Providing audiences and musicians with good live sound reproduction represents an important area of work for Tonmeisters and is one focus of the mdw’s exceptionally multifaceted Tonmeister Education degree programme. And for the first time since this programme’s move to the new Future Art Lab (FAL) at the mdw campus, it was possible to implement live sound setups as part of teaching: for this, the FAL’s Sound Theatre offers ideal conditions that were exploited to the max in late September in a three-day workshop led by live sound legend Carsten Kümmel. Nearly 30 of the mdw’s approximately 60 student Tonmeisters had the opportunity to work on providing live sound for RONJA* and her band. This workshop was conceived to take advantage of the mdw’s newly created infrastructure in order to increase the amount of hands-on practical work in our Tonmeisters’ training. It was initiated by student representatives and received generous support both from the Rectorate and from the relevant faculty members.
I knew that the final result wasn’t important, here, and that the band was playing just for us. That allowed me to try things out live that I wouldn’t have dared to attempt otherwise. Some worked, some didn’t—a fantastic experience!
The “live sound” at issue here is produced using loudspeakers to electronically amplify microphone signals and instruments for large audiences. And in Carsten Kümmel, mdw faculty members Pauline Heister and Volker Werner succeeded in engaging a renowned and extremely experienced live sound engineer for this workshop. Kümmel offered a deep-reaching look into his skills while the students got a chance to work the faders themselves. Onstage was RONJA* with her band, courtesy of the Department of Popular Music.
Like other projects, this one did include a certain measure of theory: on the first day, important theoretical basics were discussed, mulled over, and questioned as a group. The PA system, graciously made available free of charge by d&b audiotechnik and the Viennese rental company Musik Paradies, was positioned according to room acoustics principles. Several line arrays (hanging stacks of speakers) were hung with an eye to audience safety, after which they were analysed with acoustic measurement tools and had their settings adapted to the space.
This workshop made possible the sorts of comparisons that are rarely possible in practice due to time and financial constraints: for example, the workshop participants took time to try out various subwoofer clusters and positions. What settings would make for the most even auditory impression throughout the audience area? While this is no easy thing to achieve, it’s one of the central ingredients that one needs in order to create a concert experience capable of captivating the audience. It was also possible to devote lots of time to the positioning of microphones as well as monitors, which are speakers placed onstage so that the band members can easily hear one another. Monitoring is, in fact, a challenging and frequently underestimated part of the job: if the musicians have difficulty hearing and feel ill at ease while performing, the evening can be written off. A second thing for which those in charge of monitoring are responsible is the safety of everyone who’s onstage: feedback between microphones and loudspeakers can cause serious and sometimes irreversible damage to one’s hearing.
It was really fascinating how, with help from an experienced engineer, we were able to produce a really great mix out of this huge jungle of channels within a very short period of time—learning tonnes of tricks along the way.
The second day was given over entirely to systematic preparation. The students, divided into small groups, got a look inside the preparations for a complex live mix. At issue here were skills of essential importance to their professional futures; time is money, after all, and a well-prepared and hence quick soundcheck also goes easy on the nerves of musicians and Tonmeisters alike. So for this entire day, the students had the opportunity to attempt to mix a gigantic virtual live concert under Carsten Kümmel’s guidance.
On the third day, it was finally showtime! Work began in the early morning, with the entire crew listening and making corrections and adjustments until everything was perfect. Right on time, RONJA* and her band arrived at the Sound Theatre ready to play, and the soundcheck for the front-of-house (FOH) sound and the monitoring began. Here, as well, the students had the opportunity to indulge in countless questions and experiments for which there’s often simply no time in actual practice: What’s the fastest route to a solid sound that makes both the audience and the musicians feel good? How does the person responsible for monitoring communicate with the musicians and react to any problems during the concert? To what extent should a live sound engineer play an active role in shaping the sound? In what ways can one’s mixing influence audience perceptions and support the musicians’ performance? And should all numbers be equally loud? On this, Carsten Kümmel said the following: “Allowing a ballad to sound quiet is one thing that you can do—it gives the audience a chance to calm down, get all quiet and concentrated. And when the next up-tempo number comes along, you can turn things up really loud—at which point you’ll have them eating out of your hand!”
The band played for the students professionally and with extreme patience, presenting excerpts from a variety-packed set and also uncomplainingly repeating the same number over and over again so that the students could try out different approaches—something that would be completely unthinkable in everyday live sound work.
In the end, the band was turned loose to perform number after number to riotous applause by all those who were present, while the students had hours to take turns at the mixing boards. A total success, a valuable and professionally relevant experience for the students, and thus most assuredly a model for similar mdw projects in the future!
It was fascinating for me to have the chance to experience just what all goes through a live sound engineer’s head. At concerts, it’s all so insanely regimented and fast. But here, we got a chance to see just how much work, know-how, and ability goes into it doing what’s unfortunately often a woefully unsung job, and how difficult and individual it actually is.