INTERVIEW: 'Big Mick' Hughes

Metallica?s FOH engineer ?Big Mick? Hughes has the PA equivalent to two stadium systems on a world tour to promote the band?s latest album: Death Magnetic. Andrew Low talks to Big Mick about wrapping his head around the tour, the gear and the latest technology?
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Anyone who has seen Metallica’s documentary Some Kind of Monster knows that the LA monsters of metal are far from the macho, god-hating headbangers that their image would assume.

The band have been victims to criticism in recent years, but despite all of this, Metallica continue to reign supreme in the hard rock genre by selling out arenas and festivals all over the globe. As guitarist Kirk Hammett says: “Damn right we sell out. We sell out every seat in every arena we play.”

‘Big Mick’ Hughes, Metallica’s friend and FOH engineer, has been with the band for 25 years. At first glance one would assume that Hughes himself is an LA native, heavy metal hippy with the gear and hair to follow, but it is immediately apparent that the friendly bloke from Birmingham, UK is a smart and innovative engineer.

Audio Pro International chatted with Big Mick at the band’s recent gig at London’s O2 Arena. Over his years with Metallica, Hughes believes he’s tried every piece of gear from every manufacturer out there. The system currently on the road with the band was provided by US tour supplier Thunder Audio and shipped in crates on a boat from the States for the UK and European shows. Mick takes us through it all.

The board
We are using a Midas XL8 with over 80 channels of input. The number of inputs has swelled over the years and the XL8 has handled them effortlessly. If the band wants to add an extra instrument to a song I’m not left saying, “Shit, I don’t have any holes to plug it in”. The only limitation is my lack of imagination.

Also, we do this thing with triggers. There are noise gates on the tom toms and normally you adjust the threshold knob on the noise gate to open when the drum is hit. When the gate opens it lets the sound through, but of course in a situation where you have a lot of noise around on stage, these gates will keep opening. If you make them too sensitive, then sometimes they won’t open at all. About 15 years ago I stuck these little tape-on pickups on the drum with a wire leading to the multichord that is inserted into the key input of the gate. The gate no longer reacts from volume on the microphone, rather it works on the vibration, so you can blast a load of noise at it and it won’t open until it’s vibrated.

I got an email from Eddie Map who does sound for Evanescence saying that he has had success by delaying the tom tom. So you then have look-ahead gating, which means that the gate will be open in anticipation of the sound coming through. You slow the tom tom down with delay on the channel, leave the trigger in real time so the gate opens immediately into the drum, but it then allows the gate to be fully open and you don’t lose any of the leading edge from the tom hit. The XL8’s onboard gate is so fast that it didn’t make any difference at all, but obviously Eddie has a problem with it on the D-Show console he is using. So it is down to the quality of the gate. It shows that there are differences between gates and features on the different consoles.

Guitar Sound
I use a lot of sub groups. I will configure all the aux 1 -16 sends as sub groups so I can use a six-band parametric or 31-band graphic eq across the group. I have many guitar amps that make up a guitar sound. James uses six channels and Kirk has four. If I have a little bit too much frequency, like a bit of 2K, instead of going into each channel and tweaking that frequency, I can go to the group and eq the whole thing, so that has become inherent to the guitar sound.

The PA
We are using the Meyer Milo system and we are doing a new thing where we fly the subs in the middle. We are calling it the TM array because Thomas Mundorf of Meyer Sound designed it. ‘In the round’ is such a miserable task for a sound engineer because of the multiple arrival times and reflections and previoulsy we were are not able to put loads of subs together to get coupling. We can only put little clusters on the stage because more boxes would interfere with sight lines. We couldn’t put any under the stage because it is only three foot-high because the band wants to be close to the audience. To fix this problem, Thomas came up with a plot with four columns of ten hung as close together in the middle of the arena. It is fantastic because you get the coupling that you would if you had all the subs in one place, so you get a point source.

Playing in the round
The band likes it because it creates four fronts to the stage, so each section of the audience feels like they are in the front row as opposed to the band being at one end of the arena looking like tiny cockroaches to the people in the back, but it is horrible for us. Speaker-wise we have probably two stadium systems in this venue – over 120 Milo boxes. It’s still hard to get coverage in all areas of the venue, but we just have to make it work.

We always strive for better because ‘in the round’ can be really bad. I have seen other ‘in the round’ shows that have been awful. I really sympathise with the engineers because I know how hard it is. All the reflections just kill you. You are your worst enemy because you fire sound equally away from the centre of the room and all those reflections that you are creating end up bouncing back at you. The only plus side is that a lot more people are still listening in the near field then the far field, which gives you a bit more control.

We are pretty cast in stone for a lot of the gear we use on tour. In 25 years of doing this I have done a lot of experimenting to get to the point we are at with microphones. I have tried an awful lot and unless some new innovation comes along, why deviate? It’s not broken so why fix it? I have switched to Earthworks SR25s on the hi-hat and snare bottom because I like how crisp they are, but other than that we predominantly use Audio-Technica’s mics.

It’s not like I have only tried the Audio-Technica range, I have tried all the other manufacturers, but A-Ts work the best for Metallica’s sound, so in turn they work for me.

Making the switch to digital
Switching to digital just made sense for us. I made up my mind when I was doing a festival in Japan. I got an XL4 from the biggest rental company you can think of and the bloody VCA faders were seized.

It was getting pretty apparent as I spec'ed XL4s around the world that, unless we were carrying one that I knew worked, they were just going to get worse. And there have been a few times where I have had to nurse the console throughout the show because there was something wrong with it. In those instances you end up compensating for its weaknesses and are afraid to push the recall button for fear that it will do something weird. Eventually I had to move on, and where do you go from an XL4? It had to be an XL8. I am only going to use Midas because I like how they sound.

Going back to analog
I could do this tour with an analog desk, but it would have to be a much bigger system. I would need a lot more racks at FOH because I have seen the benefits of certain things that I would like to bring back to the analog world. I still love the XL4; I used it for 13 years. It’s not an XL8 though, and there are good things and bad things about that. The XL8 has so much intelligibility and you have to be careful because instruments end up sounding too isolated, but you just have to play around and make them sound more cohesive.

I was always at the extremes with the XL4. We would go out for years and years and do the same thing, but we were never going to do any more with it. If you wanted to do more you had to plug something into it. With the XL8 I feel like I am at the point where the XL4 left off, so it is down to me again. Before my limitation was the XL4 – what it could deliver – but now the ball has been knocked back into my court. I always strive for perfection. It is like being a painter. If you only have black and white then you are going to get a black and white picture, but if suddenly you have millions of colours to choose from then you are going to have a different painting and more choices to make, so you end up learning more and progressing.

Stepping up his game
The older you get the harder it is to learn new things, so going to a new digital format can be hard, but you get to learn a lot of new tricks, which makes you feel like you can achieve more.

The bottom line is that today’s audience expects a lot. It used to be the case where the PA would be pointed towards the sound engineer so it sounded good to them, but audiences aren’t having it anymore. As such, you had better deliver more, because a lot of people go to see many different bands in the same venues and you have to sound as good as everyone else because people can hear the difference. Nowadays, if you have a shitty show they can broadcast it to the whole world on the internet. Now that the technology is there, the engineer has to perform to a higher standar