[Please welcome this week’s guest writer, Adrian Benavides. Adrian is a musician, producer and live and studio sound engineer from Austin, TX, now living in Orange County, CA. He’s worked with my band centrozoon as a mixing engineer of our “Boner” and “Fire” albums. Adrian is currently on tour as a playback engineer and drum tech for Daughtry and has previously worked with artists such as Childish Gambino, Blue October, Stick Men, Chrysta Bell and Skrew. His wonderful solo album “Same Time Next Life” was released in 2012, along with a free companion EP. You can find his website and blog at www.adrianbenavides.com and most of his work can be heard and purchased at iapetus-store. - Tobias]
There are many aspects of professional audio work I have had the good fortune of sustaining over the last several years. One of the least documented facets of such work is that of the audio/MIDI programmer and playback engineer for live performances. There are several audio tech schools that teach courses in running front of house and monitors for touring bands. However, being a playback tech is such a niche position that there isn’t much information out there for those who would be interested in pursuing such a job. I suppose it isn’t specifically addressed much because many elements of the job overlap in the skill sets of studio engineers, editors, computer techs and live production techs. Being a touring playback engineer encompasses all of these traits and is often combined with backline tech positions which require additional knowledge of instrument maintenance and repair (and usually some touring experience) to even be considered for such gigs. Because of all these variables, there are so many roads one could take to get into that particular spot in the touring business. I myself had a combination of formal training as an audio engineer with further skills developed while working in music retail and practicing several methods of live programming and playback with my own projects. Experience gained has always run congruently through my studio work and live production gigs alike.
As a playback engineer, I generally work closely with the music director and/or recording artist to put the show files together. Ableton Live has always been my weapon of choice for this task because of its versatility and stability. I have programmed shows in session view, with all songs in the set cued and ready for triggering. Other times I have made individual song session files that get opened and closed throughout the show. And yet other sessions have been programmed in arrangement view with hot keys corresponding to the beginnings of all the songs which could appear in the set. Any of these configurations usually have click tracks for the artist to hear in their in-ear monitors for time-keeping (much like in a studio recording environment) and can also contain SMPTE or MIDI signals for video/lighting sync or instrument channel change messages depending on the situation. In all of these scenarios, unless a band member on stage is remotely triggering songs on the show computer, the playback engineer is generally given the responsibility of starting a show (usually with intro music) and determining the pace of the set based on audience reactions between songs and when the band is ready to resume the performance.
In more programming-intensive instances (which often call on sound design and editing skills with a dash of creative problem-solving), I have helped taylor-fit many session files for artists using methods which allow the flexibility to use pre-recorded elements not as static phrases with predetermined playback points but as a way to procure and re-purpose the essence of a song’s vibe in a live setting with a band. For example, I was once working on a set of performances which were to feature some piano lines from a few cover versions of the group’s existing songs. The goal was to slice the phrases up for playback on electronic drum pads via MIDI with an external sampler program on a laptop. At the time, Celemony had just released its Melodyne DNA technology which allowed the extraction of individual notes in a polyphonic event. I used this to my advantage and pulled out some of those unique sounding piano notes to create a custom scale which the drummer could then use to riff on (physically incapable of hitting a wrong note, mind you!) with the band live when the time came to jam on that song during their set.
In any case, the goal is to create music. To capture a sonic moment. Using backing tracks, live sample triggering or other combinations of computer-aided live performances are meant (in my view) to enhance the overall experience and inspire both the performers and the audience alike. Some people seem to have an aversion to using playback at all during a live performance. It is viewed by some to be a crutch; to cheapen the performance or in some way invalidate the work of the performers and the quality of the music. I disagree with this concept. Instead, I believe the technology available with computers and playback capabilities is but one of many tools which can enhance a performance whether it is live or in the studio. Any descending views on such a topic only seem valid to me in instances where the performer in question is just not executing on a professional level and completely relying on technology to do all the work.
Overall, I strive to help others frame their music in the best light possible whether it is live or in the studio. In live work, I find that the time and effort put in on a daily basis by a whole team of engineers and technicians is instantly rewarded when the house lights go out, playback rolls, the crowd roars and the artist is secure in putting on a great show. In studio environments, this kind of gratification and energy exists but on a very quiet and intimate scale. Both are fantastic experiences which provide balance in the process of creation and expression in music. Seeing music performed live on a nightly basis while on tour allows me to witness so many variations in the performance of a single song even when playback is involved. Seeing musicians react to each other and hearing how instruments sound in different rooms are invaluable observations to keep with me when I re-enter a studio environment to mix a record. In a reciprocal way, programming session files for live performances and determining the essence of what makes a song work is much easier to decipher when looking through the lens of studio production. Working as a music producer and mixing engineer in some instances while providing live tech work in other situations informs what I feel is a well-rounded perspective on how to best serve the artists I work with and the music being presented regardless of the environment.
