Gary Hardesty’s Massive Olympic Sound System

How do you make sure an audience of 91,000 can hear what’s going on in an Olympic stadium? Ask Gary Hardesty of Sound Media Fusion in Los Angeles, who served as chief audio designer for the opening and closing ceremonies at the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing in August 2008 (as well as a consultant for all the other venues). “I was in Beijing every month for five years, then full-time since April,” notes Hardesty, in an indication of the scope of his work there, beginning with a comprehensive feasibility study.

For the opening and closing ceremonies in the Bird’s Nest, Hardesty met with some interesting challenges. “The biggest challenge was that the venue was not yet built when I had to design the system. There was no history, no way to know what it would sound like, or how long the reverb time might be,” says Hardesty, who wanted the ceremonies to have the best sound possible for the live audience. There were also restrictions for loudspeaker placement in terms of distance, sightlines, and hanging weight from the roof. The ceremonies were also the first to be fully broadcast in HD with full 5.1 surround sound. “There were 64 HD cameras on the field,” Hardesty adds, and of course they could not be blocked.

The Biggest System To-Date

The end result was the largest system ever used for an Olympic ceremony, with a combination of line arrays: JBL VerTec, Meyer Sound MILO, and Panasonic LA3, plus JBL MS-26 loudspeakers, Crown I-Tech amplifiers, and a Soundcraft Vi6 digital mixing console as part of the massive, multi-zone, distributed sound reinforcement system used to integrate portable and installed speaker locations.

The self-powered arrays helped combat the space and weight restrictions. “The front row of seats was right on the field, without a wall or anything to separate them,” says Hardesty, who placed the speakers just four meters from these seats. “They were very close,” he adds. The speakers were configured as ground-based stacks, each three MILO speakers-high. These were focused at the second tier of seating and up, with the sound from these units basically going right over the lower seats. Multiple configurations of the MILO's and 700HP's were used to cover the lower and middle tiers of the stadium. To help maintain intelligibility, JBL MS-26 boxes on poles augmented the sound for the middle tier of seats, and Panasonic LA3 line array clusters covered the upper tribune with a front and rear cluster pair of 6 X LA3 per cluster (12 per pair). The sound was divided into 32 zones around the stadium, plus the end zones each outfitted with three clusters of JBL VerTec speakers and VerTec sub arrays. There were also in-house loudspeakers coupled with the Meyer speakers on the field for some special effects.

In addition to the Soundcraft console (plus a Soundcraft analog console for backup), the system also included a Meyer Sound LCS WildTracks was used for routing and music playback, with Meyer’s Galileo system for zone routing, and level control via fiber-optic rings. All signals to/from the control room were distributed via Optocore fiber optic systems. “The system was very flexible and was capable of peaks of 118 dB. There was a large audience and we had no idea how loud their reaction might be,” says Hardesty, who notes that the sound averaged 102-105 dB with peaks of 112 dB.

Providing powerful low end were Meyer 700-HP subwoofers, arranged in cardioid pairs and topped with an additional MILO cabinet focused on the lower level audience. Hardesty reports the system's relatively diminutive size belied its power. "The results were amazing. By far the best sound I've heard in a large venue. From our vantage position, if you closed your eyes it didn't sound like the speakers were as far away as they actually were."
For Hardesty, one of the most critical aspects of the system was the performance and reliability of Meyer Sound's Matrix3 audio show control system, which was not only used for virtually all audio outputs, but provided the time code for the entire event. "It's hard to overstate the importance of Matrix3 in the system," he says. "All the audio, from the console outputs to the WildTracks hard disk playback, was routed through the Matrix3. But even more importantly, time code from the Matrix3 triggered the entire event— sound, lighting, projections, pyrotechnics, video—every aspect of the show was dependent on the Matrix3."

Harman Professional’s Chinese distributor, ACE (Advanced Communication Equipment) supported Sound Media Fusion’s efforts for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Duncan Edwards was on hand as a direct assistant to Hardesty for music programming and system tuning. “The technical collaboration between Gary Hardesty, Duncan Edwards and the entire Chinese team, including Mr. Ma Xin [assistant sound designer to Mr. Hardesty] and Mr. Jin Shao Gang [FOH sound engineer for the opening ceremony], was inspirational to see,” observed ACE’s Bingo Tso. “This teamwork has resulted in a highly successful achievement, the most spectacular sound reinforcement project in the nation to date”.

“Overall, the venue sound for the event was excellent, with a very 'in-your-face' direct sound characteristic throughout the audience area,” says Hardesty. “We achieved excellent acoustic isolation from zone to zone with zero intelligibility problems. Even considering the massive venue size, the result was very, very good for all concerned. The system worked very well with no failures during the shows and almost no failures during rehearsals.”

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