Beat the Heat!

Beat the Heat!

Summer is finally upon us.  We’re looking at long days, lots of sunshine, mildly oppressive heat, and thanks to all the rain we’ve gotten, mosquitoes! That doesn’t mean don’t go outside… just remember to stay hydrated and wear proper PPE (sunscreen, hats, bug spray).  Summer also means that work may be harder to come by, equating to more free time but less funds.  If you’re looking for something to do that won’t break your bank, check out some of the locations and events we’ve collected:

Take your bug spray and get outside!  Traipse along the creeks, skip through the Greenbelt, hike the 360 bridge, catch the sunset from Mt. Bonnell, and stroll the new Lady Bird Boardwalk.
Too warm out? Go for a swim! Take some sunscreen and a few dollars and hit
Barton Creek.  Or check out one of the watering holes in our town and surrounding areas-  Hippie Hollow, Hamilton Pool, Blue Hole, and Krause Springs, just to name a few.   If swimming isn’t your water sport of interest you can rent a canoe, kayak or stand up paddle board. Discounts available at some locations around Lady Bird Lake if you bike up instead of drive.

If you’re already parked at Zilker Park, on certain Wednesday nights KGSR presents Blues on the Green which is free to the public.  Just down the road, every Thursday night through the summer you can catch Unplugged at Shady Grove.  If you’d rather catch a movie, (perhaps Hook or The Princess Bride) then head north to Central Market on 40th for Summer Cinema.

Maybe outdoors is a bit too warm for you- have you thought about catching a movie at the Paramount or State? This summer they are showing a variety of films – from E.T. to The Big Lebowski to Jaws.  If you’d rather get moving, Ballet Austin teaches Rhythm on Stage at the Long Center Tuesdays in July, and has Come Dance! day August 30th with free dance classes all day long.  Maybe you need some social lubricant to help you dance.  Lots of venues like Gloria’s, Enzo, Dallas Night Club and even Russian House have free social dance lessons before they open up the dance floor (and start charging cover).

Don’t forget free shows at the Zilker Hillside Theatre – this year we’ll see Hairspray! For more ideas, like other free movie listings, or yoga in the park, check out the blog 365 Things to do in Austin.

-Mikela Cowan

ION training opportunity

ETC is presenting a 2 day series of classes on their ION lighting console. These classes will be held in Austin at St. Edwards University on July 28th and July 29th, 2015.

More Details are available on the ETC website.

If you are interested in attending these classes, please register at Ion Training – Austin, TX (St. Edward’s U.)

These classes are not affiliated with Local 205. Please contact ETC directly.

-Todd Drga

Stage Basics: DMX

DMX is like cable television. Although your house is being pummeled with 5000 channels of garbage, you are able to safely watch the Spurs or This Old House because your TV can disregard any information it doesn’t need. Only part of the signal coming through the coaxial cable is for the station you’ve got it tuned to, and the TV only puts that part on the screen. DMX compliant equipment functions similarly in that all the fixtures, dimmers, or effects in line will only respond to the stuff they’re supposed to. This is achieved by addressing each unit and patching its address to a channel or series of channels in your system, allowing your console to communicate with each unit individually.

Time was, all the equipment manufacturers that produced intelligent lighting and such had their own communication systems and connections. Nobody’s controller could drive another company’s fixtures. That was until 1986, when USITT developed the DMX512 protocol. Pretty much all intelligent lighting equipment is DMX compliant, although some companies produce equipment that operates on their own proprietary control standards, as well.

Maintenance of DMX512 was transferred to the Technical Standards Program of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association in 1998. In 2011, however, ESTA merged with the similar British organization PLASA. Now when you google ESTA, you can find out how international travelers register for the Visa Waiver Program. And did you know DMX is also a rapper?

PLASA is now responsible for keeping what became labeled the DMX512-A protocol whole. ANSI and EIA/TIA (look them up) also have contributed to the standardization of DMX. All of these organizations have helped sculpt the way we make the lights go on, spin around, flash, and change color.

DMX is an acronym for “Digital MultipleX”. You don’t have to know what that means to know that it sounds very cool. Because it is cool. It’s probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened to live entertainment.

