Government

Sound Reinforcement at the National Conventions

11/29/2016 7:50 AM Eastern

The 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions are history now but ATK Audiotek’s Pat Baltzell, sound designer and front of house mixer on both shows, is here to give us the story on how these massive events got done with the crowd, the security and lots of Powersoft amplifiers.

SVC: Other than the political conventions and maybe the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, the Emmys, it’s not like you’ve been sitting back with your feet up on the desk waiting for something to do.

Pat Baltzell: No. Audiotek does most of the live televised specials which would be all the music award shows: the American Music Awards, the Grammy Awards, the Billboard Music Awards. We just did in May the Academy of Country Music Awards and coming up in November is the Country Music Awards going in Nashville. So television never seems to get tired of congratulating themselves, so for us it’s fortunate there’s a never-ending stream of award shows.

Well, you could probably say the same thing about politicians.

That’s true.

I’m sure you have plenty of pressure on the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards but the political conventions were probably the latest thing unless you’ve sneaked something else in since then.

The most recent projects were the two conventions. And I’ve been at it for a long time. I did the democratic convention in 1988 and then in ’92 with Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. I’ve been doing both of those conventions, the Republicans and the Democrats, for the last six cycles or seven cycles.

Wow, the Democratic Convention in ’88. The Omni.

Yes! That’s right. Dukakis. That’s exactly right.

I was there.

You were?

Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Well it’s funny because I’m doing a seminar for the AES at the end of next month on Sound for Politics. It’s part of a historical segment. And they asked me to speak about the conventions because somebody said, “wait a minute. I think he’s like been doing them since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. I think he was at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.”

The republicans were in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland and the democrats were in Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, so were there significant differences in the layouts of these venues?

In Philadelphia, for the Democratic convention, ATK Audiotek used 104 Powersoft K-10 amplifiers.

The Republican Party takes this speech reinforcement very seriously, so we typically do acoustic treatment when we come into a venue. Four years ago in Tampa with Mitt Romney we spent $860,000 on a permanent acoustical treatment, Lapendary panels in the ceiling, because it was a pretty reverberant space. At Quicken Loans we spent $370,000 in permanent acoustic treatment. Sometimes the venues share the cost because it is a permanent upgrade, and sometimes they don’t. At Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert is the owner, and it’s pretty much about the Cleveland Cavaliers. So he doesn’t mind that the building is reverberant. He kind of likes that for the energy of the audience for home basketball games. We had to bear that cost. The Republican convention paid the $370,000 to do the acoustical treatment. The Wells Fargo Center actually had a fair amount of treatment to begin with, but the Democratic Party approached things a little bit differently. They don’t like spending money on things that have to stay in the venue. So we have not ever, in my seven cycles of doing it, we’ve never spent money on a Democratic convention. But the biggest expense on the Republican side was the Astrodome. That would have been 1992, George Bush, Sr.’s failed reelection attempt, and it was in the Houston Astrodome. We spent well over a million dollars to do our acoustic treatment in that venue because it had ungodly reverb times – between 11 and 16 seconds. So it was a serious challenge and that was back before line arrays. So my experience with the conventions can sort of be delineated pre-line array and post-line array. 1996 is the first year line array speakers were available. I was using L-Acoustics and EAW products for the conventions starting in ’96, but prior to that it was just conventional trapezoid speaker boxes. I used to put acoustic baffling around the clusters and large extensions sticking out of the top of these arrays of conventional speakers with plywood with four-inch Sonex. And I could actually adjust – like barn doors on a light is a good analogy. Back then I was trying to increase the directivity of the Q of these sound clusters, but doing it mechanically since we didn’t have the advantage of line array designs back then. So I would try to increase the Q by putting baffles around the back with four-inch Sonex or in some cases six-inch fiberglass insulation. And then extension wings coming out of the front of these flown clusters that I could actually trim with trick line so I could hit the top seats and avoid putting energy on the reflective surfaces, especially the Houston Astrodome. And it worked quite well because those were the only tools that we had back then.

And obviously you don’t just pull some gear off the shelf and send it in there. So how is all of the gear prepared in the shop before you take it to the site?

