Live to Dare
Ultra-high resolution can be more than purist boffinry; it can inspire performance. Greg Simmons and Ross A’Hern discovered this little surprise when recording Ben Gurton’s Euro Jazz album.
AT is embedded with Triple J as the national youth broadcaster mobilises all its assets for an assault on Splendour In The Grass.
Story: Mark Davie
Artist Images: Courtesy of Triple J
Mud, mud, mud: it’s all anyone can talk about. But Splendour In The Mud? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
It’s day three of the music festival, and Triple J Mornings presenter Alex Dyson is trudging around North Byron Parklands trying to pick out potential interviewees to pepper the live broadcast with a bit of “colour and movement”. But so far, everything’s coming up brown. It’s a tough gig. If punters aren’t genuinely lost for words when they figure out who he is, they’re often too shy, or it’s too early in the morning after too many the night before. Fifteen seconds of fame has never gone begging as many times as that morning.
IN THE TRENCHES
Live music broadcasts are tough gigs, and no one does them quite like Triple J. Live At The Wireless is one of the mainstays of the national youth broadcaster’s portfolio. The station has built up a formidable archive of live recordings ever since its formation as 2JJ in 1975. It’s a proud heritage and one Cameron McCauley, Executive Producer Operations & Live Music, is charged with continuing. Splendour In The Grass is the biggest outing of the year for Triple J’s Live team, with both the Sydney and Melbourne recording trucks on site. The Sydney crew feed live-to-air mixes of most of the Supertop mainstage to the Outside Broadcast (OB) tent, while the Melbourne team take care of the Mix-Up tent for playback in delay. Rounding out the lineup is a recording rig setup at the GW McLennan tent, capturing sets for mixing back at base.
The live recording teams aren’t flying solo, a big portion of Triple J’s personnel are here.
The trucks feed the OB tent overseen by OB Technical Producer Linda Radclyffe, with the help of IT Systems Manager, Christian McGregor. Once the satellite is in position, ISDN lines dialled up, the fibre has been run out, wireless links tested, and a makeshift studio set up, then everyone else starts rolling in. There’s the names you might know: Richard Kingsmill, Zan Rowe, Tom and Alex, and Linda Marigliano, accompanied by producers, panel operators, videographers, bloggers, photographers, all overseen by station manager Chris Scaddan.
Down a central table, lined with Shure Beta 58s in wind socks, the presenters are just one part of the Triple J puzzle. When the broadcast is rolling, other than a couple of producers, barely an eye is on Breakfast stars Tom and Alex quipping through a Peking Duk interview. Backs to the talent, they’re not ignoring the radio stars, they’re blogging and Facebooking about it, and uploading footage of the Triple J-dubbed Mayor of Splendour — a wasted competition-winner in a Wookie suit crowd-surfing his way into 15 seconds.
Every bit helps to paint the picture of a three-day event where music brackets and loud cheers are only the foundation on which the festival sets itself apart. There’s Beci Orpin’s craft hut, where you can fashion bedazzled rock star hangers with Patience from the Grates; the APRA tent hosting panels by ex-J’s alum Robbie Buck, Kram from Spiderbait, and Dan from Art Vs Science on the art of crafting a song; rows of multicultural food stalls; high street fashion lumped into shipping container pop stores; and a festival-long Amish performance piece complete with a barn shell, wagon, haystacks and goats — though after watching them for 20 minutes, they weren’t the most industrious lot, and you could always find a few of them knocking back a few in the VIP bar after hours.
It’s these details Alex is helping fill in as he waves his HHB Flashmic DRM85 in people’s faces. If Kingsmill is the arbiter of taste, Alex is the measure of Triple J’s youthful health. In fine form, he’s the quick whip, loveable rogue who can hold down his end of big interviews, and next minute, throw himself in the mosh pit with a GoPro taped to a bottle. This is somewhere in-between.
