How do you engineer your way into the circus?
- Host: Rose Kerr
- Guest: Christian Peterson
** Cue music (intro theme)
Rose Kerr – Welcome to the Particle Podcast where we talk about size and the people who just love it. My name is Rose, and I’m pretty obsessed with music. Which is why I am so excited to be joined by Christian Peterson. He’s a world renowned sound technician who got his start here in Perth. He joins us on the Particle Podcast to talk about how he ran away with the circus because it sounded good. Stay tuned. So, welcome to the podcast.
Christian Peterson – Thank you. Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
Rose Kerr – To start off with, as always, what do you actually do?
Christian Peterson – Well, my role at the moment is with Cirque du Soleil.
Rose Kerr – In case you’ve got no idea what we’re talking about or need to jog your memory, Cirque du Soleil is a world renowned circus that started in Quebec, but it’s been traveling the world for decades. It’s very contemporary, known for its magical looking costumes and impressive acrobatic routies. Sound is a huge part of its storytelling.
Christian Peterson – I’m on a show called Corteo, we perform in arenas all around the world. My role at the moment is production stage manager. Although before that, I was the head of sound. And so the head of sound which we’re talking about today, sound involves setting up all the speakers, mixing the show, and coordinating with the musicians. How it’s supposed to sound and make it happen every single week.
Rose Kerr – That is just the kind of job you never hear about when you’re at school. Like how is that a real job?
Christian Peterson – Yeah, I remember being in school and kind of telling people because I think I was convinced that I wanted to do sound probably by the age of 14 or 15. I remember you get a couple people every now and then saying, “Okay, but what are you really gonna do? Like what’s your real job gonna be?” And and I get that I think that’s anything in the arts industry, you probably get a little bit of a pushback on that, but.
Rose Kerr – And how do you become like a sound engineer?
Christian Peterson – Well, I mean, there’s lots of different ways. I’ve met people who have been doing sound from playing in bands as a kid to people who have gone and studied it on a, you know, on a level like acoustics. And there’s other people who kind of get into it by pushing cases around at gigs to earn some money on the side, I think everyone has their own kind of unique story about how they get into it. And sound in general is such a diverse profession, depending on whether you’re working in a studio, or live on the road, or post production, anything like that. They’re all such different career pathways. So I think everyone’s got their kind of unique little story.
Rose Kerr – And how did you get into it?
Christian Peterson – Yeah, when I was younger, I obviously played a lot of music. And it was sort of a natural progression to start recording bands myself, mostly. And from there, I found some people who would let me go to them with their gigs and help set up microphones and speakers and it all got very interesting very quickly. And I was enjoying it lots of late nights on school days and, and things like that. And after a while, I decided that was really what I wanted to do. I started looking at what would I do after after high school. And I ended up studying at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) here in Perth, which was fantastic. And then from there, I worked in a number of different roles, mostly in the live sound industry, sometimes a little bit in studio. And then that ended up taking me to Cirque and I’ve been with Cirque for about three years now.
Rose Kerr – That’s so cool.
Christian Peterson – Yeah.
Rose Kerr – And when you’re at uni, those practical degrees, especially through WAAPA, when you look in the windows of those places, you see the most bizarre classes going on. What was your uni structure like? Do you, sit there listening to things? Are you learning how to use equipment? How does it actually work?
Christian Peterson – Sure. It was pretty interesting. I think everyone has this idea of how university would be for them. And I feel like my time at university was much more enjoyable than someone doing, I don’t know, a finance degree or a business degree. I seem to have had more laughs when I talked to my friends who are going through those right now. You know, it was it was a lot of fun. But obviously a lot of hard work as well, we worked on lots of productions. One of the great things that WAAPA does is all of the student productions, whether it’s the musicians, or the actors or music theatre, all the technical roles on those shows are filled by students studying technical production, at WAAPA. And that’s fantastic, because that’s kind of as close to the real thing as you can get in a university setting. Because you’d end up working those long days, long nights, you know, all through the week.
Rose Kerr – Troubleshooting.
Christian Peterson – Absolutely troubleshooting, you know, that’s that’s absolutely right. So that was really great chance to learn in that environment. But I remember we had a blast. It’s such a wonderful school and you look at so many other people’s actors and personalities have come from there. It’s really a vital part of, of WA.
Rose Kerr – Was it an undergrad course like what is it?
Christian Peterson – Yeah, I did an advanced diploma okay at the time, but I believe now you can study a degree.
Rose Kerr – Yeah, interesting.
Rose Kerr – Do you remember your first big gig?
Christian Peterson – My first big gig?
Rose Kerr – The one you got excited for. Whether it be in high school when it was a band you really loved or maybe after uni, first job?