The 512 refers to the number of pieces of information (DMX addresses) in a network segment known as a universe. It is also the maximum number of addresses that can be commanded on a single DMX cable. So when you run data along a pipe from unit to unit, all those instruments are in the same uni- verse. To learn everything about DMX, go to or dmx-101-handbook.pdf . You could also check out Wikipedia, but like they say, “this page has some issues.”

The DMX system is digital, so information is dispersed in binary code. A series of 8 bits (1’s or 0’s) is created to represent a value between 0 and 255, with 255 being full, or 100%.

Programming is done in percentages. All values are translated into a value proportional to the 0-255 range because that’s the language the units understand. So, as applied to an intensity level, 255 is full, 50% would be around 127 in this binary format, and so on.

A single data line is capable of conveying 512 pieces of information, hence the name. These pieces of information are referred to as addresses. In its simplest form, a single unit that receives information, a dimmer, requires only one address, whereas a more complex unit may require dozens more. (A VL 4000 Spot Luminaire, in its most sophisticated control mode, requires 57 DMX addresses.)

A dimmer only has one parameter (one aspect of all the things a unit can do) to control, that being intensity (how bright the light is). That is why it only takes up one address in its universe (the single data line of 512 addresses). Units that change color, such as LED lights, generally take up 4 spots in the universe. The additional channels are for the parameters that control the intensity of individual colors and allow the board-op to mix red, green, and blue at various levels.

A moving light, like the VL 4000, requires more addresses because it has more non-intensity parameters (NIP) to control. There are four major parameter categories; intensity, focus, color, and beam, with each parameter within those categories requiring separate addresses. The focus (pan and tilt) requires at least two, but your unit might also have a fine pan and a fine tilt. So that’s four right there. You’re gonna need some color mixing, more than likely RGB, but you might have a unit that’s got amber and white LED’s too.  Five more addresses.

Beam parameters are divided into three sub-categories: form (parameters that affect the size and quality of light, like edge, zoom, iris, and frost), image (gobos and effects), and shutter (framing parameters). All these functions require individual addresses. You can see how a universe can start to feel cramped, particularly with units that have many parameters.

How a fixture’s addresses line up with its parameters is known as its channel mapping. This is the channel mapping for the Blizzard Flurry 5 in 13 channel mode:

Channel. What It Does

1. Pan
2. Pan Fine
3. Tilt
4. Tilt Fine
5. Dimmer
6. Red Intensity
7. Green Intensity
8. Blue Intensity
9. Amber Intensity
10. White Intensity
11. Color Macros
12. Strobe
13. Sound Active

There’s also a 7 channel mode, but it’s not nearly as fun. You’d use it if you if you were short on DMX channels, like if your controller had a limited number of channels or you were filling up universe space.

As for universe space, it is possible to command multiple universes in a single lighting system. The ETC ION control console, for example, has 2 DMX outputs and therefore can run 2 universes on its own. It can run even more through the use of nodes and networking. (Nodes are devices that can be installed on a network with an ethernet cable and can be configured to operate DMX addresses outside the 512 range).

Parameters are assigned a DMX value between 0 and 255. A tilt value of 50% on the board, for instance, would be received by the unit as 127 and would tell the unit to point straight down, whereas 100% would be all the way forward and 0% all the way back, or vice-versa.

Similarly, a parameter value for pan of full (255) will move the unit all the way to its extreme in one direction and a zero all the way in the other.

Color can also be manipulated in a manner in which a DMX value (or range of values) corresponds with a particular color. This is how it works for scrollers and units with color wheels, anything that has only one channel reserved for color selection. This is known as the Value Mapping of a particular unit

Typically, addresses in universe 2 would be in the range of 512-1024, and that’s what they’ll be if your plugged into the second DMX output on the board, but you can configure the nodes to begin subsequent universes with addresses such as 1001, 2001, etc., to simplify things. Addresses above 512 can be selected on the control device by actual number or by a format such as 2/129. This would be address 129 in universe 2, or actual address 641. Or address 1029 if you have universe 2 beginning with DMX address 1001 for less arithmetic.

All of these aspects are controlled by separate DMX addresses. Not all intelligent fixtures are capable of all these things, but the ones that are occupy a lot of space in the universe.