The HHB is simpler than the old two-track Marantz, mic and headphone combo, but the job isn’t. After hearing “foooking awesome!” or just plain “awesome” too many times, Alex finally lands what looks to be a winner. The night before, Luke Steele, the lead singer of Empire of the Sun, had crowned an audience member. He’d stumbled upon the lucky punter, Louise, still sporting the spoils — a costume jewellery headdress of mirror shards and blue sequins — impossible to miss in the morning sun. And hopefully, impossible to miss the scoop. But the front row screamer from the night before wasn’t half as loud as her crown and it got off to a timid start. On the way back, he catches an Islander security guard telling it like it is, and a kid in a mexican poncho and latex panda mask. It’s classic book by its cover stuff. The security guard’s classic indifference works, and while panda mask would have made great TV, it’s borderline radio.
Back in the OB tent, Alex whips through the edits like a seasoned ProTools operator — auditioning, trimming, levelling, mastering and appending IDs like Triple J’s classic ‘We Love Music’ in split seconds. He does all this in a program called Netia. It’s the hub of Triple J’s programming. Anyone on the network can access anything on Netia. So when Alex is done slicing and dicing in the Snippet tab, he labels it with the AIR suffix to show it’s ready for broadcast, and immediately, it’s available anywhere across Australia. Promising ones can often hit the cutting floor: Lost the vibe, not descriptive enough, told it better the first time. One begins vanilla, but is saved at the death by an exhaled guffaw with perfect comic timing. Others can pull it off just by sounding enthusiastic enough. Youth is the demographic, so youth makes the cut.
The 18-24 youth market is exactly where Triple J wants to be. But the landscape has changed: with media consumption on mobile growing every day, streaming services like Spotify and Rdio seem perfectly placed to muscle in. And indeed, the lure of stream-on-demand has eaten into the market’s Time Spent Listening (TSL). But Triple J’s audience has continued to grow year on year, reaching almost 1.8m average listeners per week across five capital cities in the most recent Nielsen surveys.
Breaking down exactly how Triple J is growing while radio recedes, is tricky. But one thing is for sure, while names like Rdio don’t suggest a shyness for competition, Triple J doesn’t exactly see it that way, and certainly isn’t scared by technological disruption. “We think of ourselves as not just a radio brand,” said station manager Chris Scaddan. “But as a brand that goes right across platforms.” So rather than hiding, Triple J has an app on Spotify and is a personality you can follow on Rdio and Deezer. Scaddan: “We see it as another space we can help people discover new music. Our Hottest 100 list is one of the most popular ways on Spotify for people to discover music.”
Indeed, Triple J has a knack for programming that becomes part of Australian music culture. The Hottest 100 is probably its best known, but Like A Version (Volume 7 passed platinum status, doubling the previous year’s sales), One Night Stand, and Live At The Wireless are all big contributors. And all involve Triple J’s Live Music team.
According to Scaddan, live music has always been at the forefront of what Triple J stands for ever since it started in the ’70s. Whether it was going down to a hotel to capture a band on the verge of breaking big, or recording a festival and bringing that experience to listeners all around Australia. Splendour In The Grass is one Triple J has grown with over the years.
Scaddan: “There are very few things culturally that can match what you feel in the live music environment. And we always aim for the absolute highest quality in recording and mixing. Greg Wales, Cam McCauley, Chris Thompson, have all got reputations as being some of the best sound engineers in the country, so we’re lucky to have those guys mixing our stuff on a daily basis.”
SEEING RED TAPE
Like the man said, quality is really important. When you only have one shot at recording Nirvana live, while in their prime, it better be good. Each time the trucks roll out, they’re capturing an historic record of what’s happening in the youth demographic. A record that’s going to be around a while.
There have been plenty of technology changes over the years, and the ABC has engaged with every format under the sun. Right up until the millennium, you’d find two-inch, 24-track analogue tape machines running in the trucks.