Every project that I do, I design it so there’s lots of drawings; 3D drawings of where the speakers are, and then I do cluster details especially when I get involved in these baffling extension pieces which I do even in line arrays now. I’m doing a project next month where five of the speaker clusters have these eyebrow constructions on the top because the arena is reflective above the upper seating. So why excite that? If you can’t apply treatment, which most times you can’t, then you’ve got to approach it from the sound design perspective. So I draw up all of my projects and I send the drawings to the guys that are involved. And the crews vary from four ringers on a smaller project, to conventions where I have about 12 freelance audio technicians that I bring in. So I send the drawings out and they’ve very detailed. For instance a line array cluster would be divided into zones for equalization purposes. Once they have the drawings in the shop then, at least with the amplifier zoning, they can mock up and program the amplifiers from the console all the way through the amplifiers. We don’t necessarily hang speaker clusters, but we at least make sure that the signal is routed properly from the console – I’ll send them a file to load for the console – and then they’ll program the Powersoft amplifiers with the zoning as per my drawings. And then when we do get onsite, at least that work is already done so that the amplifiers are labeled in the shop – ‘these amplifiers go on that catwalk, these amplifiers go on that end of the building’ – because they’re already preprogrammed with the signal distribution that is appropriate for that project.

Yeah, the name of the game is doing as much ahead of time as you can possibly do.

Exactly. Things go wrong sometimes. Obviously the other half of my crew is local union labor; IATSE stagehands typically. And sometimes you get a good crew and sometimes you don’t and you don’t get to pick them. So on those times where you don’t get the sharpest audio guys out of the local union hall then it really helps if the gear is already programmed and already labeled so that supervising guys can get them in the right places and they don’t fall behind. Because budgets on those things are expensive and they hold me accountable. So I do a whole labor spreadsheet on all of these projects where I predict it’s going to take 14 hours times three days times 22 men to get this design installed and tuned and ready for rehearsals. I don’t like to be far off and have to go back and say we have to stay later or we have to go into double time because that’s not what they’re accustomed to with me designing it.

And the amps are a huge part of it. I think in Philadelphia you had something like 104 Powersoft K-10 amplifiers.

That’s correct.

Yeah, that’s quite a vote of confidence. So what was the attraction of the K-10 amps?

Two things. I love the software. I love the asymmetric filters. That’s one big advantage. The tuning is much more accurate with the Armonia filters. And the weight of the amps. Ultimately on a project like these conventions, each of them is three-tractor trailers of just sound equipment. So I don’t want to go into a fourth truck. That’s another $14,000 to get to the east coast. So the weight of the Powersoft amplifiers, it’s the most efficient amp on the market in terms of the watt in and the watt out and the weight is a big factor both in the grid. They’re all flown PA systems in these things in the arenas so it makes sense to have the amplifiers located up in the catwalks or on flown platforms next to the catwalk. In either case the loads of these shows are substantial. In some cases, I think Quicken Loans, we were the heaviest show that they’d ever installed. A lot of it is these heavy LED screens that we use as part of the scenery. It gets very heavy very quickly. So having a very lightweight amplifier with 10,000 watts power is a distinct advantage.

And how much communication did you have with these amplifiers? Remote control capability?

Oh yeah, yes. Total network. So the tuning and shading is all done right from my front of house position using Armonia software. So we only go up to first put them in and install the network to the amplifiers; we send AES all the way right from the console straight to the amplifiers. And the only time we would ever go back up into the catwalks is if something fell offline, if there was a network problem. But otherwise we put them all in standby and all in mute; at the end of the day, come back in, unmute everything all from the front of house position. All of the amplifier control is done right there. In the old days we used to draw straws to send somebody up to manually power down. Somebody would have to climb down out of the catwalk into these flown amplifier platforms to power down all the amplifiers a switch at a time. And that was always like ay-yi-yi. I did it yesterday. He’s got to do it today. So now what we do is mute all from the Armonia K-10 software and everybody’s happy.

And how do you get the mic signals up there? Is it on fiber or copper extension?

Well the tuning is all done right at front of house so the mic signals don’t have to go to the grid. They just terminate at front of house. I have my own test system with lots of mics that I put out to tune these systems.

And did you provide a broadcast feed or was that separate?

Powersoft amplifiers are located up in the catwalks or on flown platforms next to the catwalk at both presidential candidate nominating conventions this year.