Lighting units in the same universe can receive data by running the DMX from the DMX ‘out’ of one to the DMX ‘in’ of the next. This linking of the units together is known as a daisy chain. The DMX standard allows for up to 32 units to be installed on a single data line at a distance of up to 4000 feet, though some manufacturers recommend that you don’t go that far without the use of an isolated optical splitter/repeater. This allows the data line to go farther and split off in multiple directions, each being capable of linking up to 32 more units. Using Y cables or T connectors won’t work. The signal needs to be regenerated and all branches optically isolated from each other.

DMX cable typically is equipped with 5-pin XLR connectors. A positive and negative wire create a balanced signal in which any interference will effect both signals equally and therefore be eliminated. DMX cable also contains a zero voltage ground wire, but pins 4 and 5 are not necessary in standard DMX application. They are there to perform functions like communicate information about the unit, like lamp hours or operating temperatures, back to the controller. Some manufacturers also use pins 4 and 5 for applications that are specific to their own equipment, often at voltages that are potentially damaging to standard DMX compliant devices. You probably don’t have to worry about this; just use the materials you are provided with on the gig and all will go swimmingly.

Since only 3 wires are necessary to run DMX, a 5 to 3-pin adapter can be used to incorporate 3 pin DMX cable and instrument inputs. The XLR connectors are the same as those used on audio cable, but microphone cable should not be used to transmit DMX. (XLR refers to the physical shape and characteristics of the connector; Cannon X connector with a Latch and Rubber guard). A DMX signal passes 250,000 bits of information per second. It’s way more complex than an audio signal and needs specialized protection from interference. While any 3 pin cable will probably work, especially with a low number of units and at short distances, it would be susceptible to signal deterioration. In other words, it might make your intelligent lighting act really stupid.

So when you’re running data along a pipe from unit to unit, all those instruments are in the same universe.

BTW: Protocol means “system of standards.”

Past Issue Archive

We endeavor to archive as many issues of Stage Call as possible. If you see an issue that is missing, and you have a decent looking copy – please let us know, so we can scan and add it! Thanks!

In the beginning – Brad Wilson was president

Vol I.1, May 2005 Vol I.3, January 2006 Vol I.4, May 2006

Volume II began under President Keith Harris

Vol II.1, September 2006 Vol II.2, January 2007 Vol II.4, August 2007

Vol III.1, January 2008 Vol III.3, September 2008

Vol IV.3, September 2009

Safety Everywhere

by Joseph Martin

While we tout safety as a virtue, I have found that in many areas of our industry we are either non-compliant or ignore simple things we can do to make our jobs easier and safer. I find in our local that the membership does work safely. We are great about making sure enough hands are on a heavy object and asking others for help when it is needed. While this covers a major part of the issues we deal with assembling road shows, there are many details we miss, specifically with PPE (personal protection equipment) and fall arrest.

Fall arrest is far and away the worst safety equipment issue we face today in our venues in Austin. While there are some notable good things we stay on top of (fall arrestors in the Long Center box booms) these improvements are to a fairly modern building after years of increased OSHA regulation on high work. I know that it is practically impossible to ask for a fall arrest to be available every time we climb a ladder over 6 feet, but we need to question ourselves where fall arrest is practical and necessary. Would it help? Would it make the work safer and more comfortable to perform? For example, the hinged grid opening in the Long Center is a huge falling danger to anyone working around it. Never have I heard anyone from employee to management say anything about wearing harnesses near the opening, just to “be careful.” Note I’m just using this as an example, not to call out or shame the Long Center. Traditionally, riggers don’t ever have to wear harnesses on the grid and we aren’t used to bringing them up. But this is a special exception to that standard that has been overlooked. There are many other work locations in this town that need evaluation. Careful as careful may be, accidents happen, and the conversation needs to move forward to instill a culture of safety. Any task that presents a mortal danger needs to have a counter to take mortality out of the equation. I know that extra 5 minutes to put on a harness and clip off to the beam adds time to the day, but it could also save a life.

The worst offender of all the venues in town is the Erwin Center, where riggers climb the 110’ roof steel with no dedicated lines for fall arrest. The venue was built before there were any regulations regarding fall arrest. As a result, the riggers there, including myself, either climb without harness or use a harness mostly for equipment management. Only in extremely rare cases do we actually use harnesses for fall arrest and positioning. Everyone has to be vetted as a safe, experienced climber/rigger to be allowed on the steel. That doesn’t change the fact that every time riggers go up, they are at risk of losing their lives.

