When asked to start with “the big event,” MSI’s Matt Snyder declares, “Man, they were all big events!” Indeed. MSI supported the swearing in ceremony at the Capitol, the parade route, and a whopper of a party for the Texas State Society, which was a multi-stage hoedown (turns out almost all the states have their own happening).
In addition to all of that, MSI made audio audible for several other inaugural-related social events like the Historically Black Colleges and Universities celebration at the Almas Shrine Temple and the three-day BET Network’s party at the National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod Atrium.
Art Isaacs and Brian Bednar were the project managers on the Capitol. Jeremiah Leiter was the project manager on the Parade Route. Other inaugural events, parties and balls were project managed by Robert Jones, Jeff Miller and Snyder.
MSI started bidding on the honor of being a part of this historic event at the beginning of 2012, and the team hits the ground to make it all happen on Jan. 2. “From then to the 21st, it’s just a lot of getting things from point A to point B,” explains Isaacs. “We spend the first several days just putting up the main clusters, and then a day and a half running cables.”
Team of 30
Overall though, this year’s fête was scaled down from 2009’s swearing-in. For example, four years ago there were nine official balls, of which MSI did four; this year that number was scaled back to two, neither of which MSI was involved in. “We bid on them, and while we would have liked to have done those events, it was fine that others got those two. We had already been contracted for the big events, and there’s enough work for everyone,” says Snyder. “If you’re a sound company and you can’t find work during inaugural week, you should probably get out of the business!”
MSI had more than 30 personnel working downtown, with the majority of gear culled from their warehouse, including miles of cable and hundreds of speakers. “It was all our inventory, and we sub-rented very few things,” says Snyder. “We did build some additional MSI proprietary wedges to cover our needs for that week.”
The hands involved were presidentially experienced. “Getting to do Obama’s second inaugural is like playing pinball,” says Isaacs. “You win, you get to play again!” Isaacs has been with MSI since 1985, and this was his fourth inauguration (and during the Clinton era, he worked on their inaugural balls). He says that Obama’s inaugurations were ratcheted up from the Bush era in terms of reach and ambition.
“The design of the system was basically the same, though more speaker clusters were added as basic demand elevated. In 2009, we had sound all the way up to the Potomac River, about 23 city blocks.” This year they got the audio to just beyond the Mall, as this year’s Presidential Inaugural Committee chose to handle it from there.
As reported in the media, even with a million people attending, the crowd wasn’t as sizeable as the three-million-strong throng that showed up four years ago. “But a lot of it is consistent, and we make little tweaks every time.”
MSI worked with many government organizations and agencies, from the Secret Service to the lesser-known Architect of the Capitol (AOC), which oversaw the event. Also involved were the U.S. Park Rangers and the National Park Service. At the top of it all was acclaimed audio designer Patrick Baltzell, who is known for his work on the Academy Awards show, as well as many other major events. (When he finished up in DC, he headed to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.)
About 120 mics were used: 48 for the choir, 50 for the band, mics for James Taylor and his guitar, and two handhelds for Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson. Plus, there were lavaliers for the two Supreme Court justices administering the oath of office to the president and vice president, who opted against wearing lavaliers, which can be prone to picking up off-hand comments. Instead, for the public swearing in ceremony, Isaacs says, the crew deployed shotgun mics — which, despite their name, are less dangerous — for the elected officials, anyway. “This part of the show is the touchiest for Patrick. But he pulls it off each year.”
Thinking equally of open sightlines and sound quality, the crew follows Baltzell’s design, which centers on JBL VerTec VT4889 large-format line arrays. In total there were nine of MSI’s custom-built, ground-stacked array towers ranging from four to 14 VT 4889 loudspeakers each, and they were spread throughout the Mall area, starting with two 14-box clusters at the main stage. Ten more were used along the parade route.
Six towers were placed on the outside perimeter of the main lawn to provide delays without getting in the way of the audience’s view. For extra measure, five additional delay towers were set up beyond the 1,000-foot mark to push the audio for the rest of the crowd. Two Yamaha PM5Ds drove all of it.
Now about those MSI wedges: 10-inch and 12-inch speakers were used extensively. “They are great sounding wedges, and I think they sound better than anything else out there,” Isaacs says. “We’ve been building them for years, starting with the 15-inch one and then expanding to the 12-inch and 10-inch. The 10-inch MSI HEX are really handy for corporate events, providing a great sound in a small footprint.”
MSI’s Jeremiah Leiter, who focused on the parade route, has been with MSI since 2008 and today is GM. He notes that while the 70-volt solution found at your local high school football game has sufficed for previous administrations, this one wanted full range audio reproduction. “This involved a brand-new design that used MSI poles, which are also deployed at other high profile events that we do, including the Times Square Ball Drop,” he says. This solution is much better than a truss tower, especially at an event with major security concerns like this. It requires a small footprint, can’t be climbed, and doesn’t obscure sightlines.
Making it all come together on the big day and covering the 1.2-mile parade route required diligent planning. The challenge for the parade crew involved working nights to avoid disrupting the hustle and the bustle and pomp and circumstance this is Washington DC. “It was logistically challenging, but we coordinated with all agencies and vendors involved to get our systems in place and prepped for the show.”
