Saturday, 7 June 2014

Anatomy Of A Show

Flaming June is upon us, and as we dive into summer I've been privileged enough to kick things off with involvement in a show organised by a good friend of mine in support of the British Heart Foundation. This show was an extraordinary undertaking, and I'm very pleased that it went off so well. Although I was only involved in a supporting capacity, watching the sheer amount of work that went into organising it – everything from venue hire to instrument changes – got me thinking about the staggering variety of skills that are represented in a show like this, completely aside from the musical aspects of learning and performing the repertoire.

First off, deciding on and securing a venue, and setting a date. Even this basic element is riddled with complexity – the more people involved, the trickier it is to ensure everyone's availability and make sure the venue is at least relatively accessible for everyone. So the date has to be picked and settled on months in advance, and everyone involved needs to take this as a solid commitment. Ditto location – and with large amounts of equipment to be hauled around, parking and accessibility are considerations. It is astonishing how many venues decide they're going to book a band, and then fail to provide anywhere for them to park and expect them to lug everything up a single rickety fire escape. Not really a great option when you're dealing with 4x12” speaker cabs, 88 key digital pianos and so on.

Next – sound reinforcement. This is something that the audience usually takes for granted, but is a real art in itself. Speakers have to be sited properly so that the audience doesn't get left with frequency dead spots, and so everything is clear and audible. For a show involving 4-5 guitar players, keyboards, drums and bass as well as 3-4 different singers, there are a great many sounds to balance – careful EQ-ing has to take place to ensure the instruments don't tread on each others' toes. If the sound is badly mixed, by someone who doesn't understand how different frequency soundwaves behave, the result will be a deafening, muddied mush for the audience. Careful soundchecking and and able sound engineer is a must (and of course, must be available for the selected date and venue- more headache for the organiser). Thorough soundcheck for a show like this can take two hours – and let's not forget that the acoustic properties of the room will change hugely from being empty to full of audience. All this has to be compensate for during soundcheck.

Sound reinforcement doesn't just take place out front either. Good monitoring is essential for the musicians to be able to hear each other and play together. Different musicians will need different mixes and the same rules of EQ apply. Sometimes In Ear Monitoring (IEM) headset systems allow the musicians their own independent mix, but some find the lack of on-stage sound disconcerting and prefer the old style “wedges” - speakers blasting monitor feeds back onto the stage. Poor placing and control of the wedges will result in feedback loops and a very unpleasant experience for audiences and players alike.

Many shows also involve a strong visual element, and this has to be synchronised with the music. Video screens have to be placed, any props made ready, projection angles checked to ensure that there are no distracting shadows or blockages when the videos are projected. Musical and visual cues have to be set and agreed upon with both performers and engineers. The video part of this show was essential to the overall effect and very, very effective – well done to all involved!

Come the big day itself and everyone needs to know their entrance and exit cues, their routes on and off stage, and behind the scenes a bewildering array of guitars sit, tuned and set up for different songs. My friend Chris, the man behind this show, had the daunting task of not only performing in every song in the show with a variety of different instruments, but also acting as a master of ceremonies, keeping the audience's attention and interacting with them. So it's down to the faithful roadie to ensure the right guitar is brought out for the right song, tuned and with the wireless transmitter is plugged in to make sure there's no unpleasant “thump” amplified through 20,000 watts of PA! All small details, but all crucial to the overall effect.

All in all, last week's show represented the culmination of months of hard work behind the scenes by everyone involved – none more so than Chris, the organiser – and what was visible on stage represented really only the tip of the iceberg. So thank you to everyone who made it all happen, and never forget the guys behind the scenes without whom none of the fun stuff would be possible!