
Similarly, Van Dijk has a lengthy history with Parliament. In the early 2000s Van Dijk was tasked with implementing an audio solution to capture the Peace Tower’s Carillons and transmit the sound of the bells throughout the buildings on the Hill and for broadcast. The microphones, Van Dijk explains, had to handle significantly high SPLs and the extreme weather and temperature conditions of Canada. We ended up installing two DPA units that have stood the test of time. “Just before Centre Block shut down for renovations in 2018, we took them down for testing, compared them to one new reference unit, and there was barely a difference, so I put them back up! After such a long time and under those conditions, that’s impressive.”
Van Dijk actually began working on Parliament Hill before EH hired him in 1999, which has since led to a significant amount of work on the Hill and the opening of an EH office in Ottawa. Since the mid-2010s, and the temporary relocation of the House of Commons and Senate, EH’s work with Parliament has ramped up.
“I’ve worked with GerrAudio and DPA before, among the other brands they represent,” Van Dijk says, crediting GerrAudio’s strong representation and their ability to put him in touch with DPA directly which was integral to developing the custom microphone solution for the project in the Commons. “When you’re working with that level of client, there are no compromises. There were really specific requirements for how the microphones worked, how they picked up the sources and, obviously, for their sound quality.”
Given the need for a clean aesthetic and simple solution – bodyworn and standard gooseneck podium microphones were both out of the question. “There couldn’t be anything sticking up from the podiums and MP’s don’t (and won’t) wear lavalier mics,” Maurice says.
Additional challenges were presented by the space itself; a glass-roofed structure built into a courtyard in Parliament’s West Block that’s not ideal for capturing speech. Also, the mics were to be used not only so the MP’s could hear each other, but also to capture Parliamentary proceedings for interpretation, broadcast and archival purposes. “So, given the need for clarity and intelligibility, and for a product invisible to cameras in the House,” Maurice adds, “Martin was searching for a very specific type of microphone in a form factor that wasn’t publicly available, and he wanted it to be a DPA solution.”
Van Dijk knew they’d require a high degree of cooperation from the manufacturer to create a truly custom solution that met the performance requirements. “That prompted me go to a manufacturer with a proven ability to build something that provided studio-grade performance in terms of noise floor, and a manufacturer who wouldn’t just put one of their existing products in a different housing. DPA really put effort into engineering this, and GerrAudio helped facilitate that.”
Maurice began working on a rough prototype principally based on a custom microphone DPA had made for a previous client. “Performance-wise it was great, but it still stuck up from the podiums,” Maurice notes. Complicating matters further, the podiums had been constructed and already had cutouts for the mics made in their millwork. And while the Commons’ backend automatic microphone mixer and DSP system could be replaced with relative ease, the new podiums – constructed roughly 50 years ago – couldn’t be.
“We started with a DPA TSM 4001 shock mount, which fit the existing cutouts in the millwork,” Maurice says. “I took one apart, cut some bits and pieces out of it, hot glued an existing DPA microphone inside it, and added foam for dampening.”
Maurice also tried DPA 4080s and 4081s: “The 4081 was larger, but reduced the noise floor and increased rejection, which helped get the pattern we were looking for.” Initially he was concerned about changing the cardioid pattern by placing that element against a boundary element. “But after significant testing we discovered that, rather than break apart, the pattern shifted upward off the surface, which worked to our advantage.”
To ensure all the Commons’ requirements were met, GerrAudio built a rough mock-up of the podiums to test their prototypes (pictured). “MP’s typically speak from between the podiums not from directly behind their own, so for redundancy we mounted two microphones at the outer corners of each podium and turned them towards the outside of the podium to catch the speaker in the middle.”
After mounting the prototypes in the appropriate configuration, they ran the signal to a mixing console and recorded speech from different angles and heights before sending the recordings to Van Dijk for further review. The next step found Maurice bringing their test setup to Engineering Harmonics’ Toronto office for additional testing using Audio Precision measurement equipment.
“It just kept getting better, so I had confidence that if DPA brought their resources to the table we’d end up with a solution that met the requirements, and that’s what happened,” Van Dijk says. “Once they developed the solution, they sent recordings and all kinds of technical details for us to review and then refined it further until they had a prototype.”
Eventually, Van Dijk and Maurice flew to DPA’s headquarters in Denmark to establish final proof-of-concept. There, DPA Design Manager, René Mørch, and his team continued testing. “DPA has a recording studio in their facilities and they built their own mock-up of the podiums and had some competitor’s microphones there so we could do some comparisons in situ and really listen critically to the results,” Van Dijk notes.
Ultimately, DPA delivered over 400 new custom elements for installation in the Commons by Ottawa-based engineering firm, Applied Electronics. “They used a standard DPA capsule, integrated it with a better acoustic guide, and made a beautiful new model of microphone for the House of Commons,” Maurice says. “And, inevitably, they made it more robust, controlled, quiet, and much sexier looking too,” he adds. “We’re extremely happy with the result. The government has been using the system for months now and even though the interim space is acoustically challenging, they’re getting high quality microphone and speech pickup that’s as good as it could possibly be.”
“The broadcast team on the Hill are very happy with the consistency and quality,” Van Dijk puts in, “but the best compliment I got was from one of our American counterparts working on the project – someone who’s also worked for the US Government. After listening to the broadcast, he sent an email asking me, ‘How did you get the MPs to wear lavalier mics?’ I told him we didn’t; the microphones are mounted on the podium surface. He was flabbergasted by that, which I think says a lot.”
While this ushers in a new era of high-end audio pickup in one of Canada’s most important government spaces, it also displays the lengths to which GerrAudio, the manufacturers whose products they represent, and the highly regarded team at Engineering Harmonics will go in order to meet their client’s needs to the letter.
That’s been all the more critical since the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic. “It’s great to see that companies are willing to go that extra mile, but also that they understand what it means to do that,” Van Dijk says. “I’ve had dialogues with technicians working for different governments around the world and they regard Canada’s Parliament as a benchmark. We had to get it right and DPA and GerrAudio helped us do that.”