Andrián Pertout speaks to Sydney 2000 Olympics audio director Bruce Jackson about his beginnings, and his work as sound engineer for Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley.
Emmy Award winning sound engineer and licensed pilot Bruce Jackson can not only claim to be Barbra Streisand’s first choice as engineer, but also a favourite with Bruce Springsteen in the 80s and Elvis Presley in the 70s. His is a career that actually begins in Sydney, Australia, where at the age of eighteen, and together with Channel Nine’s technical planner Phil Story establish the Jands (or J and S) Production Company in 1968. The partnership culminates in the development of Australia’s first concert sound system, and guarantees their everlasting mark on the Australian music industry. Five years on, in the land of the free, he is bestowed with the job of sound man for none other than the legendary Elvis, and in the next decade, his sonic wizardry is elevated even further within his association with Bruce Springsteen. As the follow-up, he is then adopted by Barbra Streisand, the highest-selling female recording artist ever. This year, he returns home on board Barbra’s first Australian performances in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as to be a part of most prestigious gig, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
How did your end up living in the US?
BJ: ”I went to the US in the early 70s, after I sold Jands. I’d also met up with Roy Clare of Clare Brothers, when he was in town doing Blood Sweat & Tears, in either ’69 or ’70. And this was the first time we’d seen one of the big overseas PAs in Australia. Everything before that was the stuff that we used to make, which was columns. Dynacord and all these other companies were just basically producing speaker columns. I knew a way through the back fence, and so I took a friend of mine, Russell Dallas. We climbed over, checked it out, and were just amazed. So I went up and started talking to Roy Clare. They were a very small company, but Clare Brothers was now by far the most dominant sound company, and he said that he would like to leave the PA here and do a Johnny Cash tour coming up. It was going to be about six months later, and he asked if I would I mind looking after it and helping him out. I was glad to do that and learn about the new technology. I ended up doing that tour with him, and he said, ‘When you come across to London, stop off in the States if you like, and visit.’ And so I did, and ended up staying. I was very young, but helped out with electronic ideas and designs, and also went out on the road as an engineer. It was at the same time when Elvis Presley had just started touring again, and was using different sound companies at different areas, like a regional situation. And fortunately, everything went well when I did the shows.”
Mixing for Elvis must have been some experience. What memories do you have of this significant period of your career?
BJ: ”It was over a six year period, and it was hard work. I remember it was hard work, and you are not particularly aware that it’s a big deal at the time, other than it’s great fun travelling around on that level. You know, because the police loved him so much we’d have the police captains and sergeants, and everyone running us around. And no one toured on the same level, with four or five jet planes. And we used to have like the Playboy plane. So I’d go out with him, and the limo would pull up, you’d walk the stairs up to this black plane with a bunny on the tail, and there’d be the bunnies in there serving us. It was just an amazing lifestyle. And over the years I got to know him real well, so that was a really good experience. And in hindsight I realize how lucky I was, but at the time it was like lots and lots of shows, hundreds of shows, and a lot of hard work.”
It has been said that you have been purely responsible for pioneering the high quality stadium sound for the Streisand and Springsteen tours. What is involved logistically at this large scale?
BJ: ”Well, Bruce Springsteen was an uptight performer, and so I would hold his hand a lot, explains things to him, and work with him. And then on the other side of things, he would then support me. But he was very uptight about going from theatres into arenas, and wanted to make sure that everything was as good as possible. And that’s what I love to do, I love a challenge. So he’d come in and say, ‘Why doesn’t it sound so good when I get in back here?’ You know, why don’t I hear the hi-hats? Why isn’t it crisp and clean? I said, ‘Well, the super highs get absorbed over distance more than the bass frequencies.’ He said, ‘What can we do about it?’ And I said, ‘We can do a lot about it.’ So we came up with this unique scheme of putting delayed super highs out in the house. And what happens is that the sound then goes out from the speakers, and just as it is starting to get rolled off in the high frequencies, it is boosted up by these high frequency drivers. And consequently the people in the back get this much higher quality sound than what they would normally get with just the big stacks up the front. And we kind of took that further and further, and then when he was so big, like on the ‘Born in the USA’ tour, and we were going to do dozens of stadiums, he said, ‘I want to make sure that we have the best stadium sound.’ And I said, ‘Great!’ So I designed this very overblown set of delay systems, with eight delays up on poles. And we set a new standard for live PA in stadiums. And in fact, quite a few tours tried to do it after us, and the promoters were howling, saying ‘Look, Springsteen came around and did this, he had all his delays, and did it this way. And you’ve got to do the same thing, because people can’t hear as well.’ So since then a lot of people have copied it.
“And what we’re doing is taking it even further with Barbra, and it was the same sort of situation with her. She was uptight about going and playing at all, let alone in big arenas. So it was the same deal, where she said, ‘I don’t care what it costs, I just want you to make it right for me.’ So for her I developed these new monitors. And she had said that she hated everything that she’d ever heard since the 60s, and I thought, ‘That’s interesting. The common thread there as far as I’m concerned is compression drivers.’ You know, the metal drivers with horns. And back in the 60s it was all cones, and with my other company, Apogee Electronics, I had developed a bunch of digital audio stuff, but also, we were distributing Klipsch monitors, which is the big studio monitor in Europe, and their whole big thing was that they used soft domes. Actually, made by an Australian guy that’s a speaker manufacturer, the company’s called ATC, and the guy’s name is Bill Woodhouse. And he’s an Ozzie over in England. So I developed these custom monitors for her with these soft dome mid range and tweeters. And where everyone was really nervous thinking that she was going to freak out and hate it, turns out she loved it. And then out in the arena was the same thing. How can you make it comfortable? We want to control the reverb, so what’s the best thing to do? Well you know, if you walk into a carpeted room it’s much better than one with a wood floor, so we carpeted all these places. We carpeted Wembley, Madison Square Garden, and the Pond here in Los Angeles. All over, everywhere we went we carpeted, and also hung lots and lots of drapes to improve the sound.“
That’s quite a job!
