Running Sound at Balkan Camp: Tips and Tricks
It’s evening time at Balkan Camp. I’ve spent all day learning mind-bending new folk melodies and rhythms, socializing and meeting new people, and eating way too many olives and stuffed grape leaves. To top it off, I’ve spent the last 2 hours trying to follow the steps of experienced dancers during the evening’s dance party. The clock is starting to edge toward 11:15. It’s getting late! If it were any other time of the year, I would have long since snuck out to rest and recover in the hopes of having enough energy for the next day. But it’s Balkan Camp, and at 11:30 I have to go set up sound for Kafana!
If you haven’t been to Kafana, Kafana is a place where you can watch music in an intimate setting, drink a little, enjoy ajvar along with other grilled goodies, continue dancing, and watch musicians really cut loose and maybe get a little silly and wild. Before I ran sound at Kafana, it was a place I would (sometimes) go to enjoy myself if I was feeling adventurous. This past summer, though, being at Kafana was my job almost every night. Why? I was the sound engineer.
Running sound is no easy task. You have to plug a dizzying array of microphones, cables, mixers and speakers together without mixing up what goes where. You have to make sure that musicians can hear themselves so that they can play confidently, and you have to make sure that the audience can hear the musicians well. You don’t want to blow people out of the water with sound that is too loud and harsh, or irritate them with sound that is muddy and indistinct. Of course, running sound after you have spent a very full day at camp poses an extra challenge, and at first, I was pretty nervous to take the job, but as the days progressed, I figured out a way to make it work and received such nice feedback (pun not intended) from performers and audiences alike that I was inspired to share my experiences with other adventurous Kafana sound engineers.
The below tips do assume that you have experience with sound gear, but do not assume that you know what the various Balkan instruments are.
- Running sound at Kafana is all about speed and efficiency. People will be tired and may be not thinking straight, or they may be in a relaxed partying mood, so it is doubly important to come up with a plan to get performers onto and off the stage quickly and efficiently. Plan with your stage manager (if you have one) for how best to do this. You will also need to figure out ways to support yourself so that you can do your job under quite taxing circumstances.
- Every day, test your PA system and all mics before you start running sound. Make sure every mic can be heard in the mains and in the monitors. You never know if someone borrowed a mic stand, mic, or a cable during the day.
- Label what mic goes to what channel on your mixer.
- Personally talk to the band before they start and figure out what they need. Write it down. Write down what instrument goes to what channel. Consult this chart before you make any sound adjustments since you will be tired, and it will be easy to make mistakes.
- Ask the musicians where they’d like their microphones positioned.
- Make sure everyone can hear themselves in the monitor before they start. Make sure you can hear every instrument in the mains before they start.
- Check in with the band after the first song to make sure they can hear themselves in the monitor. Be paying attention to the band for cues that they need more or less of a specific instrument in their monitor.
- Super important: Use as little equalization as possible! But do cut some bass from every channel (except perhaps direct-injected bass guitar or double bass). This creates a natural sound that better approaches unamplified acoustic sound. Use the per-channel level to mix. Avoid the temptation to aggressively boost or cut equalization in the main mix. Again, this creates an unnatural sound. Rely as much as possible on volume controls.
- Cut more low end and maybe some mids from instruments with sympathetically resonating strings and/or a skin head such as gadulkas or the yaylı tambur.
- Mic the finger holes of clarinets, kavals, or other wind instruments that have finger holes.
- Always mic frame drums. Cut some extra low end and mids from frame drums since the microphone proximity effect is especially pronounced with these drums. Try to mic doumbeks if possible. If you don’t mic them then their accent sounds may not be heard in the room. You may not need to send any drum sounds through the monitors.
- In a small room you will likely not need to amplify the tapan / davul / daouli. If you do have to amplify it, think of it as a bass drum and snare together in one instrument. Mic both sides of the drum. You may need to cut quite a bit of the low end out of the bass drum side since it is often tuned at a higher pitch than most rock drum bass drums and may sound boomy.
- Be listening and available as much as possible. Walk around the room. If folks in the back can’t hear, you may need to boost the overall volume.
- Cutting highs should not be necessary except perhaps with violin or kaval. Boosting highs may only be necessary to increase articulation of vocals. These cuts / boosts should be minimal. Again, use the volume controls first.
- Lead instruments should sit on top of rhythm instruments in terms of volume level. Lead vocals should sit on top of everything else since lead instruments will frequently harmonize / play unison with lead vocals. If someone is playing primarily a drone or rhythm part, this should sit low in the mix but still be audible.
- If you are working with a brass band in a small space you won’t need much sound reinforcement. Do, however, have two wireless mics on hand for a vocalist or for solos.
- The zurla is extremely loud and typically doesn’t need any amplification.
- Drink a lot of water! Try to get enough sleep (good luck with that!).
- Know your alcohol tolerance. I am a lightweight so I don’t drink at all while I run sound. The combination of alcohol with not enough sleep would increase my likelihood of making mistakes.
- Wear ear plugs whenever you are not actively listening. Keeping your ears fresh means that you will make better mixing decisions. Once I have a band dialed in, I typically leave my ear plugs in the rest of the time.
- Thank musicians after they play. Show musicians your sincere attention while they play. Remember that per
forming music is an act of emotional vulnerability and that even musicians with decades of experiences get the jitters. Being professional, courteous, and sensitive goes a long way!
- Break down all of your gear and wrap all of your cables every night. Safely stow everything. Try to enlist a few unlucky stragglers to help you pack everything up so that you can get to bed as soon as you can!
Running sound at Kafana and being part of the Kafana crew was a great way for me to feel like a valuable part of theBalkan Camp team. It gave me a chance to connect with many of the great musicians and teachers at camp. I left, exhausted and happy, excited to try my hand at running sound again in the future.
Hopefully these tips will make your Kafana sound experience go smoothly! If you have any questions or comments or any tips for me send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by John David Eriksen