Production Rehearsals

By in Live Sound, On Tour with Massive Attack

The following is the second in the series, On Tour with Massive Attack, from Robb Allan. Robb will be sharing his perspective as both a touring FOH engineer and Avid live sound team member.

I’ve spent my whole life touring mixing sound, but for the past eight years I’ve been working at Avid in the Live Sound team. Avid makes all kinds of software and hardware that allows people to create all the best music we listen to and the movies and TV we watch, with Pro Tools and Media Composer being the most well known product names. For the last four years I’ve been a part of the team, led by my mate Al McKinna and featuring the audio Jedi Robert Scovill, that developed a new live console poetically called the S3L. Since its launch I’ve been travelling around, talking to the audio community about it and running hands-on training workshops with my colleague Chris Lambrechts. So now I’m going to spend the summer touring with S3L and mixing Front of House for the extraordinary Massive Attack on the console I’ve watched grow from drawings on paper to a fully functioning work of genius (yes, I’m a little biased).

So to get ready for the tour, the plan is to spend three days in the Massive Attack studio working on arrangements and ideas followed by five days of production rehearsals in the Bristol O2 Academy to get the show programmed. We’ll then send the gear to Sofia in Bulgaria, have a last production day in the venue there, and then put on our first show. I haven’t toured with Massive for eight years, and I’m so looking forward to meeting up with them and starting the tour, that I feel like a kid waiting for Xmas.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

In the Studio

So I roll up to the Massive Studio, which, as they say, is in a secret location in a Bristolian industrial estate. It’s a really cool space filled with art from 3D and other artists. All kinds of stuff, from original Sex Pistols posters and art that became Massive Attack album covers to an original Cyber man from Doctor Who. In fact, you can see the latter in one of the attached photos. It’s an inspiring creative space and the band had been holed up there for weeks. The two drummers, Julian and Damon, the bass player Winston, and guitarist Angelo are set up in the Live room. The control room had the keys, playback and vocals. Monitor engineer Paul Hatt and the backline crew were in the hallway. I had my S3L upstairs between the dining room table where we ate and the foosball table we played on.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

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Thank goodness for S3L’s compact size—if I’d used my old analogue desk from back in the day, we’d all have gone hungry and had to cancel the fiercely competitive foosball competition.

We didn’t fully mic everything, as the focus here was on the band’s arrangements. I built my show file and took a monitor mix from Paul to listen to the new songs and arrangements. I had fun but was itching to get to the Academy to really start working. Eventually late Sunday night we packed everything up and moved across town.

Bristol O2 Academy

We decided to set up the full backline on the venue floor, as there wasn’t sufficient space on the stage. We mic’d everything up with pretty straightforward mics—I’ve included a channel and mic list for the curious.

Highlights for me were a vintage Altec 633A for Damon’s snare top and the new AKG D12VR for the kick drum.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

We’re going to play a lot of outdoor festivals over the summer from Iceland to Lebanon, so I wanted to mic the kit zonally and with underheads rather than the traditional overhead method, to limit wind noise and have a clean and tight pick up pattern.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

We had Sure Beta 98AMP’s on the toms and a mix of AKG C414B XLSand Sure SM81s on the cymbals, hats, percussion, etc. I also needed close microphone placements for some of the esoteric plugins inserted on particular cymbals or percussion in parts of songs (more on that later).

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In a crazy twist, the huge video and lighting rig were being prepped and programmed in a different town. We had a video link to watch their work whilst we got on with ours. We won’t actually put sound and vision together until we get to Sofia! There are A and B visual set ups which will leap frog around Europe all summer with some extra surprises brought in for our Glastonbury headline slot.

