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T.H.E. Show Newport: Live Music from the Best Seat in the House
by Russ Stratton

 (All images by Michael Oletta)
My plan for attending T.H.E. Show Newport was about the same as 5000 other fellow audiophiles: cruise the rooms, spin some tunes, and check out all the cool gear on display... and on Friday, that's what I did, along with talking to friends, and snagging Diet Cokes from the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society's hospitality suite. But my weekend adventure really began the night when I wandered down to the courtyard to check out the jazz concert. The musicians were fantastic, but the P.A. system wasn't sounding very good and the audience wasn't getting to hear the performance in all its glory. The tonal balance of the main speakers was off and they were struggling with microphone feedback. In addition, the breeze had kicked up, putting lots of wind noise through the system.

Part of what was going on was that the cable/loudspeaker company Audience was showcasing two five foot tall arrays of their 3" full range drivers as the main P.A. speakers. This is an unusual approach to sound reinforcement to say the least. I have never seen a speaker like this used for live music amplification, so it was hard to tell if the P.A. issues were caused by the speakers or by other factors. I knew the guys who were putting the concert together and I could see a lot of frustration on their part as they tried to get things working properly.

After the concert my friend Art Alenik, one of the concert organizers, asked if I would stick around and help them break down the gear. We talked about what went on and since I have some experience doing live sound engineering, I offered to help out the next day if they wanted. Art was all for it, but we needed to get the O.K. from Jim Merod, BluePort recording engineer and the concert's producer. We decided to wait until morning to talk to Jim as he (like everyone else on the crew) was pretty burned-out after the show. In the mean time, I went home, loaded up my sound gear and prepared for a busy Saturday.

Jim didn't need any convincing when we talked to him Saturday morning, so I met up with Roger Sheker, Audience's design engineer, and his technicians Uly Torres and Joe Flatt, and got busy. Time was tight. We had four groups scheduled to perform that day; bassist Dean Peer and drummer Bret Mann at 1pm, Barry Rillera's R&B band from 3 to 5, Mike Garson and Lori Bell at 6 and the Gilbert Castellanos sextet at around 7:30.

The first thing I did was move the P.A. mixing board from the recording table on the side of the stage to the back of the seating area. That way I could directly hear how the Audience speakers were covering the main seating area. I also connected a parametric equalizer to the system to contour the response of the Audience speakers as needed. I used the PC program Room EQ Wizard and a measurement microphone to map the frequency response of the speakers throughout the listening area. I measured a wide bump around 400Hz and a narrower spike around 700Hz. Between the unconventional speaker design (for P.A.) and the concrete, glass, and stucco surfaces of the courtyard, I had no idea what was causing this. But it was certainly the source of the feedback issues they had the night before. Two parametric notch filters took care of that.

Dean and Bret arrived around 11:30 to set up. Dean's endorsement with Renkus Heinz pro speakers was responsible for the very nice powered stage monitors we had to work with. Dean doesn't use a bass amp, he plugs directly into the P.A. system, so when he took a look at the Audience speakers, he was not exactly that enamored with the idea of playing his bass guitar through a bunch of 3" drivers. We agreed to point two monitors towards the seating area and position the other two for the musicians. That took care of Dean's bass, but not the drums. So I fed two drum overhead mics, a kick drum mic as well as a direct line from Dean's bass rig into the P.A.

The whole crew (Jim, Art, Roger, Uly, Joe and I) worked furiously up to the last minute getting the monitors on stage set up and connecting the microphones to the recording rig and the P.A. mixer. I think Jim was grateful to get me and the P.A. mixer out of his recording space. At 1 p.m. I ran out to the audience and cajoled Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, and a friend of Dean Peer, into getting on stage to introduce the band.

Our sound check was the first tune of Dean's set and I had no idea what I would get. But with both bass and drums hammering away, what I got was a very fast, dynamic sound that seemed to defy the laws of physics. I did have to cut nearly all of the bass out of the system below 80Hz, but what I heard was pretty impressive given the levels I was pushing. The drums came through with a snappy clarity and a surprising level of slam.

Given the minimal setup for Dean and Bret, I didn't have to worry about microphone feedback so I focused on tone shaping and testing the dynamic limits of the system. I could definitely hear the Audience drivers squawk when I pushed them too hard, but rolling off the bass usually took care of the problem. I was definitely mixing by both sight and sound as I kept an eye on those drivers to prevent over-excursion. As the set progressed we dialed in a nice balance of drum articulation and slam to complement what Dean was doing on the bass. By the end I was just grateful that we got through the set and managed to deliver a clean performance to the audience without any major screw-ups. Whew! Dean and Bret were so cool to work with. I greatly appreciated their patience and professionalism while we sorted things out, and I really dug their music.

One band down, three to go.

It was now 2:30 pm and we had 30 minutes to clear the stage and set up for the second band of the day. Jim took a break from recording, so this setup would be P.A. only. But after a pretty simple setup for Dean Peer, we were now faced with drums, bass, electric guitar, keyboard, sax, and four vocalists. Barry Rillera and his guys are real pros. The first thing Barry handed me after we met was a stage diagram and mic input list. Yes! This was the first time we used the stage monitors as stage monitors for the musicians, so we had to connect them all to the proper mixer sends and set monitor levels for all the vocalists.