Then there were the ‘intermediate’ days of digital tape. At first, it was three daisy-chained Tascam DA-88s to get to 24 channels. “Buying tape for a set of DA-88s was about $400,” recalls McCauley. “That ran for 45 minutes. So you had boxes and boxes of tapes, and the machines took 10 seconds to sync up. And then one would just shit itself. Those days were really complicated.” After that came the 24-track Mackie 2496, which was a “great price” and syncing two machines wasn’t too much trouble, but it was “unreliable”. Then the Tascam X-48 hard-disk recorder came out, which is still used as the rig under the GW McLennan stage. “It changed everything, because you could record everything easily,” said McCauley.
But after a while, even 48 tracks posed a ceiling too low for an ever-growing channel list. Going over some of the channel counts for the weekend, Passion Pit came to 47, Mumford & Sons over 50, and once you add four audience mics to that, a four-piece rock band with a few banjos can be reaching over 60 inputs.
These days, the analogue split goes into DHD Audio converters under the stage that feed two RME MADI cards in the truck for a total of 128 channels. A second pair of RME cards in a separate computer act as a total redundancy. McCauley: “To be able to spend two grand on an RME card, and $600 on a PC. For that amount of money, you can easily have two of them.”
Also keeping the costs down is Reaper. One of the guys doing promos at the ABC had been banging on about how good the DAW was, but McCauley couldn’t be bothered learning another bit of software. After shelling out big bucks for another software package with features he didn’t need, McCauley decided to give Reaper a go for tracking, and hasn’t looked back since. McCauley: “You put the MADI card in, it sees all the inputs. You can use any old computer, and the CPU trickles over at five percent. You can customise all the menus and take everything off except the Record button. And the price is really good too. We bought the commercial license for just over 100 bucks. It’s crazy.”
Back in the studios, they’re still using ProTools to mix. A lot of plug-ins are near essential, like Drumagog, because “if you’ve tracked a horrible kick and snare, that’s what you’ve got,” said McCauley. And they haven’t taken the time to assess their VST position — Reaper’s plug-in format. But when the truck is docked, it seems a waste to not have it running as another fully fledged post-production studio. McCauley reckons he might have to learn a new editing program after all.
OUT OF THE CAGE
ABC Radio doesn’t have one central OB department. ABC TV does, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. And likewise, there’s no central OB store. There used to be. Up until the ’80s, one gentleman looked after all the gear that Classic FM, Radio National and Triple J took out on the field. But in a cost-cutting measure, he was let go. Which turned out to be very short-sighted, because now every station duplicates and triplicates the same gear. And as the gear spread out, a dilution of the knowledge occurred with it.
There’s still a bit of to- and fro-ing between the stations — everyone helps each other out with advice when it’s required — and they all share the Major Production Areas (MPA). In Sydney, Studio 227 is the contemporary recording space, on Triple J’s floor is the P63 mixdown suite, which is the same control room as 227, just without the live space. And downstairs is the Eugene Goossens Hall. It’s a similar situation in Melbourne. So while they might not be in each other’s pockets, there’s still time for a bit of jiggery-pokery.
Classic FM: “We’re just down at the Opera House doing a balance.”
Triple J: “What, balancing three microphones? We were doing 64 the other night.”
While the ABC may never return to the central cage model, over the last six years, it has made the move to standardise major pieces of gear: namely, the consoles have all been switched to SSL. The work surface of the C200 is now common from the live recording trucks, to the studio in Adelaide, to the Eugene Goossens Hall where Classic FM can usually be found. A 72-input Duality (the first console installed in the replacement program) is the odd-one out, but still has that familiar SSL manner. Funnily enough, even though Sydney is Triple J’s hub, the Sydney recording truck was the last to get its C200. Splendour In The Grass was the first test for the newly refurbished truck, and the sense of relief was palpable.
The console it replaced was an ageing Euphonix System 5. A good console, but this one had seen better days. Last April, the crew took the truck up to Dalby, around 200km west of Brisbane, for Triple J’s own One Night Stand gig. It’s a big deal, the station’s own show, all live to air, and on TV. Because Sydney’s truck was the closest, they drove it up. The schedule was to set up on Friday for Saturday morning sound checks and an evening show. Everything was going fine, and the crew were about to knock off at 6pm, when they were getting a funny line on one channel. After checking another, and another, it appeared they’d simply lost control of the mic preamps across the board — all of them entering a strange high impedance mode, layering distortion on every channel. It wasn’t the first time the console had played up, but this was cutting it fine.
