Delaware business owner doubles as Biden sound tech
WASHINGTON – While much of the First State has been watching native son Joe Biden’s presidency from afar, one local business owner has had a much closer seat to history.
Tom Manchester has been serving as an audio technician consultant for the White House over the first weeks of the Biden administration, an opportunity that arose after years of hard work and reputation building.
A Delaware native, Manchester earned a degree in theater production from the University of Delaware where he cultivated a clientele looking for quality sound engineering. After graduating, he founded Electro Sound Systems in Newport and made the business his full-time career.
While many in the industry have become one-stop shops for lighting, sound and video, Manchester has continued to maintain a business focused only on the highest quality sound production. The six-employee company counts the Grand Opera House, The Queen Theater and the Arden Gild Hall among its annual clients.
“There are some other companies we know in D.C. and New York City that are really focused on lighting and video. We’ll come in and partner up with them on larger jobs where they need somebody to do really good audio for their event,” Manchester said, noting that it has helped build his connections.
While Electro Sound Systems had done some prior political work for the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and Gov. John Carney, Manchester said that his opportunity to work with the Biden campaign came out of those professional relationships.
With Biden’s presidential campaign grounded in Delaware amid the spread of the COVID-19 virus last summer, Democratic Party leaders sought to find a space where the nominee could continue to connect with the public and talk with advisers. They eventually rented The Queen on Market Street and sought out a technical team that could keep Biden connected.
“I think three or four people referred them back to me, and so my company ended up doing the sound work,” Manchester recalled.
With all in-person events virtually canceled through much of 2020, Manchester said getting the Biden campaign gig was a big morale boost for his staff, even if it came with an outsized spotlight on their work. Luckily, they had years of experience producing shows at The Queen to help them mix audio for a TV audience.
Manchester said that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris would stop to chat and check in with him and his team occasionally at the theater.
“They were very gracious and thanked us for all the work that we did, so it was nice to just have those special little moments where you get to kind of just be at ease with them and see them being real people,” he said.
While Manchester said that the Electro Sound Systems team expected to wrap up their duties in January as Biden and Harris transitioned to the White House, he was pleasantly surprised to find that their work resulted in a longer assignment.
“As COVID has stretched on, they realized that this would be the first administration where things like teleconferencing and being able to interact with people in a socially-distanced fashion were going to have to happen for a while,” he recalled.
When asked whether he had to debate the assignment with his wife and family before taking it, he said it was pretty easy to decide.
“I think it’s one of those things where if I asked her, ‘Is it OK if I go out on tour with this band,’ it would be one thing. But when you say, ‘The president needs me. I have to go to the White House,’ we figured out how to make things work,” he said.
Manchester has since rented a place in Washington while he works at the White House from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, returning home on the weekends.
He works with the White House Communications Agency, which includes many members of the military who handle the traditional audio needs for press conferences and events. The agency has not had to host teleconferencing at the level needed amid the pandemic though, which has led to the need for Manchester’s skills.
“Previous to this, there never really existed that kind of back and forth where you have to have multiple Zoom or WebEx computers talking to each other,” he explained. “That’s really new to the whole world.”
While Manchester is well versed in the basics of audio production around teleconferencing, he’s had to learn the ins-and-outs of numerous different programs used by participants. Much of his time is spent setting up and testing the systems, and sometimes even producing dry runs, to ensure that the kinks are worked out before primetime.
“Obviously in this position you want to make sure everything is as reliable as possible,” he said. “We certainly value our officials’ time, and we don’t want to have somebody sitting there waiting on the technical stuff.”
While he’s been working on a lot of teleconferences, Manchester said that he has also been able to work on some traditional press conferences as well, including the Feb. 25 event marking the 50 millionth COVID-19 vaccination and the April 7 presentation of the American Jobs Plan. The whirlwind gig is set to run through May with the possibility that it’s extended, but for now Manchester is just enjoying the experience.
“I always hoped that I would do some pretty cool stuff, but certainly this is not something I expected,” he said. “I always felt like I should be prepared for it, and sort of hold myself to that standard though.”
In some moments, he still catches himself realizing the magnitude of the work.
“I’ll be sitting behind my mixing console and I look over to my right where we have a television monitor that has all the major news networks up there, and all of a sudden all of them will just turn to the image of the station that I’m mixing for. And that’s when I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got millions of people listening to what I’m doing so I’d better make sure it sounds good,” he said.