7 Questions You Must Ask Before You Hire an AVL Integrator
Posted on Jun 21, 2021 9:22:21 AM
Don’t Make a Dangerous Mistake
When you’re considering a new AVL installation, it can be easy to get hung up on the equipment. Technical tunnel vision can cause you to overlook key factors that ensure your project will go smoothly and, ultimately, will meet your expectations.
Your project represents a substantial investment of time and money. Though both of these elements are foundations of good stewardship, neither is a complete measure of success if the systems don’t look and sound great.
Consider these important factors when hiring an integrator:
1. Are they certified?
Industry Certifications - Making sure an integrator’s staff knows their stuff and follows recognized standards is an important first step. Make sure you ask, “What qualifications/certifications does the install team possess?” Do they actively maintain a culture of education and certification that demonstrates leadership in industry knowledge? AVIXA CTS is an industry-standard technical certification, and it is a good place to start. Manufacturer certifications and training are widely available and help to maximize the potential of the equipment used and knowledge passed on to the end user.
All MediaMerge technical leads possess CTS certification at a minimum. Additional certifications and training include Dante, Q-Sys, Symmetrix, L-Acoustics, Allen & Heath, Yamaha, ETC, Imaging Science Foundation and many others.
Safety Training - Make sure to check if the installers are OSHA-certified to ensure that all team members working on your site understand the safety guidelines and protocols. This step is simply a matter of taking responsibility for yourself and others seriously.
All MediaMerge installers possess OSHA-10 certification at a minimum.
2. Are they licensed?
In most states a General Contractors license is required for substantial commercial renovation or new construction projects. For instance, Alabama requires a General Contractors license for any project over $50,000. The license application process typically requires integrators to demonstrate relevant experience, provide proof of insurance and provide financial statements that demonstrate they are capable of meeting their financial obligations to their clients. Many states also require the integrator to pass an exam related to federal and state laws, code and other issues related to the construction industry.
It is not uncommon for people to ignore this requirement and attempt to perform work illegally without a General Contractors license. Make sure your integrator is licensed in your state before you sign a contract. In some states you may lose your right to recover payment in the event of a default, and in others your contract may not be enforceable if the license wasn’t put into place before the proposal was submitted.
Competent integrators will have a General Contractors license and should provide you with their license number up front. Otherwise, you should avoid doing business with them and risking having your project halted.
MediaMerge holds General Contractors licenses in multiple states and adds other states as required.
3. Can they provide proof of insurance?
Proof of general liability and worker’s compensation insurance should be required for any project. These coverages are important to protect you and your organization from lawsuits. Generally speaking, the integrator should provide a minimum of $1M of General Liability and $500,000 of Worker’s Compensation coverage. More is better.
Ask your integrator to provide you with a Certificate of Liability Insurance on a standard Acord form. The certificate will include a few pages that detail liability limits in a format that is easy to understand.
MediaMerge carries $2M of General Liability and $1M of Worker’s Compensation coverage.
4. What are their design and commissioning capabilities?
Be sure to find out what aspects of your project will be addressed “in-house.” In an attempt to cover for a lack of expertise, or to save cost, integrators sometimes rely on manufacturers or sales personnel for design and commissioning in return for using their products. This approach places blind faith in a third-party to understand the nuances and particulars of your project. In most cases, the manufacturer will follow a cookie-cutter approach. A designer that has no direct connection to your project cannot possibly make the same decisions as a team that is physically and intimately involved in the process.
System commissioning also requires expert understanding of the design approach and intent. These are the bookends of a project, and without continuity, one or the other will fall short.
Once the project is complete you must rely on a third-party to effectively deal with any future issues that arise. This approach will often lead to unforeseen expenses, poor support, and a lot of frustration.
The system designers are the starting point for your project. Critical technical and creative decisions are made at the outset that require a clear vision for the final result. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and best guesses can be disastrous.
Some good indicators are the processes and software used during the design phase, along with the software and hardware used for commissioning. The following should be considered a necessity for any modern AVL project:
Loudspeaker Coverage and Acoustical Modeling
Software must be used to provide accurate predictive modeling for the loudspeakers and to identify and correct issues with room acoustics. There are simply too many factors to get it right otherwise. Loudspeaker coverage plots are the only way that integrators can verify loudspeaker coverage and demonstrate that your new system will deliver consistent sound to every seat. An industry standard application is EASE (Enhanced Acoustic Simulator for Engineers) and many of the top-tier manufacturers have developed in-house software for modeling their line array products. These tools on their own are not magic though and must be guided by hands on wisdom and experience.
Sound System Calibration
System optimization is a complex combination of aiming, equalization and combining multiple sources. No great sounding system reaches its full potential without properly addressing and verifying these performance criteria. Modern software tools like SMAART or SYSTUNE provide insight and the ability to maximize performance in a way the ear alone simply can not. A good engineer uses these tools in combination with their ears and experience to reach the system's full potential.
