Experimental pop queen Björk made history last December as the first “pop” artist to play in the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden. On a three-month-plus world tour, accompanied by a full 56-piece orchestra and a 16-strong choir from Greenland, Björk elected to appear in some of the world's most prestigious operatic and theatrical venues, rather than the usual “acoustically challenged” assortment of traditional rock venues. Among the ancient and revered sites that hosted Björk's innovative and eclectic performances were Rome's Costanzi Opera, New York's Radio City Music Hall and the Hitomi Kinen Hall, Tokyo.
But it was the Royal Opera House booking that caused the most controversy, in part because Björk's touring show not only included a full P.A. system, but also a surround system requiring up to 20 loudspeaker positions. “Some venue operators are, understandably, very particular about their buildings — they'd never normally let a pop tour through the door,” explained Björk's production manager Peter van der Ende. “Once we show up, though, they see that everything's under control.”
Among his other duties, it was van der Ende's task to find venues around the world with good acoustics, a comfortable auditorium, and sufficient stage and orchestra pit capacities. Although there are plenty of candidates, the schedules of most “classical” venues leave little room for one-off pop shows. “We were lucky to find a slot in each of the houses we were visiting,” van der Ende explained. In fact, the date at Covent Garden was sandwiched between a Royal Ballet performance of The Nutcracker and Wagner's Parsifal. Both are large-scale productions that required several hours of build and strike time, which severely restricted the window available to the Björk production.
SURROUNDED — FLAT PANELS RULE
One of the more tricky elements of the Björk tour was the installation of a 20-position surround sound system in each auditorium. The original plan to use conventional compact loudspeakers such as the D&B E3 beloved by theater designers was compromised by access problems due to the size of the loudspeaker enclosures and supporting stands. Chris Hill, a director of Wigwam Acoustics, the tour's audio supplier, came up with a surprising alternative. “I'd been to London for a look 'round English National Opera (the only other UK date on the itinerary), and it occurred to me that we might be able to use NXT speakers for the surround system,” said Hill. “Kevin Pruce [Björk's FOH engineer] and I listened to various different panels and we were convinced they could do the job.” Hill's team provided several alternate mounting methods for the 5½-pound speakers, including sprung Autopoles (more commonly found supporting backdrops in photographic studios), clamps and even vacuum suckers rated at over 150 pounds. After successful trials at Björk's pre-tour Paris show, Hill committed to the NXT system, using flat panel speakers from British manufacturer and NXT licensee Amina Technologies.
Innovative technology also solved a space problem at FOH. “We had a space issue at the mix position, and when I looked at the number of inputs and outputs we'd need, I knew we'd have to look at something other than a normal console,” explained Hill, who, with FOH engineer Pruce, selected a Yamaha PM-1D digital console. Capable of handling 96 inputs and 48 mix outputs, the PM-1D was well equipped to manage mixing and routing chores, but Hill was unwilling to use the console's SCSI-format connectors on the road. “We were concerned that none of the existing PM-1D users had really addressed the packaging of the desk,” he explained. “It was more than just cutting off the end of a SCSI cable and remaking it, and digital transmission is a very specialized area.” Hill and the Yamaha team worked with cabling experts VDC, which provided a military-spec solution that has been integrated into the console's road case and Wigwam's racks. “A multicore system like this costs money,” Hill admitted, “but the reliability of the whole system hangs on it — so it's worth the expense — and VDC did a fantastic job, building and testing the whole lot in a very short time.”
TWO INTO ONE GOES NICELY
Pruce is enthusiastic about the Yamaha PM-1D, and not only because two or more traditional consoles, plus outboard gear, would have taken up too much space. “The PM-1D does everything,” says Pruce, who arranged his input list to make the best use out of the PM-1D's two-layer control surface. “I've got the entire orchestra (a 56-piece opera band occupying nearly 40 channels) on one layer, with Björk, her band, the electronics and the choir on the upper layer.” Each layer provides Pruce with 48 dedicated faders and a central section representing an entire input and output path. Automation, as expected, is all encompassing; though Pruce pointed out that for such an ambient show, he makes extensive use of the PM-1D's facility for dropping key channels out of the automation system. In all, 72 inputs are required for the orchestra, the Inuit choir, electric harpist Zeena Parkins, a North Canadian throat singer named Tagaq, and Matmos (the California-based electronica duo of Martin Schmidt and Andrew Daniel).
