Mikel Rouse’s song cycle, Gravity Radio*, is part of the Next Wave Festival at NY’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in December 2010. The production includes live voices, a string quartet, and a film, along with news reports taken from the radio, providing a diverse range of audio sources for sound designer Christopher Ericson, visiting audio director at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (where Gravity Radio premiered in January 2010).
LD: What is the audio design for Gravity Radio—does this change from venue to venue?
CE: When Mikel and I began discussions about Gravity Radio, we ironed out one very important detail. We wanted this concert to load-in and perform the same day. I've been working closely with Mikel for about five years, and this detail made me step back and say, "Whoa!"” So the sound design had to contain all the required elements that make a Mikel Rouse piece unique, but also take into account a major constraint immediately thrown at it, time. “When approaching the design, logistics were of the first concern: How can we make this travel light and fast? So we decided to incorporate existing in-house into every performance understanding it will change at each venue, but bring certain elements to introduce some standards into each space.
LD: And the actual gear you are using?
CE: We have decided that the string quartet will be close mic'd with DPA 4099s on Shure UHF-R systems, in addition, we will be using Neumann KM184s to blend the strings during the softer pieces. All of the string channels will be routed to True Precision 8 preamps for a clean solid front end. Mikel's voice is matched perfectly with a Neumann KMS105, we have been using that microphone for years and have been extremely happy with the sonic character it produces. We are using a unique preamp with his voice on this tour, an Amek System 9098 EQ, mainly because we need to have Mikel's voice mix well with the strings, and it will fit into 1 rack space nicely! It took us a while to find a microphone that worked well with Claire's (narrator) voice to find the "compressed radio hype" tone we were looking for. But in the end, we went with a MXL 2003.
Mikel enjoyed the cut the microphone produced when DBX 376 tube channel strip. The backup vocalists will be using Rode NTKs, also on True Precision 8 preamps and DBX166a compressors. Mikel's guitars are probably the trickiest element to the performance. On his albums, the guitar likes to sit center and control the rhythm section of the pieces. Live, the guitar needs to sit front and center but also allow room for complex repeating vocal and string patterns to develop around it. Keeping the guitar's timbre interesting from tune to tune is challenging. We have started using the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI in conjunction with a Radial JDI to blend different tones. The Aura hits the console preamp and the Radial JDI goes through an AMEK System 9098 EQ preamp to carve up some sparkle when blended properly. Certain notes from the guitar can be problematic because the same pattern may repeat for 24-36 bars, causing the listener focus in on some interesting harmonics. So to help adjust them we insert a Lake Technologies MESA EQ on the guitar channels to give us clean and surgical EQ that will not color the tone of Mikel's guitars. With all that beefy front-end equipment we are traveling with, I really look at the console just for routing and a control surface. This will give us maximum flexibility for whatever equipment the venue provides to fill out the blanks.
LD: How are the music and spoken voice combined, as well as the film score?
CE: The piece is all live music, there are pre-recorded samples blended into the live music, but the samples are not locked into any sort of timeline. The most interesting part of the visuals is they are controlled in real time by the audio generated by the entire ensemble via max/MSP. Mikel shot a full-length film and handed it to William Knapp and myself to find ways to trigger different visual effects, live, throughout the performance. Most of the visual creation effects you see are from me and Will staying up late in New Orleans (where we held technical rehearsals last year) experimenting with different options from audio previously recorded at rehearsals.
*A look at the visual design of Gravity Radio in the November-December issue of Live Design.