Sound Advice: Emerging Trends and Critical Issues in Air Show Sound and Narration

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Change is in the air. The ear-piercing screams and bone-rattling rumbles of jet engines are just one element in the audio banquet spectators now expect at a modern air show.

An increasing number of shows now depend on sophisticated technology to deliver meticulously-choreographed soundtracks that amplify – and complement — maneuvers made on the wing. Choreographing music to aerial performances sweeps the spectator along with the performer, so they enjoy together the exhilaration of leaving Earth behind to dance in the sky.

This emerging trend is beginning to distinguish the difference between successful modern entertainment and a more one-dimensional air show that operates according to business-as-usual procedure.

There’s more to the audio experience than music. Performers talk to spectators from the cockpit during flight. Announcers narrate each performer’s story, setting the tone so spectators can better appreciate the action above their heads. Mix in the audio backdrop of aircraft engines and props, and you’ve got the wild cacophony that characterizes a contemporary air show.

Skilled Professionals, Quality Equipment

It takes appropriate equipment in the hands of skilled technicians to sort each sound into layers for a coherent soundtrack that amplifies the drama in the sky and intensifies the spectators’ vicarious escape into flight. But it all starts with the music.

Michael Goulian, for example, matches certain music to certain maneuvers according to the flow pattern of his routine. He starts with high-energy “stand up and take notice” tunes, then morphs into “happy-to-be-alive, feel-good” music, and closes with “sentimental, good-tears” nostalgia tunes. The inspiration for his musical choices comes from the mesmerizing effect of his favorite rock concerts, movies and roller-coasters, all which transport him to a dream state.

“That’s always been my goal,” Goulian says. “I want people to forget they’re even at an air show. It’s just me and them, and I’m evoking emotion for them.”

Goulian credits Ed Shipley of AirShowBuzz.com for developing the modern, multimedia approach to choreographing each maneuver to a particular musical phrase that boosts the show’s effectiveness. Shipley drew upon his background in television marketing when he developed an exciting soundtrack of rock and pop songs for the Thunderbirds’ show in 2003.

The Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, Golden Knights, and other military acts now utilize popular music as a powerful recruitment tool. The common musical thread serves as a mutual bond between the military and the civilian spectator. Looking for adventure? You were born to be wild. Come fly with us!

Goulian is working with Shipley on a new, edgy soundtrack for 2009, selecting snippets of songs which are strung together digitally, creating a customized soundtrack synched to his every move. This is accomplished by taking video of Goulian’s show, then placing it onto software which enables synchronization of musical phrases from a song database onto specific sections of video. Through a simple cut-and-paste process, Goulian and Shipley have created one new song out of many. In order to reduce audio competition between the music and narration, Goulian has selected primarily instrumental music, avoiding the vocal portions. The music fades down when narration cues in, and dramatic aerial maneuvers are punctuated with drums or cymbals.

Goulian’s crew chief runs the sound board, mixer and 360 boxes, as if engineering sound at a rock concert. He and Goulian coordinate their iPods to play the same music that’s broadcasted over the PA system. So, instead of adjusting his routine to set music, Goulian’s team actually adjusts the music to his timing needs at the moment, whether it be a headwind, a downdraft or a positioning delay.

Of course, a killer musical composition has little effect from tinny or overblown speakers. “We can have terrific, high-fidelity sound in the studio, but when we play it over $29 speakers, the quality just doesn’t come through,” says Goulian. Quality sound elevates the entire air show experience. Without it, a show is no longer multi-dimensional. It’s bland and flat.

A Challenging Environment

Too often, to hold down costs, air show organizers use inadequate sound equipment. The result: sometimes, only 20 percent of the crowd can hear the music and narration… and those closest to the speakers get barraged by overly-loud, distorted sound that degrades their entertainment experience. Consequently, spectators get disengaged from the action and simply wander the grounds, only distractedly aware that the show is in full swing.

Air show announcer Rob Reider blames physics for the trouble with getting good acoustics at a large outdoor event like an air show. The “inverse square” law demonstrates mathematically how quickly sound energy dissipates exponentially over space. The intensity of a sound wave radiating from a point source decreases by 50 percent as the distance is doubled.

“Typically, if you want to throw the sound any distance,” Reider says, “you have to blast the people closest to the speakers, and the crowd beyond that line really can’t distinguish what they’re hearing from the PA system. Air show organizers may understand the physics of flight, but not the physics of sound. When you place B-52s and other big-wing aircraft on static display, they block the sound that’s projected from the platform.”

To avoid that pitfall and provide undistorted, clear sound to everyone watching the show, organizers need to invest in talented sound engineers with outdoor venue experience, and their sophisticated equipment. That combination turns an ‘impossible situation’ into a manageable challenge. Shows like the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends, Dayton Air Show, the California International Air Show in Salinas, and others have improved overall entertainment by making a larger budgetary investment in quality sound.

