SVC Podcast – Show Notes – Show 161-1
In this edition of the SVC Podcast, SVC Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Patrick Baltzell, sound designer and front of house mixer on the Democratic and Republican conventions for ATK Audiotek. Pat details the advance preparations, the setup and the operation of sound on these two high profile events. He also discusses keeping sound levels under control as the house audience gets more enthusiastic.
For Part 2
Links of interest:
- ATK Audiotek, production company for the 2016 Superbowl, Emmy Awards and the political conventions.
- Youtube video with Pat Baltzell on the production of the 60th Emmy Awards
- Powersoft K-10 amplifiers used on both 2016 political conventions
- DiGiCo SD5 mixing console used for FOH on the Republican Convention
Download Podcast Here:
From Sound & Video Contractor Magazine, this is the SVC Podcast with Pat Baltzell of ATK Audiotek. Show notes and equipment links for the podcast are on the web site of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at svconline.com.
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. He’s set to give us the story. That’s coming right at you on the SVC Podcast.
Pat, it is indeed a privilege and a pleasure to have you with us on the SVC Podcast.
ATK Audiotek. 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.
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. [Timestamp: 1:39]
Well, you could probably say the same thing about politicians.
And you were there for the big events. 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.
No, that was the latest thing were the two conventions. And I’ve been at it for a long time. They were actually since 1988 I’ve been doing – I did the democratic convention in 1988 and then starting 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. [Timestamp: 2:23]
Wow, the Democratic Convention in ’88. The Omni.
Yes! That’s right. Dukakis. That’s exactly right.
I was there.
Yeah, we didn’t run into each other. I don’t know how we didn’t, the place was so small. It was a convention in a closet. Georgia Public Broadcasting had a skybox and did the old McNeil-Lehrer News Hour there that week and our truck was parked in the basement of the World Congress Center across the street.
Oh! How about that?
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 like 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 dinosaurs roamed the Earth. I think he was at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. [Timestamp: 3:15]
Or front of house at Ford’s Theater.
So yes, I’ve been doing a lot of them and I’ve heard a lot of really good politicians and a lot of good orators over the years from Ronald Reagan to Mario Cuomo, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson. Barack Obama is an excellent speaker as well. So yeah, I’ve heard a lot of speeches. [Timestamp: 3:40]
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?
The Republican Party takes this speech reinforcement very serious so we typically do acoustic treatment when we come into a venue. Four years ago in Tampa with Mitt Romney we spent $860,000.00 on a permanent acoustical treatment, Lapendary panels in the ceiling, because it was a pretty reverberant space. And Quicken Loans we spent $370,000.00 in permanent acoustic treatment. Sometimes the venues share the cost because it is a permanent upgrade, and sometimes they don’t. 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 $370,000.00 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. So starting in ’96 is the first time 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. But what I did is 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 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 that’s the only tools that we had back then. [Timestamp: 7:14]
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 at conventions I have about 12 freelance audio technicians that I bring in. So I send the drawings out and I send them to the guys in the shop and it’s very detailed. For instance a line array cluster would be divided into zones for equalization purposes. So once they have the drawings in the shop then they can, 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, now 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. [Timestamp: 9:21]
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 don’t 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. So 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 their accustomed to with me designing it. [Timestamp: 10:31]
And the amps are a huge part of it. I think in Philadelphia you had something like 104 Powersoft K-10 amplifiers.
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 that we just did each of them is a three tractor trailer of just sound equipment. So I don’t want to go into a fourth truck. That’s another $14,000.00 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 is 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. [Timestamp: 11:59]
And how much communication did you have with these amplifiers? Remote control capability?
Oh yeah, yes. Total network. So the tuning is all done right from my front of house position using Armonia software. So that’s how all of the tuning is done. That’s how all of the amplifier shading is done. So we only go up to first put them in and install the network to the amplifiers and 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. [Timestamp: 13:13]
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. [Timestamp: 13:29]
And did you provide a broadcast feed or was that separate?
No. It’s a good question. I used to. Back in the 90’s – 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 take turns. Like this year it would be CSPAN. Next year it would be Fox News or CBS. They would assigned 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 $500.00 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. [Timestamp: 15:22]
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 like they are or down, you know, I’m a little bit above. But it’s a perfect place to be. [Timestamp: 16:38]
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 any. Well 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 the republican convention was very poorly attended this year. [Timestamp: 19:40]
Regardless, there are a lot of people tuning in and you have to have backups for everything.
Yeah, what do you do for backups like backup amps, backup mics?
We have spare amps, but I certainly don’t have redundant amplifiers for the entire sound system. It’s typical that I’ll have four amplifier locations, in fact this year at both conventions two in the center for the primary speaker arrays and two out on the outer catwalks for this delay ring for the upper 200-level seating. So what we do is I’ll have a few spare amp channels in all four of those locations and the biggest thing that we must have redundant is if something happened to my front of house console that feeds everything. So what we do is I take a mono feed from the broadcast truck because in both cases we split all of the signals – all the music inputs and all the dialogue inputs; podiums, lavs, hand mics, they all get split to broadcast so he has a complete redundant copy of all the microphones – so I take a mono mix from the truck and I have it in a spare little console sitting behind me. We’re using DigiCo consoles these days. If anything happened and the console locked up and stopped shipping I can, with a macro button, I can do a Dante scene change and instead of me feeding all of the amplifiers, this little console with a broadcast mix sitting in it would feed the whole PA system. So that’s not, of course, the way we’d ever want to end up but at least there would be speeches coming out of the sound system and music coming out of the sound system. It might not be the same mix that I had, and I certainly have to rid it more carefully because it wouldn’t have some of the outboard stuff that I would have. But anyway at least we’d live to tell the story. [Timestamp: 21:43]
Right. You’re still shaking the speakers while you’re figuring out the problem.
Yeah, so 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 complete separate crews and complete 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. If there’s a protest going on and people are making noise and they bang the gavel to call the thing back to order, a 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. So 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. [Timestamp: 23:55]
Right. The audio equivalent of the nuclear football, carrying that thing.
Alright. Well that’s great, Pat. I appreciate you carving out some time in your schedule for us and in Part 2 we’ll go more behind the scenes at the Democratic and Republican conventions. So thanks for doing this, it’s Pat Baltzell, sound designer, front of house mixer for the Democratic and Republican conventions, Super Bowl, Academy Awards and the list goes on. It was great hearing about this and we’ll see you for more next week.
And it was great to have YOU here for the SVC Podcast with Pat Baltzell. Show notes and equipment links are on the website of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at svconline.com. Next week Pat’s going to tell us about the setup, more on the motorized podiums and managing sound levels as the convention house audience gets louder and more responsive. That’s on the next SVC Podcast.