Atchafalaya Swamp

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Best Seat in the House

I'VE GOT A CONFESSION TO MAKE: I MUST BE MAD. Music mad. While disaster spirals all around us, all I could think of was the concert. Thanks to my brother in law Adrian who was assisting the FoH (Front of House) sound engineer I had the best seat in the house, sitting behind Donal Hodgson (the brilliant Grammy-winning recording engineer who engineered and mixed Sting's latest effort), Sunil (in charge of the mixing board) and Kumar who ran the lighting.

I am proud to say that both Sunil and Kumar are Malaysians; Sting and Hodgson were impressed by their reputation and decided to use their services. Sunil’s day job is technical director for Media Prima’s 8TV but he confesses to make more ‘on the side’. The other Malaysian in the team, Andrew Warren, co-owner of the sound and lighting outfit, along with Jay Neil, both of whom I had the pleasure of meeting.

Actually I had known Andrew far longer. A few years ago when I lived in Bandar Sri Damansara (where his offices are located) I sort of barged in his office to chat. I've been known to do this sort of thing for no reason. Actually I saw crates of Meyer sound equipment (hi-end sound reinforcement gear for concerts, and I profess to know a bit about studio gear) being carted off a small truck into his office. I was intrigued so I walked in and accosted the guy. Yeah, just like that. In the course of our conversation it turned out I had also known his father Tony Warren (during my 'pub-crawling' days) who was -and still is - a popular entertainer in the Klang Valley pub circuit. He says dad still performs occasionally at the Selangor Club.

Being of the curious sort I satrted pelting him with questions: how did you get into this line of work? Both he and Jay are graduates of SAE (School of Audio Engineering) and were among the first employees of Petronas Philharmonic. Being pioneer Stage & Production Managers with the spare-no-expense oil giant has its benefits: they were sent to London's famous Abbey Road studios for additional training. Abbey Road is where the The Beatles recorded their classics, in case you didn't know. After six years in Petronas they decided to hang their boots and form a company. And the rest, don't you just hate this cliche? - is history.

Their roster of satisfied customers reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary music: Diana Krall, Yellow Jackets, The Chieftains, Freddy Cole, Lady Smith Black Mambazo, Michael Jackson, Ricky Martin, Scorpions, Michael Learns to Rock, Deep Purple and now the former schoolteacher Gordon Sumner aka Sting. Not to mention local Media Prima sponsored events and even taxpayer-sponsored excesses like Citrawana of which I’m not certain if the rakyat ever got their moneys’ worth. But I’m not going into that that .

But that night, the day before Muslims celebrated Eid actually, was indeed special. To my untrained and damaged ears (from spending too much time on a drilling rigs) Sting's tenor soared beautifully, and the backing 8-member Stile Anticos choir was simply exquisite. The human voice couldn't impossibly be better. Why I say this is because Sting and The Stile Anticos are superb musicians. In this day and age of desktop recordings and digital studios most of what you hear on CDs (Britney Spears, Kanye West etc), especially the vocals, would have gone through a sound plug-in in the recording phase called Auto Tune. It automatically correct pitches in instrument or voice. Not with these incredibly trained musicians, no sir. There were no other instruments to clutter the mix so it was mostly human voices to the accompaniment of the lutes and arch lutes of Edin Karamazov and Sting.

Ah, the 'lutes. Indescribably resonant; every harmonic scrape of Sting's and Edin's fingers against the fretboard was clearly heard in the mix. The lute, by the way is closely related to the Arabic oud, and is also related our humble gambus. Adrian pointed me the mix console showing an -11 dB range ... Whoa, what superb dynamics! Every breath, every rasp from Sting's soulful tenor rang clear. But KL Convention Center's Plenary Hall probably played a part too with its excellent hall acoustics, that's probably why this venue was chosen over, say, Putra World Trade Center.

Maximum seating is around 2,000 for the hall but I think the crowd was less than half of that. Most of your secondary school concerts probably had more people attending. Sting isn't doing this for money; he had just finished a year-long Police reunion world tour that grossed almost half a billion dollars in revenue. I was at the Police concert last February
where I saw Sting, Stewart Copeland and a fit 65-year old Andy Summers jumping around like teenage hooligans, playing to packed and enthusiastic audience of 10,000 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. So that's twice I saw Sting play live this year. I'm embarrassed to say that the ticket costs there ran into four figures when converted into our money. But for music mad people like me it was worth it. Or so, I deluded myself into believing.

For the most part I’m reviewing the sound, not the music itself because my vocabulary is sorely lacking when it comes to accurately describe subtleties and nuances of classical 16th century music. The album, Songs from the Labyrinth was written by John Dowland, an English court musician in the late 1500’s. It was pointed out to Sting twenty years ago by guitarist Dominic Miller (his regular guitarist on his solo albums) who even commissioned a lute to be made for Sting as gift. Sarajevo-born Edin Karamazov, considered one of the world’s greatest exponents of the instrument prodded him further into re-discovering Dowland, whom Karamazov described as “the best songwriter and lyricist in the English language”. And that got Sting hooked.

The lyrics are indeed beautiful, and all songs we hear today can be traced to Dowland. It’s very contemplative and melancholy and deals with pain, loss and alienation. Sounds familiar? What’s true 500 years ago still rings true today.

