The Show Must Go On

By in Live Sound, On Tour with Massive Attack

The following is the third 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.

Sofia

If you’ve had a bit of a nose at my earlier missives you’ll know the story so far. Basically, I’m on tour with my favorite band, Massive Attack, mixing on my favorite desk, the Avid S3L, and having a blast. We’ve finished a rather disjointed production rehearsal schedule and are ready to start the first run of shows. First up Sofia, Bulgaria.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

If you took an enormous biscuit tin, turned it upside down, and embedded it in concrete you would have an approximate acoustic environment to the ice hockey arena we were playing in. However, as ever, in rock and roll that didn’t matter a monkeys. It’s all about the performance and the energy. In the best shows, the band, the crew and the audience all come together for a short time and create a community with one end in mind: to lose themselves in the music.

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This is my first Massive show in eight years. I’m a little nervous, and as the show starts with “Battlebox”, the hairs rise on the back of my neck and the twenty thousand members of the crowd scream their encouragement. For a moment I can’t hear the band over the audience roar reverberating around the packed, Stalinist era, shed. The temptation to turn it all up is enormous but I manage to resist. If I give it full power now there will be nowhere left to go as the set builds. I have a game plan that has the volume peaking in “Angel”, a secondary peak during “Unfinished Symphony”, then plateauing out to the end of the encore. “Angel” is always the highlight of the set for me so I need to keep my audio powder dry until then. I’m pretty sure the audience won’t keep up that noise level for long, though as the night goes on I’m staggered by their commitment and enthusiasm.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

During the first few bars I have a quick check of the kit: the time code is running and triggering snapshots, the Pro Tools session is recording its 64 channels over Cat5e, and I’m also recording a two track reference mix at 48k 24-bits straight to a USB key, with my snapshots automatically editing and providing song titles to each .wav file. It’s all doing its job without any dramas. My friend Radu has flown in from Romania with the singer from Sensor and they’re hanging out at FOH. I catch his eye and he’s smiling and gives me the thumbs up.

As Martina starts her first vocal I look at the EQ on the LR bus. S3L provides a graphic equalizer and parametric equalizer on each output. I’d been cutting certain frequencies, more than I would normally, in the GEQ to try and tame the unruly acoustics during the sound checks. I gradually put some of that back in as I try to gauge the difference twenty thousand shouty Bulgarians had made to the acoustic environment. They were adding some dampening just by being there of course and massively increasing the temperature and humidity with their voices and dancing. I replaced some of what I call the “telephone frequencies”—600 to 3k—the area where voices are projected and words enunciated. I also reintroduced some of the bass guitar frequencies 100 to 200Hz. The boom in the empty room had been fierce but I can now put in a little more energy in that area. The GEQ is nearly flat now and that’s always where I want it. I remembered earlier in the day mentioning to Benny (our production manager) that nearly all my channels were flat and that the System EQ should ideally be flat. He suggested that I take a pay cut, as I obviously wasn’t doing very much work!!! Yeah right. I explained that the source sounds were great, the mics were good and in the correct place, the S3L preamps were awesome, and that if you have faith in your ears and trust your equipment, sometimes doing nothing is the smart choice.

ROADIE RULE No.3: Keep out of the way of the signal chain unless you have a really good reason to mess with it. Or, IF YOU WANT IT LOUDER STOP TURNING IT DOWN!

The show was settled in and I was really enjoying the music and the crowd’s response to it. As the show was developing I was making small adjustments to each song’s snapshot and storing them, so that over the period of the first few shows and sound checks I could refine and deepen the work we’d done in production rehearsals. “Angel” came and Mr. Horace Andy, the last of the great age of Studio One Reggae singers, did his inimitable thing. The man is ageless and so full of joy you can hear it in every syllable he sings. “Love ya, love ya, love ya” I spin the phrase onwards with a delay that pans from left to right in the mix, then the drums and guitars kick in. The PA is flat out and the crowd erupts into a huge spontaneous roar. It’s moments like this that remind me I have the best job ever.

