I am an acoustician and a musician. I play cello – acoustic and electric – in a variety of rock and other non-classical music projects. Last month I took part in a series of concerts with the band Willard Grant Conspiracy: a fascinating experience, acoustically and musically.
Willard Grant Conspiracy is a rock band led by singer, guitarist and songwriter Robert Fisher. Its current configuration includes Robert, violist David Michael Curry, and me. We began preparing last spring for this series of 8 concerts over 11 days in the UK and Netherlands. Our rehearsals took place in our homes, without amplification. We developed an organic and semi-improvisatory ensemble playing style, responding to one another’s musical phrasing. Two living room recordings: https://soundcloud.com/loose-music/sets/willard-grant-conspiracy-2015
It was not easy to translate this living room experience to the varied stages of rock clubs, churches, and municipal auditoriums, all with amplification and distinct room acoustics. At each venue, there was a thorough sound check with a competent and dedicated sound engineer. It fell to us, however, to know what to ask for.
Our first show was in Glasgow at the Glad Café. The venue is designed for loud rock bands, and we spent our sound check fighting feedback and bass boominess, largely due to the house loudspeakers over-energizing the room and flooding the stage with muddy sound. Fortunately, each of us had his own monitor loudspeaker and custom mix. Each of us chose to hear only himself, plenty loud, so as to be sure to play accurately. The audience was enthusiastic and forgiving, but we felt sloppy and frustrated. Our next show, in Edinburgh, went similarly: well received, but a slog onstage.
– the Wee Red Bar at the Edinburgh College of Art and a too-kind review of the Glasgow show –
Our breakthrough occurred in Belfast, at the Crescent Arts Centre, a historic stone building renovated in 2010. The room was quiet and controlled, with seated audience, and we settled on a relatively quiet sound in the house, and even quieter on stage. We decided to include at least a small amount of every instrument in every monitor loudspeaker, rather than each player hearing only himself. This required a leap of faith that we would hear ourselves sufficiently, but it allowed us to play with one another much more easily and confidently.
We kept this basic approach over the rest of the tour, adjusting for each venue. At Saint Pancras Old Church in London, we used even lower levels of amplification and eliminated electronic reverberation, listening instead to the natural reverberation of the tall, narrow church hall. Even so, a balanced mix in our stage monitors was necessary to provide clarity and stability to the sound we heard onstage.
– Sound check at Saint Pancras Old Church in London, and a lovely review of the London show –
– load-in at the Exeter Phoenix, and a very nice review of the show –
At the Prince Albert, a tight and sweaty rock club in Brighton, sound engineer Matt astutely observed that the very dry room acoustics might lead us to feel disconnected onstage, and so he added a small amount of electronic reverberation to our stage monitor mix. The room was packed and excited, we were relaxed and unconcerned with technical details, and we let it rip and had a great show.
Our final show was in Tilberg, Netherlands, at the Incubate Festival. The festival consists of many venues, all easy walking distance from one another, and many overlapping concerts. Our performance was in the Pauluskerk, an old church very similar to the London venue, wonderfully reverberant. One never knows what kind of audience will turn up at a festival show, especially with such acts as Giant Sand, Neneh Cherry, The Ex, and Wire all performing on different stages the same night. And yet, people came. The church was full. Our concert tour ended with a standing ovation.