Behind Audio Operations with Wicked, Part 2

Anthony Jones with audio operations on Wicked. 9/12/2011 1:16 PM Eastern

Behind Audio Operations with Wicked, Part 2

Sep 12, 2011 5:16 PM, with Bennett Liles

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The hugely popular Broadway show "Wicked" has won awards everywhere. Taking it on tour involves an impressive Sennheiser wireless mic system. Anthony Jones is back to give us another peek behind the curtains on how the RF mic job on the show is set up and done. Coming up right now on the SVC podcast.
Anthony, thanks for being back with me for Part 2 on the SVC podcast and we were talking about the Broadway show "Wicked" that’s on tour and a tremendous job on the wireless mic systems. You’ve got, I believe, 44 of the Sennheiser RF mic systems and the challenge of getting all the performers mic’d up and making sure that all that works on a live show. I was wondering how you managed the frequency coordination on such a big show that travels around.

What we normally do is we can do it one of two ways. We can do our own frequency coordination—there’s something in the Sennheiser wireless systems manager software called a spectrum analyzer and we can do it that way where we can just type it in…the city and it’ll give us the frequencies or we can call the sound shop. What we’ll do is we’ll send an email to PRG Audio¬–who’s the sound shop that the sound system was purchased from–we’ll send them an email letting them know, “These are the cities that we’re playing and can you do a frequency coordination for us?” They actually have a software that looks for those frequencies and those particular cities based on TV channels and radio frequencies and they’ll make a chart for us–they’ll send it to us and then with the new software that Sennheiser has come out with it allows us to do this…we can do several cities at a time. We can enter frequencies for several cities before we even get there. So we just enter them into the computer, save it as a file, when we get to that city and we’re loading in we just recall that file. If we’re in Los Angeles we just load “Los Angeles file”—we transfer the information from the computer to the receivers and then we’re done. Now once we do that if there’s a few frequencies that are giving us a problem we can choose to change the frequency ourself based on the frequency chart that we’ve got from PRG Audio or we can call them and say “Hey, we’re having problems with these frequencies here can you give us new frequencies?” and it will repeat the same process. We get the new frequency, save it in the computer, transfer that information to the receivers, and we go that way. And there are some cities where we can walk into a city, load-in, power up everything, put our antennas up, and we won ’t see any sort of RF interference—like here in Canada where we are right now it’s very rarely that we’ve seen any RF interference because they’re still operating on the analog system up here with their frequencies so there’s not a lot of TV channels that are getting in the way of us using our radio mics here so it’s been pretty solid throughout Canada—throughout the U.S. as well for the most part. [Timestamp: 3:31]

And in Part 1 we were talking about the transmitter end and getting all the transmitters securely fastened on to these performers who are all singing and dancing and jumping around. Obviously the receiver end is the other critical factor and since you’re traveling around you have a different RF environment to deal with at every location so how do you handle the receiver set up on such a big show?
All of the receivers are mounted in a very large rack and that rack is actually placed inside of a surround case that protects them, and when we load-in our load-in process normally takes 2.5 days to load-in. We come in on–there’s an events load-in on Mondays—we load-in certain elements of the show and then we come in Tuesday with everything…that’s called show to show. We bring everything in—some theaters are bigger than others. There are some theaters that we’ve played where space is at a premium and we’ve either had to fly our amp racks and RF racks and other…all of our sound gear for backstage—we had to fly that once through a 20ft. loft that was 20ft. above the stage and it was the first time that we had to do something like that so we were away from all of the elements that are normally on stage like dry ice and fog that’s used in this show. So we were away from that stuff but also the challenge that is flying that stuff in the air on a chain motor and then not having done that before on this tour it was a little nerve wracking watching something, an RF rack, in midair and you’re wondering is this chain motor going to support the weight of this? Is it going to fall out in the sky? Is this going to destroy everything? Those are things that are running through your mind. [Timestamp: 5:16]

Yeah, that would be hard to recover from if that thing took a huge impact and of course you’ve got the RF antennas to set up. That’s a huge job and to think that all of that rides on the fairly tenuous link of RF signals. Do you mostly get all of that under control on your load-in and shake out period?
Yeah, what we do is once we load the show and backstage is set up and we’re up and running and power’s turned on—once all of that stuff is in place–we just go through and we fine tune certain areas. We’ll do cable dressing, making sure that cables are not a trip hazard in certain areas. We like to make things look pretty and nice and neat and presentable to the audience so that when the audience walks in they’re stepping into another world. Like I said before, we don’t want some technical aspect ruining that for a first-timer…it might be someone’s first time seeing a Broadway show. We don’t want a piece of cable or a speaker or whatever ruining that moment for them so once everything is in place we go through and we also have an advanced sound engineer. His name is Douglas Graze, he comes in and he tunes the sound system to the room. He’ll come in and listen to the room. He’ll make his tweaks. He’ll play music throughout the system and he’ll walk through pretty much every section of the theater to make sure that every listener will have the same experience as the person downstairs or upstairs on left or the right and make sure that’s even coverage and that it sounds good as well. That’s another big process that we do and also once we do that on Tuesday we come back in Wednesday do some more fine-tuning, tweaking some more stuff with just everything in general and then we have an orchestra sound check for two hours and the orchestra—they’re getting used to the show so they will move into the space that they’re going to play the show in for the next 16 to 24 or 32 or however many weeks we’re in a city. So they’ll go through…they’re getting comfortable with the space and playing around each other. So we do that, we tweak the orchestra levels in the house. I also tweak their levels in the pit for little speakers that they’re listening to in certain sections so there’s a lot that goes on because we want it to be as seamless and enjoyable as possible for everyone—local crew and our patrons. [Timestamp: 7:39]