The effect is a highly-polished sound that connects the dance in the air to the crowd on the ground. Since the proper technology allows the sound technician, air boss, crew chief, announcer, performer and crowd to each hear the same audio simultaneously, the result is better coordination and perfect timing.

“So, when I announce, ‘Ladies and gentlemen… I present to you: The United States Air Force THUNDERBIRDS…’ there they are, zooming into the crowd’s line of sight just at the right time,” Reider says. “There’s no lag time between the two! When there’s too much lag time between the narration and the action, the drama is lost.”

Air Show Sound and Performance: a Case History

Perfect timing plays its part in the audio track that defines Julie Clark’s dramatic performances. Clark was among the first performers to introduce choreographed flying to the air show circuit in the early 1980s, flying to songs like St. Elmo’s Fire, Chariots of Fire and It’s a Wonderful World.

Already an airline pilot, Clark debuted at air shows as part of a trio in 1978. But by 1980, she began her solo career with a most unlikely airplane: a T-34 Mentor. “My plane seemed like it was in slow motion!” Clark says. “It was so big, bulky and slow… not an exciting plane at all. It’s just a re-built military trainer with a 125-hp engine (rebuilt now to 285 hp)!”

In order to jazz up her act, Julie painted her restored plane metallic silver and royal blue with an eye-catching Air Force One color scheme. Then she handed the announcer a tape of pre-selected music so spectators would pay attention to her sweeping, graceful moves in the sky.

But, three years later, it was a unique match of music and maneuvers that forever changed the course of Clark’s air show career. When she first heard Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, the song struck so many chords, it became her sole theme music for the next 25 years… and counting.

“I remember thinking that my act had a tempo that matched perfectly to this song. The high notes hit just as I executed my high-altitude hammerhead, then descended from there into lower notes and my vertical roll.

“And the lyrics practically told my life story, from my career as an airline pilot, my home base in Minnesota, me being a product of the Vietnam Era…who’s very aware that our boys did not receive their due honor when they came home. It was too perfect.”

Clark spent the winter of 1983-84 choreographing her routine to Greenwood’s song. She added red, white and blue smoke to further complement her theme. She began talking to spectators from the cockpit while making her long climb to altitude, and traversing the flight line, waving her American flag. She added wingtip fireworks to her twilight show… and just introduced her “butt light” after-burner effect this season. Clark continues to refresh her bedrock theme with something new. But there’s no question as to her message or her image. She has created her own, distinctive brand based on a theme song.

Air show announcer Danny Clisham told Clark, “Your act is entertainment, and when your wheels hit the ground after your show, people still want more.” Until that effect fades away and spectators decide to grab a hot dog when she starts her show, Julie Clark will fly on with God Bless the USA.

Critical Component of Overall Entertainment Experience

Clisham advises air show organizers and performers to learn from masters of live entertainment, whether they’re rock stars, stage actors or Vegas showmen. “We are in show business,” Clisham emphasizes. “Aviation is secondary. Give people the elements of theatrics: music, a story line, human emotion… The message stirs people to tears because they get caught up in the human drama unfolding before them.”

Above all else, performers need to communicate contagious excitement and passion, Clisham says. “Be a Pied Piper! People will follow you anywhere.”

But how effective is a Pied Piper if the crowd can’t hear him?

Jay Rabbitt, president of In Concert Productions (ICP), expounds, “Just as surround-sound has forever changed the home theater and movie-going experience, modern professional sound system technology has created an atmosphere where the public expects the ‘entire’ show-going experience.”

Rabbitt has provided air show turnkey production support for over a decade, working with both military and civilian acts. He says, “I’m trying to educate the air show industry about how great sound, operated by production industry professionals (not weekend warriors), working alongside incredible announcers, make a huge difference.

Rabbitt says organizers and performers can assist with pre-production to create the best possible sound entertainment at air shows. This means information-sharing of layout drawings, timelines, show schedules, performer specifics, vendor placement, other events happening before or after the air show, etc.

For tight budgets, but a deep area to cover, Rabbitt suggests using traditional 70-volt, paging horn, re-entrant type speakers. For 200 feet or less of audience depth, PA type speakers with 12-inch or 15-inch woofers and a horn can be used. An important detail: Elevate speakers 10-30 feet off the ground.

“A Higher Level of Audio-Visual Professionalism”

Mark Magin of OnBoard Images is another multimedia production techie who helps performers reach a higher level of audio-visual professionalism. After developing onboard camera systems for NASCAR and other car races, Magin adapted that technology to aircraft. He’s now in high demand to provide in-cockpit video for live feeds onto jumbotrons, and to capture raw footage for crafting performers’ promotional videos. Performers value Magin’s ability to select just the right sound for just the right moves in video… so now, they look to him for choreographing their live routines to music, as well.

