Failure: FCC Dolittle

Outside of my control

After assuring public access to specific air waves since the beginning of radio, our friends at the FCC decided in 2008 that the entire 700Mhz band should instead serve to line their pockets with a few dollars. 19 billion dollars, actually. Thanks guys! This meant that the tens of thousands of wireless systems in operation would soon begin a new life as raw material inside of some local landfill. It reminds me of this one time when I bought some tin soldiers from an antique store for $32, melted them down, and sold the raw lump to a recycling plant for 17 cents.

Being that my sound budget was typically between $50-$100 per show, replacing our $10,000 of wireless systems (which, given the equivalent products available at that time would have cost closer to $20,000) wasn’t going to happen. Little ‘ol me didn’t mind violating FCC regulations, and continued to use the wireless systems until… well, until they broke. But let’s go back to the beginning of the end: Dr. Dolittle.

I had continued to use the wireless systems, unaffected, for another 3 years to the month, after the ban had gone into effect. I went through the whole week of tech and dress rehearsals with the mics as usual, without any incident… just as they had for the previous 20 shows since the ban. On opening night, we had sound check 45 minutes before the show as usual, and everything was still groovy. First spoken line into the show, and everything was no longer groovy.

But what went wrong?!

My initial suspicion was that my board operator had decided he’d rather enjoy the show by not running sound, and that he simply wasn’t present to turn on any microphones. That suspicion proved to be my first completely wrong guess of the evening: He was frantically trying, in vain, to turn on the microphone channel that was already turned on. Upon inspecting the microphone receiver, it showed no signal, indicating that the mic had somehow been turned off.  Strange, because we hadn’t had any problems with this batch of re-chargeable batteries, and always power-locked the transmitters so they couldn’t accidentally be switched off by meddling actors. But stranger things have happened, so I ran backstage with a fresh pair of batteries to swap out the offenders.

Only, when I got to the mic, it was still on and showed full power. Hmmmmm okay well I switched the batteries anyway in case they were haunted. Back in the sound booth, not only did my battery swap prove to be useless, but the infection had spread in my absence: about half of the receiver channels were now also not working. So much adrenaline was pumping through me that I couldn’t think clearly and it seemed that all of the mics were blinking in and out of service, though it ended up being a specific few to protest their functionality.

My next bad guess was that some of the the dual-mic receivers had given up on life due to some power fluctuation; but most receivers had only one channel out, so that didn’t add up. The following faulty figure was that the antenna distribution had somehow failed, but that also didn’t add up because of those mics that were still working just fine.  I threw up my hands in desperation.  Do you even sound design, bro?

Finally, at intermission, when I had a chance to think clearly, I switched all the receivers to frequency view and began to notice that only the lower range (around 782Mhz-794Mhz) was having trouble. Some Google searching revealed that a cell phone company had purchased the affected frequency range. Apparently, the number and proximity of cell phones that had entered the theatre with their accompanying patrons were at fault for disrupting our wireless mics!!! After the show, all the mics miraculously began working again as if nothing had ever been wrong – problem ratified. So I re-allocated all the mic frequencies to somewhere above the cell provider’s range, and they returned to full functionality for the next performance, and all remaining shows. That is until a few years later when the receivers actually starting actually dying one at a time for no reason that I could ever figure out.
R.I.P. Shure U4D’s, all $10,000 of you.

If you were an audience member that evening, expecting to soak in the singular energy of yet another opening night performance – I hope you enjoyed the excitement of hearing only half the cast, combined with the muffled sounds of frantic desperation.

One thought on “Failure: FCC Dolittle

  1. Pingback: Failure is Ideal | A Sound Engineer's Weblog

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