Sound Stories #011 – Tech Talk: Audio Visual Elements

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    Live events can certainly offer an extension of your brand experience – but how do you make sure they’re running smoothly? Bob Breen, owner of Armor Pro Audio Visual Inc. comes in to talk ‘tech,’ including the importance of speaker placement, frequency scans and of course – having fresh batteries on hand.
    This episode is for all of those audio-visual enthusiasts who wish to work smarter, not harder, when it comes to bringing a story to life at a live event.

    Learn more about Bob Breen and his company Armor Pro Audio Visual Inc. http://www.armorpro.com/

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #011

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi, there. And welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of Voices.com. Today, I’m joined by Bob Breen, owner and production manager at Armor Pro Audio Visual Inc. In addition to being a business owner, Bob is a well-versed speaker, teacher, and audio visual technician who is passionate about helping others on their path of career development, as well as all things tech. He’s been in this business for over 20 years. Welcome to the studio, Bob.

    Bob Breen:

    Hi, Stephanie. Thanks for having me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    There’s so much to talk to you about, of course. I’ve known you before this session too, and I want everyone to know that you have an extensive background in audio. We first met because of OIART, the recording school, but you’ve really been in LA. You’ve done work all over the place. Maybe just tell us a little bit about what your career has been up till now.

    Bob Breen:

    Okay. Well, like many people that went to OIART, I had the moment where I decided I didn’t want a regular job, and had always wanted to pursue sound for a living, because that was my real love, of course, starting as many people did, with a guitar and not a lot of musicality, probably. So, I went to OIART after that. I did get lucky enough to be hired in a studio in Los Angeles, where I worked as an assistant and an engineer and eventually, a studio manager for about seven and a half years. And then I had an opportunity to come back and teach at OIART for many years, which is where I met yourself and David, and helped people get careers in sound and audio, and in audio visual, in particular, for many years. Happy to say that OIART, of the five Engineer of the Year Juno nominees this year, two of them are people we taught during my time there.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, fantastic.

    Bob Breen:

    This year, which is cool. It’s great to see them have progressed that far in their career so far. And I decided to take another career step late last year. I bought a business that’s 28 years old in Woodstock, Ontario called Armor Pro. Now, that’s my full-time gig. And in part inspired by yourself and David, for sure, to be an entrepreneur and figure things out as I go along, I think.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, well, that’s what we’re all doing, right? Life is just a big journey of trying to figure out what to do next. And something that interests me in particular, and those listening here, is live events, kind of productions where anything could happen, literally anything, really. And it can be a stressful environment for most people. I know live sound is a bit of a… It takes a special sort of someone in a live environment. And you do find yourself working in live environments still.

    Bob Breen:

    Right. You do have to bring some calmness to it, I think. I had worked with people like Motley Crue and Danzig and people who may not be the easiest to keep happy. And that becomes, through repeated exposures, I guess, a comfortable situation for you. I actually kind of like it. What stresses me out is sitting at a desk and trying to put together a quote, which is probably a lot more comfortable for some people. I like the action of having a lot to set up, and having people that need to feel calm and secure about how things are going. I’m okay with that part of it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    As I said, Bob, you’re one of those special people, I think, that I’ve recognized because it really is a path where you have to be someone who can improvise. You’re watching what’s happening in real-time. You’re trying to make sure that you’re meeting the needs of people who may not be able to articulate even what those are. You did mention a couple, one being just confident in that the equipment is going to work, like that is, like no one wants to have something not work, especially a microphone or a speaker system goes, or a lighting situation. I don’t even know what that might look like. Perhaps you can explain that later. But honestly, you’re trying to help make these people look their best. And anyone who is telling a story on a stage is reliant upon people like you and their companies to help make that happen.

    Bob Breen:

    That’s right. And that’s why you hire a professional. It’s my job to make technology invisible. You don’t have to worry about it. You don’t hear feedback because I know how to optimize the system for your room. There’s a hand on the microphone, or a hand on the fader to make sure that if somebody doesn’t speak very loud, we hear them anyway. Or if somebody speaks too loud, it doesn’t take everybody’s head off. Things like that. And you do it automatically. You automatically know. And I think what comes with experience is sort of knowing what to do and not being scared to do it aggressively, if that means having to re-equalize a speaker, because now, they’ve turned their head for the PowerPoint or this person, everybody’s using the same mic, but this person sounds different than that person. The first step is just make sure that it’s on. And then after that, you start crafting. And it becomes second nature, right?

