When Brian Eno's tape-loop masterpiece Ambient 1: Music for Airports was released in 1978, it spawned an entire genre of music. But one thing Eno never imagined was that a group of musicians would have the audacity to transcribe and perform the four-movement work in such a way as to make it their own. In 1998, one of New York City's top new-music ensembles, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, did just that. Bang on a Can's artistic directors-Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and composer/performer Evan Ziporyn-each transcribed and arranged one of the Airports movements, all of which would be brought to the stage by the six-piece All-Stars ensemble.
To keep the inherent austerity of Music for Airports from becoming boring, the group infuses its performances with subtle dynamic nuances. Transmitting this subtlety from the stage to the audience requires a high degree of sensitivity from the sound engineer. For the past four years, the Bang on a Can All-Stars have relied on the front-of-house talents of Andrew Cotton to make this happen.
"Even though they're playing through a sound system, the Bang on a Can All-Stars want to sound like an acoustic group," explains Cotton. "My job is to blend the instrumental textures together-starting with the acoustic instruments-and lift the mix from there to the volume it needs to be."
OUT IN THE HOUSECotton prefers the adrenaline rush of engineering a live performance over doing a studio session. "With concerts," he explains, "you have five minutes to spend on a kick-drum sound rather than the five hours you might spend in the studio."
Beginning his music career as a trumpet player, Cotton gravitated toward recording studios and, finally, live sound reinforcement. His background as a concert musician keeps him in sync with the demands of amplifying acoustic ensembles, and his expertise has made him a popular live-sound engineer with groups in the United States and Europe (including the Philip Glass Ensemble).
Andrew Cotton is also a member of Richard Nowell Sound in London, a U.K.-based sound-reinforcement company that specializes in contemporary classical and jazz concerts, as well as high-profile one-off events. "Most of the core work is for the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican Center, and Contemporary Music Network tours," says Cotton. "Our company fills the gap between the larger rock-act sound companies and the little guys, but with engineers that are sympathetic to the needs of classical and contemporary music."
STAGE TRANSLATIONThe particular challenges that Cotton faces with the Bang on a Can All-Stars result from their blend of classical chamber-ensemble timbres (such as clarinet, cello, piano, and acoustic bass) and contemporary instrumentation, including electric guitar, sampler, and drum set. The group actively commissions works that straddle the line between rock and classical performance practices. Although the All-Stars can play with great volume and abandon, they are in complete control of every aspect of their performance. This allows Cotton the option of avoiding the traditional tricks of the trade.
"What makes this group sound more like a classical ensemble is their control over dynamics," notes Cotton. "Therefore, I rarely use compression or gating on the instruments. My job is to retain the dynamics of the performers; if you compress them, you lose this. The only instrument I ever compress is the snare drum, and only if the hall requires it."
Any equalization he performs on the instruments is merely corrective, and the amount varies from venue to venue. "Basically, I add EQ to the instruments only to make them sound natural, since much of the music is written with an acoustic-ensemble sound in mind," he notes. "Some pieces, on the other hand, get more rock-style sound reinforcement than the classical-sounding pieces.
"The EQ settings depend on a number of variables, such as the sound system and the type of mixing desk I get. The biggest variable is the size of the venue, which determines whether it's merely sound reinforcement (as in a small hall) or full amplification that we're using."
To keep the amplified ensemble sounding as realistic as possible, Cotton adjusts the time alignment of the main P.A. system. "Using a stereo delay unit, such as a BSS 804, I delay the main stacks by 10 to 15 milliseconds, depending on the venue," he explains. "I do this to keep the image centered on the stage. So, even though it's loud, the results sound acoustic; the musicians sound like they're coming from the stage, not from the speakers."
AIRPORTS LIVECotton began preparing for the live performance of Airports by attending the mixing sessions for the CD. "I wanted to see how the piece felt. During the sessions, I made mental notes and let the piece sink into my subconscious."
However, the stage setup proved to be a challenge when it came time to premiere the work in New York City's Alice Tulley Hall. To approximate the richness of Bang on a Can's studio version of Airports, the group brought in 12 extra instrumentalists and 11 singers for the work's unveiling.
But unlike the musicians, Cotton didn't get a rehearsal with the new pieces. "I got my hands on Music for Airports for the first time at sound check," recalls Cotton. "Before we began, we had to figure out the placement of the additional instruments, with sight lines and visibility a major concern. The biggest trick was fitting the added players on stage so that the core group didn't have to be moved."
Scaling the large-ensemble setup of the premiere performance down to the core All-Star sextet, while maintaining the richness of the orchestration, was the next challenge the group faced. "Because such an elaborate setup is not practical for touring, we sampled tracks from the multitrack studio masters. The transcribers arranged keyboard parts for members of the group to play in each movement. We mainly sampled vocals, clarinet, and violin, and we chose some stock samples as well."
