Nightwish from Finland is one of the seminal bands that invented and defined the “Symphonic Metal” genre—a combination of orchestra, huge choir layers, metal riffs, and operatic vocals. Formed in 1996, Nightwish achieved recognition outside of their home country with their 1998 album “Oceanborn”, and have since gone on to sell more than 8 million records and achieve more than 60 gold and platinum awards. Kimmo Ahola has been mixing FOH for Nightwish on Avid VENUE consoles for over 10 years, and chose dual VENUE | S3L-X systems at both FOH and Monitors for their latest tour. We sat down with Kimmo Ahola to find out more.
IG: Kimmo, tell us about your long history with VENUE consoles up to the current Nightwish tour…
KA: I have been working with VENUE consoles since they came out – actually since 2005 when we got the first D-Show console. Before that I used to tour with Midas consoles, but even then I was using a Digidesign Digi 002 for lead vocals so I was already working with Pro Tools plug-ins at that point. On previous tours we used VENUE SC48 or Profile and hired consoles for our tours, but in certain places like South America, it’s quite hard to get anything you want. You can say, “Can I have an SC48 or Profile?” and you get a Yamaha LS9…(laughs). When I heard that the light and compact S3L-X was coming, it was something that I had been waiting for a long time – there’s slightly less processing power than on a Profile, but I don’t use many plug-ins, so I can accept that.
IG: How easy was it to adapt to the compact surface of the S3L-X after using bigger consoles?
KA: It was easy. Even with the SC48 or Profile, I can run the Nightwish show with only 16 faders, that’s enough for me. I’ve worked with Pro Tools in the studio since around version 3, always using the mouse, so there can be some days when I don’t use any encoders – I do it all with the mouse. The rest is just levels and panning and so on. The console is small, yes, but 64 inputs and 32 outputs is more than enough for me. We use just over 40 channels for the band and the rest are for ambience mics and talkbacks.
IG: What do you like most about the VENUE S3L-X system?
KA: The sound is the most important thing for me, but with this system we can also fly everywhere. When we go to Australia and Japan, where venues are smaller, we cannot fly with a Profile because it’s too heavy. Of course we could rent them, but it’s so much easier to bring your own system. We have all the stage cabling and everything already in place. Plus, this system is so compact and so easy to use.
When the band first saw this console they were a bit surprised, but I have been with them for 11 years and they trust me. They said, “OK, it’s your choice”. I don’t care about the size! When we first started using the S3L-X there weren’t many bands touring with this console. We did some major festivals in Europe and some of the headlining bands came over and said, “What the **** is this, are you going to play with this?” But then they saw and heard the show and said, “Hm, OK, maybe we should think about using this as well.” Also, my guys in Finland say they don’t want to remember the times they had to ask six guys to lift the monitor console over to some case.
IG: Let’s talk about the current tour – what is the main challenge of mixing Nightwish?
KA: The band has that really big and dense sound – there are lots of live channels, plus big orchestral and choir sounds coming from the Pro Tools playback. People might think there is a lot more coming from playback since the sound is so big, but there are no drums, no bass, no guitars, no keyboards – that’s all live. We only use backing tracks for the things the band cannot play like the orchestral sounds that are taken directly from the album recordings. The biggest challenge is to keep it loud and clear so that it stretches the whole bandwidth up from 30Hz to the very top, with lots of dynamics. I don’t want to run the system really loud across everything – I don’t have enough headroom on the PA and I can’t go up when I need to. There are a couple of really big orchestra hits, so dynamics are the most important thing.
IG: How is the show laid out on the consoles? Is there a general rule about how you always set up your show?
KA: For mixing the Nightwish show I only need one layer. It contains everything I need – all the drums, snare reverb, bass and guitar VCAs, keyboards, backing tracks, bagpipe player, vocal channels, vocal reverb and vocal delay. This is the main view all the time. The other layers contain the signals I normally don’t adjust separately at the show like all the backing tracks or the individual sound of the drums. We have individual time codes for each song, so I’ll put individual snapshots with Chase MTC, and I don’t even need the set list – there’s something like five seconds of pre-roll time code so I can see what song is coming. It’s nice and simple.
IG: How do you us Pro Tools in your setup?
KA: I use Pro Tools 12 here at FOH to record all the shows for possible DVD use and Virtual Soundcheck. And we use backing tracks and time code running from another Pro Tools system on stage. Everything follows the time code – video, the lighting console and of course my FOH desk. And I have something like 190 snapshots on the console which are synced to it. Sometimes I wonder if I am digging a big hole for myself, if there’s something wrong with the time code I’m lost! But after 70+ shows the setup is very stable – we adjusted the Pro Tools backing tracks after the first 15 shows which is quite easy with “Clip Gain”. It can be dangerous though, when you have a tool like this and you know can do something more, it can be endless – after every show you can change this and this and add more snapshots (laughs).
IG: Do you use the S3 surface separately to mix or prepare the shows?
KA: Sometimes when I haven’t had time to make all the snapshots before a show, I took the console and the engine to my hotel room to make the Virtual Soundcheck –it’s so easy. On this tour I spent one day checking the guitar sounds in a backstage room, so I had this system and speakers and spent three hours listening to the show and fixing the sound before we started the soundcheck.
“The sound (of the S3L-X) is the most important thing for me, but with this system we can also fly everywhere.”
—Kimmo Ahola, FOH Engineer Nightwish
IG: Is there any special treatment on the lead vocals?
KA: There’s a McDSP multiband-compressor on the lead vocal and an Avid EQ7. On the last couple of shows I discussed with the system engineer that I might change this to an McDSP active dynamic EQ AE400, which might be better for the lead vocals. We use Shure Beta 58 as a vocal mic, which goes very well with the drums and all the noise on stage.
IG: Are there any signals where you need more extreme processing?
KA: Only when we do something a bit special. For example, I call the snare reverb ‘my sound’ – all the sounds decay a little bit over six seconds but the trick is where the gate is. With the release time, you can adjust exactly how long you want the snare reverb. So for instance, if you have a medium beat song and you put the reverb at say two seconds, when it’s RT60 it drops 60 decibels in 2 seconds, so you need to put it on for that much longer so you can hear the snare reverb. But when the reverb itself is six seconds you can just cut when you want. And it doesn’t sound ‘gated’ – you can’t do that with hardware reverbs or with a single plug-in.