The buzz at New Jersey's Memorial High School (MHS) was not a good one. Each spring for the past 12 years, chemistry teacher Steven Hempel has directed the school's annual musical production. From Carousel and Guys And Dolls to Pajama Game, the school has produced a slew of hit shows but all with an ever-present problem: flawed audio.
“We've cast terrific kids, brought in a professional New York choreographer, managed to make do with existing lighting, and designed excellent sets and costumes,” Hempel says. “The one issue we've never been able to solve has been our sound system. For years, our school AV director tinkered with the old board and tried to eliminate hums, buzzes, and static crackles. We even upgraded our microphones after I'd seen the Broadway production of Miss Saigon and noticed the performers wearing wireless mics in their hair. But nothing seemed to work.”
As a theatre buff, Hempel has always been interested in all aspects of production. “Going to Broadway, I was interested not only in being entertained by the shows I saw, but I was looking beyond the performance to watch more technical happenings,” he says. He would frequently check out the sound gear at the back of theatres and soon realized the location of his school's FOH system in the front row directly next to the stage was yet another issue.
Two years ago, the school was advised that the problem was the antiquated mixing board. Funds were allotted for a 24-channel ATC console, but not even that produced the desired results. “Audio is the absolute heart of any production,” Hempel says. “Audiences can be forgiving about production snafus, missed steps, flubbed lines, or set doors that fail to open, but when they can't hear the kids sing, or if static muffles their lines, it's a real shame.”
While attending a Broadway musical, Hempel found Masque Sound in East Rutherford, NJ credited for audio production in Playbill. Knowing he was in need of new lighting, sound, and draperies, Hempel had been banking on being “the squeaky wheel that gets the oil” for over ten years, but he admits that the theatre department is not always the first to get funds. “I know that if we were a sports team, we would have been oiled a lot sooner, but later is better than never.” Last year, a new superintendent of schools, Dr. Van Zanten, approved an update of the sound system.
Courtney Klimson, director of Masque's HOW/Installation division, coordinated a diagnostic tour by company audio specialist Paul Klimson, who discovered an ancient wiring problem which, when corrected, immediately eliminated that nagging buzz. The school had gotten just about as much as it could out of its original and now outdated system. Most of the components were unsalvageable, but a couple of the main amps still had a useful life expectancy.
Masque recommended a pair of EAW KF 300 speakers, DBX 231 Graphic EQ and Drive Rack, new floor pockets, new Shure mics, an assortment of miscellaneous cable and multi, as well as a Middle Atlantic Rack, set up with professional side-by-side components and topped off by a custom console case which simplified storage issues and eliminated the need for equipment carts from the AV office. In addition to the wiring fix and new gear package, Klimson provided the AV team — three teachers and six students — with a full day of training on the new system.
“It was extremely gratifying to hear the audience reaction to our new system when it premiered at our spring production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Hempel says. “This year, our show sounded as good as it looked.”
Masque Sound co-principal Geoff Shearing notes that the high school market represents something of an untapped market. “Many young people who decide to pursue a ‘life in the theatre’ get their first taste of the realities of this world at the high school level,” he says. “Today's audiences are all familiar with high quality wireless sound. They know when something doesn't sound right. Clear, noise-free systems will greatly enhance their appreciation of the school productions they attend and participate in.”
“Everyone at the high school is greatly impressed with the new additions as well as being floored to find out that the older microphones work much better with the removal of the house-right speaker buzz,” adds Hempel. “The vocal director, Mrs. Adelaide Luers, was the first person to use the new system for her talent show, and she tested the handheld microphone by leaving the auditorium and being picked up from a distance never heard of before.”
Hempel is hoping to upgrade the lighting or draperies next, moving the school into a more modern performance venue. “New grade schools are being built in our district, and I am sure MHS is in line for a facelift,” he says. In 2009, Hempel wants to produce All Shook Up, and the school even hosted Broadway cast members Jenn Gambatese, Justin Patterson, and Trisha Jeffrey, who did workshops for the Drama Club.