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Well, after you’ve put so much time and effort in, I’m just thinking of people who are running conferences. Maybe you’ve got a whole day worth of activity, different speakers coming up, you’ve got a plan, obviously. You’re going to want to work with a professional. So, when people do create events like this, and they’re trying to have a really… They’ve spent all this money on the food, and they’ve got great speakers coming in, and all kinds of attendees from all over the continent. But if they’re not investing in the technology, and the way that that information is being presented, then they’re really doing their attendees a disservice, and the speakers look not so great. And it can just be a real muddy sort of thing for people to experience. So, at what point should people be involving their audio visual crews in the planning process?

    Bob Breen:

    Right. Well, as soon as possible, definitely, so that you have adequate equipment and adequate personnel, because that makes a big difference. If you think about a Ted conference or something like that, there’s going to be a professional there who is putting a mic on Al Gore. And he may need to know where the, I don’t know, on switch is, for example. Things like that can be a disaster because the communication’s not there, or the tact of the individual giving them the mic is not there. And now, they’re not going out with a clear mind to speak because they were just dealing with somebody that maybe said something inappropriate. So, there’s a little more that goes into it than just the technology part as well.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Well, I’ve had my share of microphones put on a jacket or a suit jacket and all these other things. If someone had said to me, and this may come across very strange coming from someone who works in audio, but not everyone knows what kind of clothing you need to wear in order to support a lav mic being clipped to your coat or your pants. Or if you’re wearing a dress, good night, forget it. There’s almost nowhere where they can put it. And it’s not exactly the best situation, and to have a jacket on that has pockets, real pockets, this is from experience. You have to have somewhere to have those pieces sit because you do spend a lot of time.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I’m talking to you, creatives, whether you’re going to speak at a conference, you’re going to go in and do all kinds of different things. Maybe you’ve got a Broadway show you’re putting on. Maybe it’s the Oscars that you’re running. If you don’t have all of these little pieces in place, and then it’s just like the signal chain, it will break down, be it lighting, be it sound, knowing what your cue is for going on, having someone manage that process. So, yeah.

    Bob Breen:

    Even things like making sure people have the right mics, or something that I’ve encountered more than I’d expect where somebody walks out on stage and they’re talking and nothing’s coming out. And so, you look down quickly and you see that a different meter is going off than the one you were led to believe was going to go off. So, you turn it on quickly, so nobody has to wait too long. But for me, it’s always a source of great shame if somebody walks out and goes… And nothing comes out-

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, gosh, yeah, that’s awful.

    Bob Breen:

    Even if it only happens for two and a half seconds.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Right. Well, I’ve been in situations where I had to turn on my own microphone, but was not aware of that fact. So, as I watched the people who were sitting next to me, “Okay, that person is talking, but you can’t actually hear what they’re saying, so I better look at my mic. I better make sure that there is some kind of a button.” And I did that. I turned to my peer who is standing beside me. I’m like, “Hey, hey, hey, flick your mic.” You know? But those sort of things should not happen. Because then, well, it’s unnecessary, really, when you’ve spent enough time to have the right tech there, to not have people able to use it right away, that it just makes the presentation look like it’s amateur.

    Bob Breen:

    That’s right. And everything can be perfect, and it still looks amateur when you have that moment where somebody comes out and there’s the pause. That does make the technology visible. “Hello, is this thing on?” makes the technology more visible than it needs to be. Even if you get it solved in seconds, usually people forget about it. But that’s the level you need to be at where people walk out and things are just on.

    Bob Breen:

    So, fresh batteries. If you’re doing something and there’s some kind of wireless, you need fresh batteries. You need to make sure that you do a frequency scan when you get to your venue. Frequencies, when you’re using wireless microphones, it’s going to be different wherever you happen to be located. So, I always make sure, even if you don’t have a wireless coordinator with you, start with your first mic, clear scan the area, make sure that that first mic is working and you’re not having a problem with it. Leave it on, go to the next one, leave it on, go to the next one, leave it on. Simple things like that. So, hopefully, by the time you’re done, however many mics you’ve got are working together and that’s not going to be an issue. You can’t just go, “Well, I got it on channel five. It worked in Tavistock. I don’t know why it’s not working in Buffalo.”

