Thomas Dolby at TV South. | Thomas Dolby
The first article in a new series on the ever-expanding field of video looks at how the professionals relate the performance of live music to the video medium.
Modern musicians are increasingly finding that musical skill alone is not enough. Effective visual presentation, and a performance style angled toward the video medium, are now indispensable (for commercial if not for artistic reasons) in putting across a musical message. There are those who argue that good videos are often being used to bolster up bad music, but at its best the interaction between music and vision can be exciting and genuinely creative.
An ideal example of such an interaction took place at the studios of TV South in Gillingham in October. The last episode of the concert series 'Off the Record' featured a new band led by synthesist Thomas Dolby, and an appraisal of the ways in which live electronic music performance could be captured in a modern TV studio seemed an obvious starting point for this series.
Group work is something of a novelty for Dolby. (See Fact File E&MM Jan '82). Although he's been a successful session musician with Foreigner and Joan Armatrading, and played with Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club and Lene Lovich, he's remained very much his own man. On his first tour earlier this year he was accompanied only by a few keyboards, a computer, a selection of slide projectors and screens and a video machine. He retains control of his own record label, Venice in Peril, which donates funds towards the sinking Italian city.
The first VIP single, 'Europa and the Pirate Twins', entered the UK Top 50 and created widespread interest, partly because of the advanced computer sequencer techniques used. The other major factor was, of course, that it was catchy — not danceable, perhaps, but catchy. Nitrate Films helped Thomas produce a promotional video for 'Europa' and the follow-up single 'Airwaves', and his one-man stage show was premiered in Madrid and Barcelona last January.
During this time Thomas was working on an album, which was finally released as 'The Golden Age of Wireless' in May this year. In addition to the first two singles it also included 'Radio Silence' and 'Windpower', the latter having gained some exposure from a slightly bizarre appearance on the David Essex TV Show.
For the latest single, 'She Blinded Me With Science', Thomas has assembled a band consisting of Matthew Seligman (ex of The Thompson Twins) and Keith Armstrong (ex of Spizz), who between them take over the guitar, vocoder and some keyboard parts. Additionally on the single Dr. Magnus Pyke can be heard, and for live appearances there's an onstage mixing engineer.
On the stage of the TV South studio, the equipment was set up in a rough horseshoe containing all the musicians, with the mixing engineer facing the background of projection screens. Stage left, a Moog Source, which was used for bass lines or to drive a rack-mounted vocoder from the player's headset mike, and a Micromoog. Centre stage, a Simmons 7-pad suitcase kit played by hand, the PPG 340/380 computer and terminal, and Dolby's Jupiter 8. Stage Right, the Jupiter 4, Solina string ensemble, and at the rear of the stage a Roland Compurhythm, mixing desk and tape machine. Behind the stage, three projection screens matched with carousel slide projectors mounted at the front of the stage.
The PA system consisted of a large selection of cabinets with an emphasis on bass reflex ports, the necessity for which became obvious later as the highly rhythmic content of the music was revealed.
So far, a fairly conventional concert arrangement, and to the credit of TVS the television equipment was unobtrusive. The major unavoidable factor was the sea of lighting on a matrix of braces and supports across the ceiling, an area of perhaps 10,000 square feet.
TV lighting remains a rather specialised development from theatre lighting, although its application to rock concerts where light levels are conventionally low and rapid colour changes are common is an art in itself. Basic technique is the use of spots and fills, powerful tungsten lights for emphasising the major features of the desired pictures, and softer fluorescent lamps to equalise the sharp edges and soften shadows.
In this case the 'decorative' lighting was in the form of a 6 x 4 bank of spots, each fronted by a differently coloured 'gel' sheet, on each side of the stage. The projector screens tended to become rather washed out by the other lighting, and the overall levels were obviously a little higher than would be usual at a straightforward concert. The amount of light needed by a video camera and particularly by the cheaper Vidicon tube typically found in home camera systems can be very high, if a reasonable colour balance is required.
The audience was 'warmed up' by one of the two stage managers, who in addition to rehearsing a few 'cheers, enthusiastic cheers and hysterical cheers' pointed out a few basic TV studio laws. No smoking — learn where the fire exits are — and no stiletto heels on the studio floor. A simple black mark on the perfectly smooth floor can stand out like a sore thumb in any TV production.
In addition there are a few other points of TV etiquette to be learned. Don't crowd forward to the edge of the stage, the cameras and still photographers need room to move. Don't look at the cameras, look at the stage, and above all, don't touch anything. The audience seemed to have most of this off by heart from previous recording sessions, and so with a minimum of tuning up the band launched into 'Radio Silence'.
About 150 members of the audience chose to stand on the studio floor, while those seated towards the back of the studio had the benefit of two overhead colour TV monitors attached to slings suspended from the ceiling, and four 5 x 8 monitor speaker columns which, however, didn't appear to be necessary on this occasion. The TV monitors were useful in that they showed the TX (transmitted or videotaped) picture including all visual effects, and the first interesting point of note was that by carefully framing the picture, an audience of 150 can be made to seem several times larger!
The hour-long performance will be cut down to 30 minutes for showing on TVS on Monday, December 20th. Watching the monitors, it was often clear which songs would have to be cut because of a wipe to a blank projector screen, a late cut or a few flat notes from stage. But the whole wonder of video recording is in its potential selectiveness, its ability to use creative editing and effects to form a fluid, professional-looking product which can stand on its own or help to express a musical message.
Next month we'll be describing the live recording of the show, the problems involved and the technical organisation necessary.
Feature by Mark Jenkins
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