In One Ear, Out The Other (Jacob Danson Faraday On Cirque du Soleil)
September 15, 2022 |
In One Ear, Out The Other (Jacob Danson Faraday On Cirque du Soleil)
September 15, 2022 |
On today’s show, we address a performer’s nightmare—the nightmare of not being able to hear yourself onstage. My guest is ethnomusicologist Jacob Danson Faraday, who takes us behind the scenes of the famed Cirque du Soleil to learn how even Cirque’s world-class musicians struggle with technology when they want to hear themselves.
Building on his international career as a touring sound technician, ethnomusicologist Jacob Danson Faraday researches the working communities and hidden labor of live sound technicians on large-scale touring productions. He is a recent graduate of the PhD program in ethnomusicology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Today Jake takes us behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil, sharing his dissertation research on how sound engineers and musicians negotiate the power to hear oneself.
Stage monitoring, the technology that allows musicians to hear the performance as they play, is a topic we rarely hear about, but it’s absolutely essential to performers. Faraday suggests that, while new in-ear monitors are marketed as a godsend for performers, they are more of a mixed blessing, “homogenizing listening” and creating new kinds of issues and anxieties for musicians.
Today’s show was edited and mixed by Jacob Danson Faraday, with additional editing by Mack Hagood.
The song “Sail Away” by Colton Benjamin (2017) was obtained from the Free Multitrack Download Library on the Cambridge Music Technology website by Mike Senior, author of the excellent book Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio.
Read the dissertation: Buried in the mix: touring sound technicians, sonic control, and emotional labour on Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo by Jacob Danson Faraday (2021).
Join Our Patreon! Receive Bonus Material from this episode and more at Patreon.com/phantompower.
Ethereal Voice: This is Phantom power.
Mack Hagood: You’re waiting in the wings of a large Las Vegas hotel nightclub wearing a powder blue tuxedo. You tentatively touch the bow tie at your throat. You don’t remember taking this gig. A hand pushes you from behind and you stumble out onto the stage. A spotlight fixes you in its gaze. And the music begins.
You know, this one, it’s an old bossa nova tune. You take a breath and start to sing, but you can’t hear yourself. You can feel vibrations in your chest and neck. But your voice, it’s not there, but it is there. They can hear it, the crowd, and whatever you’re doing, it must be terrible.
They start to laugh.
But how can you sing if you can’t hear yourself?
Mack: Hey, and welcome to another episode and another season of Phantom Power, a podcast about sound in the arts music, and humanities, I’m Mack Hagood, and on today’s show, we address a performer’s nightmare. The nightmare of not being able to hear yourself on stage. My guest is ethnomusicologist, Jacob Danson Faraday, who takes us behind the scenes of the famed Cirque du Soleil to learn how even Cirque’s world-class musicians struggle with technology when they want to hear themselves on stage.
But first I want to share some news about this show. Last year was a fantastic one in terms of the growth of the show. A lot of new listeners, lovely emails from listeners around the world, and all the positive reinforcement has really inspired me to literally double down on this podcast. Like double down, as in, in the coming months, we’re going to do two episodes a month instead of one.
Some of these episodes will be the kind that you have come to expect on this show with the sound design and the music and the storytelling, and some will be simpler interviews that are much faster to produce.
So, we’ll be able to talk to many more of the dream list of people that I’ve got on my whiteboard.
So, from now on, there will be a mix of scripted stories and these new interviews that we’re calling “Phantom Power Off-Script.”
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I’m so excited because I hired my former student, the amazing Jason Meggyesy, as a coordinator to help me keep up with the hectic pace of two episodes a month, and I want to pay some really fantastic producers to help create more and better-scripted episodes.
And I’d like to commission new works from sound artists and radio artists for you to hear, and all of that’s gonna take money, so please go to patreon.com/phantompower.
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You know, most of my interviews are way longer than I can use on a scripted show. So, for example, we got a lot of great feedback on the show with Jonathan Sterne. Jonathan is of course so brilliant and we talked for a couple of hours and most of that did not make it into the show. If you’re a sound scholar or just a hardcore sound nerd, I promise you want to hear that entire interview, and so around once a month, we are going to drop interviews like that, extended interviews, into the patrons-only feed.
