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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.)

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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.

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