SWEET — AudioTechnology
Art meets rock at Sugar Mountain. Except for headliner Nas, where hip hop meets hipsters. Confused? Get in line.
Story: Christopher Holder
Artist Photos: Andrew Bibby
Demographers keen to determine the exact size of Melbourne’s hipster population need only have taken their clickers to the turnstiles of January’s Sugar Mountain music festival. Brunswick Street’s cafes remained eerily quiet as hipsters of all genders and persuasions dutifully filed into the annual gathering where Art meets Music.
Traditionally held in and around Melbourne’s Forum theatre, Sugar Mountain attempted to scale new heights, camping in the Victorian College of the Arts precinct, basking in the performing arts glow and revelling in the alleyways of the urban landscape. This is the hipster’s natural habitat.
As is the Sugar Mountain way, the roster was eclectic, but heavy on the experimental, the ironic, the camp, the geeky… And then there was Nas. Hip hop royalty had come to town to play out his debut album, Illmatic. It was an unusual fit for Nas. But he headlined the main stage with one hour of intense, right-outta-the-projects sincerity. His performance was near flawless, but more like a straight-faced punchline to a day-long in-joke.
SWANS: GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
Swans isn’t a band, it’s a music project; New York purveyors of experimental rock since 1982. Headed by Michael Gira on guitar, the current incarnation of the band features Christoph Hahn on lap steel, Thor Harris on percussion, Chris Pravdica on bass guitar, Norman Westberg on guitar, and Phil Puleo on drums. A Swans gig has always been an event. Gira traditionally likes his gigs loud, hot ’n’ sweaty. Just don’t head bang — Gira hates head banging. Back in ‘the day’ he was known to leap into the crowd and settle scores with head bangers. Lighting a Gauloise and perhaps curling your lip in time to the slide guitar drone might be more appropriate.
Engineer Brandon Eggleston has worked with the band since its reformation in 2010 to perfect the best guitar and bass mic/cab configurations. It’s a settled backline setup now, although he didn’t bring all of his favourite pieces with him to Sugar Mountain, with some mics replaced by, you guessed it, Shure SM57s. Here’s Brandon’s ideal stage kit:
Norman (Rhythm Guitar): Electrovoice RE16 on the top, and a Granelli 5790 ‘bent 57’ on the lower cab. “I get a blend I like; wiggle the faders until it’s right.”
Christoph (Slide): A Beyer M88 on his 2 x 15, an Electrovoice RE20 and a passive DI. “He runs two separate amps: one doing a loop or drone, the second amp doing the melody. Mix those equal.”
Michael (Lead Guitar, Vocals): Beyerdynamic 201 and M88. “I rely more on the 201. The Orange Thunderverb 200 head provides the dirty meat ’n’ potato sound. A bass amp (GK1001) goes through a Mesa Boogie cab to provide clarity in the low end.”
Chris (Bass): Sennheiser e906 on an Ampeg bass cab.
It’s a huge guitar sound, in fact it’s 115dB of backline at the edge of the stage.
Melbourne public radio station, RRR, was on site to record and do a six-hour live broadcast. They’d recently invested in a Midas Pro2 console and had set up behind the main stage. Taking a split from stage Dan Moore and Lachlan Wooden took care of the mix for broadcast, while also making a multitrack recording to Pro Tools along with a two-track master. The mix was sent via copper to the on-site RRR broadcast position with a microwave backup.
This is all as it should be, but making lives tough was the stage spill. The open-air RRR mix position was so close to stage that it was very difficult to get anything like good isolation — even mixing on headphones was unreliable. So, using the Midas iPad remote mixing app, the guys set up a robust wi-fi router, and planned to head to a car with a decent stereo, tune into 102.7MHz on the FM dial, and cross-check the mix with what was going live to air. From there, they could fine tune the stem mix from the sweetspot comfort of the driver’s position. Genius!
NO ZU: NO PROBLEMO
No Zu is a high-energy 11-piece band out of Melbourne, with loads of percussion, horns, vocals along with bass and guitar. It’s party music delivered with rave party intensity. Engineer Nao Anzai enthusiastically takes on the challenge. “I don’t bring a show file, just a channel list. The first song is all about fine tuning gain. The percussion is almost loud enough from the stage so I’ll work the vocals, the bass and drums, and after pulling a mix I’ll see if we need anything much from the percussion mics. The band is about raw energy and the audience expects a dub mix. It’s hard to pull a dub mix on a digital desk, I find. I’ll create a big reverb and a big delay, send vocals and horns to that, mainly, and create a return for those. I can ride the return to help create a dubby mix.” By the end of the set, Nao had reined in the mix — from seat-of-the-pants scary to controlled mayhem — without sacrificing any of the energy. Nao’s currently recording No Zu’s second album. The band made a limited edition cassette release of their previous album. I’m liking this band more and more.
HIGH RISE WHINGERS
There are some monolithic figures in Australia’s music industry. Giants such as Michael Gudinksy, Michael Chugg… and The Melburnian. Çhe? The residents of The Melburnian apartment block in St Kilda Rd are renowned for putting a dB dampener on any gigs at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Bunch of chardy-sipping whingers. Sugar Mountain was also staged under the disapproving shadow of The Melburnian and with that came some stringent noise restriction handcuffs – 94dB at FOH, in fact.
JPJ Audio took care of the PA requirements. Coincidentally JPJ was also operating over the road enriching the lives of The Melburnians by providing sound for a Kooks gig at The Bowl.
JPJ’s Bass Gauci oversaw the Sugar Mountain spec, providing a d&b J rig for the main stage. The PA shoots down South Melbourne’s Dodds St, so the site is narrow with plenty of brick walls to avoid, which JPJ did masterfully. Single delay stacks of J were placed down the street, which came into their own when Nas drew all attendees to the main stage.
Ground-stacked subs included pairs of Infrasubs along with the J-Subs. The LF spill was remarkably minimal at the back of the stage. I’m sure the good burghers of The Melburnian will be sending Bass a congratulatory note and a box of Quality Street.
Stage 2 gave Bruce Johnston’s beloved Nexo Alpha rig a chance to stretch its legs.
The main stage FOH package included Avid Profile mixing and Dolby Lake Processors. On-stage floor monitoring was an all-d&b M series affair.