Sound engineer George Relles work high above the Britt Festival crowd in Jacksonville. 8/31/09 Denise Baratta

The sound and the fury

THE BIG BOARD in the sound booth stretches before George Relles like a wizard's grimoire. Relles' magick is sound, and the board is a digital mixing console with 96 inputs. It is a far cry from the 16-channel units of the pre-digital 1980s, when Relles began doing sound for the Peter Britt Festivals in Jacksonville.

An energetic, balding 60-year-old, Relles is not handling the evening's sound for Pink Martini, which has brought its own sound guy, Pete Plympton. But it's Relles' speaker array, and Britt is his favorite venue, and he's overseeing things in the sound booth as the hills in the distance go purple in the dying light.

"Hey George, the CD player is where?" Plympton asks.

The player located, Relles reflects on three decades of sound at Britt. They were years of change, and full of memories.

"People can carry their show around on a memory stick now," Relles says. "You have to make adjustments, but a lot of housekeeping is already done for you."

A sound engineer wrangles speakers, cables, power amplifiers, processors and other gear to mix sound from instruments played on a stage.

Many different signals must be combined and processed to create the "mix" that covers the area.

Relles, whose George Relles Sound these days has its technical hand in venues from Spokane, Wash., to Redding, Calif., didn't set out to be a sound wizard. He was a pre-med major at the University of Oregon. When he graduated in 1972 he planned on becoming a dentist.

But he was an amateur banjo player, and he had a strong background in math and science, and his music and technology interests would make his future. The catalyst came in the person of famed guitarist Mason Williams.

In 1974 Relles met Williams, who was still riding high in the wake of "Classical Gas," and started playing banjo in Williams' group. He relished the opportunity to play professionally but was disappointed in what he heard.

"The sound was horrible," he says. "I didn't understand why it was so bad."

Trouble was, acoustic music was a different animal from rock. Aspiring sound wizards of the day could handle loud, electric shows pretty well, but they tended to see acoustic shows as a pain in the aspiration. The music was usually too loud. You couldn't hear some parts. Relles had a hunch people weren't using the right mics or techniques.

In 1975, still working with Williams, he started George Relles Sound in Eugene. He presented the Blitz Bluegrass Festival for five years in Eugene and Roseburg, beginning with regional acts like The Muddy Bottom Boys and the Good Ol' Persons and eventually presenting the likes of John Hartford.

He brought in another sound guy, Don Ross, to mix shows when he was playing banjo. He gained experience in mic-ing up orchestras. He was hired to do sound by the Spokane Symphony in 1978, a gig he's now had even longer than Britt.

IN 1981, RELLES manned the sound booth for the first time at the venue that would become his favorite: Jacksonville's Britt. It was for the Count Basie Orchestra, Britt's second non-classical show ever, a year after Dave Brubeck had become the first.

Relles had an analog 16-channel mixer and wired up the band with 16 pickups. He used passive Klipsch La Scala speakers and minimal equalization and mixed the sound in stereo. There was no trickery.

"Simpler is better," he says. "I thought it was pretty good."

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Britt's Mike Sturgill, who books the acts for the festival, says Relles was a mentor to him.

"He understands all the needs of making the show successful," Sturgill says. "He's been a major component of Britt's success over the last 20 years. In a crisis, he'll step in and fix things."

In Idaho once, at the Festival at Sandpoint, Relles accidently drove a truck over his snake, a large cable leading back from the front of the house, a major no-no. The crew made up an award with a GummiCQ Worm and a Hot Wheels car.

"It was good," Sturgill says, laughing.

Tom Olbrich, who used to present concerts for the concert board at Southern Oregon University, says he used to hire Relles for big shows.

"Anytime I could afford George, I did," he says. "His equipment, his ear, and his sensitivity to the music, to the hillside, the bands — he's a musician — it's unparalleled."

When they talk about Britt, both audiences and musicians tend to rave about the sound. For his part, Relles raves about Britt. In June, at the end of a song, jazz trumpeter Chris Botti told the audience he couldn't believe the sound he was hearing on the stage. Relles wasn't surprised.

