A conversation with Matt Koenig, Minister of Audio Intent for Blue Man Group

Matt Koenig, Blue Man Group’s Minister of Audio Intent, sat down with us for a conversation on a busy afternoon at Summer Sonic 2007.

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Matt Koenig, Blue Man Group’s Minister of Audio Intent, sat down with us for a conversation on a busy afternoon at Summer Sonic 2007.

A-T: I understand the AT4051 is your microphone of choice for Blue Man Group’s PVC pipe. Can you tell us how you came to choose this microphone and how it’s working for you?

Matt Koenig: We went to the AT4041’s on the PVC’s some time ago. Now we’re using the AT4051’s, and we’ve got them on the overheads and the hats as well. We also use them for the toy mics—shakers and whatnot.

How did you come to choose them for the PVC?
Ross Humphrey brought them in to the group. There’s a little bowl area where the tubes come together, and we just stick them right in there. We needed a fairly tight pattern and a smooth sound, top to bottom. The mic just worked. Now we’re actually using two, we’re using them in an X pattern in the bowls; it’s working out really well.

Those PVC pipes are amazing.
It’s a good combination with these mics.

Did they invent that?
They didn’t invent PVC. But this particular design, yeah. They also have their own distinct paddles that they make and use to play them.

Regarding pitch, do they have a mark on the pipe or do they just play it by ear?
They have to know them, like anyone playing “their” instrument, but the tubes are painted inside—different colors correspond with the different pitches. So that helps.

What other A-T mics are you using?
AT4041’s and AT4051’s on hi-hats, overheads, and PVCs, as well as ATM25’s all over the place on toms of all sorts and variety.

All three of those mics?
Yeah, originally we only had the AT4041’s, I don’t even know if you guys had the AT4051’s out at that time. And then once we discovered the 4051’s and tried them out, we liked those a little more. We still have some of the 4041’s in use, particularly out on the tour. We have nine shows going and a tour—so it’s a bit of an assortment.

I just purchased a bunch of ATM25’s. We’re using them on kick, some toms and some of the other assorted drums. Today I tried one on the front of the big drum; it worked out pretty nicely. We’re using quite a few of those in different places.

We did like the tom mics—the ATM350’s. But the way those guys play up there, we need something that you take a pair of pliers and screw it on there and it stays and won’t move. They did sound good and we thought those had one of the better sounds of all the mics in the shootout.

So you’re very particular about what mics you use.
Yeah. It’s an on-going thing. We’re always exploring what’s out there. This show is very much creative and we’re all a part of that process, even audio.

How long have you been with Blue Man Group?
Since 2000.

How’d you get your start with them?
I was living in Vegas. They brought their show there to open—their first Vegas show, they were looking for a monitor guy, and I happened to be available and fit in okay I guess.

Unique challenges of mixing them?
The instruments themselves are pretty unique—getting the sounds they want. It’s not your standard rock sound by any means. There’s mics mounted inside of drums, mics mounted inside of tubes, a lot of area miking going on. Just the sheer stage volume, the number of drums being played—to have any definition left is key. Particularly when you get out with the tour or on some of the one offs and you’ve got a bunch of vocal mics up there to add into that as well. It can get a bit tricky.

So how do you manage that? It sounded great.
I don’t know. It’s a real natural approach we use. We put a good mic in front of the instrument, EQ the PA properly, good gain structure and just turn it up. We try to really naturally represent what’s coming off the stage.

You don’t mess with it.
Right. It’s a real simplistic approach.

Do you use compression?
Very little compression, very little gating, very little verbs. We let the performers create the sound, and we’re just amplifying it. There are some effects we’ll throw in there—special effects—but for the most part it has to be natural. They’re playing on sprinkler pipes you know. What are you going to do with that?

What about that paint coming out of the drums?
It is paint, yeah. That’s our props and technologies departments’ little deal. There’s a bunch of different ways that that actually works depending on the situation. And it certainly makes for a different sound.

You ever have any problem with paint getting on mics?
Oh yeah! We have mics inside those drums mounted facing straight up. So occasionally they’ll break a head, and that means paint goes everywhere. So you take it out, send it back to the shop get a new one. There’s really not much you can do. We try to protect them but you can only do so much. It’s just part of the show.

How did you get your start in the audio business?
I was actually playing trumpet in college—University of Nevada Reno—and they needed somebody to do sound for the jazz shows we were doing. So I did that, and some guy heard me and said, “Hey, I know a band that needs a sound guy.” That band gig then turned into a sound company gig—you know, the usual local sound company thing. I did some theater shows and tours, and then I went to Vegas. Worked for A1 Audio at the time, which turned into ProMix, which is part of PRG. And then Blue Man came along.

Do you like the work?
It’s great. Seven years is a long time with one company in this industry. Seven more would be great! It’s a great company, great group of people. The principals—how they approach things and run the company is fantastic. It’s very much a collaborative effort on the part of many different people to put forth this show. And they take care of their people really well. It’s nice to put on a show with three blue guys and have people all the way across the world in Tokyo go crazy.

Any engineers whose work you particularly admire?
There’s a ton of guys out there who are great. Off the top of my head, Todd Rold brought me up in this business and he’s great. And I learned a ton from Ross Humphrey, personally and professionally. When I started with this company he pretty much took me under his wing. We’ve been working together for the past seven years; I’ve learned an immense amount from him.

Any miking tips or tricks to share?
For me, it’s all about mic choice and mic placement. Mic placement is so crucial. You put the right mic in the right spot, and the trick is you don’t have to do much to it. You just turn it up. Experimentation with placement and selection to get the sound you’re looking for is pretty important.

