Elvis Costello kicked off his 2016 acoustic solo tour in Santa Rosa, California on March 29th and has since taken the show around the world—adding his band, The Imposters, to the mix mid-Fall. Front of house engineer, Fern Alvarez, Jr. (Dixie Chicks), and monitor engineer, Steve McCale (Elton John, U2, Steve Miller Band), have been taking care of mixing duties on the tour. I spoke with them on a deserved day off during the East Coast tour leg to get their impressions of using VENUE | S6L to bring Costello’s evocative performances to his fans around the world.
DH: I know that you’ve been using S6L for monitors since the solo tour kicked off last Spring, but you only recently added a second S6L at front of house. When did that happen?
FA: I started October 1 with our first show this Fall for the solo run, and then we ran straight into the full band run mid-October. It’s the first time I’ve been on it, and I’m loving it. The flexibility, the workflow, is just incredible. I’m super happy with the end product.
DH: What was the move like after having worked on the older VENUE systems for so long?
FA: Oh, it was wonderful. I did find some time to work on one at Show Systems in Orlando, just to get an idea of what I was looking at, and fell in love with it within minutes. Just the fact that was able to take my files from my Profile from Elvis’ solo and Imposter shows, two different files—it was just beautiful the way the files came across. I was able to create my workflow, build some layouts. And when all was said and done, I was able to disengage some plug-ins, because the channel itself was creating the input that I was looking for from the get-go, whereas the Profile was needing some assistance from plug-ins. So the transition has been really, really nice.
DH: It obviously helps that the software is the same—it’s primarily understanding how the surface is laid out.
SM: That’s the way I always approach it. “Look at the software. Look at this GUI. You recognize that?” And they all go, “Oh, yeah. That’s the same thing.” It’s the same thing, it’s just the surface that’s different. Here’s how that works. You show them a couple, three things, and they’re good. It’s that easy. It’s not like starting over back in the old days where nobody knew anything about the platform at all. I mean, all we’re doing in this case is introducing people to a new work surface and some architecture, if they care. The mixer types don’t give a damn, but the system engineer types care about the architecture and how many channels you can have and the AVB and all that stuff they’re interested in. But the mixer types, they just want to know what they can do with it and can they lay it out so they can mix.
DH: What are some of the things that really struck you when you first started mixing on S6L?
SM: Well, the biggest, first, most important thing about the S6L is the sound quality—I’ve got to stress more than anything. With any console, the sound quality ultimately determines its usability. Obviously sometimes you suffer sound quality for functionality, but this one doesn’t make that compromise.
The sound quality’s great, which means my workflow is easier in a lot of ways, because the things that I turn on sound good, and I don’t have much feedback. Microphones get louder because they don’t have the phase problems that you do on stuff that doesn’t sound as good. So the whole workflow gets easier because of the sound quality.
Then the way that I’m able to function best with this act is to be able to isolate each musician on their own [fader] layout—keep that musician’s inputs that are all created by them on their own layout. I always keep about 12 channels in the middle that are always the same on all the layouts. That way no matter what layout I’m in I’ve got access to the lead vocal. But then all the other faders are changing depending which layer I’m on. So, I’m able to really zoom in and jump to the keyboard player, the drummer, background vocals. And then I’ve got the mix layer, which is the top one, which is controlled by what snapshot I’m on. This is how I access what I need on a regular basis, including those central 12, but also other VCA’s, other inputs that may or may not be needed for the mix. I’m able to quickly get into exactly the section that I need to very fast and pop right back with speed and accuracy.
In D-Show world, we used to have line up the inputs and drag and drop them all over the place. We’d line them up so that they would lay in the right banks in the right orders and on the right faders. And you would get it the way you wanted it eventually, and of course then you were stuck with that arrangement, because you couldn’t change it. I started out on the S6L, when we only had one layout and going through inputs, but now that we have multiple layouts with VENUE 5.3 [software update], my inputs layout is one-to-one with the snake, so that whatever’s on input number 27 is also the snake number and I don’t have any confusion. All of my reorganization of the inputs is done through layouts. So, if I got to Inputs, I’m in a troubleshooting mode only—troubleshooting one-to-one to the snake paths, which is a big help. Everything else is on layers, even the auxiliary stuff. I’ve got a layout that just brings up just the extra stuff, like the audience mics and the 1/8” computer input.
DH: What a great way to set up the individual musician mixes on custom layouts but keeping the VCA’s in the same spot.
SM: It’s kind of like bank safing. You could bank safe, but frankly, I’ve gotten away from bank safing on this one because it tends to mess with everything. The problem with bank safing for me, is if I do go into troubleshooting mode, now I’ve got to turn around and skip the strips that lay under the Channels I’ve bank safed. Anything laying under the “safed” strips get’s buried. You can step around it, you can scroll over left and right, there’s workarounds, but in the heat of the moment I don’t want to be scrolling, I just want to be able to punch down. And that’s the same thing for the Outputs layer, because once again, the only reason I go to outputs or VCA’s or anything now is in troubleshooting mode where I want to see them all lined up in a row. If I want to have access to them in any other part of the show, I’m just accessing them for solos and mutes, which I’m doing from the center touch screen. And if I want to go beyond that I place the appropriate output strip on one of the layouts.
