Bryan Adams performs live at the GRAMMY Museum’s Clive David Theater
Welcome to part four of our Inside the GRAMMY Museum blog series with David Trau, head engineer at the museum’s Clive Davis Theater. If you missed Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3, read them now to discover how Trau approaches mixing live vocals, acoustic guitar and rhythm sections.
So far, we’ve focused on tips and recommendations for sound engineers, but for our final article in this blog series, we sat down with Trau to discuss some of his favorite performances at the Clive Davis Theater. Trau has engineered performances for thousands of artists, including legendary performers like John Legend, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Bryan Adams and many more. In this article, he shares his unique perspective on what separates a good performance from an incredible performance—and provides some tips for artists to take their performances to a higher level.
What are some of the most memorable performances you’ve engineered at the theater?
One of the best performances I’ve ever seen is Taylor Swift. She did a private event at the museum, and it was just her performing songs from the album “1989.” She performed by herself with a just piano as well as electric and acoustic guitars. The songs on that album feature lots of production, and they sound huge, so to see her perform them in such a stripped-down manner was just incredible. Her production team brought in their own monitor desks and set up a 5.1 surround sound reverb—it sounded like we were in a stadium. I’ve never seen that before.
John Legend was here recently for GRAMMY week, and it was just him and a piano. The theater is such a dead room acoustically that a nice dialed-in reverb makes the space feel a lot bigger. But with John Legend, he filled up the room all on his own. It felt like I was watching him perform in an arena—it was a commanding performance, to say the least.
What separates a good performance from a great performance?
Great artists have a unique set of skills they’ve practiced and honed over time. A key factor is being completely comfortable with your instrument. Whether it’s your voice, piano or guitar, you have to be so comfortable and natural that you’re not hindered by technique. Great performers are also very in-touch with themselves, and they understand the feelings they want to convey. It takes courage to open up and express those feelings through music honestly and freely in front an audience. The audience can sense that, even on a subconscious level, and they tune into the message the artist is sending out. When you see these incredible artists, they do this all the time—it’s like a muscle they’ve been working out. Those skills are highly developed, and they are very comfortable going to that place in an instant.
What advice do you have for artists who want elevate their live performances?
A good analogy is to look at a live performance in the context of a movie. The music is like the scenery, set design and special effects. But, at the end of the day, the movie needs a leading actor. Take John Legend, for example—everyone knows his voice is at the front and center of the performance. All of the music is recorded, produced and performed in a manner that supports him.
It’s important for artists and bands to figure out what they are showcasing, and to be aware of the story that they’re telling the audience. Are the parts played in a way that allows for each instrument to be heard? Or is everyone playing huge, big fast chords that make it hard for the audience to hear anything else? If it’s an acoustic rock band, maybe the drummer shouldn’t smash the cymbals. A lot of bands don’t realize they can play with intensity without a lot of volume. So much of what goes into the performance starts before you even get on stage.
What else can bands do at rehearsal that can help them on stage?
One major tip that I have for bands is to find a friend who works in live sound, or even another artist, to come to your rehearsal space and listen to your performance. They can listen objectively and help you adjust elements of your sound that you might not be able to hear. Even something as simple as having someone walk over and adjust the volume knobs on the amps while you perform can make a huge difference in your overall sound. If you can find an engineer, they can help you adjust your EQ settings to make space in the mix for the different elements of your sound. For example, if you want a super-thick kick drum sound, they can help you carve out that space by adjusting the EQ on the bass amp. A lot of engineers are happy to help for a few bucks or a case of beer.
Is there anything that artists can communicate to the sound engineer to help their performances?
It’s important to understand that the engineer probably works there every day, and they want to help you sound your best. So my main tip is to always have a conversation with the sound person. If you let them know that you are a loud and aggressive sounding band, the engineer can help prepare for that and help you achieve that goal. Personally, I want everyone to have a good day—the band, the engineers and the audience. The performance reflects on me, too, so I have an equal interest in the performance going well.
That concludes our Inside the GRAMMY Museum blog series. To read more stories about the latest in pro audio and recording, be sure to bookmark the HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights Blog and check back often.