Pro Audio Review, Aug 2007

Pro Audio Review

Wonky Tonk:
Dynacord Presides Over Political Party

by Stephen Murphy

To paraphrase 19th-century essayist Charles Dudley Warner's enduring quip, “Politics makes strange bandfellows."  Strange bandfellows indeed topped the bill at a sold-out charity event at the non-profit National Press Club called "The White House Wonk Meets Honky Tonk." The event benefited the press club's National Journalism Library, a public resource that supports and advocates for a free press worldwide, provides research services and maintains historical archives, and annually sponsors graduate- and undergraduate-level scholarships.

So just who was the "White House Wonk" in question, and which major network anchor donned a cowboy hat, grabbed a cowbell and brought on the 'tonk at this battle of the bands? The light-hearted competition pitted none other than White House press secretary Tony Snow and his "lawyers with Mesa Boogies" band called Beats Workin' (and yes, a few really are lawyers and use Mesa Boogies), against the ever-congenial CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer, who performed with local favorites Honky Tonk Confidential.  Getting a jump on the competition, Snow called in a ringer: guitarist and DC-native Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, well known for his work with Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers and many others.

At a preproduction meeting with representatives from the two bands we roughed in the stage setup, performance order, load-in and soundcheck times, and shared backline equipment. In addition to the above details, I took away from the meeting two general observations.

First: Seldom in recent years have I seen such generosity and goodwill demonstrated between representatives of the White House and the mainstream press (except, of course, when the former literally pays the latter). In all seriousness, both bands were as considerate and cooperative as any engineer could hope for as we worked out potentially problematic issues such as equipment sharing and reaching a compromise on personnel placement on stage to facilitate a quick turnover.

Second:  In the words of Brody in the movie Jaws, "We're gonna need a bigger boat." – well, sound system and stage in this case. This became evident after plotting out both bands' input requirements, plus the fact that the event had already reached standing-room-only status (one month in Battle of the Bands Stage Layoutadvance), the fact that there would be less than 10 minutes for band changeover (thus limiting the amount of SR gear we could recycle for the second band), and the fact that both bands were to perform on stage together as a finale/encore.

Grand Assembly
At the core of the system assembled for the event was the a 32-channel Midas Venice 320 console and Dynacord Cobra-2 two-way compact line-array system with integrated CSR-12 amplifier/processing rack (a DSP 244 controller prewired with two L2400 power amplifiers for active 2-way stereo operation). The speaker setup consisted of two Cobra-Tops and two Cobra-Subs per side in a slightly splayed-outward ground stack configuration. The system included the Cobra CSW-25 2.5-degree wedges, which were used to aim the Cobra-Tops down towards the middle (distance-wise) of the audience seating.

The Cobra-Top cabinet houses a full-range 3-way speaker system utilizing an Electro-Voice DH2T 2-inch titanium compression HF driver coupled to a HPT94 constant directivity horn for the highs, a four-speaker array of Dynacord C8 cone transducers for the mids, and an EV EVX-155 15-inch LF speaker. The Cobra-Sub is a vented direct-radiating cabinet equipped with a high-power Electro-Voice EVX 180B 18" transducer.

Two pairs of Dynacord Madras M15 two-way active speaker cabinets (equipped with a EV ND6-16 HF driver and HP8055 horn, and a EVX-155 15-inch LF speaker) were used as mains fills and balcony fills.

Early Analysis
After several years of hearing good things about – and, on a couple of occasions, from – Dynacord speaker systems, I was very much looking forward to using the Cobras. The self-contained Cobra-2 system was delivered and set up by Mark Towles of the Baltimore-based Towles Marketing Group, who is the Mid-Atlantic marketing representative for Dynacord, as well as for many other top audio, video, and broadcast industry product manufacturers.

Besides Dynacord's excellent reputation in the industry, the fact that the self-contained and completely preconfigured/prewired (excepting four Speakon speaker cables and cab jumpers) Cobra-2 system can be up and running very quickly was a major factor in specifying the system for this event.
Speed of load-in and system setup were important in minimizing disruption in the always-busy press club (10 or more news conferences, satellite broadcasts and other events may be going simultaneously) and maximizing the limited setup/soundcheck time before the doors opened at 7pm.

