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Beatz n Stringz

What do you get when you toss five beatmakers, three soul vocalists, 15 orchestralists and a percussionist into a concert hall? Red Bull wanted to find out and created Beat Suite.

By

21 June 2013

Beat Suite was about to kick off and the buzz backstage was palpable. There again, with every fridge in the venue packed to the thermostats with cans of Red Bull, I guess that was inevitable. No napping on this production.

This was not your average gig: Scratch DJs and beatmakers, facing off against crack musos from the Australian Youth Orchestra, and punctuated by performances from soul singers led by Aloe ‘I Need a Dollar’ Blacc. And the venue? The acoustically spectacular, 1000-seat Melbourne Recital Centre.

It all sounds like an uneasy ‘square peg in a round hole’ concept; maybe something you’d catch in a tent at a fringe festival… where ‘experimental’ is a byword for ‘don’t expect it to be any good’.

Not so, Beat Suite was an outright success, but risky nonetheless.

THE FIZZ WHIZS

Beat Suite was the brainchild of Creative Director Kano Hollamby. Kano is a DJ and graphic designer, and has been a Red Bull associate for some time now:

“The Red Bull Beat Suite has been an idea that’s been sitting on the Red Bull desk for a number of years, only without a name. I took the idea and formulated it into something a bit riskier, that hasn’t been done before, which is to throw two different cultures together in the one place and see what comes out of that. So we’re taking two vastly different musical backgrounds and putting them in a prestigious concert hall.”

Kano handpicked the ensemble and then engaged conductor Tamil Rogeon to pull it all together. “We needed someone who had lived in both these realms — the classical and the beat making realms — and there was only one person who came to mind and that was Tamil Rogeon. He is a master of putting these genres together.” Tamil is well known here and internationally for his work with The Raah Project and True Live (a hip hop ‘chamber ensemble’).

“The Raah Project draws on those same principles,” noted Tamil. “Urban beat culture meets light instrumentation. We nutted out a good plan for the show artistically and joined the dots.”

Right. Sounds easy. Although…

“One of the biggest challenges I recognised early on in the piece was delivering a show with clarity, from a front of house perspective, in a big concert hall designed for acoustic music. To mount a work that involved five beatmakers, vocalists, percussion and orchestra was, at first, alarming.

“The problem lies in amplifying sound into spaces that’d prefer you didn’t. But that was always the intention: for this music to inhabit a concert hall space… not to simply mic everything up and let rip.”

Tamil had a plan.

“So I hatched a plan: instead of miking everything up, and having foldback blaring from the DJs, I developed an approach where the DJs were embedded as part of the ensemble. So their sound was predominantly going to come from where they were, much in the same way as an orchestral percussionist sounds like they’re coming from the back row and their sound resonates through the rest of the hall from that point.”

In essence Tamil was forming a multi-headed hydra of an orchestra, the like of which hadn’t been seen before, with himself as the conductor, hanging on for dear life, balancing the sound.

“In an analogue way that’s what the conductor does, they mix the FOH sound for the hall. It’s their role to balance all the elements; ensure the bottom end isn’t muddy and there’s enough clarity.

“I thought it’d be great to bring that model to what the beatmakers do, with the majority of their sound coming from behind them, from a single-source speaker. We did some tests that confirmed the necessity of doing it and, indeed, the value of doing it.”

So the plan worked. But with the orchestral venue selected, Tamil had to ask himself what the alternative was. And he was sanguine:

“To have five dudes blaring through FOH and then foldback? It would have been a nightmare.”

In fact, Tamil intended to keep his concept so pure that only the vocalists would be using the d&b C Series house PA. Turns out FOH engineer Dan McKay did have a little bit of work to do on his Digico SD8, judiciously sweetening the acoustic mix with some instrumentation.

Daltron describes his Red Bull Beat Suite setup

Beat Suite in full swing: Most of the house sound was coming off stage, either acoustically or via Meyer UPJs behind each of the five DJ/producers. The Recital Centre d&b C Series PA is barely ticking over. Visuals from Melbourne outfit, ENESS. Photo: Chris Polack, Red Bull Content Pool

Daltron: “I have an Akai MPC loaded with orchestral, drum, lead and bass sounds which I play live. Almost nothing is sequenced; there is no click. Then I’ve got a Korg Kaoss Pad for effects — filters, delays. The orchestral parts were recorded by Tamil and given to us — 100+ samples which we’ve loaded in. It allows us to take the orchestra to places it couldn’t ordinarily go. There are some parts where I’m filtering the strings to give that different interpretation of what the real strings are playing for a filtered, delayed string sound on top of the real strings. At other times I’ll being playing the drum part. Using the MPC pads I’ll be hitting the kick, snare, tom, hats and cymbals, driving the rhythm.”

Galapagoose is a big Monome controller convert (pictured with the orange lit pads). What’s a Monome? Well, anything you want it to be: “My Monome controls three different programs. The top half (8 x 16 buttons) runs a little patch called Cygnet, which is basically like a MIDI keyboard. You can tune it such that the buttons go left to right in fourths, for example, then chromatically up and down. So you can almost play it like a guitar, hitting combination shapes.

