An audio technology expert, Larry Estrin has gathered a number of credentials, including: contributing to the first live multi-satellite global broadcast (Elvis in Hawaii), conceiving and designing the wireless microphone system for NFL referees, founding Best Audio, engineering and implementing the first stereo broadcast of the Academy Awards and Grammys, designing the multi-dimensional sound environment concept for Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade, and receiving the Civilian Service Medal for his work with the USO during Operation Desert Storm.
Larry sat with us during NAB 2014 to talk a bit about his experiences, from handling audio for the pope to developing the first wireless mic system for NFL referees.
Question: Could you tell us about when you had to mike the pope?
Larry Estrin: The first pope I miked was in Los Angeles at the Universal Amphitheatre. The production people wanted the pope to be free to get up from his chair and walk around. The decision was made that we needed to put a wireless microphone on him. I was the one elected to go to Rome to work with his support staff.
The first question came from St. Louis, and he heard it clear as a bell, just clear as a bell, and he stood up and walked toward the video monitor at the edge of the stage where he could see the person talking.
At the end of the event, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles presented him with a gift. And it was a gift of music being played by a young man who had no arms and no legs, and laid on a cart. He couldn’t come up on the stage, so he was on the audience side of the barrier. The pope at this point was very aware of what he could do with the wireless mic, so he went over the barrier so he could be with the young man. Pretty dynamic!
Q: Tell us about your role in developing the wireless mic system for NFL refs.
LE: I am a football fan. And ever since I was in high school, I hated having to look at those great big cards that they used to have that would have all the players’ names on them and pictograms of the referee and what the different arm signals and hand signals meant. You’d have to look at that, then go look at the field, and by then you’ve missed half of the call because you’ve only picked up the first hand signal visually… So that was always in the back of my mind.
It must’ve been about 1973, and NBC and CBS were in a head-to-head battle to win covet, if you will, with the National Football League.
NBC put together a team of people; a whole bunch of us flew to New York. I was the only audio person they brought in. They went around the table, and there were people there from Sony and Philips and Thompson, all video related.
And I’m the last one they go to. Scotty Connal, the president of Sports at NBC, says, Well, Larry, we’ve brought you back here. We’re paying you a lot of money. Do you have anything you can say?
I said, yeah! I don’t understand why the referee can’t just tell the audience what the play is.
He said, What are you talking about?
I said, Get rid of all those cards. And when there’s a penalty, let the referee stand up and tell the audience what the penalty is.
He said, How long will it take you to demonstrate it?
I said, As long as it would take us to get from the 6th floor to Studio 8H at 30 Rock, because at the time I was the audio consultant for the first year of Saturday Night Live. We walked in the door, and, by God, there’s someone rehearsing wearing a wireless microphone.
Pete Rozelle had no idea what it was going to take to make it happen. At that point, I don’t think there were a hundred wireless microphones available in the United States that we could use to do every stadium, but he wanted it right away at all the stadiums. Long story short, it took us about eight weeks. The reward that I got was I ended up doing the next 25 Super Bowls.
Q: How many presidents have you miked?
LE: I’ve been responsible for the sound on all the presidential debates since 1988, so that gave me the opportunity to not only put microphones on all these candidates, both incumbents and people running for office, but it’s allowed me to talk to all of them.
Q: What would you say your greatest achievement is? Something you look back on and say, “I’m really proud of that. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”
One was the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics. I was the sound and communications director for that show. While in today’s terms, that show doesn’t come up production-wise to what we’re doing today, it was the first of the modern era. I had producers who I was working with who allowed me to do what I wanted to do.
The upshot of that particular event was my mother. My father had passed away a year before. My mother and father supported me, but they never really figured out what I was doing. It never entered their minds.
The following Monday, she went to the beauty parlor that she’d had a standing appointment with for years. And she told me that every person in the beauty shop stood up and started applauding her, and they gave her a copy of the L.A. Times. It had my picture on the front page and a brief little sentence about what I did. Then, she really got it. Truthfully, that was an incredibly important moment in my life.
We’d like to offer a big thank you to Larry Estrin for sitting with us. There aren’t many audio professionals who can boast such a broad range of high-profile accomplishments. And it’s great to see someone who retains the thirst for innovation that drove him in the first place. Thanks again, Larry!
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