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On the Road With Kronos


photo: Steve Jennings

When a string quartet gets on an airplane, they get five seats, with the extra one for the cello. But here’s a question: Does the cello get a baggage allowance? For most groups, that may not be a big deal, but for Kronos Quartet, who schlep along the electronic equipment they need to create their unique sound (as well as a modicum of lighting gear) packed into nearly a dozen hard-shell Pelican cases, it can mean a huge difference in what a tour costs.

If you don’t know Kronos Quartet, you should. Not long ago, the group celebrated its 30th anniversary as one of the most daring and innovative “classical” music groups in the world. Violinist David Harrington founded the group in 1973 in response to hearing a performance of George Crumb’s revolutionary (and fervently anti-war) quartet “Black Angels” for amplified string quartet.

Since then, they have recorded more than 40 albums by themselves, one of which earned a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance in 2004, and dozens more with other artists ranging from Nelly Furtado to Joan Armatrading to the Dave Matthews Band, as well as soundtracks for films such as Heat, Requiem for a Dream and 21 Grams. They have commissioned more than 450 new works and arrangements and have performed the works of almost every major composer of the 20th century, and promise to do the same for the 21st. And, they’re fantastic.

I’m ashamed to say that despite all my years following the contemporary classical scene, I had never heard Kronos play live. But I finally got my chance to hear them at an arts festival in the dead of this past winter in Ithaca, N.Y. They played a typically eclectic program: works by composers from Mexico, Nicaragua, India (with a pre-recorded track by tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain) and Azerbaijan, as well as a new work by renowned American composer Terry Riley. The encore was their rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of The Star Spangled Banner, complete with gobs of distortion, feedback, screaming rockets and bombs bursting all over the stage — all played live through a couple of small racks of processing gear. They blew the audience, and me, away.

Unique problems call for unique solutions. Kronos is the only string quartet in the world that travels with a full-time sound engineer (actually, two engineers alternate) because they’re the only string quartet in the world that uses amplification at every performance. Shortly after the concert that I saw, engineer Scott Fraser took some time away from the group and let his cohort Mark Grey take over for a tour of Australia and New Zealand. “We leapfrog over each other,” he says, “so we can accommodate each other’s schedules. I tend to do the gigs in Japan because the Japanese promoter we work with likes to have consistency, and I do Latin America because I get by in Spanish fairly well. Mark gets to do Scandinavia.”

“You don’t want it to sound like a sound system. What we’re trying to do is make everyone in a 2,000-seat concert hall, even the people 150 feet from the stage, feel like they’re
sitting in the fifth row.”
—Scott Fraser

Fraser has been working with the group for 14 years. He started his career, like so many of us, as a musician with a tape recorder. “I was playing guitar in rock bands in the ’60s, and when I discovered Hendrix, I discovered electronics,” he recalls. “That led to an appreciation of Pink Floyd, and I got a tape deck and started doing my own musique concrète in 1971. Other musicians realized I had a tape recorder, and so they asked me to record their band demos.”

He went to college to study music and theater sound design. “I couldn’t get a music degree where I was,” he says, “because there was an ensemble requirement, and they didn’t have any way to accommodate someone who played electric guitar. Meanwhile, they had one little room with a modular Moog system and a Putney synth. So I spent every spare minute I had in there teaching myself synthesis.”

After college, he found work in the shipping room of Burbank, Calif.’s legendary Location Recording Service, where “I hung around with great people. [Transformer guru] Deane Jensen ran his business out of there. Eventually, I worked my way up.” He went freelance around 1977, starting out with a TEAC 3340S 4-track reel-to-reel and has never looked back. At the same time, he started doing live sound for a wide variety of artists, including jazz and big band acts, folk festivals and “square stuff” such as Peter Nero, Mel Tormé, Leslie Uggams and Sid Caesar. On the classical side, he toured with piano duo Katia and Marielle Labèque, and on the rock side with The Residents.

One of his favorite gigs was a 20-year relationship with the Aman Folk Ensemble, who performed authentic folk dance music from all over the world. “I got to work with every possible kind and variation of stringed instruments and weird horns,” he recalls.

He got the Kronos job through connections with the quartet’s first resident sound engineer, Fred Stites, and his successor, Jay Cloidt. “They brought Fred in when they decided they needed to have consistency,” he explains. “I had toured with him on a few acts. After it became too much for him to be on the road all the time, he recommended me.”

