With apologies to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Let me put in the disclaimer first, this blog post as well as everything on this site are my opinions and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or anyone else.

One of the interesting things that has been occurring recently has been people around me talking about CTS certifications from InfoComm. It has ranged from ribbing from people who have certifications to people questioning my knowledge base in Audio & Video. I appeared on a Tech Chaos Podcast to discuss this topic during March 2016. During the InfoComm trade-show in June of 2016, I had heard enough. The breaking point was one of my colleagues when I did not know something off the top of my head, said well if you had a CTS maybe you would know.

With me being the sarcastic and acerbic person I am, responded by saying there is only so much RAM to hold information and that question at hand can be looked up as I pulled out my handheld device. The question was how does one calculate the viewing distance from a display. I then asked a question that is just as relevant in today’s AV world, were two IP addresses on the same subnet mask? Yes, I was being petulant, as I said I am sarcastic and acerbic. Basically someone questioning my knowledge base because they had a CTS certification and I didn’t rubbed me the wrong way. As the ribbing continued, I brought out the fact that I teach classes that qualify for Renewal Units (RU). (To maintain a certification, one must acquire 30 Renewal Units every three years.) The volley want back and forth, until I finally pulled out the sledgehammer and asked how many projects that they had designed, fabricated, installed, configured, and commissioned that were the lead story on the national news. It got very quiet.

I was able to formalize my thought after that discussion, many certifications simply indicate that someone can take a standardized test effectively or has sat through a class with not testing. I will give credit to InfoComm for pointing out that certification doesn’t guarantee competency. From the webpage Certified Professionals Directory:

Certification is not a guarantee for performance by certified individuals. Certified Technology Specialist™ (CTS®) holders at all levels of certification have demonstrated audiovisual knowledge and/or skills. Certified individuals adhere to the CTS Code of Ethics and Conduct and maintain their status through continued education. Certification demonstrates commitment to professional growth in the audiovisual industry and is strongly supported by InfoComm.

Chuck Espinoza and I had a discussion about the certification and the process during InfoComm 2016. He made some interesting points, so I decided I was going to sit for the certification.  It would not be equitable for me to have an opinion without having a better sense of the process. Perhaps the other way to look at it, if you want to defeat your enemy learn to sing their songs.

I showed up at the appointed time and was shown to my test computer. The multiple choice test is administered via computer interface at an independent testing center. That makes good sense allowing the test to be taken easily by many people throughout the world. Any test is a combination of testing an applicant’s knowledge as well as their acumen at test taking. During my career I have taught classes for certifications and have also been the creator of the content and testing process. One of the things that I always stress to my students is select the most correct answer if they are not sure. I will follow the non-disclosure agreement I accepted as part of the testing process (yes, I am one of the people that reads the agreements before clicking accept) and be somewhat vague in my discussions.

As one can probably ascertain, I passed the test on the first attempt. However I learned quite a few things that I did not know. I did not know the standard symbols used in a Gannt Chart, despite having read them for over 20 years. I was not sure of the proper time to deliver a bid document package, but most of the projects I have been involved with had documented bid dates and processes. I could deduce what connector was a video connector, despite the fact I would not be able to identify it in the field. I also realized that the test is not solely about certification in technology  but includes other items that are deemed good practices by the committee. To me that is where the certification started to diverge and I saw how this testing process might not be the best evaluative tool. I also realized at that point having the CTS certification be a prerequisite to attaining a CTS-I (Installation) or CTS-D (Design) is not appropriate.

A great installer might know nothing about the sales process, she knows that when there is a question about new additions or pricing to bring in the sales person or project manager. She could be capable of determining how much to derated an wire rope based on the angle of pull in her head. She might pass the CTS-I test with flying colors on the first try, but stumble during the CTS certification process. A Designer might not know how to read a Gantt Chart, but if the project manager keeps the team informed of the deadlines, it is not an issue. The Designer might not be aware of the procedure for service calls, but that is not his skill set. As a specialist, one should not have to take the generalist test first.

