Using McDSP Plug-ins for the Duran Duran “Paper Gods” Tour with Snake Newton

By in Live Sound, Music Creation

Hi, my name is Snake Newton and I’m currently mixing Duran Duran’s ‘Paper Gods’ World Tour in support of their album of the same name. My previous clients include Pet Shop Boy, Supertramp, Robbie Williams, Jessie J, Girls Aloud, Snow Patrol, and many more top live acts. I’ve also got a long studio history, which includes mastering, album mixes, and post mix for TV and Radio. In 2014 I was honoured to win the Total Production International Award for Front of House Engineer. Recently I made the transition from Avid’s 1st generation of VENUE systems, which were TDM-based. I had used a Profile system since 2007 and was very comfortable on it, and being a ‘Hybrid’ engineer, I was very reliant on the tools I had become accustomed to in the studio while mixing live. The arrival of the new Avid S6L mix system, which is based around a 96 kHz, floating point mix engine and Avid’s very powerful AAX-DSP plug-in processing cards, was impossible to resist.

Duran Duran performing 'Wild Boys'

However, it was a difficult decision for me to abandon a very mature VENUE show file which I had been refining over three previous Duran Duran tours, as there were certain plug-ins that I was using which had not been ported to the new AAX DSP format. But the dramatically improved sound quality of the S6L left me in no doubt that I would benefit in the long term, so I set about looking for replacements some of the most central plug-ins to my working method. In the original Profile session, I used a lot of noise reduction on open mics and a fair amount of dynamic EQ. I also employed a substantial amount of multiband compression on sub groups, and was a big fan of a certain kind of well known limiter. A few years ago a producer friend of mine, Fraser T. Smith, mentioned McDSP to me. I had dabbled with them, but at the time, they had no VST versions and a lot of my studio mixes were VST-based, so I didn’t follow the path at the time. My monitor engineer on Duran, Charlie ‘Chopper’ Bradley, whose credits include Shakira and Annie Lennox, also suggested that McDSP would offer both the power and flexibility that I was used to.

Snake at FOH for the 'Paper Gods' tour

Initially I tried two plug-ins; the ML4000 ML4 limiter and multiband dynamics processor and the AE400 Active EQ. I found that by using a combination of these two plug-ins, I could replace up to five plug-ins that I was using previously. Firstly, I’m a big fan of multiband de-noising to remove spill from the stage on open mics. I had previously used a plug-in with 5 bands and an overall trigger threshold. I found that the ML4000 multiband expander handled this sort of task with ease. It was initially a little more complex to set up, but with this complexity came more flexibility. My previous setup sometimes involved two instances of noise reduction in a chain, because the threshold was global so the trigger didn’t always work well if the ratio between mids and highs wasn’t what the machine was expecting. With the ML4000, you have a Ratio and Threshold for EACH band. This gives me a great deal of flexibility that I didn’t have before. And with the Master and Slave setup available for parameters between bands, you can actually adjust up to four thresholds/ratios/etc. together if you wish, for easy overall control. Below you can see the ML4000 on Simon LeBon’s vocal. In a state of low or no input the bands shut down. Each band opens only to let through the sound the singer is making at the moment he is sustaining a vowel sound. He cannot be making a sibilant or fricative sound, so anything the mic picks up at this moment in the hi or hi mid area is essentially unwanted stage noise. Repeating this process across all your open vocal mics not only makes your vocals sound clearer, but it reduces drum spill, which robs you of punchy, crisp drums and controllable cymbals.

McDSP ML4000 on Simon LeBon's vocal

So that took care of my noise reduction problem. The ML4000 also gives me a great multiband compressor/maximizer setup that works seamlessly across masters and submasters. What I didn’t expect was that I totally fell in love with the Limiter, which is available on the back end of the ML4000 ML4 or as a standalone limiter as the ML4000 ML1. So much character where you need colour. Or for transparent work, no character at all, just invisible! The single channel version makes drums super tough, mixes sounding classically ‘pressed against the ceiling’—loud but still dynamic sounding. Choosing the algorithms couldn’t be easier. So this replaced my previous favourite limiter, surpassing it in so many respects, one of these aspects being the ‘knee’.

Duran Duran at the Festival d’été de Québec

My last hurdle was to find a dynamic EQ, and the AE400 gave me all I needed. Four bands of super flexible EQ which work both statically and dynamically at once. I found that it was incredibly easy to set maximum gain change so as not to overcook or ‘suck out too much’.   A favourite trick with this is to add a small amount of static EQ, in say the upper mid of a group with a set of instruments. Then set the same filter to start cutting gently above a certain level. This increases the clarity of the instruments when played quietly or individually, while at the same time reducing the classically strident area of the mix when the level in that area builds, leaving room for the all-important vocal clarity and bite without making the instruments sound muffled when played gently together or loudly individually. The picture below shows this with an additional filter set to gently cut the area between 250–300 Hz, which can lead to a ‘muddy’ or ‘indistinct’ sound when it reaches a certain point. Fat guitar and keyboard sounds summed together will do this; a Les Paul and a big Jupiter 8 sound taken alone will sound great individually, but when mixed together, the very thing that makes them sound big—the low mid warmth—can overtake the clarity

AE400 Active EQ set to tame summed guitars and synths

Below you can see what looks like a rather aggressive solution, which works very well on John Taylor’s bass guitar on certain songs. In this case, for the song “Planet Earth”, the bass needs a lot of bite. However, in the breakdown JT really digs in and is essentially on his own, and the green band is set to cut the more strident part of the signal when he digs in. The yellow band is set to increase the bite when static, while the Dynamic side of the same filter is set to temper this boost down to ‘flat’ when the strings are hit more positively.

Summing up, I have been surprised how much power and flexibility are available in these plug-ins. They just sound great and I’m excited to explore more of the McDSP options available on the S6L. And even better news for me came with the arrival of McDSP v6, which now supports my beloved VST format too, making McDSP one of the only software companies to code for ALL formats.

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I’m the FOH engineer for Duran Duran and have worked with artists including Pet Shop Boys, Supertramp, Robbie Williams, Jessie J, Girls Aloud, Snow Patrol, and others.