The 2021 Inaugural: A Mix for the Books

By benkrumholz

The 2021 Inaugural: A Mix for the Books
Kevin M. Mitchell • February 2021Production Profile • February 4, 2021

Inaugural 2021

Photo by Bob Goldstein

All’s well that ends well, right?

“Whatever you heard on TV, the live sound was much better,” Bob Goldstein of Maryland Sound (MSI) says of the inauguration of President Joe Biden on Jan. 20, 2021. “The coloring, the quality — it was all terrific. The system was well done, but the mix was great. And when you closed your eyes and listened to the Marine Band… it was perfection.”

The swearing-in “went as smooth as it could have gone,” says FOH engineer/system designer Patrick Baltzell. “There are always a few hiccups, but technically, everybody heard what they needed to hear.” For decades, road veteran Baltzell has been behind the console for events including Super Bowls, Grammys, Oscars, Country Music Awards, Emmy Awards, and now six presidential inaugurations.

Inaugural 2021
FOH engineer/system designer Patrick Baltzell

Preceded by a violent attack on the Capitol, this wasn’t just “any” inaugural. “There’s a photo inside the Capitol of a guy with a confederate flag on the left, then a guy with a fox head and police shield, then a statue with one of our torn-out amp racks leaning against it,” Goldstein says, summing up the madness of it all.

Inaugural 2021
Insurgents swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6

‡‡ January 6

“We were 90% installed that morning when the insurrection started,” Baltzell says. “The crowd started rolling right by us on the West Lawn of the Capitol from Ellipse Park, where Trump had his rally.”

“We all heard the noise rising down at the bottom of the west lawn on First Street,” adds MSI’s Brian Bednar. “The chatter and noise kept growing. Members of our team helped place bike rack barricades at the top of the walkway just before the Capitol west plaza. At this point, the crowd was approaching and we were told to run up the stairs to the east plaza. A few of us returned to the west lawn to get our personal computers and shut down our power service.”

The mob had broken through one line of a bike racks, then two snow fences. With each breach, Baltzell could see the mob becoming more emboldened. Then they pushed through the cops and started breaking into the building. “Two Capitol police officers show up on the platform in riot gear — the first we saw with the shields, masks, and tear gas launchers — and they yell at us to put our phones away and leave because it’s not safe.” Baltzell got away and bumped into Ben Connelly, a friend from Cat Power who was working for the Broadcast Compound. He told Baltzell he had to leave because they found a pipe bomb near him. “That’s when I decided to get back to the hotel and watch the rest of this on television.”

Well-documented in photos and videos, the mob occupied, vandalized and looted the U.S. Capitol for hours as they attempted to overturn the election by stopping the procedural counting of the Electoral College votes. Less known is the other tens of thousands of dollars in damage they did.

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Some of the damaged gear

‡‡ January 7

“The roughest part during the cleanup was breathing in all the tear gas dust residue that was left behind,” says Bednar. “None of us expected to come back in and find what we found. Ninety percent of our fiber optics had been cut, racks thrown over, speakers tossed around, and equipment missing. We photographed the damage and started making a shopping list of what we needed to get the system back up and running without falling behind in our schedule. Our team at the shop, headed up by Ben Krumholz, was able to track down to all the fiber, amp racks, and the [Focusrite] RedNet systems we needed.”

Almost everything was damaged but the hanging JBL line arrays and what was in the FOH tent — the latter saved only by MSI system tech Billy Martin, who stood watch. The damage included 14 new JBL AC28 compact dual-8” point source speakers. “One of the ongoing challenges is that the people closest to the swearing-in have trouble hearing,” Baltzell says. Purchased specifically for the inauguration, the AC28s were distributed around the platform and mounted on railings, and Trump supporters ripped the grilles off and punctured the cones. They tore the wires out of the back. Threw paint on them. They got a few loose, and there’s images of them lying amongst the other debris, and a video of one being thrown at the Capitol. Some were armed with wire cutters used to cut cables. Ethernet cables were sliced, and circuit breakers were snapped off at the exact spot that could do the most damage. Some wheeled MSI cases away. Others preferred to knock them over and tear the cabling out of the equipment in the racks.

As for Martin, he was defending the FOH tent apprehensively when a large hunting knife punctured the tent at eye-level and tore a long slit down. “It was done by a teenager,” Baltzell says. An adult — presumably his dad — pulled him away and told him to knock it off, saying, “We don’t do this.” Soon, another guy poked his head through and started grabbing a FOH rack. Martin bopped his head with a stick, which deterred him. “If Billy had not been there, the walls would have been ripped and the two brand new DiGiCo SD5 Quantum consoles would have likely been destroyed,” Baltzell says.