Christian Peterson – Yeah, I do actually. I remember when I was on a school camp. I think I was 14 at the time. There was a, there was a show down in Margaret River. And it was Roxy Music were playing. And to be honest with you at the time, I didn’t know anything about Roxy Music or who they were. But apparently a lot of people really enjoy this band. So well, I was on a school camp and our role was to set up all the chairs and pack them up at the end of the night and there was two nights of shows. And I went down there and again, I kind of had an idea that I liked sound I like to music at this stage, I had a bit of an idea of what I enjoyed. And I remember sitting in front of the stage, looking at some of the sound equipment for just that bit too long until someone came up to me and said “Oh, do you kind of enjoy this kind of thing?” And I said, “Yeah, I think it’s what I want to do when I’m older.” And he’s like, “Okay, well, next week, we’ve got a, we’ve got a festival” (and it was Soundwave festival). “Would you be interested in doing some work?” And I was like, “Absolutely!” “It’s on a Friday.” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s fine!” You know, knowing I had school on a Friday. So of course, you know, at home “Mum, dad can I take school off on a Friday!” And, you know, lovely parents they are, they said, “Yes.” So I went down there and I was setting up lights on the show, something I’d never done before like not even close. I had no idea. The closest thing doing lighting I had at that time was turning the switch on in my bathroom, right? And doing it in time with some music. So I think I was there for something like 18 hours or something ridiculous. It was a super long day. And the next day we came in for the show. And I remember being asked to do follow spots or lighting, for I think it was Slayer, like in the grid. And you know, I remember just going, “Yeah, sure, that sounds good,” but having no idea what I was doing. But it was that day that I ended up just walking around the festival site. This is you know, if anyone listening was involved, I’m really sorry, I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do. But I ended up walking around the festival site. And I saw a band like Queens of the Stone Age, Slash, there was all these like Iron Maiden. You know, there was all these really huge bands who was suddenly just meters away from me. I remember there was an adrenaline I kind of felt that day of like, “Yeah, this is cool. This is what I want to do.” Inevitably, I didn’t end up doing lighting at all, even though I think there was probably a time where I thought yeah, this is what I’m doing now. So I did end up getting back into sound and kind of worked my way to doing those sorts of festivals again, a lot more professionally. (laughs)
Rose Kerr – Huh, that’s really interesting. So people diversify. into kind of lighting or sound or different things, rather than doing all of the above.
Christian Peterson – Yeah, I mean, if we take a festival like that, or any real live show in an arena or venue, you’re generally looking at a number of different disciplines, if you will. So you’ve obviously, in my case, you’ve got sound, you’ve got lights, videos, now very big these days, in a number of different ways. You have stage managers, and then there’s all the, you know, production liaison, production managers, musician techs, there’s a lot of different kind of specialties that go into just producing one show one band. And the bigger the show the more people and the new technologies that come out, then more people again It’s ceretainly interesting seeing big arena shows and big stadium shows coming out with new technology. And you start to see, especially these days, people who are in industries that have nothing to do with live shows, coming on tour because they do this niche little thing that they’re ending up using on stage.
Rose Kerr – Yes, so you got to be really good at teamwork.
Christian Peterson – Yes, very much. Yes, absolutely.
Rose Kerr – It sounds like a dream lifestyle, touring bands like fun times. But what challenges are there?
Christian Peterson – Well, at the moment with Cirque du Soleil. Well, not right at the moment because we’re a little bit quiet given the circumstances. But a typical week for us on an arena show with Cirque du Soleil. Because we’re not under the Big Top 10. So we have different styles of shows, we’re in arenas. We travel to a different city once a week. So we usually travel on the Sunday night or the Monday, we’ll generally have that day off. Tuesday, we load in the show, which is usually about a good 12 to 13 hour day to build the whole the structure and put all the speakers in the air and lights and everything. The Wednesday we’ll have rehearsals and make sure everything’s set within the venue because the venue changes every week, obviously. So it’s a very different building. And then we’ll have a show Wednesday, Thursday, and then we might have two on Friday, two on Saturday, two on Sunday. And then after those two on Sunday, we pack the show up, we put it in all the trucks and then we get on a plane or get on a bus and go to the next city. So in the end, the amount of hours you’re doing alone in that week is pretty crazy. I don’t think I’ve worked a 40 hour week in my goodness, a very long time, like it would it would feel like a holiday almost actually. But it is a lot of fun. And there’s some wonderful times to be had, but you’re definitely looking at very long, busy weeks. Whether it’s mixing the shows, setting it up, maintenance is a big one, you know, things break and things need to be fixed. So, yes, it is a dream job for me. It’s a lot of hard work, but we have a lot of smiles.
Rose Kerr – Does it ever get? Well, I mean, it would get exhausting, but is it strange not having a fixed home?
Christian Peterson – Yeah, I it’s funny because recently I’ve been spending a lot of time at home and I look at my cupboard and I go, “Oh, I kind of miss my suitcase”. (laughs) I think anyone in the touring industry will possibly agree with me, that there’s an art and a real enjoyable kind of vibe around like, suitcase packing. And that kind of like the style and what you bring on tour. Everyone has their own little things they like to bring. Some people like bring their aeropress for coffee. You know, I’ve got a folding bike because yeah, it was cool. It is fantastic. I love it. Well, you can fit in a suitcase. So it’s a Brompton if anyone owns them. So everyone has their own little things they love to bring on tour and there is a sense of home that you have within that. There’s also a sense of home and family and the people that you tour with as well. But you know, that always has its challenges. When you work and live with the people every day, the everyday of the year but no, it’s it’s wonderful. You’d have to be good at socializing. (laughs) You don’t have to be but, uh, I think it definitely helps.
Rose Kerr – Yeah, definitely.
Rose Kerr – How is science involved in what you do?
