Md. company amplifies the sound of history

Obama's Inaugural

January 20, 2009|By Robert Little | Robert Little,robert.little@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - Something didn't sound quite right, and to Bob Goldstein that qualified as a disaster.

Goldstein, 59, had been stepping over wires and plotting out loudspeaker delays for two weeks, from the Capitol to the Potomac River two miles away.

Big jobs are nothing new to Goldstein, owner of Baltimore-based Maryland Sound. But this one - the inauguration of Barack Obama - could be the largest gathering of humans ever amplified.

So as much as ever in his long career wiring concerts and events around the world, the assignment called for perfection.

Goldstein paused to the left of the inaugural platform on the west side of the Capitol and tilted an ear toward the voice being amplified across the lawn. "It's not balanced," he said with a frown. "We'll have to tweak that."

Fortunately, it wasn't the president speaking, just one of Goldstein's guys reading a newspaper article about Terps basketball into the microphone Obama will use to deliver one of the most anticipated addresses in contemporary politics. Engineers under a nearby awning fiddled with a mixing board to make adjustments, with little time to spare.

Maryland Sound usually has a few months to prepare for a job like this. This time, the company got less than three weeks. Goldstein's crews unloaded 30 trailer-loads of equipment for today's events, and he'll have 10 staffers at work throughout the day.

"This is the kind of stuff we live for in this business," Goldstein said. "This is what we do."

Based in the old Dickeyville Mill in Northwest Baltimore, Maryland Sound is one of a handful of companies that build sound systems for large outdoor events. Central Park concerts, a papal visit to Baltimore and New Year's celebrations at Times Square are on its resume, along with two previous inaugurations.

But no one specializes in sound for events this large - or the related challenges.

Some issues are typical of any large event. Loudspeakers near the main riser had to be wrapped in white cloth to improve aesthetics. Mounting stands had to be specially fabricated to attach to railings. Other potential problems are related to the winter weather. Condensation and ice can wreak havoc, and some fiber-based equipment simply stops functioning when it's too cold. The company had to place heaters near some parts of the network.

But other challenges are unique, not just for the unprecedented scale of today's inauguration but also for the singular focus on capturing and amplifying a moment in American history.

The primary microphone into which Obama will deliver his inaugural address is among the most important and expensive items in Maryland Sound's inventory, of sufficient quality to capture the natural lows in the incoming president's voice, Goldstein said.

Yet when Obama turns to face Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the oath of office, he will shift away from that device, so long shotgun microphones on either side will come into play.

Behind the podium is a platform where musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and others will perform, requiring another layer of wiring and mixing. Same for the level beneath the podium, where a military band will play.

"If you get this wrong, the whole thing sounds flat and unnatural," Goldstein said.

But capturing the sound isn't even half the battle. The words and music then have to be transmitted through a succession of speakers stretching from the Capitol to the Tidal Basin and the Lincoln Memorial. The entire parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue is wired, including the White House and Lafayette Square.

With the tail end of the crowd expected to be nearly two miles from Obama's podium, his voice would take more than nine seconds to travel that far on its own. To avoid an overlapping blur of noise, timing delays must be built into the broadcast system.

Television stations, meanwhile, will pick up a feed and blend in their own mixture of crowd noise, applause and other features captured with their own microphones. The goal of all that mixing and amplification is to create sounds as natural as possible.

"It becomes a logistical nightmare, all of this wiring all over here, wiring up the labyrinth inside the Capitol, hiding wires, putting speakers where no one can climb on them," Goldstein said. "It's not easy."

He started in the sound business in the early 1960s, when, as the bass guitar player for a popular Baltimore teen band called the Continental Rockers, he built his own amplifier. Soon, people were asking him to build systems for them too.

He eventually landed a job setting up after-hours dance parties at the old Pier 1 in the Inner Harbor and then started doing the sound at the Club Venus in Perring Plaza. There, he was introduced to singer Frankie Valli, and his career as a sound man took off.

For 18 years Goldstein's company traveled with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as they toured across the country, a gig that gave his business the experience, the equipment and the contacts to get jobs all over the world.

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