Kraftwerk EXCLUSIVE: behind the scenes at Tate Modern

With two nights left of Kraftwerk’s eight-show residency at London's Tate Modern, PSNEurope gets an exclusive look at the band's inventive 3D visuals and sound, the latter courtesy of d&b loudspeakers and the IOSONO 3D sound processor.
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With two nights left of Kraftwerk’s eight-show residency at London's Tate Modern, PSNEurope gets an exclusive look at the band's inventive 3D visuals and sound, the latter courtesy of d&b loudspeakers and the IOSONO 3D sound processor.

As PSNEurope texted a friend shortly before Kraftwerk began its wildly anticipated, website-crashing eight-show residency at London’s Tate Modern gallery – of which two performances remain – “it’ll be four middle aged men who could easily pass for regional bank managers, hunched over laptops. What’s not to like?!” In fact, having seen the electro-pop pioneers play the Royal Festival Hall some years previously, there was never any doubt that a powerful son et lumière spectacle was in prospect – but even that awareness wasn’t adequate preparation for an often breathtaking 2013 mark live show that incorporates pristine 3D sound and visuals. Not that ‘game-changing’ hasn’t always been part of the Kraftwerk manifesto. Founded by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider in Düsseldorf in 1970, the band quickly abandoned its initial freeform rock leanings to experiment with early synths and self-built electronic drum kits. Finally reaching artistic maturity with the 22 transcendent minutes of ‘Autobahn’ – their sleekly funky 1974 paean to motorway driving – Kraftwerk went on to define much of the territory for electronic pop and techno music with landmark albums including 1978’s The Man-Machine, and perhaps most influentially, 1981’s Computer World. With new releases few and far between over the last two decades, and Schneider leaving the band in 2008, Hutter and long-term colleagues, electronic percussionists Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz, have increasingly focused on live work. The group members’ famously static, faintly deadpan hovering behind their workstations remains unchanged, but in many other aspects the in-concert Kraftwerk experience has evolved considerably, particularly over the last 12 months. 3D visuals have been part of the band’s live production for some years now, but made another evolutionary jump during a retrospective season at New York’s MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in April 2012. Even more recently, at an extended run of shows in their hometown of Düsseldorf this January, they unveiled a new three-dimensional audio production involving 30 sound sources located on the perimeter of the performance space. Band and crew were said to be delighted; reviewers were equally ecstatic. Tate two All of which brings us to a rather wet evening in February 2013 and the staging of a similar retrospective in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern that combines the performance of one classic album per show with other selected favourites. Tonight’s show – the second of the run – celebrates the album on which they began to embrace the pop song format, 1975’s Radio-Activity, while still allowing plenty of room for dark atmospherics and eerily treated vocals. As Hutter, Hilpert, Schmitz and new recruit, video technician Falk Grieffenhagen, near the end of a soundcheck run-through of Radio-Activity’s ‘Radioland’ that sends subtle sound flurries around the room, FOH engineer Serge Gräfe (pictured) is in no doubt that they have achieved something very powerful with the latest configuration: “It really brings a fresh dimension to the show.” Integral to realising this “fresh dimension” was Ralf Zuleeg, head of education and application support at Kraftwerk’s long-term loudspeaker brand of choice, d&b audiotechnik. Speaking to PSNEurope, he recalls a loose conversation with band production manager Winfried Blank in the middle of last year “about what else could be done with the band’s live sound”. A few months later, Hilpert and Schmitz were invited down to a Stuttgart club, Zapata, by Zuleeg, where he had recently paired d&b loudspeakers with the Fraunhofer Institute’s 3D wave field synthesis technology that is utilized by IOSONO in its IPC processor ... might this be the kind of thing they were looking for, he wondered? It was. Within weeks, Zuleeg, band and crew were working on a system design for Kraftwerk that paired an entirely d&b-based speaker spec with IOSONO. Hitherto primarily encountered in theatre or museum environments, IOSONO 3D configurations are based around the spatial audio processor IPC 100 and allow sounds to be mapped and moved freely in a three-dimensional space. Although the huge potential of this new configuration was obvious from the get-go, there was a determination “to not overload the audience. It had to be a subtle, spatial approach,” says Zuleeg, who worked closely with Felix Einsiedel, a freelancer for d&b, on the project. In the London system design – which closely mirrors that of the Dusseldorf shows – a total of 30 d&b sound sources are linked up to the IOSONO system. Two of these sources comprise the front left and right hangs of seven deep V-Series arrays comprising five V8 and two V12 loudspeakers. The next four constitute a quartet of T10s, spaced equally across the stage, while the remaining 24 – positioned around the audience area – are made up of Q10s. Rounding out the core spec are eight V-SUBs and four J-INFRAs for bass reinforcement. Alongside the system set-up Blank provided a set and stage design that reduced the reverberation time of the basic room from 10 seconds to about 2.5 seconds by using large, strong drapes with a wall distance of 30cm to 80cm. Audio supplier for the London shows is Dobson Sound, which along with the above is also supplying equipment including an Avid VENUE console – stock-full of Waves plug-ins and a long-term favourite of Gräfe – for FOH and a Yamaha DM1000 for monitors. Outboard is limited in an heroically tidy FOH space, but Gräfe does get some mileage out of a dbx 120XP subharmonic synthesizer. The audio transportation workflow sees a MADI stream from the console being converted via an RME PCI card to AES/EBU and then delivered to 40 d&b D12 amplifiers. The 3D visuals were produced by Dataton's WATCHOUT multi-image and presentation software.

‘Scope for creativity’ “Delivering the audio for these shows is a properly collaborative effort,” says Gräfe, who began working as a live tech for Kraftwerk in 2005, four years before stepping up to the FOH plate. “The band wants to be involved in every aspect and treats you like a colleague; there is no differentiation. Now, with the new IOSONO set-up, we have a lot of scope for creativity with the sound, which is very exciting.” The latter includes putting the musicians in the unique position of moving their own sound sources around the system. A few hours later, as a diamond hard yet dynamic rendition of ‘The Robots’ opens up two hours of gleaming electronica, it’s not easy to shake the suspicion that Kraftwerk has already realised a perfect vision of immersive sound. True to the aforementioned intentions, the 3D audio is generally discreet, only becoming more all-engulfing on setpiece songs such as ‘Radioactivity’, now rendered more affecting than ever due to a recent makeover that references the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Of course, given the band’s penchant for boundary-pushing, it might well be a tad premature to declare of the new production ‘job done’. As Gräfe remarks, “who knows where we might go with this technology in the future?”

Story: David Davies