Christian Peterson – I think what’s really wonderful about sound. And this is definitely one of the aspects I love about it is that it is such a blend between the technical aspects, so science really, and art. If you look at what a sound person or sound technician or engineer will do on a on a live show, it starts with the beginning of the day, you walk into a room. So let’s talk about arenas. Given that’s the show I’m on. You walk into an arena and an arena is just giant, a big giant warehouse, essentially, very rarely is any arena built with beautiful sounding reverb in mind. You know, there is always a certain level of acoustic design and from the architectural side, but but in reality, I could probably list you know, less than the number of fingers on my hand number of arenas I’ve walked into and gone “Wow, this room sounds, that sounds wonderful.” So we have to spend a lot of time making sure that the sounds and the music and the dialogue and the speech that we reproduce is going to be intelligible is going to make sense. Isn’t gonna be, you know, just sound like it’s in a bathroom essentially. And you can really come across some venues where that’s difficult to do. But to give you an idea of how we do this, we are at the beginning of the day of what we call the “loading day”, the riggers who are trying to work out where the show was going to go in the building and fly everything in the air. We will come in with a with a Distometer, like a laser tape. So you can find an angle of height and distance with a laser. And what we’ll do is we’ll measure the audience planes. So we essentially build either a 2D or a 3D replication of what the audience looks like in the room. Yeah. And there’s some very clever ways of doing this quite quickly. And then once we have those planes, we can then work out how loud and the tonality to a degree, of what it’s going to sound like for the audience because as we said, every venue is different. So every sound setup we do probably needs to be different to cater for that. Let’s say Perth arena, Perth arena has people who might be standing on the floor. And then you have sort of two levels of seating for the audience. But if we go to say Pepsi Center in Denver, it’s much bigger again. They’ve got about three levels of seating. So we’d obviously have to deploy a very different system. Now, if you’re putting a lot of energy from speakers into places where there’s no audience, you end up just adding noise to the room, and all that reverb and all those echoes can end up really impacting from the the actual sound you want to present. So that’s a really important part of what we do. There’s some venues that do sound beautiful, some that don’t. And that’s always a challenge for us.
Rose Kerr – I’ve never considered that first of all, that arenas wouldn’t be made for good sound.
Christian Peterson – Well, I’m sure there’s some architects out there who are going “Well hang on a minute,” you know. There is always a certain level of consideration, but I would say there’s probably more consideration on the leather of the seats, than there is on the decay time of the sound like, if I’m honest.
Rose Kerr – That’s really, I like I knew it was a science, but that just takes it to a whole ‘nother level, the tech side of things. How… have you ever walked into a room and been like, “Okay, I have no idea how to tackle this”?
Christian Peterson – Yeah, so yeah, there is one. And this is another kind of weird rule of thumb that anytime a room sounds terrible, it’s usually because it looks beautiful, right? Because I mean, if you imagine anything that’s got a lot of glass involved in design, probably has some nice visual aesthetic, probably doesn’t sound very good. You know. I remember walking into the Festhalle in Frankfurt, which is this beautiful, old building that was used for many different historic moments, you know, throughout the 20th century. And it is essentially a cavernous room, where you clap your hands and you can hear it 20 times, you know. Now you can imagine trying to put a drum beat in there.
Rose Kerr – Oh no.
Christian Peterson – It’s really hard to tell what they’re actually playing because you’re hearing the drums so many times over and it becomes really difficult to distinguish what is the direct sound, and what is just the the room’s tonality. But again, it was a beautiful space to play in. And our show looked wonderful. Like I think it was one of the nicest looking places we were in. So it was kind of a trade off, you know, and a bit of a balance with that. But on the other side of that, in Bordeaux, there’s a building I think it’s called the Arkea Arena. And I remember walking in and it felt like walking into a music studio, like almost like someone just gave you a hug. And I remember walking and going, “Oh yeah, this is gonna be great. This this room sounds fantastic.” And it ended up being the nicest sounding space we’ve been in a very long time.
Rose Kerr – How would you describe a good sound? Like, what’s something, how is a sound good?
Christian Peterson – I suppose that’s pretty subjective first of all. But everyone hears things differently. But I think there’s going to be some spaces where you walk into, and you go, “Okay, this sounds nice” because you’re talking to someone and it’s clear, and it’s full sounding. Or, you know, for us, when we put speakers up in the room, we might play some songs which we call reference songs, a piece of music we listen to often and enjoy. And so we can use that as kind of a reference, much like our own voice. And you play these, these the music, and it might be that you hear some little nuances in the voice or, or some space around the drums, that is really crucial to the recording. But in a less than ideal room, you might not hear them as much because it’s a bit more, it’s muddied up, it’s a bit more cloudy, and that cloudiness might come from a very reflective room. So there’s a number of different ways to kind of decide whether or not you think a space sounds good or not. I mean, it’s funny because people always talk about singing in the shower, and how beautiful that sounds. And but for me actually reproducing music through speakers, I would hate to put them in the shower because it would just cloud that that sound. But I think that’s why people enjoy it because it puts a bit of cloudiness around their voice. No one ever likes hearing their own voice, myself included. And so it’s really it’s subjective in that sense. Because what might sound good for one thing might sound terrible for another application.
Rose Kerr – In a team then, how do you decide, for example, for a show that ‘Yes, that’s the way we want it to sound’?
Christian Peterson – That’s a big part of what we do. So in a show like Corteo Cirque du Soleil or any Cirque du Soleil show, in the creation of them, there is a sound designer. And the sound designer will come in and design where speakers are going to be placed, what microphones are gonna be choosing, but also to a very large degree, how the show will sound musically. And there’s always going to be a dialogue between composers, the musicians themselves. But it is then the design that we have to take on the road. And it could be for 15 years. We need to replicate it as faithfully as possible. It’s very difficult to do when you have changing people all the time changing venues that we just said, there’s all these challenges. You have to use a lot of common sense as to when when something is necessary or not. But in the end of the day, there is a sound design done for when the show was created. And we are there to reproduce that for the audiences as close as possible.
Rose Kerr – Yeah, a reference to always come back to.
Christian Peterson – Absolutely.
Rose Kerr – So upon walking into the planetarium, what were your first thoughts in terms of sound?
Christian Peterson – Well, the planetarium has been designed as a theater or like a movie cinema, if you will. So it’s got a very, almost a dead sound, which is great for music production, reproduction through speakers because you’re not in this cavernous, echoic chamber. However, if I was to bring in an orchestra in here, you might think it sounds a little bit dull. Because if you go to an opera house, it’s quite the opposite. It’s actually designed to be quite expansive in its in its reflections and sound. But if you put a rock show in a in a opera house, it’s probably not going to sound very good for those same reasons. So it’s not that something sounds better or worse, more so it’s that something sounds suitable for the application in which you use it. This planetarium is a fantastic sounding room for reproduction of music or speech through speakers in the building, but I wouldn’t use it for an acoustic performance. Or you could, I mean, that’s the thing, it ends up just being totally down to your subjective thoughts and opinions. And that’s why, you know, you look at music studios, they have a big room, and a small room and all these different size rooms to get different size sounds because they all have their own place, but it’s just how you use them that gives you the perceived beauty of how it sounds, I suppose.
