'We'd never go back to stereo': Delta Live's Stephen Hughes on the impact of L-ISA on the 2018 BBC Proms

From July 13 to September 8, the Royal Albert Hall hosted the 2018 BBC Proms and the eclectic Late Night Proms concert series, with the latter featuring a wide range of artists bringing an orchestral twist to their signature sounds. Adding to the unique nature of each of these special shows was an L-Acoustics L-ISA immersive sound system, which offered “a great listening experience” to the audience, according to Stephen Hughes, account director at Delta Live, who we caught up with at the storied London venue...
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On a warm Wednesday morning in August, PSNEurope make its way to the Royal Albert Hall’s discrete stage doors, behind which rehearsals are taking place for this evening’s BBC Proms and Late Night Proms sessions.

Tonight’s (August 8) theme is music from across the pond, specifically the East Coast. The first segment of tonight’s entertainment will bring together music from British and US composers, with Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra combining Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interludes and orchestral song-cycle Les Illuminations with music by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, while the latter ‘New York: Sound Of A City’ programme will celebrate the musical history of the Big Apple with the Heritage Orchestra and conductor Jules Buckley. A raft of special guests will also be contributing to proceedings, including Hercules & Love Affair, serpentwithfeet, Nitty Scott and singer songwriter Sharon Van Etten, who is already onstage rehearsing as we approach the FOH area to meet with Stephen Hughes, account director at Delta Live and the company’s project manager for the BBC Proms.

Each of this year’s Late Night Proms will feature an L-Acoustics L-ISA system at its heart, adding a new, immersive dimension to the complex compositions and orchestrally embellished performances taking place throughout the programme. Over the course of each show, traditional rock’n’roll outfits, electronic music, R&B and hip-hop will all intertwine with a live orchestra, making the task of mixing each performance a potentially challenging one.

According to Hughes, who is also on FOH mixing duties for this particular show, the L-ISA system has been an invaluable asset to this year’s Proms programme. Having been involved with live events technical services provider Delta Live for several years, this is the first time he has used a system of this kind, not just at the Proms, but in any capacity. 

“Sound By Design (which was acquired by Delta Live) had the Proms contract from the year 2004, when I did my first freelance role on the show,” he explains. “So the contract was inherited in 2012 and since 2004 I’ve worked every season, and since 2011 I’ve been a full-time employee of Delta and managed the contract internally, sound designing all the live aspects and mixing quite a few of the shows, although I mix less these days as there is more to manage. Tonight is a rare one where I’m actually mixing, but more often than not I’m doing the sound design and looking at how it all pieces together - the mics, the logistics, booking the crew, and on the really big ones walking around and making sure the coverage is such as we need that all the audience and clients are happy.

“This is the first time I’m using L-ISA and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to mix it tonight; I wanted to test it for my myself. We’ve had stereo in here for a very long time, but L-ISA, in the configuration we have it with KARA, has the horsepower you need without having to fight the room; you can evenly distribute the energy between the different hangs, you’re not exciting the room to the point that you’re getting more room back than you are direct sound. And you’re keeping perspective on everything. It's really great as a listening experience for the audience. I’ve been all around the venue and I would say we’d never go back to stereo following it, unless we were forced to. Especially in a circular room like this, it just seems to be the correct PA to put in here.”

For Hughes, the system has been demonstrably beneficial to both artists and audiences alike. 

“This is the first time I’ve used anything like it, I’ve always just used stereo or mono,” he offers. “In this room some people take the approach of mono because it’s circular, and I completely get that, but the benefits you’re getting with L-ISA are that you are able to apportion different parts of the orchestra to different hangs, keeping the perspective and you’re getting less clutter. A good example was when we had Havana Meets Kingston perform, which was Prom 23, and I went to Womad to watch them before they came here and I saw the show on a conventional stereo system. It was very apparent that it was hard to get the right vocal definition; the hangs are fighting with each other, whereas with this we’ve been able to put the vocal dead centre and build the orchestra around it. And we’re finding that there is less conflict because everything has a higher degree of clarity.” 

