Trio at The Alto

On a warm Tuesday night, we provided the musical backdrop to this function of about 300 delegates from the Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum at the lovely Alto Event Space on top of the old Melbourne GPO.

Playing background music for big networking functions like this can be tricky. On the one hand, we need to add plenty of energy to the room to create a sense of occasion and keep everyone relaxed and happy and ready to meet people and exchange ideas. On the other hand, 300 people in the same room being relaxed and happy and meeting and exchanging ideas make rather a lot of sound in their own right. It takes some experience, some equipment and some finesse to create the mood that the event needs without entering into a volume arms race with the crowd you’re supposed to be entertaining. When the room starts to fill up, it’s too easy to keep nudging the band’s volume up, which in turn forces people to speak louder, and before long it becomes impossible to hear either the music or the fellow delegate who is being forced to yell into your ear from an inch away.

So what’s the solution? It’s a little hard to see in the video, but I’m using six speakers for this function. There’s a subwoofer on the floor behind me on bass, four speakers on two stands to either side of the band, and a monitor wedge on the floor in front of us. The four speakers on stands are placed high, set at low volume (very important) and angled to cover the whole area. No matter where you’re standing in this L-shaped space, or outside on the balcony, you’re hearing from one of these speakers directly (because it’s pointing towards you and it’s over the head of the people between you and it), but quietly, such that it doesn’t intrude on the conversation you’re having. The subwoofer is putting out a carpet of rhythmic low-end sound which is loud enough to fill the room, but deliberately tuned to emphasise those nice warm parts of the bass spectrum which sit below even the deepest speaking voice, so it’s not competing with conversation. I tend not to use singing in this context, for a similar reason – at a networking event, the audio space used for voices is best reserved for that networking to happen. The monitor wedge is an important part of the equation too – it’s deliberately set a little louder than the four front-facing speakers, and the trio clusters around it so that we’re listening from fairly close range. That allows us to maintain an accurate perspective on the mix even when the conversation volume gets quite high, so we can keep playing in tune and in time and without the deterioration in sound quality that tends to happen when musicians are struggling to hear themselves.

The repertoire we choose is another piece in the puzzle. As guests are arriving, and the general sound level in the room is quite low, we keep things fairly bright, so that we can add to that little frisson of excitement which you get when the lift opens and you walk into this unique space where everything looks lovely and attractive people keep offering you food and wine. Then as the room fills and delegates get down to business, we shift into a slightly mellower gear, present enough to provide a warm and friendly backdrop to proceedings, or to enjoy if you stop and have a listen between chats, but deliberately making way for the central business of the evening. I’m always watching the guests to make sure they’re not having to lean in to each other to make themselves heard.

Thanks to AUIDF and The Alto for creating a great event!

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