I suspect many in the crowd were disappointed, especially if they came to listen to Sting play ‘Roxanne’. For the encore he did make a small concession and played a very stirring acapella version of ‘Fields of Gold’ and ‘Message in a Bottle’, accompanied only by the choir and lute. When he strummed the first few bars of Fields, all of a sudden the clapping became more enthusiastic. I shook my head in disgust; not because I don’t like these songs but this isn't the forum for it. It appeared that he wanted to appease the ‘Oh-Sting-playing-tonight-just-let’s-go’ crowd coming to hear him play ‘Englishman in New York’. But I don’t blame him; he’s an entertainer after all.

For many who came to enjoy classical music (me included) was duly rewarded. And no million-dollar hi-fi system can ever replicate the superb dynamics of a live acoustic set. Best of all the sound and lighting engineered by Malaysians for one of the best artiste in the world.

And to Andrew, Sunil, Kumar and Jay, you guys make me swell with pride. And thanks for the best seat in the house, guys.

From Left: My brother-in-law Adrian, Sunil and Kumar

(photos taken with my son's cheap compact Minolta)

Note: During the sound check earlier in the afternoon Sting came down to their mixing console to listen in. All three confessed to being tongue-tied and star-struck. Who wouldn't?

I conveniently stole Sunil & Kumar's Sound Engineering, Lighting Design & Stage Notes from their console which was given by Sting earlier. Interesting to note what Sting likes to have in the dressing room.


Zawi said...

Mat Salo,
I am so impressed with you. You seems so knowledgeable about the sound system. I think a switch of job will be necessary. Do you think you can recover from the damage to your hearing so that you can be trained to become a sound engineer?
All this while I thought Roslan Aziz is the best sound man and now I know who is the bigger name.
I love to gaze at sound system at any function especially the mixing consoles. I am always amazed at how they manage to manipulate the system to suit the occassion. With so many microphones, feedback is of course the biggest problem. I guess using the state of the art equipments did help. Not even a Shure was listed. Sting will only use DPA 4023 and specifically the AKG 414 or similar for the backup singers.
They have lighting plots too. I wonder if local artiste are that me. Even to the dressing room details! I am lapping it all up.

muteaudio said...

I didn't know about this concert until it came out in the papers. I heard about the concert in S'pore and didn't expect him to come up here in KL.

mekyam said...


i was going to say the same thing as pak zawi. you're in the wrong trade. or the music industry, both front and back, lost out to big oil. shame! ;D

i didn't half get what i read, but enjoyed every bit of it due to your smart but relaxed prose, per usual.

had to go through some parts twice just not to lose grip of the discourse though. don't have much mental traction for things technical, yours truly. but i can be one determined beeatch when i want to understand. :D

de minimis said...

Mat Salo

Happy Holidays! The post is awesome. Sting's the best.

Mat Salo said...

Bang Zawi,

Er, bang, not so knowledgeable lah, just gleaning bits and pieces here and there.

Roslan was the best, but he's gone on to producing, event management etc. In fact, Man Bai of Gersang fame is considered top-notch too. But of course these guys are already busy being artistes, bang. As for Sunil, Kumar, Andrew and Jay, they chose to specialize in their respective fields and happy to remain behind the scenes.

As to the equipment, you know each DPA 4023 mike costs 2000 USD? They are very precise directionally, close miking so you don't get feedback. Actually even our local artistes are using these equipment now, not just Sting & Co. The equipment is the same, but what sets them apart is the talent! Macam camera juga laa bang, I can use a RM 15K Nikon D3 (body only, no lens) and my pictures will still come out crap!

Yes, getting the stage notes was quite a coup for me!



Too bad bro', you would have loved it.



Greetings from the Straits of Makassar to the Big Apple?

Er, MY, you're right. Re-reading my verbose prose I found tons of holes in it. Yes, it meanders, losing the plot and going nowhere in places. Will try to do better next time, he he.. Thanks for pointing it out ya, because if you had to re-read parts of it then there must be something wrong. Again, appreciate your comments very much, as always.

How's X'Mas in NY? Reminds me of Sting's 'Englishman in New York'.. ha ha.


Bro deminimis,

Thanks for stopping by bro'. I am silent reader of your excellent blog but the intricacies of economics scare me. Thanks again, and yes, the guy is one of the most accomplished musicians on the planet.

Mior Azhar said...

wow.. you one lucky man! must be awesome giler!!!

mekyam said...


absolutely nothing wrong with your writing. it's neither verbose nor meandering, but very readable as always.

the comprehension problem was all mine, due to being in unfamiliar territory. you see, my relationship with music, musicians, musical instruments and singers is only at the level of knowing what please my ears but not the wherewithal to explain why. :D

J.T. said...

Now, why does the name Tony Warren sound so familiar? I am getting too old to recall the late 80s and 90s. I know it is not the liquor that has diminished my memory. :P

Auto tune - so that's what makes some singers sound flawless. Many a time I found some of these singers (I want to call them 'fly by night singers' but I better not as I am not professional myself) having pitch problems when they go live (one group I remember so clearly is the Spice Girls - concert on TV). This makes me wonder if they (not confined to just the Spice Girls) really possess good vocals.

Thanks an interesting piece.

J.T. said...

Correction .. Thanks for sharing an interesting piece.

fazemy said...

Wahhh can laern about sound system here. Good to found your blog. hu