Exceeding Standards: Stewart Independent Productions Puts It All Together
Working sound gigs in high school, Shannon Stewart and Dan DeVisser didn't know...

December 05, 2013, by PSW Staff


Working sound and lighting gigs together in high school, Shannon Stewart and Dan DeVisser didn’t really know where they were headed. But one thing was certain: they were already hooked on the production business.

Fast-forward 20 years to find the long-time friends heading up Stewart Independent Productions, a full-service national production company located in Southwest Michigan, that encompasses everything they’ve learned in their collective 40-plus years in the business.

“We just decided to pull together everything we’d learned, the best people we’d worked with and the best gear we know of,” explains Stewart. “And we succeeded. Twenty years later, we’re exactly what we wanted to be – a smaller service-oriented company with standards and ethics that emulate the big players in the industry.”

Stewart Independent has worked with dozens of national acts as a top regional supplier, including 10,000 Maniacs, Barenaked Ladies, Black Eyed Peas, Blues Traveler and many others. One area of particular focus is providing full-service production services to several well-known institutes of higher learning in the area, the most significant being the University of Notre Dame just across the state line in Indiana.

Long-time working relationships that both company principals had with the university led to it becoming one of their first clients, and it remains a staple of their business to this day. It’s also an experience that has help shape what their company represents.

“We really cut our teeth as production managers and as a full-service production management company at the University of Notre Dame,” Stewart explains. “Their pursuit of excellence and our drive for the same made us a perfect match from the beginning. During the last 17 years we have grown up together – it’s been one of the honors of my lifetime to be the production manager for student activities at the university.”

Stewart Independent staffer helping guest engineer with the Avid SC48 deployed at front of house at this year’s Notre Dame Block Party concert.

Learning Is Key
At the outset of each school year in late August, and before the craziness of student kick-off week, Stewart provides a full training session for Notre Dame student sound techs who will be working with the varied and many sound reinforcement systems installed throughout campus. These same techs also join the Stewart Independent crew when they’re onsite for larger productions.

“We provide an introduction to pro audio that we call Practical Application of Live Sound Reinforcement,” Stewart says. “It’s one of my jobs to insure that the university has qualified student audio techs available to handle smaller events. We also offer Practical Applications of Live Concert Production for those interested in lighting, staging and video. And, students continue to receive hands-on training throughout the year.”

In the training courses, Stewart details the basics of audio and ultimately how to use and troubleshoot a system. Another key aspect focuses on how to interact with visiting production crew as well as working in a professional manner and maintaining a positive attitude.

“It’s great to get the opportunity to train people the right way, long before they’ve had the chance to develop what we consider to be bad habits,” he notes. “I’m pleased to say that many we’ve interfaced with have been asked to work for us on the road, and some of them are still with us.”

Kicking Off
In addition to the educational efforts, that first week marks the beginning of nine very busy months for Stewart Independent at the university.

“It’s always a little crazy but we keep it well organized,” Stewart notes with a laugh. “There are tons of activities designed to welcome the new and returning students and many of them require sound systems, stages, lighting and even video. It’s exciting, but a lot of work.”

He and his team set up temporary office space near the university’s world-famous football stadium, making sure they have “boots on the ground” to meet any special requests while also mapping out and refining the approach for a range of highly trafficked events.

The company plays it smart, deploying variations of the same sound reinforcement elements for the majority of live events held during kick-off week. Go-to components include RCF line arrays, subwoofers and monitors, as well as Avid VENUE SC48 digital consoles.

“We started using RCF a few years ago when we were looking for a self-powered and processed single 18-inch subwoofer for monitor applications,” Stewart says. “Our goal was to be able to create multiple subwoofer configurations. We ended up astounded with the sheer output and punch of the TTS18-A subs, so we added a few for monitor applications and a few more for PA.”

Sound check for the Block Party, with RCF monitors, a Stewart Independent staple, deployed on stage.

