From Jack White and Bruce Hornsby to Van Halen, Shakira and Jane’s Addiction, Brad Madix has mixed for a huge number of top artists over his impressive career, winning a number of Parnelli Awards, a Grammy nomination, and other industry accolades along the way. Together with business partner Greg Price, Brad also founded Diablo Digital Inc., a company that specializes in providing turn-key live recording systems for tours, festivals and installations. Most recently Brad was behind a VENUE | Profile at FOH for Rush’s R40 Live Tour, which commemorated the band’s 40th anniversary and featured songs from every era of their extensive catalog. I spoke with Brad shortly after the tour about the unique challenges he faced mixing the R40 Live Tour as well as his initial impressions of the new VENUE | S6L system.
DH: How long have you been mixing front of house for Rush now?
BM: The first thing I did was the Roll the Bones tour. Robert Scovill had been mixing them, and then I took over for him on part of that tour, and then he came back and did the next tour, and then I took over the tour after that, which would’ve been 13 or 14 years ago—I’ve been doing them since then.
DH: What are some of the biggest challenges of mixing a band like Rush?
BM: Rush is technically challenging, starting with 30-something drum inputs—there’s a lot going on. Everything that happens on stage they play or trigger, so there are a lot of sources. And not only are there a lot of sources, but they draw from four decades of recordings. Trying to pull a sound out of that long of a time span of writing and arranging and recording and make a coherent show out of it can be pretty challenging. The good news is they’re great players, and people around them who work with them in a technical capacity are really on the ball.
DH: For this latest tour it seemed like they were pulling out all the stops as far as playing a ton of instruments, between all of Geddy’s basses and Neil’s second drum kit. How did that come about?
BM: It’s a retrospective of 40 years’ worth of material. There was no new record, and I think Neil wanted to be true to the first half of his career, where he played a drum kit like that, and I think Geddy more or less wanted to go back in time with some vintage basses he acquired. And Alex played a lot of different guitars on this as well, so I guess a bit of that showmanship and a little bit of trying to find an instrument that’s appropriate to each era.
It would be fair to say that Geddy played a different bass on almost every song. That’s one big challenge. There was a lot of time spent in rehearsals matching the levels of the bass. Tone-wise, we started to go down a road early on, where we were gonna try to make all these basses sorta sound the same-ish, and it just felt like that wasn’t the right thing to do. That’s a Rickenbacker—just let it sound like a Rickenbacker, okay? That’s a Hofner, so let it sound like a Hofner—just try to fit the right bass into the right context, the right song. The instrument has a lot to do with the sound. For example, Geddy played a Hofner towards the end of the show, and the truth is, there’s just not a lot of top end on it. The bass has to sit in the mix more or less the same way for every song, but every song is its own animal, and every instrument is its own animal, and you have to be kinda okay with that. Let it be the instrument it is, not try to put them all in the same box. Getting technical, there were four bass inputs: two DI’s and two distorted inputs. One’s an actual amp driven into distortion, and the other was a SansAmp.
Changing drum kits in the middle of the show was also a bit challenging, because there wasn’t really a sound check with that drum kit. Neil did go up and play it, so we knew everything worked and we could kinda get a feel for it, but he didn’t play the second drum kit for a song with the band on a daily basis. So, we were flying a little bit by the seat of our pants for the beginning of the second set, and that’s not something we normally do. Usually it’s pretty well prepared.
DH: When mixing the various bands you work with and you start looking at your toolkit, do you turn to the same plug-ins regardless of the artist because you know them well and you like what they do, or do you actually think of it differently for each artist?
BM: That’s a good question. When I first started working with Rush, I wanted to find something really of a certain era. So, I mean, I went for a lotta things that were SSL-sounding, Neve-sounding—not so much for the flexibility of EQ or compression or whatever—but more to just get a tonal quality overall. And that was Waves at one point. It was McDSP at one point, but the object was always the same: “Let’s get this thing to sound like it’s coming through an SSL or a Neve, a bunch of Neve channels.” I became aware of Rush in the ’80s, and that hearkens back to a certain sound for me. So we tried to get that and then bring it into the present time but also be true to the sound of the ’70s and the ’80s as well as much as is possible. I might choose the SSL channel or a McDSP piece or an 1176 emulation just specifically for overall tonal quality. But all those things kind of come from a certain time period, and you add enough of that up, and you get the ’80s rock sound, which is kinda to me the middle of their career.
