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Audio coalition for Scala

For the production of their concert DVD and TV special, the Belgian Scala choir joined forces with an exceptional technical conglomerate, reports Marc Maes

In its 15 years of existence, the Scala girls’ choir, under the direction of Steven and Stijn Kolacny, has steadily conquered audiences and sold close to 400,000 albums. Last year, a show in the US – including choral arrangements and songs by U2, Muse and The Police – inspired US TV network PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) to produce a TV special on the Scala girls and Kolacny brothers.

“PBS insisted on shooting the special in Bruges,” explains Stijn Kolacny. “The unique combination of the great acoustics in the Concertgebouw, and the historical views in the medieval centre of Bruges were crucial in the decision.”

The 2010 production, choreography, decor and styling for the concert were handled by Canadian production company Dufour TV, headed by director Olivier Dufour with whom the choir teamed up for their Montréal concerts. “This goes beyond the ‘average Scala concert’,” enthuses Kolacny. “Also the TV stations that commissioned the concert special wanted Scala to step away from their ‘static’ performances and include choreography.”

It was the choreography that proved the real challenge – having 60 singers moving about the stage is not easy. Philippe Van Loo of PVL Sound and Scala’s FOH mixing engineer for the past seven years, has quite some experience with amplifying the choir. “Usually we take the Sennheiser MK2 MB2 (wired) headsets, and plug them into stage boxes – for the Bruges show, using wireless sets was inevitable,” he comments.

The solution lies in the fruitful collaboration between Scala, Sennheiser and wireless experts RF Transmission. “We first contacted the Kolacny Brothers on the occasion of the 2008 Amsterdam IBC show where they presented the worldwide launch of the MKE1 set,” says Christophe Van den Berghe, marketing manager with Sennheiser Benelux. “The brothers remembered the product launch and came to see us about wireless communication – a great opportunity for Sennheiser to introduce the latest generation of 184MHz equipment and the new earset.”

Also for RF Transmission, the Scala concert was a unique opportunity to demonstrate the company’s expertise in wireless applications – having just invested in the newest generation of wireless 180MHz equipment, setting up what RF transmission chief Bernard Scyeur calls a “pleasant collaboration” with Sennheiser for the first big rollout in Europe of new wireless gear was a next step. “I wanted to work ‘upfront’ and invested in 96 channels (EM 3732II – SK 5212 II) on the new standard.”

For the Scala concert in Bruges, RF Transmission used 74 wireless channels, implemented on a specific frequency plan to minimise possible inter-modulation. “Sixty girls and a band on a 10m by 7m stage is a true challenge for any wireless engineer, but the new system is very performant and all of the transmitters stood the test,” Scyeur explains.”The choir members stood shoulder-to-shoulder but also had their choreography,” continues Sennheiser’s Van den Berghe. “Inter-modulation could cause so-called ‘ghost’-frequencies – preventing them requires high-quality equipment like the Sennheiser SK5212-II transmitters and the EM3732-II double receivers.”

Scala also premiered the new Sennheiser EarSet1 omnidirectional single-sided microphones, based on the MKE1 experience, making it the first production illustrating the strength and usability of the EarSet 1.

A five-piece ‘silent band’ with a piano, Gdrums and DI-boxes accompanied Scala – both Steven and Stijn Kolacny and the guest singers (including Britain’s Got Talent finalist Faryl Smith) used Sennheiser SKM5200 handheld microphones. “All this, and the signal of the Sennheiser MKH 416, Neumann KM183 and KM 184 ambient microphones, was channelled into a Yamaha M7CL48 console,” continues Van Loo, adding that he used d&b Q1 speakers as FOH sets and d&b Max and Q7s as monitors, controlled by a second Yamaha desk.

The Scala concert was captured by Videohouse’s OB 10 mobile van, using eight top-notch HD cameras for image. “In the truck we are using a Lawo mc266 console for the audio mixing, a guide track for the director. We had two Madi blocks with two 56-channel mic preamps inside the venue,” explains Koen Bredael, chief sound engineer with Videohouse. “On those blocks we received, after a hard split, subgroups of the voices, the band signals and 14 ambient mics, 62 channels in total. Those were then routed to the OB 10’s console and recorded via Madi on Pro Tools HD2, the standard configuration in our mobile studios.”

The audio discs were mixed at Art Sound Studios in Houthalen by mixing engineer Filip Heurckmans.

“Initialising the recording of the show was important,” explains Heurckmans, who is an experienced mixing engineer. “The position of the ambient microphones, the left and right sound image, the correct clocking for all digital systems and Clicktrack audio cues, the calibration of the microphones… normally you don’t use 60 microphones to record 60 vocals…”

A first challenge for Heurckmans was to predict the result of the Sennheiser headset microphones on the recording; the number of voices to record was another. “We wanted some kind of ’emergency solution’ by including the possibility to add either extra new vocal tracks or material from previously recorded album sessions. We realised that the concert was the one and only opportunity to record the DVD, so no loose ends here. We also put the singer’s voices in small sub-groups on different tracks. Both procedures require perfect identical clocking to allow the insertion of studio-recorded tracks later, resulting in an absolute top quality audio recording to go with the HD images.”

Heurckmans, who recorded, mixed and mastered all of Scala’s albums at Mol’s Galaxy Studios, opted for an analogue Neve VX60 console with analogue compression to mix the audio for the Scala DVD. “I’m a dedicated analogue user,” Heurckmans explains. “And we picked Art Sound studio because we decided to mix the DVD in stereo and not in surround, for budgetary reasons. At Galaxy, where we use the perfectly isolated spacious main hall, we will lay down extra vocal tracks – the DVD will also be authored in the Galaxy Studios by authoring engineer Wouter Strobbe.”