Suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine a concert performance that travels through Wagner’s Ring Cycle to a string quartet by Mozart by way of the Nine Inch Nails. In terms of dynamic range, contrast in styles and instrumentation, this flimsy analogy only begins to describe the complexity of what is being undertaken on the current concert tour by Hans Zimmer.
While younger audiences will know Zimmer for his many super hero movie scores, most recently Batman V Superman, he has never-the-less inhabited our ears since the early eighties. First gaining attention, in the UK at least, for his work on ‘My beautiful Laundrette’, Zimmer has never neglected the human condition: ‘Rainman’, ‘Thelma and Louise’ and more recently ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ all pay testament to his sensitivity and diversity. To make possible a live rendition of such variety has seen Zimmer assemble an equally diverse team of technical talent.
Nathaniel Kunkel, a Grammy and Emmy Award winning producer, sound engineer and 5:1 surround mix specialist has had a long association with Zimmer, “but this is a totally different animal,” he said with a measure of understatement. His role is nominally Sound Designer for the tour, a world away from the controlled environs of the studio. Kunkel engaged the services of Britannia Row Productions after he supervised and mixed Zimmer’s highly acclaimed exploratory outing at London’s famed Hammersmith Apollo last year. “Since then I have been the main liaison between the Hans team and Lez (Dwight) at Britrow in relation to staffing decisions and system specification approvals. I was also responsible for the architecture of the show control, capture, and sync setup that we employ in the show,” he explained.
What does that mean in practical terms? “Nathaniel is both sound designer and my guide,” explained live sound mixer Colin Pink, unfolding the current division of labour. “One challenge on this show was learning to identify all the different sources – where is that keyboard part coming from? Now, while I’m focused on managing the mix, he is thinking about how it sounds everywhere else. With his background working with Hans he has a good sense of how it should be experienced. To achieve that he spends a lot of time with Sergiy Zhytnikov, Britrow’s system tech.”
“I rely on him a lot,” confirmed Kunkel. “I cannot overstate how good he is at figuring out how to get the most out of each of these venues.” Over three months the tour visits many of the major arena venues of Europe. “By the time I show up there is a great sounding system at my disposal and he continues to work in concert with Colin (Pink) and myself throughout the show improving the tuning until we all agree that we have achieved the best we can.”
Britrow crew chief and orchestra monitor mixer Dee Miller, more normally found at the controls for Robert Plant, describes this complex audio set-up. “The system is two full trucks of equipment. We have typical L’Acoustics K1/K2 mains and side hangs as you’d expect in an arena, plus flown K Subs and twenty-one SB28 subs and fills on the floor. Then out at the back of the room we fly a further eight K2 a side for a surround system. The input count is enormous, 24 musicians in the orchestra, 24 choir, plus 23 in the band plus Hans. We have 180 inputs for the monitor system, I’m mixing orchestra and choir on a Digico SD8 (ten stereo mixes each), Maurizio Gennari is mixing the band (27 stereo mixes to IEMs), while Colin out front has in excess of 230 channels of input when you add in the special effects and other tracks; both use an SD7. That said, most of it is live, even the special effects. We have rotating orchestras to contend with, they change every time we move territory, and we have some principal performers who guest with the core band, Johnny Marr at the UK shows for example. All in all, it’s a big complex presentation.”
“The first half of the show is characterised by a broad range of classic cinema music,” continued Pink. “I spend a lot of time mixing that band sound and bringing it into a live experience with something as simple as a touch of reverb. The second half is what Hans calls his super hero music, needless to say there are a lot of special effects throughout a montage of his various film scores. Some is pre-recorded as Dee said, but most is played live so I do have to pull out the old quad joystick and pan around.”
Mid tour, Kunkel is now finding himself able to relinquish his role and contemplate a return to the studio and his job as product manager for Dolby Laboratories. “Recording movie soundtracks is much more about standards, details, calibration, and translation to other playback environments. Live sound is about keeping the train the tracks! It is much more about the efficiency of your system, the ability of your team to react in a nimble and calm manner, something the Britrow crew achieves with speed, efficiency, and unparalleled professionalism. The sheer range of issues to keep in mind is dazzling; we are mixing in surround; we hang surround microphones for Atmos capture all over the venue; our playback system has response down to 20 Hz at full level; we have a stage packed with wireless – sometimes with a television broadcast originating from the roof of the venue and we provide TOD code and video reference to local capture crews. All of these things and many more are addressed every single day – but of course the most incredible thing is that often these complex systems need to be changed at a moment’s notice. That is what is so amazing – not that it can be set up – but that it can be modified so rapidly. That’s how good this team is.”
“The key role for us all is that Nathaniel came already in possession of Hans’ trust,” concluded Pink. “Now that he’s working through and with us, we too now have Hans’ trust.” Kunkel returned the compliment. “This team truly embodies the truth that ‘those rise highest who lift as they climb’. I cannot give them enough credit.”