“They weren’t looking to hurt our people,” Goldstein says. “They just wanted to tear things up.”

Inaugural 2021
Covered here for pre-event weather protection, the main hangs consisted of JBL VTX A12 and A12W line arrays

‡‡ 18 Months Earlier

It’s the federal government, so the entire process is neither fast nor simple. Audio company bids are vetted by federal guidelines, meaning they must espouse the proper anti-discrimination policies. “For the six I’ve done, it’s always been Maryland Sound who gets the bid,” says Baltzell, who since 2000, was re-hired a year and a half before the event.

The stakes are high for everyone, and every decision must be carefully made, every change from the previous show quantified. “I have used the Yamaha PM5D, which worked well for 20 years. Well, I had to explain that they don’t even make this product anymore, and that’s why we need to go with the DiGiCo SD5 console. Oh, and now we need to implement a Dante audio networking system.” There is a strict “buy American” emphasis, and in this example, there are no audio consoles made here. Baltzell has to write up an explanation for every piece of equipment that is not made in America.

Inaugural 2021
The podium used Shure’s “presidential” VIP55SM dual mic mount with two mics — an SM57 and a Schoeps CK41/CMC5 — both covered by large Shure A81WS foam screens to handle the blustery winds on the Capitol steps.

Improving the control and quality of the spoken words at the lectern meant a return to two mics. (For Trump, there was just one SM57 on a gooseneck.) While they look like two 57s at the podium, one was a Schoeps CK41/CMC5. In the bidding process, Baltzell never specifies a specific piece of gear with the exceptions of the podium mic, the FOH console, and the FOH dialog processing equipment. The Schoeps mic is the only choice to get sufficient gain outdoors for a speech event such as this. The SM57 is a backup in the event of rain or other failure for the condenser. “The SM57 is bullet-proof and needs to be there, and as the Schoeps is a condenser, you need both.” He replaces the screen on the Schoeps to look like a 57, and “it’s a trick everyone is cool with.”

In February, there’s a conference call, with no regard for who will be sworn in. Then November: Biden won… right? “It was a drawn-out election count that week, and really it doesn’t become clear until mid-December that he is the president-elect. That’s when I got a call from my boss at the Capitol.” The inaugural ceremony would have been a traditional approach had Trump won the election, but now everything was in flux, including a version of the inauguration that would have limited audience and virtual musical performances. There’s also talk of something quiet and quick, perhaps inside the Capitol. But millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on construction and pre-planning, and that needs to be weighed against what the optics of large public gathering would look like weighed against doing next to nothing. It’s five weeks out when the Presidential Inaugural Committee reached a reasonable compromise: It would go on, but curtailed. Those 15 speaker towers went down to two. Delay speaker towers were deep-sixed.

The Marine Band, normally 80 pieces, was slimmed to 57 so they could all be socially distant (brass players got Plexiglas panels). Those musicians were using their own in-ear monitor system for the first time because they were spread so far apart. Nix the choir completely. “Everything about it was changed to be Covid-respectful,” says Baltzell.

‡‡ January 20

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A final pre-dawn check of cable routings. Photo by Brian Bednar

The remarkable part of all this is how quickly the audio team shrugged off the massive damage caused by the insurrectionists. MSI had JBL airfreight those AC28s replacements in. All the other MSI gear was quickly replaced from their warehouse in Baltimore. By Sunday, Jan. 10, they were back 100 percent.

“I was proud of the guys,” Goldstein says.

Inaugural 2021
Artists at the ceremony included, from left, Lady Gaga singing the national anthem; Garth Brooks performing “Amazing Grace;” Jennifer Lopez doing a medley of “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land;” and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reciting “The Hill We Climb.”

One audio adjustment was made. “As more video footage came in from the insurrection, I saw more headsets and people talking into their sleeves.” It was clear that elements were organized and communicated with radio devices. He realized that the wireless system was vulnerable, and if there was any kind of attack that day, the Secret Service would broadband jam all the frequencies. “It put a wireless system at great risk.” XLR mic cables were the solution. Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez pushed back on this at first, but then understood the situation. Lady Gaga brought a wired version of her preferred mic, the Sennheiser e935, which was painted gold; Jennifer Lopez sang into a Shure KSM8; and Garth Brooks used a Shure SM58.