If I make any points in this article, my biggest one would be that even with years of experience and practice, the danger is still present. And wouldn’t it be great if that danger didn’t have to be so dangerous? As professionals doing a dangerous job, we deserve to have the necessary systems in place to prevent death. While not a union venue, many of us work at the Erwin Center and need to work harder to instill a culture of safety and encourage our brothers and sisters to use the tie-off method they find comfortable and safe. For me, it involves taking a 22kn climbing sling, basketing the beam or safe tie-off point nearby, and clipping it into my central front positioning ring. This allows for clean movement along the beam, and, in the event of slippage or an accident pulling me off the beam, I would slide off to the side or under it, within easy distance to pull myself back up without taking the damaging shock load of a fall on a shock absorbing lanyard. This also prevents the need for a rescue operation, which would need to happen within 15-20 minutes of a fall to prevent death due to suspension trauma. It is important to note that my method works, but it is by no means standard and should not be taken as such.

Every industry related to construction/physical work is highly regulated in terms of safety, except for entertainment. We often feel like those rules don’t apply to us, but they very much do. OSHA is ramping up its stance on entertainment safety, and it’s high time. I have noticed more and more touring companies coming through with hard hat requirements. A show coming up at the Erwin will require all riggers to wear hard hats. It is important to note that a hard hat is not for the sole purpose of protecting your head from falling objects. Ever been hit in the head with a board or pipe someone was carrying as they turned around? I’ve seen guys have their temples busted open from getting slammed with a piece. Wearing a hard hat is not about how much you mistrust the people around you or above, it’s about protecting your extremely valuable head. “Nerdy” looks be damned. It’s a job not a fashion show.

There are many jobs where a hard hat is not required, and that is ok. We need to be aware of hard hats and their usefulness during large jobs such as Dell World, big road shows with lots of cases/things flying, and, of course, at the Erwin Center.

For us tall people, I have found a hard hat to be invaluable as my natural height puts my head closer to objects I have to duck to avoid. There have been a few occasions during installs where I have been crawling around in an unfamiliar ceiling and my head found the obstruction before my eyes did. Due to wearing a hard hat, I didn’t injure myself, just my pride. In the instance of Ballroom A at the ACC, I know a few riggers who have caught a roofing nail, scraping their head enough to draw blood. A hardhat in this instance completely eliminates that risk or even the minor annoyance of being occasionally poked in the head by a sharp object, which speaks to the scenario of making work more comfortable. Remember, it isn’t about how awesome you are or how long people have been doing it; it’s about eliminating risk and injury.

Without eyes to see with, our job is impossible. Drilling, cutting, grinding, and other fun particle related activities must be accompanied by the proper eye protection. A metal or wood splinter flying into your eyes can result in something minor as a single-day annoyance or as major as a lifelong diability. Putting on a pair of safety glasses is the easiest, fastest form of PPE and it is of paramount importance. Before conducting a particle related task, take 2 seconds and put on a pair of safety glasses. If you know a piece of overhead scenery has excess sawdust inside of it and will fall out of it upon removal, go get some safety glasses. If you are asked to do a task requiring grinding, go get the facemask. All the major theaters in town carry these amenities, and we need to be on top of asking for them before engaging in a particle related activity.

Safety-toe shoes need to be on everyone’s mind the next time they go shopping for a new pair of work shoes. I know there are many common complaints with this type of footwear among stagehands, but technology has eliminated many of those. Gone are the days of cumbersome steel-toed full boots. You can find great aluminum or composite-toe shoes that are styled like athletic shoes and weigh just a little more than a regular shoe. A foot injured by a heavy road case or piece of scenery will put someone out of work for weeks. Don’t let that person be you.

I wrote this article because I hate seeing and hearing about my brothers and sisters getting hurt on the job when the injury could have easily been prevented by a simple and practical solution. In 2015, we have already had 2 deaths in the stage industry. I don’t ever want one of those stories coming out of Austin. My intention is not to be preachy but to raise awareness of things we need to be thinking about.

The industry is modernizing. We shouldn’t be working like it is still the 80’s. Improvements in safety are good for us and our friends and family that care very much about our well being. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your mother/brother/significant other. Be aware of yourself, be aware of others, and stay vigilant in suggesting ways to make our venues safer, more enjoyable places to do what we love.