Once again, the first tune was our sound check. From the first note an issue popped up that we hadn't heard before, a big mid bass bump around 160Hz according to my iPod RTA. That caused a bloated, muddy sound on the verge of feedback as I brought all the levels up. Another notch filter on the parametric EQ took care of it. Once we got rolling, I had about ten open channels going through the mains with half of them folding back to the band through two monitor mixes. I either guessed right on monitor levels or the band was kind enough not to complain about what I had given them.

This band really cooked. Blues, R&B, Soul; they did it all. The keyboard player pumped his signal through a huge Leslie speaker that sounded like it was going to explode whenever he laid on the lower registers; it sounded so bitchin'. We settled into a nice tight mix that held the instruments together with the vocals floating over the top. Patching in a vocal compressor and a reverb unit would have added the final touch, but I was happy with what we had. Then the calls started coming.

It seems the live music was completely drowning out the demo rooms on the first few floors. Marjorie Baumert, one of T.H.E. Show administrators came by to tell me there was a concern. Richard Beers, T.H.E. Show director, came by to tell me to keep it down. Then the vendors started coming by and chewing me out because the band was killing their demos. While I was empathetic to their plight, the only way to fix the problem would have been to stop the performance and send the musicians packing; and that was not my call to make. I could have turned the P.A. mixer way down, but the stage volume would have dropped very little and the audience would have been left with a muddled, inarticulate mess of a mix.

Live music isn't like a stereo system that can be turned down to a soft level. The guys on stage were bashing, slashing and howling their souls out. I did what I could to control the sound level, but as long as the band was playing, it was my job to make them sound kick-ass for the audience. At one point, one of the exhibitors whose room was getting hammered by the live music came over to the mixing board and said, “Don't you understand that this event is about the demo rooms, not the band? Try and keep it down!" Then he turned around, listened for a moment and said, “Man that sounds good" and walked away.

At 5 pm, it was jazz time. Barry's band had finished their set and had packed up and cleared the stage pretty quickly. Again, great guys to work with and a ton-o-fun to listen to, so the rush was on (again!) to reset the stage for the two evening jazz performances. There were no stage diagrams or mic input lists except in Jim Merod's head. So he talked and we (Art Alenik and I) listened and executed as best we could. We used custom Kubala-Sonsna cables for all the instrument/microphone connections and Joe Kubala was there to help us get everything set up and checked.

The first act was relatively simple; Mike Garson on piano and Lori Bell on flute. The big challenge once we got going was the breeze that really kicked up in the afternoon. After the breeze issues the night before, we put windscreens on all the stage mics. For the piano, the lid was kept closed with the mics inside. But the breeze still blew in through the front of the piano, swirled around inside, and caused all sorts of rumble and weird exaggerated bass. We ended up having to EQ a lot of bass out of the piano mics just to keep the instrument from feeding back through the mains. Other than that, the set went quite smoothly.

The second act was the Gilbert Castellanos sextet which included piano, acoustic bass, drums, trumpet, trombone, and vocal. We were able to get most of the mics and connections set up before the first act, but could not get the trumpet and trombone mics working properly until moments before the sextet hit the stage. So with no sound check (what else is new) I was setting monitor levels on the fly without being able hear what was happening on stage. Joe Kubala was a great help here because he would listen to the monitors from the side of the stage and signal me if they were starting to feed back.

Once the music started, the mix fell together pretty quickly, with the Audience speakers delivering a smooth, shimmering sound that just felt right for the performance. The only challenging moment was when the vocalist, the lovely Lorraine Castellanos, came on for an intimate number with just acoustic guitar and vocal. She was barely touching those nylon strings and I could not get enough level out of the guitar mic before it would start feeding back. Her vocal performance was appropriately intimate, but her guitar playing was a little too intimate. Oh well, I tried. But that was a minor issue and the evening concerts wrapped up with everyone wearing smiles. The musicians were fantastic, the sound system delivered the goods, and the audience was treated to a stirring, memorable performance.

If I've made it sound like I was doing this all by myself, nothing could be further from the truth. My friend Art Alenik was there to bring me on board (pun intended) and help me out in any way he could. The guys from Audience; CEO John McDonald, along with Roger, Uly and Joe were so helpful and supportive of what we were doing. Roger, Uly, Joe and I became combat buddies pretty quickly as we took on one challenge after another. Joe Kubala stepped in and was an immense help both before and during the jazz concert. And last but not least I have to thank Jim Merod for handing me the keys to a very expensive system and trusting me to deliver a live sound mix without blowing it up or wrecking any performances.
On Sunday I was back at it again, mixing encore performances by Dean Peer and Barry Rillera. After T.H.E. Show was over and I looked through some of the show reports on the internet, I was kinda' bummed to see all the great looking and probably great sounding rooms that I missed. But deep down I'm happy with the choice I made to help out. It was a lot of work, but for two straight days, I had the best seat in the house for hours upon hours of crazy fantastic live music. For me, that's what it's all about.