Ravinia Festival Considers Its Wireless Future
HIGHLAND PARK, IL, August 31, 2009—Dating back to 1904, the Ravinia Festival is the oldest outdoor music venue in the US, hosting a series of marquee performances every summer from June to September. Ravinia offers open-air concert experiences unlike any others within its park-like 36-acre site near the shores of Lake Michigan, including the summer residency of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ravinia Music Director James Conlon.
Acclaimed for presenting world-class music of all genres, the Ravinia stage welcomes artists from the worlds of classical, opera, jazz, dance, blues, folk, pop, and rock. While the site’s 3,200 seat main pavilion could well be called the centerpiece of its lush, tree-lined setting, what makes concerts truly unique at the park is the scene that unfolds on the lawn at each event. Served by a distributed sound system deployed on poles and in other locations, Ravinia’s lawn is a place where concert-goers are encouraged to claim a space with an outspread blanket and have a picnic. One of the few venues in the country that permit full meals and alcohol to be brought in and consumed at its concerts, Ravinia is accordingly visited by patrons toting lawn chairs, coolers packed with food, lawn accessories of all description, and candles that bring an intimate, illuminating glow usually reserved for indoors.
“The lawn has a vibe like no other place,” says Sam Amodeo, who shares chief sound engineer duties with Norm Krueger at the park. “People gather there because it’s truly a singular experience. You really can’t see much of the talent performing onstage from out there in the grass; it’s all about the atmosphere of gathering with your friends in a relaxing and beautiful setting. Because having an excellent view of the stage isn’t part of the plan, quality sound becomes even more of a premium.”
In a certain sense, it can be said that Amodeo inherited his current gig from his father, who built the first sound reinforcement system at the park, and went on to maintain it until his death last year. Configured in much the same fashion as his father left it, the system in use today at Ravinia is divided into two essential parts: One for the pavilion, and one for the lawn. For orchestral events, the pavilion is reinforced only as needed, with the guiding principle being that the space should sound as natural and acoustically transparent as possible. Conversely, when pop or rock acts come to town, a line array rig rented for the season is brought out from the wings to supplement the regular house system, which is installed in the ceiling for the most part.
During orchestral events, both segments of the system are mixed from a single Yamaha PM5000. For visiting touring and pop acts, a PM5D is used. “We talked about going digital for the orchestra,” Amodeo admits, “but decided that since there was no need to have recall of settings or scenes for those kinds of events, it wasn’t necessary. We like the sound of the PM5000, and it’s rock-solid reliable.”
Night-after-night, bulletproof dependability is a big factor in any decision made regarding Ravinia’s sound. Amodeo probably sums up the philosophy guiding the system’s birth and continued operation best as “a process of time and changes.” Taking a classic Midwestern approach to the task at hand, Amodeo and Krueger conservatively shepherd the park’s sonic affairs, religiously performing maintenance that has given extra life to system components and ensured that the premium sound they were originally purchased for remains intact. As the need for upgrades arises, careful measure is given to cost and performance.
“We rely heavily on wireless microphones here,” Amodeo notes, initiating discussion on a topic near and dear to sound engineers everywhere across the country these days following the FCC’s decision on the White Spaces last year and the recent DTV transition. “We’re fortunate that we’re outside of Chicago’s city boundaries, so we have fairly open wireless spectrum yet. We are just kind of holding on in the 700 MHz range, and so far nothing has happened.”
Currently using eight channels of Shure UHF wireless, Amodeo isn’t one to keep pressing his luck. Recognizing that the FCC will most likely issue an edict to clear the 700 MHz range of wireless mic operations soon, he will continue the process of time and changes with an update to his wireless blueprint.
“We’ll most likely take the step into the next generation of Shure wireless products,” he says, “because that’s what works best in festival environments. When I tell visiting artists that we have Shure wireless handhelds, I never hear anyone say they won’t use them. Reliability is everything here; you can’t have a wireless mic that works 99 percent of the time. It has to work 100 percent of the time, and if it doesn’t, you’d better put it back in the drawer. Shure mics always work, even if they take a serious beating. That’s one thing that doesn’t change.”
With tickets as low as $10, and the average ticket price remaining at $25 since 2007, Ravinia expects to attract some 600,000 listeners over the course of this summer’s concert schedule. As evidence of the eclectic nature of the park’s calendar, consider that in the month of August acts ranged from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and George Thorogood to Carrie Underwood and Tony Bennett.