Similar to the process for acoustical modeling, lighting coverage can be predicted using a set of software-based photometric analysis tools. As part of the design process, lighting designers can explore creative options and verify even coverage of the platform area using these tools. Common applications for lighting design include Vectorworks, Vision, WYSIWYG and Capture.
Projection System Performance
There are well known and documented standards for quality video display. Projection can be particularly challenging due to the need for a reflective surface (screen) to function. Conditions are rarely ideal with regard to ambient light, viewing angles or projector location. The designer must take the projector location and output, screen type, ambient light and content type into account to arrive at the proper projector lumen rating and screen material choice. This involves calculating the reflective image brightness and contrast using a spreadsheet or, depending on the manufacturer, a similar tool they provide. Be sure to ask a prospective integrator how they will determine these requirements and what range is adequate for your project.
Video System Calibration
Video calibration is probably the least understood and addressed aspect of system performance. The confusion is due to its complexity and the cost of the hardware and software required to properly calibrate a video system.
Many integrators simply do not understand what is involved and are perfectly happy to call performance “out of the box” good enough. Furthermore, they use the subjective nature of content to get your approval, and often the result is far from correct. It’s only once you see revealing content (live video, for example) or a comparison with another display that it becomes obvious that something is wrong. Attempting to adjust video calibration by eye is extremely difficult, even if you know what you are doing. With modern day use of multi-projector blended screens and LED direct displays, it’s more imperative than ever that an integrator has a Colorimeter, CALMAN or similar software, and the knowledge to keep your displays matched and accurate from day one. It’s important to understand that all displays will begin to drift over time and require calibration.
3D Pre-Visualization - The ability to see your facility and systems before they are built is a huge benefit for any project. When it comes to developing and then communicating your vision to your team, a picture is worth a thousand words. Modern software provides integrators with the ability to build a 3D model of your facility and then render images that can be used for internal communication and even fundraising efforts. Basic 3D visualizations can be created using CAD software such as AutoCAD, RevIT or Vectorworks, while more advanced renders will require applications like Cinema4D, 3D Studio or Blender.
The tools used during the design and commissioning process are critical to your project’s success. MediaMerge uses the most advanced tools and applications to ensure you know exactly what your vision will look and sound like before we even start construction. Technology is far too advanced to trust your project’s success to an “expert’s opinion.” Your integrator should be using the latest tools to ensure your vision is achieved, and you won’t know if you don’t ask.
5. Is training included?
Your new system isn’t very useful if you can't turn it on, but really, that’s not enough. Training will be the determining factor when it comes to the success of your project. You need to ensure that your team is comfortable behind the wheel of your new technology. Your integrators won’t be on site to run it for you all the time, so make sure they show you how to do it yourself.
You should ask potential installers a few questions about their approach to teaching your team how to operate the systems they provide.
- How many training sessions will there be?
- Will there be training geared toward operational philosophy or is it strictly functional?
- How many services/events will the integrator’s team attend after the systems are installed?
- Will the integrator help with developing graphics for video presentation, tuning and miking instruments, setting up the broadcast audio mix, setting camera exposure, creating lighting looks, etc.?
MediaMerge provides extensive training for every project. Our team delves deeply into every aspect of your production workflow to ensure the best possible presentation. This often includes building mixes, ringing out monitors, tuning instruments, setting up exposure on cameras, creating palettes of lighting looks, custom designed graphics, etc. MediaMerge provides production staff to help with initial system uses involving new equipment, along with classroom-style instruction on system operation and philosophy. Our commitment is that your team will know how to use your new systems.
6. What is the plan for service after the sale?
Long-term serviceability of your new systems starts with proper documentation. Don’t assume that equipment lists and system schematics will be delivered at the end of the project because they often are not. Ask each potential integrator what steps will be taken to provide you with documentation for future service.
- Request examples of as-built schematic and construction drawings.
- Review examples of conduit and electrical drawings.
- How will wiring be labeled?
MediaMerge provides a complete package of system documentation including construction drawings, schematics and other documentation to ensure that systems are serviceable in the future.
Warranties are a complicated matter in the world of AVL systems. There are three primary types of warranties that are common to the industry, and it’s important to understand the differences of each of them.
Manufacturer's Warranty - These warranties are offered by the individual equipment manufacturers and provide coverage for manufacturing defects. Coverage is typically anywhere from one to three years. Unless otherwise stated, manufacturer’s warranties do not cover the cost to troubleshoot or ship the defective part.
System Warranty (Limited) - This warranty is typically provided by the system installer to cover labor costs associated with troubleshooting the defective part. Limited warranties may not include travel costs, lift/scaffolding rental, or other costs related to troubleshooting or replacing defective equipment. Most system warranties will provide coverage for a year, but depending on the installer, the length of coverage may vary. It is important to get the terms of the warranty in writing before hiring an integrator for your project.
