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Raising the bar: Max Richter’s FOH engineer on mixing the composer’s Blenheim Palace summer concert

SSE Audio London supplied PA and consoles for Max Richter’s recent outdoor show at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, as part of the Nocturne concert series. PSNE’s Simon Duff sent back this report…

Max Richter’s broad range of musical activities include albums, film, theatre and dance. His unique brand of minimal but highly melodic layered classical music combined with a host of modern influences has led him to become a highly influential artist on label Deutsche Grammophon. In 2015, he released Sleep, an eight-and-a-half-hour work which he describes as “a personal lullaby for a frenetic world… a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” His 2017 album Three Worlds Music From Woolf Works, originally a ballet work performed by the Royal Ballet, at the Royal Opera House in May 2015, has also been highly praised.

Richter’s first choice FOH sound engineer, as well as sound designer, is Chris Ekers. Ekers’ other clients include Gavin Bryars, John Metcalfe, the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek, The Smith Quartet and The Balanescu Quartet. He started his musical journey as a chorister at Wells Cathedral. On opting for a career in sound he joined Autograph Sound in 1981 before going freelance in 1987.

“I have been working with Max for ten years, I rate his music very highly.” Ekers explained to PSNE. “I think there is truth in his writing, in my view he’s an original. I used to find his gigs so difficult, almost strangely awkward, because everything was so spare and exposed, meaning the sound always felt so exposed, especially in a dry acoustic. It is also almost unbearably sentimental on the outside, yet seems to stir a truly emotional reaction and thus a truth, which in this world gets rarer by the day. Plus I like him. Like Gavin Bryars, they are serious people, I appreciate their intellect, their honesty and their desire not to opt for the cheap trick.”

Not surprising that Nocturne 2017, a series of outdoor summer concerts held over four days in June, presented by U-Music Live, held in the majestic setting of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, opted to give Richter a whole evening with which to present to a 5,000-strong audience.

Featuring Richter’s re-interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Recomposed and Three Worlds. Featuring members of The Aurora Orchestra and solo violinist, Ray Chen. The line up included four first violins, four second violins, four violas, four cellos, three double bass, harp and Richter on Moog Synth and laptop. Augmented by four horns andthree trombones for Three Worlds. For microphones, Ekers specified DPA 4099 on all the strings. On the harp, a DPA 4061 was deployed on the body of the instrument. AKG 414s were used on french horns and Shure 57s for trombones.

SSE Audio London supplied Digico SD10 consoles at both FOH and monitors running at 48kHz, with monitors mixed by Louisa Gladwin. Channel count at FOH comprised of 48 microphone inputs, including solo soprano, Richter’s piano and keyboards, plus 24 channels of MADI playback streams, 72 inputs in all. Ekers loaded his pre-programmed SD10 settings for the gig then mixed the show manually, with no snapshots or recalls. VCA set up wise he opted to keep things as simple as possible with groups on hi strings, low strings, playback, then sub groups within the band, such as piano mics.

A TC Electronic System 6000, Richter’s favourite reverb, was used by Ekers. Its four engines deployed via four stereo aux sends on the SD10. In terms of delay and dynamics he utilised the consoles internal FX and compressors. SD 10 FOH mixes were sent to the left/right main hang, front fills, and subs.

Also supplied by SSE London was the L-Acoustics PA. The left/right hang comprised 12 L-Acoustics K2 per side, nine KARA per side for side fill, and 12 KS28s subs, placed in a line in front of the stage. Nine KARA were used as front fills across the front of the stage. All driven by L-Acoustics LA12Xs with Lake Processing. All musicians on stage used IEMs, with just a couple of d&B audiotechnik M4 wedges deployed.

L-Acoustics keep on raising the bar for their level of detail and commitment to innovation. For modern classical music that is an ongoing reason to celebrate

Chris Ekers

Ekers sounds a note of caution on working with modern classical music and the worry of too much sub frequencies, that may spill back onto stage. “For classical music I find there is often too much low end in modern systems. For me, subs are an effect! That much low end doesn’t exist in acoustic music, which is why I drive the subs from an auxiliary. The system at Blenheim worked well; I got there in the end by pulling lots of low mid out of inputs rather than the system to help the performers and tighten up the low end.”

That said at Blenheim Palace, Ekers was highly impressed with the PA. “SSE have done a great job and been very very accommodating. Pete Hughes, the SSE system tech for Nocturne has been brilliant in helping me meet my needs. The PA’s coverage was very good. I walked the venue the night before and listened to the RPO and it sounded very even, detailed and hugely powerful. For me, K2 in the HF is the best of any system. KS28 is great new sounding sub. L-Acoustics keep on raising the bar for their level of detail and commitment to innovation. For modern classical music that is an ongoing reason to celebrate.”