Robert Nevalainen has not only been a sought after FOH and monitor engineer in the live sound industry for many years, but he’s also the founder of British Columbia-based Gearforce, one of Canada’s premier rental and audio production companies. I recently spoke with Rob, fresh back from Europe, as he was getting ready to go out to mix monitors for the Canadian leg of Bryan Adam’s Reckless 30th Anniversary Tour. I was keen to catch up and discuss how he and FOH engineer, Jody Perpick, were using dual VENUE | S3L-X systems for the tour.
DH: Let’s start at the beginning—what was the first tour on which you used a VENUE system?
RN: Well, before we went with the D-Show in 2005, I had done a live test with pretty much all of the digital consoles that were out at the time. What we would do with Bryan Adams at that time, is that we would tour for two weeks at a time, and every two weeks, I’d take a different digital console out. So I’d be mixing the show on my Heritage 3000, but at the same time, right beside me, I’d have a digital console patched with our same inputs just off of another splitter, or off of our snake on a separate split.
It was our band, our instruments, and our microphone with my Heritage console that I’d mixed about a thousand shows on. I was able to get what I felt was a pretty accurate cross section of different consoles, an accurate representation of what each console’s strengths and weaknesses were. And I was able to jump back and forth between the two consoles during the show and see which consoles felt comfortable for me to mix on, which consoles I really had to learn the interface, and which were a little bit more intuitive. And out of all of them, I felt that the D-Show had the most promise. All digital consoles have a bit of a learning curve because some of the features are hidden in layers because you can’t get everything on the surface because they are able to do so much more than an analog console, but I’ve felt that the VENUE interface was easy to navigate coming from the analog world, quite a natural transition. And the parts of the console that were hidden, were not hidden too many layers deep. They were in places I would expect to find them. And ultimately after doing all that, for me what it comes down to is audio quality—I was really impressed with the sound quality.
“…for me what it comes down to is audio quality—I was really impressed with the sound quality.”
DH: After you did this shootout in parallel with the Heritage on tour, at what point did you then move over to touring the D-Show with Adam’s?
RN: I moved over the year the first one went into production for monitors. Jody was a slower changeover. He wasn’t ready to make the change quite yet. It took him about two more years before he decided to make the jump. He was actually looking for a smaller surface than the D-Show, so as soon as the Profile came out, he became very interested, and he switched over to it at that point. Once again, we had tried a few consoles with a few of the other competing brands, and he felt most comfortable—being a long time analog guy—moving over to the Profile because it was an easy transition for him.
DH: Were you talking advantage of all the unique features that VENUE offered like exploring different plug-ins and Pro Tools recording?
RN: We were using a lot of plug-ins, but we weren’t getting into recording at that point. At that point, it was nothing that we really felt that we needed to do as far as a Virtual Soundcheck. And the other thing with our show was that it was quite spontaneous. So for myself at that point, it was difficult to program snapshots because there were a lot of random things that could happen during a show—a lot of open mics on stage where anybody can go to any mic—so I ran it almost more in analog kind of way. Jody actually started using snapshots before me, but now I’m completely immersed in snapshots. But we weren’t doing recording. We would record about a couple of times a year with the original VENUE system just to have reference in case we needed to go back and rehearse those. But the way Adams works is that we never stop touring, so that was never an issue. It’s quite different than the way most people tour. We tour every month year-round—we haven’t stopped since I started 17 years ago.
DH: Let’s change gears and talk about VENUE systems from your perspective as owner of Gearforce. How do VENUE systems fit into your rental and production business?
RN: Our inventory includes all of the manufacturers, but about half of our inventory is Avid consoles. I think VENUE has become a first or second choice on most riders, especially in North America, and our inventory basically reflects the sort of demand we see. It seems that Avid is going out just about 2:1 to quite a few of the other consoles.
DH: What do you attribute that to?
RN: I think once you spend time on a VENUE console, the end user can recognize the benefits, the sound quality, being able to move around on the user interface quite easily, a truly portable show file that doesn’t have to go through any translation software—all of that makes things easier for the engineer.
And because so many of the consoles have very different user interfaces, I find that once people find something that they really like, an interface that they really like with good sound quality, they’re typically hard pressed to move away from it unless there is a really compelling reason. I don’t think there has been really a compelling reason to move away from the VENUE software or sound quality up to this point.
“I don’t think there has been really a compelling reason to move away from the VENUE software or sound quality up to this point.”
DH: What’s been your experience as far as reliability and the support that the company offers?
RN: I think the customer support is the best I’ve come across in the industry. Somebody is always at the end of the phone in case you have any questions about the hardware or software. Many parts are field replaceable, which is beneficial when you are in strange locations. It doesn’t have to go back to a factory in case something comes up or goes wrong with it.
And as far as things going wrong with it, in nine years of using the consoles and mixing thousands of shows on them—touring over 60 countries, including some very remote areas like Karachi and Sri Lanka—I’ve had one hard drive failure, which was not attributed to the Avid product. It was just a hard drive that had done a lot of hard road time, and was just starting to have a couple of errors. We were able to send the runner to a computer shop, I cloned the drive, put the new drive back in, and in about two hours, I had a perfectly working system again.
DH: So I know that you recently moved to using the VENUE | S3L-X at both FOH and monitors—initially for last year’s acoustic tour, but now on the full blown Anniversary tour. How did that come about?
