Amplified Sound System Use
in the Historic Courthouse Tower

This "memorandum for file" reports on the aged but powerful amplified sound system (donated by John Norton and owned by HCHS) we deployed in the Historic Courthouse tower. Some readers received related e-mail on this topic from me prior to the use. We cover three topics in this memo:

  1. Logistics
  2. Performance and feedback
  3. Suggestions

1. Logistics

I did not time things, but even if one is well-prepared and energetic, it is surely easy to spend at least an hour setting up or tearing down the system safely.

Here is what needs to be done to deploy the system:

  • a. Get the clock room and tower door keys from our key box.
  • b. Open the clock room door, but provide a door stop - else the door will try to swing open all the way at high speed and sooner or later its glass can crack upon wall impact. Charles is anxious about public access to the clock room so do re-lock the door or post a guard when you abandon same.
  • c. Open the tower door from the clock room. The old-fashioned style key requires that you insert it just the right depth to enable it to turn and unlock the latch; all the way in fails. DO NOT TOUCH THE CLOCK DRIVE SHAFT PENETRATING THE CENTER OF THE CLOCK TOWER WHEN YOU REACH ANY STORY LANDINGS. CAVE CARLOS!
  • d. The high-power audio system is normally kept in the HCH Christmas closet or the courtroom. It consists of a console and two speakers, plus a pair of free large-jack cables which connect the speakers to the back of the console. All three substantial (bulky & heavy) units have carrying handles on top.
  • e. Carry the three units up the staircase one by one, lifting them to rest on a stair tread a couple treads higher in front of you again and again. There is no side railing for the staircase, so move slowly and carefully. (At least the staircase is narrow enough you might fling out your arm against the wall to try breaking a fall.) Your destination is a single story up; the clock bell is one story higher yet. If there is a light switch up there, I could not find it the other night and carried a lantern to light my way up and down the dark stairs.
  • f. There is a three-wire outlet near the bottom of the stairwell in the clock-room. Drop the end of a three-wire power cable from the tower landing down the stairwell and plug it in. Attach the top end to a power strip to supply all the gear upstairs. The Norton system uses one plug outlet. If you drive it with a DVD player, computer or some other powered gear (rather than just a mike) you will need to plug in this latter gear to the strip as well.
  • g. It is wise to move the gear upstairs prior to the day of use, wire it up and test it. I discovered our new (bought December 2007) DVD player has a defectively muted audio jack output this way!
  • h. The day of the event, use a Philips-head screwdriver (the library storeroom holds one you can borrow AND RETURN) to unscrew two of the three windows; I have used the two furthest apart. The screws hold the lower window sashes in place with L-brackets. As you free these sashes and maneuver them inside, do not drop them into the yard below. (Or if you must, do not aim at someone important! <G>)
  • j. Lift each speaker onto its window base. A speaker will balance fully inside the non-trivial barrier at the bottom of the window space and cannot be pushed out the window without tipping it. Indeed, the speaker in the right window will actually tilt toward the inside a bit and can be shimmed at its bottom to level it. If we put the speakers in the windows often, it would be good to attach a grill or straps outside to prevent tossing them out a window in error!
  • k. The Norton system is sophisticated: it has multiple channel inputs (starting on the left). We have a mike with on/off switch you can plug in, normally kept in the Genealogy Room electronics closet. We own two DVD players, the older one (Norcent) of which can drive this unit.To date, we have borrowed the 1/8" to 1/4" stereo adapter cable needed from Ron; HCHS should buy and store its own. This same adapter can be used to help drive the Norton system from the audio output of any PC. Each channel has a separate gain ("volume") control, among many others. And the overall system has a overall gain ("volume") control on the bottom right of the control panel's front face, among many others. An easy way to temporarily silence the system is to slightly pull out the speaker cables from the back of the console box; the power switch back there is inoperative.
  • m. The Norton system is old and prone to hissing at higher volumes. You can reduce hiss by killing high frequencies on the equalizer at the top right of the console or turning down the high-pass filters of any individually used channels.

2. Performance and feedback

The first non-test use of this system was at the 2008 Pumpkin Caper. (Aside: Spooky sounds debuted at the Pumpkin Caper in 2006, a puny set of two, fired at random intervals from a humble PC speaker in the corridor of the public library in the Historic Courthouse. In 2007, a CD-based set of very many dozens of sounds was introduced and played with the Norton sound system on the Historic Courthouse campus lawn. In 2008, we used the same CD again.)

I began playing the sounds around 4:30PM. By hitting the REPEAT button on the remote-control TWICE after you power-up the unit and start playing the CD/DVD, the Norcent unit will loop its replay indefinitely (if disk-formatting makes that possible).

I started with the overall volume relatively low. Still, sounds were CLEARLY audible on Carrollton Street at the Post Office, and goodness only knows how much further - there was no time to do a "field survey". Many days before the fair I had asked the mayor of the town to supply a police officer who could help us set the volume at a level not so high that it would be a civil nuisance. He replied by pointing out that every two years the city puts on a fireworks show at New Year midnight, implying we were free to use our own disgression about the sound volume.