Inaugural 2021
Masked and ready for business — part of the audio crew, counterclockwise from lower right: Pat Baltzell; Brian Bednar, Art Isaacs, Dan Gerhard and Sven Giersmann

Going to work was different. “I can’t imagine any job that has a higher security than this,” Goldstein says. “You have to be photographed, fingerprinted; there’s a Covid test. Six months ahead, you have to submit the names of everyone working that day. All the trucks’ license plates have to be submitted. And the equipment doesn’t go from the warehouse to the site. It goes to the Navy Yard, where everything is checked out.” Then things got even more complicated.

“In the end, we had four hard laminates,” Baltzell adds. Often the crew would be met by a guard who had no idea what a sound person does. “What do you do again? I have to call my supervisor” type responses required patience, which the team was more than willing to provide. “They were just doing their job.” Worried about the day of? “The Capitol felt like the U.S. Embassy in Bagdad. There were so many perimeters. There were 26,000 National Guard members with machine guns, another 10,000 ATF, Secret Service, Metro police, DC police… there were even state troopers from as far away as New Jersey. It was probably the safest place to be in North America.”

Inaugural 2021
Single JBL VRX932 line arrays on spaced poles provided upper terrace and press area coverage.

“There was a certain joy among the people that day — it was truly a joyous event,” Goldstein says. “The security detail had every reason to be uptight, but they weren’t. They were smiling, and happy, and helpful. There wasn’t an angry person around. And it was such a pleasure to hear live music — and from the Marine Band … they are in a league of their own. It gave us all goose bumps.”

When you go to D.C., it is reasonable to want to bring home a souvenir. Baltzell brought home something you won’t find in a gift shop, though. “The morning after [the insurrection], when I saw those destroyed JBL AC28 speakers with their connectors ripped out and the cones punched in, ‘Trump blue’ paint thrown on them, that yellow bear spray on them, and I told Bob I wanted to buy the worse of those speakers.” Goldstein asked why. “I’m going to mount it over my fireplace.” Again, Goldstein asked why. “Because it’s historical. It’s a testament to what happened here and what can happen when democracy loses course.”

Goldstein obliged. No charge.

Miking the oath can be a challenge

The Oath Mic

To capture the historic oath, Patrick Baltzell says, “traditionally it was shotgun mics far away, and audio on that had always been weak.” So he came up with a novel solution. “The President-elect puts his hand on the Bible, right? Well, we’re going to cut a hole in the pages of the Bible and place a transmitter pack there. We slap a tiny black lavalier on top of the Bible, and there you go — a mic three feet away from the Supreme Court Justice and the President!”

The reaction was quick. “I look around, and just see the entire table of suits go white — dozens with the color draining from their face, with a ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ look on their face.” Finally, one said that they would not be cutting any pages of that Bible, which was the same one used by George Washington at the first inauguration. Baltzell replied he’d come up with something else, and a wireless lavalier on Chief Justice Roberts captured the audio.

The 2021 Presidential Inaugural


Sound Company: Maryland Sound
FOH Mixer/Sound Designer/Consultant: Patrick Baltzell
Project Manager: Art Isaacs
FOH Asst./Tech Manager: Brian Bednar
System Techs: Billy Martin, Sen Giersmann, Paul White
RF/Coms Tech: Ryan Bode
Backstage Tech: Max Seltenrich
A2s: Jacob Shatuck, Nevin Brabham
General Crew Hands: Ryan Morrison, Geoff Eckert, Rob Dressler

Main Speakers: (24) JBL VTX A12, (4) VTX A12W
Distributed Speakers: (34) JBL AC28, (80) Control 25T
Infill/Outfill: (2) MSI BT360; (8) Meyer UPA1C
Upper Terrace/Press: (12) JBL VRX 932, (12) Control 25T
Amplifiers: Crown HD12000, DCi600

FOH Consoles: (2) DiGiCo SD5 Quantum (mirror mode)
Outboard: (3) DiGiCo SD racks, Lexicon 960; Dolby CAT430 Dialog Processor; BSS 202
Focusrite RedNet: (3) D64, (3) A16R, (3) D16R, (2) MP8R, A8R
Media Distro: (6) Whirlwind PB24 press boxes
Distribution Amps: XTA DS800; (4) ATI Audio ADA 412

Monitors: (4) MSI Hex10 wedges
IEMs: Shure PSM1000; Fisher HA1000 hard-wired
Vocal Mics: Lady Gaga, Sennheiser 935c; J-Lo – Shure KSM8; Garth Brooks, Shure SM58; (2) Shure Axient w/WL185 lavaliers (Supreme Court justices); (2) Sennheiser MKH816 shotguns, (oath mics); Shure SM57 & Schoeps CK41 (podium)
Band Mics: Audix D4; EV 308; Sennheiser MD421, MD906; Shure SM58, KSM32, SM57