SOURCE: April 2004 issue · POSTED: 06/30/04
It was the truss collapse heard around the world. On Aug. 9, 2003, a massive truss failure and resulting collapse forced Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake to cancel their concert in Atlantic City, N.J. The structural failure of this ceiling grid is estimated to have caused more than $1 million in damage to the show’s lighting, sound, video and staging equipment.
More recently, the nation watched as Celine Dion prepared to sing a moving tribute to an ailing Luther Vandross at this year’s GRAMMYs® — only to find that an audio patching problem caused a chain reaction that began with feedback through the main PA, forcing Dion to change microphones and continue without her in-ear monitors.
These two recent high-profile examples demonstrate a few of the many things that can go wrong in the rental-and-staging business. In the world of live pro-AV events, a catastrophe can range from life threatening to career threatening to anything in between. With so many factors in play, every live production can fall victim to an emergency situation. That’s why planning, preparation and communication are key factors in eliminating the most common problems before they begin.
“It’s difficult to create written policies or procedures for live events since each event can be so different, so you must be prepared for anything,” says Steve Santomenna, Director of Production at massAV, an event production solutions firm based in Burlington, Mass.
“I’ve seen everything from a roof truss snapping to amplifiers bursting into flames to speaker towers blowing over,” says Steve Raslevich, President of Northern Sound & Light in McKees Rocks, Pa. “There are just so many factors that can go wrong — like having a large concert system in front of 32,000 people and being handed an unexpected cassette to play and not having a cassette deck in the rack, or driving halfway across the state to do a national concert and finding out that someone forgot to pack the split snake head.”
To help dodge AV disasters, take a lesson from the following live event problems and solutions.
Problem No. 1: Unrealistic client expectations
Not all onsite emergencies relate to equipment failure. Some are the result of poor communication. “The very first thing you must do is set client expectation,” Santomenna says. “You can’t do the Academy Awards® on a $5,000 budget. The risk is, of course, a wildly disappointed client who never calls again, or worse, they tell others you can’t deliver. You must first review client goals and fees that will dictate what you supply. As a production company, we’re most concerned about making sure the right equipment is onsite and that we are presenting our client’s content appropriately.”
To avoid the possibility of losing a valuable client, Santomenna tries to understand the specific goals and vision for the event. It helps to actually have clients visualize and express exactly how they see the event happening through sketches and diagrams. To avoid hardware compatibility issues that sometimes accompany poor communication, Santomenna’s staff goes to the extent of having laptops available for presentations — even if the client insists on supplying its own hardware. “Our [laptops] are fully compatible with our projectors so we have some on hand in case the presenter doesn’t have his presentation ready,” he says.
Problem No. 2: Inclement weather
No matter what, Mother Nature is a fickle lady. “Never, ever trust the Weather Channel, always plan for it to rain immediately upon setup, and be prepared for mud,” says Santomenna. “Also, never underestimate the power of wind to move things like your canopy or even your lighting truss.”
Allan Bagley, Director of Standards and Technology at Seattle-based Carlson Audio, agrees. “We do a number of outdoor events in the area, and it’s always a matter of being prepared, especially for weather,” he says. “The event will happen regardless of the wind and driving rain so you must protect the equipment. You should also think about where you are putting equipment when you set up, as some places are safer (drier) than others.”
Many pros suggest looking at your setup and adjusting certain methods, such as running all power cables to avoid depressions that could become puddles in the event of an unexpected storm. “That could include putting cables up high onto scaffolding or using protective Yellow Jacket polyurethane cord covers,” Bagley adds. “A weather kit should include tarps, plastic bags and plywood to get equipment off the ground.”
Problem No. 3: Lighting/video equipment failure
A lighting failure can range from simple uncontrollable house lights to outright losing a lighting fixture or projector during a presentation. Raslevich, who has more than 20 years of experience in the AV industry, often relies on common sense and calmness when combating such problems. “If the lighting truss falls, the first priority is to make sure no one got hurt, then re-focus whatever lighting is left hanging as quickly as possible,” he says.