“Certain songs elicit a certain feel, which can be literal to the performance in the sky,” Magin says. “The AeroShell team, for instance, is characterized by big, sweeping maneuvers. So I give them big orchestration soundtracks, like movie scores. And Steve Oliver’s rock-n-roll night show theme lends itself to a series of Bob Seger songs about the nighttime.”

Typically, Magin shoots a routine onto video, studying the flow of the performance, so he can match the rhythm and synchronization of certain music to the pilot’s flight. When the pilot repositions, Magin knows that’s a good time to cue in narration or change up the music. Sound effects can be inserted to accentuate dramatic maneuvers and to set a certain tone. The overarching objective is to “put the spectator into the cockpit… a place they’ll probably never actually go. It’s art. You need to transport the spectator into the sky.

“You can’t save music as an afterthought,” Magin advises performers. “Music really increases the value of your performance. Music is the soundtrack of our lives… It sparks memories and emotions of where we were and how we felt when we first heard that song. Music is the thread that ties everything together. It completes the whole package and ties it up with a bow.”

To that point, Goulian plans to make his performances even more relevant to spectators by using different soundtracks on different days of the show, and by regionalizing musical selections depending on where the show is held.

“So the folks down South might get a little Lynard Skynard or something cool like that,” Goulian suggests. “The fans in the Midwest will probably get some John Mellancamp or Aaron Tippin. In the end, it’s all about connecting with the audience. I try to do this as much with music as I do with my flying.”

Rabbitt offers this perspective: “In the old days, many air shows never had music at all. Only recently have jet teams included music with their presentations. With Napster, iPods and computers everywhere, music is now an integral part of the air show experience for the audience. Unfortunately, the old way of providing sound — while effective for some shows — doesn’t cut it anymore when trying to reinforce music over large areas.

“Correctly and effectively providing sound for an air show requires new thinking, new technology and bigger infrastructure than in the past. With the cost of specialized equipment, skilled technicians to run it, bigger trucks to transport it, and fuel costs through the roof, nothing will change until a more significant line item is inserted into air show budgets for sound and production.”

Sound can no longer be considered an “extra” component at the modern air show; it’s vital. Experts on the leading edge agree: High-quality, professional sound is possibly the biggest air show improvement yet to be made for the industry to move onward and upward.  

Bonus: Eight Tips for Providing Better Sound to Your Air Show Audience

Budget like you want quality sound. The crowd must be able to hear the narration to enjoy the whole show.  The cost of your sound should be at least as much as the cost of a performer. As more than one person has observed, you can survive a single sub-par performer, but a sub-par sound system will give you problems for the entire air show weekend.

Use an air show-specialized sound contractor. The air show environment provides unique challenges when it comes to sound. Any sound company can provide speakers. They cannot provide the knowledge gained by years of experience.

Use full range speakers for your VIP/DV area. The more progressive air shows are opting for a sound package that allows them to provide comparatively high quality to the small area in which VIPs and DVs will be seated with a different type of set-up to provide sound to the rest of the ramp. With the right set-up, sound levels can be adjusted to provide richer sound in the areas occupied by your sponsors and chalets.

Place auxiliary systems in areas not covered by your primary system. Depending on the lay-out of your ramp area, your first impression may be that there are areas of the ramp to which you cannot get sound. But there are now a number of options that were not available in years past, including wireless links and FM transmission.

Limit the number of generators on your ramp or insist on quiet generators for you concessions. One of the more significant challenges of providing sound in the air show environment is all the extraneous sources of sound.  As the event organizer, you have some control over this. In addition to generators, think twice about letting exhibitors on your ramp play music over a sound system that might compete with your air show narration.

Height is your friend. The higher you can get your speakers, the better the sound will be.  Some shows use scissor lifts. The Dayton Air Show mounts its speakers on temporary towers.  With additional height, the sound will carry back into the crowd without blocking their view.

7  Get your music licenses. Several years ago, ICAS worked out a special deal with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. all of the major music licensing organizations. Air show music licenses are relatively cheap. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force require them for any show hosting a jet team or single ship demo team. And having them eliminates all sorts of potential problems.

Make sure your contractor has cockpit to ground capabilities. And make sure that the sound quality is clear enough for the crowd to understand what the pilot is saying.  These air-to-crowd radio calls are a bit hit with the spectators, but only if everybody can understand what is being said.

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Estelle R. Brown
Estelle Brown is a freelance writer and independent public relations specialist based in northeast Ohio.