Once loaded in, unbelievably, Mark had the complete Cobra-2 system set up and sounding good in just over 10 minutes. It took us twice as long to try and get Tony Snow's well-worn MIDI controller pedal and effects unit to work with each other, which, when we got it working was so noisy that we promptly abandoned it in favor of effects from the FOH rack.

With the essential help of engineers-extraordinaire David Sless (monitor mix, stage A2) and Andrew Roberts (FOH A2) plus a few NPC AV techs and band members, we got the FOH and monitors systems, backline stage gear and input sources set up in time for some rudimentary sound checking with both bands before shutting down for the pre-event cocktail party door time.

Power to the People
The NPC ballroom can be an audio engineering challenge for music programs in the best of circumstances, and this was not one of those. The two-storey room is 100 feet wide with its east and west wings open, 50 feet deep, and can hold up to 700 people. The challenge, however, is not what one would expect from a typical ballroom.

The fully carpeted room, with its gorgeous wave-sculpted wood ceiling (slatted and packed with absorptive material à la Herr Helmholtz), is principally designed for clarity in voice-only programs. In typical use, the wings and balconies are serviced by a series of close proximity ceiling speakers. The main floor area is covered by a pair of theater-style PA speakers pointing down at the audience from the point where the ceiling meets the front wall, and augmented by rear fills. When open, the Airwalls that separate the wings from the main room form four large-mass bass traps.
So the challenge was not the typical out-of-control bass reflections and long RT ambience; instead, it was combating the fast audio fall-off rate from the sound source and providing an approximate 220-degree coverage spread in a room twice as wide as long – and keep things at a moderate level due to the decorum of the venue and the likely 80-year age range expected.

The compact Dynacord Cobra-2 line array proved to be the ideal solution. A stack with two Cobra-Tops provides a 120-degree horizontal by 15-degree vertical coverage pattern. Splaying the stacks outward by about 10 degrees provided the wide coverage for most of the floor audience. Using the included wedges to aim the tops towards the audience on the floor minimized vertical reflections and interference with the balcony fills.

The direct sound level of line array systems only falls by some 3 dB as the distance doubles, as opposed to 6 dB in traditional PA/speaker systems. As a result, the Cobra system provided a very even nearfield zone that covered most of the main audience, mitigated the huge sound level differential between the seats proximate to the stacks and those at the room's extremes.

The built-in amount of bass trapping in the large room was a real boon for sound quality because it allowed the majority of the low frequencies in the mix to be heard directly from the Cobra-Subs as opposed to a high percentage of uncontrolled reflections. The great reduction in bass reflections also served to virtually eliminate uneven coverage zones. Best of all, I was able to really hear the Cobra-2 system, the sound of which had more in common with large studio monitors in clarity and response than with traditional live sound systems.

Results Are In!
The evening went off without a hitch. I was quite impressed by the "first of its kind" compact line array system. The Cobra-2 was a top-scorer in portability, setup time, control, coverage and, of course, sound quality. 
The always-fun Honky Tonk Confidential, featuring well-known top musicians from the DC area, played songs from its new album Road Kill Stew, including several co-written by and featuring an endearingly enthusiastic Bob Schieffer on vocals (when not on lead, Bob bopped and played a mean cowbell).

Tony Snow and Beats Workin' – self-admittedly a "weekend warrior" band – won the judges over with its set of crowd-pleasing covers. The highlights were Skunk Baxter's note-for-note cover of his own solo from the Doobie's "China Grove", and an impressive flute performance from Tony Snow on a cover of Jethro Tull's version of "Bourrée in E minor" by J.S. Bach.

Bob, Tony, Skunk and the members of both bands took the stage for a rousing We-Are-the-World-style encore jam. The event was a huge success for the charities, and a great event to kick off the National Press Club's 100th Anniversary celebrations.

For the curious, there are various video clips of the evening available on the web, the best of which are Associated Press' segment, and a take on the event from CNN's humorist Jeanne Moos.

PAR Studio Editor Stephen Murphy has over 20 years production and engineering experience, including Grammy-winning and Gold/Platinum credits. His website is