And we’ve even got Phantom Power merch for patrons. So if you want a t-shirt or a mug or a tote, check us out at patreon.com/phantompower, or just click on the link in the show notes.
Okay. So on to today’s guest. You know, one of my favorite ways to do a show is to find a new dissertation in sound studies and read it and then reach out to that freshly minted PhD and ask them to be on the show. I love dissertations because it’s like hearing the future; fresh topics, themes, and ideas in sound.
And today we have just such a story.
Building on his international career as a touring sound technician, ethnomusicologist, Jacob Danson Faraday researches the working communities and hidden labor of live sound technicians on large-scale touring productions.
And today Jake takes us behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil, sharing his dissertation research on how sound engineers and musicians negotiate the power to hear oneself.
Stage monitoring, the technology that allows musicians to hear the performance as they play, is a topic we rarely hear about, but it’s absolutely essential to performers. Faraday suggests that while new in-ear monitors are marketed as a godsend for performers, they are more of a mixed blessing, creating new kinds of issues and anxieties for musicians.
When Jake and I first got on the line, we were laughing about floor monitors, you know them, those wedge-shaped speakers on the floor at the front of the stage.
In the 20th century, they were so ubiquitous that they became this kind of iconic set piece of rock and roll, the prop that the metal player always rests their boot on when they’re about to do that amazing finger-tapping solo.
Jacob: Very Steve Vai, very Eddie Van Halen, very Yngwie Malmsteen. That kind of like hair metal, rock and roll.
Mack: Right. So that to me, suggests that a band being able to hear themselves is super important in a performance context.
Jacob: Yeah, for sure. Having monitors on stage like this, having wedges on stage or some kind of monitoring system, for these large-scale concerts, has always been, since the early days of rock and roll, it’s always been an assumed part of the sound infrastructure.
Mack: And you know, what? I get it because I’ve played music on stage, you know, in this kind of rock context, and not being able to hear yourself is terrifying, because you don’t know if you’re doing a good job or not. And a lot of times you’re in this acoustic environment where it’s very easy not to hear yourself.
And in fact, I have my own memory from experience being in a touring band. I was, in this band called Pine Top Seven in the early 2000s. And one time we got to play a couple of shows with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. And we were playing like a 2,000-seat theater, I had never played a room that big before, we were more used to playing in front of 200 people.
And all of the monitoring was set up for Nick Cave and his band and the guy who was in charge of the monitors, the sound engineer was like:
“Don’t touch any of these monitors. Don’t move them at all. We’ll set them up so that you can hear yourself, but you can’t move any of these wedges on the stage.”
And so, I, unfortunately, couldn’t hear myself like that. Like the sound of my guitar, I couldn’t hear it. And I moved one of the monitors to face me more and the guy like lost his shit. Got really mad at me that I was moving Nick Cave’s monitors around. It was kind of humiliating.
But the thing was like, I was about to play in front of 2,000 people and I wanted to hear myself like if I was playing the wrong note, I wanted to be able to hear that.
And so, I think, you know, what this makes me think about is like, we talk about like a lot of times we think about power and the power to be heard by others, right? Like that’s like sort of a metaphor that we talk about a lot. And this is an interesting case where people desperately want the power to hear themselves.
And that’s a luxury that, you know, Nick Cave had, but maybe like pip-squeak me didn’t have as the opening band, you know, who was just lucky to be there.
Jacob: I think that that story is, you know, pretty relatable for a lot of performers who don’t have the power or the agency, or they’re not high enough on the hierarchy, the creative hierarchy, to be able to hear themselves the way they want to hear themselves.
It’s a really fraught scenario for a lot of performers.
Mack: Well, this, I think, brings us to your dissertation research because you have written a really fascinating research project, an ethnographic project that’s all about this kind of monitoring, but in today’s era, where we have the in-ear monitor. Right?
So, maybe tell us a little bit about in-ear monitors. I think people are going to be kind of familiar with them, but what are they and how do they change this landscape of hearing oneself on stage?
