Celtic music presents unique challenges to audio engineers

The December 2006 issue of Live Sound International, a trade journal for professional audio engineers, explains that instruments such as bagpipes require special care in microphone placement, mixing, and equalization, and that many audio engineers used to working with rock bands need to learn new skills for "the wonderful world of Celtic music."

In the "Backstage Class" tutorial column, titled "Are you up for the Craic?", Teri Hogan says, "It is not unusual to encounter an entirely new musical genre, nor is it unusual not to have a clue what to do with it. And that's exactly what the live audio community is encountering currently with the burgeoning Celtic music scene."

Hogan explains Celtic folk music's role as an ancestor to Appalachian bluegrass music, and notes that the musical Riverdance, Renaissance Faires, and the Society for Creative Anachronism have contributed to the growth of modern Celtic music, as "devotees suddenly have something that speaks to their hearts."

As a professional audio engineer, Hogan is impressed with the musicianship, the sense of community, and even the audience behavior within the Celtic music arena, and says this demands outstanding work from the audio team at a concert:

"The musicians within the Celtic community are a tight knit group and word gets around quickly which festivals have 'the good sound'....[U]nlike most of your run-of-the-mill festivals, the public comes specifically to hear the music and they have a critical ear. They actually sit in chairs and listen.

"...[W]e never (and I actually mean that) encounter 'wannabees' on our stages. No matter which festival we're working, every artist on every stage is proficient. I can't say that in any other genre in which we work. The level of artistry is superb."

The article goes on to describe the technical challenges, which include the large number of concerts at a single venue, the wide variety of acoustic instruments, and the fact that a single musician "may play upwards of three or four instruments, changing from fiddle to bouzouki or bodhran in mid-song — and maybe back again!"

The fact that every musician in a Celtic band may play a solo means, according to Hogan, that "you really have to be paying attention. There is no set-it-and-forget-it." Also, productions featuring clogging or other step-dances, like Riverdance, demand carefully-placed floor microphones to capture the sound of the dancers' feet.

Hogan himself has become a fan of Celtic rock and says it restored his faith that rock and roll didn't really "die the final death in 1995."

The article abstracted here is available online, but unfortunately only to subscribers of Live Sound International's online edition. The "original article" link below goes to the magazine's home page, where audio professionals can sign up for a free subscription.