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Echoes of Excellence: The World of SoundEngineering with Aleksandr Baranov
How do we imagine the work of a sound engineer? Personally, I always thought you just plug everything in, turn it on, and then push buttons and move faders. Did you like my use of a technical term? We'll be using a lot of technical terms today because our conversation with Aleksandr Baranov, a sound engineer, truly and deeply in love with his work, turned out to be highly professional.

Starting his creative journey as a musician, Aleksandr played in bands and performed at concerts for a long time. But his inquisitive mind always wanted to understand how... How does something work that allows you to sound? How to make it even better? What new forms can be found? This is how Aleksandr deepened into sound engineering: gradual, progressive and very thorough. So thorough that after the conversation with Aleksandr I had the feeling that I, too, had become a little sound engineer - the man has a talent for explaining and engaging!

Aleksandr is very serious, but it was a pleasure to communicate with him; he is reasonable, charming, and his eyes sparkle with passion.
Aleksandr Baranov at work
Aleksandr, how did your creative path unfold after you became interested in sound engineering?

I worked in music studios. It was a great time! I learned the purpose of each musical device and how they can be used for mixing and creating music. This experience gradually allowed me to work on concert venues with live bands. Later I even worked on television. It was a discovery for me that the composition you recorded should sound equally good both on studio monitors and on small TV speakers, despite the difference in sound-reproducing devices. But the main area where I gained my experience was, of course, the theatre. There, every day you encounter direct creativity and art. Unlike a cinema, a theatre immerses the viewer in the performance, creating a three-dimensional picture. The audience feels like they are participating in the action. The task of a sound engineer is to make the sound picture as immersive as possible.

As I understand it, sound engineering for concert and theatre venues, television and radio has its own specifics?

Without a doubt! The tasks are completely different. On the radio there are nuances related to broadcasting, volume, etc. As for concert venues, you are not just a sound engineer, but also a system administrator. You are setting up internal audio equipment networks. You connect the audio control panel to the stage box, the device that connects all the microphones or guitars on stage. For example, you connect your computer to some playback devices that enrich the sound. And then, during sound check, you adjust the equipment based on the parameters of the hall, acoustic systems and artists on stage. It is important to me that musicians or singers sound the way they intended. The goal is not to ruin it, but to help them sound perfect with the help of some technology. In concert sound engineering, the parameters of height, width and depth of sound are very important.

It looks like some kind of geometry… I would never have thought that sound could have such parameters.

Of course, this is precisely three-dimensional space - a geometric model of the material world... I would say that this is the illusion of three dimensions that we create with the help of sound. The equalizer is responsible for the pitch, width panning for all effects, spatial processing such as reverb and delay – for the depth. A person sitting in the hall must “see” this sound picture as part of the overall action. It should complement the general idea and help in realizing the intended goal.

Working on the television has many nuances for a sound engineer; it's a very difficult job. This activity involves working with both live performances of groups and recordings, live broadcasts with several speakers or with one announcer, and so on. You can simultaneously be running a live broadcast and doing sound recording, thinking in two directions: what the sound is for the viewer and what comes out in the recording. Interestingly, even the volume of sound is regulated, for example, by the law on advertising. So, all these factors must be taken into account and at the same time kept under control.
There is also a lot of special equipment on television that only works there and is very different from concert equipment.

How can a sound engineer correct the acoustics of a hall? The weaknesses of singers? Orchestras?

The acoustics of a hall can be corrected using sound systems, which requires immersion in the engineering. Knowledge of physics and mathematics is required here. Then you work with these systems as a sound engineer. Most often, you encounter frequency imbalances in the halls. If certain frequencies are too prominent and hurt the ears, you tone them down. In the open air, this happens much less. The hall makes you work differently with spatial effects.

Regarding working with singers, you develop a special approach to each one. For example, opera singers use their voices perfectly but don't always use microphones correctly. To help them, I might give them a headset so the distance between their voice and the microphone doesn't change, freeing their hands. You need to study each artist's style, how they hold the microphone: the angle, whether they cover it or not, whether they move actively or not.

Sounding an orchestra is complex work. Its sound depends on many factors: open or closed venue, the type of ensemble – symphonic, pop, jazz. It's very interesting work but also nerve-wracking because you can create beautiful music or destroy it.

