Usually, I am mixing the concerts. However, we are also trying out a thing or two here in the studio as far as the sound is concerned. I also record some of LENNA's rehearsals live or listen to the band. Afterwards, we sit down together and talk about it.
The sound DNA of LENNA
Timo Hollmann, LENNA's live mixer, talks about his practical experience
How is the band's sound actually created, its sound character? Not only theoretically, but in practice - between rehearsal room and stage? Is there a (big) difference between studio and live? We have asked the longtime mixer Timo Hollmann of the pop rock band LENNA from Bremen, Germany.
Hi Timo, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a sound engineer and run Harbor Inn Studios in Bremen, Germany. In 1989, I started recording demos with my own band and had my first jobs in the event industry. Then, it all developed from there. I took every opportunity available for further education and training. In the meantime, I was on worldwide tours with bands as a live mixer or as a tour and production manager. I worked with acts like Donots, Mando Diao and indeed with LENNA.
What do you do for LENNA?
What does LENNA sound like?
You can immediately hear where the band is coming from, just by listening to the voice. There is a high recognition value with LENNA. A pop sound, energetic, good vibes, like a sunny day down by the water. The sound is of course created between the band and everyone who mixes and accompanies the band. I add my expertise because I know beforehand the effects of certain sounds and plug-ins or how frequencies might interfere with each other.
How actively do you advise the band on the sound?
I can always contribute something because I also work for other bands and musicians, such as ETA LUXin Bremen and get to hear a lot. During rehearsals, we can already discuss any interesting elements going through Tammo or Alenna's head. Maybe new effects or samples, sound elements from other bands and how they can be implemented on the Kemper, microphone and keyboard. In the end, the decision is up to the band. Therefore, I always say: do not be formed by other people's musical taste.
The fans in front of the stage will notice whether musicians on stage are really enjoying a song and are fully behind it or not.
How is the sound created in the first place?
The sound is of course mainly created by the band's songwriting and by choosing the instruments in general. And then there are musical idols. The band can of course make suggestions, just like other artists do. Then I bring along my expertise to apply it to the sound.
You have been with the band for a long time. What is the process like when LENNA is writing new songs?
LENNA's musicians write the songs quite classically at home and record a demo there. The demo is put together on the computer with a programmed drum kit to get a first impression. At some point, they will go into the studio with it. The real drums and real amplifiers are subsequently added. Nowadays everything is layered: we add an acoustic guitar underneath to support the attack of the clean electric guitar a bit more. In this case, we only take the high attack from the acoustic guitar as a character, for example. However, I do not mix the releases for LENNA which are outsourced to other mixers. I mainly focus on the live perspective. This is often along the lines of: what do I want to hear, how dominant should it be? Piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar? Which part do we want to pick up particularly loud in the track: the downstroke from the acoustic guitar, the voice?
What has to be considered when you mix live?
We sit together and think about how certain recordings of the album can be played live and which backing tracks we need. The band has downsized and only consists of 3 members for now. Thus, we sit together and jointly think about how we can give the sound more space on stage.
Generating a good live sound is the more difficult part. In the studio, you can basically do whatever you want. You can optimise every track. For live performances, the concept has to be spot-on every second. There is no second chance.
Can you elaborate on that?
In the studio we have got a lot more possibilities, i.e. we can layer keyboards, pianos and several guitars. Then you can have a look at what else you need from the variety of effects and plug-ins in order for the sound to appear less like playback and still provide a vibrant and dynamic song. Sometimes we try this out in the studio, even before recording for new albums.
Can you give us an example of important live contents?
Alenna, the singer, sings and plays the keyboard. However, if she would play the piano live throughout some of the songs, she would be glued to the piano in her role as a singer. Thus, she would not just be stationary, but also be sitting down. This would make the performance a lot less dynamic. Therefore, we have to precisely discuss with the band beforehand when the piano comes from a loop and Alenna can sing freely while running around or standing on stage and can include the audience. She could of course play everything on the piano and sing at the same time. However, this would not be the best solution.
The band always decides together after rigorous assessment whether a part comes from a backing track or is played live.
Does your work get any easier if there are less people on stage?
I think it depends on which mixer you ask. A lot of colleagues probably say that less people on stage facilitate mixing because there are less channels. Sure enough, the workload is probably less. However, it is not as exciting. And personally, I find it even harder.
A power pop band like LENNA must, of course, have a certain presence. Personally, I prefer large bands with lots of channels. I am more of a creative person and try to participate a bit, also to create things. If you have less people on stage, there are less possibilities to get every last bit of the band's potential. Thus, I am a fan of large bands with horns, choir and all that jazz. In my opinion, it does not get any easier by having less channels. At the end of the day, as an FOH mixer, I am also responsible for making sure that everyone has a great night and that the band sounds good enough to sell T-shirts and other merch.
You said that you like to create: how profound or how detailed are the requirements made by band members with regard to the sound?
