High School Sports Venues Can Be As Complicated As the Majors

The $3 million high school football stadiums in Texas tend to make the headlines, but one AV-systems integrator in the San Francisco Bay Area shows what the trenches of that category look like, and, in their own way, the Friday Night Lights crowd is every bit as ambitious as any NCAA or major-league team when it comes to sound for their fields.

Rick McKinney, current owner of Lloyd F. McKinney Associates, picked up where his father left off, putting sound into academic sports venues. He learned from the best — Lloyd, better known in the industry as Bud, was one of the co-founders of the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA), one of the first national organizations of AV-systems integrators — and his own son is lined up to take over for him in the future. But, in the meantime, McKinney is watching as the high school and community-college sports-venue market continues to be aspirational.

“Sound is the big one for this market,” says McKinney, who has put audio systems into more than 30 high schools and community colleges in recent years. “We don’t see a lot of video, due to the budgets. But the sound is getting better, because there are more systems out there that sound good for prices these schools can afford.”

He notes that budgets can range from as little as $5,500 for the most basic systems and he has put in systems with digital mixers that cost as much as $50,000. But they tend to average closer to $15,000 for a four-speaker system with a basic mixer and a rack with some DSP capability. Beefier, high-wattage speakers with better frequency range than the old Atlas horns that his father was often limited to decades ago (and a surprising number of which are still around) are helping raise the bar on sound quality, and improved loudspeaker and processing technology are helping keep costs down. More municipal bonds earmarked for scholastic sports in recent years have also helped, although that has slowed in the past couple of years given California’s own budget woes.

“But they all want to take their teams’ sound to the next level,” McKinney says.

As sound systems get better and more powerful and come nearer to the reach of high school budgets as well, schools are encountering what many urban major-league venues did years ago. “A lot of these schools are nested into residential areas; I’ve had some where the bleachers are 50 ft. from the fence around a residential complex,” says McKinney, adding that codes in the area specify that amplified sound emanating from the venue cannot exceed 65 dB, even though unamplified crowd noise can sometimes reach 90 dB. The solution has been to implement highly directional sound systems, such as Community’s ENTASYS columnar arrays or JBL VRX line-array components coupled with DSP that can steer the sound more precisely.

McKinney says the range of systems he can call on to solve containment or budget issues has grown considerably in recent years. He’s a fan of Technomad systems for budget-sensitive installations. A recent one implemented at San Lorenzo High School, part of the San Lorenzo Unified School District in the Bay Area, used four weatherproof Technomad loudspeakers and a prewired signal-processing–equipment rack to cover the school’s new football field that seats up to 1,500 spectators.

The system addresses issues common to high school and community-college sports venues: they need to be used for multiple sports activities and thus need to be weatherproofed to remain available outdoors year-round; and, like their pro-sports counterparts, they need to accommodate various types of events, such as graduations and other ceremonies, so full-range speakers are required to handle music.

At San Lorenzo High School, McKinney chose Technomad Noho weatherproof loudspeakers, mounting two on the home side and two on the visitor’s side to provide more flexibility for music-related applications. The complete solution includes the prewired signal-processing rack, with an amplifier and mixer, and required cables and connectors for the loudspeaker installation. The only glitch, he says, was that rain-softened ground required a plywood installation to keep a scissors lift from sinking into the new grass.

He notes another feature that is increasingly common in high school and community-college systems: inclusion of a 3.5-mm input jack for iPods and iPhones in the signal-processing rack. In this case, he also added a wireless solution for field-level iPad control for special events, which will be used by the school’s cheerleading squad to play back music for routines. McKinney plans a similar installation at Arroyo High School in the same school district this spring.

“Everyone’s expectations for the quality of the sound at high school sports fields is a lot higher now than it used to be,” he says.

He adds that, although he has more options to draw on from more manufacturers, the systems themselves have to get more sophisticated in terms of capabilities — a feature that loops the PA system’s sound wirelessly into hearing aids worn by some people in the stands is increasingly demanded by local codes — and, at the same time, must be as simple and straightforward enough to be operated by the students themselves. Wireless microphones that let users roam the gridiron also require carefully plotted delays, calculated by integrated DSP systems, to maintain intelligibility.

So high school sports-venue audio has to meet new sonic levels driven by consumer expectations, conform to more-complex municipal regulations, stay within constrained budgets, and be simple enough for a 14-year-old to operate. McKinney, noting that the Oakland Athletics are eyeing a new stadium in San Jose, observes, “It’s almost as hard as working on a professional stadium.”

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