System Warranty (Comprehensive) - This warranty offers the best coverage. A comprehensive warranty incorporates the manufacturer’s warranty on the equipment along with any labor or expenses required during the warranty period. Under the terms of a Comprehensive Warranty you should expect to pay nothing to rectify equipment, programming or other technical issues during the warranty period. Most system warranties will provide coverage for a year, but depending on the installer, the length of coverage may vary. Again, it is important to get the terms of the warranty in writing before hiring an integrator for your project.
MediaMerge stands behind our work with a full one-year comprehensive system warranty for every project. Literally everything short of abuse or “acts of God” will be covered.
With modern technology, the vast majority of technical issues can be resolved quickly via remote support. Ask potential integrators what types of remote support they plan to offer on your new system.
- Is phone/remote support available 24/7 or only during business hours?
- What provisions are included in the system design for remote troubleshooting?
- Will the system be designed for remote troubleshooting via screen share or other technology?
MediaMerge provides 24/7 support for warranty/contract customers and designs systems so that key components are accessible to our technicians remotely. As a result of our extensive experience in remote service, our typical system uptime is >99.9%.
In order to ensure reliable performance, your system will require regular maintenance. Ask what provisions your integrator will include for maintenance. It’s also helpful to ask what costs should be anticipated for annual maintenance. At a minimum you should plan for the following routine maintenance items:
- Annual Rigging Inspections
- Equipment Cleaning
- System Calibration
- Firmware Updates
- Minor Repairs
MediaMerge performs routine maintenance visits as part of our Comprehensive Maintenance Plan and recommends that you budget 1-1.5% of system cost annually for equipment repair/replacement.
The vast majority of system issues will occur outside of normal business hours, typically during mid-week rehearsal (usually Wednesday or Thursday night) or on a Sunday morning. It is important to understand each integrator’s policy on emergency service to ensure that you will have support when you need it. Be sure to ask prospective integrators about their policy for after-hours emergency service.
MediaMerge offers unlimited emergency service during the Warranty period. As a cost-saving measure, most clients opt for a fixed number of annual emergency support visits as part of their Comprehensive Maintenance Plans.
You will also want to know what service options are available after the new system warranty expires. Maintenance agreements are typically structured to offer a predetermined number of routine and emergency service visits along with remote support, training and programming options, at a discounted rate over a la carte services. Be sure to ask potential integrators the following questions about maintenance options:
- What are your standard service rates for on-site and remote service?
- What is the rate for emergency service?
- How much should we budget annually for routine maintenance?
- How much should we budget annually for parts repairs/replacements?
- Can you provide a copy of a typical maintenance plan?
MediaMerge offers a wide range of options as part of our Comprehensive Maintenance Plans. These maintenance agreements can be customized to provide the right balance of cost and services for your organization. We recommend budgeting 2.5-3% of system cost annually for turn-key system maintenance.
7. What Do Past Clients Really Think?
Presentation technology represents a substantial investment for any organization. Your team will expect new systems to perform reliably for a decade or more. As such, you should always ask for references from each AVL integrator you consider for your project. For some reason, it is very difficult to convince decision-makers of the importance of this step in the process.
If you ask broadly, most system users or techs will tell you their systems are great without thinking too much about it. However, if you dig deeper you will often find that there are a number of things they would do differently if given the chance. Reach out to past clients and ask them probing questions about the experience working both with the technology and the company who provided it. Consider the following questions when you check references:
- What was the integrator’s scope with your project?
- What was it like working with the designers?
- What was it like working with the installers?
- Were there any problems during the process of design or installation? Were the problems resolved to your satisfaction?
- Did the systems turn out how you expected them to? (Does every seat sound the same? Are the projectors bright enough? Is the lighting even across the stage?)
- Was all wiring neatly tied down and labeled?
- Were there any cost overages on the project?
- Have there been any complaints from guests since the system was installed?
- What training was provided after the installation? Was the training effective?
- What documentation was provided at the end of the project? (as-built drawings, schematics, etc.)
- Have there been any service issues? What has response time been like? What costs were incurred as a result?
- Has the company stayed in contact with you to continue addressing your needs since the installation?
MediaMerge routinely provides 5-10 references that are relevant to each new potential client we consider working with. Additionally, a wide range of client testimonials can be viewed here.
With more than 20 years of experience in the AVL world, we have seen a lot of problems that could have been avoided if the client had asked the right questions before they selected their integrator.
At MediaMerge, AVL is about more than just installing pieces of equipment. We strive to help our clients discover and realize their vision to create an amazing experience through the use of light, sound, and video.
We hope these questions will get you started toward making the right decision when you choose an AVL partner for your next project.