Study Hall

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Lily Tomlin and Mark Johnson (then of Meyer Sound) backstage at the Eisenhower Theater in Washington DC. Note that she’s wearing a sweatshirt reading, “Do these speakers cross over at 800 Hz?” (Not available in stores!)

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.)

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!

After the system was properly tuned we set to work on Lily’s microphone. It was here that we first invented the technique for tuning a body-mounted lavalier mic placed on the actor, using her voice as the source.

The technique involves taking a transfer function measurement of the difference between the electrical signal in her mic cable and a B&K 4007 omnidirectional mic placed a meter or so in front of her. Lily would talk through the various characters and the response of her chest-mounted mic would reveal itself on the screen. This technique is still applicable with any body mic on the market today.

The body mic equalization technique as described in the text. The artist speaks and the voice arrives at both the measurement mic (the reference response/input) and the body mic (the measured response/output). The difference in arrival time must be compensated and the actor must maintain a fixed position with regard to both mics. This transfer function approach is inverted from the typical measurement for tuning sound systems (where the measurement mic is the output). After the body mic response is found, equalization can be applied and the results will be visible in the transfer function. The technique incorporates the response of the mic in place on the actor inclusive of hats, etc.

We traveled together as the show appeared at various venues over the following months. Somewhere along the way I was told of the great crossover fable and was warned to steer clear of the issue should it arise. The fear was that if the actual crossover frequency were to be revealed she would make us take down the PA. I made no promise to play along.

The Showdown

It was just another day of mic check and things were pushing along unhappily. What’s up? What changed? Did you do something different? All of the usual questions that artists ask of technical people who know never to change anything when they know this question will be asked.

So there we all are – me, the lighting designer, tour manager, road manager, mix engineer, and Mark Johnson of Meyer Sound. Why so many? Remember, everybody’s a sound critic. Lily is stumped. Nothing sounds right today. So she asks the question: “What is the crossover for these speakers?”

The silence was deafening. Pause. “1,200 Hz,” I replied, to which she responded: “Oh my God! How the… I thought we… What about my voice? I thought it was supposed to be 800.”

Five people ducked under their seats. I walked up to the stage to address Lily directly and privately. She spoke first: “I don’t know what a crossover is, but everybody makes a big deal about it.”

I answered, “I don’t know what it was that people have told you, but a crossover is a technical matter between loudspeaker transducers (a woofer and a tweeter) and your voice does not have a crossover. Every speaker is designed with a crossover that best suits the particular woofer and tweeter that it has, not for a particular person to talk through.”

“Well, thanks,” she said. “That never made any sense before anyway. I knew everybody was bulls—ting me on that,” and with that, the sound check continued, focusing instead on what was really happening rather than chasing ghosts.

The Buck Stops Here

The lesson for me was to stand my ground in factual matters, especially those where others count on me to be knowledgeable, even in the face of a very uncomfortable situation. Ms. Tomlin is an artist, not an acoustician. She, like so many others, depends upon us to interpret their artistic perspective into the realities of the physical, mechanical, acoustical, electrical world in which we’re (hopefully) the experts.

By stopping the insanity, I traded a moment of discomfort for a continuing relationship built on mutual respect. If you know it to be true, say it – diplomatically and appropriately, of course, and things will sort themselves out. If the truth is not palatable to others then so be it, and we can all move on from there.

The rest of the run proceeded without incident. We continued our daily sound checks but for some reason or other the lighting designer and the various managers found themselves busy with other matters, leaving us alone to analyze the sound. Funny that!

But the tension was quite high when we moved into the next theater, since this new system would require a fresh round of sound checking. Lily came to the stage and began her routine and then complained that the venue was too hot and she needed to take off the sweatshirt she was wearing. In doing so she revealed the custom shirt she’d commissioned for the occasion, which read: “Do these speakers cross over at 800 Hz?”

The tension transformed to full laughter as this joke closed the book on the longstanding issue of the magic crossover, and I knew with absolute certainty that my decision to stand my ground had been the right one.

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