We’re happy you think that Audio-Technica microphones are the right mic.
You guys make a great product! They’re durable. They sound great. They even look good!

What kind of problems do you see inexperienced sound people making?
I think they miss the basics. They miss the basics of gain structure as they don’t understand it. And they miss the basics of mic placement. It’s really a simple process that can make a great sound. Sometimes you have to get creative, depending on the artist you’re working with, to make a particular sound happen. But if you stick to the basic stuff—proper PA, EQ, mic placement and gain structure—you really can’t go wrong. It’s really that simple to me. We go out with 120 inputs at times, and that’s all we really do, more or less.

On this show you’ve got 120 inputs?
On some of the shows we do, yeah. In Vegas we have over 100. The tour is right around there as well.

Any particular memories from your experience with Blue Man Group?
We’ve done so many things! We did a show for the Queen, which was fabulous, the Royal Variety Production. The GRAMMYs was a lot of fun. I think my favorite Blue Man experience, though, was the Complex Tour in 2003. It was just such a spectacle. It was over the top in so many ways—lighting, video, sound, the production. It was just a great experience.

The tour is constantly morphing. It’s an ongoing creative process for the company, which keeps it pretty exciting and challenging. We just did basically our theater show in a packed arena . It was pretty unbelievable. Fun stuff.

The show comes from a theater background and they’ve taken that into the rock and industrial arenas now. And yet it still has those theatrical elements—with a little bit of extra rock thrown in for good measure, so there’s always something memorable.

Very theatrical. Making fun of the rock thing, but still part of the rock thing.
Yeah. A bit of sarcasm there.

Do you still play trumpet?
Occasionally. I’m pretty busy these days, so it’s hard to keep the chops up, but I try to.

You’re on the road a lot?
Yeah. Traveling almost constantly now, though there have been times when I’ve stayed in the venues. I was in Vegas for three years, on and off, and in Boston for a year and a half as well, both of those as the head sound guy. There’s so much going on it’s hard to get settled in one place though.

Head sound guy?
Head of sound, that’s what they call it in the individual cities I guess. Then they made me the Associate Sound Supervisor for the company, so I did that for a year or so. And now I’m the Production Sound Supervisor—or the Minister of Audio Intent—either way.

Did you coin that just now?
When they were offering me this current position we were trying to come up with a title, and our Musical Director Todd Perlmutter said, “How about The Minister of Audio Intent.” It was kind of a pun, because we were opening the show in Oberhausen, which was in a tent—a big huge theater with a permanent tent roof over it. Either it was that or because I didn’t have the show there sounding like I wanted it yet.

You do a lot more than front of house work, then.
Yeah. I supervise the shows as well as go out and do quite a bit of mixing for gigs and TV and whatnot. Maintenance of the sound esthetic is really the gig. Because over time the shows will morph, they’ll just naturally head down a path, and we have to check in now and then and make sure they’re on the right path.

Lately we’ve done a lot of upgrades. In some of the older shows they have really old equipment, and we’re in the process of updating a lot of the stuff. We’re getting the 4051’s and ATM25’s in to all the cities. Stuff like that.

And what are the cities?
New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Oberhausen. And soon to be Tokyo.

Are you based in New York?
Yes. And the parent company, Blue Man Productions, is based in New York. That’s where the whole thing started.

Are the first Blue Men still there?
Oh yeah, they’re still running the company and active in all areas.

Do they still perform?
They don’t perform as much any more. They have so many projects going on. They have a school now that they’ve opened—a preschool. They’re scoring for film. They’re writing books, writing children’s music. There’s a lot of different avenues they’re going down. Now we’re starting to forge into the industrial/ corporate world—doing shows in those venues. They’ve got a lot going on.

I’ve got to say you’re mix smoked out there.
It came together pretty nicely I thought.

It’s almost a testament to the skill of the engineer, because everyone here [at Summer Sonic] is on a level playing field. Everyone’s got the same console, the same drive rack, and the same speakers and everything. And they sound dramatically different between bands. Did you bring any outboard gear?
No, I didn’t bring anything.

That’s what I mean.
Well, that’s not entirely true; I brought ATM25’s and some AT4051’s.

It’s amazing the difference in craft.
Which is a funny thing. Each person has their own approach, I like to keep it simple--it’s just gain structure, mic placement, and PA. More or less.

Well, people say that, and I don’t buy it. I would like to say it’s that easy, but if it were that easy, everyone would make it sound good.
Well, if you have those basics down, and start with that, the rest of everything else you do works. But if you don’t have those basics, it doesn’t matter, you can compress, EQ, do whatever you want and it’s not going to jell.

But the difference is, and I think where the art comes in—is there’s space around everything that you did. Everything was a distinct instrument, where you see other bands, and it’s just like a wash. I think that’s where the real skill, art, craft comes in. You do it well.
Thanks! Helps to have good stuff coming off the stage, too.

The big suspended drum, is that triggered or are you miking it?
No, that’s live. There’s an ATM25 on the front and I think an they gave us a Pro 25ax or an ATM250 to stick on the back. I need to find that out, as I liked the sound of that mic. Nothing like a live trial right?

It sounded too clean to be miked, almost.
Well that one might have had a bit of EQ on it. And a properly set gate helps too, of course.

This is the ultimate thing that’s cool for us. We feel honored, because of the fact that it’s a shootout, you put mics out, and the best mic wins. It’s not even about who you like. But ultimately, it’s about the best mic. So we appreciate that—thank you.
It’s always great dealing with everyone at A-T! And A-T has some great, really nice sounding products too! So thank you!