After a few years away, recently I’ve returned to working with live sound in the field, at the request of a classical musician friend who talked me into it for a series of concerts with his contemporary group.
We’re talking a modern version of classical music style – think Steve Reich and Nathan Davis – using traditional instruments combined with electronics in a variety of ways. Some of it has effects, some of it has pre-recorded material that the musicians synch with, and some of it deals with loops.
My friend asked me to do it because I’ve got live sound experience combined with the fact that I’m a classical musician, which helps in better understanding the kind of approach required as well as the temperament of the musicians involved. (It certainly isn’t rock n’ roll!)
During the process of setting up and running sound for this set of rehearsals and concerts, I was reminded of a constant factor, and this applies to any type of show or gig: the comfort level of the musicians goes a long way to determining our success or failure.
Recording folks talk about this a lot too – some of it is psychology, such as microphone brand names, leather couches, and the general “feel” of the studio. But some of it is very practical: can the musicians hear themselves and each other in the cue mix? Can they see each other? Do they “sound good”?
The Right Balance
Many of the same issues apply in live sound. In the case of the work I was doing, it came down to whether or not they could hear the playback tracks, specifically in the Reich pieces. At one concert, they performed “Double Sextet,” which consisted of a piano, flute, cello, violin, clarinet and vibraphone. The pre-recorded tracks contained the same instruments, but playing different parts.
This presented somewhat of a challenge in balancing the instruments on stage along with the added element of balancing the acoustic instruments with the recording. The bigger challenge, though, was making sure the live players could clearly hear the recorded parts so they could stay in synch. With purely live music, musicians can adjust to each other visually and sonically, but the recorded tracks can’t adjust…so it was critical for the players to clearly hear them.
The rehearsal process led to a number of changes in the system design and implementation. For example, the original plan was for the musicians to hear the tracks from the mains (which were behind them in this case), and also from a pair of floor wedges. This proved mostly successful except in the case of the pianist, due to his location on stage and the loud nature of his instrument.
As a result, I ended up providing him with his own headphone amp that he used with an earbud in one ear, fed from the track mix only – not the live mics. Once we adapted to this approach, the whole thing tightened up and everyone, not just the pianist, seemed much happier. The shift in mood once we “got the sound right” was palpable, and everyone felt comfortable so they could concentrate on playing their best.