Stewards Corner: Health & Safety Basics

The editor of Stage Call, Sister Cowan, asked me to provide something on this topic, and so I will attempt to bring out some details that are not only beneficial to 205 Stewards but to the membership in general. Some of this info I have presented on our stewards/discuss web site in the past. I would also like to explore some fine points in greater detail.

Last year, several Local 205 officers & members attended the IATSE Training Trust general entertainment safety class. The instructor was Kent Jorgensen, a name you see quite often in the IA Bulletin. Upon completion of the class, we received our IA Safety Officers’ certification cards along with completion cards for attending the10-hour OSHA general industry safety & health training course. What follows is the curriculum from that training session:

First, there is only what can be described as a confusing “patchwork” of laws and agencies that govern workplace health & safety matters. However, they are all very important. Why?  Because there are six-thousand American workers killed on the job each year. Accidents occur, but far too many deaths are unnecessary and preventable. The best known health & safety law is OSHA, the Occupational Safety & Health Act.  It is administered by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Half the states administer their own federally approved programs for public sector employees. Not for us. In Texas our first line of defense is OSHA. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency plays a role in oversight. There are many different sources for these rights and responsibilities in this area, but the general standards and principles apply across the board. They cover things like temperature, air quality, lighting and cleanliness in the workplace, exposure to hazardous substances, electrical guidelines, carbon monoxide exposure, noise levels, back injuries, scaffolding hazards, fall protection, stress-level reduction, personal protection equipment requirements. This includes respirators, safety goggles, hard hats, harnesses, gloves, ear plugs, and the like. FYI, lifting injuries are the single largest Workers Compensation expense in North America.

Federal OSHA law says employers have a “general duty” to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are “likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” This is referred to as: the General duty clause (Section 5 of the OSHA, public Law 91-596).

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, it is required by law that employers display the official OSHA poster that describes everyone’s rights and responsibilities under the law. Your steward can answer your questions or will know where to go to find someone more knowledgeable. Once again, I have asked the e-board to put in place a Health & Safety committee, which would mean there is a knowledgeable group of individuals to deal with these concerns. They would help to insure that no possible hazard is taken for granted. Most of our employers are just as concerned about preventing on-the-job injury. For those that aren’t, this committee could help to “push” and persuade employers to take corrective action. It would benefit us all if some members took on the task of learning about this highly technical area. You don’t have to become an expert overnight. Just commit to begin this journey of learning and help provide security & protection that safeguards our members. One great source for learning is COSH. It’s a national network of twenty-five union-based Coalitions on Occupational Safety & Health. It’s website is: <>. The New York website of COSH is packed with a lot of good information.

The National Institute for Occupational Health & Saftey (NIOSH), an arm of the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is also a good resource. They are part of the Dept. of Health & Human Services. They are at:  <>

It is almost always best to work through your union, but individuals have the right to contact OSHA if they feel the employer is negligent. You can get answers about your rights or how to file a formal complaint requesting an inspection about hazardous conditions. It is possible to do this and have your name withheld from the employer. You have some legal protections against reprisal if you exercise any of your legitimate rights. Again, my advice is to work through your union and get the full benefit of the power of the Bargaining Unit. Strength in numbers. And always remember that it’s the employer’s legal responsibility to keep your job safe and healthful.

You also have the right to information. Your employer is required to maintain and keep available for inspection certain types of documents. This also applies to the agencies who administer the laws. Documents you can obtain include:

*The Log and Summary of Occupational Injuries, known as OSHA Form 200. Your employer is required to keep these records for five years.

*Copies of the standards, rules, regulations, and requirements that apply to your workplace. This includes the OSH Act itself.

*Information on workplace health & safety incidents as well as the relevant medical records about on-the-job injuries. Plus information as to what measures the employer is taking to reduce improper or dangerous job-related injuries.

Under OSHA and NLRA guidelines, you and your coworkers may refuse unsafe work under certain conditions. Be careful though. You must have a “reasonable” belief that there is imminent danger of death or serious injury. You will strengthen your legal position if you notify your supervisor before stopping work.  Also, alert the union and your co-workers beforehand to enlist their help for collective action. IMPORTANT: You’re best off if you don’t refuse the assignment outright; instead, say you will do the job, once it is made safe.

