What they do is what you hear

Concert: At the HFStival today, the real stars are not the bands, but the people who design and install the sound system.

May 29, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Thirty-four years ago, four lads from Liverpool took the postage-stamp stage at second base in Shea Stadium. The group sang a dozen songs that were barely heard. The stage's four VOX amplifiers could not compete with the screaming. The New York crowd just wanted to see the Beatles.

The sound really didn't matter.

In today's concerts, sound is nearly everything. At today's 10th annual HFStival at PSINet Stadium, the sound system takes center stage on three stages. The 30 acts scheduled to perform will be only as good as they sound. On the main stage alone, 124, 200-pound Turbosound speakers will thrust sound toward 75,000 stadium seats.

"This is like a very big, a very heavy and a very expensive stereo system," says the festival's stage manager, Dave Nachodsky.

We've never given much thought to a concert's sound system. It's either LOUD, LOUDER or LOUDEST. Who can tell a Shure microphone from an AKG, a near field monitor from a floor monitor, a subwoofer from a supertweeter, a rolling riser from a Rolling Rock? If all goes well, concert-goers shouldn't notice the sound system.

But many of us probably remember a concert or two when humming or crackling could be heard -- or worse, when the lead singer opened his mouth and nothing was heard. It's a sound company's worst nightmare.

"It's a good way to be fired," says Owen Orzack, director of touring services for Eighth Day Sound, the Cleveland-based company providing the sound system on the main stage. The HFStival is a big gig for them, given the size and reputation of this festival. Chances are very good the microphones will work, and you'll be able to hear that hunk from Sugar Ray just fine.

The laborious process of installing the sound and light systems -- "the load-in" -- began yesterday around 9 a.m. Two trucks from Eighth Day Sound had arrived in Baltimore bearing enough sound stuff to handle the 11 bands that will be shuttled on and off the main stage the day long. That's about 200 microphones, 20 miles of cable, and a bunch of speakers -- called "boxes" in concert lingo.

And "snakes" are single cables holding a whole bunch of microphone cables. And "punters" are the audience members clumped in front of the stage. These folks get their own special "boxes" called in-fills and out-fills. (If you're following along at home, that's boxes, snakes, punters and in-fills.)

By Friday afternoon, about 50 stage hands were crawling on and up the scaffolded main stage, with nothing but green turf, blue sky and purple seats to keep them company. These are strong men and women, tanned, blue-jeaned, and many tattooed. "Lot of ink on this show," says one roadie. The crew seems to speak in code. "Mark, need you to Y all the bass sounds together," somebody says.

The bearded guy over there talking into a headset is Orzack, down from Cleveland ("We did an install at Drew Carey's house"). Naturally, we got to talking boxes on the eve of the HFStival.

The 124 speakers provide sub-low, low-mid, high-mid and high frequency sound. The idea is to control the pattern of sound through a "long throw, high definition concert sound," as Orzack says. And to ensure a long toss of sound, fifty-two of those boxes have been "flown," meaning they are rigged to "fly bars" -- metal rods on a superstructure -- on either side of the stage. Huge WHFS banners conceal them.

Flying the speakers produces a more even sound, and a sound that travels further, Orzack says. This common technique of raising speakers off the ground also benefits the intricate software of the human ear. In the old days, the closer you were to the stage, the more your ear drums paid full price to see Led Zeppelin.

"By flying the speakers, the people nearest to the stage aren't going to get their faces peeled," says Orzack, whose T-shirt reads "Just Add Signal and Mix Well." Eighth Day Sound works about 400 shows a year, including trade shows and corporate conventions. Acts have included Boyz II Men, Frank Sinatra, Jewel, Prince, and Puff Daddy -- or "Puffy" as the crew calls him.

After the Red Hot Chili Peppers close the festival tonight, Orzack & Co. will re-load their trucks and be Cleveland-bound around 3 a.m. Their tab is about $20,000, which doesn't sound like a lot of money.

"It's a calling card to all these bands," Orzack says. "Next time you're going on tour, think of us."

Naturally, the sound system has the weather in mind. It should be toasty at the stadium, for a day of high fidelity. While sounds travels faster in humid air rather than in dry air, humid air absorbs more high frequencies. The sound becomes duller. Adjustments must be made.

So, the crafty sound crew takes the stadium's temperature, checks the humidity, and plugs the info into something called a processor, which looks like it could also launch a small space shuttle.

In the confident words of Orzack, "we compensate electronically to ensure fidelity."

This has all been mind blowing, and it's shame we have to wrap this story up. We've learned about boxes, snakes and punters -- and one more thing. Despite all the technological advances in concert sound systems, the best seat in the house is still toward the middle.

It just sounds better there.

Concert coverage

See SunSpot, at http: //www.sunspot.net, for round the clock coverage of the HFStival at PSINet stadium.

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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