No. It’s a good question. I used to. Back in the ’90s – and I’m not sure whether it was network driven or union driven, but they used to take stems from me to all of the networks and there would be a pool feed that they would alternate. Like this year it would be CSPAN. Next year it would be Fox News or CBS. They would assign one guy as an audio mixer in one of their sports trucks typically and I would feed him stems. I would feed him a dialogue stem of the podium mic and any lavalier mics. I would feed him a vocal stem of the singers, a music stem of the bands. Audience mics, I would put up and feed them a stereo stem of those. And then he would usually add more audience mics and then he would mix a broadcast mix from my stems. And the last two or three cycles, the way it works now is I do a broadcast feed but the only people that use it are kind of the third tier broadcasters like maybe from South America. There may be a Venezuelan broadcaster doing a translation into Spanish or radio stations that do not subscribe to the pool feed. You pay for the pool feed. I’m not sure how much it costs, but it might be in the $500,000 to $1,000,000 range for you to get a feed from whoever that pool broadcast mixer is. And if you don’t want to pay that then you get my feed. So I’m the free feed as it were. And a lot of radio stations and local broadcasters will use my feed. They might add their own announcer or they’ll add a foreign language announcer who’s talking on top of the feed. He’s doing a simultaneous translation.

Maybe you can’t always pick the place you want to be but what did you use for the front of house mixer and where were you in the house?

Actually I get a perfect place every single time. I’m on the center camera platform because they need to have all those cameras for the money shots; the shots of the candidate delivering his speech. Those front-on cameras are a mainstay in all of these conventions. They’ve tried over the years to get rid of them because it’s a pretty big structure. It might be 25 feet wide by 70 feet deep and it’s in tiers. So you have the electronic press, which would be the video cameras. Then you have several rows of still photographers. These are all the AP and UP photographers, those deadline press guys that have to get the photographs for Time Magazine and Newsweek and The New York Times and all that. So those guys, they have to be straight-on shots. So this platform has to be built anyway. So they’ve always given me my real estate on that so I’m in a perfect location. I’m up above the masses on the floor and I’m looking straight at the stage.

Now how different do these two venues sound between being mostly empty on a rehearsal and when the place is full?

Quite a bit. So what I do is I play games that sometimes annoy the guys that work with me. The typical system design overview for these conventions let’s say, with one exception they always play the short side of the arena. The stage is on the 50-yard line, to use a football analogy so that they’re playing a short distance across the arena. Not like a concert would do where you go down the one end zone and the people are all facing the same direction. We like to play in the round for these because it’s all about the delegates. They want to have a more intimate connection with the speakers so that’s why we arrange it in that short side, 360 – or almost 360 – configuration. So what I do is I usually have five or six main speaker arrays in a semicircle following the arc of the stage and then I do all the upper seating with a delay ring that’s typically 14 to 16 speaker clusters, line arrays, up and straight down into the upper deck. So when we’re rehearsing and it’s empty, I’ll turn those off or I’ll turn them way down. And any speakers that are behind the stage that will come into play when the arena is totally full I’ll turn them off so at least I’m not exciting all of these empty plastic chairs and giving the dismay of thinking that it’s too reverberant. So I play games like that, but when my guys are walking around, it annoys them because they keep thinking there’s a problem. I was just up in the 200-level seating and you could hardly hear anything. That’s because it’s off. And it will be on as soon as I see the people. The conventions are all four days. The fourth day is when the presidential nominee accepts the nomination and day three is when the vice president accepts his nomination. So the first two days are typically less attended than the final two days. That was particularly true this year with the Republican convention. It was less than half full on the first two days so it was tricky for me because of course the audience was sprinkled around. It wasn’t like they were all in certain zones; from front of house I can turn off any speaker cluster independently so I would love to turn off speaker clusters that have no people. But there’s like three people here and six people here so unfortunately I had to leave the whole PA system energized which made it a bit on the reverberant side. Especially since the Republican convention was very poorly attended this year.

Did you use any of the same gear on both of the conventions? Because there wasn’t much time between those.

Well back in the day when the dinosaurs roamed, the conventions were a month or more apart. One would be in July and one would be in August or September. And the protocol is the standing President gets the last word so he gets the final convention. But in the last maybe three or four cycles they’ve gotten closer together until now they’re just literally one week apart. So the Republican convention ends on a Thursday and the Democrats open on a Monday. So I have two completely separate crews and completely separate equipment. The only thing that I brought from one convention to the other – and it’s kind of funny – is I use an old Alesis drum machine for the gavel. When they gavel the convention to order or if they’re trying to get order. The gavel is really just a wooden hammer on a wooden strike plate so it’s basically like a tick, tick, tick sound like a judge would do in a courtroom. It’s not very loud and it’s not very commanding. So somewhere along the way, I don’t remember how many conventions back, one of the producers was complaining – probably the Democrats – complaining the gavel sounds small and tiny. So we’ve got to do something to make it big and Hollywood. So I connect a drum trigger to the strike pad and when they hit it I can now generate any sound. So like a big, giant tom-tom – THOOMB THOOMB THOOMB – is now the sound of the gavel. So it’s enormous. Anyway, it’s this old drum machine. We didn’t have two of them so I had to put it in my suitcase and bring it from Donald Trump’s convention to Hillary’s because we don’t want the Democrats to have a tiny gavel when Trump had a big one. Right.

