IBMA -- Int'l Bluegrass Musicians Assoc. -- update

Hey gang,

Steve here. Tired, happy, tired and ... ummmmm .... tired.

I'm at the IBMA event in Nashville, TN, USA and thing are really cooking. Thanks to an invite from bluegrass lover, Rich Stillman, we decided to come down and see what's happening with the system and the Bluegrass folks. With Rich's help we outfitted a few "showcase rooms" with systems and decided to see how thing would work out.

I'll let rich cover the "how we set it up" stuff in detail, but basically we've set up two mics (each going to a system) a couple feet apart for doing these showcases. Now if you've never been to one of these read then next paragraph, otherwise skip one.

Here's what happens at a showcase event. A room is run by a venue, or an association or a manufacturer, and bands or individual artists come in and play a 20~25 minute set. Then, you've got 5 minutes until the next band is on. It is rapid fire and very interesting to observe (and stressful to work).

We've had to Cylindrical Radiator(r) speakers set up in a few rooms and I've got to say I'm pleasantly surprised at how well they are working. Last night I left one of the Bose powered rooms and wandered. I wanted to see if we were better than other rooms (sound quality wise) or about even or worse. I quickly found out why the Bluegrass musicains were flipping out over the Bose sound.

The easiest way to describe what I heard was this. It sounded like there was no amplification ... until someone walked away from the mics and spoke. Amazing. Even I was surprised at how well our little speaker sounded.

With Bluegrass they are far more concerned with quality of sound over volume. I had one room that during setup the host said, "let's turn down" and I (the dumb rock/blues guy) thought, wow, this isn't even loud yet. Then I went to speak and realized that my voice was quite loud. We had a nice level for about 50~75 folks to enjoy the music without being blown away.

I've got to share that the feedback from listeners and musicains has been shocking. They see "Bose Corporation" on my badge and start gushing. Great complements and great questions: "How does it do it?" "I can't believe how good it sounds." "Yey, I love that new speaker of yours."

It's been a fun trip so far and I'm gearing up for my third late shift. The running joke is IBMA means I've Been Mostly Awake. Sleep is a rare commodity.

Oh, no. I've gotta fly. sorry for the quick post. More to come. Ken's here today and he was smart enough to bring a camera. More to come.

For those in the Bluegrass community we're planning on doing a trial with Rhonda Vincent tonight at 10:30 in room 207 ... shhhhhh ... Wink if you're nearby come on by and I'll let you in.

I guess she heard the systems last night and said something like, "That sounds fantastic. Can I bring the band in for a trial." We said "yes, of course." We're excited to hear her try the systems out.

Gotta fly,
Steve

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Original Post
Hi Everyone,

I just got into Nashville yesterday and the place was already SMOKIN. There's about 2500 professional bluegrass players here and as you can imagine, all heck is breaking loose. These are the big boys and girls, and the fabulous assortment of up and coming acts.

This music is totally happening and totally alive. There's tons of musicians of all ages here and you can easily see the next gen coming up through the ranks.

It's a total blast to be able to hear well, and really appreciate the cookin string licks and fabulous vocals.

I was very pleased with the performance of our Traditional Music configuration of two wide-area condenser mics, each connected to one Cylindrical Radiator(r) speaker pushed downstage and to the side. As a reminder of the technical details of our new setup, you can click HERE to read a thorough description.

The rooms could hold about 100 people each, and most performances were stuffed to the rafters.

What's utterly wonderful about the new configuration we worked out is that it's a walk on and play solution for the groups. There's nothing for them to plug in. This creates a beautiful and relaxed environment.

Players use a kind of choreography already worked out for single mic technique commonly used in this genre. When it's your turn to solo, your bandmates make room for you to move in on the mic. Our new system makes it possible for this to be much more relaxed because there's two mics, although the main reason for the two mics to have glorious spatiality to the music out in the audience (the acoustic ensemble on stage gets this "for free".)

