Friday, June 11, 2010

Beautiful Music, Ugly Sound

Posted by Nick Smith on Fri, Jun 11, 2010 at 10:03 AM

It was the perfect evening for a samba. The night was warm with the merest hint of a breeze whistling through the Spanish moss. Lights gave the College of Charleston's Cistern Yard a colorful luster. Famed Brazilian singer Fabiana Cozza was ready to perform her first ever U.S. concert to a thronging crowd. She swished onstage, opened her mouth... and her mic failed.

The best tech is kind the audience doesn't even notice. Most Spoleto shows have been smooth-sounding and efficiently lit. A huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes to make sure each concert is appealing to ear as well as the eye. But this year Spoleto has been plagued with uneven sound levels (the Ebony Hillbillies), overloud mixes that led some audience members to put their fingers in their ears (Lizz Wright at the Gaillard) and unintended moments of silence for Cozza.

This isn't the best way for Michael Grofsorean to celebrate 30 years of directing the Jazz Series. He accepts responsibility for the hitches, but insists that they were due to circumstances beyond his control. "Electronics are wonderful until they don't work," he says. Fabiana Cozza's first Wachovia Jazz concert on Friday June 4th proved his point more than any other show.

When Cozza realized her sound was out, she hurriedly took a handheld microphone. She couldn't hear herself so she stopped singing again, talking to the audience while the backstage crew tweaked their levels. With the sound equalized and the cable freed up, Cozza was ready to start singing some five minutes after she'd stepped on stage.

The sound snafus arose after Cozza asked to use a wireless microphone, giving her more mobility as she swayed to her catchy music. Her sound was checked for two hours that afternoon without a hiccup. But that night, it fizzled out.

"I don't like wireless microphones, but her presentation justified using one," says Michael Grofsorean, who is Director of the Wachovia Jazz series and

Wireless mics are the divas of the audio electronics world. Heat and humidity can effect their performance. The frequencies they use can be interrupted by another signal on the same wavelength. But Grofsorean's team were still shocked when the mic failed.

Cozza tried the announcement microphone, but this too had its issues. Since it was the one used to introduce artists, its cable was too short and it wasn't patched into the stage monitors. The audience could hear her, but she couldn't. "This is why she stopped singing," says Grofsorean, "giving us time to patch the microphone into the monitors." So while Cozza charmed the audience with her Brazilian banter, the tech crew were efficiently turning an announcer's mic into a performer's, simultaneously freeing up cable "so that she could return to using the stage space as she wished."

At last, Grofsorean could get back to regular business and breathe a sigh of relief. Or could he?

Later in the concert Cozza's sound cut out again, putting the tech team on full alert again. "She didn't realize that the microphone had an on-off switch on it.," Grofsorean explains. "Announcement microphones often have this switch as a convenience because they need to be turned off when the musicians are performing.  We helped her understand this, and she switched the microphone back on."

From then on it was plain sailing and the concert was a rousing success. The audience appreciated Cozza all the more for her composure and benevolence throughout the show.

The mystery of the dead wireless mic was never solved. The next day, Grofsorean and his men spent a long time trying to reproduce the problem but they couldn't. For Cozza's final night, they had a back-up wireless mic, changed the announcement microphone to one without a switch, and had plenty of cable ready just in case. These guys werern't taking any chances.

The singer's allusions to Afro-Brazilian religion were particularly moving, and maybe the deities she praised were listening because her second concert went without a hindrance. Grofsorean has re-learned an old lesson: multiple back-ups are the answer to his prayers. "To Fabiana's credit," he says, "she kept moving forward with her performance and did not allow these problems to distract her from giving, in my estimation, a fantastic performance."

Although the microphone issues were unforeseen, it's obvious that more rehearsal time would give the tech crew a better chance to anticipate and deal with any issues. The demands of the festival preclude this - artists arrive in quick succession, performing for one or two nights only. The organizers need to strike a balance between providing plenty of acts and giving them a reasonable sound quality. Otherwise it will be harder to encourage audiences and musicians to return.

Everyone needs a reminder once in a while to keep them on top of their game. Grofsorean has enough wisdom and experience to apply his unfortunate lessons to next year's series. With luck, we won't even notice.

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