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Navigating + Conditioning A Show

Written By Dave Swallow for The Manifesto
Photography by Kirstin Sinclair

There are two ways the run up to show time can go. The first is that in the 30 minute change-over between bands, all the equipment is setup correctly, the guitars are tuned,  the microphones are plugged into the right holes and everything works. The other is that it doesn't. I say 30 minutes, but in some cases, the running schedule has been put together by a farm animal and the resulting 10 minute change-over is a cluster of panic, shouting and intense trauma. The moments leading up to the show should be a time to mentally prepare yourself for the succeeding show. Gig Mode, as I like to call it. When things don't go to plan, what kind of affect does this have on the lights, sound or performance?

What makes a great show and performance can be debated, but one thing I'm sure everyone can agree on is that they both need a connection with the audience. As a sonic architect, there are plenty of ways to manipulate the sound to get the audience to react, but if the performance is rubbish then so is the show.

Last year I took a trip into the heart of the Amsterdammer Red Light district to have a meeting with a friend. Her name is Marg van Eenbergen, and she is a lecturer in psychology at Amsterdam University. Sitting at a lonesome table, sipping coffee, we deliberate the psychological value of sound engineers. Marg is uniquely placed to navigate the perils of stage psychology because not only can she describe Pavlov’s Dogs in technicolor detail, she also braves the masses and performs on stage.

I want to find out from her if there is some simple psychology I can use to help my artistes perform better. From a sound point of view, the better the source sound, the better the overall sound, thus negating the need to correct it with EQ. Music is a spiritual and emotional response, and as a sound engineer it is my job to relay those emotions as a shared experience with the audience. Put simply - with bad sound, the audience doesn’t react as much and the connection is lost.

When you go to concerts where the kick drum is bursting your spleen open, you’ll probably notice that more people are moving and shaking. This is because sound waves are physically connecting with your body, making your heart race. It doesn’t just stop there; this connection also carries on up the frequency spectrum. If you can hear everything clearly you don’t tire yourself straining to listen. Music is all about vibe, and a show is pretty sterile without it. The last thing I'm sure you want is a lot of tired, vibe-less people for the encore of the show. They certainly won’t be purchasing the album afterward!

So my question is this:  Can I achieve great vibe, sound and performance without touching a single fader or knob?

I believe a core ingredient is artiste confidence. If your band can walk on stage with the assurance that all the gear is working correctly and that the crew are technically inspiring, they have nothing to worry about other than the performance. Let's face it; casting yourself into a pit of metaphorical lions every night is pressure enough!

When I first met Marg I told her my theory on stage comfort. A guitarist has a guitar to hide behind, but a singer does not. Some singers build a series of pedals to hide behind, which ultimately can be detrimental to the sound. I worked with a rather lovely bunch from North America a few years back. The singer had been using a multi effects pedal, which they'd also used on the album. The resulting effect was more like singing through a Wildman’s kilt; Tonally terrible yet reassuringly resolute.

On the other hand, a microphone is a different thing altogether. To have something that is the same weight, colour, shape, feel and tone every time you walk on stage leads to the same level of contentment as a child's comfort blanket. It equates to familiarity in an otherwise unknown environment. Marg went off and brought a mic I had recommended for her - a Sennheiser e935 - and started to use it. As she stepped on stage for her album launch party at Amsterdam's Paradiso, the familiar weight, sound and touch of the mic placed her right back into the comfort of the rehearsal room. Her words, not mine! But we must ask the question: Was this result because I had said it was a good mic, or does this technique actually work? In truth, it's probably a little bit of both. This is a form of conditioning; Controlling things within the environment that provoke the same reaction every time you come into contact with them.

I find it really difficult to mix a show if I can't feel the music. There is a sound volume factor here as well, but if the audience isn’t into the show I still find the mix difficult. Not because I can't mix it, but because I'm leaning over the console pondering to myself about the 250Hz resonance of the second rack tom. I stand there and technically listen. The mix might sound great, it might sound like the album, but it just misses the vibe.

There are a few clever little tricks we can do to charge up the audience. You can start a 40Hz tone quietly underneath the background music before the band come on. The audience will feel the rumbling and also it will cause a slight dissonance with the music that is playing making it difficult to listen too. Then three minutes before the band come on, kill it. The audience will then be ready for the show.

Another little trick is with the lights. Look around the next time you're at a show and you'll notice vacant stares into the tiny phone screens. Five minutes before the band come on, set your rear top truss lights to blue and have them pointing at the first row of the crowd, and then slowly (over the five minute duration) raise them up toward the ceiling. Without knowing, the audience will then be alert and looking at the stage.

So what does this all mean for navigating a show? Well, it’s a much more complex discussion than can be adequately fit into this essay, that’s for sure. An invaluable lesson I have learnt is that investing in the people around you reaps far greater rewards.  People who know how the road works, how to tune a guitar, and know how to get a good sound out of any scenario. These people have the confidence to do their jobs properly, and thus the artiste walks out on stage with more confidence and the show looks and feels solid. Money is always going to be an issue these days, but my firm belief is that if the punters enjoy the show, they will invest the band.