I'll post a few photos from last night (late late late) with apologies for the moment in not being able to name the bands (if I were anybody, I'd know instantly who they are as they're all touring pros.)
Here's a picture of how a lot of bands are set up for showcases. There were LOTS of problems with this system last night. Guess what was the biggest? Yup, you got it, feedback. Ear splitting and lots of different frequencies. It was very hard for the musicians to relax.
Here's another group on the system. Note the "dummy mic" in the center. This was used to give the players a familiar target while they got used to the dual mic system.

As you can see, the tightness this new approach allows is real back-porch stuff. This is the way these guys learned how to play and love to play and this system allows them to play that way. It's totally lovely and naturalistic. Look at the expression on the guitar/vocalist's face. That's the deep living structure of live music performance. There ain't nothin better.
I add this shot because it shows you one of the young up and coming professional bands. The fiddle player was about 11 years old and the others were in their early twenties I'd guess.

Look at thhe guitar player on the right. Again, here you see the bottomless power of music. These guys and gals were totally down into the thing. You could have seen some of this stuff from space, that's how big an energy field was being created.
I think you'll find that bluegrass and other acoustic-based music styles are made for the PAS -- or the other way around, actually Smile

Bluegrass players need no convincing, never having entirely bought into the three-tier approach in the first place. I think this will prove to be your best marketplace -- soon no bluegrasser will amplify with anything else.

The PAS approach is simply the most natural sounding for both the musician and the audience. All three of my bands (old-time string band, world music, and jazz quartet) are using it exclusively.

--Rick
Hi all,
I asked Ken to wait for me to post the gory details of how everything went together at IBMA.

We did a total of eight showcases in five rooms that hosted 42 sets of music over three nights, and the sound and mixes were consistently good. Audiences didn’t really know what hit them, but they liked it! After all this experimentation, we’ve reached a point where we can get consistently good sound, although there are still some issues we need to smooth out. More on those later – first, an explanation of what we did.

You can see pictures of the setup, as well as a number of bands playing into it, at http://www.waystation.net/PAS-IBMA .

The setup

Our preferred setup used two PAS units. In the small showcase rooms, which seated about 70, we positioned them close to the side walls, and in the large room that held 250 we put them about 15 feet from the centerline of the stage. The systems were positioned in line with the mics so they were as far as possible outside the sound field being put out by the speakers. This was done to maximize gain before feedback. It also meant the band didn’t get much sound from the speakers, but the close grouping of the musicians and the return from the live room gave the performers enough to go by. No one complained about insufficient monitor, even though we weren’t giving the band any monitor at all!

Our microphones were Shure KSM27s, lent to the project by Shure. Actually, most of the mics were KSM44s, but we ran them with the second diaphragm turned off so they behaved more or less like 27s. Each mic was directly cabled to one of the PAS bases, effectively giving us two completely independent sound systems. This allowed us to put the mics wherever we wanted without worrying about phase cancellation.

When we did our final pre-IBMA testing in the Bose theater, we took precise measurements of the placement of mics. In Nashville, we found that precision completely unnecessary. We started with the mics about 30 inches on either side of the centerline, and shifted them as the band sound checked to get the best possible sound and stereo separation. In most cases the mics ended up about two feet away from center, but there was nothing hard and fast about that.

Because the bands were new to this setup (as were we), we placed a third microphone on center as a visual reference, but we didn’t actually connect it to anything. We instructed the bands to treat the center mic as if it was the only one on stage, and ignore the live KSMs on either side. For the most part, they found themselves doing that instinctively, the lead vocalists working the center mic as if it was an SM57 and doing the ensemble singing and playing at a respectful distance from the whole cluster of mics (one musician commented that it looked like a press conference). The only reason I can imagine that everyone just fell into the habit of using the system right was that they heard the best results there. We certainly did.

