Two-time Latin GRAMMY® Award-winner and 13-time nominee, Ronaldo Lourenço is a one of Brazil’s most distinguished front of house and recording engineers. With a studio career spanning 36 years, Ronaldo has worked on more than 450 albums and been honored twice with a Best Recording Engineer Award from the Audio Engineering Society (AES) of Brazil. He has also provided tour sound services for the last 33 years.
Ronaldo is best known for his work with singer, songwriter and actor Seu Jorge, who emerged from the poverty of Brazil’s favelas (slums) to become a global superstar. Jorge first captured the attention of music fans outside of Brazil with his exquisite Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs in the film “The Life Aquatic.” Ronaldo began working with Jorge as a front of house and studio engineer six years ago, after they met at Mega Studio in Rio de Janeiro while recording a soundtrack project.
Between recent tour dates, Ronaldo generously shared his story with me.
[MM] Jorge’s current tour recently came to Los Angeles for a concert of David Bowie songs at the Hollywood Bowl. Are all of your tour dates featuring songs from “The Life Aquatic?”
[Ronaldo] We’re touring with two very different shows. One, like the show at the Hollywood Bowl, is a tribute to David Bowie with just vocals and acoustic guitar. Jorge sings his versions of the Bowie songs, and explains how they ended up in the film “The Life Aquatic” and how they were recorded.
On our other dates, Jorge performs with a full band. The music is very danceable, and the lyrics are quite irreverent. They tell stories about the everyday life of the Brazilian people. The style is called samba rock, and it particularly connects with the middle and poorer classes of Brazil.
[MM] How different is your front of house approach for the two concert formats?
[Ronaldo] When we have the full band, the priority is to make sure Jorge’s vocals are very clear and a little in front of the instrumentation. His voice is louder in the bass region and has the characteristic of low SPL. Overall, the goal is to have a volume level that people can still talk over during the show.
Because each song has a different ambiance, we use eight effects stacks in our Soundcraft Vi6 mixing console, providing reverbs, choruses and delays. The biggest challenge is that the band’s tempos vary from show-to-show, and there’s no setlist. The concerts are never the same two days in a row, so I can’t save snapshots on the console. That can be very challenging for a mixer.
Since Jorge doesn’t use a setlist, we have a microphone on stage with an Optogate sensor. He uses it to communicate with the musicians and crew, letting us know which song will be next and if there are any changes in the arrangement. There’s always a lot of improvisation in Jorge’s shows. Maybe that’s why he has worked with the same band for many years.
Overall, the shows with the big band are varied and very dynamic. The instrumentation includes drums, bass, samba percussion, guitars with overdrive, two keyboards, violins, harmonica, woodwinds, flute, vocoder, talkbox and cavaquinho, and a DJ. Samba rock is always played with the guitar up front, because it’s the strumming that gets the audience up and dancing.
[MM] What about the other format?
[Ronaldo] For shows featuring Bowie songs, we have the challenge of quietness. It’s a solo show, and we only use two microphones. There’s a vocal mic, an AKG C414 that Jorge personally selected, and a second mic on his acoustic guitar. That’s it. In quiet auditoriums with well-behaved audiences, the pared down sound works beautifully. I have my doubts about how well the show would work in Brazil, where audiences can be very noisy.
[MM] Is that what Jorge’s concert audiences are typically like?
[Ronaldo] They can be, for sure. It’s important to remember that Jorge came from a very humble family. With a lot of struggle and dedication, he somehow managed to get where he is today. It’s a remarkable story. At his shows, there’s great camaraderie between rich and poor, black and white, everyone. His music really brings all kinds of people together, and they have a great time.
[MM] Do you also record with Jorge?
[Ronaldo] Yes, have we recorded several songs and part of an album that hasn’t been released yet at my studio, Casa do Mato. Jorge truly enjoys spontaneity with his music and, if possible, likes to record everything in a single take.
[MM] Tell me about Casa do Mato.
[Ronaldo] I opened the studio 12 years ago near my home in Gávea, Rio de Janeiro. At the time, I felt there was a need for a studio that had a workstation controller with total recall for DVDs that were being mixed. During the past 15 years, I’ve mixed many DVDs in 5.1, and I think it’s some of the most interesting work an engineer can do.
I also wanted to create a place where clients could enjoy being in direct contact with nature while they work. We have that at Casa do Moto. International artists, like Jason Mraz, David Guetta, Lokua Kanza and others, have recorded at the studio. It’s a very special place.
[MM] What kind of tour rig do you use on Seu Jorge’s tours?
[Ronaldo] For many years, I worked in recording studios, where I heard JBL loudspeakers. I think that may have influenced my fondness for JBL VTX and JBL VerTec systems. We always prefer to use a VTX system for our shows. We also travel with three Soundcraft Vi6 consoles, and those are non-negotiable. In my opinion, the Vi6’s Studer converters are the best I’ve heard. They provide a lot of smoothness to instruments that have a lot of transients. With the Vi6, I have the ability to make music sound just the way it should.
Jorge’s tour is currently using the biggest rig in Brazil, and we rely on our partner, Gabisom Audio Equipment, to handle it. We also work with a great team of professionals from Freak House, who produce major festivals in Brazil and support our shows. Our technical manager is Tobé Lombello.
[MM] You’ve been an important part of the Brazilian music scene for many years. How did you get your start in the industry?
[Ronaldo] In the 70s and 80s, I had an uncle who owned a big recording studio in Rio. I used to play ball in Copacabana Beach, and to keep me away from undesirable company, my mother insisted that I study in the morning and work at my uncle’s studio at night. I started there when I was 13 and have never stopped working with sound or studying electronics.
From the time I began in music, I really liked the electronic elements of songs. One day, I heard a Pink Floyd album and spent several sleepless nights thinking about how the sounds of birds, coins and gunshots had been inserted into the songs. These days, I consider audio effects my forte.
When I was 18, I began working at RCA Victor Studios in Rio, which was really the foundation of my professional experience. With 36 years in the industry, there’s still much more I long to achieve in the studio and with live concert sound.
[MM] Are there any current technical trends you find particularly impactful?
[Ronaldo] In recent years, there have been many important innovations. The new system alignment software applications and the use of plug-ins in live mixes have been particularly important for concert sound. Also, improvements in speaker coverage have made a dramatic difference for audiences. Systems like the VTX line array ensure that everyone in the venue can hear the music. It wasn’t like that when I started out in this business.
Many thanks to Ronaldo for his insights into working with Seu Jorge. Are you a front of house engineer who works with an artist who changes the set every night? Share your tips and tricks in the comments.