[This was the third in a weekly series of guest posts by a range of exciting music makers and thinkers. Please join the discussion in the comments below, post a comment or question for Adrian and share the essay with interested people. Make sure to read last week’s essay by Ben Carey (on his interactive music software) and the previous one by Erik Schoster (on the installations of artist Khristian Weeks.]
Unsung Records has released a free Christmas Compilation that will be available for download until the 26th December. Centrozoon have contributed three tracks, and among the other featured artists are my friends Bernhard Wöstheinrich (The Redundant Rocker), Adrian Benavides, Alex Dowerk (ZweiTon), Lee Fletcher and Yoshi Hampl.
I’m neck deep in projects and work, so while I don’t have much time to blog I’m happy to be able to at least point to a couple of new things to listen to and watch.
Namgar preview track
new centrozoon videos
Whitney Leary, the visual artist who has already produced two videos for centrozoon’s Boner MF (Mauls of Reclining and The Yeah Winces) and two for Fire (watch and read Whitney’s statement about them in this blog post), has released another two for Boner AB.
By Us (AB version)
Weak Spelling (AB version)
Markus Reuter interview
Mark Ashby of ProgTopia podcast has interviewed my friend and collaborator Markus Reuter. The interview touches on centrozoon’s way of approaching music among many other of Markus’ activities. Very recommended listening.
Older Than God
Markus’ many activities are also the subject of Lee Fletcher’s documentary feature film “Older Than God”, which is being released in monthly episodes. The first two are now up at www.olderthangod.com.
Further reading and listening
If all of this is not enough, I’ve updated the Press page of my website with a few recently arrived reviews and articles. Also still fresh: this radio chat with Bernhard Wöstheinrich, Erik Emil Eskildsen, Lee Fletcher and me.
It’s review day, apparently, as I found reviews of two different projects in my mailbox this morning.
There’s a positive and encouraging discussion of the Tönstör Laptop Ensemble’s July gig in the September issue of “dissonance”, the widely read swiss magazine for new music. I’ve uploaded it here (pdf, german). For further info on the Tönstör Laptop Ensemble and its two projects so far, see the “Teaching” part of my website as well as this (rehearsal report) and this (concert photos) blog entry.
Then we have received one more review for centrozoon’s “Boner” album, this one from AmbientExotica.com - click here to read it. While I don’t usually dedicate blog posts to incoming reviews (this was another exception), Björn Werkmann’s generous and playful piece on “Boner (AB Version)” exemplifies a kind of engagement with music that I find so rare in commercial music reviews: a willingness to meet the music on its own terms, rather than the reviewer’s or the publisher’s - to find a language that reflects the aural picture, to hint at possible (if entirely subjective) references, to maybe add little context to provide entry points into the unusual music, to add criticism (granted, there is little of that in the review at hand) where appropriate - all this despite the fact that “Boner” maybe falls somewhat outside of AE’s usual definition of “ambient”. It seems that like creating music, reviewing it is often best done as a labour of love, rather than a job.
For a complete overview of centrozoon “Boner” reviews, see here.
centrozoon is releasing “Fire” today, an improv session from June 2011. It’s available for free listening or as a 6€ download at http://iapetus-store.com/album/fire.
All revenue will go towards the Bonestarter campaign, which I’ve written about in the blog post “This is how we do it”. In addition to the audio release there is free video footage for Fires 2, 3, 4 and 8 on the centrozoon Youtube channel.
liner notes and credits
“Fire” documents the complete evening of centrozoon recordings at the foyer of Gütersloh’s town hall in June 2011.
Taking place five months ahead of the “We Will Tongue You 2011/2012” Tour, the Fire session was scheduled with the primary intention of recording audio and video material to promote centrozoon’s renewed intention of presenting their music live, and to acquire more gigs for the tour. It also marked the band’s first time playing together in over 18 months, so while there was no audience present, the recordings served both as a “sound check” and as way to shorten the wait until the tour.
