This year, UK indie three-piece alt-J became the first rock outfit to utilise L-Acoustics’ L-ISA system, debuting it at Forest Hills Stadium in New York before closing their tour with two spellbinding nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Daniel Gumble caught up with FOH engineer Reynolds and the band’s Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman to find out how they fared with the ‘hyperreal’ system…
It’s approximately four hours before showtime on October 30, and PSNEurope is at the FOH position of the Royal Albert Hall. L-Acoustics’ Sherif El Barbari and FOH engineer Lance Reynolds are in deep discussion about tonight’s alt-J show - the second of two consecutive nights - which will see the band once again using L-Acoustics’ L-ISA ‘hypereal’ audio system. There has been plenty of buzz from the sound crew about how the system performed on the first night at the legendary London venue and at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium, where the three-piece became the first band to use the L-ISA - a system more typically associated with classical music events.
The shows using L-ISA so far have been lauded as major successes, with the band and their crew, and perhaps most crucially, audiences, hailing the audio clarity and immersive nature of each performance. And as we head backstage to meet with lead vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman and keyboardist and backing vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton, their excitement at the new dimensions L-ISA has brought to their concerts becomes immediately apparent.
“It’s incredible,” beams Unger-Hamilton as we take our seats. “I was quite emotional when we listened back to the first show we did using L-ISA. It was like listening to the songs for the first time again. It was really unbelievable to get that feeling like you’re in the studio listening to a mix of a song you have just recorded for the first time. It was amazing; a new dimension.
“We’ve always liked trying new things onstage; trying new things out with our lights and in the studio. We like getting in everything we can. For instance, using a 20-piece classical guitar group or a 30-piece string orchestra, or a choir, and we thought, How can we bring the sound of the show up to the same level as the lights and the recordings.”
Newman is similarly excited at the opportunities L-ISA has opened up for the band, suggesting that the technology and its potential is still in its relative infancy. “It’s a bit of a Pandora’s Box,” he comments. “When Lance and Sherif were working on the Forest Hills gig, it wasn’t until the show started that they realised what we could do with it. There is a lot of potential. It could change the way in which we format our live shows to highlight the system, so we would probably add break moments between tracks where you could appreciate how the system works. We might extend introductions to songs if there was something interesting going on. The more acquainted you are with the idea the more comfortable you are, and that breeds a further creative drive, and who knows what then might happen?”
Despite the complexity and additional costs that can come with incorporating such a system, Unger-Hamilton says the band would be keen to utilise L-ISA wherever possible in the future.
“We’d like to take this everywhere,” he exclaims. “It’s a bit more expensive for us to put on a show of this size, but if we could do it everywhere we would. The feedback from New York and London has been so amazing. We’d love to share it with our fans even playing some tiny festival in Greece or something like that.”
So how did they wind up becoming the first rock band to use L-ISA?
“Last year, I was introduced to L-ISA while visiting L-Acoustics at the Westlake office in Los Angeles,” explains Reynolds, who introduced the system to the band. “I got a chance to do a little test mixing and as soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to try it live with alt-J. Coincidentally, there had been an ongoing discussion between alt-J, myself, and the band’s manager (Stephen ‘Tav’ Taverner) about doing concerts in surround sound. So I arranged a demo at the L-Acoustics office in London, and before I knew it we were planning a massive 360 degree immersive show at Forest Hills.
For Reynolds, alt-J were the perfect group with which to embrace such an ambitious project. “I believe there had been a few rock artists that tried the L-ISA “focus” system before alt-J, but if we’re talking about our 360 show, alt-J at Forest Hills was definitely a first. Any artist would benefit from the increased detail and coverage that L-ISA offers, but alt-J’s music is ideally suited for surround. They create music that is cinematic, with lots of textures and a few sound effects.
“I didn’t have any doubts about the system itself and always felt confident that the speakers and L-ISA processing would get the job done. My only concern was how to effectively mix surround in a stadium...with a distance of about 250 feet from the stage to the rear speakers. And, how would the audience perceive the surround content from different vantage points. I’ve been in the audience where surround was used in an arena, with mixed results. It offered a nice effect near FOH, but there were obvious timing problems if you were seated near the surround speakers. Avoiding those issues was my primary goal.”
Much like Newman and Unger-Hamilton, Reynolds says he was blown away by the system’s performance. “The clarity and detail was stunning,” he states. “The sounds of the instruments had the same character that I had been used to hearing at our non-L-ISA shows, but in greater detail. It was as if the sounds were in HD. And the mix was nearly identical everywhere. Usually, FOH is the ideal sweet spot, but L-ISA extended that sweet spot to a much larger share of the audience. I was able to walk left to right, back to front and only notice really minor changes.
“On top of that, when I first heard the surround speakers fire up, in all honesty it was a “holy sh..” moment. I literally burst out with those words when I heard the bass keys in the song Fitzpleasure engulf the venue. It was just awesome.”
The job of mixing alt-J with L-ISA as opposed to a more conventional PA did pose some new challenges, but nothing that was insurmountable.
He continues: “I try to make use of the localisation capabilities of L-ISA. To do that, it’s important to avoid duplicating an identical source into multiple arrays... which is exactly what happens when you centre pan a lead vocal when mixing on a conventional left-right PA. You’re actually sending the same mono source to both sides simultaneously.
“This appears centered while you’re standing near the center, but favours either left or right as you move off to the sides. With L-ISA, if you place the vocal in the center, it always appears to come from the center regardless of how left or right you stand. And, the sound remains clear and detailed. With L-ISA, you’re no longer panning sources, but instead placing them. There were challenges for sure, but I wouldn’t say major. My conventional mix was very “dialed in” on our conventional left-right system but with L-ISA, I found that some mix elements appeared louder depending on where I placed them. So, a little re-balancing was sometimes needed. It really wasn’t too difficult. The system is very intuitive, and it’s easy to build a mix.”
As for the future of L-ISA in the rock arena, Reynolds believes it is inevitable that its use presence will continue to grow over the coming years. Yet he is also adamant that the standard approach to PA at rock gigs isn’t going anywhere. He concludes: “Hopefully we’ll use it where appropriate. It’s difficult to implement in smaller venues, but I’m keen to use it wherever I can. But using a standard PA system will always be like riding a bike.”