The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.
Whatever Burns meant by that. You know, sometimes it feels like at least one thing has to go wrong in every recording. No matter how early you start to plan, or how many times you try to envision everything that can present an obstacle, a cable is bunk or the musicians are late, or, in the case of a recent Invisible Audience acoustic concert, a little girl comes up as you’re preparing for sound check to tell you that there was a scheduling mix-up, and she has an imminent piano recital booked in the performance hall with over a hundred audience members attending.
To rehash, PS Audio development engineer Darren Myers and I started a project last year called Invisible Audience. If you’ve stumbled across one of these columns o’ mine over the last 50 issues, you know I’ve got some experience recording and mixing live bands, and you probably also know that I think Darren is one heck of an amplifier designer. Meeting together at PS, we combined our passions and started taking one step after another in pursuit of a cool idea: using audiophile acoustic knowledge, PS Audio equipment and Darren’s preamps (and his and my ears) to make some art. I know a lot of bands around here, and Darren’s wife Amanda knew of a space we could develop, and slowly but surely a fully fledged recording project was born.
As of my last writing about Invisible Audience, we had convinced management of the Center for Musical Arts in nearby Lafayette to rip up a few layers of horrible carpet and to refinish the floors of what would become our big reverberent recording room, Grimes Hall.
The Invisible Audience name is in part a nod to a ghost that used to reside in a corner of the stage. I say used to, because last summer the CMA paid a shaman to usher the presence out of the building. He reports that the hall is now ghost-free. [Colorado. Srsly. >sigh<—Ed.]
The name also refers to one aspect of the project, which is creation of live music videos for YouTube, much like my previous recording project Second Story Garage. We’re performing for the invisible (and hopefully manifold) online audience.
But our plans are bigger than just YouTube. PS Audio, as everyone knows, is enamored of Sony’s special digital audio format, Pulse Density Modulation, better known as Direct Stream Digital (DSD). Lucky for us, PS Audio happens to know one of the guys who helped create the codec and who currently owns the brand of software that records to it. We ended up being loaned a world class digital recording interface for this whole thing. We’re still pinching ourselves.
Our parent organization, the CMA and Colorado Music Festival, wanted a little something back in return for use and development of the amazing acoustic recording space, and asked me to resurrect a community concert series in the organization’s headquarters. Six or so shows a year to book, promote and execute sounded like some work, but something I could do on the side without too much distraction.
So that leads us to the night of Bella Betts Trio’s performance for a crowd of about 50, and the seemingly inevitable foible in our plans. The little girl’s piano recital was real, so we had to figure out what we’d do, quickly.
I was still connecting cables and microphones as Darren called his wife and they went through our options.
“Why don’t you try it in Grimes?” she asked. Grimes is the name of the reverberant hall whose carpets we ripped up. Originally, I had planned to hold the concerts in the PA room so we could fit as many as possible and welcome bands of all sizes and sounds.
But Bella Betts Trio (actually just two thirds of the group was in town, but that’s their name) was going to play acoustic. And the singer, 16-year-old Berklee-bound Bella, has a loud set of pipes. Why… shouldn’t we try it in Grimes?
Grimes over the summer had built this scary reputation to most people who weren’t musicians or specifically, stringed instrument players. Staff or teachers at the music education center (CMA) would walk in the room and immediately start talking about absorption or how to “fix” the problem of lengthy reverb in there.
And I can’t blame them for thinking that. Our modern music culture moved away from unamplified acoustic recordings long ago, and most people who know a little about music will say that you need a PA and a lot of carpeting in order to get good sound. And lots of Shure SM58 microphones.
It’s okay — that’s applicable in other cases. But this hall needs nothing when it’s presented with the right input. It’s a sound chamber that takes well to manipulation and just so happens to make stringed instruments explode with sound. It’s a special environment and is not alone in the world, but it is a little lonely here in town. Modern music playback and reinforcement techniques have claimed most of the well-designed acoustic spaces here, so this acoustic space is to me a little phoenix rising from the ashes.
It was with excitement and curiosity that we moved the gear into Grimes and began to fill the room with padded chairs. The band showed up as we were finishing, and with 60 chairs on the floor, the decay was greatly changed. It was nice and diffuse and a little warmer than it was with nothing in the room (the chair pads just absorbed the top frequencies). Knowing that human bodies are great wideband absorbers, I felt confident that the balance would be better later on during the show, but even so — holy shit, this sounded good.
The band fell in love the moment they walked into the room. They wanted to play unamplified as much as I wanted them too, which surprised me. And at the end of the night, after an amazing show by Bella and her Brooklyn-based violinist/cellist Joe, the crowd was buzzing with energy. The band asked to be part of this amazing experience again in the future, and we were selling tickets for the next show as concertgoers left the building. Pretty good signs!
In the next issue of Copper, I’ll dive into the story behind our next concert and Invisible Audience’s best music — and best recording — yet. And if you’re good, I may just let you hear the result.
Just kidding! You be as bad as you want.
Here’s a sample to tide you over… captured with one Blumlein pair on stage. The band is Masontown, and the night was January 6th.