Keeping stadium sound systems up-to-date requires some specialized skill: everything from keeping up with changing technology, working at dizzying heights, coordinating around public events and sports seasons, and harsh weather.
M. Gitlin Co. Inc. has made this market its specialty. The Glen Mills, Pa.-based contractor provides audiovisual and other communication systems installations in the Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware area. This year it has updated existing sound systems at two of Philadelphia’s largest stadiums: Citizens Bank Park, home to MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies, and the Wells Fargo Center, a covered arena where the NHL’s Flyers and NBA’s 76ers play.
In both cases, the venues needed to upgrade their speakers and public address systems, but the projects each posed very different challenges. Citizens Bank Park is open to the weather with speakers mounted 135 feet above the field. While those speakers were replaced, the mounts were refurbished and reused, and that meant considerable planning and creativity to get the work done on schedule. On the other hand, Wells Fargo Center needed a motorized system that would enable speakers to be moved up and out of the way for the variety of players that appear in the indoor space, and the work had to coordinate around an ongoing performance and event schedule.
Gitlin has years of experience with sound systems. One example was the audio and video at the Chester Soccer Stadium several years ago. It also has a long history working with Diversified U.S., the company that engineered both projects, according to Justo Gutierrez, director of A/V and sound for the Sports & Live Events Group at Diversified.
Diversified is a technology integrator that engineers media and entertainment, audiovisual, digital signage, information technology, and security solutions.
The Citizens Bank Park and Wells Fargo Center projects were scheduled back to back, and most of the same Gitlin crew worked on both projects. Gitlin’s work was led by general foreman Pat Dunbar while Kevin Kane was Gitlin’s on-site foreman on both projects.
Citizens Bank Park sits on a 21-acre site between Citizens Bank Way and Darien Street. It opened in 2004, replacing the multipurpose Veterans Stadium that was demolished the same year. The newer stadium includes a natural grass and dirt playing field, a 43,000-seat capacity and an extensive sound system.
In the past few years, it was apparent that the speakers in the ballpark were going to need replacement—aside from suffering visual external wear, a few speakers started to fail, and the components were aging, affecting their sonic performance. Sound systems typically last a decade, and these speakers had well outlived their life expectancy.
The weather didn’t help; the hardware is exposed to the snow, sleet, rain and sun, said Mike Gitlin, president, M. Gitlin Co.
With the renovation, the crew had a short window to work in.
“Any time there’s a renovation in a stadium, there’s a fixed time frame to work in, and this was no exception,” Gutierrez said.
The team would have to get the work done in the off-season, and in the case of baseball, that means the work is being done in the winter months. With this in mind, Gitlin and Diversified opted to get as much of the high speaker renovation work done as possible beginning in October, before the cold weather arrived.
The stadium’s older public address system consisted of speakers from Chester, Pa.-based company Community Professional Loudspeakers. The team has been happy with the speakers and wanted the replacements to come from the same company. They didn’t need to replace everything; the stadium opted to reuse the existing brackets that mounted the old speakers to the poles.
This posed a logistical challenge for Gitlin’s crew, Dunbar said. They would need to access each individual speaker at the top of its pole, bring it and the mounting bracket down to ground level, and then send the bracket off to be repainted. It was then re-installed on the pole, with a new speaker mounted on it.
That meant the crew needed to get up to the height of that speaker at least twice if not more times, while also accessing the other speakers, all before the opening of the next season. There were 600 speakers in the stadium itself, and 300 in the back-of-house areas.
To accomplish this, the team used rolling scaffolding on the lower level but had to work around railings that interfered with moving these structures through the seating areas. In those cases, the crew had to disassemble, move and then reassemble the scaffolding to reach each pole.
Gitlin devised a technique to build a system of manual pulleys to get the speakers down without requiring multiple technicians in the air for prolonged periods of time.
In the upper areas, they used swing stages that were hung off the sunscreen canopy. In both cases, Gitlin’s electricians were experienced with working off the ground but occasionally were delayed by winter weather that made it unsafe to be suspended in the air while working.
“We were mostly lucky. We didn’t have a lot of snowstorms,” Gutierrez said.
In addition to the new sound systems, the Citizens Bank Park renovation includes a family-oriented wing known as “The Yard.” Here, the stadium required accessibility for visitors to view and hear the action on the field in real time. Gitlin had installed the existing 1,000 TVs in 2004 and, in this case, added a mini sound system and screens to broadcast the baseball games into the family play area. Gitlin added about 100 new TV screens in this area.
Altogether, for the sound and TV monitors, Gitlin ran about 10,000 feet of fiber and about the same length of Cat 5 cable. At peak, Gitlin had 22 men on-site. Throughout the project, the approaching baseball season added some pressure to the crews.
The project finished on time and under budget in April 2018 after six months of work.
A no-off-season project
At the Wells Fargo Center, the work moved indoors and featured a different set of challenges. The Gitlin crew got on-site in June, and there was no luxury of working uninterrupted through an off-season.
Originally called Spectrum II, the 22-year-old multipurpose arena seats 20,000 and features a hockey rink, as well as basketball court, depending on the season and day of the week. Activities and performances are scheduled all year round. During those times, the crew needed to stay out of the way. This year it began the process of upgrading the facility including the public address system.
“This is a 365-day-a-year, living building,” Gutierrez said. “So, one of the challenges was figuring out the time windows.”
For Gitlin and Diversified, that meant ensuring loud speaker deliveries were on time and coordinating with the rigging contractor so that every free day was used to its potential. There was no room for delays. When hockey season starts this fall, the system needs to be fully replaced and operational.
It’s all part of a larger project. Over the next few years, the arena is getting a complete $250 million rehabilitation with screens to show games, more concessions, lounges, additional seating and complete replacement of the sound system.
The existing sound system came with the construction and consisted of 100–120 speakers in six main clusters as well as eight down-fill (lower balcony) speakers. The new system required a complete replacement of the arena speaker clusters. Gitlin also installed next-generation amplifiers, new mixing equipment and an integrated software system to enhance sound clarity and range, as well as improving the balancing throughout the center.
The new speakers are controlled on tow motors that raise and lower based on the needs of the venue. The motorized speakers can be lifted up to 15 feet out of the way when mobile sound systems are temporarily installed. Also, they come with another feature for maintenance—they can be lowered all the way to the floor so that workers don’t need to be lifted to the speakers.
Gitlin also put in new speaker cable and rebuilt the equipment racks with all new electronics. Additionally, the center opted to keep its existing speaker cables running along catwalks at the ceiling level, so Diversified discovered and counted the cable to be reused, documented it, and Gitlin then extended the old cable with the new product to the new L-Acoustics speakers clusters.
The sound system now feeds into a single control room with amplifiers, mini computers and microphones for announcements, all served using fiber cable that Gitlin installed. It’s a sign of the times as technology has moved far beyond what was available when the arena was constructed two decades ago.
Before the renovation, Dunbar said the room amounted to “a bunch of knobs, to control the basics [such as volume].”
Gitlin also ran low-voltage cable to the concessions, the main concourse as well the control room. It installed a sequential breaker panel to power the motors—a total of 12 motors were installed, two for each of the six speaker clusters.
For safety, Gitlin technicians wore retractable lanyards that stopped their fall if they lost their footing. Altogether, the contractor employed about 15 workers on-site for this project.
“Gitlin has been a very good partner, they have a similar approach to ours,” Gutierrez said. “They have the same pride in their workmanship.”
They understand that there is no room for errors in these kinds of projects. That approach is a systematic one with uncompromising attention to detail.