Papadimas and VENUE Run the Show at Athens Special Olympics

The Special Olympics World Summer Games has been growing steadily since its inauguration in 1968. Founded by Eunice Shriver, sister of former US president John F. Kennedy, it’s the world's largest year-round sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, participating in 30 Olympic-type summer and winter sports events. And at this year’s event in Athens, the sound team behind the scenes chose VENUE to handle the spectacular opening ceremony, featuring a cameo appearance by Stevie Wonder from Panathinaikon Stadium—the venue of the first modern 1896 Olympic Games—worldwide.

Local hire company Papadimas Sound Services, a sound and lighting company based near Athens, was contracted to provide sound reinforcement for the three-hour ceremony, which was officially declared open by Greek President Karolos Papoulias in front of packed stands (and 7,500 participating athletes down on the track). Since this was to be broadcast live on national TV, the Papadimas team needed to meet the production requirements for a fully redundant network.

There were a number of other challenges. The event required having everyone in the same mindset, following the master time code, and adhering to a flexible production set-up. Because of the lack of rehearsal time, they needed to be able to find quick solutions for problems such as sudden changes to artists’ specifications, forcing extra equipment to be hired at the last moment.

Founder Mr. Papadimas’ first choice for his mixing environment from the outset had been an Avid VENUE system. Since he already owned three systems, his experience supporting many live shows over the years had shown him the benefits of using VENUE. He opted for MADI transmission as an alternative to the mass of multis and cables required in the analog domain, and Avid responded quickly, providing the production team with the necessary VENUE MADI cards.

Thus, the team had fully supported VENUE systems, with identically configured A and B consoles at both front of house and monitor stage ends, ran the same content, linked by MADI. All inputs from all stage locations were fed to the main stage boxes located at the monitor positions, as were the separate Pro Tools playback feeds.

At monitors were two 96-channel VENUE D-Show Systems, each with two VENUE Stage Racks and four mix engines, with two VENUE MADI Option Cards feeding the inputs to the front-of-house systems. Stationed at FOH were two 64-channel VENUE Profile Systems equipped with MADI Option Cards and three mix engines, connected together via Belden BNC 75 Ohm and fiber optic cables for redundancy. The Pro Tools playback systems were patched in through Avid 192 I/O interfaces in to the main VENUE stage boxes.

Having decided on their mixing and recording platform, the Papadimas team asked Bill Drougas from Akoustiki, Avid’s distributor in Greece, along with their experienced sound engineer, Bill Michailidis, to advise on the mixing architecture, which was overseen by Avid UK live sound specialist James Baker.

“Originally, the playback system consisted of just left and right feeds,” explains Baker, “but due to the poor quality of these sources, it was decided to have all the stems fed independently from the two Pro Tools playback systems. This was a much better option and gave the FOH and monitors engineers more scope for plug-ins and artistic license.”

In fact, the Pro Tools system fed the FOH, monitor, and broadcast systems with 24-channel stems and stereo (which was the same stem mix). “Of course we had this doubled from the back-up Pro Tools system—so we had the opportunity to choose between stereo mix or stems,” says Michailidis. For the opening show, they opted for multitrack stems, mixed in real time, while monitor and broadcast used only the stereo mix (as did FOH for the closing ceremony). Pro Tools also played out all the music for the dancers, the singers, and prerecorded sections.

The engineers used the plug-ins from the VENUEPack Pro 2.0 bundle, and fed the PA through the VENUE system’s Matrix Sends. “We used eight of the 24 available sends, plus the Left and Right busses,” explains Baker. “This provided the flexibility of individual adjustment of the four zones, since the arena is made entirely of marble, which was breathtaking to see but a challenge for audio.” The main stadium PA system consisted of a L’Acoustics dV-DOSC and KUDO for the packed stands, with Arcs and XT coaxial speaker line and MTD serving the athletes and catwalk.

Piloting the two FOH consoles were Brian Koon (A desk) and Michailidis, who also served as the PA system tech. Down at the monitor end were Panagiotis Pepas (A desk) and Kostas Sotiriou, who doubled as sound supervisor for the rental company. John Rousos was the sound supervisor, Bill Drougas the sound designer, and Andreas Vaitoudis supervised the Pro Tools replay system. Broadcast engineer Panagiotis Petronikolos sent all final mixes to the ERT (Greek national television) OB truck, while John Zarganis served as overall technical supervisor.

How the mixing environment took shape

Michailidis has been responsible for all VENUE tech support in Greece for the last three years. He first experienced Avid consoles when mixing monitors for famous Greek artist, Sakis Rouvas. “The most important thing about the VENUE [system] is its sound and stability—plus, of course, the plug-ins and ease of setting up snapshots,” he says. “You feel that you are playing with a very good analog desk, but with the latest technology to serve even the most advanced circumstances.”

Yet, however advanced the feature set, a highly tuned digital instrument is no friend of the open skies and searing heat. Says Michailidis, “The biggest problem we faced was the exceedingly hot sun and high humidity, since most times we had rehearsals in morning and afternoon. The worst element was that all the marble retained this heat until late at night, and we were particularly anxious about the two FOH Profile desks working in 35-40°C.” However, the systems performed flawlessly, as those temperatures are well within their operating limits.

Heat was not an issue for the D-Show consoles at monitors, as these were stationed five meters outside the stadium in an Isobox with air conditioning, along with all of the Stage Racks and passive splitters.

“The Profile systems were clocked from the D-Show desks, so practically we had two independent systems—one for main and one for back-up,” explains Michailidis. “We used about 75 channels [of] input for FOH and monitors, and also 32 outputs for the stage and 12 outputs for FOH. We had exactly the same show file for both monitor and FOH desks.

“Of course we had some overwrites and transfers,” he continues, “so that we could be as close as we could with the flow of the show, which is why we had two mix engineers for the stage and two for FOH. But this arrangement worked so well that we didn't need to change many channels with line trim. In fact, using MADI and the line trim worked just perfectly; we never lost connection between those systems for even a second, and we didn't have any conflicts.”

Panagiotis Pepas’ knowledge of the VENUE plug-in bundle was also used to good effect, as he used Smack!, Impact, and ReVibe often in his monitor mixes, while the same tools were used at FOH, along with a de-esser and 7-band EQ.

The ceremony itself combined a spectacular display of fireworks with the simplicity of music and dance performances inspired by ancient Greek mythology and culture. And, of course, the Stevie Wonder performance, with the Profile System taking stereo feeds from the artist’s own sound desk.

Meanwhile, the flame, which was lit under the Acropolis hill on June 9th and travelled around Greece and neighboring countries, was transferred inside the arena on a “Chariot of the Sun.” The ceremony ended with the performance of the song of the games by Greek singer Alkistis Protopsalti and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo.

Baker concludes, “The flexibility of the Avid system really proved its worth, and the MADI network was flawless throughout the entire event. Production [teams] were delighted with the end result of these mixes, and the VENUE really showed off its sound quality.”

As for Michailidis, he describes the event as “a very positive experience,” adding: “Mixing this event with D-Show was just perfect—it was really simple for all the engineers to work in this environment in a straightforward and professional way. Even with our economic crisis in Greece, we were still able to produce a highly professional show.”