Rose Kerr – What sounds or sound production inspires you?
Christian Peterson – I think the wonderful thing about sound is when you don’t think about it, which is ironic, given, we’re talking about it a lot, but I never want to see an audience member come and see a show and walk away thinking about anything other than the music. I mean, if someone says, “Wow, that sounded amazing”, that’s great. That’s really cool. But I’d much prefer they said something like, “Wow, I really loved the music, the music was fantastic.” Or even not mentioned anything about it at all. Because if you’ve got people thinking about the sound, it’s usually because you haven’t done something very well or you’ve usually kind of stuffed up in the show. And especially when you have a performance like what we do, where we have characters on stage, they’ve got microphones and it’s vocal reproduction. And the way a vocal or a piece of speech sounds through a microphone and through speakers is actually very unnatural. It’s it’s really unnatural. You never listen to anyone by sticking your ear up to the side of their mouth about an inch away and telling them to shout at you. So if you have someone who sees a show and they don’t think of anything other than the naturalness and how it just flowed all together and the speech was there and they heard everything accurately, that’s kind of you’ve done your job 100%.
Rose Kerr – You almost want no credit. (laughs)
Christian Peterson – Kind of. Yeah, you almost do. It’s we should really be heard and not seen I think it’s it’s the way for us that’s why probably why we wear so much clothing, black clothing rather.
Rose Kerr – Yeah, exactly.
Rose Kerr – What has been considered kind of tech breakthroughs in your industry?
Christian Peterson – There’s so many and it also depends on the industry too. Much like it depends on if you work in studio or post production or live sound. In live sound, the things that are probably the most fashionable in the technological sense at the moment is, is stuff like 3D sound or immersive audio. So you go and see a show, you go to your favorite band, and they usually have speakers. And they’re on one sort of 2D plane, you have a left and a right much like our ears, and you kind of you’re listening to a stereo reproduction. But in all honesty, most audience members in an arena are really only hearing a mono reproduction because unless you’re standing right in the middle of those two speakers right in the middle, where that may be the sound engineer standing, you’re not really going to get that stereo image that we all we all love. But there has been some really interesting projects by mostly the speaker manufacturers themselves, in creating 3D replications of things on a 2D plane. It’s very interesting, but if you want to look up there’s stuff like L-Acoustics, or d&b audiotechnik, there’s a French and a German brand respectively. They have products that are doing a lot of great 3D immersive sound in a live aspect. So you can be standing looking at a band on stage. And you can really see where the sound is coming from through a bunch of different trickery, but also putting surround speakers around the building and maybe put some cool effects through those speakers. And we do this on a lot of the Cirque shows. It’s been a norm in the sound designs for years, putting stuff like reverbs or sound effects so that you kind of feel like you’re immersed in the space and helps create that reality of wherever you are. Or maybe it just helps to bring out the emotion of the music. It could be used in a number of different ways. In stuff like studio recording, people are starting to make these amazing records with much higher fidelity than we did maybe when mp3s first came out and people started moving from analogue technology to digital. Nowadays, the content is so much more dynamic and diverse in tonality. We went through that era called ‘the loudness war’ where people were trying to make albums as loud as they possibly could, so that they could, you know, get it on the radio and more, and they’d be the number one hit. And I think we’ve actually started to come away from that now, with people making more beautiful sounding albums that aren’t squished and compressed and loud because that’s what people demand.
Rose Kerr – What do you think is the future of sound?
Christian Peterson – Well, I hope the future of sound is used for good. Given recently, especially around the world, I’ve seen a lot of those high frequency emitters around restaurants or bars where they emit these really loud high pitched frequencies, I suppose to deter people from congregating and loitering. I remember, I was walking through somewhere in Germany, and we’re looking at a restaurant to go to with a number of friends of mine. And I said, “Can we actually not go to that one because it’s really loud that sound”, and it was very obvious to me but I had a couple of friends who are a little bit older who were kind of like “Oh, what are you talking about?”
Rose Kerr – Yeah, I could hear it. Yeah. (laughs)
Christian Peterson – Like they absolutely couldn’t at all. And they were kind of really confused as to why you wouldn’t want to want to eat there. I think that’s really sad. You’re using sound, you know, you’re actually like, playing with someone’s senses to kind of deter them. But what I would love to see is the continued advances in high fidelity in the consumer market so that when people listen to music at home, or on the train, or essentially anywhere, that the emotions that the musicians and producers and composers are trying to evoke are much easier represented and better represented. You know, I’d love to see that happen in the live industry as well, where people go to see shows that they’re just amazed by the performances. And again, amazed because they’re not thinking about the sound, but because they feel like they’re immersed in it, in the music.
Rose Kerr – You’re obviously quite passionate about what you do. It comes across really quickly. But right now, so many live shows are canceled and you can’t go on tour anymore. How have you been engaging with those passions and what you love doing but in a home setting?
