Jacob Collier at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium

by Thomas S. Friedman
in Features
The complex performance came together with just two rehearsals. Photos by L. Barry Hetherington
The complex performance came together with just two rehearsals. Photos by L. Barry Hetherington

Acclaimed British multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier rose to Internet fame with his split-screen YouTube videos, covering some classic songs in his own multi-faceted, original style. Since then he has collaborated with some of the world’s great musicians, as well as continuing to develop his own unique sound — gaining a well-deserved reputation for exceptional musicianship and musicality.

Since meeting via Facebook in 2014, Collier has been working with Ben Bloomberg, a PhD student and part of the Opera of the Future research group at MIT. Together — and with the help of others — the pair have developed unique instruments. These include Collier’s own signature harmonizing device, and custom live performance software that allows him to interact with an ensemble while onstage — sending notation, directions, and articulations in real time to different parts of the ensemble via their smartphones to enable group improvisation.

FOH engineer Ben Bloomberg spearheaded the project. Photo by L. Barry Hetherington

The Project

Recently, Collier performed at the Kresge Auditorium (Cambridge, MA) as the culmination of a week-long residency at MIT. That performance, called “Imagination Off the Charts,” incorporated an 85-piece orchestra, a 60-voice choir and a full big band — all on stage with Collier. The main focus of the show was on six commissioned arrangements of songs from Collier’s In My Room album, plus an experimental piece using Collier’s and Bloomberg’s improvised performance software as its foundation.

Bloomberg mixed front of house, using a Solid State Logic L300 live console to tackle its complexities, which added up to a formidable challenge.

In total, the system required 96 channels of SSL preamps, plus an additional AES/EBU Digital Stagebox that fed the P.A. The L300 itself has a maximum I/O count of 600 channels and 192 available paths, and Collier came very close to maxing out the L300’s path count. “To be able to find a desk with that amount of resource able to fit into the space we had was fantastic,” says Collier. “I’m not sure anything else could have done it. It’s shocking how flexible you can be with that number of inputs and only 26 faders on the surface.”

Seven different schools contributed performers to the ensemble, including MIT, Berklee and the New England Conservatory. “We couldn’t absolutely predict how many instrumentalists we would get,” Bloomberg explains. “Even on the day of the show we had to add two violas. We ended up with 84 inputs from the stage made up from instrument sections, choir mics, and soloists. The idea was to let the acoustic sound of the strings be the base and then fill in around that. Thanks to the flexibility of the SSL, we could run all those mics, plus more recording mics and a recording feed from the console. We actually recorded 85 tracks at 96kHz on a redundant pair of laptops.”

“Because of the limited time we had in rehearsal, just configuring things that fast was a challenge in itself,” says Bloomberg. “We used different layers for different parts of the show — making up various tile layouts for different aspects. We made good use of Stems for instrument groups so I could jump into any section via the stem and use the Query (“Q”) button to spill those groups out across the faders as I needed to.

“The Query button is something I hadn’t seen before, but I think that’s what made the whole event work. I could jump into layers, in and out of stems and VCAs, and do fast assignments — it works in a clear and intuitive way.”

Bloomberg also made good use of the L300’s internal effects racks. He had several reverbs set up for the different ensemble sections, which meant that he didn’t lose important effects treatments if the arrangements changed during the performance. There was a De-Esser and an exciter on Collier’s stem, and the SSL Bus Compressor across the drum stem, but he did find that the standard processing included in every Live processed path — dynamics, tube emulation, EQ, All-Pass filter, delay, and so on — were plenty for most instances. “The special thing about this desk,” explains Bloomberg, “Is that you really don’t have to work very hard to get it to sound good. You bring the faders up and things sound pretty amazing already.”

Jacob Collier performs. Photo by L. Barry Hetherington

Some P.A. Complications

Aside from the sheer number of inputs, there were plenty of other challenges for Bloomberg in the run-up to the show, among them the fact that there were only two full rehearsals and two hours with the full ensemble. Perhaps the more serious complication involved the need to fly a d&b Y-Series line array system in a hall that previously never hung a P.A.

This began a quest of architectural archeology — digging up the aged blueprints for the Kresge Auditorium, which was built in 1955 and features a 50-foot domed ceiling. Sound company Specialized Audio-Visual Inc. (SAVI, of Clifton Park, NY) worked with the original architects and two structural engineering companies — the U.S.-based Simpson Gumpertz & Heger and London’s Atelier One — on the project.

“This gig was really a cooperative effort with all the people at MIT, particularly Ben Bloomberg, who was so passionate about getting the show in there,” explains SAVI’s Shawn Duncan, the show’s audio systems engineer who had assistance from d&b audiotechnik’s Michael Eisenberg on the project.

“It was adding about 2,000 pounds to what was originally a historic building with some very odd structural issues,” says Bloomberg. “We had to install a strut in the I-beam structure to make the hang work and actually analyze the original 1954 drawings. We did a laser scan of the space on a homemade device to generate a seating plot for d&b’s ArrayCalc. Then Shawn and I went through a few iterations on the system design.”

“It’s an older building with a lot of modifications over the years to the roof structure — and a scary catwalk system,” adds SAVI’s Duncan. “We had to dive into to some hardcore engineering to make sure it was safe. But in the end, all the hard work paid off. One of the main reasons we selected the d&b audiotechnik rig was its light weight — all the amplifiers are in separate cabinets, making it the perfect choice.”

This improvised laser system was used to scan the hall seating. Photo by Ben Bloomberg

The System

Coverage, detail and articulation were all equally important. “The d&b Y8’s were wide enough to over the entire hall and at that point, it was just deciding the array lengths,” Duncan notes. “We wanted it as tall as we could — within the weight constraints — but also taking in consideration the performers on stage. We ended up with eight boxes per side, plus two subs flown over the top.”

The system included left/right hangs, each with eight d&b audiotechnik Y8 line array enclosures hung from two d&b Y-SUBs. Two d&b V-SUBs were employed on either side of the stage as ground subwoofers. Front fills were four d&b Y7P and two Y10P cabinets across the stage front edge. Seven d&b D20 amplifiers (via a digital AES feed from the SSL console) powered the entire system.

Bloomberg initially had some concerns about the coverage and frequency response of the P.A. “We knew it was a challenging room,” Duncan explains, “but once I told him about d&b’s ArrayProcessing and he grasped what that could actually do, Ben was confident that what he was hearing at front of house would be the same that people would hear at stage right.”

ArrayProcessing is an optional function within d&b’s ArrayCalc simulation software that applies powerful filter algorithms to optimize the sonic performance of a d&b line array over an entire listening area. This enhances the spectral consistency, with a defined level distribution, to achieve a consistent tonal balance for each listener. The result? “The coverage was beautiful,” says Duncan.

However, this was a team effort, Duncan concludes. “The performance was really collaborative among many people, and Ben was really thrilled that his dream of Jacob performing there came true. The place was packed, and it truly was a special night.”