Monterey Style: Capturing Diverse Sounds At A Top Jazz Festival

February 11, 2013, by Gary Parks


The annual Monterey Jazz Festival is a three-day extravaganza where tens of thousands of music fans enjoy a variety of jazz acts on several stages throughout the grounds.

The most recent edition of the festival (the 55th), held late last year, saw stages ranging from two informal outdoor venues featuring simple audio systems in the entry courtyard and the concessions area to the 6,500-seat Jimmy Lyons arena with a concert stage, flown loudspeaker arrays, and full front-of-house and monitor stations.

Venerable sound company McCune Audio of San Francisco provided audio support for the festival, as it has for many years.

While delivering excellent sound reinforcement to the audience is a prime responsibility, it is equally as important to concentrate on the source of the audio itself – the musicians’ instruments and how they are captured.

This involves the selection of appropriate microphones for each instrument based on their frequency and dynamic ranges, maintaining sufficient isolation among the instruments, mixing the outputs of electronic and acoustic instruments, and balancing the stage requirements of the musicians with the house systems that present the results to hundreds or thousands of listeners.

I attended the festival to see first-hand how the sound team handles this highly improvisational musical form, and will focus on some of the equipment and techniques that bring the artists’ music to the audience – and that give the artists the intimacy to interact with each other musically on the concert stage.

The Tierney Sutton Band on the Night Club Stage at the 55th Monterey Jazz Festival. (click to enlarge)

Mixing On The Fly
A reality of festival shows is that a number of acts, each with differing instrumentation and requirements, come to the stage with only a short break in between to place equipment and set up and confirm the miking, DIs, monitor mixes, and feeds to the front-of-house console.

Some elements are pre-set with stage plots, equipment riders, moveable drum risers in the wings, discussions with the musicians and their technical staff, and pre-show sound checks when time permits – but many decisions must be made on the fly.

At the Arena Stage, when the curtains close and setup begins for the next act, front-of-house engineer Nick Malgieri had several useful ways to monitor the action. Two side-stage cameras were focused on the setup area, and fed to a video monitor at the FOH position.

Arena Stage house engineer Nick Malgieri at his DiGiCo SD10. (click to enlarge)

With the visuals, he was able to know where musicians and microphones= were placed, and how the audio capture was being set. Via the intercom system, he was able to talk with the stage techs and be informed of any changes.

The mains were Meyer Sound MILO line arrays, tuned to a flat frequency response, and Malgieri also had a replica of this system at FOH, allowing him to pre-mix the next act on his DiGiCo SD10 console as the mics were placed and tested. He monitored through a pair of Meyer UPM-1 loudspeakers, equivalently tuned, set up so that the audio response of the mains and his monitors can translate back and forth. Malgieri notes that this method is “a huge tool” because he’s not able to sound check all of the acts.

Another technique, explains Marian Colbeck, house engineer at the Garden Stage, is to set up the console with a “festival patch.”

From left to right across the console, groups of channels are designated and labeled for particular instruments for the duration of the event. Drums, bass, piano/keys, guitars, lead vocals, backing vocals, horns, and so on each have specific channels to patch into.

If a particular act does not have a certain instrument, or fewer than the allotted channels, then those channels are skipped. For the big bands, with multiple mics for the saxes, trumpets, trombones, and other brass, channel sections on the right side of the console are reserved.

The Tradeoff
Veteran stage technician Brian Alexander specializes in piano, having worked extensively with Chick Corea and several other artists, and he spent the show at the Arena Stage.

On the subject of compromise in audio capture decisions, he points out a “contention” between audience sound and artist sound – a tradeoff between the aesthetics that are most pleasing to the musician and their sound and what can be delivered to the main loudspeakers (and thus the audience) given the stage setup, the venue acoustics, and the interactions with the other instruments on stage.

Alexander adds that it is all about balancing needs by making the artist comfortable while providing sufficient level, quality, and isolation to the individual instruments. With TV screens and broadcast becoming a norm for live shows, visual sight lines for the TV producers are an additional consideration for miking.