Christian Peterson – Yeah. It’s been a challenging time. I honestly wake up some days going, “Man, what am I doing?” And it’s been really tough to see lots of friends who are going through some really difficult times as well in that regard. I mean, it’s difficult to see an entire arts industry completely knocked out and to no fault of their own really. And we’re not the only industry but we’re definitely the first ones to go and we’ll probably be the last ones to come back. That’s just the reality of it. At the moment I’ve started a podcast much like your own the “CP Audio podcast” and I’m talking to lots of people in the sound industry and got a few episodes up now. And that’s been really fun to not only connect with some of my friends around the world, but also talk about what they do and, and the industry. I’ve been playing music myself, you know, going back to what I was doing when I was younger and playing a lot of music which I don’t get much time for on the road. So that’s been really fun and spending a bit more time in the studio doing that kind of sounds. It is very important to not lose sight of the fact that, you know, there is work to be had, it’s just not there right now. And I think lots of the consumers, such as myself of the of the sound industry, have been doing lots of online learning and things with a lot of the producers of, you know, products and manufacturers. And they’ve been fantastic. You know, all these companies that produce microphones or speakers or mixing desks have put out a lot of great education and information recently, and this whole webinar kind of genre has really taken off by them. So, you know, that’s been fantastic and actually it’s been great to see that a lot of younger people in our industry now have access to this kind of learning because we didn’t really have too much of it before. You’d have to go somewhere in the world to get this wonderful training. Now people can do it from their home and you can have so much knowledge at your fingertips. So difficult times, but every crisis brings good opportunity, I suppose in some way.
Rose Kerr – You can do a bit of learning.
Christian Peterson – Yes, absolutely.
Rose Kerr – Or you could take a rest.
Christian Peterson – Yeah, that’s, that’s true. I’ve done with the rest. (laughs)
Rose Kerr – Yeah, it’s been a while now.
Rose Kerr – What kind of misconceptions do you think there are of your job in your industry? Maybe from reception of when you tell people what your job is?
Christian Peterson – Well, I’ve definitely told people that I’m not the DJ more than a handful of times. But actually, you know, I think if you can’t beat them, join them and I think DJs have a wonderful a wonderful career. I would love to be a DJ! I couldn’t think of anything better. How much fun would that be?
Rose Kerr – Yeah!
Christian Peterson – You get to listen to my music for an hour and a half, I get to dance around the stage. And like, that just sounds fantastic. So really, I’m just actually secretly envious. I think there’s, there’s a misconception that all I do is kind of rock up and push some faders and turn some knobs and magic happens. And you know what, I’m really glad that that’s what it seems like because again, that means I’m doing my job. You know, people aren’t thinking about it. As long as I don’t look panicked things are things are okay. So that’s good, you know, but I think we have an obligation to make ourselves, you know, look calm and relaxed when we’re doing our job. Because, once again, sound is so subjective, and it’s really hard to explain troubleshooting of sound in in a conversational way with someone who isn’t technically fluent in those things. So a large part of our job is to make ourselves very approachable and relaxed around others, you know, even in times of great stress when things aren’t going so well.
Rose Kerr – What’s the closest thing to a disaster that you’ve ever had happen? Or maybe it was just a straight up disaster. (laughs)
Christian Peterson – I do remember doing one of my one of my really early shows where I was kind of like the only one there. And I really had not done a show of this scale, definitely not on my own. And I kind of look back at it and laugh now because I’ve done shows much bigger than this now. But I learned the hard way that having your iPhone on silent, but using it for music, the ring will still come through the headphone jack. Because I was using it for house music when the audience walking in. And suddenly, I don’t know. I think my mum or my girlfriend at the time someone of significance in my life called and I remember just dropping whatever I had in my hands and running but then halfway through the run, you realize maybe I shouldn’t be running so it looks like a more calm about it.
Rose Kerr – Like it wasn’t your fault?
Christian Peterson – I’m kind of doing this weird kind of stroll to try and turn it off. And yeah, luckily people laughed if anything, but that that’s pretty unprofessional. I mean, I definitely learned from that. But I’ve had other times where, you know, a microphone has broke mid-show on the main character right before it comes out and speaks for 10 minutes. And that’s, that’s a pretty obvious issue, if you don’t have any dialogue coming through from this from this character. You know, we’ve done crazy things like okay, just find any microphone, you’ve got and stuff it down the shirt, and, you know, we’ll see what happens and you put the fader up and you go, “Here, goes nothing!” And you don’t know whether it’s gonna feed back. You don’t know whether you’re gonna hear anything at all. You know, I’ve had some funny moments, you know, but most of the time, most of the time we have some way of fixing it, and especially at Cirque, especially in these big productions, there’s always gonna be a plan B at a minimum, if not a C, D, E you know, the list goes on. Redundancy is what we really call it, is really, really crucial what we do, because you never want to have a show stop, you never want to be late for anything. You never want, you never want anyone to wait for sound. So it’s very important to have these backups that you can you press one button, and that fixes that or this goes down, but this automatically comes back in. There’s lots of these little tricks we can do. And you might spend hours working on this to save yourself from one little disaster, but that’s really where it pays off.
Rose Kerr – How do you deal with, do you have to do things like put multiple mics on?
Christian Peterson – Yes.
Rose Kerr – Yeah, okay.
Christian Peterson – Depending on importance, in a music theater show, maybe your lead roles will have two microphones on them, and two transmitter packs to transmit the signal. So that there’s redundancy on the microphone and there’s redundancy on the transmission of that signal. I mean, I’ve seen shows where they’ve got a backup front of house like mixing console. So if one console goes down, the other one’s still running, you know, the bigger the show, the more likely you will have those things. The other thing too, though, is that if you bring doubles, you’re paying twice as much for rent or twice as much to buy these things and sound stuff isn’t cheap. So you kind of have to make these decisions on what is going to be. You know, what things you’re going to put redundancy in, and what you’re going to live with, you know. If something has lasted 10,000 shows and never gone down once, do you really need to put another one? Maybe.