As for the job of mixing a show using L-ISA, Hughes suggests that the vast creative opportunities on offer mean that a more thoughtful approach to the mix is required. Although he does note that, while perhaps adding to the engineer’s responsibilities, it ultimately makes for a more satisfying process.

“In one respect it adds to the workload slightly because you have to creatively think about every aspect, but that’s the benefit, you get to be more creative with placement,” says Hughes. “It’s easier to get a clear mix without overpowering the room or deafening the audience. You’re not doing damage limitation on a show where you’ve got a really loud stage. The Havana Meets Kingston example had a blisteringly loud stage with monitors all over it and had we been on a stereo system we would have been trying to fight to overpower it, whereas with this we could complement it, move things around and take control of the space. I’m running out of superlatives to explain how impressed I am with it!”

One of the biggest challenges facing the Late Night Proms was striking the right balance when mixing a live orchestra with rock band set up and electro elements. Hughes elaborates: “The hardest thing is the unnaturally loud stuff onstage that can distort a balance. A purely classical orchestra on its own is fine because it’s self- controlled and self-balanced, whereas we’re introducing electronic elements and a rhythm section which can skew what’s going on elsewhere. It’s always tricky with a stereo system to complement that well and keep the perspective, so the audience gets a clear idea of who’s playing what and from which direction. And when you’re in the stereo realm you’re trying to compile a lot of information, especially on something like an orchestra where you’ve got 120-plus inputs. If you’re putting half in each or trying to split down the middle you’re really making life difficult in terms of getting that separation and clarity. Some of these compositions are moving bar- to-bar with a different section or different member trying to stand out, and that’s really hard unless you’re chasing the faders. Here, because we’re giving everything space, it self-balances much better.”

While the system has been a revelation for Hughes from a technical perspective, he is also keen to highlight the transformative impact it has had on audiences.

“It’s a completely different listening experience,” he states. “I entered into this thinking, Is it a very big step forward or is it erring on the side of gimmicky? But having heard many concerts on it I find it hard to listen to stereo again without thinking about the benefits of using L-ISA. It’s the immersion that you get, especially if you’re near the front; you’re not just hearing things coming from the side or directly in front of you, you’re getting the perspective you should, everything is a lot clearer. And in a room like the Albert Hall, where vocals disappear forever, you’ve got more of a fighting chance.”

PA for the shows consists of five hangs of L-Acoustics KARA (15 boxes each) and some L-Acoustics SB18s. These equidistant hangs are all made up of 110 degree boxes, meaning that, according to Hughes, about 60 per cent of the audience is sat within the immersive L-ISA zone, and beyond that it’s a conventional mono fill covering the rest due to the shape of the room.

“In any conventional theatre everyone would get L-ISA,” Hughes clarifies. “So 60 per cent is pretty good for this venue, bearing in mind the constrictions of the Stephen Hughes at FOH fixed rigging. And we have an L-ISA controller at FOH which interfaces with the Digico desk, so everything I do on the mixing desk flows right into L-ISA and outputs the amps. So we do all the panning information on L-ISA itself and there is an interface where it appears on the desk, which is absolutely amazing. L-ISA is very adaptable with the 94 inputs it gives you. And the Digico, to my mind, is the most flexible board on the market. This entire set up is of the highest standard possible for something as important as this.”

Art Sereika, systems engineer at Delta Live, concurs, highlighting the flexibility of the system as a major asset.

“It’s a very intuitive system, very simple to use and adapt to,” he comments. “What will take longer is changing people’s mindsets because you are no longer constrained by left and right. So if you hard-pan a traditional system, half the audience will miss it, whereas if you hard-pan something with this system the audience is still hearing it, but the difference is they are hearing it coming from one side of the stage. Everything sounds rich and so much more interesting.”

As for the future, Sereika believes that the possibilities of L-ISA extend beyond the realm of classical music, and could easily be applied to a diverse array of shows and live events.

“Amplified classical music really benefits from it because you get such a wide image,” he concludes. “But anything could benefit from it. It’s just about getting through to people with it. It can be applied to any gig.”

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