Beyond the Stage

May 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By David Weiss



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FOH engineer Philip Harvey stays in the moment during a live mix.

FOH engineer Philip Harvey stays in the moment during a live mix.

“Human beings playing in front of you are a more and more valuable commodity as machines take over you in more ways. The idea of the live show is fascinating, and in the digital era where record companies have to reinvent themselves, live is leading the way in providing value to the listener.”

Right on the frontlines of this crossfade between the live and recorded experience are engineers like Jason Marcucci, who is the chief engineer for New York City's Dubway Studios. Just as importantly, he's a frequent live sound engineer for Apple's in-store iTunes concert recordings, VH1 Soul Stage and Palladia (MTV's HD channel) broadcasts, as well as the person who's often responsible for the subsequent mixes.

Marcucci has observed that coincident with the growing importance of the live show broadcast, Webcast or download is many bands' reduced willingness to take chances with their sound or playing onstage. “Bands are increasingly sensitive of how the live performance comes off: I've found more bands trying to sound more like their record live than it used to be,” he observes. “What I think has changed is that, after the fact, bands don't want to be seen as having any flaws in their performances. With a lot of modern rock bands, it's not just somebody at a Grateful Dead show capturing everything and feeling okay with it. They're screening the mix, making sure the vocals are in tune and that nobody screws up.

“I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but you find yourself really making it like a record in the mix. You shouldn't be surprised that you have an A&R guy at the show really listening to what you're doing, and maybe later telling the band how you did. I'm usually instructed to listen to the record, and try to get close to that.”

Can you say “increased pressure on the engineer”? Marcucci points out that this means he may be expected to — practically on the fly — deliver the same mix live (and/or replicate it later in the studio for scheduled release) on a set that may have taken weeks to mix in the studio. “The goal should be like I've been the sound guy for a year and know it really well,” he says. “I usually get everything from talking to the band/management and listening to the record. The way to get ahead is to do your homework and know the way the band wants to sound. And what I'm finding mostly is that they want to sound loud, big, maybe a little more aggressive than they are, but with cues to the record all over the place.”

Out of near-everyday necessity, Marcucci has learned to interface clearly with the video/multimedia team and be on top of their needs and terminology. “Sometimes I send out timecode and they lock to me, sometimes I've had to slave my rig to black burst [a blank video signal also known as “video sync” or “house sync”] or video reference, and sometimes I send timecode out to just a slate. I've definitely had to know how to do all three scenarios.

“The essential things to know for video are, one, make sure you're on the correct sample frequency and timecode frame rate, which has been discussed prior to setup with the video personnel. Usually for video it's 48 kHz, but confirm that just in case they're working with a weird camera. I've heard horror stories where people are not on the same sample frequency so the digital video is not matching with the audio. You can expect big problems for yourself if that happens.

“And, two, know how to slave your recorder to the recording video reference. If you can slave your recorder to sync to that, or do the opposite and know how to send it on, you'll be okay. With your recorder — Pro Tools, Logic, RADAR — the manual should talk about sync issues. And try it out before the day of the gig!”

For plenty of other live sound professionals, however, the standard situation remains one where spontaneity is still paramount and technical demands are almost wholly focused on the live show alone. Philip J. Harvey has found that touring with the likes of the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, Modest Mouse and many others remains relatively uncomplicated. “Before I did any studio recording, my mantra was, ‘I love live because there's no Rewind button,’” he says from a North Calolina road gig with Modest Mouse. “There's the moment: Here it comes. There it goes! It was either the best, the worst or something in between. No do-overs. There's magic in the live moment, and that's exactly why people go to shows.”

Still, Harvey has a vision for how to be as flexible as possible for his clients, traveling with a MacBook Pro, Logic and a Metric Halo 2882 I/O unit, plus a FireWire hard drive. “I'm trying to have multitrack recording as part of my package for a band or a tour,” he says. “I've set myself up to say, ‘I can record and mix FOH.’ So the obvious question is, ‘Can you mix what you just recorded?’ Having enough time to do that on tour is the rough part. Most of the time, I mix in the hotel room on a set of Meyer HD-1s that travel with me. I get a foundation of a mix together on headphones, then check them on HD1s in the hotel room and in the venues.

“I think there will be a growing demand [for concert audio recordings]. Even if the quality isn't as great, that magical night that a fan spent in front of their favorite band — they want to relive that experience. We're going to see more and more fans with expectations of next-day downloads.”

Even for people who seem capable of covering every technological front, however, there's no one formula for staying ahead of the constantly evolving systems for recording and distributing live music. “Things change constantly — there are people doing things on the set that you want to know about,” Springboard's Neuberger states simply. “You have to learn something new every day.” '

David Weiss is Mix's New York editor.

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