One of our early discoveries was that aiming these mics straight at the back wall gave us a dead spot right in the center, where the lead singer was standing. The solution was to rotate the KSMs toward the center so the lead was singing on-axis to both mics. This worked so well we could use the mic angle as a volume control for the lead voice, and from that point on part of the sound check involved singing into the center mic and turning the KSMs to get the best gain from the lead voice. We ended up with the KSMs toed in from 45 to 60 degrees. The center dummy mic became a very important part of the setup at that point, although a band using this configuration full-time wouldn’t need it for long.

Results

The results we got through the system were amazing. The first piece of good news was that the even distribution of sound around the room allowed us to run the systems at much lower gain, giving the bands a far more balanced sound everywhere in the room. The separation of the two microphones, magnified by the distance between the speakers, gave us a stereo image. The stereo effect wasn’t overwhelming – because most sound sources were picked up by both mics, it didn’t sound like a headphone mix. But all that was needed to make the effect obvious was to listen with your eyes closed. As one audience member said, “it sets the stage”.

I think the stereo separation was responsible for one of the biggest benefits of the configuration, the even vocal blends. With singers all over the mic patterns, it seemed like some voices should dominate the mixes, but it didn’t happen that way. Band after band, the vocals sounded like a CD-quality mix. After a while, I started thinking that the stereo separation was responsible for that. Since each voice came from a different direction, listeners could use the “cocktail party effect” to focus on the voices they wanted to hear. Effectively, if I like a level mix and you like to hear the lead a little louder, we should each be able to hear the mix we want from the same performance. I have no evidence for this, but it would be easy enough to ask the audience what they heard after a performance, and see if their descriptions differ.

Unusual configurations

We had a couple of variations on the theme during the week. One showcase presenter hosted five bands using a traditional multi-mic setup, connecting the PAS systems to their mixing board and sending a separate monitor mix through standard floor monitors. The engineer in that room had problems with gain before feedback until he turned off the monitors entirely. Once that was done, everything worked fine.

Our second odd setup involved adding a separate mic for Michael Cleveland, two-time IBMA fiddle player of the year, who sat in with a showcase band playing mandolin. Michael is blind and needed to stand still in front of a mic. We activated the dummy SM57 from the center, moving it to the side. Mike’s mandolin was coming entirely from one side of the stage, but that’s where he was standing so it didn’t sound odd at all. However, without the center mic to focus on, the band’s lead singer began singing directly into one of the KSMs. The lead singing very obviously came from one side of the stage, and the extreme separation of the voices made their blends difficult to listen to.

One band that hosted their own afternoon showcase had an unusual setup: three seated musicians, two playing through amps, and a standing fiddler/singer. To get everything heard, we used an extra dynamic mic aimed at the unamplified singer/guitarist/banjo player. The two KSMs were quite far away from the other seated singers and their amps, but by aiming those mics differently we got a balanced sound out into the room.

Problems we encountered

Even though things went very well, there are still some problems to solve. The major one is gain before feedback – while we didn’t have problems delivering enough level to the audience, even in the 250 seat showroom, we didn’t have much headroom. That would be an issue in situations where a band needs to deal with ambient noise, larger venues or outdoor shows. Part of this was due to the equalization – we were running with preset 00 or 01, which ignored the characteristics of the KSM microphones. A custom preset designed for these mics should help tone down the frequencies that feed back first. The choice of mic may offer some room for improvement – maybe another mic, from Shure or another company, may offer better off-axis rejection and tone down feedback. However, the off-axis sensitivity of the KSM27 was one of the reasons this configuration was able to pick up musicians playing and singing over such a wide area, so there are tradeoffs to be considered here.

A second issue was the difference in vocal power of the lead singers. Most bluegrass lead singers can belt out a tune, and they sounded great. Some, particularly those who sing one or two songs per set, don’t have as much volume. In a normal mic arrangement, those singers can just get closer to a mic or turn up the gain. In this setup, they can’t. As one of the presenters said, “you can really tell who the good bands are”.

