Looking across the leafy, verdant landscape, Brooks Schroeder had gazed upon the scene stretched out before him many times before during this and the last decade. He was sweeping the area with an Aim-TTi spectrum analyzer amidst downtown Chicago giants including Willis Tower, the Aon Center, The St. Regis Chicago, and the diamond-shaped crown of the Crain Communications Building. Grant Park was, as he suspected, in worse shape than the year before on this day, not long before some 400,000 music fans would descend upon the area for 2022’s four-day late July run of Lollapalooza.
“That first sweep provides a daunting moment every year,” Schroeder explains shortly after the festival’s last headliner had packed up their gear and moved on. “You always hope for the best, but it just never seems to get better. Grant Park is probably the worst RF environment I’ve been to in the United States, and trust me, I get around. This year we had only two DTV channels open to us that were clean for the duration of the festival. If you do the math, that’s 12 MHz for the 130 bands that appeared on eight main stages, not to mention myriad smaller acts and events.”
Since founding the Frequency Coordination Group (FCG) in 2013, Schroeder has gained stature as a top wireless frequency coordinator at live events thanks in no small part to his coordinating efforts on behalf of C3 Presents, the organizer of Lollapalooza. This year, he was one of six comprising the FCG team, which also included Glenn Griger, Gabe Schroeder, Tom Krajecki, Brad Galvin and Chris DeBrizzio, that rode herd over anywhere from 300 to 375 active frequencies most days at any given time.
Distilled to their bare essence, the challenges faced by FCG at Lollapalooza were to make sure that every performer, plus their backstage crews, had the wireless channels their shows required. Security, emergency services, and the media had their own wireless needs as well, and with the expansion of social media in recent years, the latter group has grown to include numerous low-cost devices that weren’t part of the landscape not all that long ago.
Sorting It Out
In RF terms, if there is a real villain in this tale perhaps it is the Grant Park site itself, which lies directly in the shadow of broadcast antennas found atop both downtown Chicago’s 1,451-foot-tall Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and 875 North Michigan Avenue (formerly the John Hancock Center) to the north, which spans upwards from ground level to a peak of 1,127 feet.
“Just as in past years, all of those DTV antennas were mercilessly beaming down upon us this July,” Schroeder notes. “To properly deal with this reality, we rely upon a number of strategies. Primary among them is realizing that every successful RF coordination blueprint starts with building good working relationships with the wireless users themselves.”
To that end, just as in previous years all performers were required to submit their wireless needs in advance, plus check-in with FCG upon arrival at the festival itself. Microphones, in-ear monitors – nothing wireless was exempt – and neither were the two-way radio systems used by crew members, security, media, and safety personnel.
“After more than a decade working together with various vendors and production people here at Lollapalooza we all know what we’re trying to achieve and how we can help each other,” Schroeder says. “We’ve all grown since the early days when we were driving around in golf carts looking for someone who was stepping on two stages.
“These days performers are more accustomed to having to request to use certain frequencies and submit gear lists. They know we are here to support them. If we give them a frequency and the changeover is dirty or something is on top of it we’re there to help them get a new one that’s clean, and also discover where they were getting interference from in the first place. Today everyone works with a common understanding that since there is more gear and less spectrum it’s going to take more coordination. If we don’t work together we will all fail together.”
If their wireless systems passed muster with FCG this year, performers were free to use their gear as they saw fit. For those who couldn’t make things work within the confines of the limited spectrum, Schroeder had stage vendors offer house systems on all eight main stages offering clean channels of both Shure Axient Digital and PSM 1000 IEMs.
“Since the broadcast DTV spectrum repack that began in the second half of 2018 we’ve been working with all the stage vendors to provide house equipment that operates in ranges not commonly used by touring acts,” Schroeder explains. “The L8A band between 653 to 663 MHz has proven to be extremely reliable, and for the PSM 1000s the X55 band between 941 to 960 MHz remains a good choice. Using these bands helps open up what little spectrum we have left.
“Conversely, back in the ‘normal’ UHF range – say G10, where unfortunately I’d say 90 percent of the acts carrying PSM 1000 IEMs want to operate – there’s only one open DTV channel in all of Grant Park. We simply cannot make multiple channels of G10 IEMs work inside of the 6 MHz offered by one open DTV channel. It was under these circumstances that we had to inform visiting acts that their gear wasn’t going to work. Fortunately, they could use the house gear, which was guaranteed to be clean.”
Where It’s Going
Schroeder specified Shure Axient Digital and PSM 1000 systems for their ability to cut through Grant Park’s oppressive RF noise floor. “The PSM 1000s are far superior to anything else in a high noise environment like Lollapalooza,” he relates. “If we’re not dealing with primary mixes we can even stack them on top of a DTV station and they’ll work. They won’t be perfect, but it’ll be just right for someone like a backline tech. There won’t be any dropouts, and very few audio issues.”
With house wireless systems on all eight stages comprised exclusively of Shure gear, and Grant Park literally being in Shure’s backyard, the Niles, Illinois-based company made Jason Waufle available at Lollapalooza to offer support. With a strong background in RF coordination, distributed antenna systems, and RF system design, he has a concern not for just what is happening today at Lollapalooza, but what tomorrow may hold as well.
“A question we all have to ask ourselves while preparing for events of this magnitude is how our wireless operations as we know them now will function in the future,” he says. “Are they sustainable? If we continue to lose spectrum in major markets like we are now – and signs indicate we may – ultimately the answer is that we are going to have to continue to evolve even more efficiently as an industry in order to face the changing landscape.
“Beyond new technologies, we’ll need new spectrum strategies. These are some of the things we are working on at Shure right now in a fashion that is scalable. I see a future that with proper planning, realistic expectations, and industry-wide cooperation, there is no reason wireless channel counts can’t go up, even in the face of some severe obstacles, man-made and otherwise.”
Finishing The Job
As has become customary over the years, FCG setup its Lollapalooza headquarters inside the festival’s media village. From this compound the bulk of their coordination efforts were performed using the IAS intermod software suite from Professional Wireless. A pair of Anritsu Spectrum Master analyzers were also kept close at hand, while handheld TTi spectrum analyzers were the tool of choice for techs traveling from stage to stage.
“I couldn’t do anything without my crew,” Schroeder states. “They are all competent level-headed people who can work through any and all issues. Their jobs are as much about public relations as they are about having a firm grasp of the technical details. When you’re dealing with touring engineers and you tell them their gear won’t work sometimes what they hear is that they can’t use their gear. Those are two entirely different things. I would never tell anyone they can’t use their gear unless it’s illegal.
“But if they are trying to bring in gear designed for a bandwidth that is completely full of DTV, I’m going to have to tell them they are not going to have a successful event. Then I work with the stage manager, stage vendors, and the festival’s production management to see what we can do to change the situation so that it succeeds. FCG is very lucky in that C3 Presents understands this and always backs us up.”
While Schroeder may have experienced somewhat of a sinking feeling as he swept the environment at the outset of this year’s Lollapalooza and instantly came face-to-face with a loss of spectrum compared to last year, all-in-all he feels the final outcome was indeed favorable.
“Several people emailed me when it was all over and said they had a great show,” he concludes. “We didn’t get any negative feedback, and there were no dropouts or anyone taking hits while performing. We may have only had a pair of DTV channels at our disposal, but they were very clean, we didn’t experience any noise floor fluctuations. We’ll see what next year brings, but in the meantime I can only say to my crew and everyone else working this event that they should be proud of a job well done.”