Charles, who was in the library corridor when he made this remark, complained that the volume was rather too low, and I turned it up quite a bit in consequence.

No one was questioned about their opinion of the "sound show". Even on the Historic Courthouse campus, the sound was very, very far from painful, on account of speaker placement multiple dozens of feet up in the air. But one adult festival attendee within my earshot, whom I don't think imagined I had any connection with the event, remarked to her child that she wished "they" would stop the sound show. I did not inquire after her reasons, which might have included content, volume or other concerns. Did anyone else receive any feedback or ask after it?

As the festival was winding down, Karen asked that I turn down the sound "a bit." At the risk of wrongly interpreting the qualification as an attempt to spare imagined feelings on my part, I turned it down substantially, to the level originally set. When we closed shop about 8:30PM, the system was shut off, disassembled and stored.

When placed up in the tower, the sound from the Norton system carries amazingly far in town. How loud should one make the sound? It depends on the time of day, duration and duty-cycle of use, content you broadcast, sentiments of the event crowd AND general residents. Opinions will vary and I have no definitive answer. The City of Buchanan should provide advice on what makes a nuisance in the absence of well-known case law or explicit ordinances. Previous town festivals have used amplified sound systems before, so the issue is not entirely new. BUT - placement of same in the tower opens a NEW DIMENSION, because the sound is no longer baffled within the town square, but can carry BLOCKS away. Use some discretion.

That said, tower placement of the speakers is of advantage compared to street level use in that no one at street level is blasted at a volume setting which is loud enough for the convenience of the most distant intended listeners. By the way, at lower volumes it is hard for people on the street to localize the source of the sound, and the speakers are visually inconspicuous. This produces an appropriate "spooky" effect for Halloween events. Praise (or blame?) Karen for the suggestion to mount the speakers in the tower!

3. Suggestions

Mayor Biggers suggested that we use our wireless microphone to allow street access to the tower sound system. I had previously arranged that announcers might either go to the tower and use the wired mike in place there or provide us a recording we could burn to CD, both being fool-proof methods. I declined using our wireless mike at the last minute for want of testing prior to the day of use, generally a wise policy for big events that should be robust against gotchas. (Remember my discovery concerning the new DVD system fault above!)

All the same, this is an interesting notion. The mike manufacturers suggest you can burn through the two required 9V one-use batteries within 2 hours. As I write, such a pair of Energizers will cost you $5.68 online at Wal-Mart. (About $3 per hour with continuous use.) That's why HCHS instead elected to invest in NiMH rechargeables and a charger for about $25. (They seem to last about an hour before they need recharging.)

Sadly, at least once, our poor coordination prevented the use of batteries charged up the night before an event, because no one knew to move the batteries from the charger to the mike system on the actual day of the event! Suggested problem solution: Next time, tape a card to the mike reading: "Take 9V batteries from charger, place same in both mike and receiver, and turn both on for up to an hour before power exhaustion."

While on the topic, I suggest we buy two mains supplies (about $10? each) which can replace the needed 9V batteries. This lets us power the wireless mike and receiver indefinitely at low cost of operation, while obviating the need for a signal cable between the two. Naturally, this means the two ends must then be tied down near some mains power outlets (e.g. a performance stage trailer on Carrollton Street and the Courthouse tower.)

Whether we use charged batteries or splurge for one-use units, I think it would be interesting to test the use of the mike system with the receiver in the tower, where it could drive the Norton speaker system, and the mike positioned at several strategic places in town, including at least all three of the HCHS-managed buildings (HCH, SWHH, LCSH) and the City Hall. Such testing would require auxiliary use of a pair of cell-phones so that the people at the mike and in the tower could coordinate. Depending on mike position, it may prove necessary to adjust one or both of the trimming pots on the receiver module (using a jeweler's screwdriver). Such settings may also depend on diurnal and other temporal patterns of interfering local radio spectrum habitation in our gadget-filled age! (I have no plans to run such tests myself any time soon.)

An obvious alternative to the wireless mike is use of a pair of cell phones, with one phone acoustically feeding a wired mike in the tower. But such a link suffers from the acoustic inferiority of cell phone telephony, making it unsuitable for artistic sounds like performed music, quite aside from any usage charges. By the way, for the same reason, I don't like using the Norton sound system for the best in sound quality - remember the hiss problem we detailed above.

Please note that even if some remote feed of tower-placed speakers proves technically feasible, one should be demure in intruding on the ACOUSTIC PRIVACY of town residents. The temptation to excessively force one's attention on them by such intrusive means could easily lead to callous practices that produce not only great resentment, but even anger, not unreasonably so! After all, a town is NOT a privately-held fairground or mall, but a place many people call home. Persons and groups who desire the former should lease or purchase same. Question: Is there a town-wide emergency alert siren system? Neighborhood systems of that type were common in the big-city haunts of my Cold War childhood, now long decades ago.

27 October 2008

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