Behind Audio Operations with Wicked, Part 2

Sep 12, 2011 5:16 PM, with Bennett Liles

Now I heard you also had a chance to tour the Sennheiser plant in Albuquerque. So what all did you see there?
What we saw there was the making of Sennheiser’s…some of the wireless mics that they make there, some of the handheld microphones, circuitry boards that were being made and it was actually…it was quite interesting seeing the amount of circuitry boards that could be made within a certain amount of time and there’s just a machine that’s doing all this stuff precisely. And it’s one of those things I had never seen before and you sort of take things like that for granted because you…you think it’s just someone sitting there just doing these things and it’s like…it’s an actual machine but at the Sennheiser factory they were very serious about keeping the outside environments outside and not letting that come inside the building because that can destroy and compromise the Sennheiser product so they were very serious about static electricity and humidity and all sorts of things and it was very impressive seeing that everyone that was working at the factory had on lab coats and safety goggles. It was quite impressive for me and I thought, “All right this is really cool.” [Timestamp: 8:49]

Yeah I can imagine. There’s some things you should never see being made but surely a wireless mic system isn’t one of those and it would tend to change your attitude every time you used that equipment after you’ve actually seen it all put together.
Correct. Correct.

So what other types of signal processing do you use on a big show like that? I know it can be a real challenge for mixing.
We currently have a combination of digital and analog pieces of equipment on this tour. We have two Cadac J-type analog consoles that are doing the FOH mixing for the show. One console handles principle actors and ensemble actors and the other console handles all of the orchestra inputs, sound effects, miscellaneous inputs for playback, when we’re doing a system check, when we’re listening to the speakers. We may have an iPod input or a CD player input, announcement mics, percussion, and drums so those two consoles and then we also have a smaller console that handles percussion and drums all on one console and then we just take those inputs and bring them onto the bigger console. We’re also using a system called Stagetec mixes audio routing. In short, it has eliminated us carrying a lot of copper on the tour. When the general managers and the producers decided to put out a second North American tour "Wicked," their first thing was everyone needs to cut back because we want this particular tour to not only be out—they want this tour to be out for at least for 10 years but also to play big and small venues all across the U.S. and Canada and we’ve proven that…this tour has fit into some of the smallest theaters throughout the U.S. and some of the biggest theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada. So allowing us to carry a fiber optics system, which is the Stagetec system, I would say it cut back on maybe four cable cases of copper for orchestra inputs, RF mic inputs, and miscellaneous inputs. It’s all been cut down to fiber optic cables and it really sounds great. [Timestamp: 10:58]

You’ve got to use every technological advance that you can to make the job easier on this.
Oh yeah and cutting back on cable was the main thing as I…we all have to cut back on everything because the other tour that’s out started in 2005 and they’re still using some analog pieces on there but they’re carrying a lot more cable than we are and when this tour started it came down from the top, “This has to be smaller. We want to cut back a little bit on some of the technical things and if we can do that that would be great but we don’t want to compromise on the quality of the show.” So if you were to look at the first North American tour of "Wicked" and the second North American tour of "Wicked" you really won’t see that much of a difference—maybe a scenic element here and there but cast wise we’re the same. We’ve actually played some of the same venues and I think we have maybe two less trucks than the other tour does but with us cutting back on the cable that was really important so the Stagetec’s Nexus system has really helped us. It sounds really good. We love it. It’s very flexible so the guys out in…out in Germany at Stagetec have really put together a great system that we love. [Timestamp: 12:1]

Yeah we’ve talked to them on the podcast too and they do have a wonderful system in the Nexus networking set up.
Oh yeah, yeah and it’s a lot…granted we’re talking on the phone…this is great but to actually see it—it would be even better to see it in person to see the actual set up of everything and to get an idea and also they wanted to cut our footprint down for backstage a little bit so there have been times when we’ve gotten to theaters and it’s just…the sound department for backstage—we might have a small room that we have to cram everything into so we either decide to leave everything in their surround cases or we take them out to increase the room that’s in there. So those are tough decisions and also we don’t want to expose the equipment to a harsh environment—if there’s a flood in the building, you don’t want any of that equipment to get damaged. You don’t want it to get damaged by someone walking by and they kick it by accident and destroy a piece of cable, a piece of equipment. It’s a lot of decisions that have to be made and we also have to do…we’re given a specific area in each city, “This is the area that you’re in.” It’s up to us to make it work and for us to make it fit within this square sometimes a triangle. In an ideal situation we would love to stretch out and put stuff everywhere. But there are some cities where we just can’t do that because of the limitations of that theater we have to work within that triangle sometimes to make everything fit. [Timestamp: 13:4]

Well, all part of handling a very big show and it’s great to get a close look at how you do it and what goes into it and I sure appreciate you being here to tell us about it—Anthony Jones with the Broadway show "Wicked" now on tour. Anybody listening to this and then seeing the show will have a much better idea of what goes into it.
Glad to be here. Hope you guys enjoy and get out to see it sometimes.

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