Kraftwerk FOH engineer Serge Gräfe on the power of d&b’s Soundscape

Grammy award-winning sound designer Tony David Cray also discusses the new immersive system
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Serge Grafe

d&b audiotechnik’s much-lauded Soundscape platform has made quite the splash since its launch earlier this year. Here, Grammy award-winning sound designer Tony David Cray and Serge Gräfe, FOH engineer for electro pioneers Kraftwerk, explain to PSNEurope why they believe the new system is radically changing the face of live sound as we know it…

Synthesiser or soprano. Man or machine. Ring Cycle or Ring Modulator. It doesn’t matter what your audio programme contains, the ever-evolving nature of concert sound reinforcement is bringing seismic changes to both production and perception. And with its new Soundscape processor suite, it seems d&b audiotechnik has firmly cemented its position as one of the sector’s foremost exponents.

This is certainly the opinion of Grammy award- winning sound designer Tony David Cray and Kraftwerk’s touring FOH engineer Serge Gräfe. Following months of analysis and first-hand, real-world use of Soundscape with their diverse client lists, the two recently came together to share their thoughts on the new system and to discover that they have much more in common than it might at first appear.

Cray is a sound designer specialising in major outdoor events, as well as a busy live sound and recording engineer. His experience so far with Soundscape has given him a unique insight into its application, especially in the open air and with orchestral music.

“Soundscape allows us to create a virtual environment in which we can place close-mic’d sources across a broad space,” he says, “and more than anything it increases our empathy with the music and enables us to deliver it to the audience in a much richer way. When I first heard it used, on the opera Die Tote Stadt in Sydney Harbour, I wept. The illusion of spatialisation was overwhelming.”

Meanwhile, Gräfe, who has mixed all of Kraftwerk’s recent ‘3D’ shows as the pioneering German outfit continues to push the boundaries of audio and video, has been equally impressed by Soundscape’s immersive capabilities.

“I’ve been trying out Soundscape for nearly two years now, and it’s amazing,” he comments. “It really expands the creative possibilities, and especially with electronic music it gives us the freedom to create a completely new world of sound. The audience feels the music much more deeply than with stereo.

“Kraftwerk’s music is based on technology, and when I joined them they were already well versed in quadrophonic sound, for example. So when I met Ralf Zuleeg of d&b audiotechnik and he told me about Soundscape, I immediately saw the opportunity to take their live sound to the next level. We always have a stereo back-up at each show, and if you make an A-B comparison it just takes your breath away. The band sees it as a real step forward. They’re really into it.”

There is an operational difference between ‘stereo’ or ‘180’ Soundscape and ‘360’ Soundscape: the former is a frontal configuration of at least five line arrays to deliver significantly enhanced stereo imaging to the entire audience; the latter is a truly immersive experience.

“Full 360 is certainly something to look forward to,” says Gräfe, “and actually we’ve already done it in the Royal Albert Hall in London – loading in only that morning and playing the same night. It was a long day, but it’s possible. The experience just explodes for everybody in the room. You’re really inside the music, not just looking at it from outside.”

Cray’s credentials may differ somewhat to Gräfe’s, but he too can see the potential of Soundscape throughout his professional brief.

“In the classical arena, I can see this tool becoming immensely powerful,” he says. “You’re positioning a large number of musicians and singers on the stage, and Soundscape reduces the masking that occurs when you just have a stereo mix buss or a left-right mix buss – pushing all of that energy down such relatively narrow channels. You have the ability to position a sound source on the stage and create the illusion that it’s actually coming from that location.”

For Gräfe, the calling is equally powerful for alternative reasons.

“With electronic music we’re only just scratching the surface of what will be possible,” he continues. “I’ve started thinking much more deeply about this, and imagining what I could do so much better in the future. You have to think about how to process effects, for example, and you have to go deeper into the whole art of mixing: in fact you become more like a record producer, deciding which sounds go where and what kind of emotions you want to inspire.”

Cray heralds the transparency and accuracy of the system as a means of remodelling the entire acoustic ambience of almost any space, while Gräfe is excited by the ‘psychedelic possibilities’.

“The feature of Soundscape that I’m really excited about is the En-Space software module, with its convolution processing for the creation of room simulations,” he elaborates. “I’ve used it a few times and I still keep forgetting it’s on. I simply believe that I’m in the acoustic that’s actually modelled by En-Space, and that’s very rare for room simulation software. I’m really keen to see how far we can push that.”

“I’m looking forward to working on effects that are specially designed for 360,” adds Gräfe. “I’ve already started to develop some delays in Native Instruments’ Reaktor software, with several outputs so that every repeat has a disparate position in the room.

“And I think we can expect to build some reverbs that could work in the same way, where a specific tone comes from one position and the next tone comes from another but the basic reverb remains in a core location. That’s really interesting for electronic music, but I’ve also experimented with this on other styles.”

But is it something users would be comfortable touring with, or pulling in and out of arenas and parks under a tight schedule and difficult conditions?

“Over the last few years we’ve begun to focus on areas of the sound reinforcement system that are beyond the frontal line arrays,” Cray explains. “It’s now about envelopment, particularly for outdoor concerts of acoustic music such as ballet or symphony where you make the audience feel as though they are immersed in a venue even though they’re sitting outside in the sun or the breeze.

“It’s crucial, and we find that the more effort we put into it, the better the audience’s experience.”

“Our last tour was frequently back-to-back concerts with five line arrays and a flown sub array,” reveals Gräfe. “We’d get in at 9am, take the measurements and then rig everything up – with doors opening at 7pm. So yes, it is tour-able! If you prepare everything properly it’s fine.”

While being simple to deploy, Soundscape also invites new approaches, new techniques and even new thinking about the role of the FOH engineer. And audiences will be at the ‘front of house’ too, sharing much more closely the intimate and intricate details of the music that Soundscape has been designed to reveal.

“Soundscape keeps on bringing up the question of what we’ve been doing for so many years,” Cray concludes. “We’ve used a stereo buss, and pushed things out through left and right arrays; trying to use a bussed process to glue the vocals; trying to equalize an entire section of instruments… all because the medium of a stereo buss is flawed. Using Soundscape you have to have the courage to let that go and let the performance speak for itself. If you can do that, the results are quite remarkable.”

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