DH: I know that you’re big fan of recording every show—both from the perspective as a live sound engineer and as co-owner/founder of Diablo Digital Inc.?
BM: My philosophy is I want to record every show, and I know when I do that, I’ve got the best show of the tour on a hard drive. So, I’ll always have Geddy’s best vocal performance. I’ll always have Alex’s best guitar performance on any given song. But if there’s a case where you have to positively absolutely capture a specific night—for example the show we captured for DVD release [R40 Live was released on November 20th]—and the one thing I can’t listen to during the show is the audience mics, you probably should bring in a truck or another system and be off in another room. VENUE’s recording quality is perfectly good, and the times that we have flown something in from another show that wasn’t recorded in a truck, you can’t tell the difference—it’s really just a matter of being able to listen to the inputs you’re not actually listening to through the PA.
DH: What is your role in the subsequent post-production for this kind of project? Does the producer take cues from what you do during the show as a guideline?
BM: Well, that happens. David Bottrill, who’s mixing the DVD, sends out the mix at some point, and then the band and I sort of chime in on it. So, it’ll get several comments, and go back in and fix things up. Another thing that happens specifically is if there’s a very special effect—and there are a few—I’ll send them the preset for it, and they’ll drop that in on the session where they’re mixing. There are two presets that are going to be on the DVD that are straight off of the VENUE. One is an effect for the end of Xanadu, where Geddy plays a 12-string. It’s a little complicated, so it just turned out to be easier to have him send me the track from that night, and I’m going to bounce it out and send it back to him.
DH: Moving on to the new VENUE | S6L, you’ve been involved in the development for quite some time, but you actually got a little time on the system during the Rush sound check in San Jose. What are your impressions of the system so far?
BM: Well, I’m really happy with the way you can step up to it and have it laid out in a way that’s very, very accessible and can get something going very quickly. And, on the other hand, you can really get in-depth. I mean, you spend a little time laying it out the way you want, and you can go from a very kind of basic layout with this input gain on an encoder right above it, the pan pot right there—almost like an old-school analog desk, where everything’s laid out in a linear way—but there’s so much depth as far as what you can pull up on the encoders for any given channel.
And you can switch from that very basic layout to that really in-depth layout with a lot of control very rapidly with only one button push. And the ability to get stuff up on the screen in front of you rapidly, to have more than one thing up on a screen in front of you so that you’re not pushing buttons to get to look at something, is also really helpful. I think it’s really remarkable, actually, the flexibility. I can totally see taking one approach with a band that I’ve really not spent much time with and step up to the desk and get something going and then, on the other hand, really drill down and do a mix that you’ve been working on for a while.
DH: That’s got to be nice that the workflows that you’ve really taken advantage of for so many years—all the programming, all the snapshot capabilities that you know well—that you’re not having to relearn all of that, but at the same time, like you said, you get access to a lot of new capabilities.
BM: Yeah. After spending a few minutes with it, a lot of it seems very familiar, but there’s also a lot more that you can dig out from it. I almost feel like this thing has layers, that you can reach down into it and easily pull things up onto the top that are harder to do with other platforms, where you have to sorta push through buttons or step through menus.
DH: What are your initial impressions about the sound quality?
BM: It was actually remarkable. We recorded the sound check in San Jose, and we didn’t have a lot of time to play with it after sound check—maybe 20 minutes or something—so we thought, “Why don’t we throw together a mix and sorta see what it sounds like?” And the first thing I turned on was the overheads of the drum kit, and I remember remarking to people that it was stunning. I mean, really it was a “wow” moment for me just thinking, “Well, that’s really good.” In that condensed 20 minutes where we built a very, very basic mix of the band, I walked away thinking, “Okay, this thing’s gonna sound great.” Without any plug-ins or really much EQ or anything going on, the tonal quality was really, really sweet!