You would not know their names or their faces but your experience at a music concert is heavily dependent on the work of a live sound engineer.
Live Music Market in India
The graph of live music concerts have witnessed an upward surge and is today the aspirational ‘go-to’ destination for the millennial.
“With 65% of the world’s youngest population and so many new tier 2 and 3 markets to tap into – the opportunities for growth and expansion in the live music domain across India are endless,” said Harindra Singh, Chairman & Managing Director of Percept Limited, in a recent interview with Music Plus.
The musicians, once facing a dearth of bookings for live shows, are now besieged with inquires. Apart from the musicians, there are a group of individuals who are equally worked up. Away from the public gaze, these guys ensure that the tone is set right for the concert and the fans along with musicians enjoy the experience equally. These are the Front of House (FOH) engineers or commonly known as live sound engineers.
We caught up with the rockstar of this fraternity, Fali Damania.
Fali joined a sound rental company in Pune way back in 2003 as an apprentice, before travelling to Canada to become a studio engineer. Realising, he was not designed to work in a studio as an engineer, he shifted to live music. Although he insists that studio work teaches you the discipline that is a requisite for success as a sound engineer.
(pic : Fali Damania)
High on quality, not on sound levels
The live music connoisseur in me, could not stop from questioning him about the international acts and the crisp concerts that they execute. Fali reminisced about a Bon Jovi concert in Toronto, Canada which he attended as a fan in 2010, that changed his perception about live mixing.
“The biggest take away from the show, was that the Bon Jovi set was much softer than the other performers but it was very high on clarity even at that volume,” said Fali.
He researched the techniques the engineers applied for the Bon Jovi set and that changed his approach towards his work. High on quality and not on sound levels became his motto. Another important aspect, Fali says, is the coverage of the venue. Increase in the number of speakers does not guarantee uniform coverage across the venue.
“Everyone pays for their tickets so it does not matter if they are in the first row or the last, the average experience should be pretty much the same. It does not matter if there are 100 speakers in the setup, what matters is their placement,” asserted Fali.
If you attend any live show and notice that it did not start very loud and the show progressed with a nice sound level graph, be assured it was sound engineer Fali Damania at the console.
Challenges faced by a live sound engineer
While we as fans, groove to the music of our favourite artistes, the sound engineers sometimes have a hard time ensuring it. Every concert is a new challenge, even for someone as seasoned as Fali. One of his most stressful concert as an engineer was in Dubai, with an audience of around 25,000! The air contained more than the usual amount of moisture and that did not help the machines. The faders on the mixers were not performing normally and kept sticking due to the moisture. What were the thoughts on the master’s mind?
“One of the options was to just continue with the show or perform a quick restart, it was a matter of taking a chance,” said Fali, adding,
“There was a section when an AV was going to be played, we took the opportunity and restarted the system. Luckily the moment it came back on it was good to go. We managed to do so, by some clever re-routing, but to do that in front of 25,000 people was one of the most stressful times ever.”
Indoor venues are a different proposition when it comes to live mixing. Not only in India but across the world, some venues are great while some are miserable. The acoustics of the room pose the biggest challenge.
“The tip to counter this is do not fight what the room is offering. If there is a 160 hertz or a 200 hertz standing wave in the room, you do not compete with it, you just go with the flow,” advised Fali.
Though the system engineers, who pre equalise the system based on the acoustics of the room are of immense help, the live engineer should not take things for granted. The engineer has to be tactful while adapting to various artistes. Vishal Dadlani, when performing with Pentagram, is a rockstar but for his Bollywood avatar he is pop-ish.
“You have to treat music as per the genre and not the artist,” feels Fali.
Importance of Gain Staging
Another tough proposition is ‘Gain Staging’. ‘Gain Staging’, is where you can control the volume level of a device or track. It is the process of managing all of these volume levels within a project for the purpose of achieving the cleanest mix possible.
When artistes like A.R Rahman or Amit Trivedi perform with a wide array of musical instruments the toughest part would be to ensure the softer instruments are audible.
“If the artist has the Dholak, Ishraj or even the Shennai playing next to the drums, you got to be very careful of ‘Gain Staging’,” warned Fali.
“You have to make sure that when you bring a particular fader from infinity to zero, that instrument will still be heard and for this the selection of the microphones is very crucial too,” opined Fali.
Being a fellow rock music lover, I couldn’t help but ask the Nirvana fan, which music he prefers mixing live.
“I find mixing rock and metal music more difficult as everything comes to you so loud with the distortion guitars and it is all about dividing the frequencies. I am always up for a challenge” smiled the ace engineer.