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Music: Traveling Light


Jeff Wolpert used a streamlined, portable rig to record Loreena McKennitt’s Mediterranean dates.

It all started with an innocent enough question. A call came from the office of Loreena McKennitt, the golden-voiced purveyor of Celtic-based world music. Would I be interested in tagging along on a tour of the Mediterranean and recording several live concerts? Loreena and I go way back to her earliest recordings, so it was no surprise to learn that she was pursuing her interest in the origins of the Celts with a tour through the Mediterranean region. We had already been to France (Live in Paris and Toronto, 1999) and Spain (Nights From the Alhambra, 2006). The Mediterranean was the next logical step backward along one of the paths the music had taken to get to Ireland and the UK.

For this project, I was asked to record six shows. Transportation was via commercial airline so could I please keep the equipment weight down. “Sure,” I said. “Looks like a blast.” I did a quick inventory of what I would need for a 48-track recording and came up with roughly just 100 kilos (about 220 pounds) of gear. At this point, the tour manager, the experienced and unflappable Roger Searle, informed me that I could have a maximum of 100 pounds spread across two cases of no more than 50 pounds each. Otherwise, the extra baggage charges would be excessive. So let’s see: I had to put together a recording package including 48 mic preamps, a 48-track recorder, 2-track recorder, ambience and additional stage mics, word clock generation and distribution, power distribution and all internal cabling into two cases that didn’t weigh more than 50 pounds each, including the cases. Man, one of my road cases weighs more than 50 pounds empty! We were scheduled for nine flights in 11 days!

I put together my inventory by function, quality and weight. There were several ways to go, but availability was a big factor. PreSonus provided six DigiMax D8 8-channel pre’s with ADAT digital outputs. I chose the ADAT Lightpipe interface because the optical cables used to connect them to the recorder are very light. Tascam provided an X-48 48-channel recorder with ADAT interface. The latest operating system saves your data every eight seconds, so if the power goes out, you’re in pretty good shape. All the equipment was provided through Long & McQuade Musical Instruments in Toronto. I added to this a Rosendahl NanoSync master clock. I also needed to record live stereo mixes of the concerts. The X-48 recorder comes with a built-in software mixer that can be routed out a separate S/PDIF output on an RCA connector. I used an M-Audio MicroTrack II mobile recorder connected via the S/PDIF input, and also used the unit’s headphone output to monitor the recording. I added eight mics I thought would be useful — including a couple of shotguns — headphones and all the AC, word clock, Lightpipe and S/PDIF cables I would need. For disk drives I used a LaCie 2big Quadra RAID array running in safe (RAID 1) mode. This makes a copy of the files to a second drive simultaneously with the original recording. You never know when the power will be cut after a show, and having a backup of the data is crucial. And speaking of power, although I specified 110 VAC at each venue, I brought along socket adapters for all countries. Anyway, add up the weights of all this stuff, divide by two and I still had 13 pounds left over for each case.

I found a couple of not-too-expensive hard-shell suitcases with the dimensions of 26x19x11 inches. I lined them with one-and-a-half-inch closed-cell plank foam like the kind used in road cases and cut it to accommodate the gear. I could fit everything but the disk drives, which I put in my carry-on luggage. Then came the moment of truth. The first suitcase weighed in at 50.2 pounds and the second 50.4. Close enough!

The shows were an adventure in themselves, of course. When we arrived in Byblos, Lebanon, the temperature at the historic seaside fort where the gig was scheduled was 100 degrees with absolutely no shade. The rider requested tents, but there were none on site. Out came my gear, looking still intact. I found and tested for 110 VAC, set up and turned on. Everything worked — until everything started to overheat from the blazing sun. Why do they make equipment black? I borrowed a reflective camping blanket, and using a couple of mic stands and some gaffer’s tape, I constructed a passable tent and was back up and running. We line checked, then the band arrived and we soundchecked. When Loreena arrived, there was an hour-long rehearsal that I recorded. During the dinner break, I set up a mix using the X-48 software.

The sun went down and the show went on. Everything worked, and after a couple of encores the house lights came up and it was a mad dash to pack up and leave. Remarkably, everything fit back into the cases, and in an hour we were back in the van and driving back to the hotel. We arrived at about 2 a.m., but with a 3 a.m. lobby call there was only enough time to grab a shower and change before it was off to the Beirut airport — where I was hit by a $400 overweight baggage fee because the airline’s standard was lower! Oh, well. Live and learn. Getting good recordings was the important part. Then it was on to Hungary…

The album Wolpert recorded, From Istanbul to Athens, is part of the two-disc set A Mediterranean Odyssy, due out October 20. For more of Wolpert’s adventures on this tour, go to