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The Ears Have It!

Posted on June 20, 2006

Audio is for experts and everyone with ears is an expert.

Audio does not need to be as complex as some people make it out to be. There are some simple rules.

Music and spoken word are different. Just because you can make your garage band sound professional in an upstairs night club does not mean you can make the local bank president clear and intelligible. Making both work on the same audio system takes real skill.

Feedback during the event is never acceptable or excusable. The only exception I would be willing to make is when the person with the lavaliere stands directly in front of the speaker stack.

Lavaliere microphones are to be avoided wherever possible. There are some times when they are unavoidable. We understand. We don't have to like it.

Wired microphones are more reliable than wireless (and cheaper!). If the speaker moves away from the podium, however, spring for the wireless and a back-up.

The audio operator should be no further than 150 feet from the stage not further left or right than the width of the stage.

Speakers should be flown if possible.

Ceiling speakers are wonderful for evacuating buildings on fire or announcing that it is time to close the trade show. Sometimes you might even be able to announce the winner of the booth drawing raffle on them, but not always. Do not use them if you expect to be understood. I don't care what the architect told you.

No, sound check is not an option. It is a requirement. Allow enough time in your schedule to get all your major presenters to the stage with the audio operator for at least ten minutes. (More is better.) Yes, I know they hate it and complain that it is a waste of their precious time. Ask the males if they would rather sound like John Wayne or Tiny Tim. Ask the females if they would rather sound like Dame Judy Dench or Fran Descher.

Placing speakers behind the audience is only acceptable in movie theaters and then only for moves that use audio for dramatic effect.

Let me digress here for a moment. The recent remake of "War of the Worlds" had some of the best audio I have ever heard. If you watched it at home with those two little 3 ½ inch speakers in your average television set, you missed half the impact of the movie. If you have a friend with a properly equipped home theater system with sub woofers, watch it there. The same works for meetings. Intelligibly requires the ability to hear the whole acoustic range not just the middle 50% as some speaker manufacturers would have you believe.

My daughter recently went looking for speakers to support her dance activities. We did a web search of the manufacturers I knew supported the kinds of systems she needed. In the process I stumbled into this gem at the Klipsch site. Klipsch does not make the kinds of systems we use in meetings, but this article is so well written, it needed to be included in this list.


One of the more hotly debated issues in the audio industry is the virtue of line array speakers as opposed to traditional trapezoidal shaped boxes. Many of the larger audio companies have invested heavily in this recently rediscovered technology. Let's cut through the smoke here.

If you are filling a venue for more than three thousand people, and you have a ceiling height of greater than twenty feet, there is nothing that can match the throw of a line array. Pretty much everyone who has used them agrees on this much. I took my then teenaged daughter and two of her friends to a Metallica concert at the Tropicana Dome in St. Petersburg and witnessed one of the first major tours to carry the new line array system. The performance of the system was amazing. I was roughly 300 feet from the stage. The sound was crystal clear and very loud. On a side note, the audio engineer who mixed the front acts was clearly not as good as the engineer who mixed Metallica. The point is that even a great system in the hands of a less than great engineer will sound less than great. The converse, however, is not true. A trash system will sound like trash in the hands of the best engineer. It will just be trashier in the hands of a less skilled engineer. There is only so much that can be done with inadequate gear.

Back to line arrays for meetings. Many meeting planners like to set the room with the stage with the back to the long wall of the room and then insist on the latest technology which is the line array. This is wrong. Tomorrow I will spend some time on room sets, but for now remember this. If you set the room wide, you need a wide sound system. If you set it deep, you need a deep sound system. Line arrays are designed for deep. Some of the articles that follow are pretty technical. I have tried to arrange them in order of difficulty. The simplest and more general are first followed by the more technical.



http://www.alfordmedia.com/linearray/faq.html Alford has purchased the J B L Vertec ® Line Array system which is the same one we use. This almost sounds like J B L wrote it. Still, the concepts are valid for most of the line array systems currently in use.




