Gigs in Acoustically Stupid Places
By Dave Swallow
I write to you this month from the cold, wintery grope of Switzerland – a country renowned for its immensely long tunnels, secretive bank accounts, snow-covered mountains, cows, chocolate, clocks and cheese. Being an Essex boy, the majesty of the mountains exerts a childlike giddiness on me, and all I want to do is walk around in the falling snow. I’m sure the novelty will soon wear off. The long, icy, needle-like fingers of mother nature are locked around these mountains. The temperature is struggling to creep past -10 degrees Celsius by day, then by night is devoured by some unthinkable Siberian bitterness. The water in the van is solid, and the cans of fizzy pop are bursting through their aluminium prisons. The locals try to convince us that the weather is unusually cold, and how their hearts bleed for the tourists. Having spent so much money, the holiday makers feel they must endure – 25 degrees Celsius punching them in the face as they hurl themselves down a mountain, appearing as an incarnation of Sasquatch upon their arrival at the bottom…Novelty.
It’s been quite some time since I engaged in the duties of Tour Manager, but this last month has seen my reintegration into such circles, as well as my usual role of FOH mixer for the Californian, Hanni El Khatib. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, imagine on a late whiskey-soaked night you stumble across the door to Hunter S. Thompson’s mind: he would be playing on the cliched silver sequinned Vegas stage inside. The two piece stage setup is simple: a guitar amp, with various pedals and a drum kit. The vocals are a little more interesting, one vocal mic runs through a slap back echo pedal, giving it a very 1950s feel, possibly even harking back to the Joe Meek sound, and the other is very thin, megaphone like.
This tour has so far taken us through the UK, The Netherlands and Belgium. We’ve now made it to this mountainous region, and it’s here that we are playing a rather interesting show. Set in and around Geneva, the Antigel Festival puts shows on in rather peculiar places. With their out-of-the-chocolate-box thinking, it would appear that the archetypal venue and 12-band bill no longer satisfies the appetite of the usual Swiss festival-goer. Velodromes and abandoned warehouses with various sports affiliated with the event which the attendees can participate in are the course of the day. It should be called ‘Gigs in Acoustically Stupid Places,’ but nevertheless, we drive into an outer suburb of Geneva to find the venue du jour, a local swimming pool.
The irony of this, as I’m sure you are all aware, is that audio engineers everywhere like to say “It sounds like a swimming pool” whenever they come across an acoustically challenging venue. Imagine my surprise when I found mix position precariously lubricated between the hot tub and main pool – a little too much electricity and water for my liking. The temporary stage built into the corner lacked support and was therefore more like a diving board than a performance area. When the drums entered into a more vigorous beat, the mic stands would do a little dance, and the reverb inside the guitar amp would spring to life. Addressing this slight inconvenience with electrical tape and different amp placement, we cracked on with sound check.
The choice of venue presented some rather unforeseen advantages. Once the doors had been open, the over sized winter jackets, jeans and snow boots had been replaced with flip flops and bikinis. Those who would not bare skin removed their shoes and rolled up their jeans like a new castaway on a beach. Apart from the obvious boyhood ogling, there were some acoustical advantages too.
The Grateful Dead’s engineer, the late Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley, said that the best temperature and humidity for a show was 80 degrees and 80% humidity. Things in here were slightly different, it was more like 90% humidity, but the temperature was pretty much bang-on. The PA system, a small box-on-a-stick affair, which would normally get laughed at, also added to the sonic fidelity. Because of the smallness, the more point source arrangement didn’t acoustically charge it’s environment, it merely sat in and reinforced the sound from the stage. The absorbency of the audience also helped.
Despite the hard reflectiveness of the surrounding architecture, the sound felt more intimate than I could have possibly imagined. It reminded me of those good old days at some of Berlin’s warehouse parties: nice, clean, transient lines, just enough to over-react to the room. There were, of course, some extension of the lower bass frequencies, but that was barely a nodding acquaintance to the show’s vast, tiled surroundings.
By not trying to pummel the room into submission with a huge PA system and just letting the band do what they do, the outcome was great.
I suppose just like an architect who not only thinks about his or her building, but also the surrounding area and the impact that their building will have on the community, we too as sonic architects should be humbled towards our environment. We might have our favourite tools, but they aren’t always going to be the best for the job in hand.
Now, for me at least, there is a great ambiguity in the phrase “It sounds like a swimming pool.”
The above post is an article written by Focal Press author and Live Audio Engineer Dave Swallow for Lighting and Sound International magazine. Dave has a monthly column called Mix Position where he chronicles his wild and witty adventures as a Live Audio Engineer. The following article was published in the March 2012 issue.
You can find all of Dave’s articles and much more on his new website: http://www.dave-swallow.com/
Dave Swallow is Mixing Engineer, Live and Studio Audio Engineer, Tour Manager and Tour Consultant who has toured extensively in Europe, North America, South America, Australia and Japan. He has mixed and supervised countless sessions, including Itunes, Aol, Yahoo, BBC, and B-side cuts. His live TV appearances include Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, Dave Letterman, Austin City Limits, Conan O’Brien, Regis & Kelly, VH1, Later with Jools Holland, Brit Awards, Live at Abbey Road, BBC One Sessions, Parkinson, Friday Night Project, Album Chart Show, E4, Taratata, New Pop, Jonathan Ross, Alan Carr, Top of The Pops, CD:UK, T4, Davina, and Mobo Awards. Recently Dave won the Live Sound Engineer of the Year award at the 2011 Audio Pro International Awards in association with NAMM. He is also the author of Live Audio, a book published by Focal Press.