Audio Visual Gears Up Long Before Showtime

High quality audiovisual components reproduce the experience of a live concert
Wikimedia Commons

Longer ago than I care to say, I went to a lecture by the great British humorist Evelyn Waugh in Providence, Rhode Island. The man took the stage and stood behind a lectern, before which was a tall floor mike with a wire leading from its base to the side curtains.

Hardly had Waugh begun to speak, than the mike began very slowly to travel. Eerily, inch by inch, it moved offstage left. Waugh of course saw that it was getting away from him. It did not occur to him to scowl offstage to where presumably someone was pulling on the cord for reasons no one will ever know. He was a man with a lively sense of the ridiculous. (Legend has it that on his first day working for a giant London daily, the paper's owner came by and asked the young man his name. "Waugh," he replied. The owner thought he was making a rude noise and fired him.)

So, undaunted, Waugh started to follow the mike, picking up the lectern and moving along with it. He continued to lecture, though as he neared the curtain his eyes did take on a certain hunted look. Apparently, audiovisual support should not be left to amateurs. Indeed, the Smithsonian devotes a whole branch of its Office of Physical Plant to audiovisual services.

"On and off the Mall," says acting chief Karen Lawrence, "we serve pretty much the entire Institution. When a client calls and says they're having a five-day conference and will need projectors or video playback, or when the performing arts department says they're bringing in an artist to perform, we provide the sound reinforcement for that. We also make audio and video duplicates if asked."

Adds assistant chief Willy Prost: "Think of us as the events people as opposed to the exhibits people."

When The Smithsonian Associates puts on a concert by the Emerson String Quartet or the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, the job is fairly simple. The Audio Visual Branch (A-V) provides a mike for the announcer and a mike for an audio loop for assisted listening.

"They don't want amplification," Prost notes. I silently applaud, recalling the times I have heard recitals ruined by the uncalled-for blowing up of subtle sounds.

A-V has the equipment to cover most needs, and the home office in the National Museum of American History is wonderfully cluttered with boxes and files. Sometimes a Smithsonian sponsor will request, say, the latest data projector, a $12,000 marvel of technology. Who pays for it? Not A-V. Even if the sponsor only needs it once a year, the sponsor and future users must share the cost.

"People think there's a big pile of money in the Castle basement," Lawrence laughs, "but actually we have to pay our own way." So the sponsor comes to A-V with its needs and gets billed for the services. Everything is planned well in advance; "it's not a fire engine operation, though now and then a client won't know himself just when an event is coming up, and then we all scramble."

I ask about horror stories. "We don't have 'em," says Lawrence, even as Prost is saying, "We try to forget 'em." You think about those things the way racecar drivers "remember going into Turn 3 but don't remember flipping end over end," he adds.

Mostly the bad memories involve hurry-up calls for complicated equipment. Once, for Teachers Night at Air and Space, the sponsors asked A-V to rent a special computer. "We had, like, an hour to come up with one, then couldn't get access to the Internet at the designated location. Finally we took it to a classroom and got through."

What about feedback? We have all gone to events where sophisticated sound equipment covers half the stage and the first thing we hear is a horrible screech and everyone thinks, jeez, we can fly to the moon but we can't master the microphone.

"What it is, is this," Prost tells me. "I'm talking into a mike and my voice is coming out of the speaker but I can't hear myself, so I ask them to crank up the sound. So they do and I say, Fine, there I am, and I sing my song and stop. But the amplifier and speaker don't know I've stopped, so they continue to pick up the mike's own signal and send it back to the amplifier. It can be prevented. You can pull back the volume the instant the singing stops, but you need a quick hand."

Prost got into the business naturally. "I was the geeky kid in the fifth grade who figured out how to make the projector work. The movie would break down and the nun would run out to find 'Sister Calamity,' but I would fix it first." After Penn State, he worked for a video firm in Washington, then hired on here in '87 as an intermittent technician, moving up over the years.

Lawrence loved audiovisual stuff in high school, too. At Morgan State, in Maryland, she was assigned to the media center for work-study, and after graduation held A-V posts at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and other schools. She moved to the Smithsonian in '89.

Technicians on the staff cover a wide range of skills, which have to be matched to their assignments. One is a videographer who specialized in filming surgeries. Some are musicians, some photographers. Most have outside jobs and work here "intermittently."

And as anyone knows who has a home computer, nothing is easy. Running a 35mm film means getting the right aspect ratio (so Anthony Hopkins' round head, for instance, doesn't come out as a matchstick on an anamorphic lens).

Concerts, too, call for special technical skills. A rock group may go to 115 decibels on Prost's sound-level meter, which is the same noise level as a handgun going off. But the handgun noise only lasts a half-second; the music, on the other hand, can go on for a 20-minute set.

"The threshold of pain is 126 decibels," he notes, "but the technicians can only do what the band lets us."

A-V people tend to be invisible. They are the first to arrive and the last to leave, which means they are there maybe even before the sponsors, and still around long afterward to rescue lost gloves.

"We check the site and reconfirm what a client needs," says Lawrence. "Some may say they only need four mikes. Well, what will you plug them in to? And if you have a vocalist, will you need monitors? We speak for those who don't know what to ask."

Before A-V can accept the requests of an outside group, it must first get the approval of the Smithsonian department sponsoring them. As a cost-recovery unit, A-V survives off these events, whose operating costs, and administrative support, equipment repair-and-replacement and personnel costs are paid by the sponsor.

Sometimes the sponsor insists on doing things its own way, in which case A-V issues a disclaimer. ("We've been in this business so long we know how the equipment thinks," says Prost.)

And they hate to see someone coming in with a big amplifier better suited for a football stadium. Recently a gospel group sang at American History, recalls Lawrence, and "even down here in the basement Willy's chair was vibrating." "The band's amplifiers and drums were louder than the vocals," Prost says. "Our challenge was to get the vocals louder than the band."

Another thing to be cleared with the client is how the technicians will look. If it's a VIP event, they may be asked to show up in suit and tie. For an outdoor concert, should they wear shorts? OK, but not cutoffs or gym shorts, and no naughty T-shirts. "Professional casual is the style," laughs Lawrence.

They are not much for outdoor lighting, usually done by contractors. But you never know: when they are called for a job off the Mall, say at the Silver Hill research center, in Maryland, they do site surveys and check out power sources, outlets, available light and the possible need for a generator. Though A-V staff work exclusively for the Smithsonian, their assignments may take them to restaurants and embassies, and other off-Mall locations. "Have equipment, will travel," says Lawrence.

And their hours can run from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. or beyond. "If you see a Cushman golf cart loaded with stuff running around the Mall at 3 in the morning," Lawrence informs me, "that's us."

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