Big things, small packages
The Shanghai International Jazz Festival is growing in size each year, but what about its audio requirements? Alice Gustafson talks to Budee to find out why less can be more...
Recently celebrating its eighth year, the Shanghai International Jazz Festival is cited to be ‘Asia’s third largest jazz event’. As a testament to this, the 2012 edition boasted a total of 8,000 ticket sales. Part of that success can be attributed to festival organiser JZ and its efforts to tap into the steadily growing jazz scene in China’s largest city. In fact, the pioneering organisation has played a key role in sparking China’s interest in the genre. In addition to its role as festival organiser, it also owns two JZ Clubs, located in Shanghai and Hangzhou respectively, plus the Wooden Box Cafe in Shanghai, and the JZ music school.
Appealing to the city’s increasingly westernised tastes and hoping to add Shanghai to the list of renowned international jazz cities such as Tokyo, Paris and New York, JZ has worked to steadily boost the local jazz scene by welcoming a mix of international and local musicians to its many platforms.
Held at the Shanghai Pudong New Area World Expo Park, the most recent jazz festival – also known simply as the JZ Festival – marked its biggest and most popular year to date. Jazz fans from across China flocked to the site’s main Green Note stage to experience the sounds of the UK’s Incognito and Japan’s Jabberloop, in addition to Theo Croker’s Afrosonic global collaboration. Also drawing large crowds were Italy’s Roberta Gambarini, American outfit Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, and Chinese artists Yuan Yawei and Mo Wen Wei.
For the Green Note stage, JZ called upon local distributor, Beijing Pacific Budee Technology Development Co Ltd (Budee) to provide an optimal audio solution for the two days of music. ‘This year, we told the festival organisers that we would build the best-sounding stage they had ever seen, and by all indications, we made good on that promise,’ asserts a friendly Eric Boyer, marketing director for Budee.
The system in question turned out to be a surprising one: not by way of manufacturer choice, but by the size of the audio setup itself. Handling the looming main stage’s audio requirements was Budee’s Lee Feng, who built the PA system around a fairly compact Martin Audio MLA multi-cellular loudspeaker array solution.
Weighing just 790kg – including flyware – per side, the set-up comprised seven MLA elements and one MLD down-fill in each flown array, with four ground-stacked MLX subs per side adding low end reinforcement. Mr Feng’s system also included an Avid Profile console for FOH, an Avid Venue SC48 for monitors, various Lab.gruppen FP 10000Q amplifiers, and mics from Blue Microphones and Sontronics.
‘This was an amazingly compact system that delivered huge results, and was absolutely an unusual quantity,’ smiles Mr Boyer. ‘Normally for a festival of this size, you will see rows upon rows of line arrays to provide enough SPL to cover the audience area. This was a very large space, but MLA’s precise control allowed the engineers to really focus the energy coming off the stage, allowing us to get away with a lot less gear hanging from the trusses.’
Although the MLA presented itself as a relatively simple solution for the team, (taking just three technicians to set up in approximately an hour with another hour for testing and tuning) a challenge presented itself in the form of some less than ideal surroundings.
‘The six stages were in close proximity to one another and were located within a busy urban environment,’ Mr Boyer explains. ‘We had to ensure consistent hi-fi sound throughout the audience area at fairly high SPL while at the same time ensuring minimal bleed to the other stages – as well as nearby businesses and residences. The last thing any festival wants to do is annoy the neighbours! However, MLA’s powerful software controls allowed the engineer to literally tailor the system’s output with surgical precision, providing unprecedented control – and not just over the front of the speakers.’
In fact, Mr Boyer insists that when approaching the stage from the rear, he found that almost no overspill was occurring. ‘If you did not know there was a jazz festival going on, you wouldn’t have heard much of anything and would have been none the wiser. Also, when I got under the stage and behind the subs, I found it was almost dead silent.’
The Avid Venue Profile mixer also proved a hit with engineers. ‘I had a show-file for this, and with a bit of rerouting, this saved a lot of set up time,’ enthuses Chris Lewis, FOH engineer for Incognito. ‘When I fired-up the system, it sounded very transparent and flat, and there was plenty of headroom, which is essential for a system to sound good in my opinion. ‘You’ve got to watch the levels though,’ he pauses, ‘as it’s easy to get too loud with such a clean sounding system!’
Adding to the list of potential issues was an active construction site positioned frustratingly close to the Expo Park – bringing with it the usual din of heavy machinery and jackhammers some 100m away from the main stage. ‘We really thought there would be some problems, especially with more acoustic acts like Roberta Gambarini, but the system was so focused that you could not hear any extraneous sounds,’ insists Mr Boyer. ‘This turned out to be a very challenging environment, but one that both our engineers and our gear were able to tackle head-on with fantastic results. Plus, the stage crew was really first-rate and under the leadership of stage manager Qin Jiang, the show went off without a hitch.’
Equally impressed is Martin Audio’s Andy Davies, application support (touring): ‘MLA gave us perfect consistency over the whole 65m-deep audience area. Being able to do this with only 800kg of PA per side really shows how advanced the MLA is. All the visiting engineers commented on the exceptional clarity and consistency of the system, but most importantly, visiting artists were blown away by the quality of the sound – that's when you know you are really onto a good thing.’
In addition to the PA system, eagle-eyed audiophiles may have raised an eyebrow at the choice of mics in use on the main stage. ‘Blue Microphones’ Dragonfly mics were used over the drum kit,’ says Mr Boyer. ‘They are remarkable in that they are typically not used as a stage mic, but are actually very useful in that capacity. Some great features are the internal and external integrated shock mounts and their clever rotating capsule design.’
Similarly, Blue Microphones’ enCore mics were chosen for percussion. ‘Again, this is not a typical choice for percussion miking, but was a great choice due to Blue’s patented active dynamic microphone technology,’ he explains. A Sontronics’ Saturn mic was used for the grand piano, which Mr Boyer is equally ready to justify: ‘This is a great mic and stands up well to the rigors of live performance, despite its appearance as a delicate studio mic.’
Mr Boyer is confident that in time, the event will become one of the top international jazz festivals around the world, and confirms that Budee’s involvement will continue to grow with the festival. ‘As the JZ Festival grows each year, it becomes that much more important on the global music scene. For us, it’s all about the music – and when we see fans really enjoying themselves, it really makes us feel like we’ve contributed to something magnificent. To my thinking, all this adds up to a pretty remarkable setup due to all the rule breaking we did,’ he reflects.