Nashville Attracts a New Planet
Although the focus at the Nashville Planet Hollywood is understandably on entertaining with video, the sound system is just as important to the overall experience.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many there are at any given moment. Every time you turn around, another one is launched into orbit.
The first Planet Hollywood opened in October 1991 in Manhattan. Number 32 opened on June 22nd in the center of Nashville’s booming downtown historic district. The 18000ft Nashville space, which seats approximately 250, got the typical treatment: Bruce Willis and the Accelerators played a free street concert outside the restaurant to 10,000 fans. The list of luminaries attending the gala opening included the usual suspects seen at Planet Hollywood inaugural events: Arnold, Sly, Wesley Snipes, Steven Sagal, Charlie Sheen and Cindy Crawford. Some of Nashville’s own stars turned out for the event too: Ashley and Naomi Judd, Amy Grant, Sam Moore, Clint Black and Michael McDonald.
The Nashville incarnation of Planet Hollywood shares more than a theme, decor, menu – and opening party – with the other Planets; it shares a common A/V philosophy by Ted Rothstein, principal of TR Technologies. Rothstein’s extensive background includes system design for high-end recording studios, consumer and professional audio component design, and A/V system design for clubs and restaurants, including16 Hard Rock Cafes and all of the Planet Hollywood restaurants. The big difference between the two restaurants, according to Rothstein, is the more prominent use of video at Planet Hollywood. Although video plays a part at the Hard Rock Cafes, the dominant element there is sound.
“Film and video people often think of the video as more important than the audio in an A/V installation,” said Rothstein. “But I believe that they’re at least equally important in the overall experience. In fact, great sound can more than make up for a less than ultimate quality video, whereas a big beautiful picture can’t make up for inadequate sound. Customers at Planet Hollywood look at the video screens often when they’re dining, but they’re listening to the sound system 100% of the time. Diners have a much more enjoyable experience when a sound system delivers high quality sound all the way to their ears, which involves dozens and dozens of optimized components. Even with the sound system off, listeners are still experiencing a major component of the sound system: room acoustics. A room with poorly designed acoustics can make people uncomfortable, uncomfortable enough that they shorten their stay.”
Rothstein’s emphasis on the audio portion of a commercial A/V system turns upon another closely held view: “Audio technology has evolved more generations toward ultimate high-fidelity than video has, where hi-fi actually means closeness to the original. With today’s technology, we can come closer to letting the customer feel the perfection of the original ‘experience’ with quality audio than with video. Never underestimate the importance of audio!”
Pushing the less-evolved technology of video to its maximum so it keeps up with audio is, according to Rothstein, “something we do every day… and we’ve developed lots of tricks to keep these two technologies neck-and-neck in order to produce the best possible overall multimedia experience.”
Loaded with Video
All Planet Hollywood restaurants are heavy on multimedia entertainment: custom-designed laserdisc film montages, compiled from the vaults of Hollywood’s major studios, which include clips from classic pictures and recent mega-hits, plus sneak previews of movie trailers. The numbers and configurations of video screens in each restaurant depend on the individual space.
The Nashville restaurant is loaded with video: 15 fixed screens, including two rear-projection screens, and 40-50-60 and 70 inch Mitsubishi large-screen televisions.
The heart of the basic Planet Hollywood A/V system – a TR Technologies automation system and the racks of gear it controls – changes very little from installation to installation. In fact, Rane’s gear – multi-channel amps, equalizers, crossovers, and compressor-limiters – has occupied a central place in Planet Hollywood system racks from the start. However, the hardware in the restaurant spaces – video screen and loudspeaker configuration – varies considerably from restaurant to restaurant.
Coming up with a loudspeaker configuration to suit the Nashville restaurant space required a significant deviation from the highly successful formula established by Rothstein in the 31 other Planet Hollywoods.
A departure in concept
“When you’re dealing with a problematic acoustic space that can’t be altered,” said Rothstein, speaking in general about his approach to sound for larger environments, “the best thing to do is bring the sound close to the listener’s ears, getting the listener into the near-field of the sound rather than the reverberant field.”
The Beverly Hills Planet Hollywood is outfitted with 134 loudspeakers (including extensive subwoofer support) that provide the sort of near-field coverage that Rothstein prefers to bring high-quality stereo to patrons, no matter where they sit in the restaurant.
This approach, however, proved impractical, if not unworkable in Nashville. The ceiling in the downstairs dining area is 16ft tall, suggesting that fewer, larger, full-range loudspeakers would provide the kind of coverage needed for the renovated historic space.
“In other installations, such as the Beverly Hills restaurant, we used JBL Control 1s mounted at 8ft to 9ft high on the walls, with Speakercraft 6.5CRS units in the ceilings,” said Rothstein.
In Nashville, 10 JBL AS4722 architectural series loudspeakers – four downstairs in the diorama area and six in the mezzanine dining areas – mounted 12ft high provide the same high-quality sound evident in the other Planet Hollywood installations. In other Planet Hollywoods, ceiling loudspeakers provide coverage for middle-of-the-room tables.
Applying the same solution to the Nashville restaurant, however, with its 16ft ceilings downstairs, would have meant hanging loudspeakers to cover the tables at the centers of each room. This solution was favored by Rothstein but was rejected because of conflicts with interior design. Also, unlike other Planet Hollywood installations, where smaller loudspeakers are complemented by multiple subwoofers, the Nashville restaurant has only two pairs of JBL 4646 subwoofers supporting its full-range loudspeakers.
The system’s capability to support live music events is particular to the Nashville installation, according to Eric Acosta, who supervised the Nashville Planet Hollywood installation for TR Technologies. A/V patch panels at strategic locations in the diorama area and at the front entrance allow easy plug-in for live entertainment.
“When Bruce [Willis] played outside at the opening,” said Acosta, “both the audio and video were pumped through the restaurant vie the tie-line system.”
Variation on an A/V theme
Like the other Rothstein-designed systems for Planet Hollywood, the Nashville A/V system centers around the TR Technologies’ software controlling a Pioneer 300-disc CD changer and a Pioneer 50-disc laserdisc changer.
Much more than a touch-screen and mouse-driven means of accessing music tracks and video clips, the TR Technologies’ software offers some extremely sophisticated ways to control everything that comes out of the restaurant’s loudspeaker system and everything that appears on its video screens.
As you might guess, the system can play music tracks from a user-created play list. But the primary mode in which the system operates is completely automated, playing sequences constructed using the system’s ability to select music tracks by parameter, on the fly – everything from musical genre, artist, time-frame, chart-position, beats-per-minute, plus a host of other filters. The operator can change parameters at any time. The software selects tracks, matching beats and synchronizes them between cuts for smooth transitions.
Keeping the system updated with the newest material requires the full-time efforts of several programmers, whose names and phone numbers appear on a “hot list” taped to one of the walls in the A/V room.
Though the system runs “un-manned” the majority of the time, quite frequently a member of the restaurant management team interrupts the automated program, essentially placing the system in “pause” mode; in fact, according to corporate guidelines, they’re required to.
“Every hour, we run a preview trailer or a celebrity tape,” said randy Gossett, assistant general manager, referring to the steady stream of video materials that come from the corporate offices and constantly refresh the restaurant’s A/V program. “I might run two or three trailers and a celebrity tape, using VCRs 1 and 2. I can preview the material – watch it and listen to it – and cue it up. We have movie soundtracks on CD that I load into the Denon when I want to transition from the video material back to into the system program.”
A major press event for the Nashville CATS arena football team (scheduled for the day after Gossett was interviewed for this article) required Gossett to set up the system for use of the restaurant’s wireless mics, run video clips of the team and provide hookup for eight radio stations covering the event.
In general, Gossett keeps close watch on “audience” reaction in the restaurant to both the audio and the video programs. Although the system closely monitors and automatically adjusts audio levels for each room – when ambient noise level goes up, so does the background audio – Gossett reserves the right to make manual adjustments, a feature the system provides.
“On a Saturday night,” he said, “the louder the patrons get, the louder the music gets” – a situation which, left unchecked, could escalate into a battle. “At a certain point, you have to let the guests ‘win’,” he said. Gossett will them manually trim the output gain on the Symetrix SPL computer for whatever areas of the restaurant need tweaking.
Back to the System
The computer also controls an automated patching system that routes audio and video signals to the various rooms via a TR Technologies proprietary mixer with circuits for maintaining level from track to track.
“We couldn’t find a commercial mixer that would do everything that we wanted it to do,” said Acosta, explaining the presence of the TR Technologies unit. “This mixer has 24 inputs, two zone outputs, a cue blend between preview and program output, and a switchable fixed-level mic input that allows us to patch a mic mixer into this unit for blending the mic input with the output signal.”
From the mixer, signal goes out to the Symetrix 571 SPL computers. (A pair of sense microphones in each room of the restaurant monitors noise level by averaging samples over a two-minute period. The Symetrix computers then automatically adjust output levels to match the ambient noise level within a room.) Paging can be routed to individual Symetrix units, which trigger music ducking circuits.
Audio signal then passes through one of five Rane DC24 compressor-limiter-expanders. When no signal is present, the gate closes down. The Rane units are also used to set maximum gain through the system. A signal then goes to a Rane AC22 crossover to feed subwoofers: a pair in the bar and a pair in the diorama.
The restaurant is divided into five dining zones. Each dining zone is equalized through Rane GE14 EQ units. Each dining area was equalized with pink noise while the restaurant was empty and then adjusted for flat response with appropriate rolloffs. “Once we see what EQ is required for correct response,” said Acosta, “we listen with people in the room and adjust from there.”
Back-of-house and music on-hold are driven by Rane FMM 42 units. Rane MA6S multi-channel amplifiers power loudspeakers in circulation areas, restrooms, the employee lounge, kitchen, retail area and the loudspeakers outside the restaurant.
Two Rane FAT 22 active transformers provide signal for music on-hold (which lets callers hear the same program playing in the restaurant) and to drive press feeds.
“Before we used FAT 22 units,” said Acosta, “we used the Rane FMM42s and their FLT transformer boxes for simple line-driving applications. We realized that using both pieces was a bit of over-kill for the functions we needed them to perform, so I called Rane one day and asked them if they’d be interested in making something that was just an amplifier and a transformer. They were receptive and asked me to draw something up for them. I came up with a unit that had stereo-mono switching and the ability to control left and right output gain either independently or combined. It’s a nice little unit, and I’m proud to say I contributed in some way to its creation.”
“Rane’s not so large a company as to be unable to respond quickly to an interesting new concept,” said Rothstein, “yet they’re large enough to be able to produce a product in quantity to make it economical and take it to market, as they did with the FAT22.”
There’s a lot going on at Planet Hollywood, Nashville. Some of it’s for sale. A hamburger with fries, lettuce, tomato, red onion and dill pickle is $6.95. But what makes the place – the music, the video entertainment, the atmosphere – is free.