THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE AIR &NDASH; BY SIMON HONYWILL
There's Something In The Air – By Simon Honywill
Bristol is one of Britain's finest cities – it's so highly undulating that the Dutch wouldn't know where to start, and it is bursting with amazing, epic structures that define the very meaning of Victorian Britain – SS Great Britain, Clifton Suspension Bridge, Cabot Tower, I could go on. Amongst those structures could be considered the Colston Hall, and whilst its location means it is tucked away and not easily seen by a passing tourist, its Byzantine facade is really very beautiful, especially when viewed from the curry house across the street.
As many will already know, Bristol Colston Hall is as iconic a fixture on the UK touring circuit as Hammersmith or Manchester Apollo, and it is also notable for being the farthest west most tours will ever go in England, despite standing at the gateway to the 275 miles of the South West peninsula that stretch out towards the sunset. Its age and location on the side of one of Bristol's definitive steep gradients imbue it with the kind of charms that turn up the sarcasm levels of a touring crew to almost unbearable, and being Grade 2 listed does present some challenges to work in. The stage is tight, the rigging points are about sufficient to lift a bit of flat-pack furniture, there's no storage and the backstage facilities are hardly plush.
It must be said that there has been an attempt to improve the acoustics, in the form of some significant drape work, and the 'clattery' nature of the room has been somewhat tamed, which is great, but the interior is still essentially the same as it was when rebuilt after WW2. They have, however, built a brand spanking new foyer of Bristolian proportions which itself hosts small gigs and has a very nice looking bar, should you be passing.
Why am I banging on about the place? Well I have just been to a gig there. You won't be surprised to learn that I don't go to many that I'm not working on, but in this case there was a strong connection. The main attraction was Goldfrapp, the doyens of British synth driven dance/pop, fronted by the very unique Alison Goldfrapp and showcasing the recent and very beautiful 'Tales of Us' album. Now this promised to be a slightly strange evening for me as I have mixed Goldfrapp in the past, before handing over to the present FOH incumbent, my mate Steve Carr, who is much younger and more handsome than I, although his choice of trouser and hairstyle have let him down in the past – but then he is from Essex. It felt a little like taking a ride in a car that you sold to a friend – I was both keen to know and yet slightly fragile and insecure - what if he's been looking after it really well, all the scratches were gone and the interior was really clean? How would I feel?
There was another significant factor driving my fascination – there was MLA hanging from the ceiling. When I was FOH for Goldfrapp, MLA hadn't been born yet, and their music is full of fantastic, frequency-hungry analogue synth sounds and big, fat bass, but it can also be extremely delicate, strings and acoustic guitars replacing the electronica to form some truly exquisite, cinematic soundscapes. Goldfrapp on MLA was an exciting prospect, but would it conquer the innate 'boxiness' of Colston Hall? The picture was completed by the presence of Mark Edwards, a system engineer who knows MLA well, here responsible for delivering the system for Steve to do his thing on. There was plenty to look forward to.
The evening's gin and tonic was 'We Are Evergreen', a support act that turned out to be worthy of their slot on the tour, presenting a dynamic, melodic set full of live loops, synth bass, thumping toms and some particularly interesting use of a ukulele. The audience took to them and they received a well-deserved wave of audience love at the end of the set.
Alison Goldfrapp and her band arrived onstage looking surprisingly normal, and proceeded to work through the first half of the set, a selection from 'Tales of Us', employing acoustic and electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, percussion, violin and tracks. What was immediately apparent was her vocal. She is a quiet singer, using breath, sibilance and often her low register to express her music. In the past, this has been problematic – the adoption of a Heil PR35 capsule on her radio mic helped, but this was aided by the application of a significant amount of processing in an attempt to get it up and over the often pumping band. Here was Alison's vocal, crystal clear, intelligible and sounding beautifully natural, with just a little appropriate eq and gentle compression to bed it in to the tightness of the band.
I spoke to Steve about this afterwards, and he proceeded to tell me about direct evidence of what must be one of the most dramatic impacts of MLA and its unique technology. He was approached early on in the tour by Alison, who was saying that she felt that she could hear herself in her IEM's much more clearly and feel how she was coming across to the audience much better than ever. The result of this was that she felt she was projecting better and feeling very confident in her vocal performance and could she go with it much more exposed and 'au naturel'. She felt she had the sound out front that meant she didn't have to 'hide' amongst the processing, all as a result of the significantly cleaner stage sound generated by MLA's ability to be programmed to keep sound off the stage, by a quantifiable and predictable level. To reinforce this, Angie Pollock, Alison's live MD, keyboard player and backing vocalist, for the first time ever said she could hear herself so much more clearly that she felt compelled to use only one IEM mould, as the sound coming back from the room was so clean, relevant and helpful as opposed to being something she had to fight against to hear properly.
This surely is evidence that MLA is a drastic improvement for not only the audience but the artists as well. The show out front sounded nothing short of awesome, not just at front of house, but in every single seat, and not just in Colston Hall, but in every single venue on the tour. Every time I hear this system, whether I'm mixing on it or not, it surprises me in some way, and in ways that are almost exclusively positive. I urge and implore anybody who cares about sound in any way to hear it, use it, employ it to make their work stand out. MLA technology is a giant leap forward in the control and delivery of the highest possible quality audio to concert audiences across the world, and if you don't recognise that yet, you're getting left behind...