Eight hours Sleep with Soundscape at Grand Park Los Angeles.
The concept of an all night concert under the stars is arguably more familiar to the citizens of California than most places in the world. And while the legendary nocturnal meanderings of a Grateful Dead jam session might have been entirely sleep inducing, any comparison to the recent performance of Max Richter’s Sleep in Grand Park, Los Angeles ends there.
“The brief I’d had from Max and from the original recordings with their signature drones, subharmonic pulses, and muted yet highly reverberant piano, vocal and strings sounds - I had always envisioned a Soundscape type of environment,” explains sound designer and mixer Chris Ekers, “He wanted people to be enveloped in sound much as they become enveloped in sleep. The experiential nature of what can be achieved with d&b Soundscape is entirely in step with the intention of Sleep.”
What influenced Ekers’ decision to use d&b Soundscape was predicated on his experience with the composer over time. He has been steering Richter’s live sound for nearly fifteen years and knows better than most how to interpret the guidance of this prolific composer of contemporary classical music. “[Max] has always used environmental noises as part of his compositions – that in turn has meant that some sort of surround system has always been required for a live performance.”
Though d&b Soundscape, a comprehensive toolkit for sound designers, is becoming well known, for Ekers the decision to use it in LA was not immediate. “We’ve done performances of Sleep before, but never outdoors… Being accustomed to designing systems for his concerts and for the ballet has given me plenty of experience for what would be required at Grand Park, but achieving that would take detailed advanced planning. If nothing else this was a public space in downtown LA, where for two nights we would be engaging with hundreds of people while they lay on the beds provided.“
The two eight-hour performances on consecutive nights featured Richter on piano, a five-piece string section (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble), and soprano Grace Davidson, plus eighteen multi-channel stems of playback that Richter has developed from the original recording.
The permanent stage in Grand Park is a concrete slab some thirty-six feet wide with a truss type support overhead for sound and lights. The audience fell into three distinct areas, spanning two city blocks. “We rigged seven hangs of four d&b Y8 loudspeakers across the stage line and because of audience asymmetry, one was positioned beyond stage right, three beyond stage left, and three flown from the stage truss. So seven clusters in all with eighteen feet between each hang. For the surround system we followed the relative boundaries outside the audience areas using individually rigged d&b T10s, plus a line of delays.
“In each zone we had side and rear facing loudspeakers. The asymmetry of the audience didn’t matter much because addressing it through Soundscape compensated for this; however having three separate zones was a challenge. But as we had the d&b guys with us during setup they were able to help manage this. Essentially, I wanted each zone to get the same experience. So rather than having one big virtual auditorium, I wanted three.
“As time was going to be an issue on site, I was determined to get as accurate a plan together as possible. Whilst I was there in January I measured everything on site to maximize this accuracy and to compare it to the CAD drawings I had.
“Happily, the ArrayCalc measurements were pretty accurate and modifying the odd loudspeaker here and there for the real-world situation was fairly straightforward. At no point did I feel time alignment was wrong. Apart from front-fills and subs to mains, the only timing measurements we made were to tie in the two delayed zones. Once we had these offsets, Soundscape handled the relative timings of each source extremely well making the process much less time consuming than I would have expected.
“Now using En-Scene we could position the small ensemble across our larger-than-life system but still retain the physical placement with extraordinary fidelity…I’ve never heard five strings sound like that before and by extension, the possibility of having a whole orchestra in front of you with that level of directivity precision across such a large space was truly awe-inspiring.”
Is d&b Soundscape the solution Richter has always wanted? “The environment is certainly inherent to his performance art, but the significance of Soundscape is more subtle. If devices are out there people will always want to use them, and as such all will to a greater or lesser degree inform the composition.
“Think about it this way; when he composes a movie soundtrack they will be mixed in nice 5.1 in a studio and sound all very good. Then they get mixed down to stereo and something significant is lost. But he knows this and accepts it, and in turn that re-invigorates him for live performance where he can seek to re-impose what it was he originally conceived. That’s what he’s done here in LA. He wants it all to be ‘wide-screen.’
“The most fundamental issue in the open air is the lack of building, there is no first reflection, something that can be exploited in a concert hall. With Soundscape you have the ultimate first reflection toolbox, and you can have that working incredibly well – and that’s in addition to the normal reverbs and effects we use. In a sense what Soundscape does is incoherent, but its easily controlled and the fidelity it produces is incredible.”