Jacob: In-ear monitors are basically high-tech, high-definition headphones that insert tightly into a performer’s ears.
So, the basic idea of an in-ear monitor is that it limits the external sound that a performer can hear on stage. They’re often made from custom molds, so a performer will go into an audiologist, get custom impressions of their own ears, inner and outer ears.
Those impressions will get sent off to a manufacturer and the manufacturer, the in-ear monitor manufacturer will create custom in-ear monitors for that one performer, that are specific to their ears.
So it’s a really tight fit, and yeah, the whole idea is that that stage noise that performers can typically imagine in an arena or in a theater or in a bar, you know, loud PA, loud crowd noise, loud jangling drum set, all of that, doesn’t go away fully, but it gets attenuated. The volume of that background stage noise gets lowered significantly.
So, a performer can really focus on their own sound.
Mack: And not only that but each musician, since they don’t have to share wedge monitors or anything like that, each musician can get their own customized mix and hear just themselves and whatever other instruments they want to hear. Right?
Mack: So, this sounds sort of like the dream, right? Like we finally arrived at this kind of monitoring scenario where everyone is empowered because these things aren’t that expensive. Right.
So like this ostensibly should have solved all problems when it comes to hearing oneself on stage. Right, so is that the end of the year story? Is that what your dissertation says that like everyone lived happily ever after?
Jacob: Everyone heard happily ever after. Yeah, you’re right that it seems like a magical fairytale that we’re in, but that’s definitely not the case, for a lot of performers.
There is the fairy tale side for sure, and in a lot of cases for a lot of performers, it does work, but on the other side, performers have to negotiate a kind of creative hierarchy where they might not be at the top.
One of the ways I think about in-ear monitors is partly in the way you might think about it in your book, Hush, thinking of them as an orphic medium, that helps performers isolate from unwanted sound, allowing wearers to remain unaffected in changeable stressful, and distracting environments.
So that’s one really great way to think about in-ear monitors. But another way is to think about them in terms of homogenizing listening practices. So, for these in-ear monitors, performers are expected to wear them in a particular way. They’re expected to manage their unique, personal mixes in a particular way. And that really does have a homogenizing effect on how people listen, how people hear themselves and for a lot of performers, that is really problematic.
So, who decides how these musicians are listening to themselves? Who decides what they hear? Who has the power or the capacity or the opportunity to hear themselves the way they want to hear themselves?
And in the examples that I’ll play shortly, there is certainly a hierarchical, sonic disconnect between what a performer wants to hear, what they think they’re hearing, and what they actually hear in their own in-ear monitors. It’s really remarkable.
Mack: Yeah. Wow. I mean, so, well, I guess, first of all, thanks for mentioning my book but that book is really, you know, Hush is really about how we use things like noise-canceling headphones to control our own listening and be able to disconnect from social environments at will.
The interesting thing about these in-ear monitors is, you know, a performer is trying to connect with the audience. And so I can see how, you know, she might be a little disconcerted by fully plugging her ears and not being able to directly be connected orally to the environment and really just having to trust this electronic feed that is not in her control.
Right? It’s like who is in control of somebody’s in-ear monitors? You tell me.
Jacob: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s take a step back. Yeah. With the examples that I’ll talk about, there is a dedicated monitor engineer who is backstage. He is a sound technician who is on tour and his job is to manage the monitor mixes for all of the performers. This is a common job for large-scale performances of all kinds.
Mack: Yeah. That’s the guy who yelled at me.
Jacob: Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Mack: Reliving my trauma and shame right now.
Jacob: So these examples, I’ll play some interviews from my own fieldwork, and these examples come from a Cirque du Soleil arena tour, and these performers who have toured for a long, long time have successful international careers.
You know, very, very experienced, very hardworking, very well supported, but still have this hierarchical conflict with the way that they are being told to listen.
Mack: I know that you’ve made these really fascinating mixes for us, where you’re going to basically simulate what it’s like to be a performer in this kind of large performance space and simulate what they actually hear in different scenarios.
