Between my CES and NAMM show visits, I sandwiched in a day in Phoenix to visit the recently opened Musical Instrument Museum. The museum has instruments on display from every country in the world, some immensely ornate, some complex, some crude and utilitarian, some very old and others very new. I was particularly interested in this museum since I like instruments, but also because of the technology behind the displays.There are many galleries on two levels, the upstairs galleries organized geographically, while the ground level galleries feature exhibits relating to renowned artists, mechanical instruments such as player pianos, a “petting zoo” with instruments that can be played, and a gallery of rotating exhibits which, during my visit, was about Latin American Influences in American popular music. There’s also a theater with a strong concert program, a cafe and coffee shop (decent and not outrageously priced), a see-through-the-window peek at the conservation workshop, and, of course, the museum shop.
In addition to my love of instruments, I was particularly interested in the technology used to develop the displays. The MIM features the Sennheiser GUIDEPort system, a wireless receiver with headphones that you’re given when you check in. There’s a sensor at each display that detects when you’re nearby and plays audio related to that display through your headphones. Most displays have a video monitor to go along with the audio. The some video programs (and audio, as well) are from historical recordings and film clips, others are recent recordings and are of higher quality.
The system works pretty well, but it’s not perfect. You need to stand in the “target” area in order for your GUIDEPort to be detected. For some displays, this was pretty broad, for others, I needed to find the right spot in order to get the audio to begin playing. The audio is actually broadcast through an antenna system in the ceiling, with up to 99 sub-channels multiplexed in a similar manner to digital television. The GUIDEPort senses the exhibit at which you’re standing and selects the appropriate audio channel for that exhibit. The guts are pretty boring – a rack of disk drives and servers, with a console to set up the exhibit programming.At present, The MIM is the largest GUIDEPort installation.
The theater is designed for acoustic music, with some variable damping when they bring in an electric show. It’s very attractive with lots of wood and sandstone, and plenty of knee room between the rows of comfortable seats. A Pro Tools system in an upstairs control room is available for recording concerts. There’s a small isolation booth adjacent to the control room where instruments and narration can be recorded. It’s a long term goal to have new, high quality recordings of the playing of every instrument in the museum, but that’ll take years given the vast number and variety of instruments and the scarcity of people who can play them well.
If you’re ever in Phoenix, go!