Interview by Alex Schmidt
Once again, top of the charts! After one week of sales of Peter Maffay’s MTV Unplugged recording, the German record holder for the most ‘number one’ albums has again reached ‘number one’ in the Offizielle Deutsche Charts (official German charts) of top 100 LPs – thus improving his record as the all-round most successful act now with 18 chart-topping albums.
At the beginning of August 2017, Peter Maffay performed three times to a full house at the Steintor-Varieté theater in Halle, Germany. The German rock musician first invited fans to an open dress rehearsal and then played two concerts for the renowned MTV Unplugged series. On November 3, 2017, a recording of these performances was released.
Many prominent guests joined Peter Maffay on the stage as he delivered his hits as well as some rare songs spanning a period of more than forty years with a few newly created acoustic interpretations from his on-stage companions. The guests included singer-songwriters Johannes Oerding and Phillip Poisel, British pop icon Katie Melua, British percussionist Ray Cooper, US rock musician Tony Carey, and the Dutch pop singer and Common Linnets lead singer Ilse DeLange.
In September, Leuchtturm (Lighthouse), a duet with singer Jennifer Weist from the Jennifer Rostock band was released as a taster to Peter Maffay: MTV Unplugged. Other new tracks included are versions of Du (You), Und es war Sommer (And it was summer), Über sieben Brücken musst du gehen (You must cross seven bridges) and Halleluja.
What was the recording line-up?
Ronald: Well, “unplugged” means that no electric instruments are allowed – with a couple of exceptions: In this case, for example, there was a Hammond organ and a pedal steel guitar. However, everything else was analog, including acoustic guitars, a grand piano, percussion, drums, and of course, vocals. In addition, there were also three wind instruments and three strings: saxophone, trombone, and flugelhorn, as well as a violin and two cellos.
Peter: What is interesting is that in Unplugged, instruments are played in a completely different way. Instead of drumsticks, for instance, often hot rods or brushes are used, because otherwise the drums could be too loud. Familiar instruments are handled differently.
What were your areas of responsibility for this production?
Peter: I provided the technical infrastructure for the recordings, from the splitter, to mic preamps and A/D converters, to the outside broadcast vehicle. That is our FlexiTrailer, a large trailer that we uncoupled from the tractor unit, and in which we recorded for three weeks. We positioned the ‘recording studio’ in front of the hall and from the first day onwards, we captured every note on the hard drive. It is very luxurious to be able to do this over three weeks.
Because Peter Maffay is very quality-conscious, from the beginning he had every rehearsal recorded. This allowed the band to develop musically, based on the recordings, and we had all the time in the world to polish the sound. In most cases, it is usual to start recording only one or two days in advance, and to have to make the best of the situation. In contrast, among other things we had the opportunity to try out many different microphones and to alter microphone positions. A real luxury, and speaks to his level of professionalism: All the technical crews, including those for the lighting and sound systems, and ourselves, were on site three weeks in advance. The fact that an artist creates such possibilities and is also prepared to pay for them is really exceptional.
Ronald: We had the luxury of creating a mix every day which we gave to the musicians for optimising the arrangements, as well as the lighting engineers for programming. We were also able to become more familiar with the space and the positions of the instruments and microphones, and could react to changes made by the director. It was like Formula 1 racing: We really had time for fine-tuning, and no compromises were made. It was an exceptional situation.
What equipment did you use?
Peter: Our FlexiTruck is constructed so that we can easily change mixing systems. We decided in advance on a VENUE | S6L. I had worked on North Sea Jazz three weeks previously, for which I rented a S6L. We simply left it in the truck and brought it along to Peter Maffay, because it sounds exceptionally good. In my view it is currently the best sounding digital console, and is also very intuitive. Within an hour you can figure it out, if you are somewhat familiar with mixing systems. Pro Tools with 128 channels in 96 kHz was used as the main recording system, however, we needed only 96 channels for the band and about twenty ambience mics.
We split the microphone signals, fed to the FOH desk and the monitor mixer that created in-ear mixes for the musicians and ourselves. Because the focus was on the audio and video recording, the PA system volume was run at a lower output level than normal.
From the stage we received three MADI streams with 32 channels each, which we first sent to Pro Tools. The outputs from Pro Tools then went to the S6L. We therefore had complete control over the recorded signals at every second, and could rewind and play back at any time, without changing the settings. Via Euphonix converters, a fourth MADI stream was used for inserts. There was high-quality analog outboard equipment, such as API compressors, Massenburg EQs, and Distressors from Empirical Labs. The stereo sum from the console went to a UAD Satellite, where a mastering chain was constructed. This mix was also recorded for the musicians during the rehearsal period, as well as for television and radio.
What was the setup of the mixing system?
Ronald: I set up various layers, for instance the vocals were on the last eight channels: Lead, backing and guests – these were frozen, to prevent switching. There were 16 channels for drums and bass, and in the next layer were the guitars, keyboards and so on. There was also a layer with the ambience microphones. I could create the layers very easily via the touchscreens and the fader touch buttons. If you change your mind during the work, which can easily happen, the layers can also quickly be changed.
It is very good that on the screen the inputs can be displayed with small level indicators. If you miss something at any time, because someone has changed something, you can see it right away. This makes the work much more relaxed, especially in a live environment.
Peter: There are systems where it takes forever to learn: You sit down with them and sometimes search through the manual to understand what to connect and how. To avoid any problems, I rented the S6L a week before the North Sea Jazz festival, so as not to disgrace myself on site, but after an hour I already understood how it worked. All the thinking behind it is analog, and it is very easy to program. This clearly distinguishes it from all the other systems I know. Normally there is always someone at hand to put out fires; if something in the routing is not right, but with this system it was immediately clear to us that that we could handle it ourselves – even old fellows such as Ronald and I (laughs)!
And the sound?
Ronald: The EQs sound really superb and are easy to operate via the controls. As Peter has already said, you can sit down with the system for a couple of hours and the next day mix with it as if you had been familiar with it for years. You adjust the EQ or other parameters and immediately feel at home. Complex operations are made simple, and good results can be achieved without mental strain. In the live or broadcasting area, the S6L is the best mixing systems that I know.
It is also great that you can use the 500-series Avid plug-ins. I like to use EQs, the Lo-Fi plug-in and the Joemeek compressor, for instance, to compress the groups. That is a luxury that is not available on other systems. It functions excellently and works very easily.
Peter: Originally, we had planned to use another console for Peter Maffay, but after North Sea Jazz we decided to change to the S6L, because it sounded better, warmer and simply more analog. We both come from the era of editing 2-inch tape with a razor blade and are pre-conditioned accordingly in terms of sound (laughs).
Ronald: The requirements for this production were: Clear yet forceful, loud yet quiet – in other words, with a wide range of dynamics. The audience was also very important which is why we had twenty ambience microphones to be able to capture every breath.
Peter: We recorded the audience at two height levels, so that Ronald could create a 9.1 mix for 3D Immersive Audio. This is the usual five-channel surround system with subwoofer, plus an additional four speakers in the second, upper level. I recently attended a Sennheiser seminar in Vienna on Immersive Audio; this is a major topic for the future. Now 9.1 is also to become available for end consumers – a very exciting development.