McCauley: “It was nine o’clock, we tried everything, but nothing worked. We needed to get another console. We were used to using Digico and an SD8 had the right amount of inputs, so I rang IJS in Brisbane, but they didn’t have one available. So we called up Drew at Group Technologies, he was out to dinner somewhere, and asked him if he knew of an SD8 in South East Queensland. There was a guy on the Gold Coast who had one — four hours there, four back — we could make it work.
“I rang the guy. He was out on a gig, but the console was free the next morning. He asked, “Where are you guys?” “Dalby,” we said. “About 100km west of Toowoomba.” He said, “No way! I’m in Toowoomba right now, I’ll bring it out to you tonight.”
“So we pulled the other desk out, plonked in the SD8, plugged in the fibre and it all worked. We were so lucky. I don’t know what else we would have done. We’d had problems with it in town before, but never so isolated.”
That was the last straw. But it’s all better now.
All is not silent at the Triple J Outside Broadcast (OB) tent. There’s no flashing ‘Quiet Please’ or ’On Air’ signage. It’s just another open-sided tent backstage, coated with red carpet tiles, the Triple J drum logo, and a noise floor above 70dBA. Bass is the constant companion of everyone here. Its omnidirectional boom travels the 50m from the Supertop main stage. And the mix spill is so clear, you can annunciate along with Ian Kenny from Birds Of Tokyo. This is live broadcasting on the field for the young guns of radio.
Even the lead-lined walls of ABC Radio’s newly-treated mobile recording truck can’t compete with stacks of d&b double-18 subs. Inside, distinguishing between the low end coming off stage and out of the Dynaudio studio monitors is down to timing. Sitting only 20m from the front of the stage, the bass leakage arrives 60ms late. The arrival of each late boom makes it sound like Marcus Mumford should get some drum lessons, so awkward is the timing. It might be terrible working conditions for any mixer trying to use their ears but this is live broadcasting, and it’s as good as it gets.
Greg Wales sits behind the recently installed SSL C200 — a half a million dollar console that goes a long way to easing the pain. He’ll be parked here for most of the weekend, with engineers David Bates and Josh Craig. He’s one of two Triple J mixers onsite. The other, Dave Manton, is parked in a similar truck with engineer Richard Girvan behind the Mix Up tent across the other side of the North Byron Parklands. Together, they’ll mix most of the bands playing Splendour, while Josh and fellow assistant engineer Ben Northmore man a portable rig that captures some of the talent on the GW Mclennan stage so it can be mixed later back at Triple J’s base in Ultimo, NSW.
Over the festival, I developed a real appreciation for what these guys have to contend with when mixing live-to-air. Firstly, there’s the source, which is completely out of their control. Bad mic positions, out-of-tune instruments or off-key vocals, wind noise, plosive performances, dropped and kicked mics, monitor feedback, back of room slapback — it’s a crapshoot that can unfold like a disaster movie on the video monitor and render an SSL console into a blunt instrument. On the other end of the chain is the audience, listening to a compressed feed coming off the back of an Optimod processor over the airwaves and through any one of a million different types of radios. At least here, a few different listening devices can help simulate the diversity — Audio-Technica noise-cancelling headphones, low-level Fostex 6301 speakers in mono, and Dynaudio AIR15 and BM15A monitors. And there’s always an off-air feed pumped back down the monitoring section, but giving the feed anything more than a cursory listen can have you chasing your tail all set.
In the middle of this are two other mixes that play on the brain. There’s the studio album cut of the song, which gives a sense of what the artist is trying to achieve and takes up a more back-of-the-mind position. And then the FOH mix is also run up the board to give a ballpark level of effects, vibe, and balance emphasis. Oh, and they’ll typically have a feed of the effects too. Not to mention, they could have a manager standing over their shoulder.
