If you haven’t read Part I of this article, click here for the producer/conductor’s perspective first.
Having performed in Video Games Live multiple times, it was a pleasure when Tyrel Ivie called me to help out with the engineering side of his Sounds of the Screen production. Assuming you’ve read the previous article and seen at least one of the videos, you can most likely tell it was a rough journey—as most firsts generally are. High school ensembles usually aren’t used to playing together; the string parts were definitely at least a grade above what the students were used to; the choir and band both had serious rehearsal conflicts; and the percussionists were sparse. Those things alone might cripple a show, but those were just the logistic issues.
The technical issues are where I came in.
The Dress Rehearsal
Since having three ensembles rehearse together repeatedly was an impossibility before the dress rehearsal, this night was critical. I had a long while to set up, which was sorely needed. We brought in a lot of gear since the school’s wasn’t sufficient. We had four mics for the choir, an overhead pair for the orchestra, a couple pairs for the band, two mics for the piano, and a host of dynamics for the percussionists. They all went back to a Behringer X32 digital console in the middle of the audience. Had the concert not needed an extensive, multi-track recording, the gear list would have been much shorter. As it stood, we nearly maxed out our board.
Due to the difficulty of the pieces and all the other moving parts and variables, Tyrel had prepared great-sounding scratch tracks for the students to play with. These were mixed into the live audio as needed—for the rehearsal, this meant heavily mixed in the entire time. Once I got a good idea of which parts of which parts weren’t going to quite cut it, I knew when to mix in more of the track; for example, the unaccompanied male soli during the “Halo Theme.” Since I just had a stereo input from Tyrel’s computer, I couldn’t do too intricate a mix with the live, but it helped immensely regardless.
The first major thing that caught me off-guard during the rehearsal was how Tyrel needed it run. Ideally, the engineer is able to direct each part of the ensemble to play into their mics to set levels and perhaps basic EQ. For this rehearsal, Tyrel rightly felt the ensembles needed the short time they had to run through each piece as many times as possible (which was once for most songs and twice of one or two, if I remember right). It was the first time these students had played together for real (not to a track), and this performance was their introduction to keeping perfectly in sync with video. There was no wiggle room for timing mistakes.
The second major issue was the sound system itself. I had a hunch there was something wrong with the sound. The entire rehearsal was filled with sub-par audio and feedback issues; some feedback was due to me setting levels as they played, but I could tell there was something wrong besides. From my perspective, it was a sonic train wreck; of course, no one on stage could tell, as it wasn’t the students’ fault. Still, something had to be done.
Fortunately, we had access to a nice sound system. We brought in two cabs with a pair of JBL subs in each and a pair of 2-way tops on each sub cab. Since the dress rehearsal was already over, we didn’t have any chance to try them out with the ensembles.
After an aggravating bout with a digital snake, we were ready. The audience was much larger than the school was used to, which is a great problem to have if it all goes well. As most teachers know, the final performance can go much better than the dress rehearsal—such was the case here. Everyone on stage stepped up beautifully, especially the soloists. The solo singers were as good as most of the college solos I heard while I was a singer at Snow College. The band, percussion, and choir did the best they could, which was more than enough. The orchestra (all strings) was the crowing ensemble, for sure. Due to the nature of film and game composing in general, the strings had most of the action and definitely the most difficult parts. I am confident when I say it sounded better live than it does on YouTube. I was more than satisfied.
Our new sound system was a dream. There wasn’t a single case of feedback and no awkward spectral filter from a system that had gone out of tune over the years. From an engineering perspective, this was the biggest takeaway. A school’s auditorium sound system is only as good as it’s tuned. The system itself was actually fairly new; it consisted of a couple gorgeous line arrays that would have been completely adequate for the performance. Properly tuned, it surely would have performed better than the system we brought in. But, if it was never tuned properly or something happened to the loudspeaker management settings (whether on a DSP, graphic, mixer, etc . . .), it’s just not going to sound as good.
Fortunately, most high school performances are largely acoustic. The strings were near the front of the stage and the percussion was fairly loud on its own (with some instruments, anyway). However, the band didn’t carry well enough, since it was behind the orchestra, and the choir and piano were out in no man’s land. Plus, the choir was supposed to stay in sync with a video that was perhaps 60 feet away (~40ms beyond where the Haas effect drops out). For a performance like this, it was very important to have well-positioned mics and a good sound system.
The big question is, “was it worth it?” To me, the answer is a resounding, “YES!” Personally, I got to play with the Behringer X32, which I hadn’t touched before then and is the most popular digital console on the market right now. For the teachers, they got to experience new music and collaborate on a new level. For the audience, they got to hear the music they love and thoroughly enjoy a high school performance—not that they aren’t always enjoyable, but the survey showed this one definitely had a higher approval rating, at the very least.
The greatest benefit was to the students. My band teacher from junior high gave me three tips for being a good band director, “song choice, song choice, song choice.” The biggest advantage in using technology and choosing modern music is the increase in student buy-in and engagement. It was obvious the students cared about the music and gave it their all; that can’t always be said with classical music, even if it’s free and a pretty safe choice. The surveys also showed that the show was good for recruitment, as “95% of students in the audience (who filled out the survey) indicated they would be more inclined to participate in school music programs if it meant being involved in more concerts like this.”
Those are real results. It takes some real work on everyone’s part, but it’s worth it in the end.
If you need any help at all with the technical side of things, I’ll be here. Poke around the site to find what you’re looking for or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elias James is the creator of musictechstudent.org, has a master of music technology degree, loves teaching and mentoring, and is sometimes a recording and live sound engineer (among a few dozen other things). He has made it his personal mission to help teachers get involved in music technology and prepare students for a career in the modern music industry.