Tech Notes for Dust

Combining live acoustic performance with electronic media can sound very exciting in the planning stages only to become daunting when the time for the live show comes. Dust combines mezzo-soprano and string quartet with chunks of  pre-recorded audio, all of which needs to be synced with a fair amount of precision during the live performance. In the end, the technical solutions we arrived at were fairly straightforward and worked solidly during the premiere, so I think it’s worth spelling out how we solved the various technical issues.

My recording rig consists, at this time, of a MacBook Pro, MOTU 8pre firewire audio interface,  and a PreSonus DigiMax FS. Digital Performer is my main DAW and I used Ableton Live to manage playback of audio during the performance. Obviously, you can use many different combinations of hardware and software to record, edit, and trigger playback of audio, but I’m quite happy with this configuration.

In the end there were around a hundred samples that had to be trigged in the course of the 32 minute song cycle. All the files were mixed down to stereo with panning, volume, and effects already printed. It would be possible to mix the multi-channel audio live or even to mix for surround, but we knew that in Kemper Center Chapel we would be working with stereo playback, and the challenge of trying to get a project of this scope off the ground for the first time made me feel like the wisest course was to get as much done ahead of time as possible.

Within Live, I created a scene for each of the eight songs and assigned each sample its own audio channel. From there, I assigned a keystroke to each sample so that the person working the laptop wouldn’t have to worry about anything but pushing the right button once the the performance began. Because the score for Dust is all in traditional notation, it’s important that the person triggering Live be comfortable following a relatively complex score, but the advantage of having a real human being, who can react to what happens in the course of the performance, as opposed to having the instrumentalists slave to a click track, can’t be overstated.

For the setup at Kemper Center Chapel we were working with a very serviceable Yamaha mixer sending the signal to powered speakers. We used the Digimax FS as the frontend for the entire system by running the mics into the Digimax and then sending its direct outs to the mixer. ADAT outputs into the 8pre provided the recording signal. Ableton Live playback came through the main outputs of the 8pre and was also recorded into Digital Performer in real time for later mixing.

In order to better blend the acoustic and electroacoustic elements, microphones were utilized for both recording and sound reinforcement. We were able to get high gain before feedback from the strings with pencil condensers (Rode NT5s), one over the violins and one over the viola and cello, positioned high enough to pick up both instruments evenly. In future performances, I would put a spot mic on the cello for recording purposes only as I wished, during mixing, that I had more transient detail. The mic for the mezzo was a trusty SM 58. I suspect it might be worthwhile for future performances to try a handheld condenser, but the SM58 is a legend for a reason and it lived up to its status on this occasion.

All in all the combination of  Rode and Shure mics with the clean PreSonus preamps made for quality sound in both reinforcement and recording. Using Live as the sample trigger meant that we could sync the audio effortlessly to what the singer and quartet were doing rather than vice versa.