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Radio Interference (Really?!) — Adventures With Both Creative & Excitable Individuals

Tales of mixing for English guitar maestro Robert Fripp, tape-based effects in live shows, and a promoter who just doesn't get it.

In the spring of 1983, while working for a sound and lighting company in Toronto, I got tapped to mix a solo show for English guitar maestro Robert Fripp. The venue was an auditorium at the main University of Toronto campus in downtown Toronto, a smallish (500 or so seat) theatre with a proscenium arch stage and a single balcony.

The PA consisted of a pair of our house built (mostly) side fill cabinets for mains (dual 15-inch in a Thiele enclosure with an Emilar “bow tie” [remember those?] horn and a Yamaha tweeter) and four Electro-Voice S-1503 passive 3-way cabinets for surround fills.

The system was wired in a stereo/reverse-stereo/stereo configuration, with the mains as left-right, a pair of the EV S-1503s at the back of the main hall in right-left, and then the other pair of S-1503s at the back of the balcony in left-right for reasons I will explain later. The console was most likely a Yamaha M-916, with monitors also run from front of house (but it also could have been an early Soundtracs model).

This particular solo show was billed as a “lecture tour,” with Fripp giving a talk about the music business between his guitar pieces followed by Q&A segment with the audience at the end. However, the real centerpiece was the famous “Frippertronics” set-up for his guitar.

It consisted of two 8-foot tables on stage, arranged end-to-end with a 2-foot gap between them. On each table, at the extreme opposite ends (i.e., stage left and stage right ends) was a Revox open-reel tape machine. The machine on the stage right side was the “supply” unit while the machine at stage left was the “take-up” unit, with the tape traveling across the 16 or so feet between the two machines in free space.

The result of this, of course, was a huge delay between the “record” head on machine one and the “playback” head on machine two… and that was just the left channel of each machine. The delay was then doubled again by repeating the set-up with the right channel of each machine.

When this signal was sent to the PA, the result of having the rear cabinets reversed from the mains is that the sound would swoop around the room from left-to-right and front to back, and then back again. It was pretty cool to hear. All of this gear fit in the company panel van, and I was the only tech on the show, with crew supplied by the promoter.

Not The Traditional

Load-in went just fine but must have gone a bit late as I remember that I didn’t get a meal break before the first of two shows. The way the show ran: Fripp would take the stage and start playing his guitar a few minutes before the house opened. Once doors were open, he would stay on stage and continue to play, with house lights up, as the audience took their seats. This took about 10 to 15 minutes.

When the entire house was seated, he’d finish the piece that he was playing, give a quick bow, and walk off the stage. The audience was then left to wonder what had just happened (for 5 minutes or so), and then the house lights would go down, the stage lights would come up, and Fripp would make his entrance. (A critic for one local paper clearly came late to the performance because he missed this bit and had some unkind words to say about the audience being left to wait for no good reason.)

I can’t recall if Fripp said much, but in fairly short order it became apparent that what he was really doing as the audience was taking their seats was recording a bed track for the ensuing performance. Suddenly all of the swooping and soaring guitar sounded very familiar (the bed track) as he then proceeded to overdub even more cool parts on top.

The first show went very well, musically, but the Q&A was a bust because of the inevitable “gentleman” that wanted to ask some question about – you guessed it – the influence of a certain 1940s-era dictator on today’s music industry. (The road manager told me that the same guy had been at the previous night’s show, held an hour out of town.) Anyway, one down, one to go, everybody happy, time to run out and grab a burger before the next show. Which I did.

However, as I’m returning, walking up the front steps of the venue, one of the crew guys says to me, “The promoter (name withheld) is looking for you – there’s radio coming out of the PA!” Now this promoter was an excitable fellow, especially on show days.

Case in point (this happened on another show in the same venue): I’d spent the summer on a brutal tour of Ontario (the province is bigger than a big chunk of Europe, but with far fewer people who didn’t want to come and see the dog of a government-sponsored show we were flogging).

At one point in the waning days of that tour, in the far northwestern part of the province, I’d bought myself a pair of burgundy, high-top Chuck Taylors (Converse sneakers).

The promoter’s right hand person was the lighting tech on this tour and he was a big fan of those sneakers. Very early on in the day, just after load-in, I was standing on the stage when this guy happened by, looked at my feet, noticed that I wasn’t wearing the Chuck Taylors, and said, “Nice shoes, but I like the high-tops better. Where are the high-tops?”

The promoter, who was just a few feet away. overheard this and just… well, exploded. “You forgot the high tops?!” he yelled, and then “Where are the high tops?! Can we send someone in a van to go get them?!” I replied that the high tops were in my car, but that since we were talking about a pair of shoes, I didn’t really see the need to send someone to go get them. “Oh” he said, much relieved, “I thought we were talking about some kind of light!”

Golden Oldies

But I digress. As I walked back into the venue, I mulled over the news flash that there was radio coming out of the PA. The company that I was working for was pretty together for the times, the systems were well grounded and so on, so I thought that it was kind of far-fetched that the system, which had been dead quiet all day, would suddenly start experiencing radio interference.

It dawned on me that it was more likely coming from the guitar rig than the PA. So as I entered the hall, I saw Fripp’s road manager on stage setting up water glasses, etc. and I asked him if perhaps there was some form of radio emanating from the guitar rig? “Oh yes, that was us,” he answered. “There’s nothing wrong with the PA. In any case it’s only a certain combination of pedals (Fripp also had an extensive pedal board), and Robert knows exactly which ones they are, so don’t worry about it.”

I thanked him, and as I walked away to deliver this happy news to the promoter, he added, as an afterthought, “But don’t be surprised if he uses it during the show!”

Sure enough, a few minutes into the main portion of the second show, Fripp begins triggering the pedal board and out comes… an oldies radio show. It went something like: “…remember when you had to promise to cut the grass and wash the car before dad would let you have the old Studebaker to take Peggy Sue to the dance on Friday night?” followed immediately by “da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-dada-da-dada, shaboom, shaboom…”

Besides coming straight out of the PA, it was also being recorded into the Frippertronics loop, so for the rest of the show it would pop up again every few minutes, each time a little further back in the mix than the previous pass. A nice effect, and certainly one that I was glad that I’d found out about during the intermission.

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