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Fotis Sound


The Pope Comes Home: John Paul II Returns To Poland

by Vlad Paltchenko, LIVE SOUND! International
Reprinted from September/October '97 edition

Any Papal visit has, until recently, been a rare occasion. But since the ascension of Pope John Paul II to the Throne of St. Peter, the Papacy has logged more air miles than all the previous popes combined. (At least worldly ones, anyway.)

On June 1, 1997, this most peripatetic of popes arrived on the most recent of several pilgrimages he has made back to his homeland, a ten-day visit that saw him appear and say Mass before nearly 3,000,000 people.

Increasing Need

As the Pope's audience has grown, so have his sound needs. The solutions to John Paul II's audio requirements have, in a way, kept pace with the other technological answers to a pro-active Pope who refuses to remain tucked away in the Vatican. Video, of course, broadcasts the Pope's visage where ever he goes, but to give the greatest number of people access to seeing him in person, the famous Popemobile -- an open Jeep-like carrier with a 360-degree bubbletop of bulletproof glass --was devised.

On the audio side, when the Pope returned to Poland this time, the task of getting his message across aurally was given to Poznan-based, Fotis Sound Ltd.(FSL). FSL, owned by audio industry veteran Fotis Tzokas, was started in earnest a dozen years ago, but, according to Tzokas, he had been working with small multi-component sound rigs for eight years before that while Poland was still under communist rule and independent commercial ventures were subject to considerable government scrutiny.

But those eight years allowed him to develop his own resources to deal with the problems of sound reinforcement in a country without easy access to western technology. Once the barriers fell in the late 1 980s, Tzokas quickly became the country's leading SR company based not only on technology but also on technique.

At the Crossroads

Speaking through his associate and translator Peter Witkowski, Tzokas noted that the Poznan appearance was a particularly difficult one, due to the fact that the Pope was to appear in the town center at the intersection of two main thoroughfares. The two boulevards were wide, but with a crowd estimated at between 190,000 and 220,000 attendees, the tactical aspects would prove challenging.

"The first problem we encountered was that the distances from the center, where the Pope was going to say Mass, to the farthest reaches of where people were standing were so great," Tzokas recalls. "Just in placing the FOH console [a Midas 48-input, XL-200] we were in danger of running out of cable.

The center of Poznan has a large monument in it and it is surrounded by large housing blocks and some open areas. We did have enough cabling, of course, but it was tight because we had to run so much of the cable around obstacles and place it in such a way as to not have it trampled by the crowds." The solution was to use dozens of small speakers placed on high risers and on eight variably timed delay lines to supplement the main SR cluster above the main altar in the intersection. The center cluster consisted of two full-range JBL HLA 4897 systems plus one HLA 4895 sub cabinet per side. (This, incidentally, was the first appearance of the new JBL HLA system in Poland and its arrival was just in time, due to a delay the components encountered at Polish customs.)

From the Frontier, Just in Time

According to Pawel Danikiewicz of POLSOUND, the JBL sales rep in Poland, "The customs problems that we have to deal with here are such that we actually have an entire department within our company to deal with nothing but that," he says, only half-laughing. "The HLA system did get out of customs just in time for this appearance."

Fifty meters forward of the altar, four JBL SR Series 4732A cabinets were arrayed, with a pair of JBL SR4719A cabinets split on either side. Another 100m (328ft) downrange was the second HLA system, with eight HLA 4897 enclosures and four HLA 4895 cabinets located atop a pair of high towers. Altogether, 22 HLA enclosures were utilized at this Papal appearance. Other, smaller speakers were strategically located throughout the area. Powering these arrays were 28 Crown K2 amplifiers, 20 Crest 8001 amps and 40 Crest 7001 amplifiers. Speaker control was handled by the JBL DSC-280 processor on the main HLA system, with BSS FDS-388 Omnidrives controlling the rest of the systems.

Delay and Other Details

The delays, which Tzokas says were key to getting the intelligibility, were a combination of one Yamaha D2040, one YDG2030 plus two Dl 030 delay lines, and one Roland EQ E660, which permitted the crew to enter the distances in meters and allow the onboard processing to determine the correct delay settings. No equalization was used on the sound system itself the only application of EQ came on the delays, via seven Klark-Technik DN 360 EQs and a BSS FCS-960 Varicurve system.

The foldback system was relatively sparse, consisting of twelve DAS ST-32 wedges and eight OHM boxes. "Monitoring was not a real issue in this instance." says Tzokas. "The problem was not volume on the altar area, but projection and articulation into the crowds. It was a very complex setting and speaker placement, delay times and cabling were all critical," Tzokas recalls. "But we were lucky in that the weather was nice that day. No rain and no strong winds which could have cause dispersion problems.

"The only real problem - other than the long throw distances - was the reflections coming off the buildings that surrounded the plaza. The signal-delayed speaker locations took care of most of that; however, it was inevitable there would be some reflected energy. That, says Tzokas, is where the JBL HLA system proved worth the effort it took to get it through customs. "The HLA system was excellent and that more than compensated for any remaining reflections that we encountered from the surrounding buildings."

Input Insights

Micing Pope John Paul II was a relatively simple matter, and, it seems this pope is a savvy one when it comes to his audio preferences. According to Tzokas, the Pope specified that there be no wire-less headset microphones used.

Instead, the Papal microphone specifications included a Shure Beta 58 and a Sennheiser 441. "The Vatican specified only dynamic microphones," says Tzokas. "There was very little EQ on His Holiness; no major boosts or cuts." Both at Poznan and at the city of Gorzow Wielkopolski, the second location that Fotis Sound did the Pope's SR, choirs and bands were present near the altars. The smaller but more professional choir at Poznan was mic'd with eight Shoeps microphones and the orchestra with a combination of Shure Beta 58 and Sennheiser 441 microphones. At Gorzow Wielkopolski, the larger 200-voice-choir and its supporting band of acoustic guitars, bass, percussion and keyboards was mic'd with eight AKG C451s (with CK-5 capsules) and Shure SM 57s and SM 58s.

Once the signals came to the Midas FON console, a stereo submix was tapped off and sent to a Polish National Radio remote truck.

The Pope on the Pitch

The appearance at the city of Gorzow Wielkopolski was simpler than the Poznan venue - a large flat landscape made up of four soccer fields in the center of the town, which could easily hold the crowd estimated at 450,000.That Fotis had a longest cable run of two kilometers gives an idea of the scale of this appearance. However, the apartment building blocks that surrounded these fields resulted in a degree of long-delay reflections. Again, the use of multiple JBL speakers - this time including JBL M350 speakers - to support the main JBL HLA cluster were used, although the small speaker placement was more highly dispersed, says Tzokas, to cover what was a 3000 range of attendees. Only the direct rear of the altar had no viewers. And the amplification was higher than in Poznan to deal with the larger crowd and larger space," he adds, estimating the total wattage in Gorzow Wielkopolski at approximately 80kW.

Vlad Paltchenko is a former Soviet broadcast engineer working as a communications and computer consultant in Prague.