Live Music for the Hi-Tech Musician
Welcome to Sound On Sound's new monthly column dedicated to live sound in all its guises. Each month we'll be looking at one or two topics of particular interest — a show report, equipment reviews and profiles on some of the people who make the live sound business tick. Watch this space!
Recording training courses may be fairly thick on the ground these days, but until recently there was no equivalent for the would-be live sound engineer or bands hitting the road for the first time.
This, on the face of it, is a curious omission: thousands take to the stage every year, and all too often suffer poor sound in venues which were never built for the purpose. The audiences, needless to say, suffer far more than the musicians.
There's a tendency to suppose, as a band with minimal budget and the invidious choice of using either your own rehearsal-size PA or a pub/club's often poorly-maintained system, that improvements are impossible to achieve. Well, it ain't necessarily so, as the first of an innovative series of 2-day live sound courses organised by Soundcraft and JBL set out to demonstrate.
Going Live, held in September at the University of Surrey, offered the opportunity to share the experiences of three live sound professionals, ask plenty of questions and try one's hand at miking, mixing and trouble-shooting. Demand took Soundcraft by surprise; they'd expected 20 or so reservations for places on the course, and had to close the books when advance registrations reached 50. Participants travelled from as far as Aberdeen; a reflection of the scarcity of live sound training in the UK.
Soundcraft had assembled an excellent band of pro musicians at the university's modern, purpose-built recording studio, a large, airy room with a stage and lighting rig. As it was Soundcraft's first such course, there were lessons to be learned on both sides. Every attendee had been asked to rate their own ability before starting — Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced. 20 registered as Beginners, 30 as Intermediate, and only one confident soul as Advanced. However, when people were asked to divide into ability groups for the hands-on session, after a heavyweight discussion on AC power and safety the number considering themselves Intermediate suddenly dropped to just 10!
As question-and-answer sessions progressed, the presenters — live sound engineers Nigel Luby, Richard Buckland and Mick Anthony — began to get a feel for their audience's true technical abilities. With the emphasis on informality, this led to rapid changes of course, as interesting avenues were followed up. Many were concerned, for example, about the technicalities of onstage safety, avoiding earth loops and the hazards of working with lighting gear (Richard's wise advice: "Talk to lighting people as much you like but keep your gear well away from theirs.")
The course prospectus listed the topics to be covered as: 'golden rules' of sound engineering; getting to know the console; microphone choice and placement; loudspeaker system choice and placement; hands-on mixing; stage monitoring; effects; and troubleshooting. That's a comprehensive list to squeeze into two days: you could easily spend three days discussing venue acoustics and EQ, for starters, and on that scale a complete course would last a month, if not more. It made this short course seem a bit overwhelming at times. But such was everyone's hunger to learn that all those I spoke to found the course well worthwhile, as it unravelled basic mysteries of this 'black art', and revealed a host of professional time-saving 'tricks of the trade'.
To give you a taste of the action, the tutors first took their groups through a console's channel strip, function by function, then investigated such essentials as line balancing and phasing (in multi-mic setups); creating a monitor mix from your house console; using solo-in-place; metering and gain structure; inserts and matrix outputs; coping with the unexpected (which prompted Mick to tell some hairy old rock'n'roll stories); 'ringing-out' a room to get rid of feedback; radio mics; DI'ing instruments; looking after your multicore (Nigel: "If it breaks, you're stuffed."); cables and connectors; and placing your speakers.
On Sunday morning Richard led us through the monitor engineer's job, complete with (allegedly) genuine stories from the road. There were searching questions from the floor throughout: for example, "If you only had half these mics, which would you cut out first?" asked someone, eyeing the expensive lineup on stage. One of the band had the pros collapsing in mirth when he asked: "If I tell my monitor engineer that he's screwing up the sound I've spent 10 years perfecting, what does he do?" Richard and Nigel then sneakily disabled half the PA and told the audience to find the fault and put it right — real-life troubleshooting.
While Soundcraft had most of their SR console range present (and working), from the latest Spirit Live 4 to the top-of-the-line Europa, a lurking suspicion that the event would be a large sales pitch proved happily unfounded: the principles discussed were of a general nature, and the tutors were careful to point out features which other manufacturers approach differently, such as routing arrangements and the use of VCAs.
Nigel provided his own on-the-road effects racks, filled with Yamaha, Lexicon, Drawmer, Klark Teknik, BSS, Court and dbx effects and signal processors, and a complete TC Electronics remote-controlled system EQ rack. The PA was a JBL Concert Series with Crown Maerotech amplifiers, accompanied by JBL monitor wedges and a mouth-watering array of condensor and dynamic microphones for the excellent musicians.