That led to TT25-SMA floor monitors, providing a tight 40-degree by 40-degree coverage pattern that’s desirable in several applications, followed by TT45-SMA monitors loaded with double 12-inch woofers that handle wider coverage needs. Staying on stage, next up were HDL 20-A line array modules for side fill applications.

“They sounded so great out of the box, horn loaded, almost 100 percent weatherproof, and so easy to fly that we ended up getting enough so that we would have a great powered PA line array in house as well as killer side fills,” he explains. “It sounds terrific and provides exceptionally long throw, with the reviews from those who’ve used being stellar. It’s now our ‘go-to’ system for just about everything.”

Members of the Stewart Independent team onsite at a project, including (left to right)  Christian Chambers, Sam Skalbeck, Shannon Stewart, Dan DeVisser, Austin Lanning, Joe Watrac, Ross Labardee. Long-time team members Mati Johnson and Scott Frost were also working the event but were not available for the photo opp.

The SC48 digital consoles see constant use, cited for ease of use, familiarity among a wide range of engineers, and the assortment of available plug-ins. “It is amazing that we can have all of the effects from our analog days in our digital consoles,” Stewart says. “I just love these boards.”

Blowing The Roof Off
Let’s take a look at how the Stewart Independent team deploys that gear, starting with Domer Fest, an event for first year students that features a mixer and dance in a field house with free standing tents and activities just outside. The main stage is outfitted with four individual DJ packages, accompanied by a lighting rig that could be found at higher end night clubs.

The four DJ rigs are mixed down to an SC48 at stage left, and from there, signal goes to HDL 20-A main arrays. Add TT25-SMA monitors for in fill and eight TTS18-A subwoofers to deliver the serious low end that the applications requires, and as Stewart notes, “we’re ready to blow the roof off the place.”

Next up, the team and many of these components move along to the opening of the Academic Year Mass Picnic, an evening event for 7,000 that takes place on a large campus quad, featuring live music.

This is followed by a large outdoor comedy show as well as starting load-in for the culmination of kick-off week, the B1 Block Party. “The student techs receive a true taste of live event production during that first week. It’s almost a baptism by fire,” Stewart chuckles.

The comedy show requires setting up a hydraulic Stageline SL100 stage, as well as a Barco B10 video wall and a significant complement of RCF loudspeakers joined by an SC48 console. At the same time, another Stageline stage, this time a SL320, and two Barco video walls for the B1 Block Party need to be put together outside the football stadium.

Meeting Expectations
This year’s Block Party reinforcement system, serving up a national artist as well as a variety of top regional artists for several thousand in attendance, was significant in scale. As a result, Edge ShowTek of Chicago was contracted to fulfill Stewart Independent’s design calling for 12-deep NEXO GEO D line arrays for mains, flown left and right, and joined by NEXO RS18 subwoofers in mono blocks on the deck.

The Block Party by day during setup, and later at full throttle.

Several HDL 20-A array modules were posted on stage to provide stage fill, with performers served by several TT25 and TT45 wedges positioned as needed. The national act had Yamaha consoles at its disposal, including PM5DRH at front of house and an M7CL for monitors. SC48s did the same for the regional acts.

“This system worked really well. Particularly for national acts, the audience expects it to be loud,” Stewart notes. “But because it was held outside and there are residential areas nearby, the sound also needed to be contained. What we were able to attain were the expected concert levels volume and punch that dropped off where we needed it to.” 

The Block Party marks the culmination of a very hectic, concentrated period of activity for professional and student tech teams alike, but the time for breathing room is brief, with the university launching into a steady stream of events, programs and more for the next several months.

“It’s vital that our systems, as well as the way we implement them, be done with the right combination of quality and efficiency,” Stewart concludes. “We must allow enough time to insure a high level of service- and face-time with the client and it’s constituents. They have very high standards, and exceeding those standards is something we’re very proud of.”

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Exceeding Standards: Stewart Independent Productions Puts It All Together