A large group of Middle Tennessee State University's Department of Recording Industry students are in Manchester, capturing and recording high-quality sound from the Who Stage at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. It means solving a lot of different challenges, most of them surprises with little or no warning.
University Recording Industry Professor Michael Fleming uses Bonnaroo each year to teach a select group of audio students on ways to solve the problems and perhaps anticipate what could go wrong in a live concert setting.
Consider this: The Who Stage is out in the open, with only a roof, in the middle of a 700-acre farm, and open to dust, rain and ambient noise from boisterous fans. Different acts, with different styles and instruments, quickly rotate on and off the stage, leaving only a few minutes for Fleming and his student teams to adapt and adjust.
But this is kind of real-world problem solving that helps MTSU graduates gain an edge in a competitive and growing field of audio engineering, Fleming said.
"Bonnaroo is a remarkable test, because it requires our students to exercise all of their relevant skills simultaneously," he said. "You need the core engineering knowledge to design and operate a complex recording and mixing system, but also to troubleshoot the system under time pressure and physical stress."
Not to mention at Bonnaroo, there's sleep deprivation and summer heat in the mix as well.
"And the speed," said Tevin RaShad Turner, a graduate student in recording arts and technologies, who is the leader of the eight-student audio team. "How fast something can happen that you didn't expect and then you have to troubleshoot and know your signal flow.
"You can prepare for it in class, but it doesn't prepare you for the actual speed of Bonnaroo."
That means you have to be prepared, Fleming said. "We can't just run to the shop or phone a friend down the hall if we encounter technical difficulties."
Fleming describes audio as "an applied engineering discipline, but it's always in the service of some form of art or communication or entertainment." At Bonnaroo, that means working in concert with both a professional third-party sound-reinforcement company, that projects the performance to the audience, as well as MTSU's onsite Mobile Production Lab, which is capturing video shot by students and audio captured and mixed by Fleming's team.
"Audio is what glues these components together," Fleming said. "Sound without a picture still works -- it's a record or radio, but television without sound is not very satisfying."
Recording Industry Chair Beverly Keel said Fleming "guides them through hands-on work during the demanding, live-performance setting of Bonnaroo."
"He is patient and brilliant and gives them a detailed analysis of how and why things work the way they do," Keel said. "His ability to remain calm and patient helps our students deal with the pressure of live sound. He teaches them the importance of organization, planning, communication and working well with others.
"Our students couldn't find a better teacher to guide them through their eye-opening work at Bonnaroo."
This is the fourth year MTSU's Mobile Production Lab has been at Bonnaroo and Fleming said he works to introduce something new each time to the effort.
"We adapt and innovate with new methods and technologies like audio over IP (AoIP) and immersive recording techniques, so this keeps me and our students, fellow faculty and staff continually evolving," he said.