Rose Kerr – That explains a lot though, when you’re at a gig and you see all the sound techs like moving across the stage and they look like…I’ve always thought “Wow, they look really calm”, but I’m glad to know that sometimes they’re not. They’re just really good at hiding it.
Christian Peterson – No! I mean, looking calm is probably more part of the job than using your ears sometimes, actually. I mean, when you’re starting out in sound, it’s very common to be to be running a role known as “patch”. And so you’re patching in all the microphones, and you’re patching in everything that needs to go everywhere. And it’s like a big game of goodness, I don’t know. But it’s a big confusing mess of cables that could be labeled, most likely aren’t. And you’ve got 10 different bands during the day that they all want things patched in different ways and different mics. And your job is to make sure that all those line up correctly with the right things every single time for the whole day. And that can be very, very complex and very, very overwhelming for people. But your job at the end of the day is to fulfill that role, patch everything as it should be, and do it with a with a smile, with respect to the people you’re working with. And at the end of the day, if you have no issues, you’ve done your job more than 100%.
Rose Kerr – Exactly. And hopefully sometimes when you’re at a gig, people clap for you, when you’re just testin out the microphone. (laughs)
Christian Peterson – Well yeah, you definitely see those moments where, you know, someone comes out and they’re sort of directing lights or they’re checking the microphone. “Hey, one, two”, and everyone’s cheering them. Yeah. I can tell you from firsthand that is more embarrassing than anything.
Rose Kerr – I thought it would have been fun!
Christian Peterson – Yes, I suppose. I do remember there was one time where the MC didn’t rock up to a series of concerts that I was doing. And I made the joke saying that if the MC doesn’t rock up one day, I’m doing the I’m gonna be the MC. And of course, it happened. And it was on my birthday actually. And it was very funny because I think I pronounced the sponsor’s name wrong. And I know that the sponsors were sitting in the front row, and they were laughing at me, but my understanding of French pronunciation, let alone English apparently, was not very fluent.
Rose Kerr – I think they can let you off for that.
Christian Peterson – I’d like to think so. (laughs)
Rose Kerr – I’ve got some questions that are from the rest of the Particle team. So these are a little bit different, a little bit out of the box, some of them.
Christian Peterson – Bring it on.
Rose Kerr – We’re gonna get into them. So are you or what do you think of the people who swear they can hear a sound difference if, for example, the cables rolled up differently, that kind of attention to detail.
Christian Peterson – Ok.
Rose Kerr – Is that real?
Christian Peterson – What I’ll say is that cleanliness and neatness always sound better.
Rose Kerr – Or does it just feel better?
Christian Peterson – Well, you have to define the difference, right? So much of what we hear is based on our perception, and it’s based on our sight as well. You go see a show, and you’ve got someone standing on the stage. But you’re sitting in a spot where the speaker is a little bit off to the left or the right. If you hear their voice coming from your left more than they are coming from the center of the stage where their mouth is, it’s going to sound unnatural. Even if it’s really loud and clear. Now, you might have that same sound coming from the stage, but it’s slightly less clear and less loud, but that’ll probably sound better, because it sounds more natural, right? So if I was to go see if I was going to set up, say a band and I’d set all mics and cables up really neatly and beautifully. The band’s gonna rock up, well, tech’s are gonna rock up and they’re gonna sit at their instruments or what have you. And they’re not going to actually think about anything other than just playing the music or just, or just being there doing what they need to do. I mean, if if I’ve got cables hanging over things where they’re having to duck and weave and move things out of the way, you’re distracting from the the art that’s about to go on. So in that sense, yes, it plays a huge part in how it sounds! On a technical, you know, we’re talking sound waves here it whether or not the cable is going left or right or is coiled nicely. No. But in the end, I’d say it makes a huge difference to what we do.
Rose Kerr – I’ll take that. I’ll take that. I believe that. What’s your favorite sound?
Christian Peterson – So I suppose the question’s like “What, sounds do you find pleasing?”
Rose Kerr – What do you think of ASMR?
Christian Peterson – ASMR that’s interesting. I kind of watched a few of those. And I find it really bizarre that it’s taken this long for people to put kind of like a term that’s widely used on that kind of genre that I think we’ve all kind of known about subconsciously, you know, but yeah, sometimes they kind of creep me out a little bit. I suppose it depends on the subject matter. But as far as like sounds that are pleasing, you know, something that really… laughter, you know, is pleasing, you know, babies crying, maybe less pleasing, you know, finger nails down a chalkboard, you know, and, you know, why is that sound displeasing? Well, maybe because we don’t want to run our own fingernails down a chalkboard because it feels bad. And so we hear that and we kind of we invoke a feeling in ourselves, it’s actually a physical response we get from that. So I suppose it’s the way that sound makes you feel or makes you react and the way you internalize that it’ll determine whether or not you like it or not, you know, some people have very traumatic experiences and sound as a memory is a huge trigger for them. So, you can imagine why people will react one way or another that way. But sometimes, you know, the sound of a loved one’s voice, or the sound of your favorite piece of music might bring back positive memories. And so therefore you like that, again, it’s so subjective. I think everyone will agree, though, that the sound of a cork popping in a wine bottle is only a wonderful thing. And we should go forward with that in our lives.
Rose Kerr – Do it more. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to put a microphone on? (laughs)
Christian Peterson – (laughs)
Rose Kerr – I imagine it’s quite a long list.