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I had those two cities in my head. I’m like, “Ooh, that’s an interesting juxtaposition.” But I hear what you’re saying. You can’t rely on what you believe to be true on past experience. Yes, it informs it, but that doesn’t mean that it will always be the same. Because if there’s anything we know about live anything, is that it is unpredictable. So, that’s interesting.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I just want to talk a bit more about the lighting, if we can. So, when you… We were talking about audio, we mentioned that it’s good to have directionality. Obviously, the microphones are going to pick people’s voices up, and speakers should be in a certain way that they push the sound out and not point the sound back at itself so it has any kind of a sound that is unpalatable to the ear. But with lighting, it’s kind of more about the line of sight. Is that right?

    Bob Breen:

    Yes. I guess, yes, line of sight and as well, illuminating the speaker in such a way that they’re not glowing, there’s a hot light too close to them that’s too bright, and nothing behind them. So that, because when you only have lights from the front, it kind of looks a little two-dimensional.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Ah, I see.

    Right? So, a little bit of backlighting can help make the… even out the shadows, make the person appear more three-dimensional.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Light obviously is important and it can help to set the tone, just the sound can, for how things are in a room. But how can we also use light to kind of set the stage, and make that a comfortable place for people to be, as they’re taking in an event?

    Bob Breen:

    Hmm. For… Well, you often don’t have much to do with what’s happening in the hall, whether it’s people bringing down the lights or taking down a few bags of fluorescents. Most of the halls we work in, they’re typically fluorescent lights. So usually, you have to go around and find where the switches are and figure out… And I kind of have to do this on the fly, right? How many can I turn off before it’s too dark.

    Bob Breen:

    For audio visual, lighting really wasn’t necessarily a thing for the average, I don’t know, annual general meeting or whatever, until LED lights came along. Because it used to be, if you wanted lights, you’d need a stove plug and an electrician, and it would suck an awful lot of juice to adequately light a stage. With LEDs, the knock on them is that they’re a little bit cold, but they don’t take as much power. And fortunately, what’s come along with lights, they have, instead of just red, green, blue, and white, they also have an amber color that shows up in the elements, so that you can make it a little bit more like a traditional incandescent.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    So, in audio speak, it’s kind of like going from vinyl, that nice warm sound.

    Bob Breen:

    It’s going from vinyl to digital, yeah.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Right? You’ve got, and then all of a sudden, you got these cold lights, but you can find ways to make them warm. That is cool.

    Bob Breen:

    That’s right. With an incandescent-type amber element. But the nice thing about LED lights, is you can make them any color of the rainbow. And if you’re working with a particular brand, you can match up their color exactly. So, you can get a Coke red or a TD green. We had to do that kind of thing. With lights, as far as setting a mood goes, there are, if it’s going to be sort of dark and sepia tone, that’s going to be one thing, as opposed to, if it’s bright and flashy. But you can do similar things with how you mix sound to create mood as well, whether it’s the level of reverb or dryness, or even what you choose to feature. You as a mixer are constantly defining what the listener is going to focus on. And that changes from second to second. Not just, okay, this person’s, the singer, I shall make them louder than everybody else.

    Bob Breen:

    Because when the singer is not singing, if it’s a good band, somebody is probably doing a little fill between this line and the next one. And you have to be able to read that as a mixer and push it up a little bit. You have to give it a little bit of something, or maybe there’s a point where there is no singing. Well, what should be occupying people’s attention now? And what should that feel like? So, it might be okay. The guitar is what’s carrying the groove here now, and it’s being supported by, I don’t know, supported by the bass. And there’s some kind of atmospheric thing behind that. And maybe if I make it sound just a little bit further away, that will create a picture in the mind of the person that’s listening, and create a certain feeling.