My opinion though is a little mixed now about the CTS process itself. I took the test without studying. I did not even open a book, I simply took a practice exam, paid my money, and took the test. I passed. That is reassuring as I have had a career in the AV industry for over 20 years. I was also surprised about the content itself and how much in my opinion it has to do with the full industry. The fact that the testing agency I took the test at said that they have about a 66% failure rate, also told me that I need to reevaluate the measure of the test. I am not hiding the fact that I hold a CTS certification.

I do however standby the point as InfoComm has pointed out, just because one passed the certification test it does not mean that they are qualified. I also know that there are challenges in the continuing education or renewal units (RU) process. Many of the RU classes are simply attend and get the units, it does not prove that anything is being retained. However that is for another blog post.

Here is my certificate, since I don’t have a digital badge yet. Listen to AVWeek, Episode 258: Throwin’ Shade for clarification about that reference.

Bradford Benn's CTS Certification from InfoComm

As my faithful readers know, I had a less than stellar production experience while attending the Supernatural Convention. For those of you who are not familiar, Supernatural is a television series on the CW network. The lovely wife was lucky enough to win free admission to the convention. I went along to take pictures, they can be found at http://photos.bradfordbenn.com/Events/Supernatural-Convention-Nov-2013. (At the moment the images are very raw and still need some adjustments, so do not be surprised if there are some changes

The first thing I want to clearly indicate is that the volunteers, the people who barter their services as facilitators in exchange for tickets to various events, were great. They were all very helpful. They provided information as best they had it. Much of the disappointment is about the choices made for the audio, video and lighting equipment. I am not singling out an equipment manufacturer or brand, it is a result of using equipment incorrectly. Let me stay that again, I am not saying that any of the equipment used was inferior, I am saying that the use of the equipment was not appropriate.

First lets talk about the room to get an idea of the room. The ballroom that was used is over 15,000 square feet, it can seat up to 1,900 people for theater style use. It is 105 feet long x143 feet wide x18 feet tall, it is a large room. I do not think that the room was full to 1,900 but more likely to 1,700 based on the need for video and back stage areas.

At the front of the room was a stage about 18 inches off the floor and probably 24 feet by 12 feet. Each side was flanked by a 12 foot wide by 9 foot tall rear projection video screen. Next to each screen was a powered speaker. 1/3rd of the way back against each of these wall was another speaker. Notice that the picture I took is in focus…


I did not get backstage to see the video system but I can tell you it was standard definition at best. It was not very bright or sharp.  There was also a constant ground loop bar scrolling on the video screen. Since the speakers were out front I will say they are a 12 inch 2 way powered speaker rated at 131 dB peak with a 75 degree conical coverage pattern. The brand does not matter as it was a quality product just being asked to perform a task it was not designed for. There was also a powered 300W floor monitor on the stage for the talent and a duplicate on the front of the stage as a “fill” speaker.

There were two Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlights against the wall on each side for fill lighting. They were basically even with the heads of the talent and were not very bright. It was low enough that they were simply plugged into a standard 15A outlet. They were not very effective at all, to the point that most times it was simply the house lights being on all the time to see the stage.

I did not see a front of house position, so I did not see how the lights, audio, and video were controlled. However I would not be surprised to see the system used in a set and forget mode as there were often problems.

The production problems started from the beginning, the video was out of focus from the beginning. It was definitely Standard Definition and then was not clear on top of that. It was just from a camera from the back of the room. I do know that there was some video processing as a few times there was text overlaid on the video image. The best way I can describe it is saying it was like 1990’s high school video. Also about once a session someone could be seen walking through the projection cone, so the backstage area did not have any clear indication of the cone.

The audio problems started very soon after the event itself. I figured the system was just having some teething pains as the show had just started. The first problem with the audio system was the entire system sounding boomy and not as clear as the equipment could provide. Much of it I think due to system trying to cover a space that is too large.

Two and a half hours in to the event and my first questioning of the system approach started. There were wireless drop outs, a dead microphone, and audience/question microphones at the edge of the room. The problem with the audience microphones being were three items in my opinion. The first was they were not loud enough in the talent foldback monitor, they were wireless when they could have been wired, and they were located so that the talent was always looking away from the main audience.

