Anatomy of a Sound Check

by Darren Mueller on December 21, 2011

Reynolds Theater

Consider the plight of the live sound technician—if you do your job well, you make yourself and your work invisible. There’s so much more to it than plugging in microphones; every venue has its own unique personality to contend with, and every performance has its own special demands. Today on The Thread, we shed some light on the diligent efforts of those who create seamless concert experiences for us, making sure we notice the music and not the technology mediating it. To do so, we sent Darren Mueller to shadow sound engineer Claudia Engelhart in the hours leading up to Duke Performances’ staging of “The Great Flood,” a collaboration by guitarist Bill Frisell and director Bill Morrison. (All photographs by Darren Mueller.)

5 November 2011, 3:30 p.m.

I arrive at Reynolds Theater to find Claudia Engelhart moving the stage around to suit her preferences—and those of the musicians. She flies around the stage, hard at work, but pauses for a brief moment to give a warm greeting. She’s worked as a live sound engineer for over 25 years and currently lives just outside of New York City. She’s with Bill Frisell 99% of the time when he’s on the road, as his front-of-house engineer. She knows Frisell’s working habits as well as anyone. “I think of her and trust her like a part of the band,” Frisell had told me a few days earlier. I sit down and watch a stage full of equipment unfold into a performance space.

3:49

The Great Flood

The screen at the back of the stage suddenly turns blue, and a few minutes later, Bill Morrison’s video appears. Engelhart is arranging the stage with the video in mind, since in her view this performance is “all about the film.” There are at least six different people onstage and another few at the top of the auditorium, adjusting everything to Engelhart’s specifications. Since the music will be performed in sync with the video, each musician has a video monitor in addition to the music stands, amps, and audio monitors that are already set up. Between managing the stage, adjusting the lighting and sound, and the video projection, quite a bit of coordination needs to happen before the first note can be heard.

4:11

As the lone musician to have arrived, Kenny Wollesen is busy setting up his drum kit and periodically playing the vibes. Wollesen walks off stage for a second and Engelhart energetically sits down at the drum set to adjust the two condenser microphones suspended above the kit. The video crew checks the position of the images on the screen, and by 4:20, the stage is set. Equipment surrounds each of the musicians, though it does not impede their line of sight. Each piece of technology has its purpose: microphones allow the sound to be balanced and heard from anywhere in the hall; cables send the signals to the two mixing boards and the PA system; audio monitors ensure that each musician can hear the various parts of the ensemble (including themselves); and the video monitors enable the musicians to see the film being projected above them.

Claudia Engelhart

There are, in fact, two audio engineers for this show: Engelhart sits in the house and adjusts the sound from the top of the auditorium, while John Koelle sits stage left, just out of view of the audience, and adjusts the stage sound through the monitors. His position lets the musicians communicate with him during the performance. In this case, the sound of each monitor can be adjusted individually based the preferences of a given musician. Getting these levels correctly balanced before the show is one of the primary activities of a sound check.

4:24

With all the equipment ready to go onstage, Engelhart goes up to the top of the auditorium, where she looks over a large 32-channel mixing board, a Midas Venice F32. Each microphone has its own channel, giving her complete control over the sound. She spends a few minutes labeling each channel on a strip of white tape and sets up her own mic so she can talk with the musicians over the PA. She speaks into the mic, but nothing comes through. “Hey John,” she shouts, “is this thing in?” Her voice booms through the PA system. “Oh, there it is.” She makes sure she’s got a signal coming through each of the microphones. “John,” she asks through the PA, “can you tap on the mics for me? Start with the bass drum.” Ron Miles and Bill Frisell walk onstage and take a quick look around, sizing up the venue.

Claudia Engelhart

“Okay, and the first overhead,” Engelhart says, looking down at the board for a visual signal that the channel is working. She travels with her own microphones to ensure consistency in different venues and to achieve, she says, “a comfortable balance” throughout the hall. “I imagine that changes with the location,” I remark. “Exactly,” she answers. “It depends on how much ‘liveness’ there is.” She returns to the task at hand.

4:35

“Ssssst. Tshhhhhht. Ssstttt. Haaa. Heeeee. Huuuh. Ssst—sssssssst.” Engelhart’s voice echoes through the hall. With each vocable, she listens to how the room and sound system respond to different frequencies. As she sings down a major scale, something rattles onstage. “Something’s rattling up there. Heee. Heeeee. Haaaa. Maybe on the [drum] kit?” She point to her right. “Is that the speaker?” “There’s a loose pin I bet,” Koelle shouts from below.

“Heeeeeee. There, I think you did it,” Engelhart responds. “Nope. Still there.” Still making sounds through the PA, she boosts the frequency that makes the pin rattle to help them find it. “Sssss. Sssst. Whaaa. Yeah. Wa. Whaa. Haaaaaah…Is there any gaff tape? Maybe just gaff it.” Meanwhile, Bill Frisell sits down and begins tuning his guitar.

Reynolds Theater

Engineers like Engelhart search for unwanted sounds in the system and attempt to reduce them. They consider noise, like a loose pin on a speaker, unacceptable, though the valuation of such noise depends on the situation. Distortion in the guitar or a cymbal crash, for this concert, passes the noise test. A buzz in the bass amp or a hiss through a mic cable does not. The regulation of this noise-to-music spectrum is the reason Engelhart’s job is so important to the concert-going experience: she ensures that the equipment accentuates, rather than distracts from, the activity onstage.