The PM-1D's impressive output count meant that, as well as providing mixes for flown and ground-stacked speaker arrays, Pruce could generate 10 surround mixes and a 24-track feed for a possible live album project. He also found space to create submixes of the orchestral strings and choir to send to the monitor position. “I'm using all but three of the available outputs!” claimed a proud Pruce. Two mighty DSP engines operate in “mirror mode” — the B engine constantly tracks its partner, ready to assume control in an instant should the need arise. Mixes are fed straight from the PM-1D main feeds to XTA DP 226 system controllers, which are used as crossovers for the L-Acoustics DV-DOSC system. Surround feeds are sent directly to the amp racks, with Pruce using the PM-1D's output filters to roll-off below 80 Hz.
With the PM-1D configured so that most audio I/Os are onstage, local sources and feeds are handled at the FOH position by a satellite rack. “As far as onboard processing goes, I have assigned the PM-1D's DSP compressors to the usual channels, and I use internal reverb units for most of the effects,” Pruce explained. The exception to this is Björk's own vocal channel, into which Pruce has inserted a Tube-Tech compressor and BSS DPR-901 dynamic equalizer.
IT CAME FROM THE PIT
Pruce selected Schertler pickups for the stringed instruments to minimize gain-before-feedback problems. “They are not ideal for a full orchestra — I'd rather have a more open sound,” noted Pruce. “We did try doing it with overheads, but Björk likes the orchestra to be visible, which means having them higher in the pit and much nearer the speakers than normal.” The choice was vindicated at one northern European gig where the show was staged in a circus tent — with no pit at all. Also fitted with Schertler pickups were the two large musical boxes that are featured in Björk's album and her live shows. Other unusual sources include an acoustic harp, fitted with three pickups (which Pruce bridged into a single full-range feed before sending to both consoles), an electric harp with guitar-style pickups and effects pedal board, and a harmonium, which was miked with an AKG A98-KCS mini-mic. Surprisingly, perhaps, Björk's vocal mic of choice is a wireless Shure Beta 58 — a very conventional capsule for a singer with a wide range and unique delivery style.
A 12-channel E-mu E4 provides the majority of computer-generated sounds, while Matmos mixed their own wide-ranging sources. As well as providing electronic content for their own songs, the duo also served as a support act, playing tracks from their recent albums. This involves the use of medical probes (complete with endoscopic cameras) as musical instruments, and also included a solo played on a hamster cage. “This is very far from rock 'n' roll,” admitted monitor engineer Bob Lopez, who was given the intricate task of combining ambient and amplified monitoring for Björk, the choir and band. Because none of the artists were keen on using ear-worn monitors, they were provided with either Nexo PS 15 wedges or D&B E3 cabinets. Lopez describes his job as providing a timing reference, while allowing the response of each room to be heard onstage. “We've been into some fantastic rooms — especially the opera houses — they've been a real pleasure to work in,” he enthused. “This way of working means that I have to listen to each room every day, and mix the monitors differently every night to match its response. If the people onstage are hearing a lot of P.A. from a lively room, I have to compensate; in a drier place, I don't need to throw a lot of level at them.”
Lopez chose a Midas Heritage 3000 as his monitor board and used it to create 16 mixes, including two reverb sends. Four mixes were sent to the Matmos duo, who were incorporated into the 4-channel surround feeds that they generated, and Lopez provided a monitoring setup that mimicked the larger auditorium surround configuration. A pair of Nexo wedge monitors at the front (representing the DV-DOSC system) and D&B E3s to the rear were fed from an Alesis effects panner, which uses proximity effect to move the source around the 2-D image. A further finger-operated joystick was used to create an offset between front, back, left and right as required. Across the outputs of his console, Lopez inserted two BSS Soundweb digital processors, allowing him to perform any EQ, delay or dynamics function without having to re-patch the monitor drive rack.
Crew members are often enthusiastic about the artists they work with, but on this tour it's clear that this is no crude ploy to curry favor — those who work with Björk just seem to have become bewitched. “She really is a dream to work with,” says Lopez. “We've all got a lot of respect for what Björk does.” “She's one of the few clients who we really regard as part of the family,” agrees Chris Hill, who, like many of her support team, has worked with Björk since she was in The Sugarcubes in the mid-1980s. “In those days, I was struck by how fresh she was — untouched by the industry — and she's still the same. She knows exactly what she wants as an artist and just does it — and she works hard to pay for it, as well.” Audiences have been similarly charmed by the elfin Icelander, even if their comprehension of Björk's work is limited. “It's just like an opera,” a well-dressed audience member was heard to say. “They all sit through it hardly understanding a word, but they clap and cheer at the end, all the same.”
Mike Mann is a freelance writer living in England.