The crew broke it down into six different mix areas using a total of 11 poles — nine along the route and two in the park. “Those along the parade route were able to hear the music from Lafayette Park and the swearing in, plus commentators associated with the parade,” Leiter says. Most poles had 10 to 12 JBL VT4889 cabinets; the two in the park had VTX V25s. Small-format Soundcraft Si desks handled the mix.
Then there was the Presidential review stand, which was set up in front of the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park. “We worked closely with the National Park service, broadcast teams, and the White House communication staff. We received the program material and then distributed it out to the [press feed] so all media that was involved could broadcast it as well as reproducing the audio in the park and the review booth so all could hear.” Also involved were the Austin-based production company C3 Presents (c3presents.com) and the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC), a temporary committee responsible for producing the inaugural parade.
“I will say that the full-range solution is what was unique about this event,” Leiter adds. “The audience matters to us, and with this full-range audio approach they got the clarity we think they deserve over the entire route. We have people hanging on every word of what is being said, and we wanted to provide a positive experience to everyone gathered along the Mall.”
Security is Everything
Nothing is more important than security, and anyone dealing with anything involving the President understands that and adapts. Interestingly, this was less of a challenge then in past years, Isaacs says. Previously, on the day of the event, the MSI team had to get up at four in the morning to turn everything on and then leave so the police dogs could sniff everything. This year, they were able to do that the night before and then “sleep in” a bit, just needing to get to the entrance before 6 a.m.
Otherwise, everyone had to go through metal detectors and make sure everyone had their badges. In previous years, there had been occasional challenges. “One year when we walked up to the podium area to place the podium mics and the 120 underseat speakers, and none of the people on my crew had access to the podium,” Isaac says. “That was a problem. Luckily someone from the AOC was on site and arranged for an escort. After that, I made sure we always had the proper badges.”
Dealing with all the government agencies is nothing compared to one uncompromising lady: Mother Nature. Those at MSI who have worked on many of these White House outdoor events talk about the weather being persnickety if not downright pitiless. But they caught a break: “Compared to previous years, this year’s weather was like getting a bonus check!” Isaacs says. “We had cold but nice weather until the end of load-out, and it was nice not dealing with snow, rain, sleet or mud.”
Is there extra pressure at an event like this?
“I don’t want to say we do any more than what we do on any job in terms of making sure everything we use is in good working order,” Isaacs responds. “But there is a lot of redundancy. We do a lot of maintenance on connections, checking for moisture, testing everything each and everyday. We run the signals through fiber but also have copper as backup, because sometimes fiber can fail if it gets too cold. One year when we came in the morning to run some tests, there was no audio getting to the delays. It turned out that the fiberglass had actually frozen and the signal couldn’t get through the ice! Now, in years when it gets really cold, we have heaters all around, and backup power units. We have analog backup signal to backup all of the digital fiber runs just in case.”
Main and Overflow System: JBL VerTec VT4889 (50)
Delay Systems Loudspeakers: JBL VP7315/64 (12), JBL VT4889 (30)
Infills: JBL VP7215/90 (4)
Outfills: JBL VP7315/64 (3),
JBL VP7215/90 (2)
Congressional seating area: JBL Control 25 AV (120), JBL AC 28 (14)
White House Communications Agency and Secret Service areas: JBL Control 25 AV (4)
Senate Choir Seating Area: JBL A 28 (20), JBL VRX932 (8)
Media platforms: JBL VRX932 (4)
Band: MSI HEX 12 (1)
Performance Area: MSI HEX 12 (1)
Choir Area/Soloist: MSI HEX 10 (6)
Podium: Shure SM57 (2; in “Presidential” VIP57 mount); Schoeps MK41 shotgun (1)
Announcer: Schoeps MK40 (1)
Oath mics: Sennheiser MKH 816
shotguns (2); Shure lavaliers (2)
Vocalists: Shure KSM 9 (James Taylor); Shure SM58 (Kelly Clarkson); Neumann KMS 105 (Beyoncé)
Choir Soloists: Shure KSM 9 (3)
Choir: Shure SM58 (48)
Marine Band: Audix D4 (4), D2 (5); Electro-Voice N/D 308 (5), RE-27 (2); Sennheiser MD-421 (11), e604 (15); Shure KSM 32 (3)
Consoles: Yamaha PM 5DRH (2)
Outboard Effects: TC Electronic System 6000, System 5000
Mains Processing: Dolby DLP (3); Lake Mesa Quad EQ (1)
Delay Processing: Dolby DLP (1); Lake Mesa Quad EQ (1)
Optocore Loops (2; for mains and delays); Optocore YS-2 cards in FOH console (2); Optocore DD32 on mains (2); Optocore DD32R-FX delay systems with Ethernet control of all parameters and amplifiers (2); X6 delay systems (2); fiber to mains (1,000 feet); fiber to delays (1,500 feet); multicore for all inputs/outputs (6,500 feet); cable ramps (200); MSI speaker poles for suspending VerTec clusters (9)