Aleksandr, there are sound engineers and sound operators. At the subconscious level, I seem to understand what the difference is, but I would like specifics. So that we never confuse and thereby offend representatives of both professions.

The sound engineer, together with the director, composer or music producer, is involved in the musical design of the performance from the very beginning of work on it. The director has an idea for the performance, the task of his “sound” colleague is to come up with a sound concept based on this idea. It will be semantic, technical, and auditory. The sound engineer came up with the concept, then chose the equipment that was needed for this, then took the music - worked with it, worked on it during rehearsals. If it's a recording studio, then during recording and then in post-production.
It is important to mention that the sound operator works according to the plan and with the material that the sound engineer created. Just at the beginning of the interview you talked about buttons and faders, so this is the job of a sound operator.

That is, your work is more creative. And since this is a creative activity, it needs inspiration. What inspires you?

Of course, the result is inspiring. And, of course the creative process itself! Imagine that at first you have nothing. The sound is rough, uncouth, like a sculpture hastily carved with an axe. And then, in the process of work, a contour is gradually drawn, a sound space emerges. And you get great pleasure from this creation. Especially if you exactly fall into the style of a musician or singer. They are happy - and you are happy. And, also the public. If they liked it, then their pleasure will transfer energy to you. These are very strong emotions.
Aleksandr Baranov at work
What are your most grandiose projects?

Oh, one of these projects was work on the rock opera “Jesus Christ – Superstar” at the Mari State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. Then for the first time we were faced with the fact that backing vocal parts play a large role in the performance, and in their essence, they are as important as the main parts. We also worked a lot and for quite a long time with the choir. I wanted to achieve as much as possible the live sound of a symphony orchestra in such a grandiose project, but in a rock opera this is quite difficult to achieve. We found a way out: we voiced it only through the surround system. And this gave its positive results - a feeling of natural sounding of the orchestra was created, similar to acoustic sound. With the soloists it was on the contrary, we let the vocalists go through the front of house speakers and the stage speaker’s system, and as a result we got exactly the surround theatrical sound. But to find all these solutions, I spent a huge amount of time studying all the details. I thought a lot about how to create the best decision, talked a lot with colleagues who have extensive experience in rock operas and musicals. The most unique thing was the conversation with the sound engineer who worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Then there were projects for rock bands to work with symphony orchestras. This direction has both difficulties and joys.

As for the sound of open-air performances with an orchestra and singers, this is a completely separate topic. Wind, rain, sound that literally flies away... But everything we came up with - we coped with everything. The audience is delighted, and so are we.

Another of the grandiose projects was a project at the Rostov Musical Theatre – the rock opera “Juno and Avos”, which included multiple work with recording the playbacks, vocalists, a live orchestra, a live choir. The principal character was played by different artists, everyone had a different voice timbre, so we had to work a lot with the QLab program, which allowed us to incorporate the entire amount of knowledge, experience and management of all our audio equipment into one program. This is, of course, very surprising and very interesting, that is, in this project we worked with programmers who helped us write codes for the command line in the Qlab. Everything worked out at a high level.

I would also like to note that I had the most vivid impressions from the sound modernization project at the Rostov Opera and Ballet Theatre. Complete replacement of equipment, work with the sound engineers from Yamaha Company and its unique equipment, which can make any theatre sound like La Scala.

This all sounds so serious! Maybe you could tell me some funny work incident?

Accidents happen sometimes. It’s funny to us, but maybe not to the other side. Therefore, I will refrain from opening the backstage of the backstage. (laughs)

What advice would you give to a beginning sound engineer: how to start, how to get into projects, how to gain a foothold in them?

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Nothing will happen right away. But you need to do, observe, listen carefully, watch, educate yourself. And I would recommend to buy some good acoustic systems - it influences how your musical taste will develop. For me it's like that: what you listen to - is the sound you will ultimately mix.

And, as it seems to me, getting into a successful project is just luck at first.

What else would you like to try in your profession?

Oh! My dream is to work all over the world! I would like to work with popular groups and artists. I have already done this in Russia, now the whole world is open to me!

Our conversation with Aleksandr ended on such a positive note. Well, professionalism, inspiration, dreams with which this person is filled are all that is needed for happiness in his profession. I am sure that in a few years I will interview a world-famous sound engineer.
Aleksandr Baranov
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