The revenue from this release will go to support Bonestarter, our homemade crowdsourcing campaign to finance our latest studio album “Boner” which was released on May 9, 2012.
centrozoon - Fire
Recorded and filmed on June 14, 2011 at Rathausfoyer, Gütersloh, Germany
Mastered by Lee Fletcher, Paignton UK
Thank you: Rathaus Gütersloh, Wolfgang Hein, Mia Plaßmann
Released July 14, 2012
We’ve been sending it out to people for a couple of weeks already, but today May 9th (or yesterday, since it’s already past midnight here) is the official release date of my band centrozoon’s new album “Boner”.
As with many intense projects, while it is still new it has also already amassed quite a history: Almost two and a half years have passed since Bernhard, Markus and I met up in Gütersloh, Germany for the initial recording sessions on November 5 and 6, 2009 - only our second time playing as a trio. Here’s a quick run down of what happened since then.
We approached the recording session with the intention to cut up the improvised recordings later. While the group is usually known for its long, flowing pieces we wanted to arrange sections of these improvs into dense, short arrangements, possibly with song-like structures. Listening back to what we had recorded after two days and with the “song” structures in mind, we classified the material from the first day as catchier “chorus” material and the second session as less defined, more calm “verse” material. We also set markers to indicate where significant changes were happening in the improvisations.
Markus had by that point brought up the idea of using pre-existing song structures as templates for our compositions, and after a little back and forth we decided to use his iPod’s randomize function to choose a selection of interesting, unique pop songs.
On the train home and over the next couple of days I analyzed the form and structure of the chosen pieces and created template projects in Ableton Live. There I set markers labelling sections such as “Intro”, “Verse 1”, “Instrumental Bridge”, “Chorus 1”, “Break Section” and so on. In April 2010 I visited Markus at his home in Innsbruck, Austria to mix my “Backup Aura” album. We made very quick progress with that, so that we had two spare days to work on the “Boner” arrangements. We now had to decide song by song which kind of sections were to be filled with either “chorus” or “verse” material from our recordings, and come up with a rule that defined which improv section would be copied into the song section (and shortened or prolonged accordingly). What’s more, for sections with the same name, e.g. “Chorus 1” and “Chorus 2” we would use the exact same recording excerpt to create a song-like sense of repetition.
Over the following couple of months we all spent time listening to the structures we had created, recording or programming overdubs here and there. It took some time to “familiarize” ourselves as listeners with the moods and structures evoked by these alien blobs of sound. Markus, writing today from Tucuman, Argentina where he is playing with Stick Men, is speaking for all of us in the band when he says: “‘Boner’ is just amazing. And it’s crazy that I’m involved. I didn’t think that ‘professional’ musicians could create something this far removed from anything I have ever heard before. It’s a true milestone for me.”
In November 2010 we met up twice for a couple of days to finalize the arrangements, export tracks for mixing and upload them for Austin, TX-based musician/engineer Adrian Benavides. We also composed a short announcement that we then posted on our website in early 2011, saying that we were looking for various people to mix the album so we could possibily release more than one version of it. Quite a few people got in touch to work on a song or two, but only one other person handed in a complete album mix in the end: Marziano Fontana from Lucca, Italy.
When I asked Adrian Benavides for a short description of how he approached the extremely dense and layered music, he replied: “My overall approach to mixing ‘Boner’ was essentially no different than what I have done with other records. However, my means of getting to the final mix were quite unique to this project. Two main rules applied: 1) spend no more than an hour mixing each song, and 2) create no presets or means to recall any treatments from song to song.” This, so he says, allowed him “to document a pure, real-time reaction to the material.” Here is a two part video he recorded where Adrian demonstrates this in some detail, using the track “Bright Meowing” as an example.
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Mix
In addition to mixing the album, both Adrian and Marziano also separately sequenced their version, creating the track order they thought fitted their mixes best. In September 2011, both album versions were finally mastered by Devon, UK-based producer Lee Fletcher. Artwork by Bernhard and physical production was scheduled for early 2012 and plans were made to start raising the money necessary for this.
In November and December 2011 we embarked on our 11 date tour of Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and Austria. In between concerts we worked on what would become Bonestarter, our fundraising campaign for the album. Announced on November 18, 2011 and since running at www.centrozoon.de with a selection of special packages priced from 10 to 100’000€, Bonestarter is a fundraising campaign without a set termination deadline. As of this writing, 36 supporters have raised over 1400€, almost reaching the point where we will have recouped the physical production costs, and where further income can go towards paying Marziano, Adrian and Lee a small fee for their excellent work, all of which they have provided free of charge.
Reviews have started to come in lately (I’m collecting them here), and they’re as varied as the sounds on “Boner”. We take this as a sign that the album is challenging and puzzling listeners in a good way. We’re very much looking forward to where this album will take both us a band and you as a listener.