MNZM Awarded for Services to Music

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Bob has been appointed as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list for services to music.

He has managed the Dunedin Sinfonia, Dunedin’s regional orchestra and was Director of the Nelson School Of Music between 1987 and 1994. He has produced many concerts and events and produced Nelson’s first Arts/Music Festival in 1994. He currently manages the internationally acclaimed Adam Chamber Music Festival.

As a performer he has presented education programmes to over 300,000 school children in the last 30 years and has performed in most major concert venues around New Zealand.

As a sound engineer he has produced sound for many of New Zealand’s leading performers and has recorded a wide range of musicians in his home based studio in Todd’s Valley.

Green Fire Islands

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When I offered to be involved in the Green Fire Islands project, little did I know I’d be mixing front of house, working with Ireland’s and New Zealand’s top musicians, and touring the show through top venues and festivals. The show was a collaboration between Maori and Irish traditional musicians and the process of rehearsing and performing the show was filmed by Alun Bollinger.

It had a preview performance in Raglan and then took to the road including a performance at the International Festival in Wellington in the Michael Fowler Centre, two performances at WOMAD and a final performance in The Edge (Aotea Centre) in Auckland which included many special guests.


Having over 30 open microphones on stage and having to record 48 tracks at a time proved challenging, but the recording quality and performances received critical acclaim.

Probably the hardest moment was the WOMAD festival where groups have a strict 45 minutes to set the stage and with such a complex show this was almost impossible. We were still finishing line checks in the ten second count down to starting the set!

The Auckland show happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day, so director Donal Lunny invited a number of special guests to join in the encores, including Neil Finn. Neil was just about to go on when we had a call to say Tim had turned up too, so could we find an extra mic and DI, it was a magic moment – oh and a good show!

Hayley Westenra

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Hayley is New Zealand’s biggest selling recording artist and I’ve been fortunate to work with London based engineer and producer Ian Tilley who has produced several of her albums. Hayley released an album of Japanese songs in 2008 and whilst most of the tracks were recorded in London, she wanted two tracks recorded in New Zealand.

Ian asked me to assist in the process, so I took my studio equipment down to the Jazz School in Christchurch where we set up to record the band. Ian was his usual professional self having prepared arrangements in advance and we set the band up in a fairly standard configuration. Drums were miked up using Electrovoice N/D468 on snare top, Audix D2 and D4 mics on toms, Sennheiser e602 on kick, an e614 on High Hat and AKG C451’s as overheads. I used a VR88 ribbon mic on the bass cabinet, Microtech Gefell M300 mics on acoustic guitar and a Neumann TLM193 on Violin.

All went well and we recorded both tracks in one day. But then we struck a problem. The London tracks featured a Steinway piano recorded with top mics in a studio there and there was no similar piano available at the jazz school. We solved the problem by using a very special plug-in I bought for this very purpose, a sampled Steinway piano by Garritan. In fact this is the only sampled Steinway plug-in that is authorized and endorsed by Steinway. The resulting sound, as part of the mix, was up there with the London recording, which really shows how well the piano was sampled. The album went on to be released to critical acclaim.

Peggy Seeger

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Born in 1935, Peggy’s family connections are well-known in folk and classical music circles. She is Pete Seeger’s half-sister, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s daughter; partner to Ewan MacColl who wrote First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for her and to whom she bore three children. Peggy has made 22 solo recordings and taken part in more than 100 more with other performers. A singer and multi-instrumentalist, she is considered to be one of North America’s finest female folksingers.

Peggy often visits New Zealand for a few months every summer and when she heard about the arson attack on the Nelson Women’s House offered to perform a fundraising concert at the Nelson School Of Music. We donated sound services and set up as usual and when I asked Peggy if she’d like me to record the concert, she enthusiastically said ‘Yes’. Anyway I decided to multi-track record the concert, with the assistance of JR Richardson.