"It is an incredibly unique venue," he says. "There's a reason Chris said it's his favorite stage in the world. It feels intimate. Any reaction gets amplified by the shell (the Britt Pavilion, which was built in 1978). There's this energy exchange you don't get at other venues."

Singer India Arie, who also performed in June, told her group to throw out the set list because she was feeling something special. That's an old showman's trick, but Relles thinks Arie was sincere.

"When the lights go down you feel in touch with the artist," he says, "and they feel the same thing."

IN THE EARLY days, Relles wanted his business to grow. But he faced a Catch-22. He needed money to buy the equipment he needed to get bigger, but it would take bigger equipment to put on the shows he needed to make the money to buy the gear.

Fate stepped in in 1986 in the form of the collapse of Rajneeshpuram, the Wasco County settlement of several thousand followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, which had been feuding with long-time residents for years. The Rajneeshees had recently taken delivery on some state-of-the-art Meyer Sound MSL-3 loudspeakers.

"They're the speakers the Grateful Dead were using at the time," Relles says.

Six of the high-end speakers were set up at Rajneeshpuram with the proviso that the only thing that went through them would be the Bhagwan's voice. Two weeks later he took a vow of silence. Relles stretched to find the money to buy the speakers. They immediately ramped up his shows, which now also got more complex monitors and a separate mixing console for bands with different levels for each musician.

He brought the speakers to Britt and nervously supervised installation of the 285-pound monsters, a project he remembers as "dangerous and scary."

Sturgill says that since that day, Relles has had the best sound system between San Francisco and Seatlle.

"And in addition to that," he adds, "you've got George."

A few years later Britt agreed to install rigging points, and Relles bought chain motors. For the first time he could fly the system into place like stage sets in a theater.

In 1994 Relles switched to Meyer Sound self-powered MSL-4 speakers. In 2002 he changed from point-source sound to a line array. The change came after two years in mediation over a row about noise levels with Britt, the city of Jacksonville and furious neighbors tired of hearing amplified shows all summer. In the end the festival adopted a 95-decibel limit, which, Relles admits, isn't always easy to enforce among musicians.

"It's helped mitigate the problem," Relles says. "I'm now shooting a beam of sound that dies at the back of the hill."

Britt is the ideal venue for line array systems: a long, narrow hillside. A line array system couples together a number of speaker elements with drivers close enough together to interfere with each other in a desirable way and send sound farther than traditional horn-loaded speakers. It doesn't spray sound up into the air. Relles says the system enables him to concentrate on tapering zones, setting fill delays and other acoustic arcana. One result is that listeners don't hear the huge change in volume they hear with a point source as they move back and forward.

About a decade ago Relles started doing Britt's classical season, which had always been strictly acoustic. Patrons in the reserved seats could hear, but the sound didn't carry on up the hill. Hence, the decision to lightly reinforce the sound with an array of strategically placed microphones. Part of the problem is the wide dynamic range of a classical orchestra.

"They get into the sound level of the crickets," Sturgill says.

"You shouldn't be able to tell it's on," Relles says of his classical system. "But if I turn it off you should know it immediately. You can add a little ambience, some reverb programs that help create a concert hall feel to meld the orchestra all together.

"There's still resistance from some musicians, but most people feel it's a large improvement."

Relles toured for four years with Luciano Pavarotti as a systems tech, mostly in large arenas, beginning in 2000.

"He was very demanding," he says.

But to hear him sing was to be moved.

As digital equipment has taken over professional sound in recent years, bands increasingly bring their own sound men to Britt. They typically provide their own consoles and monitors and use Relles's speakers. He strongly discourages them from using their own speakers.

Olbrich says your ear will tell you why.

"If something's off at Britt," he says, "I'll turn around and there'll be a stranger behind the mixing board."

Relles says there are moments he feels his years in the sound booth. Then he realizes there's nothing, absolutely nothing, he'd rather do.

"There are times it wears me down," he says. "But I do that special show — most of the time it happens at Britt — that brings goose bumps."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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