Tour Blog: On the Road with Massive Attack and S6L

By in Live Sound, Music Creation

Hello chums, been a while. If you happen to have read any of my earlier roadie blogs (rogs? bloadies??), then you’ll know this will probably not be a dialectical treatise on the proto-social relevance of minor Shakespearean characters in the History plays. The last blog series was about my colleague Chris Lambrechts and I driving two Prototype Avid S6L’s 10,000km around Europe, asking everyone we knew and a few people we met for the first time what they thought about it and how we could make it better. My first ‘bloadie’ was about the 2014 Massive Attack World tour that I mixed on the small but exquisitely formed Avid S3L. If this is your first perusal, you’ll soon catch up. As you’ll see its mainly old back lounge stories and a sprinkling of my thoughts on mixing live sound. I wear two related, but different, hats in my work life. I’m part of a team that designs consoles for Avid and I also mix FOH for various bands, or as my oldest boy said when asked by his teacher, I “make bands louder for a job.” I don’t think there’s a better one.

On the road again

This effort aims to pull the last two set’s themes together: a trilogy of rogs if you like. I’m currently on tour with Massive Attack mixing on the new and fabulous S6L. As previously stated I am biased. I sat in a room a few years ago surrounded by white boards, felt pens in hand, with my old mucker and superstar roadie Robert Scovill, and the large brains of Sheldon Radford and Al McKinna. We bandied the fanciful, the unlikely, and the Platonic ideal of a desk around. Late last year, the fruit of that brain splurge, and a huge team effort involving several hundred people in the US and Europe, became a reality. I can safely say that if you are involved in the Live Sound industry in any way you will have probably heard about this. In the hectic days since launch we’ve been run off our feet, zipping about to trade shows and the like, making sure early adopters were good to go and dealing with the overwhelming demand and interest our community has had in this desk. The desk has won awards and plaudits everywhere.

Now though, I’m having a cheeky break from my Avid gig to go and use the bad-boy in anger, mixing the extraordinary Massive Attack. I’m so excited to be to mixing my favorite band using a desk I’ve seen grow from scribbles on a whiteboard to its fully realized wonderfulness. All our research and testing have suggested that the desk sounds amazing, but until the crowd roars, the band walks on stage and the first vocal line sits just so in the mix, it’s only words and diagrams on a bit of paper. On the last tour I used the S3L for its compact size and weight but awesome sound. I could fly it everywhere and I stretched it to the max, using every physical input and output on the system. I used every last ounce of calculating power in every DSP chip as well, as M.A. is not a simple show. On this tour I can luxuriate in the amazing environment that is the S6L. I am barely tickling its enormous power. Although I’m using eighty or ninety input channels, the S6L has 192. There are 96 busses and 24 Matrix. I think I’m using 17 and 9, respectively. It can have up to four HDX DSP cards for processing the 200 plug-in slots available; I have two in my engine and I’m currently running about 50 or 60 plug-ins on the show. I still have space on the first HDX card even with all the reverbs and delays, Eleven Racks, etc. I really can’t imagine needing four cards ever. There you go, a challenge for some of my plug-in obsessive mates—you know who you are. I want photographic evidence though, at a show, running four full cards for a prize. BTW, I’m loving the new versions of the Sonnox plugins running at 96K (more on this later).

New preamps

It’s my first chance to record the band using our new 96K preamps and work on my show. I’d already loaded my old S3L show file straight onto the S6L without any issues. I up-sampled my old S3L recordings to use as a “virtual soundcheck” with the S6L at home to have a start position. I just saved myself at least a day of programming at least versus starting again from scratch. Thank the Universe for show file compatibility! However the difference to the quality of my recordings with the S6L preamps was startling. The sound was somehow more three dimensional, with stunning clarity. I had a foolish smile on my face all day I was so happy.