Occupational Health & Safety hazards can be found in every type of work setting. Because they are sometimes hard to detect, many threats go unnoticed until they become extremely dangerous. In some cases they can be fatal. Just recently we heard of a fall at the Super Bowl that resulted in a death. This caused sorrow for all of us working in this trade. It is critical that we all stay vigilant in observing our surroundings. Because in the end, no law, no power, can protect us without informed, aggressive self-defense.

Work Safe, Work UNION PROUD!

Jim Ford
Stewards’ Committee
IATSE Local 205
Austin, Texas

Heads Up! Communication is Key

by Mikela Cowan

One of the most common phrases we are taught early on in our careers is “Heads up!” Sometimes it’s a shouted phrase from above to give anyone below them a warning to move. Sometimes it’s a loud notification from the fly-rail or deck that pipes are coming in. In either situation, communication is key to the safety of our brothers and sisters.

When on the fly-rail one may be running line sets and in constant communication with the loading-rail or folks on deck by voice (yelling) or radio. The TD or head carpenter may be on the deck calling pipes in and out, constantly talking to the head fly-man about which line sets to fly which directions, weights, or the progress of loading or unloading weight. Then the head carpenter can tell his crew or other departments when they can hang on a pipe, transfer goods, or drop units. In turn, the fly-rail is in constant communication with the loading rail to ensure they are awake and adjusting the load properly. Occasionally the fly-rail will need to call the loaders for a rub. Also moving above the crew’s heads are pics and cables of varying size and weight. It is crucial that hands lowering in or taking out Socapex cables and pics use their outside voice to notify folks on deck about these pieces. If nobody hears the heads up, they likely won’t move and may end up with a lead pipe on their head. The same idea should be applied to anyone in a lift or focus chair when dropping in a bag for supplies. Nobody wants a bag full of dead lamps crashing in on them.

When communicating verbally there are two basic paths of audial travel: your outside voice (don’t be afraid to yell when necessary, but please be considerate of the person standing next to you) and radios. In tech or show mode, com belt packs and head sets are often utilized. If this includes you, please use your inside voice and don’t leave your mic on unless absolutely necessary. On the radio, standard operating procedures can make communicating clean and efficient. When calling for someone hold down the button and say “<your name> calling for <their name>.” Give them a moment to reply, “Go for <their name>.” Please be succinct in your communication or request. Hopefully they will be as well – it is not only clear but also polite to your department, if not the whole crew.

It’s good to use your outside voice when calling to others from a distance, say, calling down from the top of a ladder to move. When you are a few feet away from a colleague and lifting a heavy object together, don’t yell, when you confirm you are both heading in the same direction, and lifting in tandem. These are basic communication skills and safety, not rocket science, folks. Verbalizing things that may seem intuitive can save somebody’s backs or toes. When you are pushing things onto the truck at the end of the call, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance with unwieldy pieces. Also, it’s good to wait for one of the loaders to call for another piece, there is no hammer space on a truck.

Sometimes you may lock eyes with another stagehand, and think they know you are silently telling them to take a heavy object from you. They may just be spacing out, pondering what props brought for break that day. Please be smart, be safe, and use your voice to communicate.

Young Workers Conference 2014

Sister Cowan and Brother Levin with fellow Longhorn, Emily Tao, Director of Communications at IATSE.
Sister Cowan and Brother Levin with fellow Longhorn, Emily Tao, Director of Communications at IATSE.

YWC report IATSE YWC Report 2014

Local 205 sent two representatives to the IATSE Young Conference this year.  Sister Cowan and Brother Levin would like to share some of their experience with you.

Did you know?
-21% of IATSE membership is 35 and younger Continue reading Young Workers Conference 2014

The Grateful Dead’s “Wall Of Sound”

In March of 1974, the Grateful Dead unveiled a sound system unlike any that had ever been, or that the world has seen (heard) since. It was designed by audio engineer Owlsley “Bear” Stanley, who had recently been released from prison, and at the time was the largest portable (somewhat) PA ever. The main component of the system was a huge wall of speakers erected upstage, behind the band. This mountain of speakers became known as the “wall of sound”. The system was unique due to its size, (it is reported as consisting of around 600 speakers, weighing 75 tons, and requiring 26,000-28,000 watts of continuous power, depending on the current point in its evolution) as well as its functionality and quality.

The system was actually six individual PA systems operating independently but together. There was a separate system for vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and piano. Each had its own set of amps, processing, and speakers. Band members had control of the area of the wall that was providing reinforcement for their particular instrument, as well as the levels of their vocals. A main (or monitor) mixing console was not required for the operation of “the wall”.