CLOSE QUARTERSThe input requirements for Music for Airports consist mainly of mics and miked amps (see Fig. 1). Although Cotton rents much of the equipment needed for the tour, he brings his favorite mics with him. These include Sennheiser MKH 40s for the percussion setup; a pair of Neumann U 87s for the grand piano; a Beyerdynamic M 88 for the clarinet and saxophone; a Beyerdynamic M 260 for the low end of the bass clarinet; a hybrid B&K mic-a small omni capsule mounted on a clip-on extension-for the cello; and a Sennheiser MD 409 for the guitar amp. In addition, the acoustic bass uses two DIs (one for each pickup), and the sampler (a rackmount Kurzweil K2500R controlled by a Kurzweil PC88) uses one.
Despite the amount of volume that the band generates on stage, the Bang on a Can All-Stars eschew any kind of baffling to separate the amps from the miked acoustic instruments. "Baffling doesn't work with the way the band tries to interact on stage," explains Cotton.
For maximum continuity during performances, the instrumentalists stay in the same places on stage from piece to piece-a benefit for the sound engineer. "We have a setup that works for everything," Cotton explains. "This makes for smoother transitions between pieces during a concert."
ROAD PREPARATIONCotton estimates that he spends as much time preparing for a tour as the tour itself takes. He spends most of this preparation figuring out what items he will need for a specific set of compositions and the logistics of getting them to every show. Because of transportation issues, the group rents many of the larger items in each city that it visits.
"Normally, we rent the backline equipment, such as amps and percussion," Cotton explains. "I also have to make sure we get a big enough mixing board. We need at least a 32-input board-sometimes I'll request a 40-input board depending on the pieces we're doing. The group uses lots of percussion-a drum kit, gongs, vibes-and that gobbles up 14 or 15 channels right there. The mixing desks I prefer are the Yamaha PM4000 or PM3500, the Midas XL3 or XL250, and the Crest VX. We also need good monitors and a monitor engineer for each show. Fortunately, the sound world tends to speak the same language. For example, the word sampler is the same in most languages."
However, Cotton says that the Bang on a Can All-Stars prefer to carry their own sampler on the road rather than risk trying to find one in every city. "We use 112 MB of memory in the K2500, so we bring our own. It's too difficult to find a reliable one on the road." The K2500 programming is done by Cotton and Ziporyn.
Outboard effects are also key to the road show. "I rent at least two decent-quality reverbs, such as a Lexicon PCM-70, -80, or -90, as well as a stereo delay, like the BSS 804."
GLASS ON THE ROADThe operational strategies are quite different when Cotton tours with the Philip Glass Ensemble. "The Philip Glass Ensemble is more electronic based, with keyboards. Live, they have more of a 'created' sound than the Bang on a Can All-Stars, like on a CD."
On a recent tour to Europe with the Philip Glass Ensemble, Cotton was in charge of monitors. "Handling the monitor mix is as critical and complex as doing front-of-house. To begin with, the ensemble, which includes four singers and three woodwind players, uses 12 monitor mixes. In addition, during the performance, I look after the keyboards and computer. The group has three keyboardists using five MIDI controllers, and all the keyboards are sending MIDI information to off-stage computers and synths. Everything is connected to a 7100-series Macintosh computer that is running MOTU's Performer and Digidesign's SampleCell. They use one main computer and have another for backup."
REAL-TIME SCHEDULEThe Bang on a Can All-Stars' busy concert schedule keeps Andrew Cotton on his toes. A typical performance includes five compositions, many of which are premiere performances. Having works by a diverse set of composers, such as Arnold Dreyblatt, Glenn Branca, and Gavin Bryars, on one program stretches the ensemble, the audience, and the sound engineer to their limit.
As always, it's up to Cotton to make sure the defining details of each composition reach the ears of the listener. With the premieres, sound check becomes a critical time for the engineer. "That's usually the first time I get to hear the new pieces, so to make sure things work within those, we usually spend more time on them during the sound check."
One of the newer pieces performed by the All-Stars requires a more conspicuous use of signal processing than usual. In this case, Cotton's job is more performance oriented, something he obviously enjoys.
"In Michael Gordon's piece I Buried Paul, everything except the drums and Mellotron samples is heavily processed-mostly chorused and flanged," explains Cotton. "For example, the score requires that the clarinet be put through a phase shifter. Much of the exact nature of this processing was worked out during rehearsals. The composition is derived from the end of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." The whole piece sounds like it's being played backwards."
Gino Robair is an associate editor at EM.