Headphones in live mixing.

[rant]

I’ve probably posted about this before – it’s certainly one of my pet-hates. 

Image

I often find myself wanting (or having) to remind noise-boys happily mixing in their own head that they’re ripping the heads off the front 20 rows because they’re not dealing with an EQ, balance or feedback issue that they’re not hearing!

In summary, headphones are a great way to check individual inputs or outputs for:

  • problems with mic positioning,
  • distortion,
  • crackling,
  • presence of signal,
  • balance of a mix YOU CAN’T HEAR IN THE ROOM, such as those for foldback, recording, or other rooms.

When NOT to use headphones…
In live sound reinforcement, headphones are simply terrible for listening to the mix that you’re producing in the room, whether for judging mix levels or tonal quality.  You’re hearing small speakers, close to your eardrums, mixing for a space that exists only in your own head.

So don’t use headphones to check or perfect your main mix – it’s truly an accident waiting to happen.

If you’re changing something and you can’t hear a difference in the room then going to headphones isn’t going to help anyone hear that change except you. Worse still, while you’re dealing with a problem that only you know/care about, you’ll likely miss something crucial that everyone will notice!

[/rant]

Review: Jarre 101010 @O2 Arena, London

intimate, and very much alive.

Jarre 2010 tour graphic

Jean Michel Jarre has long been a hero of mine right from when I first become musically sentient at around five or six years old. Since then I’ve enjoyed much of his studio-recorded material and had always wondered how it had been put together.  I had even been taken to see him live in London at his Destination Docklands show back in 1988 – where as a family we watched the drier Saturday night performance, rather than the Sunday night whose footage eventually got released as the (awful) official Mike Mansfield video. And so with those brief statements of bias over, on to the concert itself.

crowd

All age groups and ethnic/cultural backgrounds were represented, and much more univerally than one might find at most gigs.  There were families, couples, groups of friends, all talking quietly before the gig began. It was a shame that the majority of the crowd didn’t seem at all responsive except for the .  Sure, some arms were waving and a few people danced their way through Chronologie 6, but on the whole the crowd was terribly English.  It was more like being at a specialist classical Promenade than a pop concert.  Which is perhaps appropriate given Jarre’s roots and following.

music

I was pleasantly surprised by how little modern material was included.  Highlights from all albums up to and including Oxygene 7-13 were played very much in their original styles, with perhaps some hints at more modern sounds and technology.

Some lines from the Equinoxe numbers were missing, particularly the vocoder sections, which made me wonder whether Jarre et al. had somehow forgotten how to create the original sounds.

Otherwise the pieces took on a new life in their freshly-human-played glory.  There were some glitches, some tuning and timing errors and perhaps the odd mis-keyed note or two here and there, but I felt if anything these added to the “live” and “intimate” aims for both the performance and as it would appear, the whole 2010 tour.

The backing musicians were enthralling to watch, and their restrained minimalist motions looked very much more “Kraftwerk” than Jarre himself, who took on the persona of a mad scientist plotting and doing all kinds of terrible evil in a B-movie labroratory. A contrast that worked very effectively, and added a certain depth to the music we were hearing.

Success.

sound

The sheer depth that those synth sounds have in them was simply astonishing.  Every instrument was allowed full range of the sound system, subs and all.  And as if the impact of percussion and bass lines wasn’t enough, some of the leads were seismic.  Admittedly we were sat right by the sub-woofers, but even when they weren’t moving the earth, the warmth and immediacy of the analogue synths was immediately obvious.  As a case in point, any sound that used white noise as a basis for further synthesis was evident by the subs waking up even for cymbals – something one would never hear in a front room at even high domestic listening levels.  Standard mastering processes simply wouldn’t allow for that kind of depth.

Further, the dynamic range was immense compared with most concerts I’ve attended where sound reinforcement was in use.  The sound operator was clearly having a great time, and that meant the full impact of the music came through without having to blast anyone’s ears off.  Sure, there were loud passages, but this gig was mixed for impact and that really showed.

Alas there was one negative note:  those of us at the sides really didn’t get to hear much of the stereo image.  Many of the timing cues in Jarre’s percussion programming tend to be spread across the stereo soundstage, so we occasionally got lost!  A mono’d mix to the sides would have worked much better for us at the risk of losing some depth.

Over all?  Success, with some areas I’d love to see improved – particularly the distribution of the stereo field around the auditorium.

laser harp

Jarre at the Laser Harp

Allegedly “revised” according to the programme, though I’m not sure how?  The one at Docklands was a much more structral, fixed affair, that much is true.  But the one I saw this evening was markedly similar to many I’ve recently seen on YouTube.  Perhaps this tour has been running long enough that I’ve become accustomed to the new version, but I’m sure this isn’t all that new.  It certainly looked awesome, and some how having such a visual instrument was a key element to the show. Okay so perhaps Jarre is just showing off for the sake of it here, but let’s face it, if you could get that kind of sound out of lifeless electronics, why wouldn’t you try to make it look cool at the same time?

Verdict:  Cool.

theremin

Jarre plays the Theremin for "Babel's Tower".

Wow.  My jaw hit the floor pretty hard when he brought that thing out.  It’s a rare treat to see anyone use one of these, let alone at a live concert.  The soul and emotion he gave that instrument frankly brought a tear to my eye.  Astonishing to watch, all the more astonishing to hear the atmospheric and emotive effect it could have.

Verdict:  Overwhelming. And cool.