“It’s a strange, interesting world behind the curtains, requiring multi-tasking people who can make something happen right now,” he notes.

The piano is a central instrument to many of the acts performing at the festival, and its sound helps define the jazz genre. Two intertwining goals of piano miking are to capture the natural timbre and range of the piano while minimizing bleed from other instruments into those microphones.

Interior photo of the piano miking at the Arena Stage. (click to enlarge)

At the festival, a combination of closely placed omni mics, ambient cardioid condenser mics, and soundboard pickups are used either by themselves or in tandem to achieve sufficient level along with adequate isolation to the piano.

The Arena Stage piano was miked in such a fashion. Four AKG C 414 side-fire condenser mics were used, with one pair mounted on either side of the soundboard with the microphone’s diaphragm pointing downward and in toward the center of the soundboard, capturing the lower and higher strings.

The second pair was mounted on the propped-open lid, affixed to the upper bracing, again angled down toward the soundboard on the low and high side; these more distant mics were to provide ambience when stage levels were low enough to prevent significant bleed.

Two DPA 4060 miniature omni condensers were positioned on ribs of the soundboard “harp” approximately six inches from the key hammers, and about a foot in from the low and high sides of the piano. The mic elements were pointed up toward the lid. An AMT M40 piano boundary mic system was placed through one of the holes in the harp onto the soundboard, and secured with tape to both hold it in place and prevent any rattle or buzz. The closely placed AMT provides isolation and the ability to raise the level on the piano when bleed-through with the other mics is too great or sufficient gain is not able to be achieved with them.

Rounding out the piano miking, a pair of Shoepps MK4 cardioid condensers on external tripod stands outside of the piano provides “air” when stage levels permit. All of the cables and connectors from the mics within the piano are run together in a bundle, and are clearly labeled so that the particular miking combination for each act can be selected and run to the monitor and main consoles.

Malgieri explains that the choice of mics used with any given act is a judgment call based on the orchestration and physical setup of the band. He prefers using omni mics and studio miking techniques when possible, but if a drum kit is nearby, then a “sliding scale compromise” comes into play.

The other end of the spectrum, when using overhead mics is impossible, is to deploy the AMT pickup along with any other closely placed mics, and to high-pass the condensers at 1 kHz to 2 kHz for “crispness” and mix it with the DI feed from the AMT system’s preamp.

In this case he is likely to use the fundamentals from the AMT, with the DPA 4060s or the AKG C 414s adding the top.

Move & Groove
McCune’s favorite mic for capturing solo horns is the Shure KSM27, and these microphones were used at most of the stages. The typical positioning is one to two feet in front of the instrument, and the engineers noted that they’re especially useful for players with plenty of volume and projection.

The player is free to “move and groove” from this distance without any appreciable change in audio response or proximity effect. The mic’s cardioid pattern and good isolation, plus its “natural sound,” were given as reasons for the choice.

When miking horn sections at the festival, mics were either placed one per player or “split chairs” when the sections were large – such as having five players share three mics. Several big bands played the Garden and Dizzy’s Den Stages, requiring a significant quantity of microphones.

Esperanza Spalding and band on the Arena Stage, providing a view of some of the mic approaches. (click to enlarge)

Sennheiser MD 421s were used for saxophones and sometimes for trumpets and other horns (run either flat or with the highs slightly rolled off ), with Shure SM57s as the “workhorse instrument mic” for trumpets and trombones, and the occasional Electro-Voice RE-20 for lower frequency brass. A KSM27 was typically placed up front for soloists.

At the Garden Stage, which is outdoors, the majority of the mics are high-passed at 80 Hz, mainly to minimize wind noise. As one engineer told me, “with 40 open mics, if anything will be a problem it will be the low end.” Also, the channels are generally run closer to flat outdoors, since without the reflective surfaces and potential room resonances there is less need for corrective EQ.