The challenges associated with such a set-up are obvious, the least of which not being the requirements for transportation and installation of this behemoth. The time it took to load in made it necessary for the band to tour with three complete packages and leapfrog much in the way that a broadway show would send gear in advance. There were over 20 crew members responsible for putting it all together, with assistance from local labor (much of which was provided by members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, which added an interesting dynamic).

This was actually the band’s second attempt at creating such a complex audio arrangement. The first experiment came about a year earlier and was met with tragic results. Every tweeter blew as the band began their first number.

The installation process would begin with the construction of a large scaffolding rig on the downstage side of where the speaker wall was to be erected. As the wall grew, block-and-falls were employed to hoist speakers, which were essentially wooden boxes affixed with speaker cones, up to the higher levels. The speakers were tied to the hoists with rope, raised up and landed on top of the last level. There were also chain motors that were used to lift some of the more obnoxiously massive parts, such as the cylindrically shaped structure of cones that was the section of the wall which provided reinforcement of high and mid-range vocals.

I imagine this was probably some of the oddest seeming stage work to ever take place. A bunch of gangsters building something equivalent to the pyramids while dogs and small children run around on stage. There was even some occasional breast-feeding.

Conventionally, main speaker arrays are located in the downstage corners of the stage, either flown or ground-based. Monitors are used to direct sound back towards the band but, although configured to the performers’ preferences, it sounds nothing like what the audience is hearing. The upstage location of the wall allows the band to hear exactly the same thing that the audience hears, but it also makes the avoidance of feedback somewhat tricky.

What happens, typically, is sound enters a microphone, is amplified and pushed out a speaker, goes back into the mic and this loop pattern creates some of the most awful noise known to human ears. Several steps were needed to prevent this phenomenon from ruining the effectiveness of the whole system.

First of all, the gargantuan cylindrical structure which brought the higher end of the vocals was placed at the top. It produced more horizontal than verticle dispersion, so they could keep most of the sound out of the mics. The low end speakers were arranged in columns lower in the wall and were less likely to cause feedback. Regardless of the physical separation of all the speakers in the vocal system, it was designed in a way to allow all frequencies to be heard equally well. That’s what they say.

In addition to just putting the speakers up high, more technical efforts were needed in order to further minimize the presence of feedback. The vocal mics were actually matched pairs of condenser mics run “out of phase”. The mics were arranged one on top of the other a few inches apart. (60 mm, actually. Not sure if that matters). The band members would sing into the top one, and the sound from this would be amplified like normal. The mics in reverse phase would combine signals in a “differential summing amp” (don’t ask) and cause all sound common to both mics to cancel each other out, thus eliminating feedback from the overall mix. That was hard.

The parts of the system associated with the instruments were slightly less complicated. Each had its own system of amps and crossovers, which would send different frequncies to different parts of the wall, but one of the more interesting aspects of the instrumental amplification was how Phil Lesh’s bass was integrated into the system.

The bass was reproduced quadrophonicaly, which is like stereo times two. Instead of just a left and a right there were actually 4 sound “areas”. Coincidentaly, there are four strings on the bass. It was configured so that each string was on its own channel, and the signal from each was bussed through its own system of amplification and projected from its own group of speakers. Each string came out of a different place in the wall.

The kick drum used its own amplification channel and a column of sixteen 15 inch speakers. That’s sixteen 15 inch speakers, all kick drum. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s loud, although it can be. It was more about having head room. If all the speakers aren’t being pushed to their capacity the resulting sound is going to be much cleaner.

Amplification of all the instruments and vocals was acheived in a manner in which each speaker was dedicated to a small portion of the entire sound output.
This resulted in an impeccably clean sound, almost entirely free of intermodulation distortion. In conventional speaker arrangements, sounds of different qualities and frequencies compete with each other as they cause speaker cones to behave differently than if they were just producing one type of sound. So a sound system could produce as much volume as this one with the use of much less power, but it would be inferior in overall quality and lack the ability to retain clarity in distances of up to a half mile, or be as cool, as this one.