Christian Peterson – Yeah, slightly askew. And so yesterday, I was recording some drums with a friend of mine. And we were looking we looked to deaden the sound of the toms and we decided, “Okay, we’ll get some tea towels to put them on the on the skins.” And I’m standing at my drawer, looking at the vast array of tea towels, and it was the first time I’ve ever wondered of the tonality of a tea towel. So I picked three different tea towels that I thought might have different tonalities and we sort of coined one was the 60 sounding Ringo tea towel and one was the, you know, more modern tea towel and but the most bizarre thing I’ve ever put a microphone up in front of. I think one of the most bizarre times that I’ve ever had someone very frantic about, you know, the placement of the mic or putting a lot of attention to it was there was one band that had a full drum kit, lots of mics, full bands, and they had this triangle that had this really expensive microphone on it. And the the band’s engineer spent like, you know, a good 30 seconds placing this triangle mic. Now 30 seconds in a live sound environment, particularly in a festival, 30 sec you can get a lot done in 30 seconds. So while you’re spending 30 seconds getting the triangle microphone, which is a way like, you know, over the top choice of microphone mgiht add to this case for a triangle that I think was hit once because believe me I was watching. I was like, “I’m excited to hear what kind of song comes out!” Yeah, it’s gonna be, you know, it’s gonna be like the Foo Fighters triangle solo in that live album, they did. No, it was hit once. And I tell you right now, no one heard it. So you have times like that. There’s obviously some very interesting and bizarre circumstances of putting microphones on people, depending on their costumes or what they’re doing. Very early days of sound design. I believe it was Abe Jacobs who’s sort of, a lot of people refer to him as sort of the grandfather of sound design for theater. He was putting and I could be totally wrong here, but he was putting microphones on the dancers in Chicago on their feet as tap microphones. So he actually ran one transmitter pack and had two microphones going down their legs. And so that captured the sound of the of the tap dancing during the show. There’s been lots of examples of that. Some people put what we call boundary mics or plate mics along the front edge of the stage to pick that up. But that kind of stuff is kind of left of field. So you have to kind of think about it differently. It’s also you have to think about it in a way that might be really unnatural because how we hear someone tapping their feet in a tap dancing show might be from six meters away. And that sounds normal to us, doesn’t sound very normal when you stick your ear next to their foot, you know? So you have to kind of treat that a bit differently. You have to do things to the sound to make it sound natural, even though your mic is very close. That comes into it a lot. Same with miking drums. No one ever listens to a drum set by putting their ear in front or inside of the kick drum next to the snare, you know, you don’t listen to it with eight different ears. But if I put one single microphone in front of a drum kit in someone’s bedroom and put that on an album, you say, “Wow, the drums don’t sound very good, do they?” But it might be the most natural representation of what the drums sound like to the average listener. So this hyperreality actually is not reality at all to how we know it and how we perceive it.
Rose Kerr – That’s so interesting. What was your first CD?
Christian Peterson – My first CD that I bought?
Rose Kerr – Yeah.
Christian Peterson – I bought I think it was Green Day’s “American Idiot”.
Rose Kerr – Oh fantastic!
Christian Peterson – Which is so funny because like, I could probably play that album and sing you every single word. But I remember buying that album and thinking, “Well, that’s weird. There’s all these great songs on there, but you only ever hear three of them on the radio.” And that was a lucky album because they had three on the radio. But I remember that was the first time I really thought about, well, actually, there’s so much more music than just the singles I listen to, but my goodness, I would have been quite young at the time. After that, I think it would have been a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. Yeah.
Rose Kerr – What have you been listening to, I guess since isolation started that you’ve be like, “Oh, that sounds so good!”
Christian Peterson – Yeah. Okay. I do have three, three wonderful women. The first one is Laura Marling. She has an album called “Songs for our daughter”. It is incredible. I don’t know how this woman can evoke so much emotion through her voice and guitar playing. It’s really really amazing. And she is interesting because a very modern recording technique would be to record all the instruments and then record the voice at the end or, you know, if you’re singing and playing guitar, you’d record them separately to get a better tonality of each and focus on them. She is adamant that she must record both at the same time, but it involves a very high caliber of playing ability. And to hear how well she plays the guitar and just how well she sings at the same time. It’s pretty phenomenal. So I recommend you check that out. Another one is a woman named Angel Olsen has got a really cool album called “All Mirrors”. Really dark and lots of strings and yeah, a bit different, but it’s been really cool. And the last one, which I think has been my on repeat, has been Hayley Williams from Paramore. She’s got an album called “Pedals for armor”, and the production in there is incredible. The theme she talks about are really deep and moving but there’s a wide range of kind of different sounds going on. There’s kind of something for everyone there. Yeah, I’ve been listening to those a lot.
Rose Kerr – How do sound cancelling headphones work?
Christian Peterson – So sound canceling headphones, which a lot of people love on planes and noisy environments, they work by nulling the sound pressure within this sort of chamber that you create like a vacuum on your head with the with the headphones. And so a lot of the incoming sounds from external sources kind of gets reduced a lot. You might hear lots of low end rumbling, or you might hear the occasional short and sharp sound because those sounds are a bit harder to kind of null in that environment. But you’re essentially playing with the the sound pressure in your ears. You’re actually you’re actually putting out more sounds to perceive less. It’s kind of interesting. I actually find them very uncomfortable for that reason, I feel like there’s sort of like this pressure on my eardrum and especially if you kind of move them in and out. You can kind of hear it reacting like that. But yes, Active Noise Cancelling which is what it’s called, because it’s actively trying to cancel the noise. I find uncomfortable. Some people love them. You know, there’s lots of different headphone manufacturers who make these great sounding active noise cancelling headphones. I prefer what’s called passive noise canceling, whereby you just have a really good seal on them. Or maybe you have in ear monitors or like headphones that are molded to the shape of your ears. But and you know, I really enjoy listening through those because they’re comfortable, but they also reduce a lot of the sound and don’t have that pressure, but each to their own.
Rose Kerr – Where should you stand at a concert, for the best sound?
