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Massive Sound Reinforcement Deployed For The Inauguration Of President Barack Obama

The inauguration of President Barack Obama set a benchmark for massive outdoor public assemblies. Maryland Sound, in collaboration with sound designer and front of house engineer Pat Baltzell of Baltzell Audio Design, configured an audio system that equally fostered clear sound quality and open sightlines.

In one of the most widely viewed and celebrated civic events in history, Baltimore-based audio systems provider Maryland Sound (MSI) deployed JBL VERTEC line arrays as the main PA system for the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20.

The ceremony took place at the United States Capitol in Washington D.C., with a crowd of more than 1.5 million onlookers extending two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River, and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, with a total audience “in the streets” surrounding the event site estimated to have exceeded two million.

With past inaugural crowds officially logged for George W. Bush at 400,000 persons, Bill Clinton at 800,000 and the previous record being Lyndon B. Johnson at 1.2 million, the inauguration of President Barack Obama set a benchmark for massive outdoor public assemblies.

With equal attention being paid to clear sound quality and open sightlines, MSI, in collaboration with sound designer and front of house engineer Pat Baltzell of Baltzell Audio Design, configured an audio system that relied largely on JBL VERTEC VT4889 large-format line array elements.

In total, 15 of MSI’s custom-built, ground-stacked line array towers, ranging from four to 14 VT4889 loudspeakers each, were dispersed throughout the Mall area, beginning with two 14-box clusters at the main stage (one per side).

With respect to sightlines, six towers were arranged on the outside perimeter of the main lawn (which measured approximately 550 feet deep by 1,000 feet wide), to provide delays without obstructing the view of the seated audience.

Beyond the 305-meter (1,000-foot) mark, an additional five delay towers were set up from left to right in the audience area, providing audio reinforcement for the rest of the crowd. To cover various VIP seating sections along with choir and band areas, the primary VT4889 system was supplemented by JBL VP7315DP powered loudspeakers, VRX932 portable line array loudspeakers and Control 25AV pole-mounted speakers.

Crown I-Tech amplifiers, configured with Harman HiQnet System Architect software for remote control and monitoring, powered the system. The I-Tech amplifiers feature advanced DSP processing which allows for additional tuning of the JBL line arrays.

With a built-in LCD screen on the front panel, basic features and amplifier status can be accessed from the amplifier’s location. Additionally, the added convenience of Harman HiQnet System Architect control and management interface allows a front of house or monitor engineer to easily monitor an amplifier’s status from their location.

Baltzell feels the features of the I-Techs give the flexibility needed in this type of challenging outdoor environment. 

“It made it possible to run System Architect and actually make subtle adjustments in the amps; each 14-box speaker column was divided into three zones, but to get even better resolution, you have the ability to go directly into the amps and put in filters to make subtle high-frequency adjustments in the amp that we would not have been able to do previously,” stated Baltzell.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced was the high frequency. We tried to manage this by boosting the top cabinets in a way that would not affect the near field. Having the fine resolution of I-Tech with DSP in the amps takes us to another level of fine control,” he added.

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“We are extremely pleased with the assortment of tools that Harman provides us, and are able to achieve the highest fidelity sound possible and vastly superior to that which was available only a few years ago. Given the harsh environmental conditions we were working in which has brought sub zero temperatures and lots of precipitation the equipment worked flawlessly with no failures,” stated Goldstein.

In addition to very large-area coverage considerations, Baltzell and the MSI audio support team had to prepare for and deal with serious weather and security contingencies, while designing and deploying a failsafe sound system to support sound reinforcement for both speech and music.

Besides the address by the new President, the diverse ceremonial program included music from the San Francisco Boys and Girls’ choirs, Aretha Franklin singing the national anthem, the U.S. Marine Corps band playing “Hail to the Chief” and a 21-gun salute.

“The VT4889 boxes have three compression drivers instead of two as normally found in other products. The distance between the main line array tower and the first delay tower was about 580 feet (177 meters), so that’s quite a challenge,” explained Baltzell. “Although the line arrays are pointing downhill, which helps, the difference in output with VERTEC is crucial, especially considering the weather conditions of Washington D.C. in January.”

Mixing was done on a pair of Yamaha PM5-D digital consoles, while Clair Global also provided its Clair I-4 line arrays on dozens of delay towers throughout the area.

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