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Herbie Hancock Surround Workshop

As we reported from CES 2001, Herbie Hancock was thinking in multi-channel long before most other musicians/composers. He explained that in 1992 when he began work on the album ‘Dis is da Drum’, he conceived it as a multi-channel composition although the limitations of the technology available and the lack of vision from his record company meant that it was only released in stereo. The 10.2 demonstration at CES 2001 was the first time Herbie had heard any of that album as he had originally conceived it.

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Engineer and musician Darrell Diaz gave us another example from ‘Dis is da Drum’, the track ‘Butterfly’. The stereo version sounded good, but the multi-channel version really showed what Herbie was thinking about when he wrote it – a butterfly flitting all around the listener.

Darrell and Dave Hampton continued the session with some background on the Future2future tour. When Herbie and the band (which included Darrell on keyboards) were putting together the show, they conceived it as a multi-channel creation, that is a live multi-channel performance. This obviously required some very different thinking on the sound engineering side of the production. As well as the “standard” two-channel front of house mix, which had its own engineer (David Mann), there was a second system with four to six speakers (depending on venue) and its own engineer - Dave Hampton. One of the problems that the band faced is that there is not much equipment specifically for live surround performances – most multi-channel gear is of the recording and encoding/decoding variety for recording and mastering – so they had to come up with some ingenious solutions of their own.

Selected elements of the on-stage performance, such as the output from Hancock’s Korg Karma keyboards, DJ Disk’s turntable, and the processed microphone line from Wallace Roney’s trumpet, were taken from the front of house mixing console, through direct outs, and fed into a Digidesign Pro Tools/24 Mixplus system (featuring a 192 audio interface) running on an Apple Titanium PowerBook G4. However, the Pro Tools system was used as an audio interface and a surround mixing platform rather than as a recording system. Dave Hampton used a ProControl control surface with an Edit Pack add-on to mix the surround elements in real time, using a joystick for surround panning. The surround outputs were each patched through a 31-band graphic equaliser and then on to the surround speakers, relatively small active models placed on stands at four points around the room. Unlike a “traditional” 5.1 system, the Future2Future surround system did not use a subwoofer – most front of house systems they encountered on the tour had no problem with the low end.

In response to a question from the audience, Herbie and Darrell admitted (and not at all reluctantly) that the “live” nature of the creation of the multi-channel mix really made Dave Hampton into a performer, with the panning joystick as his instrument. Just like the music itself, some of his surround moves were based on what was going on in a given piece of music or the mood of the performance. Dave did admit that many of the mix moves were scripted in advance, whereas others were spontaneous. The “dual engineer” arrangement also required a close degree of cooperation between Dave Hampton and David Mann.

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Darrell wryly noted that with just days before the first date of the tour, Herbie decided that he wanted to integrate synchronised video elements into the show, further “complicating” the preparations!

Another interesting observation came from Herbie and Darrell – while they were on stage, the band members had no idea how the surround mix sounded, as all they heard through their in-ear monitors was the front of house stereo mix, so they also had to place a great degree of trust in Dave Hampton’s “performance”. After the presentation I suggested to Darrell and Dave that they should take a look at the Dolby Headphone technology, which does an impressive job of taking a 5.1 mix and folding it down into two channels, giving the headphone listener a pretty good approximation of the multi-channel experience. Dolby Headphone is available as a Pro Tools software plug-in so I think it would work well to enable the band to hear the surround mix.

Finally Khaliq Glover talked briefly about the production of the Future2Future DVD, noting that as the surround performance at each venue was different, they created a whole new surround performance from live elements from the recorded performances. The DVD has Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks and also makes use of some of the underused aspects of DVD technology, like multi-angles to enable the viewer to change the focus to individual performers in the band.

This was a fascinating session, for me the stand out session of the show. The only bad thing about it was that the guys ran out of time and we did not have a chance to hear Herbie play live through the impressive array of equipment (including a Pro Tools HD) in his “portable” studio.

Our thanks to Daniella Shepherd, PR agent for Dave Hampton and Khaliq Glover, for providing details of the equipment used by the band for the Future2Future tour.  []

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Show report last updated: 2nd February 2003.


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