BEN HAMMOND: Plugged in Acoustic - Audio Media International

BEN HAMMOND: Plugged in Acoustic

Deaf Havana's FOH engineer reports back from the band's recent acoustic tour, which presented him with a number of challenges.
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As a FOH guy, the term 'Acoustic Tour' usually makes us happy – a couple of channels, late load-ins, chilled out easy days are the thoughts that come to mind.

Not, however, if the band you are mixing is Deaf Havana.

Pre-tour: First off was a trip to see the good people at Audio-Technica (A-T), and after a quick chat about some interesting ideas which I will talk about later on, I left their loan stock somewhat depleted, and headed on my way.

As we would be recording these shows, I wanted to mic up the acoustic instruments as well as the usual DI feed, so A-T provided me with a selection of 4050, 4033, and 4047 microphones. Next stop was to see the guys at STS in Manchester and pick up the audio gear. I try to use these guys for everything I can because as well as being fairly local to me, they have always been extremely supportive and helped me out with all sorts in the years I have known them. The final destination for the day was Regal Studios in Wisbech. This has always served as a local base for the band, and is perfect for our pre-production/rehearsal needs, and after having a 'geek out' over their new SSL E Series console, it was time to get some work done.

Due to tight scheduling, with the band putting the finishing touches to album number three, we could only manage one day of rehearsals. This was a little daunting, as having only just got the final instrument list from the band a couple of days beforehand (which included drum kit, percussion set-up, electric bass, two electric guitars, two six- and 12-string acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, lap steels and keys), it turned out this was a 46-input slightly plugged in acoustic tour. Thoughts of “a couple of channels, late load-ins, and chilled out easy days” soon exited my head.

As usual I got to work marking and labelling remote boxes, cables, looms etc... and then loaded a very basic show I had made at home onto my Allen & Heath iLive console for fine tuning. With the band being so busy in the studio, things were being tried out for the first time, so after some chopping and changing I finally had a prepped line system, and desk.

As well as the FOH mix and multi-track, I was mixing monitors on this tour from FOH, which consisted of seven single wedge mixes.This decision was made mainly on having a long standing relationship with the band and them being comfortable with what I give them, and due to the very quiet nature of the show, I wanted to be in control of stage volume.

After a brief run-through of the set, and making a tonne of notes about who’s playing what, we retired to the usual Indian restaurant to put the world to rights over a curry, then headed back to the hotel for one final night in a real bed.

Day one of the tour was a 7am start. Head back to Regal Studios to load the bus and fight over bunks, then onto the first of two days at Union Chapel – one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever had the pleasure to mix a show in. At 85db it's pretty quiet, but the recent L-Acoustics KARA install works great, with various delays dotted around the venue providing excellent coverage. Rooms like this are such fun to mix in – it's like having the most incredible reverb unit in your rack; everything sounds better drowned in it.

I approached the mix by treating the room as an instrument in itself. You're not mixing loud enough to overcome the room sound, so I used how the room coloured the sound to my advantage and mixed into it. I still used various FX from the board to create depth and space within my mix, but then shaped the overall product to suit the space. Part of the reason for recording the show was for an interesting idea that the guys at Audio-Technica came up with, as I mentioned earlier. We stuck a camera at the FOH position and took record splits via Dante into Reaper. Odd choice maybe, but having tried various Mac based recording software, I have found Reaper to work trouble-free in this particular environment time after time, with no hangs or drop-outs.

I am currently sat putting together a Pro Tools project syncing the multi-track files to the video of the show, and if you are at PLASA Focus in Leeds later in the month, head to the Audio-Technica/Allen & Heath stand and you will be able to mix a few of the songs for yourself.

After some more fun on Night Two, we set course for Bath Komedia. This couldn't have been a more different environment. It is an almost completely dead room when running at low volumes – thick black drapes everywhere, and hung Noise Control boxes. To achieve a similar atmosphere that I had become accustomed to in Union Chapel, I was driving the FX a lot harder.

I found backing off low pass filters on my reverbs gave me a lot more open sound, as opposed to the much more controlled artificial reverbs one may use in a louder rock mix. I used three reverbs from the iLive FX rack for these shows – firstly the 480 Live setting for my main vocal reverb, then the EMT plate for drums – both of those working in mono – and then finally a stereo room reverb used mainly for positioning instruments in the mix. On top of those I had an ADT for my vocals, a light chorus for the acoustic guitars and two delays for Vocals – one long and one short.

The third venue was Manchester's Royal College of Music – a very high, very lively concert hall, which, contrary to London, did not compliment the sound in any way! This venue doesnt have an in-house system, so I had STS bring in a Turbosound Flex array system, comprising of a single dual 18” sub, and three Flex boxes per side. This was more then enough to provide a clear focussed sound for what was a slightly louder show, to make sure I had the advantage over the room sound. We dotted some PS10s around to increase coverage, and the end result was very pleasing. The main difference for this show was getting the delays right between FOH and the various wedges, to be able to achieve more defined transients and clearer vocals, as the wedges fired straight up into the roof of the open stage, which then amplified them no end.

The final stop on the tour was the Albert Hall in Nottingham, featuring a large concave stage wrapped around a stunning old pipe organ. PA here was nine boxes of Turbosound Aspect per side. We spent a while in the controllers tuning this system, mainly tightening up the low mids, adjusting the HF crossover point and curves to achieve a smoother transition in the top end, and then finally boosting the HF by a couple of dB. I wanted to slightly over compensate for the top end with this being a much larger point source box. Much like Union Chapel, this room only complimented what I was doing.

This was a great show to end this short run, with such a large selection of instruments and varying performances. I am, however, blessed, as the band themselves had thought very carefully about instrumentation, and constructed these much more laid back versions of their songs in a well thought out manner. This meant that even with 30-plus open microphones in the mix, I was never fighting for space. Overall, this tour was something I was really proud to be a part of – an already amazing band showing themselves in a whole new way. It really was a pleasure to mix.

On a personal note, a big thanks to Tom Harrold, Stuart McKay, Jordan McLachlan, Dan Mellor and Rich Knowles for all your help to make this what it was.

Thanks for reading.

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