Engelhart needs to adjust the levels during the show as well, depending on the instrumentation at any given moment. “So, Kenny plays vibes and I bring down those mics when he’s not playing,” she explains, “because otherwise they pick up the whole stage. And when Tony puts down [the bass] it makes a big clunk and I like to make sure that I turn [the channel] off so it doesn’t make all that noise.”

5:10

Engelhart informs the musicians that it’s a good time to check the levels in the monitors. She plugs her headphones into the mixing board, listening to every channel up close, and then comparing with the sound of the hall. “Hey Ron,” she says, “would you be willing and able to give me some trumpet?” Ron Miles begins to play a blues and Frisell responds with some impromptu accompaniment. On the small rack to the left of the mixing board, Engelhart turns a dial and adds a small amount of reverb to the trumpet coming through the PA system.

The Great Flood band

When I ask her about the reverb, she is quick to respond. “I put it just into the trumpet mic. But yesterday [in New York], I didn’t need to, because Zankel [at Carnegie Hall] is just more live.” By “live” she means that there is more reverberation in the space. Think about the different acoustics in a high school gym and the muffled waiting room in a doctor’s office. When talking about sound, the latter space is considered “dead” (which is not what you’d normally want from a doctor’s office!). “This room is much more dead,” Engelhart says. “If I don’t put any reverb on Ron, it will be dry and flat. It’s about being continuous.” She gets back to work, jumping from knob to knob, striving for a blended sound in the hall and a balanced sound onstage. Speaking to herself, she runs through a checklist. “I’ve got the vibes and drums. I got the guitar. I’ve got everything but Tony [Scherr].”

5:17

A mixing board

Duke Performances Director Aaron Greenwald enters the hall and greets Engelhart. He mentions that he will need a mic to make an announcement about cell phones before the concert, which prompts a broader conversation about the detriment of glowing cell phones to the concert environment. “I’m always at the back of the room,” says Engelhart, “and when I look down the audience, I’m shocked at how much glowing stuff there is during the concert. I mean, why are you even at the concert? Go somewhere else if you don’t want to be here now!” During this conversation (and others like it), Engelhart shows her deep investment in the “experience” of a live concert and, by implication, her responsibility to help the audience “be in the moment.” She says, “I always want to go down to people and say, ‘listen, enjoy where we are right now because this is it! This is what it is. It’s live!’” On the surface, this seems somewhat contradictory, since technology is often considered the hinge point where the authenticity of performance can be most questioned (think of the debates surrounding AutoTune). However, though technology does affect the nature of live performance (as some cultural critics have argued), Engelhart’s life-long commitment to the immediacy of the concert experience through her control over technology demonstrates how technological mediation enhances such events. Why else would Bill Frisell travel the world with his own sound engineer?

5:32

The Great Flood band

The band runs through a section or two. With the levels mostly set, Engelhart moves around the hall to hear the sound from various perspectives—first to the middle, then the front, then from side to side. She then returns to the top to make adjustments. Meanwhile, the musicians continue to play, stopping on occasion to discuss a passage or ask for changes in their monitors. “Can I get some more bass? Perfect.” “Hey John, could you take the drums down a bit? That’s too much.” This back and forth guarantees the comfort of the musicians, so that they can perform to the best of their abilities.

5:56

Engelhart isn’t satisfied with how the lower frequencies sound in the hall. As she goes up and down the stairs, I walk with her to hear for myself. As I travel down the stairs, there is a dramatic difference, much more than I expected. It’s sounds as if someone is manually turning up the bass faders as I walk down.

Engelhart: “It’s weird. The low end is practically gone up here. I’m not feeling it at all and then [pointing] you get down there and…”

Me: “Yeah. As you’re walking down it feels like you’re boosting the bass.”

Engelhart: “I mean, this is super steep. I could have used a little bit more than the three boxes they gave me. But whatever. It definitely works, but it’s not smooth.”

Me: “So the PA really makes a difference, then.”

Reynolds Theater

Engelhart: “Oh yeah! Up here [in the back] it’s really dead. Under these circumstances, I just have to watch myself because, as Tony said, it was too big down there, but up here I’m not feeling it. So I have to compensate. I have to watch out because I get into the music, and want to give it some bottom and feel good. Down there, it will be there, but up here, I’m not feeling it.”

Later Engelhart and Koelle talk about how this particular PA influences the “coverage” of the hall, top to bottom and left to right. Both of them agree that evenness through the hall is most important. It gives an equal experience to all audience members, no matter where one sits. As a frequent audience member in Reynolds, I, for one, appreciated their concern. (In the finally tally, Bill Morrison told The Thread, Frisell and everyone were pleased with the sound they achieved in Reynolds.)

"And we're done."

6:03

“Claudia, is everything okay out there?” “Yeah [Bill]. Are you guys okay?” “It feels good to me. If you’re good, I think we’re done.” “I’m totally good. Hey Tony, is the bass okay for you?” “Oh yeah. How about for you?” “It’s totally good!”

[Engelhart to herself] “And we’re done.”

8:00

Showtime!

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