Let's talk about control. A few rules:

First, everyone at the table in the panel discussion gets their own microphone. None of this passing the mic back and forth nonsense.

Second, the podium gets two (or more) wired microphones. ALWAYS!

Third, wireless microphones have wired backups.

Fourth, the audio control position is in the same room as the event. I don't care how good the architect says his calibrated monitor system is.

There are new types of audio consoles that are being introduced to the meetings industry. In most cases these are based on technologies developed in the intense world of recording and broadcast studios. There are those who wish to cling to the old technologies who will say that the new technologies are unproven and potentially unreliable. This is simply not true.

What is true is that previously you could sit a half trained monkey down at an old eight channel analog console and they could get sound to come out. That is not true of the digital consoles. Digital consoles require advanced education. The manufacturers run special schools to train technicians on the new consoles. The training is expensive and only the most experienced are currently being trained. In a world where minimum wage is the rule, half trained monkeys may be all the facility has to run sound. They do not want their clients calling for more sophisticated technologies that require more sophisticated operators. In truth, if your event consists of a podium and a four member panel discussion with no pre-recorded audio support, and an audience of fewer than fifty, a half trained monkey with an eight channel console and no additional processing may be all you need. However, having said that, when the half trained monkey repeatedly drives the system into feedback trying to pick up your microphone-shy mumbler at the far end of the table, you will wish they had a digital console and knew how to use it.

Before we leave analog consoles behind, they have been the mainstay for audio for our industry for a very long time. We will see them in use for many years to come. However, the speed at which we are seeing the entertainment industry move from analog to digital consoles is mind numbing. In spite of the newer consoles' greater cost, the advantage to you as the meeting planner is in reduced on site time. With a properly programmed digital console and the new in-ear monitors, sound check time for entertainers is dropping dramatically. The turn around time between when you have to abandon the room for the change-over and when you can return will drop incrementally as the new consoles become more ubiquitous.

Audio for entertainers is a jungle that even those of us who do it all the time fight about. The sad truth is that when you are dealing with entertainers you cede control to them. Unless you are dealing with an audio company that is adept at supporting both name entertainers and meetings, you are asking for one or the other to be compromised. There are entertainers who are used to working in the convention industry who will support your needs and who are willing to help you achieve your goals. There are others who are not. How successful you will be in marrying the entertainer with your meeting is entirely dependant on the skills of the audio crew on the floor working the event.

The following is an editorial. I make no claim to being unbiased on the following comments. I entered this business as a lighting and technical director for theater. I am not an audio technician.

The quality of the audio in your meetings, especially in your general session, is the single most important factor in the ability of your presenters to be understood. Do not skimp on audio. If you must skimp, cut the budget somewhere else. As a meeting planner, your decision to properly fund the audio for your meeting or to short change the system design can spell the success or failure of your meeting. If the system sounds like mud, the words are lost. If part of the system sounds like mud and part of it sounds good, the conversation from the audience in those areas that do not hear as well will disturb those that can hear.

Fly the speakers if you can. It's expensive but it means the sound will be distributed better.

Smaller digital consoles are still very expensive and few audio companies can afford them. Many are investing in the larger ones to support the entertainers who are demanding them. Ask your audio company if they have digital consoles and if they do, ask that they be assigned to your event. If will be a few years before the smaller ones become common, but the more you ask, the faster the transition will be. The fact that your audio company does not have digital consoles is not a reflection on them, yet. In a few years it will be.

Make sure the audio company understands how you will be setting the room. It makes a difference to the system design.

I know I told you to listen to your vendors and with audio most assuredly you should. However, if you can't understand the speaker at the podium, that's bad audio. If you walk around the room and the sound fades in and out depending on where you stand, that's bad audio. If everyone in the audience is spellbound in rapt attention to the speaker at the podium, that's good audio. Listen to your vendors, but listen to your ears.

Tomorrow we talk about room sets.


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