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Breakdown

Hello Troubadourians! Did any of you watch Mariah Carey’s audio malfunction on New Year’s Eve? No? Neither did I. But I did see a lot of internet news articles about it, which I ignored until I saw one reportedly from her ‘team” that purported to give her side of the story. Now we’re talking! I could care less about what some journalist thinks might have happened, I want to know what someone who was there, onstage or in the wings, thinks happened in their own words. But first, you might ask why I even care about what happened and why I think it might be useful to the readers of this column. Well, let’s look into it… First off, “malfunctions” of any kind aren’t supposed to happen at the professional, “Superstar” level in which Miss Carey operates. The technical staffs that design, setup, operate, teardown, and transport these shows are professionals, the best at what they do. And they use only the finest equipment available. Yet, we all have attended a top-level show where we witnessed an equipment failure of some sort. Or, maybe you witnessed a failure and weren’t even aware of it. Top-level touring crews are prepared for “in-flight” breakdowns and they actually rehearse switchovers so that the audience doesn’t notice. Other than an instrument or microphone that an artist is playing, a switchover from failed gear to functional gear usually takes about two-three seconds—about as long as it takes to recognize that there is a failure and make the switchover. In fact, top-level stage crews have the training and experience to “hear” when something is about to fail and to diagnose the type of failure in the few seconds before it happens.

In the case of failure of a piece of equipment that the artist is holding, that switch can take a little longer—perhaps 10-30 seconds, depending upon the type of equipment that failed (instrument, microphone, in-ear monitors, etc.) and how integrated the equipment is into the artist’s wardrobe. In a truly “live” environment, the onstage musicians can often cover for a failure of the star’s equipment and make it appear to simply be a part of the show. This is where we come in with the audio malfunction that Miss Carey suffered on the New Year’s show.

Paraphrasing from the Entertainment Weekly article:

This was not the production team that she usually works with on her own shows, it was an out-sourced team who was unfamiliar to MC. Sound check: 3:20 to 3:50. MC reported that the sound from her in-ears was coming in choppy. She was assured it would work by the evening. Interview at about 10:35: The sound from the in-ears was still very choppy. MC could barely hear the interviewer through the noise of Times Square. MC was given a new set of in-ear monitors at 10:45. This set of in-ears still didn’t work properly. MC told both stage managers the in-ears are not working. They brought her a new one, and that one didn’t work either. They changed the battery pack but the in-ears still didn’t work. The stage manager kept saying the in-ears would work at showtime, but of course they didn’t, and the rest is what millions of people on the East Coast witnessed on live television.

There are several “teachable moments” in the above scenario. First, know your own gear and only use your gear whenever, wherever you perform. I understand that as a Superstar of long standing, Miss Carey could easily be out of touch with the nitty-gritty technical aspects of her craft, since such things have been taken care of for her for a very long time. Second, if you can’t use your own gear, know the gear you have to use. There is no doubt that, when performing at her own shows, Miss Carey uses custom fitted in-ear monitors and monitor packs that blend in with her costumes. This gear would be part of the equipment in her normal stage show and may not have been readily available to her for a “fly-date.” Just the same, it should be standard practice to have a duplicate set of her custom monitors available just for fly-dates. That’s one less unknown quantity for one-off performances. Third, trust your technical crew, but know what they know as well as they know it. In this case, the problem wasn’t the in-ears at all. Given the “choppy” sound experienced by Miss Carey and the subsequent diminishing of the overall signal, the obvious problem was a bad cable somewhere in the sound system in the signal path where her monitors were connected. Choppiness, otherwise known as an intermittent signal, is indicative of a bad cable. At least 95% of problems in a sound system—or any system with cables—are related to a failure in those cables. An experienced crew member would have known that. In my opinion, it is incumbent upon the artist to be able recognize the symptoms of a bad cable. It’s easy to forget in today’s wireless-equipped stages that there have to be cables in the signal chain at some point. As an aside, a dying battery sounds completely different than an intermittent cable. Batteries die quickly and without notice other than a distorted or weak signal. Finally, if you aren’t working with your own crew, be sure to take care of yourself and don’t assume that the unfamiliar crew has your best interest in mind. In the case of the audio malfunction we are discussing, the stage crew in question is much more experienced with audio technology as it applies to television broadcasts. This is significantly different from live musical performances, and the in-ear monitoring systems for “talking heads” is likewise very different from musical performance. In this particular situation, there is the added complication that all of the music was pre-recorded, which leaves an artist nowhere to hide or cover for any malfunctions. The takeaway from this is that no matter who you are or where you are, you are responsible for your performance anytime you set foot on a stage. Whether it’s a local open mic or a stage on Times Square on New Year’s Eve, know the gear you’re using so that you can deliver the performance you and your audience expects from you.

As you might know, I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions, but this year I decided to make this resolution: Don’t waste ideas, opportunities, or time. All are limited and rare. No gym membership required, just be aware and don’t waste them.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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