Let me explain the looking offstage comment. By placing the audience microphones at the front of the seating area and at the outer edges of the room, the talent was often looking off stage not at the main audience. The reason for the talent looking off stage was that they were being polite and having conversation and making eye contact with the question asker. The talent was doing the proper thing. The problem is that the single camera in the back of the room simply had them in profile. It kept the audience from getting to see the complete interaction.

Four hours in, the system was not sounding any better in fact it was getting more pronounced with deficiencies. I believe that part of it is the pile-on effect. The first flaw had been found so it was easier to find other ones. The use of a compressor and/or de-esser would have greatly helped the sonic performance for the guests. The audience would have had an easier time listening and there would not have been as many plosive sounds.

Fifteen minutes later the talent was literally walking off stage to listen to the guests directly as the monitor was not reinforcing the comments to the main stage. The audience comments were audible in the house system but not in the monitors. Of course there were also times that the audience microphones were not working at all.

The last presenter of the day had some audio sources with him. Now I am not going to say that I understand all of the voodoo that the talent was using with his ghost hunting audio devices. The approach was to literally have the talent hold the handheld battery powered speaker up to the microphone for the audience to hear.

One of the things I did not mention was how often there was a ground hum, it was not constant it would come and go throughout the day. It got worse during the 2nd day when the entire house left audio system was replaced by a ground hum. Yes, no audio for the left side of the house.

That night there was a Karaoke event. It was a lot of fun, but it could have easily been much better with better equipment. The same system was being used to reinforce the Karaoke event. There was no low end, the system was in full clip throughout the evening. I am not sure where the clip was occurring, it could have been the sub feed from the Karaoke system they brought in. Either way it was audibly distorted. I am very glad I had ear plugs in. Especially when the feedback started. It was not momentary feedback.

The second day started with the wireless microphone failing and needing to be replaced 10 minutes into the first session. Yes, ten minutes. Then came more feedback. It got to to the point where the presenters were making fun of the audio quality. Yes, from the stage talent was making comments about the system performance. It obviously was not the first time these problems have occurred.

The same issues occurred on the 2nd day of the event. So rather than hash through all of the issues, you can read the tweet stream at the previous blog post (Tweets against the audio machinery).

That night there was a concert with Louden Swain. There was no music audio system, it was the same system as the rest of the convention. Many times the stage volume overwhelmed the public address system. The talent was actually adjusting the aiming of the speakers to improve the sound and I think they did a decent job.

After the concert there was a limited attendance event, with a separate PA system that I believe was brought in by the DJ for the event. This system was able to keep up much better, not only was the room smaller the equipment was more suited to the use. The system was two Self powered 15, two-way system with a maximum output of 132 dB. It was much better not just for voice but for music as well.

The third day was much the same in terms of performance. However the issues with the monitors and feedback got to be so bad it was comical. One panelist asked if they were going deaf as they could not hear a single question, the audience started relaying the questions for them. During a two person panel, the talent heard so much feedback they started doing synchronized microphone movements “ringing out” the monitors to try to fix the issue. At one point during a break in the panels, feedback rang out with no talent or microphone on stage. It was so loud and painful that guests were screaming from fear and pain.

The reason I bring these up is that the audio and video system actually impacted the guest experience. No one there other than the wife knew what I do, and yet there were still conversations going on around me about the problems with the audio and video. People were talking about how bad it was, why were there so many problems, this convention happens multiple times…etc. The event became a caricature of poor audio and cheap conventions.

Many of the problems could have been avoided simply by selecting different equipment. The equipment was reputable just not the right selections for the room and use. This convention is a key example where renting a good system for the space would have greatly improved the experience. I am not naive and realize that this event is for profit and realize that by reducing the equipment costs means more profits. The fact that tickets ranged from US$650 to US$150 for all three days plus additional fees for the autographs and picture opportunities makes me feel like the frugality is unwarranted.