23 Aug 2014
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What's the Secret to Evanston's Musical Fireworks?

Volunteer lakefront and fireworks director Dave Sniader, who has helped coordinate the city’s pyrotechnics since the ’80s, explains what makes a good fireworks song and how he sets the sound system up.

What's the Secret to Evanston's Musical Fireworks? What's the Secret to Evanston's Musical Fireworks? What's the Secret to Evanston's Musical Fireworks? What's the Secret to Evanston's Musical Fireworks?

If you’re going to set off fireworks to music—as Evanston has for more than 30 years—you’ll need a song list with just the right ingredients.

Good “fireworks shooting music” must be popular, have some patriotic element, a varying score and “a terrific beat,” according to Dave Sniader, volunteer lakefront and fireworks director for the Evanston 4th of July Association. Though he's a Winnetka resident, Sniader has helped coordinate the music for Evanston's fireworks display for the past three decades.   

The 18 songs in this year’s set will offer a little something for everybody, he says, from old favorites like the 1812 Overture to pop songs from 2012. Many of the selections will commemorate anniversaries—like the 50th anniversary of astronaut John Glenn orbiting the earth, the 100th anniversary of the Mark Twain Museum in Missouri and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

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“I’m a commemorator, and I think that’s important,” says Sniader. “There are so many things to commemorate that appeal to so many different people.”

While the 20-minute list for this year’s fireworks display is filled with Americana, there are also a few surprising selections, including some calypso music in honor of the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence.

“Just because we’re celebrating our nation’s birthday and the birth of a democracy, we’re going to play a little selection from Harry Belafonte,” Sniader says.

Evanston's fireworks have been set to music for years, since the 4th of July Association originally launched them to the beat of tape-recorded tunes at  in the 1970s. Back then, the cost of the display was funded by the price of tickets sold for admission to the stadium. 

In the 1980s, however, the 4th of July Association decided it wanted to make the festivities free, and moved the event to the lakefront.

“We wanted to share the fireworks display completely with the folks of Evanston all the way up and down the shoreline,” Sniader says.

Today, the cost of , including the display itself, is funded entirely through personal donations and corporate sponsorship, according to Sniader. The total cost of this year’s fireworks display, including the lakefront concert, is roughly $27,500.

Part of that sum includes the cost of synchronizing the music to the pyrotechnics, a feat that few other municipalities undertake, Sniader notes.

Setting up the sound system near the lagoon in during sweltering heat the day before the Fourth, Sniader explains how the musical signal from an iTunes playlist on his laptop is synchronized to the explosives. From a control room of sorts inside the picnic shelter, musical the signal is sent out on wires to speakers on the beach, transmitted to nearby stereos through local broadcast on 90.5 FM and sent via radio to the fireworks crew from Melrose Pyrotechnics, who are stationed at Clark Street Beach.

At the beach, a radio transmitter picks up the signal and carries it to a panel wired separately to each of the more than 1,000 shells to be set off. With the help of a computer, every firework is synchronized to go off at just the right time.

“We hit the beat of the music 99 percent of the time,” Sniader says.

Before the process was computerized, a crew member held earphones hooked up to a radio to set off each firework one by one, hitting thousands of switches on a panel to the beat of the music. 

"It's much safer now, and much more exact," Sniader notes. 

This year’s lakefront festivities begin at 7:30 p.m. with a twilight concert by the Palatine Concert Band. Fireworks will be launched from Clark Street Beach starting at 9:15 p.m.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing some new shells that Melrose not only sources from around the world but actually manufactures themselves right down in Indiana,” Sniader says.

On the big day, he'll watch the fireworks from his “command center” at the lagoon along with a crew of volunteers, where it's his job to make sure the music is broadcast without a hitch. As for what’s on his playlist? That’s top secret.

“Come to the show and watch,” he says.

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