It was one of those magic nights, with guests including Irene Pyper-Scott, Nathan Torvick and Cairde, all beautifully performed and presented by Peggy and with a very warm reception from the audience, who were in full support of proceedings! The recording turned out to be superb, really capturing the mood of the evening, giving a live representation of Peggy on stage. The BBC recorded Peggy’s 70th birthday concert in London, which was released on CD, but it was felt the Nelson recording was more intimate and easily on a par technically with the London recording. So we mixed the album and it is now due for international release. Had we known we were recording for commercial release, I probably would have used more studio mics on stage, however, it’s a testimony to the live mics we use that the standard was totally professional. Peggy, and her producer Pyper, were a delight to work with and we were thrilled we were able to commit the concert to CD and add another recording to Peggy’s long list of achievements.

James Morrison and Emma Pask

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james-morrison-at-the-theatre-royalMorrison and James Emma Pask When legendary international jazz musician James Morrison played in the Woollaston Nelson Jazz Festival, he specified an acoustic mix on stage and I knew we were in for a great night.

The Theatre Royal’s acoustics are particularly well suited for amplified music and with low monitor levels on stage I could use very open, sensitive microphones on the instrument sources.

In fact we had over $10,000 worth of mics on stage that night. The result was a beautifully produced sound worthy of any CD recording. James is not one to mess around in sound check, in fact after a few minutes he said it was starting to feel like a rehearsal, so that was that! Fortunately I had pretty much decided which mics would go where. I used a couple of Neumann KM183s as underheads on Ron Samson’s drum kit along with Sennheiser e602 on kick, a Shure SM7 on my ‘Jeff Berlin’ Markbass amp for bassist Olivier Holland, a Sennheiser e906 on Lance Sua’s guitar, Neumann TLM193’s on Roger Mannin’s saxophone and James’ trumpet, Microtech Gefell M300s on piano and Emma used her own Shure Beta87 on vocals.

With a little Lexicon 480 emulation reverb we were in sonic heaven for an hour or two. I loved the way James kept the band on edge, throwing lead breaks at band members to be learnt aurally before the show, starting ‘mystery’ songs where the band had no idea what was coming and even presenting a lead break to Roger on an iPad – now that’s jazz!

Arts Festival – Concerts

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As well as our involvement with Red Square, we also provide sound services and support for critical concert work in the Nelson Arts Festival. In recent years this has included the Montreal Guitar Trio, Hollie Smith, Antal Szalai and his Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra, Baker Suite, Don McGlashan with The Bellbirds, Micheline van Hautem, Jonathan Besser to name but a few. Whilst the emphasis is always on producing professional sound, the nature of performing arts is such that amusing incidents are not uncommon!

I recall Antal Szalai arriving with his band for sound check at Woollaston Estates, taking one look at the room, declaring that he’d only need one mic, checking it was working and then declaring an end to the sound check. It was all over in two minutes! The band then made straight for the green room to try out some of the local product! It was, of course, a great night of wild gypsy music.

I very much enjoyed Belgian chanteuse Micheline van Hautem’s concert at Woollaston Estates where she was accompanied by the fantastic guitarist Erwin van Ligten, who ended up playing my 30 year old Maton guitar the whole evening. I hadn’t done sound for my own guitar before and was somewhat surprised that it was the best sounding guitar I’d ever heard! Something to do with the Fishman Rare-Earth Blend pickup combined with the LR Baggs ParaDI as well as the brilliant guitar playing. Erwin offered to buy it on the spot – not for sale sorry!

Arts Festival – Red Square

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An important community feature of recent Arts Festivals in Nelson has been the Westpac Red Square street venue where many of the region’s schools perform. It has now become a significant event in schools’ calendars and each year we are surprised and delighted at the innovation and skills presented. Our philosophy, in terms of this event, is to provide excellent sound whilst providing a very supportive and safe environment for the students in which to perform.

Groups can feature anything from massed mono cycles, choirs, rock bands to kapa haka and jump jam! Fast changeovers are essential, so we tend to use ambient miking techniques where possible and the core of these are Rode NTG-1000 shotgun mics and Electrovoice RE510 condenser mics. These mics can be placed strategically around the stage to reinforce choirs, orchestras and bands. All in all it’s a fantastic celebration of youth performing arts which all bodes very well for the future.