    Bob Breen:

    When it’s a live show, especially if you haven’t had a chance to rehearse extensively with the band, you just have to read it as they’re doing it. And if you’re really lucky and the band is listening to what you’re doing with them, sometimes you start a little interplay that nobody really planned on. I mixed a band a little while ago where there was a bass solo. And as soon as the bassist started playing his solo, I changed his tone completely, so that everybody would hear every note of what he was playing, as opposed to feeling him underpinning the groove, right? And he could hear this, like, “Whoa, I’m out front all of a sudden.” We didn’t just leave it, “and now I’m playing a bass solo and I sound like a backup instrument, so I’ll get this over with quickly.” Instead, the guy lost his mind. And it went on for, I don’t know, three or four minutes.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    He was liking it.

    Bob Breen:

    He was liking it, and played inspired. Then, when the rest of the band came back in, I completely changed his sound again so that he went back into the mix. Everybody in the band was delighted to see this guy featured in that way. And they get done, the song is… Oh, this band was nominated for a Juno in the blues category. And they’re like, “Wow, that’s some of the best sound we’ve had on this tour.” I’m sure it was because we made the bass player look good, but it’s-

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    That’s the whole job that you have, right, is to help-

    Bob Breen:

    It’s those kinds of things.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Make those people who are the center of attention, or maybe in an ensemble, to make them look good. So, when you’re able to, as someone who is in sound or in lighting, to honor those people, to help to lift up their talent and to solo in, as you’re saying, that bassist is doing a solo, and not normal that you would maybe pay so much attention to someone who is playing a backup type instrument. But when you do, then you honor the entire performance, the entire ensemble, and it does add something special to it. So, I guess what stands out to you about somebody live in that performance, be it they’re talking or singing or playing, that would let you know what you should do to make them look absolutely wonderful, as if they are literally the center of the universe?

    Bob Breen:

    That’s an interesting question. Because I don’t know. I think it comes with experience. Having listened, when you listen to a lot of music or work on a lot of different kinds of sound, you start getting a sense of what sounds right and what doesn’t sound right. And that’s true for… If it’s a speaker, for example, you want to make sure that everything they say is intelligible. You really want to make sure that everything a speaker saying is intelligible. And sometimes, that means zeroing in on things like the consonants, the articulation in what they’re saying, and getting rid of the low end, getting rid of the bottom, because that’s just muddy in a hall. And people’s brains fill in the low end that’s missing anyway. It’s just the way your brain works when you listen. As long as all the hints are there, people will fill it in, so you can sometimes make people sound a little cleaner.

    Bob Breen:

    A lot of it is just listening and paying attention, and not being afraid to make drastic changes fast. And I don’t know how you learn how to do that without experience, because I only started doing it after I’d been doing it for so many years, that I didn’t approach a mixing board with great fear. And I don’t know how you get around that besides just trying things.

    Bob Breen:

    You have to feel out the room as well. Which, and I don’t want to make that sound more complicated than it is because if you’re working in a room, you are there already, but you do have to be very sensitive and aware to the mood of the people in the room. It’s almost like you can feel it if somebody can’t hear someone clearly, and you just have to react to it right away and use the tools that you have. And whether it’s mixing a voice or music, it’s the same thing to me. It’s all sound, it’s all great sound. You want great sound or a great look with the lights and you know when it’s right, but it’s always different, depending on what the situation is.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Light and sound really do help us to tell stories. And I’m so glad that you touched on all of those different aspects of it from tone and warmth and feeling it, and just all of these fantastic tips also for how to do things right. And how also, to prepare and to save face, maybe, when something has gone wrong. But before we go, Bob, I know this is very near and dear to your heart, just audio sound, the lights, and just how we can create an environment that is wonderful for performance. So, can you take us back to a time when you were completely mesmerized by what you saw and heard, and how did that make you feel, as someone who was just enjoying a performance, with the knowledge that you have?

    Bob Breen:

    Right. Well, it’s funny, we’ve talked a little bit about… One of the things we batted around was, “Well, if you could do anything, if you had any kind of money, what would you do?” And I was like, “Why don’t I have an answer to that? I have no answer. Why don’t I have any answer to that?” And when you talk about, “Well, tell me about a show that you really enjoyed,” and I realized that the first thing that came to mind was seeing Arcade Fire in 1990… Nope, 2005. It was the year they broke. And they weren’t yet famous, but David Bowie showed up. That was a big deal. And David Byrne from the Talking Heads was there. Then Clive Davis came out from his label. And because they were an indie band, none of these people had anything to do with why the place was full. They were there trying to figure out what it was as much as anybody else.

