Penn & Teller At The Rio In Vegas: The “Bad Boys” Of Magic Get An RF Makeover
Last year’s DTV re-allotment forced Sound Engineer Wayne Willard to replace the 700 MHz wireless equipment as well as re-engineer his wireless situation

May 21, 2010, by Mark Frink


Penn & Teller have performed their unique blend of comedy and illusion for 35 years, combining Teller’s silent magic with Penn Jillette’s storytelling and juggling expertise.

Their controversial Showtime television series “Bullsh*t!” tackles frauds, fakes and urban myths, and starts its eighth season next month.

They’re also a highly successful Las Vegas resident show, appearing for the past eight years at the Rio Hotel & Casino.

Originally called the Samba Theater, the Penn & Teller Theater is a typical proscenium venue, with a balcony and a capacity of about 1,500.

It hosted Danny Gans for four years, followed by 30th anniversary shows for The Price Is Right before the dynamic duo arrived in 2002.

The finals of the World Series of Poker, which the Rio also hosts, are held on its stage.

The main sound reinforcement system, originally installed by Ford Audio-Visual in the 1990s, incorporates Renkus-Heinz 3-way CT9 Series loudspeakers offering a horn-loaded 15-inch and Co-Entrant mid/high horn with dual 10-inch.

They’re positioned in a traditional left-center-right configuration, hung as 2-over-2 left and right, plus a 2-over-3 center cluster.

The system is powered by 30 Crest Audio CKS1200 amplifiers. Six more CKS 800 amplifiers power Renkus- Heinz SR61 2-way under-balcony fills, with a couple of CKV 200 amps for the lobby’s 70-volt loudspeakers.

Also in the basement equipment room are a half-dozen BSS Soundweb 9088 processors for the various zones, with three Klark Teknik DN800 processors for the main arrays.

Penn and Teller Sound Engineer Wayne Willard at his Yamaha PM5D-RH digital console.

Three pairs of Meyer Sound CQ-2 narrow coverage (50-degree horizontal) loudspeakers are flown off-stage as side fills between the curtain legs.

Re-Engineering Challenge
Wayne Willard mixes the show on a Yamaha PM5D digital console, with the majority of sound effects operated from a main (and backup) 360 Systems Instant Replay on his right.

Sony (formerly Sonic Foundry) Sound Forge software is used for one portion of the act that has him recording, editing and playing back a sample a few minutes later.

Willard became a member of IATSE Local 20 in 1984 after working for Southern Thunder Sound and various other Twin Cities regional sound companies.

He also spent a half dozen years with the third national road show of “Phantom” followed by a couple of years traveling with “Mama Mia!” and then staying with it for two more years when it settled in at Mandalay Bay. He’s been with Penn & Teller since 2007, and is also Projects Coordinator for MGM’s Entertainment Projects.

Directly upstage in a chain-link equipment cage is the show’s wireless rack.

Last year’s DTV re-allotment forced Willard to replace the 700 MHz wireless equipment as well as re-engineer his wireless situation, with support from Brooks Schroeder of Professional Wireless Systems (PWS).

The show had accumulated a variety of wireless mics as it grew - besides four channels of legacy Sennheiser ew 500 receivers that were able to be retained, there are also 10 new channels of Shure UHF-R dual receivers.

“I went with Shure as it’s a reliable, affordable product,” Willard notes. “I thought it wise to save the company some money in case I had to repurchase later on.”

The receivers are all fed from two antennas by a blue PWS DB-16 filtered multi-coupler, an active antenna combiner that manages the RF gain going to each receiver that also filters out RF signals that are out of their frequency range.

The DB-16’s inputs are RF band-passed to reduce radio frequencies outside those needed by wireless receivers, nowadays 470 to 698 MHz.

The signals are then buffered and split to 16 BNC outputs, with each output custom filtered to band-limit it appropriate to each receiver.

Mics & Infrastructure
In this case, the new Shure receivers get outputs filtered for their H4 (518-578 MHZ) or L3 (638-698 MHz) bands.

PWS RF Technician Brooks Schroeder shares a laugh with Wayne Willard at the show’s wireless rack.

Similar to filters used in analog audio crossovers, the DB-16’s RF filters are “3-pole,” providing about 10 dB of attenuation when out of band by 10 MHz.

The DB-16 employs redundant international-voltage power supplies and a locking blue Volex IEC power connector.

A front-panel switch can provide 12-volt DC bias power for active antennas that are located a long distance away, but here they’re mounted nearby on the theater’s back wall.

Both are PWS-brand log-periodic dipole antennas (LPDA), nicknamed “bat-wings” or “paddles.”

They provide 6 dB of gain, and are connected with PWS 9046 low-loss coaxial cable that has one-third of the 10 dB/100-feet loss of standard RG-8 or RG-58 cable.

The combination of low-loss cable and directional antennas provides a net gain of several dB without resorting to active antennas that raise the noise floor.

When the doors open, Mike “Jonesy” Jones plays jazz on a Kawai grand piano, accompanied by Jillette on upright bass, and sometimes Teller joins in on vibraphone.

All are mic’ed with wireless lavaliers, and Jillette’s bass returns later in the show, so it is double mic’ed. Jillette is also double-mic’ed with lavs in split bands, so each pack is in a different frequency group.

The dynamic duo in action, performing a blindfold-knife throwing stunt.

Teller doesn’t need a vocal mic because he doesn’t talk. (And yes, he’s legally changed his name to just “Teller” and has a rare single-name U.S. passport.)

The lavalier mics are Swiss-made Voice Technologies VT500 omnis, which are flat with a slight 10 kHz boost.

“They’re about half the price of a Countryman or DPA,” Willard notes. “Again, a money saving effort.”

He uses SM58 capsules on the Shure UR2 handheld transmitters. “The SM58 capsule choice was simple; it’s bulletproof,” he adds. “The handhelds are given to audience members and occasionally get dropped, and I work for a guy who juggles - no-brainer there.”

Penn & Teller have their own iPhone app and meet guests in the lobby after every show. Their schedule has them performing at the Rio Saturdays through Wednesdays and going out of town for one-night engagements on Fridays.

Mark Frink is Editorial Director of Live Sound International.

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Penn & Teller At The Rio In Vegas: The “Bad Boys” Of Magic Get An RF Makeover