Blue Rodeo is a Canadian country rock band formed in 1984 that has released 14 full-length studio albums over their career, with over 3 million studio albums sold. Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2012 and winners of an unprecedented 11 JUNO Awards, Blue Rodeo continue to tour and release new albums regularly. Engineers Rich Steeb (FOH) and Duke Foster (monitors and tour manager) have been longtime members of the team, and I recently spoke with them about taking the new VENUE | S6L system out on Blue Rodeo’s recent 24 date tour across Canada.
HL: How long have you guys been mixing Blue Rodeo?
RS: This is starting 21 years that I’ve been mixing front of house for the band.
DF: I think six years for me. I started out just doing monitors. There was another tour manager, but the band decided they wanted to combine the positions.
HL: What would you say is the biggest challenge mixing Blue Rodeo?
RS: It’s an almost 50 input band, with songs that are written with a lot of information in them. Sometimes there are three electric guitars going at one time, with a steel electric and an organ, and so all the mid-range is just filled with information. So one of the biggest challenges is separating that, especially in an ambient reflective room and a room that has a long reverb time in the mid-range to begin with. Separating can be a nightmare sometimes. I found it easier to separate now than I’ve ever had before. I don’t have to pan so far open compared to where I used to, just to get separation.
HL: What about at the monitor position—what’s the biggest challenge there?
DF: I’m dealing with 12 monitor mixes altogether. There are four stereo in-ears, two mono in-ears, and then six wedge mixes. It’s just a lot to keep track of. And for the drummer I have to push his solos. Luckily with the S6L, the layouts makes that easy, ’cause the channels that I need to push those solos on are all on one layout, so that makes it easier. I can get to ’em quicker.
The other guys are pretty particular about their mixes as well. They’re still fairly new to in-ears. I think this is our second or third year with in-ears. We went through a big change a few years ago to lower our stage volume, so we’re using all isolation cabinets for guitars. There are no live amps on stage. All keyboards are direct. The smaller drum kit is on the far side of the stage from Greg. They’re older guys and only Jim was using in-ear monitors before, and he had ambient filters in his in-ear, so he was hearing a lot of the stage as well. Now everything’s isolated for him.
HL: When did you each start mixing on VENUE?
RS: I think in ’08 I started. It was [engineer] Sully Sullivan who was with ZZ Top and Sheryl Crow. He showed me the Profile desk for the first time. It must have been fairly new at the time.
DF: I was tour managing, mixing front of house for Jeremy Fisher from Canada, touring with a band called Of a Revolution, and they were carrying a D-Show. That was my first experience on a VENUE. I’ve been mixing on it ever since. It was so easy—there wasn’t much of a learning curve for me.
HL: Are you constantly updating the same VENUE show file?
RS: Maybe in some sense, actually, ’cause I save at the end of the show and then I usually keep updating from there. But at the beginning of a tour I sort of re-scratch because the band changes. As they’re figuring out their tour, they try to do something different, so they change their format of instruments, adding instruments and stuff. So I sort of scratch on every tour as they’re figuring out what they’re gonna play and who’s gonna play what in what new song, when there’s new songs.
HL: This was the first tour that you used VENUE | S6L—did you work off of your previous VENUE show files for this tour?
DF: Yeah, but this time I made a snapshot for every song on the set list. Before I was doing it manually all the time because the set list is the same every day—that’s the luxury of being on tour. When we’re doing one-offs, Jim does a different set list for every one of ’em. But now I’ll have a file of all of those snapshots and I’ll just be rearranging. And soloing from the touchscreen as well has made things so much faster.
RS: On this tour I did start with a show file from a show earlier in the summer that I liked, but I built on it because of different instruments and stuff.
HL: How did you decide to actually make the jump to S6L for this tour?
RS: When we’re getting ready to tour, I always research what’s new, what’s out there, what’s improving, and then just try to find out about it, research it a bit, find out what’s sounding good, what other people are saying. I’ll often call other engineers and ask their opinion on trying new gear and stuff like that. Heard that the S6L was going to be an update and with some improvements, and that the sonic quality was going to be better. So I jumped on to check it out and ended up bringing it out.