The audio equivalent of the nuclear football, carrying that thing.

I guess.

How long did you have from the time you got access to the floor and the stage until the opening gavel on these shows?

The Republicans usually take a little more time so we have about three and a half weeks onsite from the time we first unload trucks until the opening of the convention. The Democrats have gotten a little more efficient with their schedule so they run longer days, so it’s probably two weeks.

That would seem to be a lot of time but there’s a whole lot to do.

There’s more to it than a concert or a music show, for instance, because there’s the press distribution, which would not be typical if it were the Grammy Awards or another music show. So we basically have to wire the whole building because it’s a precedent when you think about it. People from all over the world come to cover the next President of the United States. It is newsworthy all around the world. So we get everybody from small radio broadcasters from Asia and South America to all of the primary broadcasters from Europe and North America, so we have to provide feeds all over the arena. It takes a lot of time to distribute fiber and then we run fiber backbones to every floor and then we break out to analog copper feeds with distribution amplifier racks from there to oh god, the count is probably 300 press feeds maybe more – maybe 400 – in locations all over the arena so that when you show up, you plug in and I have to provide audio 400 times throughout the arena. You’re running wires through drop ceilings and creating bridges across concourses and all that. So it takes quite a while.

Add to that all the security involved in these two events. How was it dealing with the security for the crew and the gear?

Everybody has to go through the whole vetting process starting months out because you’re in the room with the next President or in some cases the standing President of the United States. So in the case of Hillary’s convention we had Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Michelle Obama all speak so security is very tight for both the crew and the equipment. There’s bomb-sniffing dogs that have to check every single piece of equipment that goes in the air and for that matter on the ground. So every speaker has to be sniffed by the dogs before it’s attached and flies out up over everybody’s head.

And in Philadelphia you used over 100 Powersoft K-10 amps.

The weight of the amplifiers and the ease of tuning in the Armonia software; two primary reasons why I love the Powersoft amplifiers, and their reliability. I’ve never had one go down during a project and like you said, I use hundreds of them on a given project. They’re extremely reliable and versatile and once we put them up in the grid there’s no easy access to them. And once the convention starts, the most secure place in the whole arena are the catwalks because for somebody with nefarious intentions, that’s a good place to be hanging out. So the Secret Service basically shut down the catwalks and the grid once the convention starts. So I need amplifiers that do not require my attention once they’re up there.

Another thing on the conventions that look pretty cool were the motorized podiums. You’ve rehearsed with those and so how do they work?

It’s been done two different ways over the years because as I mentioned this is my 14th and 15th national conventions. Primarily the podium itself goes up and down and it actually has to, in some cases, disappear underneath the stage. That would be for a big performance where you have a big choir or in Hillary’s convention we had that tribute piece, that Broadway Cares performance of What the World Needs Now is Love that they did for the Pulse Club Massacre. It was a fundraising event. We staged that so we had 44 singers on stage. There’s times when the entire lectern needs to vanish underneath the stage. So the lectern needs to be telescoping, number one, so it’s like a two-part sleeve that is motorized with memories. They’ve gotten better over the years. We used to just have to watch them and put tape marks on the side. And I always have my guy operate it because they try to put a carpenter or stagehand or automation guy on it. But I insist that it be one of my crew that I’ve chosen because the conventions go for 6-7 hours and it’s hard to stay focused on dozens and dozens of people that are short and tall and in between coming out there unless your job depends on it. So I’ve found over the years having a carpenter do it, they lose focus and then the mic’s in the wrong place, the lectern’s too high or it’s too low. So anyway, the lectern is telescoping so that’s one of the adjustments. And that’s typically about a 12 or 14-inch travel, which could accommodate quite a variance in speaker height. And then the podium itself is on a platform that’s also motorized, that can go up and down. Sometimes it can go up above the level of the stage and of course it goes all the way down when it needs to disappear. And there’s usually a slip door that then comes up and fills in the hole where the lectern was so now you have a stage where you can do a dance number. Or when the nominee accepts and the balloon drop happens they like a big, wide-open stage because the kids and the family and the grandmoms and all come up for that celebration moment and they like to have the lectern vanish for that.

