RG Jones Sound Engineering Limited has been instrumental in a rolling program of integrated audio system upgrades at London Zoo almost continuously over the course of the last four years, helping to create new exhibits as well as refurbishing more established one
Since it was founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has been at the forefront of wildlife conservation for almost 200 years. Originally intended only for the scientific community, London Zoo opened its doors to the public in 1847 and has famously been home to some of the world’s best known animals including Guy the Gorilla, and a certain bear named Winnie – the inspiration for A. A. Milne’s endearing story of a bear who loved honey.
Over the last 12 months four animal exhibits in particular have seen the skilful hand of the Wimbledon-based company work to improve the audio experience for the many visitors who come to enjoy the huge diversity of animals on every day of the year except Christmas Day. At the heart of these permanent installations are products from two well established and perfectly matched professional audio brands, each with a rich history of design innovation, advanced functionality, and consistent sound quality: Tannoy and Lab.gruppen.
RG Jones has designed simple and effective audio systems for London Zoo which requires minimal user supervision, the most recent being at the Amphitheatre where daily shows like Jungle Jukebox entertain kids with sing-alongs, dancing and animal displays.
Providing speech and music playback are 10 Tannoy DI6 passive two-way surface mount loudspeakers with inductively coupled electromagnetic tweeters mounted on a single truss and aimed for best audience coverage of the tiered seating. Powering these are four Lab.gruppen E8:2 amplifiers from the ultra-compact 1U rack height E series, a space-efficient solution with energy saving features such as the auto-switch off after 20 minutes of no signal, meaning that the amplifiers can be left on permanently to be activated when signal is present. Handheld and head-worn mics feed into a custom RG Jones rack containing four Shure wireless receivers, with a BSS Soundweb London BLU-100 providing the front end processing and channel configuration. Simple level controls for voice and music, together with a master volume, are practically the only user-accessible functions required to operate the audio system routinely and reliably the year round.
“This is one of the more versatile systems,” explains project engineer Jake Miller. “This is more flexible to cater for the range of shows they present here. Last summer they used it for Jungle Jukebox, which is a full-on theatrical puppet show involving four presenters but no system operator, so it all has to be auto-mixed and run on one master volume. We are controlling eight amplifier channels going out front, allowing us to individually EQ the speakers and modify their gain. As the audience area is quite shallow and we had a fixed position to site the truss, we found that precise aiming and gain shading was the best way of getting good coverage, focusing the sound on specific areas.
“Our system designs look to provide the space with the best achievable coverage – that’s a fundamental philosophy at RG Jones. We consider future upgrade paths, for instance we may be able to implement a DSP amplifier solution later on to provide further flexibility as the Zoo’s needs evolve over time. Nothing stays the same for very long here, there are always new ideas coming which we need to react to.”
Tannoy DI Series speakers are used extensively throughout the Zoo, as much for their unobtrusiveness and long term reliability as for their IP64 weather resistant rating. “They’re out in all weathers, and require virtually no maintenance,” says Miller. “They sound great with minimal EQ adjustments. The small amount of EQ we have to use reflects this. At their price point they fit into the budgets, and while there’s a lot of boxes like this on the market we’ve found the Tannoys perform really well. The service backup from both Lab and Tannoy has been outstanding, and any questions have been dealt with very quickly and efficiently.”
The DI6T model is equipped with an internal 100 volt line transformer with accessible tapping switch, which makes them more suitable for another exhibit at London Zoo with longer cable runs: the Bird Display Lawn.
Twelve Tannoy DI6T speakers, mounted on wooden posts and connected with steel wire armoured cabling run underground, cover the area. “Again, they’re wired to separate outputs on the Lab.gruppen E series amplifiers,” says Miller. “We have four zones in this system so that they can cue separate sound effects to different speakers from their QLab multi-media software, giving a sonic placement within the bird lawn – it’s more of a production. QLab is more or less an industry standard for theatrical shows, it’s used to run sound cues but it can also do so much more. You can literally cue the show and walk away. It’s very fluid, the presenters work with what the birds are doing at any one time, and it allows them to constantly update the show. QLab plays through a four-output Focusrite audio interface and then into the DSP where its routed into different zones. Two radio mics and aux inputs are also in the rack. The Zoo can turn zones on or off with push buttons.”
ZSL presenter Helen Crookes takes up the story: “We used to run the show from Powerpoint, but now that we are able to put auto fades on clips so that we don’t have to have someone turning it down, it makes our show run much smoother and it’s a lot more professional.
“For example, we do an introduction for our tawny owl, and the idea is to distract people from where she’s coming from. So we’ve got a tawny owl call that goes from speaker to speaker to speaker guiding people’s attention prior to her being released, and then provides a focus when she appears.