 

Serious bizniz

So we loaded out and headed off to the production rehearsals. It’s a lovely space and I brought in a little PA to mix on. Horace Andy, who is an absolute legend and lovely guy wandered up to my desk and started taking some photos of it. He pointed at it and said, “Serious bizniz” in his fabulous Jamaican reggae legend voice. I asked him why he was taking photos of the desk. “So the people at home see I’m about some serious bizniz.” Later, when I let the hardware designer Matthaeus know that the last of the Studio One greats liked his industrial design he was pretty chuffed. Production rehearsals were a blast; we had a great time and used the LTC workflow I described in an earlier blog to do our “virtual production rehearsal”. Basically the band can sit at front of house to see and hear the whole production. Because I record the LTC to a Pro Tools track as part of my virtual soundcheck, I can feed that code from a direct out on my desk to the visual department who run their show from the same code.

I have to say that hearing the band mixed on S6L through a PA for the first time was an extraordinary feeling. I’d been very happy with the way the S3L had sounded a year or so earlier, but this was a whole different level. As an engineer I was delighted and as a designer I was proud as hell. Happy days.

EQ’s, dynamics, and plug-ins

So what did I change in my show? The first thing I did was to flatten all the EQ’s and start again. I’m a firm believer in getting out of the way of the signal flow. If you have a good source, the right microphone in the correct position, a good preamp and convertor feeding a good PA system, it should be really close to perfect without having to “mess” with the sound. Oh my days did it sound good just flat all the way from mic to PA. Of course a little HPF here and LPF there are always needed, but without using any EQ or dynamics I could get a really solid starting mix. I then started to process individual channels a little. For the kick drum mics, I boosted the low end and scooped a little low mid out, added a little top end shelf boost on hats and overheads, but most of the channels were pretty flat—definitely flatter than I’d ever had them before. I used only the onboard gates; they are so clear and responsive I didn’t even think about using an external device or plug-in. I also used the channel compressors for the drums—again lightning-fast and transparent. Using a little gate and comp and EQ, all from the desk’s channel processing, the kick drum was thumping me in the chest in a way I haven’t felt since analogue desks through point source speakers. Welcome back old friend, I’ve missed you—pity you didn’t bring back all the thick dark hair I had in those days as well.

I then started to add a few plug-ins. I’m not a huge fan of the trend to put multiband compressors on everything. It seems that some people use them to give singers speech impediments. “Wad id somedin dey ‘(s)aid?” However, I did use the new Avid Pro Multiband on the two bass channels (Pre and post effects), and was really pleased with the result. I split the bands so that they crossed over where the PA split between the subs and the flown lows, then again at around 300Hz, and finally at 800. The bottom end in MA is very important and needs to be strong and forceful but under control. With the Pro Multiband inserted I could gently control the way the bass was being sent to different parts of the PA allowing it to be musical and deep without ever overloading any part of the system. There are also a couple of vintage synths delivering venue shaking sub tones at certain points in the set. I use the channel comp with a high ratio to keep those hounds on the leash. Analogue is said to be warm, original, and real, or alternatively, never sounds the same twice, open to pilot error, disaster waiting to happen. You choose.

We have a lot of other synths and sampled keyboard lines. I use the Sonnox Oxford Dynamics plug-in to keep those tidy and sitting comfortably in the mix. I also often use the “warm” option just to analogue them up a bit depending on the sound and the song. All the settings are stored with my snapshots and change on a per song or even part of song basis. For reverbs I use the Revibe that comes with the desk and the Sonnox Oxford verb. I love the difference in detail in the new version of these plug-ins. The Oxford reverb tails fade out so naturally. It places the instrument or voice in a natural, three-dimensional space. I love that there’s a fader to balance the early reflections against the reverb. Try messing around until you have only the ER. It’s a great tool. I’ve always used the Revibe on vocals: from The Manics to Coldplay to Alt J and everyone in between. Now it sounds even grander and more detailed. Studio A is the preset I start from if you’re curious. I’ve had the same headphones for the last twenty years as well. I’m a great believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