Visuals

At every show the band work with a local journalist and translator to flash agit prop messages on the elaborate moving video screens. I don’t know what they said during “Future Proof” (my Bulgarian is a little rusty) but the crowd nearly blew the tin roof off the arena, such was their response. It’s still a work in progress and it changes for each venue and country to relate specifically to the local culture, political situation, and environment. The amazing thing about Massive Attack is that they’re always backlit, nearly in the dark. It’s all about the music and the visual concepts. It’s like a huge art installation with a rockin’ band. There is no ego posturing at all. It’s not until the very end after the last encore that they’re lit from the front and we can see all nine of them waving goodbye and hugging each other.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

Istanbul

Istanbul was next. We were in a park in the city centre. The PA was a couple of hangs of K1 very well set up and aligned. I popped down early on show day to set up my desk and Pro Tools rig and work my Virtual Soundcheck. I flattened off all the output processing, pressed play, and recalled a snapshot. Pro Tools jumped to that point in the show file from the Sofia concert and there it was—sounded pretty much as I wanted it. We added some more level to the subs at the processor and after a couple of songs I was pretty much done. I got to bring in a little more reverb, as we were open air with very few reflections to deal with. It gave me a chance to play with my favorite Sonnox reverb. I really enjoy the ability to fade between the early reflections and the reverb, as it opens up some interesting possibilities. I mixed a pretty traditional rock and roll record a couple of years ago by “The Black Bombers” and used this plug-in exclusively for all the retro sounding instrument effects. I also use Sonnox Transmod to shape the drum group waveforms in some parts of the set and Sonnox Dynamic for parallel compression on both drum kits.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

Then the coolest thing happened. Ishmael Akkaya of the famous Akkaya brothers who mixes the Turkish rap artist Ceza turned up at FOH with his S3L, and they had another S3L mixing the monitors for the band as well. We had a great bonding session although we had no language in common. We compared plug-ins and did a lot of thumbs up and smiling. His show sounded awesome and I was delighted for him. It sounded crisp and open with loads of bottom end but incredible clarity for the rapper’s voice. He incidentally fired off incredibly fast barrages of words in Turkish, which although I couldn’t understand the meaning, I delighted in the delivery.

Show File Portability Will Save Your Bacon

I never want anyone to have an audio problem. I really don’t enjoy Schadenfreude, but an incident that day with one of the other bands performing on another manufacturer’s console made me realize how important show file portability is. On Avid desks any show stored on a USB key from any desk with any version of the software will load straight up on any other Avid desk, no quibbles or caveats. I watched as a poor, fellow FOH guy couldn’t get his show to load at all—nothing. Same brand and model, just a different number. He spent a couple of hours trying, right up to show time, to get it going, and then gave up. The band was mixed from the monitor desk sending a LR feed to the FOH PA system. Ouch, ouch, ouch! I was suffering with him as he chain smoked and cursed.

When it was finally our show I was really pleased with the system. I could never really get the low end punch I was looking for in the older L-Acoustics V-DOSC system, but the K1 really delivers it now. Massive Attack uses loads of bottom end in their music but it needs to be punchy and defined. The K1 certainly helps me to get towards the sound I believe to be the correct one. When “Future Proof” kicked in and the phrases and slogans in Turkish flashed by on the screens the audience started chanting and punching the air. Later I was told that it was in defense of a city centre park that is under threat (like the world needs another shopping mall!). The chanting carried on long after the song finished. It was very powerful—I thought the revolution was starting right there and then.

Barcelona

Next stop was to my home city Barcelona and the incredible Sonar festival. This happens day and night in different venues around the city and is one of the world’s largest dance and electronic music festivals. Again it was a K1 system, but this time on a huge scale. The guys at Twin Cam Audio had done an incredible job and it was a truly mighty sounding PA. Both my sons came to the show and had a great time. My youngest boy, Ajani, had never seen me mix a show, as he was only four when I stopped full-time touring. It was so nice to have him sit next to me at FOH during the show. My wife Lourdes was in the middle of the crowd with her friends dancing herself to a standstill. Massive Attack is her favorite band as well (we’re made for each other), and she says that their music speaks directly to the Id and makes it impossible to do anything other than dance. My oldest boy, Ibai, was also there with his hipster pals. They stayed there all night. The festival finishes at breakfast time the next day. His gang were delighted to get passes that allowed them backstage, not to star gaze, but to have access to the free bar! One of them went home in an ambulance after dislocating a shoulder. He swears it was a dance-related accident and not a consequence of the free bar!