“Being able to press the start button and then walk away really helps. There’s a lot to think about when you’re flying birds – like which pocket have I got the meat in, which pocket have I got the button in…”
DSP amplifiers such as Lab.gruppen’s IPD series, introduced around the time of the chimps exhibit upgrade at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, have transformed RG Jones’ approach to the design of audio systems at London Zoo. “Do we need a DSP with 12 inputs and 8 outputs? – well no, not always, but we do need something that offers the right amount of input and output equalisation,” says Miller. “With the IPDs we can connect a radio mic via a preamp straight into the amplifier.
“We use the input EQ in the amp for the microphone and the output EQ for the speakers – and it works. So when the presenters come along all they have to think about is ‘turn the mic on and off we go’. For the systems that are 100 volt line, we add some bespoke manufactured transformers to the output of the amplifier.”
The Rainforest features more of a distributed system covering the all-round canopy, where the Tannoy DI6 speakers are fairly well hidden on the walls above the walkway but positioned right where the action is, and in sufficient numbers for good intelligibility. The presenter can freely move around with a radio mic to where the animals are, helped by the wireless aerials being housed in strategically placed plastic tubes.
At back of house there’s a custom RG Jones rack housing a wireless receiver and a single IPD1200 amplifier. Miller describes the setup: “There is one channel of radio mic connected to a pre-amp going straight into an amplifier. We built a preset into the amp so if there’s a need for a reset, we can simply recall everything. The system is left on most of the time and it works efficiently.
“The install was interesting as it was achieved with the animals in place. There would be a monkey running across the floor or perched just above my head so we had to be very sensitive. We work with the keepers – sometimes there’s no access – but generally they’ve trusted us to get on with it and maintain good site cleanliness. We are very used to working with sensitive environments, so we are qualified and aware as to how to meet these requirements on site.”
RG Jones has been a supplier to ZSL for around four years, starting in the same year as the London Olympics. “The original systems were run into the ground and had become tired so the plan was to move towards more robust equipment with better audio quality and functionality. The type of installation that we offer is focused on the evolution of audio at ZSL,” says Miller. “Quality drives what we do, so we always ask the questions – can everybody hear the presentation? Can they hear it clearly? Is it intelligible? Usually we will start with the perfect solution, and then work with the Zoo to bring the project within budget.”
Siting the equipment rack is not always so easy. While at the Rainforest the rack was at back of house, the Pigmy Hippos exhibit required a different approach, incorporating the rack in a small cupboard located within the exhibit. This drives the distributed DI6 speakers around the walkways where people stand to hear a presentation on the hippos.
ZSL head presenter Olivia Neville commented that the audio setup works really well over the large spread out area. “Pygmy hippos are solitary and like their own space, and that’s why we have two paddocks. In summer when both hippos are out you can get 200 or 300 people around this exhibit so we usually stand up on a platform doing the talk, but it’s flexible enough that we can walk round and do the talk from anywhere. The sound quality is very natural and not distracting at all.”
Among the many listed buildings at London Zoo the giraffe house is the oldest, dating from 1836 when people in the UK really had no idea what a giraffe looked like. But the Penguin Pool is the most iconic, having regularly featured on British television in the wildlife series Animal Magic. It’s a great example of how ZSL has learned to look after rare animals by creating a new more natural habitat for them. “Penguins are susceptible to loud noise,” says Neville, “so even though it’s by far our busiest talk as we can have as many as 900 or 1,000 people here at peak times, the brief was to keep sound levels low but clear.”
“We’ve got three zones here,” explains Miller, “one in the shallow seating area above the pool where we have placed the smaller DI5s on posts behind the audience. At the cabin, which has its own zone we have two discreet DIs, and around the walkways (where the majority of the people are) we have installed six DIs.
“We’ve taken a lot of care to face the speakers directly towards, and close to the audience. Again the setup is a radio mic running into a preamp and the IPD amplifier.”
With only two output channels on the IPD, how is the third zone driven at a different level? “100 volt line tappings – the Tannoy DI5s have the flexibility of the 100 volt line transformer taps built in,” explains Miller. “The speakers are EQ’d the same, but we use the 100 volt line transformers in the speakers to balance the levels over the whole area. That’s the great thing about the Tannoy DI products, you can choose how to implement them on a case by case basis – for instance if there’s a design change (and we need to run something low impedance) you have the option of running it at 100 volt line or low impedance, as it’s all included in the box.
“We use 100 volt line systems for distance and the amount of speakers required. It’s designed exactly for these kinds of distributed installations on one circuit. You can load many speakers on a 100 volt line amplifier to cover an area.
“The new amplifiers from Lab.gruppen are pretty incredible. I also look after the systems at Lords and we’ve had PLMs in there for many years. The beauty is I can use my Lake controller and see what they’re all doing – remotely. I sit in the PA room and can see 30 amplifiers sitting on my desktop. I can dial into any of them and they flash up if there’s a load fault. When you think of the capability of these amplifiers it’s pretty remarkable.”
Penguins are susceptible to loud noise, so even though it’s by far our busiest talk as we can have as many as 900 or 1,000 people here at peak times, the brief was to keep sound levels low but clear – the sound is very natural and not distracting at all