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Mackie Goes Folk

The North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance (Folk Alliance for short) is an organization of various communities involved in the presentation and preservation of folk music and dance. Initially established in North America, it has spread world wide. The focus of the organization is to increase public awareness of the importance of folk traditions, roots, and branches, and to create and promote new opportunities for those who make folk performances possible - the artists, presenters, promoters, instrument makers, and organizations.

February 15-18 brought the 13th Annual International Folk Alliance Conference to Vancouver, British Columbia, and Mackie was there. Here's the story:

I'm mostly a recording guy, but I love folk music and frequently find myself volunteering behind the PA console at folk festivals and concerts. While working at Mackie during last year, I made friends in the local folk music community and had the opportunity to test drive some Mackie Active speakers (literally, tossed them in the back of my car) at a few concerts and square dances. I knew how great they sounded on rock music, but I was also impressed with how accurately they reproduced acoustic music.

Inspired by Mackie's participation in the Rockrgrl Conference 2000, I suggested that they become a sponsor of the Folk Alliance and use the Conference music showcases to demonstrate Active speakers to the working folk music community. After all, there's no better demonstration than to let artists listen to, and play through the gear.

Folk Alliance Conference days are filled with workshops, panel discussions, seminars, and trade show exhibits, but at night, the Hyatt Regency turns into a huge folk festival with over 100 simultaneous performance showcases nightly, held in individual hotel rooms, suites, meeting rooms and lounges. There were over 750 performances over the three day affair, and Mackie provided sound equipment for seven of the larger showcase performance venues.

As easy as it is to set up a Mackie-based PA system, events like this require considerable planning and coordination, and much credit goes to Stephen Darke, the A/V coordinator for the Folk Alliance. Three months before the conference, Stephen and I started exchanging e-mail messages about the performances and the spaces to be covered. We decided that the best approach would be to employ as much common equipment as possible. This would facilitate last minute swaps from
room to room (there's always that three piece band who asks for four monitor mixes an hour before the show), and to have some backup in case of disasters (and no, there weren't any).

The Mackie-sponsored performance venues ranged in size from a modest 25x30 feet to an odd-shaped 25x80 feet, with performers ranging from solos through round-robins to bands with drums, electric, and eclectic instruments. Riders dribbled in, rooms were surveyed, and a plan came into focus. We chose SRM450s as monitors for all the rooms. Mains were handled by one or two SR1530s per side in the two largest rooms, while the smaller rooms got SRM450s. Most consoles were CFX series of assorted sizes, with the larger rooms getting Mackie SR244 consoles.

All monitors were mixed from the house console, not unreasonable when stage volumes aren't extreme. While we tried in pre-conference communications with the groups to limit them to two monitor mixes, all the systems were capable of four independent mixes. The Active speakers made it simple to re-configure for acts that were uncomfortable with the simplicity that we like to think is associated with folk music.

Since Mackie doesn't make stands, direct boxes, cables, or outboard processors, those were provided by Vancouver sound company, FM Systems. While there were no requirements for extensive effects or other signal processing, we wanted the sound engineers to be able to add a touch of reverb if necessary. The built-in effect processor on the CFX consoles was fine for the task, while the SR consoles were augmented with small racks with a reverb and a couple of compressors just in case.

The day before the conference all the systems were cabled, tested, sorted and packed at FM's shop so that setup would go quickly. If you've ever dealt with conference hotels, you know that they all have A/V contractors who don't even want to see any outside sound equipment on their turf if they can handle the work under their contract. The combination of advance planning, the uncomplicated setup afforded by the Mackie Active speaker systems, and FM Systems' efficient crew made setup and teardown quick and hassle-free.

Because the Folk Alliance is an organization composed nearly entirely of artists, promoters, and management, this was a tough audience to play to. Everyone needed to sound great, they all know how they should sound -- and know when something's wrong. As the on-site representative, I was flitting from room to room to be sure there were no problems. The Mackie systems came through with flying colors.

Of course excellent equipment is important, but much credit is owed to the group of mix engineers brought in for the event. They had good ears, good taste, mixed competently and creatively, and kept volume levels sane. (Some of the rooms were mighty close together, and spill was a potential problem.) Some groups came with their own sound engineers, though the FM Systems crew handled the majority of the mixing chores.

While the bulk of the artists were singer-songwriters, bluegrass and old time string bands, traditional ballad singers, blues bands, Western swing, Japanese drummers, and Hawaiian slack key guitarists were well represented. There was a large contingent of artists from Germany, Australia, and Scandinavia, as well as Western Europe -- and of course the US and Canada. It's rare to hear this wide a range of musical genres at even the largest folk festivals.

Being a professional conference, naturally there was a trade show, with most exhibitors either looking for bookings or looking for acts to book. This isn't a splashy show like NAMM, so Mackie kept a fairly low profile (with me as the sole representative).

While Mackie consoles are well known even in the relatively low-tech folk world, the Active speakers were new to most of the players. I knew we were doing something right when dozens of performers came up to me at the trade show table and told me how good they (and others) sounded when playing through the Mackie gear. These are people who know good sound and eat incompetent sound engineers for a bedtime snack -- so their compliments were genuine.

Because most of the attendees are more interested in making music than pushing around electrons, they don't study the audio and stagecraft publications like many Mackie customers. Having a company brain to pick was something new to many, and impromptu sound system workshops sprung up around our little booth. Discussions ranged from "I don't understand all the controls on my equalizer" to "We're really far up in Alaska and we need a sound system that we can pack in by dog sled when a Jeep won't make it". It was clear that Mackie made some friends, and hopefully some new customers.

Next year's Folk Alliance conference will be in Jacksonville, Florida, where I'm looking forward to conducting a hands-on sound system workshop. I'm sure Mackie equipment will be there.


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