Do a pre-event site visit and work with the venue to figure out how to control its house system (if it has one), should you need it as a backup. Make sure you have enough lighting fixtures on the stage to prevent a dark spot in case you lose one. What about projectors? “We always have backup video projectors,” Santomenna says. “We’ll encourage the client that they need online backups so if a projector goes down then we can switch to the backup in just a few seconds.”
Redundancy should be planned for and explained to the client. “Base your redundancy on the complexity of the equipment and its history of failure,” Santomenna says. “For example, we know that projectors will fail no matter how well we maintain them. The bulbs burn out, or the unit gets knocked around the truck.”
Problem No. 4: Audio failure
Sometimes an audio-related failure can be very simple and may not involve the most technical piece of gear. Raslevich recalls an outside venue where his company was providing production for a festival. The system had been working fine the entire day for about nine hours. “Then the headliner, Grand Funk Railroad, took the stage, and immediately the right stack started cutting out,” he says. “We could not figure out why. There were folks who were crawling all over the stage checking cables, combing through the amp racks, and climbing in front of the rig to listen to loudspeakers. It turns out that dirt from use throughout the day got into the master left/right switch on Yamaha PM3000 and made it stick.”
At other times, equipment such as amplifiers and DSP units can fail without warning.
Equipment maintenance is not just for before or after the show. Take into account the conditions in which your equipment will be working. In the case of outdoor events, have spray cleaner and rags on hand for spot-cleaning if necessary. Cans of compressed air and a hair dryer for spills also come in handy.
For outright hardware failures, have a backup plan for bypassing the failed unit.
Problem No. 5: Power failure/power surge
“There are certain venues that you know are going to have issues with power,” Santomenna says. “In a particular hotel that is a regular venue for us, there was a time when I wouldn’t have done an event there without bringing in my own power. There is nothing worse than bringing in a production with a big lighting and audio rig into a facility and the power is inadequate.”
Bagley advises dual power supplies for consoles and separate processors for left and right loudspeaker clusters. “If one fails, then you can switch to a mono system that is powered by the other processor,” he says.
Santomenna uses generators for any venue that has a history of power failure. “For anything that could lose memory, like a lighting console, we use an uninterruptible power supply; sometimes on some video equipment as well depending on the event,” he says. “Additionally, all control electronics are on surge protectors that are built into the rack.”
Problem No. 6: Life-threatening emergency
For all of us in the AV industry, the catastrophic fire at The Station nightclub in Warwick, R.I., punctuated the needed emphasis on safety. While most events occur without incident, the loss of life due to that fire is a tragic reminder of the importance of making safety the top priority.
“The venue must have a plan in place to deal with emergencies, and all employees must be trained in implementing it,” says Paul Carelli, Touring Systems Manager for loudspeaker company Eastern Acoustic Works (EAW), Whitinsville, Mass. “There must be a system of communication among staff and a way to communicate instructions to patrons. There also must be a chain of command. Managers should have assigned tasks, and all employees should be drilled in emergency procedures so that they adhere to the plan instead of making panic-based decisions.”
Although this sounds like obvious advice, it’s certainly not standard practice throughout the industry, notes Carelli. “I've worked in venues from clubs to stadiums around the world, and the level of preparedness for emergency situations varies wildly,” he says. “I've designed sound systems for public facilities where we had to provide emergency override capability so management could commandeer the PA for pre-recorded or live announcements. I've never been asked to provide that feature in a club system.”
Create and maintain safety procedures for your staff, ranging from how to safely handle electricity to proper lifting procedures to having enough people to load/unload the truck. When onsite, keep your AV setup in mind so that truss or equipment is not blocking an emergency exit — and make sure everyone knows where those exits are located. Also ensure there is enough room at FOH so your engineers can safely and quickly exit the area.
“Since we employ so many people at massAV, we have a standard set of documents that is given to every staff member and freelancer that covers all aspects of onsite safety,” Santomenna says.
Preventive maintenance, planning and communication go a long way toward preventing catastrophes; however, unforeseen emergencies will inevitably creep up. For AV professionals, having an onsite kit can help cut response time for any incident. Santomenna sums it up quite well: “The bottom line is that you have to be flexible and always pack extra equipment.”
Disclaimer: This article originally appeared in a content partner publication. ICIA/InfoComm reserves the right to modify articles for concerns regarding grammar, style and format.