A third issue resulted from the configuration of most of the showcase rooms. Bands were playing on the same level as the audience, with no risers. When the rooms were crowded, people sitting behind the first few rows heard slightly muffled sound because they didn’t have a clear line-of-sight to the speakers that were at their eye level. For these people, standing up produced noticeably better sound.
Although I've used two KSM 27s at once with my single L1, single bass system before, I hadn't tried them in the spacing and angling together of the IBMA stage setup.
Got the chance at an outdoor bluegrass fair Saturday and am pleased to say that the two mics are a big help even with the one system.
Both on and off stage the difference was remarked on by pros and amateurs.
I then added a C1000e on a 16" clip on boom on the left mic stand pointed back between the 27s about 18" lower, to pick up primarily the two guitars that were stage center.
I found this is a great way to play solo with one instrument alo.
The crowd contact singing and playing between the 27s is really refreshing and I'g going to set up this way my next solo job.

Bert
Bert,
I'm no expert on this, but it sounds like what you did was similar to stereo micing an instrument in the studio. Generally two different mic types are used to two different channels and then the two sounds are combined to a single signal for mixdown. Even if the mics are the same, the difference in phasing can improve the sound. I've heard it done with acoustic guitars in the studio and the result is very nice to listen to.

If you have a chance to borrow a second PAS - try using that setup with the second 27 connected on the other side of the stage. I think you'll hear a big improvement.
Awesome stuff; thanks Rich, Ken, and Steve!

Do you think the two-mic technique would apply as well to a vocal group? We have a seven-to-ten voice group singing at our church, and mic'ing them is always a pain; sounds like we could place them behind the P.A.S., and get good amplification before feedback with this setup.
Great pics and comments Rich, Thanks.

I'm happy that the two PAS setup has worked satisfactorily. I can't help but think that short of one PAS per player the next best setup would be three units. One behind the players with a standard dynamic vocal mic, center, and the other two left, right, and forward with the large diaphragm condensers. Have you had a chance to try this or any other arrangement?

Oldghm
quote:
Originally posted by Apps:
Awesome stuff; thanks Rich, Ken, and Steve!

Do you think the two-mic technique would apply as well to a vocal group? We have a seven-to-ten voice group singing at our church, and mic'ing them is always a pain; sounds like we could place them behind the P.A.S., and get good amplification before feedback with this setup.


I had been thinking about that kind of application, using the two mics and two PAS to amplify any multi-point sound source. We noticed at IBMA that having the voices separated across the soundfield gave the audience a chance to concentrate on the voices they wanted to hear, effectively letting each audience member hear the mix he or she wanted.

I mix for bluegrass night at a club in Cambridge almost every Tuesday night. It's hard enough getting a good mix for three voices, especially when it's an unfamiliar band and you don't know who's singing what part. Trying to actively mix seven to ten individual signals has got to be a challenge! On top of that, you've got some people who want to hear a strong lead voice and some who want to hear a "wall of sound" with all voices at the same level.

On the other hand, fitting 10 people into the pattern of two condenser mics could be challenging. We found that the mics picked up instruments and voices that were way off axis - check the pictures - but there was definite payoff in being close to the center of the pattern. However, if you bunch the group close together, you lose some of the stereo separation. This is definitely worth some experimenting.
quote:
Originally posted by Oldghm:
Great pics and comments Rich, Thanks.

I'm happy that the two PAS setup has worked satisfactorily. I can't help but think that short of one PAS per player the next best setup would be three units. One behind the players with a standard dynamic vocal mic, center, and the other two left, right, and forward with the large diaphragm condensers. Have you had a chance to try this or any other arrangement?

Oldghm


Great thought, Oldghm. We thought about making the center mic live by splitting it across both PAS units, but didn't because of phase cancellation issues (and because we had pretty sad mics for that center position). A third PAS behind the band, running at a low level, would give the band some monitor and fill in some more detail. We'll definitely try that on our next round of bluegrass band testing.

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