This is all lumped on top of the pressure to whip a mix into shape within two songs that will go live-to-air to millions, so you can cut time, overdubs, or re-mixing out of the equation too. These guys are on top of their game.
One of the most important things to remember, and often forgot, when mixing a live show is that you’re mixing a live show, not a studio recording. The balance of audience and ambience to onstage sound is crucial. There’s that classic debate over whether to recreate the sound of the record or not. But for McCauley (who was Greg’s predecessor and has mixed hundreds of bands) it’s a bar that’s pointless to try and live up to. McCauley: “You’ve got to mix in the right amount of ambience, so when someone listens to it, it doesn’t sound exactly like the original and they start to twig that it’s a live recording. Rather than thinking, ‘That didn’t sound right. Where was the bottom end? And, that vocal’s low.’”
The first step is obviously a great audience mic. Over the years, they reckon they’ve tried everything under the sun, but keep coming back to Sennheiser MKH-416 shotguns for the balanced frequency response and off-axis rejection. They just work. Each stage has two stereo pairs, rigged about three metres up the truss at the edges of the stage, inside of the line array. One pair points a little outwards towards the back corners of the tent, while the other pair point at the barrier just in front of the FOH position. It’s a balance between the big roar of a capacity crowd and the more in-your-face excitement of the first few rows. And if there’s only a small crowd, they’ve still got options.
McCauley: “It’s the hardest part; trying to make a mix sit together yet sound like it was at a venue. It’s easy to mix it all together and just turn the audience mics up at the end of the song. If you’re standing in the crowd you feel it in your body; there’s low end, and the structure is vibrating around you, which has a certain tone in itself. There’s certain elements of distortion you have to get back in the mix.”
FINE LINE CHECK
In preparation for the first mix on Day 1, Greg starts building an EQ library from the Mumford & Sons setup day line check. It’s a loose starting point, and over the course of the weekend he’ll add and shape dynamic presets too.
But the most important thing is phase. A poorly placed set of overheads can wreck the whole thing. “If they’re offset,” said McCauley. “The snare will never power the centre of the mix.” And typically there’s a judicious amount of high-pass filtering to help any phase issues.
McCauley: “Phase becomes far more important because it’s across every channel. And because it changes every set. If you get phase right, all the hard work’s done. You can get a mix together quickly just using phase and high-pass filters. You can’t carve out a channel for five minutes, you’ve got to get a mix together in half a song. We usually go live-to-air after the second song, we never go from the top because it’s impossible to do. Anyone that says they do, it’s complete bullshit. I mean, you can with 12 inputs, but 30 or 40? You’ve got to massage it. Using those techniques, by the end of the second song, you can call the OB and tell them you’re ready to go.”
Because nothing on stage is in isolation, the mixers tend not to get stuck listening to a single source for any more than a split second. Rather, Greg might try and tame a boxy drum sound by listening to the kit plus the drum vocal, and dipping the vocal at 300Hz to alleviate the mud of the drum fill.
There are plenty of these situations where a lack of isolation requires a balancing act. McCauley: “If the guitar player is singing and he’s got an amp behind him, when he moves out of the way the amp feeds straight into his mic. You can’t just gate everything, because it gets too dynamic and sounds strange. It’s a combination of phase, EQ and balance to get on top of it. Sometimes you turn everything up and it sounds amazing. Other times, it’s appalling and becomes a fight.”
The goal is to quickly arrive at a balance that works. There’s no automation here, and if you’re rushing and diving all over the mix the whole time, something’s wrong. McCauley: “It’s the same as studio stuff: taming the bottom end, and vocal level.”