Kronos tours for about five months every year, with an enormous repertoire to draw on. “On any given tour, there are usually no two nights that are the same show,” says Fraser. “A given piece, if it’s good, they’ll do for years. Some promoters or producers want specific pieces, so they’ll work a program around that. Sometimes they’ll set up a tour around a new CD. Usually, they’ll have up to 20 pieces ready at a time for a tour and they’ll do about six a night.

“They feel that an evening’s program should have the same structural integrity as an individual piece; in other words, the whole program is a composition and they work the programs out months in advance. Sometimes they’ll have to make a change if the promoter prints something different in the program or if it’s a big outdoor festival and they see that quiet pieces won’t work.” At the Ithaca show, in fact, they made a last-minute decision to switch the order of two works.

Kronos is amplified for two reasons: so that the audience can hear the music better and because a lot of composers call for — and take advantage of the group’s willingness to use — electronic effects on the instruments.

“Ideally, you don’t want it to sound like a sound system,” Fraser says. “What we’re trying to do is make everyone in a 2,000-seat concert hall, even the people 150 feet from the stage, feel like they’re sitting in the fifth row. We don’t do it by cranking it; we do it by paying attention to image and detail. I’ve brought in an Ivie analyzer, which showed that the increase in level is only about 1 dB over the acoustic sound of the instruments. But the increase in clarity is significant. They do a piece by Alfred Schnittke in which he specifies they play ppppp: one hair of the bow on the string. You can’t hear that 80 feet from the stage, but you can with our sound design.”

One of the key strategies Fraser uses is to make the amplified sound image not much larger than the original image. “The idea is that the musicians should be the apparent source, not speakers that are separated spatially from the acoustic source. We bring the stacks in from the wings and angle them in — all the stuff you’re not supposed to do,” he says with a laugh. “Part of it is to keep the sound from bouncing off the side walls, and part of it is so that you can be sitting outside the stereo field and still hear left and right. We don’t want people to hear stuff coming from one speaker or another. When I see the performers in the middle and the sound is coming from 50 degrees off-center, that doesn’t work.

“We’ll sometimes take out all of the house’s main speakers and build pyramids out of wedges and monitors. And if they have a center cluster, even if it’s garbage, we’ll always use it, taking the sound out of the left and right speakers a little so that the reinforcement is not as easily discernible as if it were emanating solely from the left and right stacks.

“We have a pair of Meyer Sound UPM-1Ps with us — they fit in the Pelican cases — which are designed for under-balcony fill, but we use them for frontfill in mono, putting them in front of the quartet. We’ll use a delay to push the system ‘back’ a few feet since the stacks are usually about six feet in front of the fiddles. We always bring the sound back to the players.

“Our biggest problem is that many venues fly their systems. We put it in the rider in capital letters that the main system must be ground-stacked. You just can’t be up in the air, and no amount of delay can bring the sound out of the air when it’s flown. Sometimes, like at a big festival, we have to back off from that — it is what it is, we’re here for only one night and there are a lot of other things going on.”

There are two sets of microphones on the group, reflecting the two purposes of the system. Neumann KM150s are mounted on sidearms attached to the music stands, facing upward. “We use those for the more ‘acoustic’ pieces,” says Fraser, “to give a transparent sound. They had been using cheap AKGs, and one day, I brought in some KM140s and David [the first violinist] right away said, ‘We have to get these.’ The second set are Countryman ultra-miniature Isomax omnis taped to the instruments’ bridges. These are used for pieces that have processing, and when there is a lot of processing, the Neumanns are taken out of the mix completely.

Though many different types of processing are called for in the group’s vast repertoire, Fraser and his colleagues have reduced their touring kit to just three devices. The workhorse is a Boss VF-1 half-rack multi-effects box. “It’s great for analog-style distortion,” says Fraser. “It’s good at the really radical stuff; it’s nowhere near as polite as the others. It has a very flexible architecture. In The Star Spangled Banner, I’m using a distortion preset that emulates a Strat going through a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and a Marshall stack, with a little Univibe-y chorus and some delay and reverb.”

A terrific piece that I heard the group play called Potassium, by Michael Gordon, involves long slides on all of the instruments resolving into major chords. The composer heightens the effect tremendously by pushing the fiddles through distortion so that all of the odd harmonics clash really nastily until the resolutions. “Originally, [Gordon] called for an Ibanez Tube Screamer,” Fraser says, “but after we toured it for about a year, I programmed the Boss to do the same thing. It’s hard to interface a stomp box with a Midas console, and now I also get more gain before it feeds back.”