FOH Kit List

So at FOH I have my S3L in a cool AdLib audio flightcase, a keyboard stand for it to sit on, (LOL, it used to take ten guys and lots of swearing back in the dark ages to get my desk up), MacBook Pro for Pro Tools record and playback, Rosendahl Mif4 to convert the LTC toMTC, Roland UM ONE USB MIDI interface, and my Focal CM50. The Focals are killer monitors from my studio that I’m using for Virtual Soundcheck and general audio work. I can listen to them all day and not get tired. I love how smooth, detailed, and non-abrasive the top end is and their flat and honest bass frequencies. Absoloutely my favourite near field monitors.

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Timecode

The whole show runs to code generated at the playback machine. Pro Tools stems, mainly sound effects and keyboard tracks, are imported in and with click tracks are matched to code. This is distributed to audio, video, and light worlds.

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Here’s how it works: LTC runs up my AVB multi to an input channel, a direct out goes to my Rosendahl device which converts it to MTC, the Roland then gives me MTC over MIDI to trigger the shows snapshots. The best thing about this is that in my Virtual Soundcheck I record the LTC code to a Pro Tools track when the band are on stage, and in playback mode the code is there in exactly the same place back from Pro Tools which goes to the Rosendahl etc. this allows me to do precise programming.

Sometimes I have a very complicated cue at a very specific point in a song that has too many changes to do simultaneously manually. I can spend time in my virtual soundcheck to find the exact frame to recall my snapshot, store it and know it will be perfect everytime.—absolutely awesome and a little sci-fi too! I used to use index cards with written reminders back in the day. The problem with memory prompts is remembering to bring them in the first place. Sometimes I’d leave them on the bus or catering, in my hotel room…. We also run extra playback tracks specifically for monitors, for example count in cues, typically 1,2,1,2,3,4 for the IEMs—even some tones or chords for the singers to pitch to in some of the denser soundscapes.

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Virtual Soundcheck Rules!!!

We had the best part of four days to work in the Academy. We put in incredible long hours to make sure that the show would be perfect, with the band rehearsing the songs and working on their in-ear mixes. Paul has so many cues to write, but having the code to trigger them makes his job not quite impossible, but only just. The stage is largely silent, with no speakers, IEM’s, and virtual amps. The only sounds are the acoustic drums and the clacking of the sticks on the electric kits pads. This really helps with the Virtual Soundcheck as you don’t have to allow for ambient noise from the stage, especially in the large arenas and open air shows we are playing. I had Pro Tools running all day, with the longest session being ten hours!! It’s incredible that with a MacBook Air and a standard USB3 drive I can record 64 tracks to Pro Tools over one Ethernet cable literally all day and night. It’s a marvelous thing opening up a new session from Pro Tools and seeing “Create session from VENUE” as an option. Pro Tools recognizes that it’s connected to a VENUE system, and using metadata included in the AVB network, creates a track for every channel on the desk that has an input patched in. It also creates mono or stereo tracks to match the mono or stereo channels on the console. More than that, it also takes the VENUE showfile name as the PT session name and all the desk input channel names as the track names in PT. All this happens much quicker than it takes me to describe it. It really is audio alchemy and saves so much time and effort. I start with a snapshot per song and build from there.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

Snapshots and Plug-ins

As I mentioned in some of the songs there are multiple cues at a very precise point, which are impossible to do manually. I create a new snapshot for that cue and program the snapshot to respond to the exact frame of MTC. In record mode when I recall a snapshot a marker is placed in the Pro Tools timeline. In playback mode when I recall a snapshot Protools jumps to that point. Makes recording and tweeking your show so easy.

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As VENUE has selective recall as its basic workflow for snapshots, I could slowly build my mixes knowing that I could add more elements later. I started with faders and mutes then added some plug-in settings and name changes for the playback tracks. Then using the Snapshot Recall Safe Matrix, I added in some more creative changes with dynamics specific to say one compressor on one channel. I ended with a couple of really specific plug-in cues. A SansAmp punches in for the rimshot of ‘Tear drop’ to give it an edge. This then feeds into a short plate verb with a 125ms pre delay. I have a couple of different cues inserting a mooger fooger phaser on one or other of the ride cymabals. The more general changes, say EQ or plug-ins that are a constant, I store as part of my show file. This means I can be very strategic and surgical with my snapshots.

