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Inside Summer NAMM 2014, Part 1

Show 109-1

In this edition of the SVC Podcast, SVC Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Pete Johnston, supervising producer and technical director of special events for the National Association of Music Merchants. Johnston describes the preparation for the Summer NAMM show at Nashville’s Music City Center including the acoustics environment and how it compares with Anaheim’s Pacific Ballroom, the site of the Winter NAMM show. He also discusses the process of sound checks with performers prior to the show.

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Jul 3, 2014 11:18 AM,
With Bennett Liles

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Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

With the Summer NAMM show about to get going at Nashville’s Music City Center, there are a million and one technical details to tie down and make sure things go smoothly and the guy who heads the tech team to make it all happen is NAMM’s Pete Johnston. He’s here to tell us about what’s going on to get it all ready. That’s next up on the SVC Podcast.

Pete Johnston, it’s fantastic having you here for the SVC Podcast. Supervising Producer and Technical Director of Special Events for the National Association of Music Merchants, NAMM as it’s usually better known.

That’s correct, and it’s great to be here. That title sure is a mouthful, isn’t it? Well, it’s lofty-sounding, but I’m sure there’s lots to do on that job. I’m not sure I would want to be that.


Well, things are heating up. We’re coming right down on the show and a lot of things need to be coming together so where exactly are we right now on all of the technical preparations for the big Summer NAMM show in Nashville?

You know, last year was kind of a bigger deal because we were moving into a brand-new facility and we didn’t really know what we had, so we had a lot of big questions going in. But this year we’ve got a nice blueprint laid out from everything we learned last year at Summer NAMM. We didn’t really change a lot, so the technical preparations are going pretty good so far. I’m working with an AV crew that I’ve had for a number of years. They’re good guys and they know our show. Our infrastructure is there, so we’re just hoping to pull the same thing off that we did last year basically. [Timestamp: 1:46]

Always a huge advantage when you have a familiar crew to work with going into something like this. I talked to Eric Geer about GeerFab’s solution for taming the acoustics in Anaheim’s Pacific Ballroom for the Winter NAMM show. How does Music City Center in Nashville compare acoustically with the site of the winter show?

Yeah, well, you know that Pacific Ballroom in Anaheim is a much bigger nightmare than what we’ve got in Music City Center. Because it is Music City Center, I think they’ve put a little more effort into dealing with sound issues in that facility. Not to say that there’s not problems with that room, like any ballroom that’s usually set up for a talking head and a few speakers, and here we come with all of our fancy shows and music. It can make it a challenge, but it’s not near the challenge that the Pacific Ballroom is specifically because of the parabolic shape that the architects put into that Pacific Ballroom in Anaheim that really just is a nightmare for sound. But there are some ways we’re looking at improving Music City Center. We’re talking about possibly wrapping the stage with some of the panels that we used in Anaheim for summer. We’re not at this moment planning to bring all the panels that we had in Anaheim to Summer NAMM because the Nashville Convention Center doesn’t necessarily have all the outside rigging points that we need to make it happen like we do in Anaheim, but we are talking about bringing them in in a smaller capacity perhaps around the stage areas to help with the stage sound. [Timestamp: 3:04]

Yeah, I would think that’s the most critical area where everything is happening. There will be a lot of very discerning ears in that crowd and they’ll expect a lot. What sort of special events are you planning for the show?

Well, for Summer NAMM, we’ve got quite a few special events this year. We’ve added this series, it’s called NAMM at Night. Each night there’s something exciting going on in the ballroom. The preshow Wednesday night before the show, we’ve got a great insights event. It’s going to be hosted by Vince Gill and Tom Bedell of Two Old Hippies guitars and they’re going to bring some friends along with them and talk shop and play a little music, and that should be a nice way to kick off the Wednesday night before the show. Thursday night I think we’ve got a Muriel Anderson event in there that’s a fundraiser for Little Kids Rock. That’s always a great concert event. She brings a ton of top-notch talent to that event every year. Friday night, of course, is one of our premier events. We’ve got the NAMM Top 100 Dealer Awards. That’s an awards show for our retailers and we award the top dealer of the year and we also have eight categories of awards that we hand out through the night. That’s always a fun night. [Timestamp: 4:09]

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Jul 3, 2014 11:18 AM,
With Bennett Liles

Well, I was thinking you might have some time after it’s all over to kind of fall back and get your breath but it looks like there’s no time to even shift gears there’s so much going on.

There’s a ton of stuff, and in fact with all that stuff that’s happening at night, each morning we also have the breakfast sessions, the keynote sessions, that kick off at 8:00 each morning. So yeah, we’ve got long days ahead of us at Summer NAMM, but it’s always fun. [Timestamp: 4:29]

A little friendlier venue this time acoustically, not quite as big a job. What kind of a time window do you have on getting all that done, maybe wrapping the stage and just getting it all loaded in and set up and ready to go? How big a hurry-up job is it?