DH: How are you using the layout scoped in the current snapshot?
SM: The top layout is the one that changes with the snapshot. It’s got the same 12 or whatever central faders that I’m using, but the other faders will change. In other words, if that’s the part of the show where the guests come up on stage, then all the guest inputs will show up up there.
If that’s the part of the show where the acoustic pianos comes in, then the acoustic piano inputs show up. I have focus on what’s needed for that snapshot, but then I’m always able to go into the other layers and just go, “Keyboard player,” okay, there’s all his crap. I can do the same thing by spilling the VCA—there’s so many ways to do it.
But the reality is, in just a matter of about four or five layouts I’ve got my whole world ultimately where I want it, and I can quickly dive into troubleshoot mode and go right down into one-to-one and fix anything I want and pop right back into mix mode, and I’m gliding along—it’s pretty freaking amazing!
DH: Fern, how about at FOH. Are you using S6L very much like a Profile, or are you using a lot of custom fader layouts? What’s changed for you?
FA: For fader layouts, I probably have ten of them so far that I created for this show. We have different positions that Elvis hits: at the piano or at the center position—which is about 80 percent of the time—or the two large diaphragm mics that are mobile. I created layouts for each of those in able to keep my workflow right in front of me, so I’m not having to go across the board for inputs. So everything that I want is basically there—it’s like an oversized VCA, if you will. That’s what I’m treating it as. I have drums and bass guitar on one and a piano and keyboards on another, and then I start getting into the Elvis information, and I keep myself in a VCA/microphone mode with my instruments to my left side.
Those workflows really have been handy. And it’s the first time I’ve ever needed it with this band, because we added about 25 inputs for this tour. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it with a Profile, as we jumped from about 42 inputs to about 64—we’ve easily tapped out a Stage 64 on this show already. That workflow afforded me to do whatever I wanted to do. And I’ve been super happy with that—the layout portion of the console has been a lifesaver.
DH: Do you use the Universe View on the master touchscreen much?
FA: Absolutely. For sound check, and if I’m needing to redo a layout. But I keep it on the channel preview to keep an eye on the compression on Elvis’ vocal to see what it’s doing. And then if I need to get to any frontend stuff for his vocal—I’m using some Brainworx and SPL plug-ins—I can get to that quickly. The SPL Dual De-Esser is amazing on his vocal. And I’m keeping the vocal pretty flat as far as EQs go. And then Steve also sent me over some stuff with Brainworx that I’m just now getting into.
DH: How about for monitors—how does the Universe View factor into your workflow?
SM: Oh, yeah. I use that overview a lot, especially trying to see if anything’s open. When you’ve got a muted scene where there’s only supposed to be a couple of inputs open, you can punch into that Overview scene and see that, yes indeed everything’s muted—that you didn’t accidentally leave the talkback mic open or something got safed and didn’t get muted by the snapshot. There are a lot of uses for that Overview screen, I use it quite a bit.
DH: How have you approached using plug-ins on the new desk?
SM: I’ve always been a “less is more” guy, which is funny because some people who know me would laugh their ass off at that. But it is actually true. I always try to find the simplest, cleanest path to achieve that sound, and I’m all about choosing the right microphone. Going to a plug-in or even EQ that’s going to fix a tone problem is lower on my list than other things. But still, when I do a project like this, especially in the beginning, I just take it in and pass it through. I don’t start with anything by default.
I will maybe inject a very loosely gated noise gate on the skin drums, and that is about as far as I go. Everything else I add as needed, and I just have not found myself needing hardly anything on this desk, and considerably less than on the previous desk. And I’ve had the advantage of actually having to do the same exact show on an SD7, an SD10, and also on a Profile. In all cases there was an audible difference between what I could achieve with the same microphone, same singer, same wedges, just a different console. The performance I could achieve out of the S6L is superior to everything I’ve mixed on—even the great old Analog “Legends”. It’s exciting. And no plug-ins are required to “fix” the sound. I mean, it just opens up, it’s very nice that way, and that’s why the sound quality is so important to all aspects of it. The tonality of the mix is incredible.
Now, as far as going down and exploring more plug-ins, I started discovering a world of really unique processing on the harmonic level of things. Plugin Alliance, McDSP and Cranesong have really got my interest right now. These companies offer unique “problem solvers” that helping me correct issues like poor sound in the acoustic guitar or piano, beyond EQ or dynamic shape—There tools really allow me to take things to an even higher level. But that’s where my plug-ins are, I’m way more into more esoteric stuff trying to achieve noise cancellation and harmonic shaping than trying to find an EQ or something. I don’t have that problem, all the onboard stuff just sounds amazing—I just dial it in and go.
DH: What has been your experience with S6L’s I/O sharing?
SM: It wasn’t until S6L got to gain sharing and everything, which wasn’t ready at the start of this run. We didn’t have an opportunity to switch him to an S6L for awhile—we were mainly in Europe, then we were in Southeast Asia. What really made the switch look good to production was that we lost 400 pounds worth of electronics, and we lost a splitter, because we only had one stage rack. You didn’t have to rent a whole separate stage rack and the splitter and all that, so we gained a bunch of truck space.