Jacob: So, I’m gonna play some examples. And the first one, I’ll play is what a song would sound like from the audience’s perspective. So we’re listening basically to the PA, to the speakers in the house, and the instruments and the voices sound clear like they would at a concert. There’s a little bit of extra reverb to simulate the big cavernous arena. There’s a little bit of extra bass to simulate that large-scale aesthetic.
And so, yeah, we’re just listening to a song as it would sound to an audience
[Sail Away by Colton Benjamin Plays]
And for the second example, I’m simulating a performer’s perspective of the PA from the stage without any monitors. So there is a lack of clarity, invoices, and instruments. There is an emphasized bass, deemphasized upper frequencies, and you’ll also hear a little bit of delay or echo from the sonic reflections in the venue.
[Sail Away by Colton Benjamin Plays]
Mack: In that example, what we’re hearing, the PA speakers are facing towards the audience of course. the musicians don’t have any monitoring, and so what they are hearing is the sound coming back to them from afar, bouncing off the rear wall, and coming back.
Also, the fact that low-frequency sound travels more easily than high-frequency sound. So they’re getting this emphasized muffly bass sound, but it’s very indistinct. And then the higher frequency sounds, they’re hearing bounce back on the far wall.
So it’s not even in time, it’ll be hard to play along as a bass player, for example, to play along with the drummer, because you’re getting this reflected time delayed sound.
Jacob: Exactly. Yeah. And the amount of delay depends on the size and shape of the venue, basically. So, as touring performers, you know, these dimensions will change every night. And so the sound of their own performance to themselves would change every night if they didn’t have monitors.
So this is the very thing that performers are trying to avoid by using monitors and specifically using in-ear monitors.
Mack: So let’s listen to another one. This time you have for us the sound of maybe a typical monitor mix for a singer. So, the singer obviously wants to hear themself. You know, so the vocals are going to be a little louder. Some of the other instruments will probably be a little quieter. They’re not really trying to hear the whole thing. Right. They’re trying to hear themselves and whatever particular instruments they really feel they need in order to stay in time and in tune.
Jacob: Exactly. Those two things. Really in time and in tune, just like you said, those are really the crucial parameters for a lot of performers.
[Sail Away by Colton BenjaminPlays]
Mack: Yeah. And I think we could hear there, like how, you know, some of the instruments are quieter now than what we heard in the previous mix, different from what the audience is hearing.
And in fact, one of the sort of fascinating things that you’ve got me thinking about here is like: there is no sound that is “the sound” of this performance, right?
Like the audience is hearing one thing, the monitor mix engineer is hearing another thing. Each individual musician is hearing a separate mix. It’s almost like there is no “there” there, it’s kind of confusing to think.
Jacob: For sure. Yeah. And this is one of the things that people think about and talk about and write about in sound studies. This disconnect. This sonic disconnect between all of these different soundscapes that you described. What the audience hears, what the performer hears, what the monitor engineer hears.
You know, it’s the same show, but it’s not the same sound for sure. And the way that people listen to these different sounds and the way they think about these different sounds and the way they talk about and work with these different sounds is very, very different, depending on that person’s perspective and depending on that person’s position in the creative hierarchy.
Mack: Well, maybe we can dig into some more specific examples of those kinds of conflicts that you’re describing.
So, you did your fieldwork, this was in 2019 I believe. You worked yourself as a sound technician, but you were doing ethnography as an ethnomusicologist at the same time.
So you were actually working for Cirque du Soleil, but it was also your PhD dissertation research. You were out there doing your fieldwork. Interviewing musicians about their experience of using in-ear monitors, right?
Jacob: Mm-hmm yeah. And there were eight musicians on this show and each one of them had a very different understanding and a very different perspective of these in-ear monitors, which again are a homogenizing listening medium.
Mack: So one of the people that you were working with, and we’re not gonna use anyone’s real names here. Right. But, is, and I mean, this is Cirque du Soleil, right? So of course there has to be some kind of unusual instrumentation and one of these folks you’re working with, I love this, is a professional whistler.