RN: I had been talking with [Avid product manager] Sheldon that I thought it would be a real strength for Avid to have a more compact console at the time we were doing the Adams Acoustic Tour—that I would have loved to use an Avid console on it except that it was too big to carry around for the shows that we were doing. If only we could find something that was a lot smaller, but still offered that sort of audio quality—I thought that there would be a definite place for it.
So we used the S3L at front-of-house and monitors on the Bare Bones acoustic tour and I started looking at the different ways I could use it for a larger format show, but for me it still required some additional surface configurability for the way that I mix. One thing in specific is that I need VCAs and mix busses on the same page at the same time—I mix the shows with VCAs and I need instant access to the busses to be able to queue up the mixes.
But in October the VENUE 4.5 upgrade came out, which now enabled me to create a custom user layer that had inputs and outputs, and still keep my mix busses up on the top encoders. And, really that was the turning point for me—once I could get both on the same page. At that point I thought, “You know what? I could probably mix the big show on this.”
At the same time, Jody was using it for front-of-house on the Bare Bones acoustic tour, and he was in love with the S3L, with the sound, with the usability of it. He really helped drive my decision, and I can say definitively, I will not go back. I’ve fallen in love with the way the system works and the way the system sounds. I’m totally sold on the user interface for this size of show.
DH: So your first use of S3L-X for the big show was for that first leg of the European tour, correct?
RN: Correct. We had to ship our gear from North America to Europe a month early because it went by water. So we sent the Profile and D-Show, the consoles we’ve been using for a long time. We were still out doing Bare Bones shows while this stuff was crossing the Atlantic when the VENUE 4.5 upgrade came out. That first night when we upgraded our S3L systems, we both looked at each other and said, “You know what, I think this is gonna allow me to make the transition to the big show. Let’s go ahead and do it.” So at the end of that solo acoustic tour, we literally carried the S3L’s in Pelican suitcases as excess luggage over to Europe.
The first production day, I decided to not even bother setting up the D-Show console. I was going to just try the S3L-X—I still had the D-Show in the truck if I didn’t feel comfortable. The very first day when the band came in, every single band member commented on how great the audio quality was, and that’s not something that happens traditionally with these guys. They all mentioned, “I’m not sure what’s happening right now, what’s different, but the sound quality is amazing.” And that was it. I’ve been mixing on the S3L-X ever since. And Jody said the same thing—he was going to try it the first day, wasn’t going to bother setting up the Profile, and they never came out of the truck.
DH: With the VENUE 4.5 software upgrade, it also supports I/O sharing—did you start networking the systems together?
RN: Yes, that was another big thing. I knew it was coming, and felt that we would see the benefits of it, but once we actually got into doing that, it’s amazing how seamless the shared I/O is. What we’re doing is that I’m the master of three of the [Stage 16] units, and Jody is the master of one of the units. So we have a blended I/O setup, where we both share all 64 inputs, but I’m controlling the outputs of three of the units, and Jody is controlling the outputs of one of the units. None of them really cares who’s the master, as it’s just another network device and the inputs are seen by both consoles—it’s really plug-and-play and works perfectly.
DH: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t initially make much use of VENUE’s integrated recording and Virtual Soundcheck capabilities—has that changed over the years?
RN: Yeah, Jody and I each picked up Pro Tools for our systems, and I now multitrack every night and I can’t imagine not doing it. The Pro Tools integration is very, very good—very easy to switch back and forth, and it’s allowed us to tweak the system and troubleshoot any problems the day after the show. Like if we had an issue with one of the guitar rigs that I could hear during the show, but we couldn’t recreate it during the day. I noted when it was happening during the show, and then when we ran playback the next day we were able to recreate it, which is pretty incredible.
I was also able to check out different plug-ins to see which compressor I felt worked best on the acoustic and the bass guitars, and was able to spend some time on it. During the show, everything is happening so quickly, it’s really difficult to really fine-tune something like that, especially something like a multi-band compressor. The acoustic guitar is a very dynamic instrument and played many different ways during the night. But this way, I can come in by myself the next day when I find some time, and really focus on it.
DH: Let’s talk a bit more about your use of snapshots—what is your approach now as far as using snapshots, because it sounds like it’s still a very fluid show where not everything is totally nailed down night-after-night. What’s your approach to using snapshots at the monitor position?
RN: Mostly I’m using snapshots for changes within the mixes. We’ve gone to a little bit more of a structured format now, especially on this tour, where it’s their 30th anniversary of the Reckless album. There is a large video component, and quite a bit more structure than we’ve had traditionally for the show. So I’m able to fine-tune mixes a little bit more in-depth than I had been before just because at a certain points of the night, certain things happen because the show runs on a very similar format night-after-night.
“It’s the best mixing experience
I’ve ever had.”
DH: What reactions do you get when other engineers see you and Jody mixing such a big show on such a compact console?
RN: We have longstanding relationships with the owners of many of the biggest sound companies in the world because they provide stuff to us—we’ve been clients of theirs for years. On the recent European tour the owner of Britannia Row came out when we played the O2 in front of 22,000 people—we’ve known him for 30 years. After the show he came up and said, “It sounded unbelievable.” He then looked behind me and saw the little console and scurried over to it and said, “Oh my god, what is that?”
I said, “That’s what I mixed the show on.”
He joked, “That looks like a lighting console. It’s so small, but it sounded amazing.”
And I said, “It’s the best mixing experience I’ve ever had.”