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

The concert was incredible, as there were thirty thousand Massive Attack fans there to dance and have a great time. Spanish audiences always have the best time. They don’t try to be ‘cool’, they just want to PARTY. We took the stage straight after a well-known DJ who had the system set to stun. It was so loud I could barely hear the line check even with my full enclosure headphones turned up to eleven. We barely had three minutes for our heads to clear before the band took the stage. We had our ‘A’ visuals, lasers and all. The show reached the potential we’d all been hoping for. The band’s manager said it was the best they’d sounded in years. I took that as a compliment for the genius of the S3L desk and the beast of a K1 rig the noise boys had assembled.

I couldn’t have been happier—my family was there and I was mixing, in my opinion, the world’s greatest band on S3L through a system that reproduced every nuance and subtle change I made. Loading out after the show was a bit of a challenge, as some other insanely loud DJ tried to push our brains out of our heads through our ears using only sound as a weapon. Rudimental were loading on their kit for the late night slot as we packed down. We also had to cross load our kit onto a different truck as some of it was heading for a chartered 737 to fly to Reykjavik. All of this in sign language during the world’s loudest disco load out. It was a total cluster fudge, as we say, but we got it done and everything managed to get to that strange and magical island way to the North.

Iceland

All I can say is, if you ever get a chance, go to Iceland. It’s so beautiful. It’s totally full of mad surreal landscapes and wild, dramatic nature. We played a smallish festival in Reykjavik city itself for which a Meyer Milo system was provided. I hadn’t worked on one of those for a while. It was very musical but didn’t have the firepower and sheer animal presence of the system in Barcelona. Still, I had a great time and the show went very well. The weird thing was the fact it doesn’t get dark. At all, not even a little bit. The sun goes down a bit then comes straight back up.

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Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

We finished our set at one in the morning—it could have been one in the afternoon for all you could tell! The S3L got loads of attention with all the local crew asking about it and gasping when they heard the power encased in something so small and perfectly formed.

Day Off

Our driver, who was called Love (yes really), spent the next day showing us some of his mind bending island home’s sights. A huge waterfall, geysers, glaciers, wild horses, and we finished it off by bathing in a natural hot water spring that just gurgled up through a hillside. Awesome. I’ve included a couple of photos for general interest. I have to say it was one of the best days off I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few good ones.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

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It got me thinking of some of the amazing things we’ve got to do whilst touring. I remember a day off watching Carnival in Brazil, from this glamorous, private terrace (we had a couple of pop stars in tow) full of outrageously upmarket food and drink. We stayed up through the night watching the dancers on huge floats in their incredible costumes and dancing to the samba beat. I also remember watching the sun come up on top of the pyramid of the sun in Tehutiacan in Mexico.

Music: On Tour with Massive Attack—The Show Must Go On

The band I was touring with had hired a shaman and got special permission to be there before anyone else was allowed in. We had got there in the middle of the night and climbed up this enormous pyramid to have a spiritual, life changing experience. I didn’t really feel the vibe or whatever, but I do remember it being a bit of a challenge for the crew not to giggle while our man the shaman chanted and did his stuff. Lovely view from up there though, watching the sun come up.

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Couple of old Manics snaps as well. Deptford Andy and me in a Bangkok market after the maddest gig (I’ll tell that old roadie story in a later blog). A giggling girl working a market stall, shouted after us teasing, “falange falange, beach that way” as she pointed into the middle distance giggling.

On another favorite day off, we chartered a yacht in Portugal and sailed up and down the Algarve drinking cold beer. That motley crew is “JDB”,“Maddog” Leitch, “Deptford” Andy and “Moonboy” Gritton. There were lots of nicknames on that crew. I was known by the moniker of “Rubber Button”—don’t ask!!

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By the end of this week we’ll be headlining the second stage at Glastonbury to 60,000 mud covered revelers. Can’t wait!!!

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.
  • PW

    Excellent blog, would be interested to hear about the glastonbury experience!

  • RA

    Thanks. Glastonbury blog is up next as soon as I get the mud out of my laptop.

  • Kenneth Bjørnland Vadset

    Great blog, Robb!