First shows

We had a couple of warm up shows in Dublin at the lovely Olympia Theatre. If you’ve never mixed there, it has the worst mix position in the world, under a balcony that curves down in front of you. I seemed to be surrounded by hundreds of very chatty people who couldn’t wait to tell each other all the gossip at the top of their voices even during the quiet bits. So I didn’t really get to enjoy the subtleties of the band/mix/desk until the first proper shows in the UK. We had a K2 rig from Ad Lib Audio on the tour with my good friend Tony Szabo designing and tuning the system every day. It’s a great feeling knowing that the rig will sound as good as it possibly can each day with someone you trust making it sing and fill every corner of the room. It freed me up to get on with the job of mixing the band. I’d set up my desk and get out of the way, making catering look untidy, whilst Tony worked his voodoo with pink noise and lasers. When I got the nod that all was ready I’d play “Paradise Circus” on the PT rig in virtual soundcheck mode and have a walk around with Tony. Sometimes we’d make little adjustments here and there but usually I didn’t have much to add. I would send LR and sub to Tony from my Matrixes and a further mix or two of infills and outfills depending on the shape of the room. There are five mic positions across the front of the MA stage used by nine different vocalists during the show. One of the challenges is to make sure that none of the PA or infills are behind or in line with any of those mics. Some of our vocalists are pretty quiet and to get them above the sometimes loud and challenging music I have to have them pretty open. Some of the hang points in some of the venues meant we had to move the front line a little further upstage than originally planned. Hunter the LD was very relaxed about front line position as most of the show is backlit. The only issue would be if the overhead lights were actually in front of the vocalist so you could see their faces. The design was to be all light from behind with strong silhouettes in front of a huge video wall that moved and changed throughout the show. The odd occasion I looked up from my desk the visuals were spectacular.

Brixton Academy

I don’t know if you’ve ever worked at Brixton Academy, but its one of my favourite gigs anywhere. It was built as a cinema in the 1920’s and became a gig in the seventies. It has a crazy Italian village Proscenium Arch surrounding the stage as if it’s a set for Romeo and Juliet—nobody’s ever explained to me why. Some legendary shows have happened there; the Clash and the Pistols played there, Madonna, Iron Maiden, The Police, Clapton, Dire Straits, and some Reggae giants too. I remember seeing Peter Tosh there when I was a teenager. My favourite gigs there have been mixing The Manics, but also I’ve had awesome shows with The Vines, Findlay Quaye, The Thrills, and many others. In fact I found out my wife was pregnant with our first boy when I was standing on that stage! (He’s at University now). I’m not sure how many artists I’ve mixed there, let alone shows, but it feels like a home from home to me. It holds five thousand people standing, and because of the sloping floor and high stage, everyone can see really well. It’s not the greatest sounding room, but when it rocks it really ROCKS! A lovely little quirk of the place which I always love to show to people new to the venue is that, just in front of the stage, there is a hidden cupola above the false ceiling. If you stand in just the right spot you can get an amazing flutter echo that’s lasts for five or six seconds. It’s in triplets, so when you clap you get “Didudu Didudu Didudu” over and over and the pitch modulates. Awesome. We were there for three nights and had the best time.

We’d upgraded to K1 for the biggest gig of the UK leg of the tour and had enough sub-bass to rattle the old rock and roll ghosts. It was the first time I’d mixed there for maybe a decade, and my goodness technology has moved on. I remember stacking up huge S4 cabs at the side of the stage back in the day until we had a huge wall of sound. It was deafening at the front and had run out of steam half way up the room. Now with my S6L and Tony’s modern line array the sound was right in my face. I had to check my local monitors were switched off, the sound was so close to me. The S6L in combination with a great line array seems to give a really three-dimensional sound. We have a really wide and accurate stereo, but also a sense of depth in the other plain—the top end seems to fly around the top of your head and the sub in your guts and the bass thumping your chest. I’ve even had people ask me if we had speakers at the back of the room. There’s a kind of psycho acoustic surround sound going on. I haven’t ever had so much fun spinning in delays and losing myself in the mix. I love mixing and never felt so confident that the sound I was hearing in my head and wanted to communicate to the audience was what they are hearing. The genius thing is that I can get it from the desk with such ease and simplicity. I’m having pure adventures in audio not fighting my way through some torturous workflow. Time of my life.

 

This summer I’ll be touring with Massive Attack at loads of Euro festivals. Pass by and say hello if we’re on the same bill. I’ll be happy to spend some time with you showing off my pride and joy if you have a few minutes to spare. If not, check out some of videos I’ve made with my colleague Chris Lambrechts, including an S6L system overview, instructions of how to install and activate S6L’s VENUE software, and how to create a system restore key. You can also check out a video interview that I did with EventElevator from the MA tour here.

 

All the best audio chums

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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.