Christian Peterson – For the best sound? Well, it depends because the best sound for you might be the fact that you’re two meters away from the artist. But really in in retrospect, the closest you could be to hearing what the intended mix is gonna be as close as you can get to the sound technician mixing the show. The closer you get to them, whether at the back of the room or the front of the room. The closer you stand next to them, the more likely you’re going to be hearing a reproduction that is what they’re hearing. Doesn’t mean it’s the best though, depending on which part of the room they’re standing in, but you’re definitely gonna be hearing what they’re doing.
Rose Kerr – Yes.
Christian Peterson – But I’ve been at some concerts, where standing down the front, it’s just been magical. Seeing the performance has been really great visually. And that’s made me remember it as such a great sounding show.
Rose Kerr – Very true again, with that thing of you shouldn’t be thinking so much about what’s happening with the sound.
Christian Peterson – Yeah, but it’s okay to think about it.
Rose Kerr – (laughs) You’re like please give me some credit.
Christian Peterson – (laughs) It’s okay.
Rose Kerr – I’ve asked you to prepare a fun fact. And I’m particularly interested because, as we’ve spoken, I’ve realized there’s just so much more technically to this topic than I ever could have imagined. What is your fun fact?
Christian Peterson – Well, I think we’ve actually talked about it a lot already. But it’s that sound is absolutely subjective. No one hears sound the same way. That could be biologically. That could be because of your experience and how you feel. How sound makes you feel. That could be how you’re seeing it, as we’ve all said. It’s very important to remember that no one will hear the same thing. And no one will react the same way to what they hear.
Rose Kerr – Does that not make your job hard?
Christian Peterson – It does make the job hard in the sense that if I want to create the best possible sound for an audience, there’s going to be people who have to have a lesser experience than others purely because of where they’re seated or because of the environment they’re in. You have to make very large brushstrokes in those decisions, because not everyone is going to hear the same thing. But that’s kind of a nice tool and a nice thing to remember as well. Because if you spend too much time trying to get things to sound, absolutely even for every audience member, you’re actually going to be doing yourself a disservice because you’re going to be manipulating it probably too far beyond the point of what you actually intended in the first place. There’s this saying that less is more with sound. If you take er someone playing a guitar, and they’re singing and you think it sounds wonderful, and you put some microphones in front of it, and you put it through some speakers, it might still sound wonderful. And you can do lots of different things to make it sound one way or another. But the more you manipulate it, the more it’s going to be different from how it was intended. And sometimes, that is not a good thing.
Rose Kerr – Thinking about your work with Cirque, was that crazy to get that job? Like they’re phenomenal and they’re world famous!
Christian Peterson – Yeah. Look, Cirque du Soleil is a wonderful company. And I remember seeing shows when I was a kid, I think Quidam or Saltimbanco was the first one I saw. And I remember being blown away. I’m like, “What is this like, this world exists?” You know? How amazing! You’ve got beautiful musicianship, you’ve got this wonderful environment you’re in. The acrobatics are incredible. It’s such a beautiful blend of lots of different arts and technical feats as well. And I remember, there’s a show called Kooza that was touring Australia a few years ago. And it was in Melbourne and they were about to come to Perth next. And I flew over to Melbourne, and I went and saw the show. I brought a resume along because by that point, I had a bit of experience in sound like I’d done some pretty decent gigs and, and I kind of went up to the sound engineer, and I said, “Hey, you know, I live in Perth, Do ya need someone?” Then long story short, they did need someone and so my first day was about two weeks later in Perth with them. And those guys are really good friends of mine now and I miss them dearly. And that show I was on for just while it was in Perth for a few months. But during my time there there was already talk of, “Well, hey, they need someone on this one!” And so I ended up getting the job on that one. And then in between during those two, there was another one that appeared and it kind of didn’t stop since then. It was kind of just snowballed. They’ve got so many shows around the world. And so it’s a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. A little bit of creating your own kind of opportunity. And but there obviously is knowing what’s going on. You have to know how things work. And but there’s a lot to be said about the attitude that you apply towards, towards work in that industry.
Rose Kerr – Absolutely. Because you have to put yourself out there.
Christian Peterson – Yes.
Rose Kerr – And then be willing to be like, “I’ll do whatever you send my way”.
Christian Peterson – Absolutely.
Rose Kerr – “I’ll go to that country, I’ll do that thing. I’ll spend months somewhere else.”
Christian Peterson – Yeah, totally. Months, if not years away from home.
Rose Kerr – Yeah.
Christian Peterson – The last few years I’ve had about sort of a week or two, maybe once a year, which is, you know, I miss home a lot. And I missed my family and my friends a lot. But there’s this other family I also have on tour and, and friends there and work and it’s wonderful to be doing that as well.
Rose Kerr – What do you hope to achieve in your career?
Christian Peterson – What do I hope? You know, I don’t do what I do for anyone else. But it gives me a lot of joy when people have a positive experience working with me, or experiencing shows that I’ve had a hand in and involved in. I’ve always viewed sound and my role as a technician as being a service. Whether it’s a service to the musicians, whether it’s a service to the audience, it could be a service to a number of different people. But we work in a service industry. We’re trying to bring someone entertainment, you know, that is essentially what we’re doing. Everything we do comes down to, “Did the audience have a good time?” or “Were the musicians comfortable on stage?” And I suppose, as long as I’m meeting that obligation, I’m going to feel like I’ve done the right thing. You know, it’s really fun to see people enjoy the work you do and have and connect to something, whether it be artistically or technically as well. It means a lot.
Rose Kerr – That’s really wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining us.
Christian Peterson – Thanks for having me. It’s been so much fun.
**Cue music (outro theme song)
Rose Kerr – Thank you for listening to the Particle Podcast. You can find more of our content on all of the socials as well as at particle.scitech.org.au. This episode, as always, was made in the wonderful science hub that is Western Australia and Particle is powered by Scitech.