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Five Questions: Walter Clissen

Bringing live performance back to radio

Walter Clissen

Walter Clissen is an associate professor of audio engineering, live sound technology and audio post production at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. Hailing originally from Belgium, he has traveled the world producing and recording music, teaching audio skills at numerous schools and been involved with many festivals and theatrical performances on several continents. He recently produced a live performance of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” for WHSN(FM), Husson University’s radio station.

TechBytes: Is live performance for radio dead? Is it useful in today’s world of canned, though bountiful, syndicated programming and podcasts?
Walter Clissen: First part of answering this question I would like to quote Mark Nason, WHSN(FM) station manager, New England School of Communications at Husson University: “It’s a rare-breed (live performance for radio) that is kept alive through noncommercial radio stations and public radio outlets but it is a rarity nowadays. Radio theatre troupes still exist throughout the country performing regularly.”

I would like to add that the usefulness is fairly big since it’s “live” and nothing really beats the “no way going back” reality and the excitement and spontaneity that brings along.

TechBytes: You recently produced a live radio program, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” at the university’s Gracie Theatre. How do you get the program from stage to air? Give us a quick run-through of your air chain from actor/effect mic to the transmitter.
Clissen: We used a total of six mics: one vocal mic — Shure SH 55; four prop table mics — two Shure KSM 44 and two Neumann U 87 (all in omni patterns ) about two feet apart and on mic stands about one foot from the top of the table; and one floor mic: Electro-Voice RE20 for the carpet drop.

They were fed into an Avid Profile mixer for broadcast and Yamaha LS9 for FOH operation. WHSN took a stereo feed from the mix and ran it into an L-R mix on a Comrex Access Portable using an Ethernet connection to get it back to the WHSN studios. Once at WHSN, the signal ran through the station’s Wheatstone E1 console before running to our QEI 3 kW transmitter.

It was also multitrack-recorded to a Pro Tools HD rig as well as a stereo mix for later broadcast purposes.

TechBytes: You set up on a nonbroadcast theatrical stage. Is that a concern or do you just accept it as an environment that can’t be controlled and will have some noise and bad-miking?
Clissen: The only thing we really encountered was some air conditioning noise from ventilators stage-right which was easily masked with curtains. The Gracie Theatre is an excellent stage to mount something like this and the only thing to watch out for is to not over-mic the stage.

TechBytes: You work at a college. Are you finding it easy to build and maintain an annual project like this with students and volunteers as your talent and crew? Are there advantages to this situation compared to a “professional” radio station?
Clissen: Here I would like to quote Ken Stack, our entertainment production director: “‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ was one of the first detective stories ever written. It’s an important piece of literary history. Our broadcast brings our students, our audience and WHSN listeners back to the days when radio brought culture into the homes of millions of Americans who otherwise might not have had exposure to the works of celebrated authors. Radio was ‘the theater of the mind.’ Our annual live broadcast not only builds on that tradition, it serves as a valuable experiential learning opportunity for students in our broadcast communications program. In this way, we enrich the education of both our students and our audience.” Members of the community interested in seeing behind the scenes are encouraged to attend the live performance at the Gracie Theatre. Here, the audience will have the opportunity to watch as both actors and sound effect Foley artists work together to create a terrifying audio environment.

TechBytes: Speaking of college, your varied and much-travelled background gives you a unique perspective on audio education. What’s your take on educating tomorrow’s audio engineers? Are schools doing enough or is audio a step-child to video?
Clissen: It is my experience in all of the educational facilities I’ve been involved with that the majority of students entering audio programs are highly motivated and eager to learn. The interesting part in all of this is, coming myself from “old school analog worlds” and having transitioned into the new digital audio era, how different the students tend to approach audio. In other words, the whole “computerizing and digitizing” of the audio has brought a visual element, e.g. in editing sound files, that just doesn’t require the same approach as “ tape slicing.” Marrying those worlds has opened many a students’ eyes.

Schools in general encourage audio and don’t “step-child” it, although it also largely depends on the size of the programs and attached performances. One last remark on the students: there is a huge difference in how you address audio in undergraduate vs graduate studies. When it comes to graduate level studies the students enter into more of an “apprentice” role and the one-on-one teaching becomes even more exciting.