There’s a lot of audience reaction and participation on the convention shows. To pick up that crowd without causing the stage mics to sound like they’re coming out of a barrel has always got to be a challenge.

Yes. I always go home at the end – I mean we go until midnight, but I go back and just put on CNN or Fox News or something to just get a snippet of like a QC – quality control – check on the work that I did that night. But to be honest it’s a very fine line. I do the best I can to manage the sound in the building and optimize the performance of the PA system. I take a lot of time during the measurement phase. I take 8-10 hours sometimes with a dozen mics spread out all over to make sure that every zone is plus or minus a couple of dB and that the intelligibility is the same everywhere. So I try to get the room as stable as possible for the worst case. A lot of the politicians have big voices; they’re trained speakers so they know how to project. Some of them don’t. They have mothers of the guys killed in Benghazi and people like that who are not professional speakers so they speak quite confidentially. So that’s the challenge. I do the best I can to make sure it’s intelligible everywhere but if the broadcast mixer in the truck goes heavy on the audience mics to reach for a response – maybe the speech has moments that are deliberately intended to evoke audience response – then he’s going to lean on the audience mics. Well, then you’re going to hear the sound of the PA system if he goes overboard with that. So by and large the professional speakers, the Newt Gingrichs and Bill Clintons and Michelle Obama, they sound really good and I can tell that you hear the audience, but it doesn’t sound like the bottom of the barrel like you mentioned or roomy or washed out. But once in a while if the director is saying give them more applause, or they’re doing a “U-S-A!” or one of those chants and they want to reach for it, then sometimes in my opinion there’s too much audience mics. Now on the award shows we sweeten them so it’s not a problem. So we always have a sweetener that’s got artificial laughs, claps, applause – all of that – so we don’t have to rely on the audience mics entirely. But in the political events you can’t really do that because you don’t know what they’re going to say. When they start chanting “Lock her up!” about Hillary at Trump’s convention you don’t have that necessarily in your database of audience sounds. You wouldn’t have that and you wouldn’t have “U-S-A!” and “Four more years!” and all these things that are kind of unique to political events. So you’ve kind of got to play it safe and use real audience mics. Sometimes it works and sometimes you can hear him battling me on the air. But hopefully there’s not much of that and that’s why they hire me back.

Do the sound levels tend to creep up? Do you have to watch that?

Well they – it’s interesting. They do and these are conventions so they’re noisy. There are interviews. There are shows within shows within shows on the floor of the convention, particularly day one. Day two, I mean you’ve got Stephen Colbert, you’ve got Wolf Blitzer and everybody underneath them is on the floor grabbing politicians for interviews. So the noise level of the crowd is substantial. It’s not a captive audience like you might think until you get to the keynote speakers on day three and four. When you get to Michelle Obama and Joe Biden and Jill Biden then you can hear a pin drop. Chelsea Clinton, she was very, very quiet. Extremely quiet. I’ve never worked with her before this and she didn’t rehearse so it was kind of like okay, you get what you get. And she was very quietly speaking. But fortunately because it’s Chelsea Clinton you could hear a pin drop. And all the interviews stopped and the whole audience is now quiet and captive fortunately. But that varies wildly throughout the convention depending on who’s up there speaking. If it’s the junior senator from Arkansas then the floor noise is very high and nobody’s paying attention to him except the delegation from Arkansas of course.

What’s coming up next for ATK Audiotek?

You’ve always got big things to do. Yep. Right now I’m working on the Emmy Awards. I’m doing a project, it’s an opening in Washington, D.C. On the Smithsonian Mall there’s a new National Museum of African American History. So we’re doing a very interesting televised project that’s the gala commemorating the grand opening of this brand new museum. And it’s a whole history from slavery to African music to Harlem, the Cotton Club, popular music, sports, gospel music. All these things are part of this museum and we’re capturing all of this in this television show. Then the Country Music Awards is the following month in Nashville so I’m working on that. So yeah, lots of good stuff coming down the pike. And whoever wins I get to see them one more time for their inauguration on January 20th when they get sworn in.

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