Though it may be a small and humble room; minimal décor, wooden floor boards and only 150 person capacity, the Triple R Performance Space has hosted as many prestigious musical guests as most well-known venues in Melbourne. Since first opening its doors in 2009 the Performance Space has hosted hundreds of performances by local and international artists such as The Drones, Adalita, Real Estate, ESG and Best Coast. There are over 700 Live to Air performances archived from the last 40 years of Triple R’s history (pre-dating the Performance Space itself), with the first ever Live to Air broadcast taking place in 1978 with Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons live at the University of Melbourne. The list of incredible things that have happened at a Triple R Live to Air could go on and on…
On the day that Noisegate paid a visit to the Triple R studios, it was all hands on deck preparing for a live to air performance with lauded Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. The air in the studio was thick with excitement as sound engineers set up microphones to record and broadcast the performance and volunteers helped to ready the space for the lucky subscribers who would be in attendance. We couldn’t help but wonder if this excitement was less to do with the anticipation of the prestigious musical guest and more to do with the shared knowledge that whenever a Live to Air performance takes place at Triple R, something magical is bound to happen.
Lauren Taylor, the Live To Air and Events co-ordinator at the station, admitted that sometimes it is the tension of the unknown that can make a Live to Air performance truly unforgettable. ‘I guess it’s when something exciting and memorable happens,’ she told Noisegate. ‘Even if it’s quite scary and something goes a bit wrong… I like it when you’re on the edge of your seat, just as long as it doesn’t completely fall over. That’s live radio. That’s what I enjoy about it, what frightens me!’
On-air producer and engineer, Archie Cuthbertson echoed this sentiment, recounting one of his most memorable mixing experiences at a Live to Air broadcast as one of high stress and loaded with potential for disaster. ‘This was a Live to Air broadcast from The Laundry, a venue located in Johnston Street in Fitzroy just across a laneway from the old Triple R studios. This was always a difficult set up because we had to string a 50-metre multicore across the laneway from one building to the other.’ Cuthbertson goes on, ‘The artist that evening was Michael Franti and Spearhead, [and] the band were running 40 minutes late after literally stepping off a 40-hour flight from Canada via New Zealand. The broadcast was delayed and the venue was packed… When Michael Franti stepped onto the stage, the crowd went wild and remained that way for the entire show. I took that opportunity to really open up the crowd mics to capture the audience interaction and energy in the room.’
This too, is the charm of a community radio station like Triple R. As opposed to the polished and often contrived radio product created by commercial radio stations, the content that flows out of Triple R is a pure and immediate reflection of a healthy music community. Programs are run by volunteers and aim to speak directly to their audience, engaged with what is truly happening at the grassroots level of the Australian music scene. It is through this community engagement that the programming of the Live to Air broadcasts takes place. The line-ups of the Live to Airs are ‘absolutely a collaboration’ between the presenters, the audience and herself, according to Lauren Taylor. ‘We get pitched ideas from bands and labels. But essentially a Live to Air is not something that you can just purchase. When we’re in a position where we have funding we go to our broadcasters and say “Hey! What do you want to happen? What’s your dream? Lets make it a reality!” And I do my best to work with them, spread the love across a variety of shows, different time slots and genres. It can also be up to the programming team to work out what’s getting lots of airplay and where, in that moment.’ Taylor continues, ‘[It’s often about] trying to make things happen within shows where they might already be playing that artist a lot, where it will also be exciting for them to host it…’ The Live to Air programming is a direct response to what Triple R audiences are excited about, and what the trusted broadcasters of the station believe should be getting more attention.
When Noisegate visited the Triple R studio, musical guest Courtney Barnett herself affirmed that it was this sense of community engagement that kept her returning to station. ‘I just love the support and the community spirit of supporting artists, not even just music, just supporting activities and local things like Ceres [a volunteer-run organic farm]… It’s about really being in tune with what’s actually going on in the world… We can all complain about the government but we do have to work together in small ways for anything to change.’ With the weight of these words, Barnett’s performance in the Triple R Performance Space spoke out to those present in the space and those listening over the airwaves. She was there not only as a performer, but also as an enthusiastic audience member who saw the benefits and joys of being involved with this thriving community radio family.
But how does the Live to Air broadcast come together on the day? What goes into the elaborate production of mixing a performance for the live in-studio audience and the on-air broadcast? Archie Cuthbertson has been responsible for the live and on-air sound for many performances at Triple R over the years, and provided us with an excellent run down of the technical side of the set up on the day of a Live to Air:
‘A typical Live to Air event starts with working closely with the front of house engineer to replicate all required channels that are being fed from the Performance Space. Additional channels such as crowd/atmosphere may also be required to enhance the on-air broadcast sound. Broadcast mix levels are established during sound check.
We use a Midas Pro 2 digital console interfaced with Pro Tools. Should we require any further tweaks post sound check we have the advantage of a Pro Tools recorded sound check. We use this recording to run a virtual sound check to further refine the broadcast mix prior to the live performance. Lots of checking return lines to the broadcast studio, checking lines and levels for our Facebook live feed and setting up a Pro Tools multi-track session to enable recording of all individual channels. When the show begins it’s straight into doing a live broadcast mix to air. None of our live performances are pre-recorded. Post-show we are still busy archiving set lists, video footage and captured multi-track audio.
As complicated as this process sounds, the technical proceedings of the Courtney Barnett Live to Air progressed seamlessly. By the time a line of excited audience members had formed outside the studio and began to file in at around 5.30pm, the Performance Space was clear of any whisper of stress, set up and sound check. The stage was set and lit for the performance, and eager fans crowded to the front of the room. Before the performance itself Barnett was interviewed by the Fee-B Squared, the host of the longstanding Monday drive show Maps. Instead of a standard interview, the host took to social media to ask Triple R fans what they wanted to know of Barnett that afternoon. Questions submitted by fans young and old covered topics as broad as what Barnett thought about when she was performing, to what kind of exercise clothes she wore to partake in her newest hobby, running.
As Barnett and her band began their Live to Air set, all elements of organisation were invisible to the unknowing eye. The only thing of importance was the frenetic energy of Barnett’s performance and the audience’s response. The performance was a shared moment, not only between Barnett and the in-studio audience, but also the thousands of Triple R audience members listening on radios and online across the world. This is the beauty of the Live to Air performance at Triple R, their ability to connect people directly to live music that they may not be able to see in the flesh. Whilst the performance may seem like a momentary drop of live radio in an ocean of airwaves, the recording of the Live to Air serves as a snapshot to live forever in the Triple R archives amongst so many other mementos of the station’s impressive musical history.
Keep an eye on the Triple R YouTube page for highlights from Courtney Barnett’s performance: