Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky held the very first Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks horse races in 1875, the year it opened. The track acquired its now-iconic twin-spires grandstand in 1895 and subsequently added to it on either side in pieces during the last century, bringing the grandstand’s current capacity to 52,000. In anticipation of the 2014 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs commenced installation of a 171-ft. by 90-ft. video screen, the largest 4k video board in the world. Because the facility’s low-fi sound reinforcement system had been designed ages ago for only spoken word reproduction, the new screen would require a serious sound system upgrade to realize its full potential and impact. Dallas-based Marsh/PMK International, LLC designed the new sound reinforcement systems for all of the outdoor areas including nearly sixty clusters in the grandstands comprised of Danley Sound Labs SH50, SM96 and SM60F loudspeakers as well as TH212 subwoofers.
Encompass Develop, Design & Construct oversaw the installation of both the new video board and the new sound systems and they hired Marsh/PMK. Dave Stearns and Tim Lindstrom worked with Marsh/PMK to execute the sound system project from conception to completion. “The timeline for such a large-scale project was incredibly short – only six-and-a-half months from start to finish,” said David Marsh, owner of Marsh/PMK. “We were selected as the consultant in early October and delivered the design to Encompass at the end of December with two addenda following in January. Siemens was awarded the installation contract at the beginning of February. They won the bid in part because they have an ongoing contract to operate and maintain the sound systems at Churchill Downs. As such, they were already familiar with the facility and all the relevant operational aspects. Minor installation work and punch list corrections were still going on after the opening of Churchill Downs’ spring meet on April 26. Final testing and adjustments followed to make the system fully ready for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby race days on May 2nd and 3rd.
“I’ve been listening to Danley systems at trade shows for years now,” said Marsh. “I like the company’s philosophy of building large horn systems instead of adding to the already flooded market of line arrays. We see line arrays used in many permanent installations where properly designed horn arrays would work better. People have the idea that line arrays are a panacea, the cure-all for every situation, because they can throw sound long distances and because the main sound lobe can be electronically shaped and steered. True, but there is another side to that story.” Marsh goes on to explain, “Constructive and destructive interference that makes line arrays work also causes noticeable variations in tonal quality. Interference also produces lobes of sound in unintended directions, including behind the array. Lastly, most line arrays have wide horizontal dispersion, the angle of which is usually fixed by the basic building block of the array. In such cases, it is not possible to vary the horizontal dispersion angle along the length of the array to optimally match the intended coverage area.”
Marsh said, “I’ve been looking for the right project for Danley. Churchill Downs became the one. Danley clusters positioned along the front edge of Level 300 serve the largest covered seating tier and all the trackside sections in front of the grandstand building from one end to the other. A tight vertical pattern with sharp cut-offs was critical in our long-throw situation. We had to throw sound all the way down to the edge of the track without ‘sizzling the hair’ of people seated below the clusters where Level 200 protrudes out from the building. The system performs as intended. I was also pleased by the performance of Danley’s TH-212 subwoofers. This is a tapped horn design that delivers an impressive amount of bass in a relatively small package.”
Our original design was based on a different loudspeaker manufacturer, but they couldn’t guarantee that their products would be delivered on time,” said Marsh. “Danley had slightly greater vertical coverage patterns in similar box sizes [to those of the other manufacturer], which allowed us to modify our design to use one less box per cluster. That would ultimately be a cost savings. Danley emphatically stated that the boxes would be delivered on time and that sealed the deal. They made good on their promise.”
Danley Sound Labs, Inc. President and CEO Mike Hedden commented, “One of the things we are very proud of is our U.S.-based manufacturing. From the time we got the order until it was shipped complete was four weeks; 250 fully weatherproofed loudspeakers in four weeks, that’s unheard of in this day of off shore production! During this time the south got hit by two severe snowstorms that wreaked havoc on the region. Even with raw goods being lost in logistics which delayed shipments, we still delivered the products in organized pallets so that each load represented a finished cluster on the job site in four weeks.”
Unlike a typical baseball or football stadium, the grandstand building at Churchill Downs has seating tiers that are stacked vertically, straight up and down. Moreover, various expansions have occurred over the years adding sections on either side of the historic “twin spires.” All of these sections have slightly different profiles. There are varying ceiling heights, seating depths and column spacing. It was a unique situation that required careful planning. Unfortunately, Churchill Downs did not have CAD drawings of the facility. In fact, PDF drawings provided to Marsh/PMK trickled in over a period of weeks and none of them were to scale. “This put the already tight design schedule in serious jeopardy.” Marsh said. “How were we going to get this project into EASE [for coverage modeling] and how were we going to produce usable CAD backgrounds?”
Tim Lindstrom worked with Melvin Saunders, another consultant working on the Marsh/PMK team, to meet the challenge. Tim used dimensions obtained during the initial site survey to create re-scaled PDFs. Melvin used Google Earth to confirm or correct the dimensions and then created a SketchUp model of the complicated grandstands. The SketchUp model was imported into EASE, which finally allowed Dave Stearns to get into the detailed loudspeaker system design. Tim subsequently set about creating the necessary CAD backgrounds. “I was very proud of our team’s resourcefulness.” Marsh declared.
Two basic cluster types alternate along the length of the grandstand, just under the front edge of the Level 300 ceiling. There are nearly sixty clusters in total. The first type of cluster includes a Danley SH50 long-throw box and a companion TH212 subwoofer. The SH50 covers the seating in front of the grandstand building all the way out to the edge of the track. The second type of cluster replaces those boxes with a Danley SM96 to provide near coverage in between the horizontal cut-off angles of the SH50s in the adjacent clusters. Both cluster types include a rear-firing full-range SM60F aimed toward the top of the Level 300 seating tier and a more-or-less down firing SM96 with its woofer removed.
Marsh/PMK expanded existing Q-Sys DSP and QSC amplification to power the system. Existing Renkus-Heinz and QSC loudspeakers were repurposed and added to as necessary to improve coverage on the “porches” in front of upper level suites and on Level 200 of the grandstand building. Renkus boxes were also used on the front edge of Level 200 to cover walkways in front of the building and the rear of Level 100 seating where the Danley coverage is shadowed by overhangs. Existing Community loudspeakers were repurposed and added as necessary on poles to cover seating that extends beyond the building as well as the track infield, the entry plaza and the paddock area. “Re-use of existing equipment where possible was a goal of our design, but Danley now provides the major audio horsepower for the grandstands at Churchill Downs,” said Marsh, claiming no pun intended.