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Standing Your Ground: Upholding The Responsibility Of Being Truthful With Clients

Lessons from front of house on Lily Tomlin's “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” tour in 1988.

Editor’s Note: This was originally written in 1989 and is as relevant now as it was then.

For most of the time that I’ve been tuning sound systems, my personal contact has been primarily with technical people and/or mix engineers. I don’t have a lot of tales to tell of conversation with the “stars,” which is a letdown for most teenagers: “Whoa that’s cool, you worked with AC/DC! What was Angus Young like?” To which my invariable reply is, “I don’t know. Was he the short guy?”

That said, I do have a few stories, so here’s one from 1988. Lily Tomlin was touring with her show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” If you’re not familiar with Lily, suffice to say she is a brilliant comedian, really smart, and very demanding of herself and everyone on her crew. She’s an excellent improviser and has a memory beyond 100 elephants. And, of course, she’s an artist.

Her show had an extended, award-winning run on Broadway. It was a one-woman, 14-woman show: one actor who plays 14 actors conversing to each other without a single costume change. It was like watching a crazy person talking to herself – which was pretty much what the show was about.

From a sound system point of view, the PA had to be tuned so neutrally that she could change from voice to voice without finding some strange spot in the tuning. The tone of her voice and her posture were the only clues the audience had as to which character was talking. This was a considerable audio challenge.

A Culture Of Yes

It’s not unusual in our business for people at the top of the star pyramid to be surrounded by folks who go to great lengths to appease them. A culture of “yes” can develop that can lead down some interesting roads.

In this particular case, somebody (this happened years before I arrived on the scene) had given Ms. Tomlin a technical explanation as an attempt to deflect the reality of the situation away from actually making it sound better. Lily was informed that she needed to use a certain brand of loudspeakers because, like her voice, they crossed over at 800 Hz. It was critical, she was told, that the loudspeaker and human crossover frequencies be matched.

Yes, I typed that correctly. I’m creative but I can’t make up stuff like that.

It might have been expected that this nugget of nonsense would be forgotten by the end of the day, but no. It carried on for years, passing without dissent from people who knew better. The folly even featured logos of that certain loudspeaker brand being spray-painted on other cabinets to further delay the scheme’s day of reckoning.

Change Of Scenery

Later the show hit the road, first taking up residence at San Francisco’s Curran Theater, with a new sound company involved that was utilizing Meyer Sound loudspeakers. One afternoon we received a panic call at Meyer (located nearby in Berkeley) telling us that it sounded bad and we needed to fix it or they would be using another manufacturer’s loudspeakers. (Because we all know that if it sounds bad, it must be the loudspeakers. After all, that’s where the sound comes out.)

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So John Meyer and I headed over to the theater with a SIM analyzer, and the folks at the venue explained to us about how bad the echo was in this room. I’d worked there before and hadn’t particularly noticed it being a bad room, but now we were being told that the echo was a huge problem.

Front of house was located in a small room at the back of a deep balcony, so the mix was being done on delayed loudspeakers. Indeed, the echo was horrendous at the mix position – and quite amazing – it got there before the direct sound.

Why? The delays (over and under the balcony) had all been set by estimating the distance and then entering in an approximate value in the system’s digital delay (a Klark Teknik DN716). Just one small problem – there was a decimal point on this unit’s display that they hadn’t noticed, so it was not set to 80 milliseconds, as they thought, but instead was at (you guessed it) 0.80 milliseconds. This was the case for all of the delayed loudspeakers. You can imagine how much the reverberation went down when we set the delays correctly. It was the fastest, cheapest plaster removal service in the world!

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