BJ: ”Well, normally the artist just wouldn’t even think about spending that sort of money. It wouldn’t even be an option. In fact, there was an article recently in the Los Angeles Times about the Staple Center, and the guy actually did a really good job explaining what you have to do. And strangely enough, I haven’t worked with Springsteen for years, because I retired from doing Bruce tours when my son was born, but I did ten years worth; but anyway, they didn’t have good sound, so the building took a black eye. And so he did this article about what troubles you have to go through to fix it, and talked about Barbra Streisand, how she is legendary about going to all the trouble with the sound. And then a sound engineer said, ‘She’s in the group of one.’ You know what I mean (chuckles), so she’s it, because no one else has the budgets to be able to throw money at the problem. So that’s what we do. And we’ll have like a brand new technology PA that’s never been seen in Australia. You wouldn’t normally have the budget to bring your own PA out, but because she wants to do things in a certain way, I wanted to have the latest and greatest. So we’ve got Clare’s new I4 system, and that is this new line array technology. And normally where as you would just kind of stack lots and lots of boxes and just aim them, what happens there is that all those boxes overlap each other, so you don’t get this very coherent sound front coming out, it’s all acting together; and depending on where you locate it, you get all these valleys and peaks in the sound. It causes the frequency response not to be smooth. You’ll get kind of like hard sounding highs in some spot, and boomie bass in another spot, whereas if you could make the sound all come from one perfect point source, which is impossible because there’s no speaker as point source, you would have none of that interference from one cabinet to the next, to the next. So what this new technology does is it makes one big long line of a perfect source, and the line is like a big banana. And as it hangs up on each side, the speakers up the top, each speaker in the array, they are all stacked up, and bent like a banana. So they only cover a very small area vertically. They cover ninety degrees horizontally, but vertically, they just cover a couple of degrees. And so what happens is that when you put all of this together, it all acts as one big line array, and you don’t get the interference, so you get a much more perfect, pristine kind of a sound. Now, on the other hand it doesn’t give you the big rock n’ roll, thumpie in the chest, knock you over kind of feeling. Although the technology’s being used now, it’s just kind of catching on right now in the States. So it’s an entirely new way of getting the sound out there and controlling it. And the amazing thing is that if you aim something and walk up the seats, as soon as you walk out of the pattern of that cabinet, it’s gone. And the benefit of that is that you can make it not hit concrete walls. So you can make it hit the people, and not the walls where it going to bounce around the place.”
Barbra has described you as ‘the best sound engineer in the world’. I suppose getting feedback at one of her gigs would have to be about the worst crime. How do you actually avoid this dreaded phenomenon?
BJ: ”It’s never a perfect situation, I’ve probably been guilty just like anyone else. Unfortunately, she wants perfection in an imperfect world. But what we do is by picking the right cabinets and arraying them in the right way, we can actually really reduce what comes back on stage. And ideally, she would have in-ear monitors, but she refuses to have anything moulded or put in her ears. So what we do is, we can’t control her situation, but we can control everybody else on stage, so all the rhythm section have in-ear monitors, specially moulded for their ears. And all the musicians in the orchestra have clip-on earpieces for monitoring purposes. And so she is the only one that’s allowed to make noise, and that tends to control things a lot.”
What will your upcoming stint as audio director for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games involve?
BJ: ”That’s kind of a different job. I was approached by Ric Birch to do that, and he’s the director of ceremonies for Socog, so he’s my boss. And really my job is putting together the right team, selecting all the right equipment, and just making the whole thing come together, the fibre optics for running signals around the place. And I’m going to be using the Fairlight as the disk based system for assembling lots of stuff and putting it together, because there’s an obvious connection there. I was involved with the Fairlight, I actually sold the first three Fairlights, and so I got them started over here. It was developed by a friend of mine, who actually lived next door to me in Sydney. His name’s Kim Ryrie, and his partner was Peter Vogel, who went to a local school with Kim. So these guys went and started Fairlight from next door. And we were actually on the waterfront, and they couldn’t think of the name for the company, and then the hydrofoil came by really close, and of course its name was Fairlight. So that became the name of their company. Anyway, so my job is to specify it and then work within the budget, which is a big thing, because it’s not an unlimited budget, and so have to squeeze as much as we can out of what we’ve got to spend. And then I also have to make sure that the team that works together is all very compatible. In fact, I’ll be using a couple of the guys for this Barbra thing that will also be working on the Olympics.”
Bruce Jackson will be the audio engineer at Barbra Streisand’s upcoming Australian tour, which will take place in Sydney on March 8 & 10 at the Sydney Football Stadium and in Melbourne on March 15 & 17 at the Colonial Stadium Docklands. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketek in Sydney on (02) 9266 48209 or at Ticketmaster in Melbourne on (03) 136 100.
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #71, March 1, 2000
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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