As the band rehearsed I recorded everything into Pro Tools. There was a lot of stop-start as they got comfortable with their stage mixes and refined the arrangements. Eventually I’d get a full song recorded, and when they had a break or went home, I could start to build a mix from the recording. Robert, or 3D as he’s known, would sit with me whilst I worked and he has a great ear. All the other band members would sit around as well at different times and throw in ideas. We could get very abstract and philosophical about the sound we were trying to achieve. The high hat and snare on one of the songs had to sound “like a Serge Gainsburg recording” (yes, I had to go buy an album on iTunes, I had no idea!!). At one point 3D and I were talking about dynamics. Massive have huge peaks of sound like a tsunami breaking over you that then drop down to tiny little bells (reverse delayed reverb inserted on one tune). It was late and I was ranting “Man, without quiet, loud doesn’t exist—it’s in the contrast that we find the truth. Without quiet loud isn’t loud—it’s ambient.” Mark, the band’s manager, then warned me that I was talking like a character from Spinal Tap. Time to go to bed! So over the days we slowly built up a detailed audio production much in the way you would produce an album. Varying the drum sounds and reverbs for every tune. Building dynamics into songs and trying to get the whole set to have an ebb and flow, so that everything we do builds towards climaxes then drops to near silence within songs and the show has a totality. The songs have to work together and have a coherent audio style and content within themselves, and as part of a whole two hours worth of performance. The collaboration that the Avid Virtual Soundcheck offers is incredible. I love being able to sit with the artist and share the responsibility and creativity of the way the audio is presented. Artists also feel so much more comfortable when they know that the audio delivered to the audience is conceptually something they have created with the FOH engineer and signed off on. Back in the day they had to rely on the feedback they got from their mums or girlfriends (or the A and R man propping up the bar) as to how the show sounded.

Roadie rule number 2. Listen to the band. Its their music, your job is to make sure everyone can enjoy it.

Sofia Production Day

So we all get to the gig to find it’s in a Soviet-era ice hockey arena—all concrete, shiny seats, glass, and a massive corrugated tin roof. Basically the roof was the world’s largest plate reverb. The first thing to greet us was a sign at the front door to inform us we couldn’t bring guns into the venue. OK, glad to hear it. Later I timed a reverb from the kick drum at eleven seconds. There was pandemonium an hour into the load-in when a rat the size of a domestic cat (honestly freakin’ huge) ran from the open drains, crossed under the stage ramp, followed the multi to FOH and disappeared down a different open sewer.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

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Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

The main hang of PA was d&b V-Series with V-SUBs—the first time I’d used it. It’s a passive box, so you get a lot of sound from very few amplifiers. Efficient German engineering. It sounded great even in this room. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough of those boxes in Bulgaria to cover the whole Arena. It held twenty thousand or so. The rental company then had some ancient home made subs (hhmm, the less said the better) and some Nexo GEO S8 for out hangs. Also some Nexo infills and more home made boxes for the wide infills—quite a mixture. We spent a little time on it and eventually got the thing to puff and pant at the same time! It was like the united nations of speakers. I was performing the audio version of “order, order!”

Unfortunately I had to leave some of the finer points of the mix for a more forgiving room and get on with the “basic meat and potatoes” of the sound. At one stage the bass player Winston asked me whether the sound of the reverb on his bass fx rack had the correct reverb time and whether he needed to add more… The printable version of my reply is that, kind as the offer was, there was probably sufficient reverb in the lower frequencies to be had for free in the arena. So that was it—production finished. Time to get on with the Show!

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—Production Rehearsals

As a live sound engineer, I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing artists including Coldplay, Massive Attack, Manic Street Preachers, Natalie Imbruglia, Richard Ashcroft and Lisa Stansfield. I have also mixed broadcast sound on David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Jay Leno, the Brit Awards, the MTV Music Awards and the 2010 World Cup Kickoff Concert.