On the "Design Meets Reality" panel were (l-r): Dominic Sack; Scott Leher; Collie Bustin; Christopher Sloan; Paul Garrity; and moderator Christopher Evans.
New York, NY (October 22, 2013)—Many of the problems and solutions in live sound are universal, applicable in one way or another to any variety of situations, from concert sound to house of worship installations to sporting venues. With that in mind, the annual AES Convention had plenty of live sound-centric offerings to take in and enjoy, from an on-stage interview with Dave Natale, go-to FOH engineer for The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Lenny Kravitz, Fleetwood Mac and dozens more, to Audio for Corporate Presentations, to Miking for PA and more.

But with the AES Convention is in New York City, in the presence of Broadway, the best-known theatrical district in the world, it only made sense for the Live Sound Track to take advantage of that proximity and present insights and knowledge from the city’s top theatrical live sound pros.

Such was the case Saturday, as a number of them assembled for the early morning panel, “Design Meets Reality: The A2s and Production Sound Mixer’s Challenges, Obstacles and Responsibilities for Loading in and Implementing the Sound Designer’s Concept.” On hand for the panel were moderator Christopher Evans, Benedum Center; Collie Bustin, Ires-Partners; Paul Garrity, Auerbach and Associates; Dominic Sack, Sound Associates; Scott Leher, Scott Leher Sound Design; Christopher Sloan, production engineer, The Book of Mormon.

Topics ranged from venues with over-engineered house systems to the quickly decreasing career experience and salaries of touring production engineers on theatrical shows, as well as the occasional disaster story. Discussing how he approaches designing installed theatrical house systems, Garrity noted, “We try to spec equipment that will work for the house, but be familiar enough for the people coming in on the tours so they can look at it and say, ‘Oh I can use that.’ We want to make a great system where people will say ‘Great, I can leave my stuff on the truck.’”

Creating a great—and usable—system allows productions to use the house gear by choice, but it also eases the process when the using house gear is the only choice. Sack recalled a moment when he heard about a production carrying Sound Associates equipment was being loaded into moderator Evans’ Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, PA.

“I got a picture sent to me on my cell phone of the Mary Poppins speaker towers,” said Sack, “and they had fallen off a forklift a good eight feet—they were completely mangled. Chris and I had put in a Meyer M’elodie system in the Benedum Center a few years earlier and it saved the show. It just so happened that Mary Poppins was touring with 16 M’elodies per side in groups, so the whole show was maintained as best it could. The sensitivity of the inputs stayed the same, and they were able to do a show, which would have cost everyone tremendous amounts of money if they had to bring it in, fly it, get it up there. That also speaks to not getting too esoteric with the house designs.”

Continuity of information within a theater was a big topic, with Sloan remarking, “One thing I’ve found in years of touring is a real information disconnect between the design phase, the construction phase and the implementation. It usually comes to the labor because people come and go from these jobs and information is lost, plus there’s never an awful lot of training that goes on when the system is turn-key. Another thing is maintenance, because a group comes through, blows a bunch of speakers, goes home and next week, a crew comes in turns it all on and nobody knows or cares that they got blown.

Evans beat the drum for spending the money for experienced engineers, noting, “The touring engineers and house engineers are a good investment. A lot of good road engineers aren’t touring anymore and they don’t bring that expertise to a show that can save a producer money. I see systems go out on some of these large road shows and they have an engineer fresh out of school, has never toured, is scared to death, can’t make a decision—and that is better than 50 percent of productions now.”

“Absolutely,” concurred Bustin. “We’ve seen packages get larger over the last few years and the engineers get less and less experienced, so the pay scales go down. And on a touring and venue level. The two biggest restricting factors in moving a show around this country in maintaining design in quality and level of product is time and ability of the people working on the project. Load in times are tighter and tighter, and we’re adding more automation and lighting and other people in to it, and you’re putting the show in in 8 hours. You have people on tour less than experienced. It’s not only about low salaries, it’s about maintaining the people you have. If you luck out and get a good person this year, you’ll have a hard time keeping them next year and the year after because [producers] look at these budgets as fixed entities; they’re not looking at giving a bump when to an engineer on their second or third year, so he moves on and it becomes less of a career and more something he did for a while.”