Jacob: Yeah. I mean, this is my first experience with working with a professional whistler. I didn’t know that it was a thing, but it’s absolutely a thing. So this guy had a long career, 15-year career as a professional whistler. A concert soloist, plays with orchestras, plays with chamber ensembles.
Mack: And just to be clear, we’re not talking about a penny whistle here. We’re talking about put your lips together and blow, right?
Jacob: Exactly. Yeah.
Mack: Okay. So how did this professional whistler feel about using in-ear monitors?
Jacob: Well, as you’ll hear, he found in-ear monitors really frustrating. You’ll hear him talk about why he finds them frustrating and how they affect his performance.
Whistler: Well, for me, a big thing was, and is to be honest, that I have to wear in ears. So I, the 15 years before I always told everybody who asked me this. I said, “No, it’s impossible with whistling.”
And they accepted it because I was the soloist and they paid me money and I came there and I was like a star, you know.
So, “Oh, okay. If he says it’s not possible then it will not be possible.”
So at the audition in October, I said the same to our creative director. I said, “Well, I don’t work with in-ears,” when he started about that.
And he said, “Well, I guess you will work with in-ears.”
I said, “mm, why?”
Well, because of the click track, et cetera, I get it now. So working here in Cirque, I’m still struggling with the in-ear. I use one.
And what makes it difficult? The delay in time makes it very difficult. But most of all the sound, the direct sound of the whistling coming out of my mouth directly to my ear is not there anymore.
So I’m very insecure about the tuning or am I whistling in tune? Am I whistling in time?
I always have the feeling I’m late or early. I don’t know. yeah. That’s strange. I think I hear it in my ear further, earlier out of my ear than in the arena. Right?
Jacob: That makes sense.
Whistler: Yeah. Okay. Well, that’s difficult for me. And probably it would be less difficult if I wore both in-ears, but I just can’t.
Mack: Okay. So we have this performer who doesn’t want to wear his in-ear monitors. But it sounds like, you know, from the perspective of the corporation and maybe, the sound guy, like it’s a necessity that he wears these things, is that right?
Jacob: For sure. and you heard in the interview that he talked about, the click track.
And that’s a really important part of, a lot of music at Cirque du Soleil, where the band will use a click track to help align the music to the acrobatics on stage. And so without an in-ear monitor, yes, The Whistler could whistle, but he couldn’t be integrated into the show in the way that he needs to be.
Mack: So how did the sound guy feel about having to deal with this performer who didn’t want to be synced in with the click track and the in-ear monitors? What was that like for him?
Jacob: Well, yeah, I talked to the head of the sound department about The Whistler and about how he managed, The Whistler’s aversion to in-ear monitors. His solution really was to emphasize the way they communicate as colleagues.
Sound Technician: You know, the first thing I thought about was that he was going to be coming to the show. He was a champion whistler. He’s phenomenal. He was a really nice guy, but I was told in that same sentence that he didn’t wanna use in-ears.
He hated using in-ears. He really doesn’t want to use them. And then we’d have to work out some with him.
So of course the first day he was there, I took him out for coffee and then, and tried to, you know. Purely because I also wanted to meet him and, you know, get to know him and stuff. But also because that’s part of this role is building a positive relationship and when I’m going to have to deal with stuff like that, truthfully.
So we caught up a couple of times and apart from being a really great guy and hanging out a lot as well, we did start talking about the in-ears. but I think because that kind of groundwork and sort of talking with someone and getting to know someone personally, that they’re much more open to suggestions of if we try it at least you don’t like it, we’ve got some options, but it will help you kind of thing.
Mack: So that was interesting. It sounds like he’s, you know, saying this job is more than just a technical job. Like there’s definite people skills involved in this job where you need to be able to sort of negotiate with the performer, put the performer at ease.
How did that work out? Was there a solution that kind of worked well for everybody?
Jacob: This is the really interesting thing about this example is that yes, you can negotiate with a performer. You can put them at ease, but in this particular case for The Whistler, there was no solution. He’ll likely never be comfortable with his in-ear monitors. If he doesn’t use them, he doesn’t get the cues or the calls from the band leader. He doesn’t get the click track.