At best, you have got the band's full trust as a mixer. They know, of course, what I did in the past and where I come from. Things come up, such as: "Tammo says that part XYZ still sounds a bit pale or empty." From my previous experience I know what needs to be changed. But as I said, you always have to bear in mind: the band has to implement it on stage in the evening, too. Nowadays, you are not recording one piano in the studio and that is it. Three pianos are recorded and then layered. Each track has got its own character and after being layered they create a particularly dynamic and unique sound.
What makes LENNA's sound so special? What do you have to consider when you mix the band live?
Alenna's voice is quite special. It features a remarkable presence, especially in the upper range. On stage, you have to accompany that a little bit; often with a compressor in the upper midrange. It dampens strong overtones and controls the volume level a little. Alenna can really sing and she delivers a very powerful voice.
With some singers, you have got to amplify to get more width. Rather the opposite is the case with Alenna because she has got such a wide dynamic range.
After all, a wide dynamic range for a singer is good, right?
Yes, of course, but the band is playing both loud and quiet songs on stage. There are loud and quiet instruments. Another factor is that the audience can be very loud or there may be other background noise. Then, I sit there and have to arrange everything to deliver a perfect sound. A very dynamic voice needs an attentive mixer. You can use a little more compression than on the record, turn the level down a little in order to accompany a quieter acoustic guitar, too.
Are there any other weak spots you have to consider for the sound?
It is rather the whole setup instead of having problems with individual instruments. Bands who do not make that much money yet and are on the road with three Sprinters, often have sound equipment designed completely for travelling. Kemper amplifiers, a small mixer, in-ear rack with presets, microphones, cabling. This all fits comfortably into one caddy and you can set off. It requires an overall concept which can also work in a small space.
With presets in the mixer and Kemper amplifiers, I could provocatively ask you: what are you actually doing at the FOH?
Well, the location is the most significant difference from one show to another. Outdoors, indoors, small room, big hall, high ceiling, low ceiling, bare walls, curtains. My big advantage as a mixer who knows the band: I also know their songs. I know which part comes when, where a backing track is and what comes from Ableton. LENNA also does its rehearsal here which I also put into the studio and into the control room at the same time. I also know the best way to carry out a sound check. You also have to consider how the band is feeling that day, especially vocals and backing vocals. They sound different every day and also different in every location. In that case, you will have to make slight adjustments. Maybe, you will have to add a delay in the right place. On stage, individual band members can also turn the in-ear monitoring up and down themselves. However, this is only done in an emergency. I even control that, too.
What is the biggest difference between indoors and outdoors when working with the band?
You have no restrictions from any walls or ceilings outdoors. Sometimes, you can of course have restrictions in courtyards at city festivals. However, this is rare. Hence, I am not fighting against standing waves there which means that you can mix a bit more freely outdoors. Indoors, I have to see where the reflections are and how well I can counteract them. As a mixer, you have to decide: what do I do now? Do I leave it like it is in order to deliver a vibrant sound? Or do I take the standing waves from the sound pattern? However, doing this will result in missing frequencies. Therefore, which frequencies can I take out without the sound pattern to decay?
Have you got any musical idols regarding your sound?
Yes, of course. However, we are probably not influenced by whole albums. Instead, there are individual elements or songs which influence our sound. Some of it is hip-hop or something completely different. The singer-songwriter Schmidt has got a few elements which we like, or Mine from Mannheim. It is not power pop, but it provides inspiration. A great deal of LENNA's inspiration comes from indie pop-rock.
Virtual instruments on record or not, the audience wants to hear it live on stage. Thus, it is not worth buying expensive synths, plug-ins or keyboards for the recording.
Are effects still that expensive nowadays?
First of all, you should consider whether it is an effect you really want to use more often. With small bands, it is a question of money. Buying something just to try it out once is not really an option. In the end, it is no use if you invest in the band with full throttle for a year, just to be broke afterwards. It also takes time until your band gets a proper salary and can play big concerts. The record companies do not spend as much money anymore. And if they do, you are likely to have an adhesion contract. Therefore, LENNA still does everything itself. And I totally welcome this.
You said that you welcome this. After your 30+ years of experience, would you advise bands to stay independent for a long time?
Once upon a time, the biggest goal in life for every garage band was a record deal. This way of thinking is still widespread. However, a contract with a record company is no guarantee for success, not even for a small success.
Young bands forget this very quickly. CD sales have plummeted and this was where a record company used to be particularly supportive: with the distribution. Thus, record companies want the all-in carefree package nowadays, i.e. participation in T-shirt sales and everything else. The question is always: what does a band get from the record company and what does it have to deliver in return? At the end of the day, even smaller record companies do not have as much money anymore to fully support young bands. Thus, you may as well consider doing everything yourself and take the complete proceeds.
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Headergraphik, Copyright by Patrick Schulze