Surround for Musicians

Grammy Award-winning composer and musician Herbie Hancock is the recipient of the 2004 Surround Pioneer Award, presented by the Consumer Electronics Association. A longtime devotee of the format, Hancock even coined a phrase to describe it (“immersive mixing”), and in 2001 took surround sound out of the studio and onto the road.

The promotional tour for Hancock’s Future 2 Future release kicked off in Europe, bringing five, six, and even seven-channel surround (depending upon the venue) to summer jazz festival audiences across the continent then around the world. A DVD release of the tour, Future 2 Future Live, allowed viewers to select one of four perspectives from which to watch and experience the different surround mixes.

The sound system for the Future 2 Future tour circumvented what might have been a very complex setup, given the available technology, by adding from four to six additional speakers controlled via Digidesign Pro Tools and a separate operator to the conventional main PA system. The surround mixer, Dave Hampton, who is currently holding down the position of technical director at Prince’s Paisley Park studios, has worked with Hancock for over a decade and recalls several early trials with surround sound.

“Herbie has been doing stuff in surround for years,” chuckles Hampton. “He’s been experimenting with the technology for [some time now], so he’s already been out front, even before I was in diapers.”

Doing It With the Band

During a number of AES and CES shows, Hancock did some things in conjunction with Tomlinson Holman in 5.1 and 10.2, says Hampton. “During the keynote speech we gave at AES one year, we took Herbie’s live synth around the room, just to see if we could do it in real time.” It was successful, he says, so they began to figure out how to do it with an entire band.

The tools were not easily available, so they turned to their Pro Tools studio setup. “We said, ‘We should be able to do what we need to do with Pro Tools.’” It had never been done before, but Digidesign sent a ProControl and Edit Pack, and technical guru Hampton made it work.

“We’re using it in an effort to push the audio to its furthest point, without necessarily having to have all this hardware there. The big thing about Future 2 Future was not just surround, but the fact that it was a laptop tour. We had one laptop generating onstage screen images, two more providing all the keyboards, and a laptop controlling the surround mix.”

Hancock and Hampton are presenting a surround workshop during Surround 2004 that will demonstrate how they overcame some of the early hurdles. “We’re going to have some of the documentation from rehearsals and live concerts that shows the development of how we created a dialog between the band and the engineers. There’s a lot of terminology that we created just to understand how the mixes were going down.”

For example, he elaborates, “We had phrases, like ‘motion sounds,’ a sound that, during the course of a song, has a definitive pattern, right to left, front to back, and that pattern comes at certain points. A lot of the surround that we did was not necessarily placement or fixed surround. We developed some ways to use surround as another rhythmic component.”

As an improvisational music form, jazz offered Hampton and FOH mixer David Mann plenty of opportunities to try out various ideas in front of audiences. “You’ve got instantaneous feedback, and the band gets inspired by the audience reaction, so there’s an interactive component. You can pick and choose what you move, and why you move it. If you know the tunes and everybody is sensitive to each other, you can create a really good evening,” says Hampton.

“We did it as a way to deal with surround in an area where we saw nothing being done,” he explains. “How can we create something that is unique and is actually more beneficial than a bunch of guys pontificating on whose mix is the best when they weren’t even there when the music was conceptualized? Nobody ever bought a ticket to see a remixer!

“You’ve got a lot of engineers who can go in and grab whatever catalog they want based on their relationship with the record company. Meanwhile, the artist isn’t contacted, but this guy is building a body of surround mixes. That’s not to dis the engineers, but how much music can you remix? As people get older it becomes moot, because the new generation doesn’t care–they want to hear BT.”

The idea was to bring surround back into the hands of the musicians, he says. “It’s about music and being musical. When we intermixed technology with anything that was going on with any of his bands, it was to be musical first and incorporate the technology second.”

Hampton is already considering the next logical step.
“The musicians are operating totally on stage and the only thing they have is in-ears, so they don’t really hear surround. They’re trusting that I have the ability to do what I have to do and the front-of-house guy has the ability to do what he does, and it’s going to be a good show. That’s where we want to go: We want to give the musicians control.” n

Surround Professional Magazine