Big projects, small details: 25 years with Roland Hemming19 November 2012
Yours is the Earth, according to Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”. By this token Roland Hemming, consultant and audio project veteran of one or two head-losing bonanzas including The Millennum Dome and The Olympic Games, is running the planet – except that his characteristic modesty would never let on. Instead, let the final success of those and many other achievements speak for themselves. MAX HEADROOM
Hemming started on the bottom rung, in the warehouse, making tea and coiling cable. As a MIDI-generation music technology enthusiast, he spotted the potential of this digital interface to sync up pro-audio and other devices in a show context. Once TP had merged with Vari-Lite, colleague Richard Bleasdale was writing software for MIDI control of the Vari-Lite Artisan desk via Atari laptops, and the two of them began to develop multi-device control programming way ahead of its time. Hemming’s program ‘Theatre Sequencer’, in fact, drew something of a cult following among those who knew IRCAM’s Max protocol – now a mainstay of object-based multimedia composition, looping and sequencing.
It’s typical of Hemming’s apparent gift for beckoning the zeitgeist. At the same time as cracking the sub-atomic minutiae, his solution may well turn out to be some kind of macro that the industry was waiting for. Having done it, Hemming is then in a logical position to lead rather than follow, which is why assembling teams has been as much a forte as programming code.
Seeing the job ad and interviewing successfully, the Millennium Dome project was a deep end into which he threw himself – with relish. “They wanted the Renaissance audio man, but got someone personable with a reasonable grounding in lots of things,” he recalls. “They didn’t want a product-obsessed touring engineer. This was a management job.”
Immediately after the Dome, and the safe dispersal of hardware back into the industry as legacy plant, Hemming entered into a relatively short-lived installation partnership that failed to satisfy his exacting demands – despite initial success supplying entertainment technology in turnkey packages and a notable early score at the revamped Wembley Stadium. The subsequent formation of RH Consulting was almost accidental, Hemming claims today. “I left that partnership fairly demoralised,” he admits, “and in that state you do re-evaluate your own worth very carefully. Your confidence is eroded, but I had a bit of money set aside and didn’t have to rush into the next job.
“I took some time off and starting calling people and having lunch – not to ask for work, but literally to find out what I should do! There was some good stuff on the CV, so where did I sit in the world of pro audio? After that the phone just started to ring, as people came back to me seeking some corroborative advice for themselves. After about six months I took on Lauren [Rogers], whom I’d known at the previous partnership – and here we are seven years on.
The consultancy has just built and built… BRAND OF THE FREE In the true spirit of consultancy, Hemming is robustly brand-agnostic. Only rarely does he venture into a public display of product development, as when his contribution to Harman’s HiQnet communications protocol helped it onto the market with a very considered seal of approval. More than anything, it’s the process that engages him.
“Installation has become even less flexible,” he says. “The industry is tied up in red tape and stymied by the whole process, from the construction industry onwards. Some of the procedures are good, some of them bad, but the whole thing it has to go through is just so slow. The so-called flexibility of portable systems being ‘installed’ in multipurpose venues is just a minor design detail: you can ‘network’ a building to accommodate lots of input points, but the software doesn’t really exist to make it work well. There are isolated examples of ‘smart’ buildings, if you like, but there are too many issues facing the practical application of networking technology that this industry has not yet solved.”
Pointing to the new software package Audio Architect, the developers at Harman Professional may say with some justification that big steps in that direction are being taken – and Hemming, once a HiQnet acolyte, would not disagree. “It’s just that there are working practices and other influences that technology alone cannot overcome,” he says. “Some of them come from within the industry and some from outside – other stakeholders, if you like, in the final product. It ranges from things like health and safety, which is right and proper, to how things are contracted – which often isn’t.
“Generally speaking, our retail and leisure world is becoming more ‘themed’: there’s more than simple background music in a great many places and the whole experience is more targeted. It’s not so much that we’re putting sound in places where it’s never been before; it’s that it needs more explaining. Most people involved don’t know about audio – frankly, why should they?” GAMES WITH FRONTIERS Hemming’s role at the London Olympic Games was also typical: less to do with specifying given technical solutions than with managing processes, linking communications and resolving problems. From this unique vantage point, he made some very sobering observations. “What it all put into clear perspective,” he says, “is the huge gulf in the understanding, enthusiasm and care that the live sound industry displays as compared with the majority of the installation industry. Whether that’s because the latter is, as I said, stymied by various factors that prevent it delivering 110%, maybe… but you just see it. Live audio is less compromising; it’s about doing the most you can do. By its very nature, install is about reaching a minimum standard and that’s it. That’s not specific to the Olympics, by the way, it’s generally true everywhere.
“The working knowledge of audio that people have in the live industry is far better. It’s a different skill set, true, but on the whole it involves people who are more competent, more passionate and more committed to making things work on the day. I’m not saying that the installation side of the Olympics was poor, far from it, but there is a startling difference in attitude, skills and desire. Dealing with the install side is like dealing with the Civil Service, as opposed to Parliament. It does deliver, eventually, but it’s like night and day.”
Furthermore, Hemming does not expect this situation to improve. “In fact, the indications are that it will get worse,” he adds. “The process works against you. You’re trying to deliver to a minimum standard, so you get non-audio people doing it. That means a consultant has no one to talk to, no one to engage with, and whole conversations never take place.”
But the really huge, showcase projects are one-offs, Hemming insists. Each time, it seems like the greatest show on Earth – until the next one. So the goalposts – and don’t forget Brazil 2014 is coming up – are constantly being moved. Above all this means that RH Consulting, just like anyone else involved, is not to be associated only with these distorting monoliths. “I really don’t regard myself as ‘the guy who does the big projects’,” Hemming reflects. “I’m a consultant, I’m someone who gives advice. I just happen to have been lucky enough to do these two large events. I’m not defined by them. They certainly don’t bring in all the money! But you take away the experience, a hugely accelerated learning curve, and the knowledge that you’ve worked with some amazing people. A week at the Olympics is like a year on any other project – and I love that pressure.”
Story: Phil Ward