These days, most bands have background playback of some sort. Either a simple stereo track they play along to, or more elaborate breakdowns of stems. Onstage, Empire Of The Sun is a three-piece, Luke Steele sings and plays guitar, alongside a multi-instrumentalist, a drummer and four dancers. But the drums also have electronic drums playing underneath them. It can pose a problem trying to mix the two together. “If they line up it’s great, but the real drummer will never line up exactly with the tempo,” said McCauley. “It helps if you can use the playback tracks as a bed, but you have to stop the playback kick drum from flamming with the real kick drum. You have to roll the bottom end off the real one, then the kit will sit on top really well. If you try to make a massive kick drum sound out of the real one and mix it with the replay version, it will never work. There’s too much energy competing there.”
Dave also puts some slow compression on playback, generally with a ratio of 2.5:1. It’s “just to keep it in check if there are any big swells,” he said. “They’re often just stems off the record, so it can be quite dynamic. It goes through the Optimod compressor of doom, and it’s not very forgiving of sudden changes in low sub. When you have a big bass sweep, that’s when you’ll hear your whole mix drop and come back up again.”
LOUDEST PART IS THE HARDEST
Finding a monitoring balance is one of the hardest parts of the job. With the PA raging just next door, the temptation is to monitor loud. But according to McCauley, “The louder you monitor, the worse it sounds. If it sounds good quiet, it will sound good loud. If it sounds good loud, it may not sound good quiet. You’re not that awesome, your ears are just shutting down and turning themselves off.”
To help his ears, Greg uses a combination of hardware VU meters they had to dig up, pure peak monitors and a spectrum analyser. McCauley: “The VU is a very useful tool, the peak meters are going to tell you the actual signal, but you can see the general power of the mix on the VU. The more you fine-tune a mix, you should see less movement on the VU. If you see a lot of movement, you know your mix isn’t right. Getting a mix together, you can tell how the vocal is sitting just by watching the VU. The spectrum analyser is really handy as well. At a festival like this, the subs are booming and you think it’s sounding awesome, but then you look at the spectrum analyser and there might be nothing below 100Hz.”
They also use two stages of compression on the final output. In the Sydney truck, an Al Smart C2 compressor is set to a ratio of between 2:1 and 3:1, an attack of 1ms, and auto release. The settings change every now and again, but the aim remains the same: to help glue the mix together. After that, everything goes into the TC System 6000, which as well as serving up effects does the final limiting and multi-band compression. The System 6000 splits the signal into mid-side. In the ‘mid’, the attack is set consistently across the board at 25ms, but the release gets progressively longer the lower you go, while the ratio gets higher. The ‘sides’ have the same release pattern, but a shorter attack time that gets even shorter at the high frequencies. The threshold is also tapered in the ‘mid’, coming in a bit earlier down low to keep the kick and bass under control. “We have gain reduction in the lower mids,” said Greg. “If I have the Threshold around -2dB, that reflects the curve. So if I’m not sure what’s going on in the lower mids and lows, it will help me out if it gets too crazy.”
BUMP & GRIND
It’s Day 3, and down to a bump and grind: grind out the day, then bump out. The queue for coffees has doubled in size. A pick-me-up that barely scratches last night’s itch. The Triple J crew will be ready to go tonight after whoever Paul Piticco gives Frank Ocean’s headline slot to. Alt-J is a firm favourite around the traps, but they’ll have to leap a few bands to go from their mystery band slot to festival closer. And in the end Of Monsters & Men move up one to headline.
The mud is everywhere. Everyone stepped into the gumboots on Day 1, and they never came off. It was a teething year for Splendour, having moved into the new site co-owned with Falls Festival, and there’s still plenty of infrastructure to lay. The long weekend has taken its toll on the Mayor of Splendour, and he hasn’t made it in for his 10 o’clock. Linda Marigliano gets a hazy Chewbacca on the line, chastising him for standing her up. The call finishes with Alex jumping on the mic and prompting the sleepy Wookie for one last hurrah, “Did you tear the lid off it last night?” Without hesitation, the kid lets off a big roar, “Riipped it offf!”
It’s energising, a bit of a pep up to spur the troops on as they search for the last bits of colour and movement amongst the mud.