[Muffled Music Plays]
If he uses only one, he gets this distracting mismatched sound between the direct sound of his in-ear monitor in one ear and the ambient, echoey sound of the venue on the other side.
And if he uses both, he has no direct whistle sound, which is compromising his, his own, you know, corporial relationship with this sound that he’s been developing for the past 15 years as a professional whistler.
This whistling relationship essentially was erased by this homogenizing listening technology. By blocking out the external sound like they’re supposed to do. His in-ear monitors blocked out a sound that he himself was dependent on as a performer, as a whistler.
So yeah, there really is no real solution, and I think that’s one of the things that’s so interesting about this example.
Mack: Are there times when there’s just total miscommunication and people aren’t hearing what they’re supposed to be hearing or what they wanna be hearing? Like how does, how does that work out?
Jacob: Yeah, there was one really interesting example on tour with the Cirque du Soleil show where one of the performers, a singer, had a misconception of what his monitor mix actually sounded like.
So the singer was using the sound of the PA, the sound of the main speakers for the audiences, as a musical reference, and that’s problematic for all the reasons we’ve talked about. It can be muddy, it can be jumbled, it can be confusing and it can change from venue to venue. So with his in-ears, just kind of perched on the outside. This is what the singer thought his mix sounded like.
A universe of sound that’s really reverberant because of the sound of the PA in the house, but still has the precision of an actual monitor mix for say, for example, the click track and the vocal track.
Mack: And that’s the sound that the engineer knew he was sending to this performer.
Jacob: Exactly. Lots of click track, lots and lots of vocals, and that’s basically it.
Singer: Now I can hear just my vocal.
Sound Tech 1: Huh?
Singer I can hear just my vocal, no instruments, nothing.
Sound Tech 1: This is your mix, no? it’s cuz you don’t hear anything from the house.
Singer: The rest is so low.
Sound Tech 1: This is how your mix sounds.
Sound Tech 2: Maybe go to another scene just to, maybe go to another.
Sound Tech 1: I will, we’re gonna go to this scene now. This is the breathing part.
Singer: Doesn’t sound like my mix, my voice is super loud.
Sound Tech 1: This is the mix.
Singer: Wow. But without the house, it makes a huge difference.
Sound Tech 1: And that’s usually the volume of your voice when I listen to your mix in any other song and we can listen to any song you want.
But it just shows how much you are relying on the house and not so much your mix, which is why we try to change things a lot and it seems like those changes aren’t taking effect for you. You know what I mean?
Sound Tech 2: But the thing is, is that it’s not a bad thing to, if you are comfortable using the house because at the end of the day, it comes to being how comfortable you are on stage.
But the issue is, what he said, is that the more changes you make in the mix on your in-ears, might not take effect as you say, and might sound different the next week because the reverberation of the house is different.
Singer: Well, you know what, maybe I don’t feel like touching anything now.
Sound Tech 1: The only thing I can say, but I know your answer, is to stick both your ears in the whole show because then we gain back some more control as far as our side goes,
Sound Tech 2: But the comfortability thing is what we wanna make sure.
Singer: So the comfortability is just, it creates such a cool universe actually.
Mack: That must have caused for some real tension, right? Because the performer is thinking the guy in charge of the monitor mix is not doing his job properly. And the guy who’s doing the monitor mix is like, you’re not wearing your in-ear monitors properly.
Jacob: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and it was tense. It was tense for sure. It doesn’t come out in this backstage conversation, but that tension was there. And this again, was due to the way that he was wearing his in-ear monitors.
He would kind of perch them, he wouldn’t fully insert them, he’d kind of perch them on the outside of his ears so he could hear them a little bit, but not fully.
And they weren’t doing their primary job of reducing ambient venue sound.
Mack: And the tension arises, again, from this is a live performance in front of a large audience, and everyone is performing, not just the musical performers, but the sound technicians are performing as well. Right. And their professional identity, and ego, and their job is on the line just as well as the musicians are.
