NEW YORK, NEW YORK: As one of the three major players in theater sound in the US, Sound Associates has provided sound reinforcement support and rentals to Broadway for over sixty years. At any given time, some twenty shows are using the company's equipment, which includes over 4,000 channels of high-end Sennheiser wireless transmitters and receivers. For what amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars of wireless channels per show in the most demanding theatrical applications on the planet, Sound Associates provides open-architecture SymNet DSP units that have been customized to provide real-time audio monitoring from up to four locations using AMX touch-panel interfaces.
Sound Associates provides audio for shows that typically require between thirty and seventy channels of Sennheiser wireless. The company combines various lavalier microphones with Sennheiser SK 5212 body pack transmitters and Sennheiser's new 3732 receivers. "Sennheiser has a long tradition of building wireless systems that sound remarkably closed to wired," said Carl Casella, system designer, at Sound Associates. "That is still the case today. Moreover, Sennheiser body packs started out small and have grown progressively smaller. That, of course, is a real asset on a high-end Broadway production."
But sound is only part of the story. New York City is a challenging RF environment and Broadway concentrates some twenty theaters - which are all using extensive RF systems - in a ten-block radius. Some of them are even back-to-back! "Sennheiser has always been able to deliver a higher per-system channel count, and they've always been willing to custom tune units to increase that count," said Casella. "Reliability is paramount on a Broadway show, and getting bleed from the show next door would constitute a catastrophe. Sennheiser continues to lead the industry in terms of RF stability and reliability."
But in such a hostile environment and with so much on the line, even the best wireless system on a Broadway show is far from "set it and forget it." On the contrary, Casella's clients require continuous monitoring to anticipate problems before those problems find their way to the entranced audience. Nothing breaks the spell like an audio glitch. To that end, Casella deploys Sennheiser's Wireless Systems Manager software with every Sennheiser wireless system. The software provides at-a-glance information on each channel's signal strength, audio level, and, with the newest version, battery life.
The only thing it can't do is actually monitor the audio on every channel. There are several off-the-shelf products designed for exactly that task, but each is limited to sixteen or fewer channels, which is not even adequate for Sound Associate's smallest shows. Prepared to take matters into his own hands, Casella spent weeks programming one well-known open architecture DSP system, only to find out that a previously undiscovered bug rendered all of his work useless. "I went to the company and told them what I needed," he said. "It was a bug in their coding, but they refused to fix it. That angered me and motivated me to find another, more responsive company."
SymNet offered units with low latency, which would be crucial for the monitoring task, and the capacity to matrix 64 channels with multiple inputs and outputs. "So I started writing a program for SymNet and very quickly hit a limitation," Casella recalled. "The SymNet 8x8 DSP would only accept one-hundred RS-232 commands, and I needed many more. In contrast to my earlier experience, the folks at Symetrix were wonderful. They rewrote the code within four days - in time for the next show. That kind of customer service won me over."
That was six years ago. Almost all of Sound Associate's clients now specifically request the "SymNet monitoring system," and the company carries a stock of some sixty units, including SymNet BreakIn12 input expansion units. Casella uses Netlinx to provide user interfaces on AMX touch-screen computers. The SymNet monitoring system can be used simultaneously from four locations. Users can solo individual mics or groups of mics. In addition, they can select two mics to A/B compare them, a useful feature because actors are frequently double miked.
Over the many years that Sound Associates has employed the SymNet system, clients have often wondered if there was something less expensive that would do the same thing. "The simple answer is, no, there isn't," said Casella. "But the system is actually not so expensive relative to the cost of the wireless system it is monitoring. And in this business, we simply cannot have failure. In the worst case, if a system fails and all 2,000 people go home, everyone, and I mean everyone, is very, very unhappy. And if the system goes down for five minutes that is an eternity. No, nothing can fail. And in all the years we've been using SymNet, we have only had two units go down, and one was damaged by the client. That is phenomenal!"
Most recently, Sound Associates has rented its time-tested Sennheiser wireless and SymNet monitoring systems for productions of Little House on the Prairie, Fela, Ragtime, the Little Mermaid, and Guys and Dolls.
ABOUT SENNHEISER Sennheiser is a world-leading manufacturer of microphones, headphones and wireless transmission systems. Established in 1945 in Wedemark, Germany, Sennheiser is now a global brand represented in 60 countries around the world with U.S. headquarters in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Sennheiser's pioneering excellence in technology has rewarded the company with numerous awards and accolades including an Emmy, a Grammy, and the Scientific and Engineering Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
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