Bert Van Mechelen listens carefully to the woman speaking quietly into the microphone at an Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) hearing, not for the details of her testimony, but to make sure everyone in the room can hear.
That’s because he’s a sound man whose company, Van Mechelen Sound, has been providing audio support for the energy regulator’s hearings since 1978.
Van Mechelen, who had a 25-year career in oil and gas before taking over from his family in 1999, says “hearings are like paintings—they develop and acquire their own personality. Preparing and setting up for a new hearing is the most interesting part of the job.”
And while interesting, setting up the audio equipment for hearings is no quick task. Van Mechelen says it takes about 8 to 10 hours to equip a hearing venue, be it a hotel meeting room or a community hall.
AER hearings, which anyone can attend, typically require 26 audio speakers placed strategically around the room, ensuring that every comment is heard and that a clear audio feed is delivered to the court reporters. Live audio webcasting, which Van Mechelen Sound supplies the feed for, is also available for hearings.
Signaling for Sound
The science behind providing clear, crisp sound is more than being able to hear it; it requires Van Mechelen to be versed in body language as well.
“I’m constantly watching for cues in body language so I know when to control and adjust the sound. Many people don’t know how to use a mic—trying to get people heard when they’re scared of the microphone is the hardest part of my job.”
The number of hearings held by the AER last year was down from previous years, in part thanks to options such as mediation and alternative dispute resolution, which lead to more issues being resolved outside of the formal hearing process. In 2017, of the potentially eight files that were heading down the path to a hearing, only two actually did.
Changes and Constants
Over the years, Van Mechelen has seen many changes in the hearing process, ranging from the swearing-in of witnesses under oath or affirmation, to allowing media to attend, to more gender diversification among the hearing commissioners.
Mike Schuster, Hearing Services manager at the AER, points out that the technology used at hearings to improve audience experience has also changed.
“We’ve introduced new tools over the years, such as webcasting our hearings and the mobile hearing kit, which allows documents to be projected on monitors around the room, ensuring that everyone is literally on the same page, and Bert has been able to grow and adapt to it all,” says Schuster.
But what hasn’t changed is the important, and ironically silent, role Van Mechelen plays during public hearings. He wears this duty humbly as he sits at his mixer board, almost undetected by those in the room, busily twisting and turning dials, ensuring that even the most quiet of speakers can be heard.
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Bert, you're a master of your job - working with you is always a pleasure and always I can count on hearing every word. Well done!