Richard Nunns – Taonga Puoro

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Richard Nunns is the leading player of Taonga Puora (traditional Maori instruments) and is sought after around the world for concerts and lectures. I have been honored to have worked with him on several recording and performance projects. There are no books written on how to record Taonga Puoro and the process is one of sonic exploration, reflecting Richard’s own approach to the instruments. From subtle edge tones to powerful horn calls the dynamic range and diversity of sound is huge. Working with such unique and expressive instruments at the hands of a master has been a highlight of my technical career.

During the last few years we have produced music sound tracks for four documentaries by Christchurch based Director Kathleen Gallagher, with Aroha Yates-Smith on vocals, Richard on Taonga Puoro and myself on traditional Celtic instruments. This journey has been powerful and humbling and the outcomes have been very positive with the music being an integral part of the films’ message. In recent years we have developed an Arts Festival piece featuring a suite of poems by Glen Colquhoun called North South. The poems weave together Maori and Celtic mythologies and Richard and I support Glen’s energetic delivery with taonga puoro and Irish instruments. You’d think Glen’s radio mic would be the least of our technical worries except that he starts the show with his head in a bucket of water – not something radio mics particularly warm to!

Location Recording

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Having portable recording equipment enables us to record pretty much anywhere. In recent years we’ve recorded live concerts, natural history, voice overs, aural history projects, sound to picture, in fact pretty much all aspects of location recording. Obviously if power is available we’ll use our very fine Focusrite and DAV pre-amps, going into Logic Audio on a MacBook via a MOTU interface but if no power is available we now have interesting alternatives at our disposal.

For straight stereo recording we use a Tascam HD-P2, a professional standard flash drive recorder, which has good pre-amps and excellent conversion. For more complex portable work we have an Azden FMX 42a, a four channel mixer which can feed both a camera and flash drive recorder at the same time. These combined with a range of dedicated equipment such as shotgun mics and a boom pole makes for very flexible location recording solutions.

We’re used to recording in various locations and recently set up for a band recording in the old Radio New Zealand studios in Selwyn Place. These studios are largely under utilized these days, but are well treated acoustically and fully sound proof, making them ideal for working with larger bands. The recording session of a local Rockabilly band Krazy Katz went very smoothly and this space is available to us for future recording projects.

Each venue has its own acoustic signature and most large spaces are generally workable for location recording. A couple of recent examples involved brass groups, but recorded in very different venues. We recorded the Tasman Brass Ensemble in Nelson Cathedral, with it’s lush reverb, over several evenings. The musicians are experts in their fields and we achieved a very high standard of production. Also involving brass was the National Secondary Schools Brass Band Of New Zealand concert at the Theatre Royal. The Theatre has a very different acoustic to the Cathedral, but was actually better suited to a larger band. We were very pleased with the technical production of this recording which used a standard ORTF pair of Neumann TLM193 mics with Neumann KM183 outriggers and TLM193 and M300 spot mics.

New Acoustic Treatment and Monitors For Studio

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It’s all very well using top microphones and pre-amps to record music, but unless this is mixed on excellent speakers in an acoustically treated environment, the engineer is working blind (or should that be deaf). When I recently upgraded my studio monitors to English manufacturer PMC’s TB2-As, I started to become aware that all was not right with my control room acoustics.

I had a discussion with Larry Elliot of Marshall Day who are professional acousticians and we commenced a process of measuring the room and designing suitable treatment for installation. Fortunately, once the design is formulated, acoustic panels can be manufactured locally out of materials readily available, but the manufacturing tolerance of some of the acoustic panels was down to a single millimeter so precision was the key. Certain panels were designed to absorb specific frequencies in the room and it was something of a challenge to fit the required square coverage of panels, some of which ended up on doors! However, the end result is a very neutral and balanced monitoring environment which is essential for professional mixing and mastering.

Every nuance can be heard in the mix and the PMC speakers are particularly suited to acoustic music genres presenting a beautifully expansive sound stage.

All material © Bob Bickerton 2012