Jacob: Absolutely. Absolutely. Especially on tour. People’s identities are wrapped up so tightly with their profession on these big, you know, large-scale tours. It really does impact, like you said, ego and profession and identity.
It’s really all tightly wound into these monitor mixes and into these front-of-house mixes. Maybe the audience won’t notice, you know, little details here and there, but you know, there are a hundred other people on tour who know the show just as intimately as any musician or any sound technician.
So, everybody’s listening and this tension can build.
Mack: That’s such a good point because you know, sometimes as a performer, you want to be loved by the audience, but honestly, a lot of times you care more about what your peers think about you, right?
Jacob: For sure. For sure.
Mack: They’re the ones who really know the job and they know when you do it well and when you don’t.
[Slow Drum Beat]
Mack: You know, one of the things that I really like about this work that you’ve done is that it zooms in on something that I’ve been thinking a lot about with sound technologies as of late, which is the question of uncertainty.
If we really think about what monitoring is for, it’s designed to reduce uncertainty, so that the performer can hear themselves and not be uncertain about the sounds that they’re making and that they can have greater certainty that what the audience is hearing is what they are hearing themselves do. Right?
And so the in-ear monitor is supposed to be an improvement on that because it controls the soundscape, so to speak, of the performer. But the fascinating thing is by blocking the ears and really separating the musician from the audience and from what the audience is hearing in that way, it introduces a new kind of uncertainty and insecurity. You really, really have to trust the sound technicians a lot more under those circumstances.
And what I’m noticing here in these examples that you’ve shown, is everyone is hedging their bets. They’re like, “Eh, I’ll wear one monitor,” or, “Oh, you know what? I’ll wear both of them, but I’m not gonna stick ’em all the way in my ears because that would be crazy. Then that would mean I had to trust you.”
And the technicians are like, “Would you just trust us. We know what we’re doing here.” Right.
But I gotta admit as a musician, I have not performed live during the in-ear monitor era. I mean, they were around, but only rich bands had them when I was playing. But I gotta admit, I don’t think I’d be able to do it.
I think I would be one of the people with one of them hanging out of my ear.
Jacob: Yep, and you, you know, you’d join a long list of very experienced performers who do the exact same thing. And on this show, this Cirque du Soleil show alone, there were a lot of performers who had been, you know, 20 years into touring, they’re still only using one in-ear and doing it happily, doing it successfully.
But I think the takeaway here is that no matter what, it’s a compromise between choosing one of the many sonic performances that are happening in the background of these large-scale shows.
Mack: Yeah. It’s like every sonic solution just creates a new set of problems.
Jacob: Yeah, for sure. And as we heard from your example, opening for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, there is no real solution.
For the Whistler, there is no real solution. The way the singer concluded that little exchange backstage, you know, not wanting to make any changes because of the uncertainty, that was finally just revealed after all of this tension between the sound technicians and the musicians.
It’s really remarkable how this one technology impacts these larger questions of: how do you listen? who decides what you hear? who gets to hear themselves the way they want to hear themselves?
It’s really remarkable how, how all these things align.
Mack: Well, Jake, thanks so much for joining me and telling me about all this. It’s been fascinating.
Jacob: Yeah. Well, thank you very much for the invitation. It’s been a lot of fun.
Mack: And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Huge thanks to Dr. Jacob Danson Faraday, who was not only my guest, but also engineered those amazing virtual reality moments where we got to hear what it sounds like to be the performers he worked with.
If you want to hear more from Jake, join us at patreon.com/phantompower. We have a bonus segment called “What’s Good,” where Jake gives us listening and reading recommendations. That’s something we’ll feature on every episode in the Patreon feed.
Today’s show was edited and mixed by Jacob Faraday with additional editing by me, Mack Hagood.
The song used in the monitor mix simulations is called Sail Away by Colton Benjamin. The stems are available from the free multitrack download library over at the Cambridge Music Technology website that’s hosted by music, mixing guru, Mike Senior. Link in the show notes.
And the cheesy lounge dream music was composed by yours truly. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and share with a friend.
You can also join our mailing list at phantompod.org.
See you next time.