(I’ll not mention the electic accordion).

video

Equinoxe "faces" video

The use of video effects was quite understated, perhaps to help support the much more intimate feel of the tour as a whole, and if that was the brief then it was very successful.  There was an interesting moment where “eyes”, particularly those of insects, were a dominant feature for some of the more modern Oxygene 7-13 material featured, and I didn’t quite understand where that was coming from, nor what the possible message might be.

Stats for Jarre's UNESCO solo. I don't remember that he gave a title for it?

Jarre played a solo piece on what looked like a Triton, dedicated to the work of UNESCO.  The piece alone was moving enough, but the simple animated slide behind it (shown above) put some commonly-found statistics and environmental issues into startling perspective.  Simple, and very effective.

Where live footage was used it was usually processed into a film-noir, German expressionist look, which looked both futuristic and incredibly old-fashioned at the same time.  Very much a nod to the old “Industrial Revolution” theme of the 80’s Docklands event.

The closing song (Calypso 3) made use of Jarre’s trademark Keytar, and the live footage focussing on him with a Cyanotype monochromatic effect was incredibly striking, and even more so with the full-width rear-projection screen.

A great use of the current technology, and probably some prototypes the rest of us mere mortals might be able to afford in 5-10 years.

lighting

Moody, yet understated lighting!

Like the video graphics, the lighting was understated compared with what previous Jarre concerts have been in the past, but a very full palette of both colour and texture.  If there were a word I’d associate with the design, it was “tight”.  Like Jarre’s music, everything was there in its place, for a reason.  Anything else was left out.  In particular the use of shuttered lighting to use the Mellotron backs as wash-light sources was particularly impressive, not perhaps in itself, but certainly as an example of the fine detail that went into the design.

Multi-coloured laser effect (Click to see a bigger version)

As now seems compulsory for a Jarre concert, we saw extensive use of lasers and similar effects, giving the earlier material a “Tron”-like look that felt completely appropriate.  The lasers were multi-coloured (perhaps visible in the above image, the “white” beam actually made up of red, green and blue beams merging together) – a first for any gig I’ve seen!

At no time did I feel the lighting was distracting from the showa job well done, I think.

summary

In all then, the show was very much worth both the wait and the money.  I’d recommend the show anyone with even the slightest interest in Jarre himself or the electronica genre that he has helped create.

If you get a chance to see any other leg of his 2010 world tour, go see it!  You won’t be disappointed.

Coming up: Jarre 101010 – Live at the O2 London and online

Really looking forward to this concert – and interesting to see that things are happening online too, with “something special” or “something strange” happening on the night depending on which source you read/watch.

Having been to the Docklands concert back in 1988, I’m really interested to hear how his live music performance has progressed since those days, as well as how his use of the visual arts has progressed. My ultimate question will be… does technology help or hinder the artist?

Well, the tour page of his website is here, if you’d like to follow the action!

Queen and George Michael – “Somebody to Love”

Pic: “iPod headphones: hangin’ out” - by el patojo, courtesy of Flickr.
Pic: “iPod headphones: hangin’ out” - by el patojo, courtesy of Flickr.

While sat on the train this morning I found myself listening to this track when it came up on LastFM. I’ve been a big fan of this rendition ever since it was first played live in 1992 at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. I love the energy and the ‘live’ feel it has – and since the song in its original format was already a childhood favourite the whole package made a very lasting impression.  The experience of listening to this broadcast live was one of the many experiences that got me interested in all things sound-related.

Listening to the song again as an adult, one could bring up all kinds of conclusions about how the writer was feeling about sacrificing a lovelife for life in the rock ‘n’ roll circus, but i’ll leave that commentary either for another time or another (more expert) person to deal with.

What really got my attention this morning was just how patchy a production this recording seems. See, I’m living in a spoiled age where there are many technically great recordings to listen to, from several generations. Yet occasionally, a truly great song bursts onto the scene with huge energy, and the fact that anything was captured to tape at all is nothing short of a miracle.

This for me is one of those songs. The event, the musicians, the song and the soundstage are huge. Some really serious compromises had to be made to commit this song to tape. Yet it’s interesting to hear retropectively where the engineering and production placed the focus of attention. Was it the crowd? Nope. The singer? Nope. Was it… the guitars? Nah-ah. What about the piano or bass? Those neither.

The only instruments at dead-centre of the mix and the soundstage are… The hi-hat and snare drum. These completely dominate the track in a way I’ve never heard before in commercially successful releases. It’s just insane. Everything and everyone else sound like they were playing in a separate room, nay, stadium. And these two disembodied percussion instruments are presented so close to my face that I’m flinching with every beat, fearing I’ll be struck by a flying drumstick.

This made me wonder what the decision process must have been to get there… “Uh, Frank, we’ve run out of channels on the tape. What do we keep? The singer? The bass?”

“nah, it’s alright Jez.  They’ll come through from the stereo broadcast. Let’s give the drums a little more impact. What we really need is more fizz.”

“what? But won’t that sound wrong somehow?”

“maybe, but it’ll be a trademark…”

What the…??? Now don’t get me wrong here, Roger Taylor is a great drummer, and to my ear his HiHat technique did become something of a trademark of his during the 1980’s. But does it really need to take over the song to the point of masking the singers?

Sorry – I didn’t mean to criticise. But i still stand by the fact that i’d choose to mix it differently, which I think would transform the dynamic of the whole song. If i could mix from the (presumed) multitracks i’d also see if I couldn’t make some more out of the crowd and assembled on-stage chorus.

Am I being unfair?

C.