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Behind Audio Operations with Wicked, Part 2

Sep 12, 2011 5:16 PM, 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.

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]

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