    Bob Breen:

    And the thing that they did well, and the thing that I probably strive for, maybe one of the things I realized is, it’s not always the amount of money you spend. It’s ideas. It’s the ideas that you have. And one of the songs that struck me was, they played this song off Funeral called 7 Kettles. And all the lights on the stage were just blue. The band could all play multiple instruments, and several of them lined up as a string quartet in this blue light while they sang 7 Kettles. And it was a visually interesting tableau, because they lined up in a particular way, and they sang a song that had a particular mood, and it had a particular look to it. They had this friend of theirs that had come down from Montreal, and she had painted the album cover. And before the show, I remember she was hanging these sort of funny drawings of, I don’t know, fingers and things like that. They just had a particular look that you think of as Arcade Fire in 2005 Funeral era. They had their little ties on and things like that.

    Bob Breen:

    But those were all little artistic choices that didn’t cost a whole lot of money. But they were very deliberate, artistic choices. And I think maybe that’s the thing that really strikes me about a great performance or a great audio visual experience, is it isn’t necessarily buying more stuff and layering more stuff on top of other stuff. What it actually is, is looking at what you have and making a creative choice with it. And anybody can do that, with just about any kind of budget, because it’s ideas that compel people. It’s ideas that interest people. It’s ideas that grab you and make you think, “I want to get up there and talk,” or “I want to sing,” or “I want to get up… I want to be a songwriter. I want to be in audio.” It’s ideas that get you excited, not technology, and not necessarily more gadgets. The gadgets are great, if they help transmit the ideas to the people in the audience and do it successfully.

    Bob Breen:

    So, I spend a lot of time thinking about technically how to make sure that we don’t mess that up. But at the end of the day, nobody’s going to show up if not for ideas.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    That was beautiful. I’d say, it was very, I couldn’t have said it better myself, because it really is about ideas. It’s about stories, about telling the story, and the lighting, the way you describe it, the blue light just kind of pooling down on these people who could switch instruments here and there.

    Bob Breen:

    That’s right.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    And just kind of singing the song.

    Bob Breen:

    That’s like choosing to turn off a lot of lights.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. It is.

    Bob Breen:

    Really, and leave the blue ones on.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, well, and leave the blue ones on. But again, as you say, it’s a choice, and all of these are kind of artistic choices. Like I’ve heard different people say, but one person in particular, who I will reference here, Bob Bergen, he’s an actor in Hollywood and does a lot of voice work. You might know him as Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny, kind of taking on the mantle of Mel Blanc. But what Bob will say is that basically, it is about choices being made. Because if you’re an untrained actor, you will make guesses, he’ll say, and if you are a trained doctor, you make a choice. So, what I’m taking away from this today is that, because you do have this wealth of experience and certainly, people who are also like you and in different areas of the country whom others may choose to work with, just because of location, if they have that experience that they can draw upon where they make choices that will benefit that live performance, that performer, the speaker, then they’re in good hands.

    Bob Breen:

    Mm-hmm. And that’s what you count on those people for is their ability to make good choices for you. So, don’t undervalue that as well. When you hear people say, “Well, if they know… Oh, well, they just did” blank. Well, that’s right, they did. But isn’t it wonderful that that’s what they chose to do?

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, exactly. Well, I’m just so glad that you’re here today, Bob. If there’s anything that maybe people want to follow up with you about, what’s the best way to reach you and to learn more about what you do?

    Bob Breen:

    Well, my website is ArmorPro.com, A-R-M-O-R-P-R-O dot com. We also have a Facebook page that has pictures of what we’ve been doing. That’s accessible from that page. And you can reach me at Bob@ArmorPro.com, and always happy to talk creativity and sound and lights and music and hockey. Definitely always happy to talk hockey.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for tuning in, and if you haven’t already done so, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, as well as give us a rating. We love hearing from you and gathering your feedback. Once again, I’m your host, Stephanie Ciccarelli, and I hope you can join us for our next Sound Stories podcast.

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