Surround the House – mixing Herbie Hancock’s live shows – Brief Article
Byline: Mike Levine
One unique aspect of Herbie Hancock’s Future 2 Future tour was the sound system, a hybrid setup that married the stereo front-of-house (FOH) mix with four to six supplemental speakers (depending on the venue), through which selected stage elements were mixed in surround. The out-front mix was handled by two engineers: David Mann, who took care of the FOH mix, and Dave Hampton, who handled the surround mixing.
Because live surround mixing is in its infancy, there isn’t much dedicated gear for doing it. Hancock, Hampton, and company had to improvise a system for the tour. What they came up with is simple, ingenious, and very effective.
Selected elements, such as the output from Hancock’s Korg Karma, DJ Disk’s turntable, and the processed mic line from Wallace Roney’s trumpet, were taken from the FOH console, through direct outs, and patched into a Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system (featuring a 192 audio interface) run on an Apple Titanium PowerBook G4 (see Fig. A). In a clever work-around, the Pro Tools system was used primarily as an audio interface and a surround mixing platform rather than as a recording system. Hampton mixed the surround elements on a ProControl control surface with the Edit Pack add-on, using the latter’s joystick for surround panning. (For small venues, Hampton sometimes used a “small system” that features a CM Labs Motor Mix controller, an Apple iBook, and a Mark of the Unicorn 828 FireWire interface.)
Next, the surround outputs were each patched through a 31-band graphic EQ (“The rack of EQs allows me to pull out the unwanted frequencies,” says Hampton) and then on to the surround speakers, relatively small active models placed on stands at four points around the room. (Hampton preferred Meyer UPA-1P or UPA-2Ps but sometimes used other models, depending on what was available for rent in a given city.) Unlike a 5.1 system, Hancock’s Future 2 Future surround P.A. had no added subwoofer. Hampton figured that most FOH systems they encountered on the tour could handle the low end well enough. “Most line array systems and concert systems adequately deal with the transmission of the bottom end and subwoofer issues,” he explains.
True to the spirit of jazz, Hampton’s surround moves were often improvised, based on what was going on in a given piece of music. He says that although many of the mix moves were scripted in advance, many others were “just as spontaneous and random as the musical elements that are being played.” When you watched Hampton mixing, he frequently seemed to be “playing” the joystick as if it were another instrument.
Hampton and Mann had to coordinate in order to make the surround and FOH elements work cohesively. “Normally, a FOH engineer is like a painter,” says Mann, “they just do what they do. But you can’t work like that [in this situation]; it’s more of a sharing thing. Which has probably been the biggest challenge, going into a completely different mind-set.”
Hampton explains their strategy for the mix. “What Dave and I try and do is create zones. He’s got the biggest thing in the room, which is the main house sound. The main [surround mix] moves that I have are zonal moves. Maybe during three portions of the show there are drastic things [moves] that help you define that you are surrounded. Other than that it’s ambient things.”
Mann puts it like this: “The main thing is it’s just a different way of thinking. You can’t just think in terms of left and right. You have to think of the whole picture. It’s trying to create a little extra ambience and a more three-dimensional sound.”
Technical satisfaction comes from being part of a cutting-edge tour, but working with a legend like Hancock is a thrill in itself. “I sit in my mix position,” says Hampton, “and I see the faces – all colors, all ages – that show up at the Future 2 Future concerts. It is at these moments that I realize I am in a special situation and I work with a very special man.”
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