I believe it was one of the first [S6L’s] on a Canadian tour. In mid-winter, a time to try it, throw it in the truck in minus 30 out west. I believe one of the load-outs in Saskatoon it was minus 31 when the truck was being loaded, and then the console sat in the truck for a day while it was transported at that temperature. And in opening it up the next day, you have some nerves—”Let’s get it in quick. Let’s un-lid it.” And it fired up no problem.
HL: So were you actually comfortable when you did the first show?
RS: We had a couple days of pre-production and I also did go to a seminar type thing to be introduced to the console, so the couple days of pre-production let me find out if I’m gonna be comfortable. So I did two days of pre-pro. I was on a Profile for years, so it becomes a muscle reaction where I don’t even think of I want to do something to a channel my arm just knows where to go on the console for what I want to do. I don’t even have to think about where it is.
Changing to this desk, the surface format is different, so I actually had to think again of where stuff is, especially when you have 50 inputs going. But that went away reasonably fast. In three days I was comfortable and felt like I was using the console for the last tour already. So it only took me three show days to reach absolute comfort.
HL: I have seen a bit of your setup, and you aren’t using a lot of plug-ins—what is your approach?
RS: Well, I try to use mic placement a lot, try to EQ as little as possible, and get it from the source proper. In this band I have to be really careful with the bottom end in the rig, because with one of the guitar players, the bottom end can actually give him pain. So I have to be really careful with that. And, obviously, with filters I can eliminate frequencies I don’t want to go that low. And just, once again, the console’s really tight sounding—it has a nice tight bottom end right all the way down low. And that’s one of my biggest issues with the band—making sure the bottom end isn’t too low, too loud, and too loose.
I do use a dynamic plug-in, but that’s on Jim’s vocals. He can really sing high and hard, so I do have dynamic compression where I’m slamming him harder in where it bites when he goes up high and sings really hard. So I do use the [Avid] Pro Multiband compressor there.
HL: Acting in some sort of a DS-ing or a very, very tight filter on a frequency?
RS: Some DS-ing and then when he sings high and hard, it’s 2.5K that can start to bite, and it can get painful at a high SPL. But you want him, as being Jim Cuddy, to pop right out in the mix, so I can have the dynamic compressor grab that frequency for me and it just keeps his vocal warm and I can lay it right on top of the mix easily.
HL: What are your initial impressions about using the new console on the tour?
DF: Well, I find it so much easier to place things in an in-ear mix now, in a stereo mix, just to make it clearer. For example Colin, he’s hardly asked for any changes in his mix since the beginning of the tour, and he’s one that’s really fussy and I have to usually make a lot of changes for him. I think it’s because things are clearer—he can pick things out easier in his mix just ’cause the stereo image is better, you know. I find that it’s just easier to place things. And I think this console reproduces bottom end a lot better, for some reason. I especially notice it in in-ears.
HL: What about at FOH—what did you notice on your first gigs?
RS: It has a layout page that isn’t on the old one, and now when we go from the full electric band down to a little acoustic portion in the center of the show, at one part I’m down to two channels. I’m down to an electric piano and Greg’s vocal, and then I have an effect return in case I need it in a dry room.
With so many inputs laid out I just flip my Snapshot and I don’t have to look where’s the piano ’cause it was on page two of my mix. Now, I just hit Layout and I have only those two channels and an effect, it turns the rest of the console blank and I’m not looking for a channel at all. It’s right in front of me, instead of me going, “Where’s Greg’s vocal in all this?”
The first room we played was a room that I’ve always some difficulty in ’cause it’s a reflective room and stuff. As soon as I listened to the band, it was different and I had a separation that was never there before. It was obviously the sonic quality of the console. It was almost flooring. The difference I heard the first day when I first heard the band come on the board—how much warmer, how much thicker, and how much easier it separated. It was that first day of going, “Okay, this is totally better sounding.”