Drum miking trended toward simplicity at the smaller stages, with the kick and snare individually miked and a pair of overhead condensers capturing the cymbals and toms. The AKG D 112 was predominantly used on kick, although an Audix D6 was also observed for one act. Snares were typically miked with the SM57, while overheads ranged from C 414s to Shure SM81s and KSM27s or KSM32s.

On the larger Arena Stage, additional mics were used on individual toms in some cases, using small condensers with short goosenecks clipped to the rims and aimed toward the outer edge of the drum heads. Melody Gardot’s drummer deployed a C 414 on a stand angled at about 30 degrees and about 6 inches away to capture the snare; the percussionist used a set of Audix percussion mics to capture his wide variety of instruments.

To reproduce the acoustic bass, either a bridge-mounted pickup is used (already installed on the instrument by the artist) through a DI, or a small microphone is placed under the bridge. Malgieri favors the DPA 4060 omni mic for this purpose, and considers it his “Swiss Army knife” for concealed, closely miked applications.

For Gardot’s act on the Arena Stage, the bassist used a bridge pickup run through his SWR amp, and the speaker was miked with an AKG D 112. At the Garden Stage, when possible, the instrument pickup was supplemented with a mic on the instrument, or on the amp’s speaker.

There was nothing unusual about guitar miking; typically it was handled with an SM57 on the guitar amp, aimed toward the outer edge of the speaker cone. No acoustic guitars were observed at the festival other than a nylon-string guitar using a bridge pickup and DI played for one tune at the arena stage, and most were semi-hollow body electrics.

Visceral Feel
Engineers mixed a wide variety of acts, ranging from quiet duos to big bands, and each with their own styles, stage levels, and requirements. For example, trumpeter Christian Scott and his band appeared on the Night Club stage, with instrumentation including drums, acoustic bass, acoustic piano, electric guitar, and trumpet.

During the majority of the sound check, the band leader went out into the audience seats to call his preferences as each instrument was dialed in, and the combo played. According to house engineer Mark Speen, the artist preferred to push the bass frequencies up a bit to provide a more visceral feel. The music itself had plenty of drive, and levels were close to that of a rock act.

The electric guitar was played through an onstage amp with an SM57 aimed toward the center of the speaker and run with only slight EQ. For the piano, miked with a pair of KSM27 overheads and an ATM25 “in the hole,” the high mids were pushed to “shine above the guitar a little.” A slight pan was also used to separate the instruments since their frequency ranges overlapped.

The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra on the Arena Stage, with all acoustic instruments getting dedicated mics. (click to enlarge)

The bass had a bridge pickup which was routed to the console through a Countryman passive DI, while the drum kit was captured with a D 112 on kick, an AKG dynamic on the snare, and a pair of Shure SM81 pencil condensers for overheads. Scott supplied his own CAD E100 mic for his trumpet.

At the same stage earlier in the day, a duo consisting of guitarist Mimi Fox and flautist Ali Ryerson had a simple setup consisting of an SM58 on the flute and an SM57 on the guitar amp. The resulting musical rapport was extraordinary, and the sound was great.

Later, Tierney Sutton and her long-term band brought yet another musical flavor with acoustic piano, acousticelectric bass, drums, and vocals. The same piano and miking as with Scott’s band was taken, but with more emphasis placed on the overhead mics. A DI to the console captured the bass, and the drums featured an Audix D6 kick mic, SM57 for snares, and pencil condenser overheads.

Sutton, seated on a stool, sang through a KSM9, with a pair of floor monitors bringing the band to her. Behind her, the band was arranged on a diagonal so that they had visual contact, with the bassist sandwiched between the piano and drums.

Same stage, same day, different acts – each with widely varying instrumentation and dynamics.

Gary Parks has served as marketing manager and wireless product manager for Clear-Com Intercom Systems, and also handled RF planning software sales with EDX Wireless in addition to doing loudspeaker and wireless product management at Electro-Voice.

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Monterey Style: Capturing Diverse Sounds At A Top Jazz Festival