WASHINGTON - Something didn't sound quite right, and to Bob Goldstein that qualified as a disaster.
Goldstein, 59, had been stepping over wires and plotting out loudspeaker delays for two weeks, from the Capitol to the Potomac River two miles away.
Big jobs are nothing new to Goldstein, owner of Baltimore-based Maryland Sound. But this one - the inauguration of Barack Obama - could be the largest gathering of humans ever amplified.
So as much as ever in his long career wiring concerts and events around the world, the assignment called for perfection.
Goldstein paused to the left of the inaugural platform on the west side of the Capitol and tilted an ear toward the voice being amplified across the lawn. "It's not balanced," he said with a frown. "We'll have to tweak that."
Fortunately, it wasn't the president speaking, just one of Goldstein's guys reading a newspaper article about Terps basketball into the microphone Obama will use to deliver one of the most anticipated addresses in contemporary politics. Engineers under a nearby awning fiddled with a mixing board to make adjustments, with little time to spare.
Maryland Sound usually has a few months to prepare for a job like this. This time, the company got less than three weeks. Goldstein's crews unloaded 30 trailer-loads of equipment for today's events, and he'll have 10 staffers at work throughout the day.
"This is the kind of stuff we live for in this business," Goldstein said. "This is what we do."
Based in the old Dickeyville Mill in Northwest Baltimore, Maryland Sound is one of a handful of companies that build sound systems for large outdoor events. Central Park concerts, a papal visit to Baltimore and New Year's celebrations at Times Square are on its resume, along with two previous inaugurations.
But no one specializes in sound for events this large - or the related challenges.
Some issues are typical of any large event. Loudspeakers near the main riser had to be wrapped in white cloth to improve aesthetics. Mounting stands had to be specially fabricated to attach to railings. Other potential problems are related to the winter weather. Condensation and ice can wreak havoc, and some fiber-based equipment simply stops functioning when it's too cold. The company had to place heaters near some parts of the network.
But other challenges are unique, not just for the unprecedented scale of today's inauguration but also for the singular focus on capturing and amplifying a moment in American history.
The primary microphone into which Obama will deliver his inaugural address is among the most important and expensive items in Maryland Sound's inventory, of sufficient quality to capture the natural lows in the incoming president's voice, Goldstein said.
Yet when Obama turns to face Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the oath of office, he will shift away from that device, so long shotgun microphones on either side will come into play.
Behind the podium is a platform where musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and others will perform, requiring another layer of wiring and mixing. Same for the level beneath the podium, where a military band will play.
"If you get this wrong, the whole thing sounds flat and unnatural," Goldstein said.
But capturing the sound isn't even half the battle. The words and music then have to be transmitted through a succession of speakers stretching from the Capitol to the Tidal Basin and the Lincoln Memorial. The entire parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue is wired, including the White House and Lafayette Square.
With the tail end of the crowd expected to be nearly two miles from Obama's podium, his voice would take more than nine seconds to travel that far on its own. To avoid an overlapping blur of noise, timing delays must be built into the broadcast system.
Television stations, meanwhile, will pick up a feed and blend in their own mixture of crowd noise, applause and other features captured with their own microphones. The goal of all that mixing and amplification is to create sounds as natural as possible.
"It becomes a logistical nightmare, all of this wiring all over here, wiring up the labyrinth inside the Capitol, hiding wires, putting speakers where no one can climb on them," Goldstein said. "It's not easy."
He started in the sound business in the early 1960s, when, as the bass guitar player for a popular Baltimore teen band called the Continental Rockers, he built his own amplifier. Soon, people were asking him to build systems for them too.
He eventually landed a job setting up after-hours dance parties at the old Pier 1 in the Inner Harbor and then started doing the sound at the Club Venus in Perring Plaza. There, he was introduced to singer Frankie Valli, and his career as a sound man took off.
For 18 years Goldstein's company traveled with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as they toured across the country, a gig that gave his business the experience, the equipment and the contacts to get jobs all over the world.
"Bobby had a great ear," said restaurateur Bill Bateman, who used to book acts at the Club Venus near Parkville. "But the main thing I think he had was patience. He listened to the stars and brought the best out of them. And his business just grew like you wouldn't believe."
It is an existence that has introduced Goldstein to people and venues all over the world. Even just walking around the Capitol grounds, he answers questions with phrases like: "Well, it's like when we did Metallica in Seoul...." Or: "We built these for the XFL. Do you remember the XFL?"
The previous inaugurations were large events but were little preparation for today.
For that, Goldstein says, he is grateful for Times Square.
The company wired the sound for the New Year's celebration there in 2000, perhaps its largest event. But Goldstein most remembers the 1998 celebration in Times Square, his first.
Unlike the inaugural system, Times Square scarcely allowed any scaffolding or wiring. And most crucially, the location initially didn't permit testing before the system went live. After weeks of pleading, Goldstein finally talked organizers and police into a few minutes of tests.
"I'm walking around Times Square with a walkie-talkie telling them, 'OK, turn it up,' and they're telling me, '... that's as far as we should go,' " Goldstein recalled.
"I remember walking back to my hotel and telling my wife: 'My career's over.' "
Then he remembered he was using microwave transmission and hadn't accounted for the natural loss of 10 decibels that always occurs. A few knob twists and sound was echoing off the high-rises.
Today's inauguration raises no such complications. Goldstein and his crew, along with a sound architect who works for the Capitol, have been prowling the grounds for a week listening for the right mix, checking balances and delays.
"Once everything's set up, sometimes you just have to use your ears," Goldstein said. "It's like grammar. Just because something's grammatically correct doesn't mean it necessarily sounds natural. Sometimes you use what's incorrect to get the sound that works."