The second box in the processing rack is a Yamaha SPX-990. “Mark and I use it differently,” says Fraser. “Mark uses it as a general-purpose reverb, but I use it to emulate the hall we’re in, which means re-programming it every day. The whole idea of the P.A. is not to make it louder, but to move the critical distance so that more people are in the direct field. But I don’t want the P.A. to sound different from the hall, so I program the SPX-990 starting with the Echo Room program, and I match the parameters to the room using an impulse generator to measure it. That’s sort of the opposite of the way you’re supposed to do it, but it ends up working. When everything coming out of the speakers sounds like the hall’s acoustics, it blends with the acoustic sound better and it draws less attention to the fact that you’re listening to a P.A. system.” In addition to simulating hall reverb, Fraser uses the SPX-990 for some amplified effects, such as “super-heavy” flanging and a 20-second reverb.

Finally, there’s a TC Electronic FireworX box, which Fraser uses when he needs to stack three or more high-quality effects in series, like a reverb, delay and phase shifter.

Kronos plays a number of pieces that have pre-recorded tracks, and for that reason — and not much else because, as classically trained musicians, they are most attuned to hearing the natural sounds of their instruments — they have always needed stage monitoring. “Until about three years ago, we had two wedges,” says Fraser. “But it was always unwieldy, and it often crashed the front-of-house sound. When the new cellist [Jennifer Culp, who replaced Joan Jeanrenaud, the group’s only personnel change in the past 25 years] joined, the balance changed, and we went to three wedges with active individual monitoring. But then the level started rising. So one day, I pulled the Furman headphone monitoring system out of my studio and plugged it in for them. I explained how they each get their own little mixer with control over themselves and everyone else and the playback tracks. Since then, I’ve never heard a word about changing monitors. Soundcheck now takes about a half-hour less and the stage sound got cleaned up immediately.

“All of them use just one ear, and all the ‘phones have to be on-ear: they don’t want to have anything blocking them acoustically. I told them to go out to the store and buy whatever they wanted and I’ll make it work. The violinists use Audio-Technica ear-clip — on types, which swivel out so you can move them off. The violist uses a Sony Walkman earphone; it was a pair, but I just cut one off. The cellist uses an over-the-head Walkman single headphone.”

Fraser’s unconventional approaches and attention to detail can even be seen when he tunes a system before a concert using a MiniDisc player for source material. “I have a recording of a male vocalist that I did in my studio that I use to EQ the room,” he says. “I can’t use Aja because, well, I wasn’t there.

“I check channel identity and leakage with that old ‘Left, Right’ file that came with the original Sound Designer software. We need to make sure there’s isolation when the group is playing with a click track since we don’t want the audience to hear it. I also have signals with reversed polarity to check phase — I’ve come across more than one system that was wired backward. Then 10 minutes of pink noise, during which I walk the room, move speakers around and balance the center cluster with the stacks, then clicks, 2.2 seconds apart, to program the reverb.”

It was the morning after Kronos’ concert in Ithaca that I met Fraser at breakfast, and after I introduced myself (and he told me he was an avid Mix reader), all I could think of to say was to tell him what a great gig he had. He hardly disagreed. “I get to hear incredible music played fantastically every night,” he admits. “There are moments of illumination when I’m standing close to the ensemble. There is a vibrancy and detail and juiciness to that sound, which is just overwhelmingly wonderful. That’s what I want the sound system to do. In smaller rooms, you’re really aware of the presence of the instruments and the way they move air, and that’s what I’m trying to do in a 2,000-seat concert hall. When it works, it’s great.”

And he has one more treat: Later this year, Kronos, who have recorded with the likes of Leslie Anne Jones, Joe Chiccarelli and Craig Silvey, will release their first album project that Fraser engineered (and co-produced). It’s a collection of Indian “Bollywood” film score music and features the quartet playing instruments they’ve never played on record before, such as electric sitar, accordion and autoharp. A lot of it was done at The Plant (Sausalito, Calif.), but true to form, Fraser didn’t use a conventional workstation or tape recorder. “We did it all in Digital Performer,” he says. “I ran it on an 800MHz G4 with up to 120 tracks, dozens of plug-ins and tons of automation. As soon as it’s finished, I’m going to send a copy of it to Mark of the Unicorn. I want to let them know what can be done with their program when you don’t know what you can’t really do.”

Paul D. Lehrman amplified his bassoon in 1970 and immediately blew out his best friend’s guitar amp.