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Live sound engineer Dave Swallow sounds off. This month: The sound-guy and the psychologist went to a café . . .
“I want to find out if it’s possible to use simple psychology, as a soundman, to help my artists sing better, perform better and have better experiences at their shows . . .”
The sun beams are split through the grey, dissipating clouds over a saturated Amsterdam. Clumsily cycling through puddles, I narrowly avoid wayward tourists, who spend more time looking though the infamous Amsterdammer windows than where they are going. The kind of behaviour that is normally kept for the darker hours in other countries, is a fun-filled family day out that leaves some tourists a little giddy with excitement. “Hey mom, look at this one!” I catch, as I cycle by one set. I wonder how thin the glass is . . .
right there and rewind a little. In our first meeting I had suggested that she use a mic, not just for its audio quality, but also its ability to condition and comfort.
There is a genuine reason why I’m passing though this scene of debauchery. I have a meeting in Nieuwmarkt, with someone who has a rather interesting insight into the world of stage psychology. Marg (pronounced Markkkk) van Eenbergen, is a woman I’ve only worked with only once. Her band, Gram (Marg backwards) had asked me to mix their album launch party held in the Paradiso back in October 2011. Not only is she one of these musical types, but she also lectures in psychology in the Algemene Sociale Wetenschappen (Interdisciplinary Social Science) department at Amsterdam University.
Was she only comfortable because I had said this technique worked? We were conscious of what we were doing, so to take this one example as the standard is a little naive. But, thinking back to the handful of times I had to change La Roux’s main mic to the spare, the resulting ‘unconfidence’ was present despite my constant reassurance that the only difference in the mics was the colour.
I want to find out if it’s possible to use simple psychology, as a sound-man, to help my artists sing better, perform better and have better experiences at their shows. Instilling confidence goes far beyond just being good with people and technical tomfoolery - but where do you start?
52 LSi - February 2012
I over-estimated the time it would take to get to our rendezvous, so take a lonely seat towards the back of the ocean green tiled cafe. I study the white illustrations on the tiles in between failed attempts to grab the attention of the lethargic waitress. Marg turns up with the typically Dutch trait of fastidious time-keeping. Let me just stop
She sits down and the conversation immediately turns to the Paradiso show and the mic. “I’ve never felt more comfortable,” she says, adding that because I had told her it was a good mic, she didn’t have to worry about the sound quality, and because that was the only mic she was using, when she walked out on stage, her mind was back in the rehearsal room. It was a great show.
As the conversation continues, it becomes clear that this is a form of conditioning. Ever heard of Pavlov? Did you know he was a pet owner? In fact, he had a thing for dogs. Our understanding of conditioning theory comes from the work he did. He would ring a bell, and this would cause the dog to react in a certain way. Just like we’ve seen in the movies where in a deep, dark lab, containers bubble, and all sorts of nasty experiments take place. A bell rings and all the Frankensteinian animals think ‘lunch’. The next stop on the conditioning bus is to understand dominant and non-dominant responses. You have either a dominant or nondominant response to a given task. If you’re woken up at some unforgivable hour of the morning and asked to perform that task (in our case it might be to jump
behind a mixer and mix a band, or get a phone call from the tour manager you’ve been waiting for and have to pack your bag), you can do it and do it well, then this is a dominant response. If we don’t have an automatic response to our situation, this is a non-dominant response. How well you perform is dependent on these responses. It has been seen that under pressure, a dominant response means you improve, but the opposite is true of non-dominant responses: you get worse. There is a physical response to pressure: more blood rushes to the brain, there is more arousal (her words, not mine), we perform better as a dominant response. We can change a nondom to a dom, just by rehearsing more. We’ve all been there when the band don’t want to rehearse or soundcheck, because it’s boring and they haven’t updated their Facebook status in five minutes, but this is an indication of how important rehearsing is, not just for the band, but for us mere support staff as well. A somewhat green member of crew could seriously suffer the consequences, and would that be his or her fault? I’m not sure that argument would stand up in front of the management, but it’s worth thinking about. All the rituals we go through to prepare ourselves for a show are a way of conditioning ourselves into a comfort zone - ‘gig mode’ as I call it. Some of these rituals might be laughable, but for the band they are just as important as nipping out for a cheeky pint before doors, which is frowned upon by so many these days. We get so wrapped up in technology, but we can actually get a far better performance using simple psychology and understanding. What is sonically more important - making sure your mic is exactly four inches away from the guitar cab, or that the band are confident? www.gramgramgram.com/music