SCD and Phoenix RSO Prototype "Tiny" Concert Series

  • The idea for hosting a concert in SCD came up often, but the architecture of the building proved to not be conducive to having a live and loud music performance in any of the indoor public areas. The SCD Media Studio presented an opportunity to host a concert, but lacked significant room to hold an audience. From this combination of factors, some inspiration from the NPR Tiny Desk concert series, and experiences during the COVID19 pandemic, an idea was born to try a recorded and streaming performance where the band would be able to use the Media Studio as their stage, and the concert would be available to stream in the building or online. When a student organization, Phoenix, proposed a concert with 6 bands for October 22, 2023, the SCD team saw an opportunity to design this experience. 

Concept Background

The initial concept was conceived in response to the impact the COVID19 pandemic had on live performances. Without audiences present, both artists and venues were without a plan for how to continue their work. However, recording and streaming capabilities had expanded significantly in the last decade, paving the way for an alternative performance opportunity. Senior Associate Director of Operations and Experience, Nicholas Puddicombe, wanted to explore how a full stage experience could be captured and shared using a smaller studio space, like the Media Studio at the Center, and understanding how it can be a positive and impactful experience for the artists and audiences. 

Designing the Experience

The Media Studio had some equipment to record, along with a used PA and some basic streaming connections, so there was enough to run a prototype. Nick and the team started designing the experience by understanding what we had to work with (which involved bringing in his drum set and seeing just how loud we could be), and synthesizing our early learnings into something we could test at a sound check.

Learnings from the first prototype: 

  • How far noise would bleed out from the media studio into surrounding spaces
  • How loud a drum set is in the studio (~100Db)
  • How many mics we needed, and our limit of inputs
  • How to connect the line feed for recording and streaming

Sound Check

Our next iteration was two days before the concert, where one of the bands, The Meantime, was able to run a full sound check in the Studio. Unfortunately, we did not get a drum set this time, so we focused on guitar amps, vocals, and stage setup for the camera. We first identified a problem here that would continue throughout the first concert, where the podcast recording device could not handle the feed from the mixer board, causing a very crunchy sound when the full band played. We only had two days to make an adjustment and no other equipment to bring in for a better recording, so our next several prototypes had to happen on the fly between acts.

Learnings from the second prototype: 

  • Our stage set up was great, and easily allowed for 5 performers with a drum kit 
  • We could run all 8 inputs to the mixer, and bounce down to the podcast recorder, but it created an over-driven sound that was not clear at all- we needed a better interface
  • We had to be ready for several changes during the concert to try to address the poor audio quality in the recordings

Concert Day

The first implementation of the concept was concert day, although it was more of a series of prototypes with very fast redesigns between them. For the first band, Dumbed Down, we immediately saw the overdrive problem, as the group played very intensely and peaked out the podcast recorder. The sound worked for this particular group, who describe themselves as “dumb punk”, so we ran with it and focused on the stream in the lobby. Here we had issues as our simple HDMI to USB connector and playing through Zoom was a lot for the computer to handle, so there was significant lag, missing audio, and skipping. We had hoped to use OBS Studio for the stream, but we could not overcome a problem with software installation. We ended up changing the plan quickly, and just left the doors open for the sound to feed into the Gallery and left the video feed on the TV we had planned to stream on. It wasn’t ideal, but it was another learning experience.

The other issue we had was that the vocals were not being played in the room, because they were only feeding into the recording and not out to a speaker. This made it hard for the band to keep together, and the audience could not hear the vocals at all. We had this setup for the next two acts, Cash Only and Ultraviolet, and just fed as many headphones as we had to the group (we had 3 for the band, and one for the engineer), but this was not going to work for our alternative hip-hop artist, D.Rew, who needed to hear his backing track. At this point, we started mixing things up, and tried out every option to play vocals in the room. We tried using a small guitar amp through the monitor outputs (because the main outputs were all in use feeding the recording), and while it worked, it was not a very impressive sound in the room. The recording sounded amazing though! Since he was not a full band, and was using the podcast recorder as intended with just one voice and a music feed, it mixed great for the recording and video.

Learnings from the implementation: 

  • We needed a better input for recording. We could have used a feed into any computer DAW and had a better recording than using the podcast device
  • We needed better streaming software, and the streaming equipment we had was not sufficient for a good feed
  • We needed to have the vocals in the room, for the audience and the artists to enjoy the experience
  • The in-room sound was excellent, and we could fit a small audience of 20-30 people along with the band and mixing station
  • The lighting and look of the room made for a unique and intimate experience

Based on feedback from the artists and audience, it was time to prioritize the sound in the room over the recording, because it was evident that we were not going to get a clean recording. One issue we also had is the power amp in the mixer board had stopped working reliably, so we could not use it as a true PA. However, the powered outputs were the only ones left, so I had to try- and they miraculously worked! We quickly mixed up the outputs and brought out the monitor speaker so we had a vocal feed in the room now, and it sounded much better for our last two bands, The Meantime and Sitrus Sol. Unfortunately, this meant that our recording feed was still crunchy, and even worse now that vocals were added to the room. We did end up finding that the sound from the mixer headphone output was also great, so it verified our issue was the podcast device not being able to handle the feed. 

The last details from the concert were to make the space feel like a unique experience. The Media Studio lighting was adjusted and we added splashes of color for ambience. The audience seating was mixed in close to the band, while also allowing plenty of room for the group to move around the stage. The SCD team engaged with the artists and audience, providing information about the concept and how this is a prototype experience.

Continuing the Design Process

A survey was shared with all of the artists who performed in this concert, and we will use this feedback to further improve the experience for the next concert. The initial feedback has been positive, commenting they liked "the intimate setting", that "it was a nice room with a cool idea", "It was a new experience for us", and "everyone on staff and with the event was very kind and accommodating, the facilities were stellar, and the event was run smoothly and professionally." 

All the artists were both great to work with and willing to go along with this idea they had never done before. SCD is planning to invite all of the artists back for a concert on Reading Day in Spring 2024, which they are all excited to join. While we learned a lot from the first iteration of the concept, we are going to explore this further through future collaborations and performances. It is part of our Mission at SCD to practice and model Design Thinking, and this process is just one way we are using Human-Centered Design to reimagine our world.