It’s quite a bit of a hurry-up job, and it varies a little bit each year as to when we can contract the room. It depends, you know, different years, the dates move a little here and there, and it depends whether there’s an event ahead of us or not or behind us. So I know in Anaheim it was a tight turnaround, and I think this summer we’re set to move in Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. That’s when the crew gets the room. So we’ll be starting to build at 8:00 a.m. Monday morning and it’s gotta be ready by Wednesday night at 5:30 for that first event. So yeah, it’s a tight turnaround, especially with the addition of these MultiZorbers, which take up quite a bit of rigging time. I’m not gonna lie to you: They’re a little bit expensive and time consuming to rig; albeit they’re worth it. We just have to make sure we’re allotting enough time for that to happen. [Timestamp: 5:28]

Yeah, you had a lot tougher job in Anaheim just for getting the acoustics right. How did you decide that GeerFab was the way to go with the MultiZorber panels at Winter NAMM?

Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, some of it was a natural fit for us because Eric, of course, has been involved with the Tech Awards for so long and when NAMM acquired them, of course, we had that relationship with Eric. He was already close to our side, but it wasn’t a new complaint; it’s a complaint we’ve had ever since we’ve been in there. And certainly with adding on the Tech Awards, it was time to really up our game because here we are handing out awards for sound excellence and we need to be able to compete, you know, back up our statement and at least have a good room for the night. What was appealing about GeerFab’s product was it’s pretty cost effective. In the world of sound dampening, that can get pretty expensive, some of the materials that are available and out there. The other thing we looked at was its ease of shipping and storing, how durable is it, how hard is it to rig? The aesthetics, we wanted something that we didn’t really want anyone to notice it in the room. We wanted it to kind of be invisible, so they had kind of the aesthetic property we were looking for. Flat black wraps; they weren’t fancy with a bunch of beveled edges. They really didn’t stand out at all, and if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you might not have even noticed they were in the room. So that’s why we went with those. For all the expense that it was, it could have been worse and I thought they were pretty competitive on price. [Timestamp: 6:54]

Oh yes, Eric seemed to think they were pretty easy to rig with zip ties and pretty easy stuff to come by and work with. Maybe the time frame here won’t be quite as much of a challenge. I know that the sound people who are running everything during the show have only one take. It’s all live. That’s got to be a big difference for them in how well the acoustics have been set up.

Oh, for sure. The sound guys loved it right away. They noticed the difference. And really where it saves time is on the front end during the sound checks because there’s so much time you’re dealing with trying to get the sound right in that empty room, which is difficult enough without bodies in there. And then when you put bodies in there, these MultiZorbers quieted the room right away without all the bodies in there. So we really saved time from the process of sound check to the actual sound we got once the event was kicked off. The sound guys were certainly appreciative of that. [Timestamp: 7:41]

How big a change is that acoustically between having Music Center City full of people and rehearsing and doing sound checks when it’s completely empty and everything’s just bouncing around in there?

Oh, it just changes everything. I feel for these sound engineers that have to deal with that, especially in our crowd when they’ve got 100 other sound engineers in the room looking – you know, with eyes on them all coming up to the board telling them what they’re doing wrong. It’s a tough environment to mix in and the MultiZorbers certainly did help with that. [Timestamp: 8:09]

You don’t really want mic feedback, right, when they’re handing out awards for sound excellence.

Exactly. No, I think the guys were stoked and a little dirty secret – I don’t know if this part will get aired or not, but we were in there sound checking with some Dubstep, some of the Yamaha Nexo guys with their sound system. We got the room – it was so solid and the system was so loud, we were actually – it was snowing in the room. The room was shaking and all the old dust and asbestos or whatever on the ceiling was falling down to the floor in snow. That’s how tight that room was. [Timestamp: 8:40]

Well, we’ll have to have all that stuff chemically analyzed later. So, you’ve got power, you’ve got lights, acoustics and all these people to coordinate so what’s the biggest challenge on getting all of it ready?

I’ll tell you, from my chair the biggest challenge – I have such a great A/V crew and I’ve got a great partner that I work with who’s the TD on their side. He’s great at putting out fires and keeping things rolling. I think my biggest challenge through all that is actually the content creators and making sure that this awards show there’s a lot of content and stuff that we have to run. So the content is probably my biggest challenge. I always feel good about the power and the sound and the lights, especially in Nashville. Those guys have got it pretty dialed in. [Timestamp: 9:19]

Alright, it’s going to be a great show I’m sure. They’ve got a great place to do it. In part two we’ll get into some of the technical details of what actually goes on during the show, what you’re doing and all the things you’re trying to do at the same time. Pete Johnston, let’s just say “head tech guy” for the whole shebang at Summer NAMM and I know you’re going to do a great job. Thanks for being with us.

Well thanks a bunch, Bennett. It’s been a pleasure.

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