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Picture Perfect

Dan Daley • May 2019The Biz • May 7, 2019

Not always quite right: This scene from Bohemian Rhapsody shows the boys in the studio, performing off-axis into an E-V RE20 microphone (partially obscured by foam windscreen) pointed upwards towards the ceiling. It’s a safe bet that this was not the vocal technique employed during the actual recording — or any recording, for that matter.

When Hollywood Tackles Live Sound, They Need to Get It Right

When film or television directors want to portray music being made, they often tend towards the typical tropes — the “producer” leaning against a generic recording console with incoherent blinking lights while the band plays and sings, ensemble, on the other side of the glass, the vocalist holding a Shure SM58 and standing with one foot on top of the kick drum. With few exceptions, like Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors, that same reversion to visual clichés often extends to scenes staged on the stage, with concert scenes portrayed via frenetic MTV quick cuts and maybe a few Woodstock split screens tossed in.

However, that’s changing. Maybe it was the shift to high-def video, or the onset of the second golden age of television, or maybe it’s just a growing need within society for greater authenticity, but whatever the force behind it, people aren’t simply aren’t buying simplistic portrayals of the mechanics of music-making anymore. And that’s only going to be good news for anyone who lives and works in that machine, because it’s just one more avenue for their skills to be monetized.

The replicated Live Aid stage, erected in a field for Bohemian Rhapsody, got plaudits for historical accuracy.

‡‡         BoHo Rap

The movie poster for this welcome shift is Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic that picked up four Oscars earlier this year. Both the concert and the studio scenes were carefully curated and shot. Specifically, the 1985 Live Aid event that serves as the film’s denouement left its organizer, Bob Geldorf, “dumbfounded,” he told an interviewer. “I was quite blown away of the exactitude.” Queen guitarist Brian May was equally effuse, adding, “The moment I walked onto that stage, it was surreal. It’s identical. It’s perfectly replicated to what the stage was like in 1985. Yeah, walking on it, I kind of knew what it was going to be like, but it was still a shock because it brings it back so vividly.” The scene was shot using an exact set replica of Wembley Stadium (not to scale, of course) with original footage woven into the new scenes.

And they did nail it, right down to Brian May’s four-amp-wide triple stack of Vox AC30s upstage left. On the other hand, it was also in the memories of those who worked it, a difficult show, thrown together at nearly the last minute in an era when faxes and Telexes were the main communications platforms. As one staffer put it, on one of the pro audio blogs and forums that Live Aid veterans congregate on, the P.A. system, a 125,000-watt Malcolm Hill Associates M4/M3 beast, with 52 M4s per side plus some for side-fills, and a small array of M3 cabinets with additional mid/top cabs at the rear of the FOH position/delay tower, was still barely up to the task (as if any system of the day truly could have been). In addition, there were nowhere near enough monitors (in the era before IEMs), not enough AC mains power on stage, and general mayhem on and around the stage due to insufficient security, both in London and New York, which were running contiguous concerts that day. (And here’s a shout-out to Mark Cunningham’s book on the concert: Live Aid: The Staging of a Miracle.)

There was also another peculiar problem: the production brought in scenic artists to decorate the stage but who, in the process, painted over the scrim in front of the P.A. stacks, muffling the high-end and ultimately blowing out some of the HF drivers. The final tidbit, via Queen drummer Roger Taylor’s reminiscence of it in Mojo magazine in 1999: the band’s system engineer reset the limiters on the P.A. amplifiers, so that, said Taylor, “we were louder than anyone else.” (Some things, apparently never change.)

Video magic brought the Wembley stadium crowds back in front of the actors portraying the Queen band members performing. Photo Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

‡‡         This Is The Real Thing

In 2016, I wrote about the now-late-and-only-somewhat-lamented HBO series Vinyl, which chronicled a very distinct time and place in the music business — specifically, New York City in 1973. While the premise and the plots were less than imaginative (it was directed by Martin Scorsese, so naturally there was a pointless murder in the first episode), the attention to detail in the set dressing was astounding. On location at the former Avatar Studios (now owned by the Berklee School of Music), the show’s consultant found that the studio’s own Studer A800 24-track deck was a bit too recent, so a 3M M79 recorder with more vintage credentials was wheeled in from elsewhere. The rear-wall outboard rack was removed — digital readouts would be dead giveaways — and replaced with a cabinet holding turntables. Only the studio’s Neve 8088, which dated only to the late ‘70s, eluded the time warp, due to its sheer mass.

Then came the finer details: sand-bottomed ashtrays, clunky rotary-dial telephones, and gold and platinum records, none newer than 1973, on the walls. Even the lounge’s couch was backdated, its cushions replaced with garish lime-green ones that better reflect the retina-searing Kool-Aid colors of the period’s interior décor.

In another scene, in a studio set built at a Brooklyn sound stage, a prop console came with a muted radio hidden inside to make the meters move. But since the meters would be clearly visible on screen as a vocalist sang in the shot, they had to be obviously synchronous with the music, so the consultant rewired the path from the location playback Pro Tools engineer so that the signal passed through a tape machine and into the console, where he had disconnected the radio and soldered in connections from the tape machine to the VU meters. It’s doesn’t get much more authentic than that.

And it will have be as authentic as possible going forward. That’s because the accuracy of anything can be fact-checked, almost immediately — within days of the film’s home video release, YouTube videos showed parts of the original Queen performance side by side with the recreated performance for Bohemian Rhapsody, calling out the (mostly) hits and the (relatively few) misses. As mentioned earlier, that’s a good thing, because the people who read this magazine are the resources film and television will turn to when they need to get the next classic live event on the big or the small(er) screen. It’s a reminder that the skills and experience from live sound have value in a lot of other places beside in the venue.

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