“In the bottom corner I have three controlling delay sounds, then a low-pass filter which has got like an LFO with adjustable amount and frequency and then a high-pass filter.

“And then finally in the other bottom eight corner I’m working with a program called MLRV. It’s something I wrote, and basically is a way of controlling a sample loop. Each button in the row represents a point or elements in the loop. It means you can play forwards and backwards and set all that up in the interface so you can see which sounds are in which in the row.”

To mount a work that involved five beatmakers, vocalists, percussion and orchestra was, at first, alarming

SCRATCH MY BACKLINE

Let’s meet our backline of beats and scratching: there was Aussies Galapagoose, Amin Payne, DJ Perplex, Daltron and Kiwi Scratch 22, while Javier Fredes supplied live percussion.

According to Tamil, all the backline talent enthusiastically threw themselves into the Beat Suite experiment. Each is a master of their art, but they’d not jammed with each other before, let alone with a 15-piece orchestra.

Daltron picks up the story: “Initially we were given 100+ samples of the string section. Tamil had been in the studio with the orchestra, recorded those and handed them over, which we chopped and processed. We also had some drum sounds, lead lines and bass lines.”

For Daltron, his weapon of choice is the Akai MPC and he’s a quick-fingered maestro of the pads. The MPC is also a sequencing behemoth, but there was none of that for Beat Suite.

“Around 90% of the program doesn’t have a click track. There’s a tempo, of course, set by Tamil as the conductor but almost all of the program is live performance.”

That said, it’s not a free-for-all, it’s heavily orchestrated. Tamil composes in Logic, does his notation in Sibelius and records in ProTools.

“Rehearsals were about learning what each of the backline guy’s ‘thing’ was,” recalled Tamil. “That way I could orchestrate it such that each could step to the fore when it was their time and then sink back in the mix when it wasn’t. And it also gave me an idea of how to control the low end — which beatmaker was making the play in the low end, or if indeed it was the orchestra. That was crucial for ensuring clarity.”

FROM THE HOUSE

Jonathan Hopkins was the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Technical Coordinator on the night:

“Individually there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this gig — there’s not a huge channel count; nothing specialised about the miking etc — it’s just an interesting combination.

“All the instruments are miked up. Mostly it’s for recording but there has been a little bit of touching up out the front as well. It’s fairly restrained, though. The Recital Centre is one of those rare venues where it really is just ‘reinforcement’ — namely, reinforcing the acoustic source from stage. Anything beyond that gets a little bit silly.

“The mic split is going to the studio attached to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. We have a Digico DS-00 in there and ProTools 192s. That’s sent via MADI.

We’ve got a big selection of DPA mics, and they serve us well. We have plenty of the 40 Series, and they’re amazing — modular, low noise, low profile… They’re a great little package.

“For nights like this, we have acoustic banners hanging down from the roof on the side walls, which alter the reverb time — it’s an elegant solution. So if we’ve got a trio or quartet you can open it right up and you get a noticeable lift in low/mid to low-end presence in the back of the circle. The stalls remain nice and even regardless of what’s going on. The seats play a big role acoustically as well. They’re specially made to emulate someone that’s sitting there — a very close absorbency value to a human. So it’s one of the few places that you can’t say “You’ll never know what the sound will be like until the crowd is in.”

Tamil Rogeon

MPC ACOUSTIC SET

For a guy who plays MPC — normally loudly, in clubs — it was difficult for Daltron to play almost like an acoustic instrumentalist.

“It’s a bit tricky, the way we’re working in this venue,” said Daltron. “We’re not relying on the front of house sound, we’re relying on our own personal point-source speaker — so we’re more like an acoustic instrument. So at times when I’m taking the lead drum part, the Meyer UPJ monitor behind my head is blaring. It’s hard to gauge your volume going into the hall, so it’s really up to Tamil to balance us — that’s been interesting.”

But it’s not so buttoned down that there isn’t room for personal expression, as Galapagoose explains: “In one song I’m doing a live sampling exchange with [Kiwi vocalist] Ladi6. I’m just playing some clap sounds throughout the tune and at the end of the song everyone falls silent. I’ve got a feed from her mic running into my audio interface and I’m using my Akai pad controller to record and trigger samples from my Mac laptop. So whenever I hold down the pad it records whatever she’s singing at the time — in an infinite overdub type of way. I can then trigger those samples, creating a chordal-type effect which she can adlib to over the top.”

IN THE CAN

Finally, it’s got to be noted: “doesn’t Red Bull make pickmeup fizzy drink? What is it doing exactly… throwing its weight behind something so experimental… so unmainstream? It’s risky; ballsy even. Beat Suite could have been, dare I say it, a real fizzer.

“I’d not had much to do with Red Bull prior to this event,” recalled Tamil. “But one thing’s for certain, there would be no chance of getting something of this scale and complexity off the ground without their backing. It’s a very gutsy approach. At no point did anyone from Red Bull say, ‘hey, are you sure that’s going to work?’. There was only ever enthusiasm and encouragement.

“Will we do it again? Well, there’s now talk of doing it again — now the hard work has been done it wouldn’t be nearly as difficult to.”

Let’s hope so. 

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