This story originally appeared in the November, 2017 issue of Pro Sound News as "Prog/Metal Festival Powers ATL."
Since 2001, Atlanta has been the host city for ProgPower USA, an annual indoor music festival where progressive rock and power metal bands from around the world perform for American fans who rarely get to see them live on tour. These carefully curated acts are packing the increasingly sold-out multiday festival at CenterStage, a concert complex in Midtown Atlanta. Participants have included Finland’s Nightwish, Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius; Sweden’s Sabaton and Therion; Holland’s Epica and Delain; and the UK’s DragonForce, among many, many others. And though a minority, American acts are regularly included in the mix, too—for example, Kamelot, Fates Warning, and Between The Buried And Me.
For September 2017’s ProgPower USA XVIII, Netherlands-based mixer Niels Jensen ran CenterStage Theater’s FOH hub as chief engineer, working with many bands’ own engineers as well as mixing for those bands traveling alone. Jensen started 15 years ago as a hobbyist, learning on audio systems at Dutch youth centers. Over time, bands liked what he was doing in the club scene, so he began mixing at smaller venues around Holland, Belgium and Germany.
In addition to ProgPower USA, Jensen has worked with ProgPower Europe for four years, and regularly tours with Ayreon, a dizzying musical project including 16 different vocalists spanning many metal subgenres, featuring Tommy Karevik of Kamelot, Floor Jansen and Marco Hietala from Nightwish, and—interestingly enough—Jonas Renske of Katatonia, whose band headlined ProgPower USA XVIII.
“There’s a growing network that I have, which came about because I was trusted doing live sound at this level, for these people,” offers Jensen. “[At ProgPower], my job is to make sure that everything is ready, and—this is especially important in the prog rock scene—that you can hear every single detail. That’s my main focus.”
Ideally, Jensen travels with a basic front-of-house insert rack featuring six inserts “because I mix in a lot of subgroups,” he explains. “I use this approach to vary the levels for progressive rock audiences, who want to hear dynamics and differences.”
Console-wise, Jensen prefers Soundcraft Vi Series as well as DiGiCo mixers. “For ProgPower, we used CenterStage’s very nice Electro-Voice line array and their DiGiCo SD9,” Jensen explains. “Being that I didn’t travel with any gear other than my laptop, interface and a measurement mic, I mixed without the gear I usually use, though the SD9 allows me a lot of options—audio enhancers and dynamic EQs. I hooked up Smaart and the microphone to a reference channel, I tuned the room as well as I could, and again when the people arrived.”
The bands traveling with engineers received calibration files from CenterStage before the event, resulting in 20-minute changeovers between bands. “The acoustics are really good and the room was tuned,” offers Jensen of the CenterStage Theater. “The gear and the tones of the performers was what made the biggest difference, though. Even the first band of the whole event was nearly spot on; in the first song, we cut out some unwanted information and we were up and running. We got a lot of good response from the crowd immediately.”
Mixing for the discriminating ProgPower audience is a challenging gig, notes Jensen. “Many of the audience members are musicians and/or studio and live sound engineers. Personally, it drives me to be even more focused on getting it right. A drummer recently came up to tell me that, out of the seven tom-toms on the kit, the fourth tom sounded a little darker and possibly 1 or 2 dB down, and we should fix it. If he listens for those kinds of details, I will make the effort to fix it. In [prog and power metal], all the bands are on a high level, performance-wise. They are perfectionists, and they all want to bring their A game, and their audiences learn to expect it.”
Much variety resides under the ProgPower festival banner, making it a surprisingly diverse four days of music. “ProgPower does this well,” explains Jensen, pointing to this year’s Day 4 headliners. “You have Katatonia, which is really dark. Then there’s Amaranthe, heavy metal with an uplifting, pop element. There are all kinds of bands at ProgPower. But in power metal, there’s always lots of double bass [drum], but it’s balanced with melody lines. And the gap between a band’s live sound and their studio sound is getting smaller and smaller. Prog audiences are expecting the sound of the albums live. But luckily, that’s my approach.”
Amaranthe, which uniquely features three vocalists—Elize Ryd, Nils Molin, and Henrik Englund Wilhemsson on melodic female, melodic male, and harsh vocals, respectively—delivers “all that and a lot going on with guitar and all kinds of different soundscapes. But it’s most important to equally hear all three vocals; that’s the main priority with Amaranthe. [Their set] requires a very active style of mixing.”
Katatonia, bringing its British FOH engineer along, precisely matched the sound of its new record, The Fall of Hearts, amazingly well, offers Jensen. “I did a bit of tweaking of the room, dialing in a few things, and the stage manager came to the front and said, ‘We’re listening to the new Katatonia record.’ At least we were getting really close.”