Great New England Air Show Demonstrate Benefits of Pristine Audio in Big Environment
The airshow is a national past-time for audiences around the United States, hardwith more than 170 events held last year in the U.S. alone. Around the world, airshows small and large are held on military bases and air fields every year. From the performances to the family atmosphere along the flight line, spectators of all ages take in the sights and sounds of the airshow with great curiosity and excitement.
Much thought and planning goes into the airshow production to match the drama of the performances. The power of a good PA system with high-quality sound is one aspect that is sometimes underestimated.
The need for high-quality audio expands beyond entertainment to safety concerns including crowd management and site security. Even the smallest airshows require an intelligible audio communication system to broadcast messages and provide entertainment value. Factors such as venue size, crowd numbers and weather conditions must always be carefully considered when planning for airshow sound, and the effects of the system layout and outdoor elements will contribute greatly to its success.
Larger airshows typically require a more complex system design strategy to ensure that every spectator can clearly comprehend the audio coming over the PA system. Careful planning, high-quality equipment and the appropriate system design can assure that the entertainment value remains consistent while keeping everyone safe and informed throughout the event.
One recent large airshow where audio played a significant role was the popular Great New England Air Show, which took place in early September on the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The two-day event attracted approximately 200,000 spectators each day, with ground and aerial demonstrations, exhibits and performances. Performers included the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds precision aerial demonstration team and the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team, with demonstrations from the U.S. Marine Corps (AV-8 Harrier Demo Team) and U.S. Navy (Legacy Flight with Corsair F/A-18).
The anticipation of the large crowd convinced organizers to upgrade the PA system for the 2008 event. The Galaxy Community Council, a self-sustaining, non-profit organization that serves as the official sponsor of the Great New England Air Show, teamed up with two organizations to secure a temporary, donated audio system. Technomad, a manufacturer of weatherproof PA systems and communications equipment for the military provided one of its modular Military PA Systems.
The Great New England Air Show flight line covers an enormous space, which is not surprising since the Westover Air Reserve Base is the largest of its kind in the nation. To reach every spectator with clear, intelligible audio, the engineering team opted for a multi-point, networked PA system that connected five sites to a central signal processing rack that was responsible for powering voice and music from the main stage.
The entire PA network covered a 1.25 mile distance, with five distinct points arranged in a straight line across the front edge of the flight line. Each point in the PA network included two Technomad weatherproof loudspeakers, raised at heights of 10-12 feet on durable stands and mobile stages. The broad audio dispersion and long distance projection from each loudspeaker eliminated the need to establish a PA point within the spectator area. The ability to isolate the system entirely from the crowd allowed the design team to construct a wired system that daisy-chained each PA point using CAT5 twisted-pair cable.
The audio origination point was based near the main stage, with all signal processing gear housed in a protective, shock-mount rack. Gear included a 500-watt-per-channel amplifier, six-channel mixer and power conditioning equipment. Veteran airshow announcer Larry Rutt served as the main narrator and master of ceremonies, using a wired microphone supplied with the Technomad system to communicate with and broadcast to every spectator.
Rutt used the power of the audio system to both entertain and inform the crowd of critical news. In one instance, a ground stunt went awry, the driver flipping his truck on the flight line. Rutt relied on the intelligible audio output to describe the fire and rescue efforts, and to keep the crowd calm and informed throughout the emergency response.
“The announcer’s primary role at the air show is to describe to the spectators what they are seeing in detail, and prompt them when to have their cameras ready to capture some of the more spectacular maneuvers,” said Rutt. “If there is a mishap of any kind it’s also the announcer’s duty to keep the crowds informed and under control. A good audio system allows a professional announcer to put emotion into the events, and provide authoritativeness when there is a mishap. An audio system of high quality and power allows the announcer to improve his performance and annunciate with more power and conviction.”
Aside from Rutt’s voice, some performers used a handheld wireless microphone (also supplied through Technomad) to narrate their live segments. Music was fed through a 16-channel mixer and into the PA system via a laptop computer. The music entertained the crowd during and in between events when the live microphones were not in use.
The distance between each loudspeaker point along the flight line was approximately one-quarter of a mile. The CAT5 twisted-pair cable was directed through conduits on the ground surface between each point, connecting first to a Technomad Audio Source Pack and then onto a pair of weatherproof loudspeakers. Each Audio Source Pack included an amplifier and six-channel mixer to allow local volume level and signal processing control at each point.
Airshows have their share of poor weather conditions, and the 2008 Great New England Air Show was no exception. Technomad loudspeakers are built completely weatherproof and designed to withstand inclement weather elements from rain and hail to snow and sleet (as well as high heat and humidity when present). No extra protection was required, which was recognized by Rutt and the event organizers.
“Preparations for poor weather is standard for any air show, but often the equipment is ill-suited for the conditions and require plastic coverings at the least, and removal from the unprotected location at the worst,” said Rutt. “The rains at this show came in the form of leftover downpours from Tropical Storm Hanna, but the audio came through strong and the system remained out in the elements all weekend. Nothing was taken away from the spectators or the drama of the event as a result of the poor weather.”
Numerous options for audio system design exist for shows of all sizes. The power, dispersion and projection of the loudspeakers is a crucial element in deciding when and where you need to place loudspeakers, and how many are needed to cover the entire spectator area. The best option for annual airshow organizers is to first consider what was missing from last year’s event, understand the layout and crowd of the upcoming event, and then consult with audio engineers within and outside the organization to reach conclusions on how to improve.
An edited version of the story appeared in the December 2008 issue of Air Show Pro.