Last night, millions of television viewers were treated again to a spectacle that aligns living rooms nationwide for one moment: the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan.
A giant 76-foot-tall Norway spruce was at the center of holiday cheer, with the lighting capping a ceremony that used to last 30 minutes and now stretches over two hours of NBC television airtime.
Singing, dancing, ice skating by Olympic athletes, and banter by television broadcast favorites were all a part of the NBC special, and working behind the scenes for sound reinforcement, video, broadcast systems, and lighting was a tremendous team comprised of NBC technicians and a bevy of engineers, project managers, and crew from Production Resource Group (PRG), Clair Brothers Audio Systems, and WorldStage.
The live audience for the event this year was spread far and wide, across the Rockefeller Center ice rink and beyond to the streets and sidewalks between 5th and 6th Avenues from 48th to 51st Streets. With such massive crowds gathered to see the live performance on Wednesday night, sound and video distribution was essential.
“It’s a lot to cover. We couldn’t do something like this without a quality speaker. If the crowd couldn’t hear, there’d be a riot,” quipped Bob Rendon, vice president of audio at PRG.
Making this entertaining crowd control possible was a VUE audiotechnik al-4 subcompact line array for PA and various d&b audiotechnik speakers for fills deployed throughout the space, augmented by L-Acoustics dV-DOSC arrays for coverage on the ice rink itself. Five Yamaha PMD-5 desks were used for monitors and FOH, and the whole audio system operated on a Riedel RockNet fiber network. Clair Brothers’ wireless division managed some 20 Shure microphones for the event, including Mariah Carey’s customized super-sparkly Shure UR2.
This was the first year that PRG loaded in the VUE al-4 line array for the tree lighting, and “it went it beautifully,” enthused Dave Chessman, PRG system designer, project manager, and the Riedel RockNet fiber technician on the day of the tree lighting. “There are serious noise restrictions around Rockefeller Center,” he explained, and the VUE line array controlled the audio dispersion well.
PRG made the switch to line arrays for the event approximately ten years ago, “and it’s made a big difference because of the improved focus,” observed Rendon. “Sound used to bounce around. I mean, we’re dealing with 12 solid blocks of granite buildings and the giant echo chamber down on the rink.”
RockNet has been in use at the tree lighting for several years, and all the sound pros were enthusiastic about how much time it saved during load-in and load-out. “We used to be packing up trucks at dawn, now we’ll be out of here a little after midnight,” noted Bruce Cameron, audio lead for PRG.
Amp racks and FOH areas were both housed in tents under the tree. “It’s funny, the most out of the way place to put us is directly under the tree,” Rendon said.
The weather this year was unusually mild, with temperatures in the 50s. It was a nice change of pace for the audio crew. “We’ve done this show with it snowing sideways,” Rendon said.
Mild weather was a welcome relief to the crew, who were all working in a more somber state this year following the tragic loss of NBC Today show audio technician Jim Lovell, who had worked the tree lighting event for nearly 20 years. Lovell was one of four victims of the MTA train derailment on Sunday, December 1. He was traveling into the city to help with the Rockefeller setup.
“He was always the happiest guy, and he was always one of the first people here,” said Cameron. “We knew something was wrong when he wasn’t here by 8:00 a.m.”
Lovell is survived by his wife and four children, and a community fund has been established to help his family. Contributions can be made here.
Lovell’s memory was everywhere in mind during the tree lighting setup and ceremony, and a special memorial tribute was made to him in the NBC production credits.
Earlier that evening during setup, looking up at the tree that stood at the center of a swirl of activity, Cameron said, “The big moment is at 9:54 p.m. We’re lighting the tree for Jimmy this year.”