Each participant received a set of course notes prepared in conjunction with the tutors, and anyone who subsequently buys a Soundcraft desk will get the cost of their course back in full — a very fair deal.
The whole exercise was an excellent, if slightly over-ambitious, idea which left everyone tired but enthused. Next time around — Northern and Scottish venues may be on the agenda — you can expect an even more fascinating weekend.
As the whole area of live sound training is relatively new. I'll be taking a close look at other such programmes — including the Gateway PA Course — in future issues.
It may come as a mild surprise to learn that the once-staid world of West End musicals is regularly at the forefront of innovation in live sound techniques.
The automated live console — a concept which is slowly beginning to find favour, in theory at least, in some touring rock circles — has been a reality there for many years. British desk manufacturer Cadac builds sophisticated consoles almost exclusively for the theatre, often basing custom designs on its legendary 'E' Series desk for long-running hit shows such as Miss Saigon or Les Miserables.
Yet some theatre sound designers (the specialists who specify the PA and control systems for a theatre show before it begins its run, leaving the day-to-day running to a sound operator) are increasingly taking a different approach. For artistic or budgetary reasons, it may be deemed preferable to employ off-the-shelf MIDI hardware and software, sometimes using it in ways that the manufacturers never intended and sometimes also creating custom interfaces to make sound and lighting systems work in tandem.
Not only does all this obviate the need for stage hands standing by with coconut shells, tin sheets and other SFX paraphernalia, it also makes it possible to achieve more complex musical arrangements than before.
Take the revived Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Under the auspices of sound designer Martin Levan and equipment hire company Dimension Audio, it has the first ever live use of Yamaha's DMR8 digital production console. With an Apple Mac running Opcode Vision, MIDI effect programmes are triggered and a pre-recorded backing section for the show's finals is run in its entirety, precisely on cue.
The latest in this trend is the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, currently on a 4-month, 5-city tour. Rick Clarke, founder of The Sound Department, designed the show's audio aspects, and the West London-based company Theatre Projects Sound & Vision, part of the huge Samuelsons Group, supplies the gear and keeps the show on the road.
The interesting facet of Annie from our point of view centres around another appearance by a software sequencer — in this case the new Apple PowerBook-friendly version of Opcode's Vision, running on an Powerbook 140. The musical, a love story set in the Wild West of the 1890s, involves a lot of shooting, much of it by Annie herself, a crack markswoman. There's also a rumbustious libretto played by a 17-piece band in the orchestra pit. All this — music and numerous sound effects — is mixed by operator Andy Collins through a Yamaha PM3000 console and what Rick terms a 'distributed image' sound system (in essence, a sort of quadraphonic effect, although that's a slight oversimplification) using Community RS220 speakers.
Getting this acoustic balancing act right, between vocal and band levels, is no mean feat thanks to the regular flurries of loud gunshots. But it's where the latter come from that's the fascinating part of it all.
Since live ammo is rather frowned upon in the modern theatre, Rick decided to store all his effects in the less hazardous form of stereo samples — either from Revox instant-start CD players or an Akai S1000 routed to various speakers around the house.
Both types are fired manually by the stage manager at the touch of a special 'trigger' button (the process couldn't be automated because of the need to cue precisely with actors' movements — full automation will have to wait for the day when actors are stored as holograms!).
Meanwhile, with the desk op's hands constantly hovering mixing the band and stage microphones, Vision is invaluable in taking care of the show's ancillary MIDI cues, including the TC Electronics equaliser control software and the Roland DDL3 delays which control output timings to the appropriate auditorium and onstage speakers. The effect is that gunshots appear to ricochet from all around the auditorium — quite alarming really.
Theatre Projects are becoming widely experienced in this area, and have developed a flexible MIDI package system, known as MultiArt, to address the needs of various theatre and audio-visual shows. Using custom interfaces designed by their man Roland Flemming and running either Cubase or Opcode's Vision on a Mac or Atari ST, the system is capable of integrating audio with the lighting control protocol DMX512, as well as other types of hardware such as CD players.
Touring a musical production imposes its own demands on the crew, with only two days allowed for installation and setting up in each theatre the tour visits. Rick explains: "Normally we have Sunday and Monday to get a system in, with the first performance being the Tuesday matinee." The sound design has to be suitable for the various different sizes and shapes of venue on the tour, as well as the requirement that, for the sake of economy, everything — desks, speakers, control racks — must fit into a single 40-foot truck.
For Theatre Projects it is an optimistic growth area in the face of the recession. For the sound designer, all this is rather good news — and another chance to try out new ideas and boldly go where no sequencer has gone before.
Feature by Mike Lethby
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