The wall of sound can be seen in the documentary/concert film The Greatful Dead Movie. It was filmed during a 5 night run at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and contains concert footage as well as accounts of the technical aspects of the Dead’s live performance. It’s the third greatest rock and roll movie of all time, right behind “This Is Spinal Tap” and The Band’s The Last Waltz, which, perhaps not coincidentaly, was also filmed at Winterland.

There is a production credit for IA 16 which rolls by as time lapse footage reveals the deconstruction of the scaff. (Man those guys are fast). I wouldn’t assume that too many of the Hell’s Angels are cardholders, but there’s some representation happening. Probably working under a CBA.

This sit-down in San Francisco marked the end of the road, litteraly, for this mighty wall. The rising costs of fuel and logistical headaches forced the band to abandon this expirement after about 50 shows in six months. It also turned out that the Angels didn’t exactly create a peaceful work environment. These factors also led the band to decide to “retire” themselves. They only played a handful of shows in 1975 and didn’t really start touring again, with a more conventional sound system from here on out, until the middle of 1976. The band would remain whole (relatively) for another twenty years until all the things caught up with Jerry in 1995. (Crying a little right now).

A lot of this might seem pretty complicated, but remember, it was really just some dudes (and one chic) smoking a bunch of weed and screwing around every night.

Stewards Corner: Stewards Basics 101

Glad to see that Stagecall is back up and running.  It is an important way for our members to stay connected with each other, as well as disseminate information and ideals to the workers in our trade.  A big “thank you” to the newly organized Newsletter Committee and it’s editor for jump-starting this periodical.

As the Stewards Committee has been actively involved in educating and bringing along a new crop of qualified job site stewards, I have received some interest from members about stepping up to represent their brother and sisters as an advocate in the workplace and becoming an IA Steward.  Perhaps at this point it would be best to outline some of the basic requirements, qualities, and responibilitites of becoming an effective job site union steward.  Laying these out in one issue here would be next to impossible.  So, toward that end, I will elaborate on these topics through subsequent issues of Stagecall.

Stewards face a variety of problems: the mechanics of grievance handling, the wide variety of problems that members bring them, dealing effectively with management, and keeping in touch with union leadership.  The following are a few thoughts to help the new steward get through their first introductions to the job and become an effective advocate for the union and the contract.  Lets call it “Stewards Basic 101.”

1) Enthusiasm
One of the problems you’ll encounter is negative attitudes from some co-workers.  This could be from former officers, members with more seniority, or just plain anti-union folks.  They’ll tell you that your efforts are fruitless, things never change, you’re wasting your time.  All organizations need new caring people to keep them strong and growing.  You have every right to be enthusiastic about your local.  Don’t let naysayers discourage you from your duties.

2) The Long View
A good Steward does not develop overnight.  It’s a process that takes time.  You’ll have to learn to be patient.  Remember that your goal is to develop your skills over time, and in the process you’ll build respect from your fellow members and management.  Like the old sage, take the Long View.

3) Learning Attitude
You’ll have a lot to learn: the contract, past practices, and the way your union and management operate.  You aren’t expected to know all the answers, but you must be the kind of person that enjoys finding them.  Ask questions, and then keep asking them.  You’ll learn a lot about people, the nature of working attitudes, unions and labor relations.  So these things should appeal to you.

4) Dealing with Management
Management will often test stewards to see how well you represent your co-workers.  This comes in many forms: denying you reasonable time to carry out your duties, refusing to give you extension of time to research a first step towards a grievance.  They may deny you access to records in a clear-cut case of injustices in a disciplinary complaint.  All this is clearly a breach of the contractual agreement, as well as Federal Law.  Learning to work with the particulars of each management situation, while enforcing the contract can be tricky.  Your skill at this, with time, will improve.

5) Organizing Approach
As stated, you don’t need to know answers to all questions posed to you.  Learn to organize your co-workers varied skills and then access them with your problems.  The whole point of the trade union movement is power in numbers, working with others to achieve common goals.

I hope this article helps anyone contemplating becoming an advocate and steward for your fellow co-workers.  As mentioned, I will be laying out more on this topic in future articles in an attempt to answer some of the questions about this union function.  With hard work, a determined and positive pro-labor attitude, and a willingness to teach and mobilize your brothers and sisters, you will become a vital part of a prosperous and vibrant union.  Not a small task, but certainly worthy of great respect for stepping up.

Yours in Solidarity,
Brother Jim Ford, IATSE 205

Winter 2012