I’d mixed shows using networked DiGiCo stuff, and it’s scary, it’s clunky. For as long as DiGiCo’s been doing I/O sharing, I know of very few touring clients that use it, because they just don’t trust the way it works. It’s clumsy and there’s potential for failure, and nobody wants to risk their job on somebody else’s finger. But the Avid system is seamless. The only way that Fern or I have any idea we’re sharing I/O is if we look at the devices page and see which one of us says “slave” and which one says “master”. And it just so happens that I maintain master, and I turn on first every day, so I maintain clock, and that’s it—seamless.
And by the way, I’m one of the guys who used to fly the flag of never, ever sharing I/O, okay. And I’ll be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t be doing it right now if didn’t see firsthand how easy and smooth and reliable it was. When I did, I was like, “Okay. This is cool. I can do this.” And it is cool and it’s working just fabulously.
We’re now sharing preamps. All of our outputs and inputs go straight from one 12 space rack for the whole show, and we’ve got it filled up with 64 inputs, and it’s working pretty dang spotlessly—fantastic!
DH: Fern, was this your first experience working on networked systems sharing I/O?
FA: I’ve worked on a few things. On fly dates that we’ve done, like in China, I’ve had to work on some DiGiCo stuff. And they’re like, “Well, he’s the master. Now you’re now digital gain.” And I’m not the biggest fan of that because you do hear it. I was like, “Okay, this is a little weird.” I’m hearing the latency and the gain used because I’m on the digital side and he’s on the analog side. With S6L that’s not an issue. And I just love that. So whatever Steve’s doing on stage, I would never know, and whatever I’m doing out front he would never know. [Laughs]
We went in and we tried it. He would take his input, since he is the “master”, and he would take his input, run it like plus 30, I would be at minus 6. He would disengage a pad on the input, and I would not hear one thing happening on my end, with no latency whatsoever. It was just amazing. We were side by side. It wasn’t like we were 150 apart. We were prepping the gear at VER in New Jersey, and to see and listen to how quick and transparent the switch was and front of house not hearing anything that was going on as far as gain control, unpadding input, so on and so forth. It was really cool seeing that happen for the first time.
DH: How about Virtual Soundcheck, how are you guys using that?
SM: I use it every day—always have ever since it was first available over 10 years ago. Fern has just now got into the world of being able to use it because he previously wasn’t carrying an external [Pro Tools] HD rig to run with his Profile. But with S6L, it’s just a laptop, so uses his in the afternoon when he checks his setup, and I use mine religiously.
Also, and I know it’s not a typical workflow, but I’ve been making demo recordings for the opening act, Larkin Poe. We’re making demo material for their next record, and it was a great experience doing it and the results were really pretty freaking good. They would do drum tracks in GarageBand and send them to me, and I’d put them in, play them back and they’d play against them. We’d overdub vocals and lead guitar parts. All that stuff right on stage with my S6L. I was quite happy with the way it came out, and so were they.
I also take recordings and mix out tracks. Elvis is writing for a musical, and I’ll mix out tracks to send to his producers to listen. And he wants them not to be just board mixes. He wants them to be like basically mastered, decent mixes that can be put into an iTunes playlist with a bunch of other music and sounds okay. It doesn’t just all of a sudden drop 10 dB in level and get real airy. It takes a little bit of work to get those live recordings to do that, but I’ve been doing that for a few decades now.
DH: If you know your way around Pro Tools there’s a lot more you can bring to the table.
SM: Absolutely. And that’s what I try to do from my personal business point of view is just to bring a lot more to the table than just the monitor mixer or front of house mixer. I can help you create the content. I sit there behind this incredibly powerful tool that can do massive things, and there’s the part of me that wants to always get it to do everything it can, you know what I mean? I’ve ran multi-track recording studios. S6L is a multi-track studio, perfectly adapted for it, so why not use it? You’ve got a freaking band up there with killer musicians, and I’m sitting here with a multi-track recording studio. Duh! You’ve got mics in front of you, I’m recording all the time, “Dude, let’s do something. This studio time would cost you a fortune.” And up until now that wasn’t possible. I mean, you could record stuff in Pro Tools, but you could not play it back and overdub it and punch in without rebooting the system. S6L’s channel by channel instant changeover really has changed the game.
Once clients start realizing that it’s possible, they’re going to want it. And if they’re up there playing, they’re going to want to be able to go, “Hey, we wrote this song in the bus last night. Let’s go record it.” Once they start realizing that this is available, it’s going to be something they’re all going to want to do. They just don’t know it, yet. And this is an opportunity for somebody to go, “Look, this isn’t just mixing, now we’re doing this and this and this, and that’s worth an extra grand a week.” Or whatever. And then, maybe the industry can join the 21st century when it comes to pay scale. If you bring a little something extra to the table, Management can justify giving you a little something extra in your paycheck. This mixing system is definitely allowing me to explore workflows and be able to offer services to my clients that were never possible before. When you talk about Virtual Soundcheck and the interface with Pro Tools, the sky is just the limit.