Now playing: How musicians adapt to live performance venues

Sponsored feature: presented by Living Arts Centre

The quality of a live music venue can determine whether an audience will experience an incredible show to remember or chaotic one that professional musicians will try to forget. From stage acoustics to amplification systems, lighting rigs and audience seating, every performance space has its own characteristics that can perfectly suit one artist and confound another.

Touring musicians must constantly adapt to these quirks as they move from venue to venue. Over years of bringing their sound to new audiences, they quickly become experts in figuring out how to minimize the inconsistencies that might exist between a massive performance hall one night and an intimate club the next.

For Toronto’s Jesse Cook, a Spanish guitar player who has been touring professionally for over 20 years, he’s developed a method for ensuring that the unique quality of his music always gets the same treatment when amplified for audiences.

“I get my sound worked out long before we enter the theatre,” he says. “I have a small PA at my home studio and I go in there and I turn it up as loud as it will go and make the guitar feed back. And then I fix it and then I turn it up even louder … you can go on like that forever.”

Playing a guitar with nylon strings, he has found the best way to get the sound he wants, regardless of venue, is to run the signal from a microphone on his guitar through a program on a laptop, which has all his preferred audio settings. This ensures that all he has to do is plug his instrument rig into a speaker system in any venue and audiences will hear the sound as he’s intended it to be heard.

Now touring his new album Beyond Borders, Cook looks fondly on the opportunities he’s had to play venues that offer performers the space that makes life on the road much easier. “I love the Mississauga Living Arts Centre for a number of reasons … It’s a beautiful theatre. It’s really got a great vibe in there.”

His full band complement features a number of rare world music instruments that might only be used for a short section in a single song. And each one needs to be accounted for in preparation for every live performance. “There were just too many days where you know we showed up to do festivals and really high-profile gigs, and we get up on stage and things would just start feeding back. And once it starts it just gets worse and worse.”

“It was so awful to be onstage in those situations that I just thought, ‘That’s it. I’ve got to make us bulletproof.’”

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Denis Mastromonaco, the music director of the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra (MSO), is no stranger to the energy – and occasional frustrations – of live performances. But the events he plays are unique in that he’s a conductor of an orchestra that is rarely amplified with microphones and speakers. This means he and all 90-plus MSO musicians are indebted to each other and the physical features of their primary venue, Hammerson Hall at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, for audience-pleasing performances. Along with the use of this 1,300-seat performance space, the MSO has offices and rehearsal space here too.

“It’s a necessary aspect of the city,” Mastromonaco says. “If it weren’t there, we would have to reduce our numbers, and then we would reduce our attraction to audiences. So the connection between us and the use of the Living Arts Centre’s Hammerson Hall is vital.”

Unlike Cook and so many other touring music acts, the MSO has the luxury of developing a close relationship with the specific sound physics of a single performance venue. That has allowed Mastromonaco to develop significant first-hand knowledge necessary to make adjustments for any given performance so that no one instrument is either too strong or lost in the nearly 100 instruments on stage.

“It begins with the musicians understanding the repertoire,” he says. “We have very fine musicians so they already have a tremendous amount of input.” His role is to not only harness that input and interpret how the orchestra will perform a given symphony, but to also direct adjustments in how each instrument is played as well as where the musicians are physically seated.

Venues designed for acoustic performance are often built for that purpose right from the start. In addition to the shape and sound-baffling construction inside the Living Arts Centre’s Hammerson Hall, Mastromonaco points out that the orchestra shell is crucial for projecting the fullness of what’s happening on stage out to a massive audience that’s spread throughout a large space.

“It’s like a megaphone,” he says. “Theatres that don’t have that, they make balance a completely separate issue and a horrific problem.”

While Cook’s band is only a tiny fraction of the size of the MSO, he too appreciates the benefits of playing a venue that’s specifically designed for enjoying live music. “We tour constantly and we see different venues every day,” he says, “and I have to say the disparity from venue to venue is remarkable.”

Whether it’s playing an outdoor festival or a packed house in a massive theatre, musicians like him develop a much more intimate relationship with their performance spaces than most audience members generally do. 

“Venues become like homes,” Cook says.

Explore upcoming events and performances at Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre here.

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