The Chemical Brothers bring more gear on stage than most of us have in our studios. Matt Cox is the man who has to make sure it all works come showtime!
The Chemical Brothers have enjoyed a longevity that is rare in the world of dance music. After helping to define the 'big beat' sound of the early '90s, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have given their contemporaries — few of whom are still with us — a masterclass in how to keep on keeping on. There's no real mystery to the duo's staying power. All it takes is a string of blockbuster studio LPs (including an unbroken sequence of five number one albums, from 1997's Dig Your Own Hole to 2007's We Are The Night), countless floor-filling singles and a steady stream of ground-breaking music videos, inspired collaborations and inventive remixes.
The duo's feats as a live act have also made a huge contribution to their on-going popularity. There are few other instrumental electronic acts who could fill an arena on any continent, and, arguably, none that can work an audience of that size into quite such a frothing frenzy. The Chemical Brothers' live show — or should that be live experience — is a full-scale assault on the senses, combining the duo's grungy synths, vertiginous filter sweeps, sledgehammer beats and irresistible, straight-for-the-jugular hooks with the retina-melting visual spectacle of a fully synchronised video and light show.
The Chemical Brothers don't take the easy route when it comes to playing their music live, as evidenced by the 360-degree array of keyboards, synth modules, drum machines and effects that accompanies them on stage, with Rowlands and Simons in the centre, manipulating the controls like a pair of mad scientists. The man charged with making sure this extensive, eccentric collection of gear works without a hitch is MIDI tech and live programmer Matt Cox, who has also worked as a tech, programmer and system designer for the likes of Goldfrapp, Hot Chip, the Prodigy and the Kaiser Chiefs. Cox followed a familiar route into the music industry, even if his starting point was more unusual.
"I was a signaller in the army [responsible for radio and communications] when I was a teenager,” he says, "and I got a good background in electronics from doing that. But I was always really into electronic music. I got into techno in '88 and was fascinated. I was going home on leave from the army and going raving, and I'd be thinking, 'I love this record, how the hell do they make this?' So I started buying SOS and magazines like that in the early '90s with a view to getting into sound engineering.
"I bought myself out of the army, got onto a recording course in Manchester and got a job working in a studio, just as a tape-op and brewer-upper and all that, which is how I got a foot in the door. Through that studio I got to meet various bands in Manchester, one of which was Lionrock [the 1990s big-beat duo consisting of Justin Robertson and Roger Lyons]. After they did their first album in our studio, I ended up looking after it on the road, setting up the MIDI and the keyboards, and through that I got the Chemical Brothers job. My first tour with them was at the end of '96 and it's just gone from there really. I don't do any studio stuff at all now: it's purely looking after keyboards and programming MIDI for live acts.”
When it comes to looking after the Chemical Brothers, Cox certainly has his hands full. The duo's live setup includes a mind-boggling array of digital and analogue equipment, ranging from the brand-new to the practically antique, all of which needs to be kept in rock-solid sync with Mac laptops running Logic and Ableton Live. But the heart of the live show is, somewhat surprisingly, the battle-scarred Mackie 32:8 mixer that sits centre stage in front of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons.
"It's a very spontaneous thing that they do live,” Matt explains. "It's like an instrument almost, the Mackie. They throw faders up, unmute stuff — they know where everything is exactly. Some of the filters in the racks are fed off direct outs, so if one of them thinks, 'That Electrix filter would be great across that synth,' he can just grab the direct out jack, put it in the direct out of the synth that he wants to get at, then he's away in the rack twiddling the filter. They've got so used to that interface in front of them that it's almost second nature. They can have an idea and put it into practice in an instant.”
But the Mackie is more than a glorified patchbay for all of the on-stage gear: it's where the whole show takes shape. "In Logic, we've got a few main audio elements which occupy the first 12 channels of the Mackie. Then on the Ableton computer, there are elements of that core track that are very similar. So there might be a bass line and a drum loop coming off Logic that are a core part of one song, but then in Ableton there'll be the loop on its own and the bass line on its own. That means they can then EQ the loop on the Ableton playback differently to the Logic playback, for example, and cut between them as if they were doing a DJ cut. They're still playing the same song, but completely changing the sound on the fly. So there's a lot of things that are mirrored on the desk to allow DJ-style moves and effects to happen. It's a bit like what people do in Ableton, but we're doing it with hardware. It's almost back-to-front!”
We're beginning to get the sense that this is not your average live show. Though Matt offers the succinct explanation, "They're essentially DJ-ing their own songs with some analogue kit over the top,” this does somewhat play down both what's involved and the challenges he's had to overcome to make the whole thing work. According to Matt, the sound the audience out front hears at a Chemical Brothers show is a combination of multiple elements. The audio from Logic and Live generally delivers drums, bass and "the bed of things” as far as most tracks go, while the synths on stage provide everything on top. These are played live and, in the case of the Elektron Monomachine SFX60+, also triggered by MIDI in the Logic arrangement.
"That's one of the few units that get a MIDI trigger from the Logic arrangement,” says Matt (the Roland Juno and Dave Smith Poly Evolver being the other two). "The MIDI parts are often taken from their original Logic session for that particular track and pasted at various points during the set. Rather than program-change things automatically, they like to dial it in themselves, so that's why you'll see all those labels on the unit — just little reminders to say 'that patch for this song'. So they'll manually dial in the patch and then it'll get triggered via MIDI so they can be tweaking all the controls.
"We do use some program-change messages. We've got an Elektron Machinedrum that's got some loops in it that aren't a bar long, so that needs to be program-changed specifically at a certain point, so the loop comes in at the right time. The synthesis in those Elektron units is so bonkers, you can make a drum noise end up sounding like a piece of metal or something. That's what they like to do sometimes: find a control that pitches something five octaves out the ceiling and make it sound like it's changed sex. It's like, 'What's he doing to that tonight?!' And then plaster all those delays and effects on it, and overdrive it to buggery…”
On top of this, Tom and Ed are triggering pattern-based synths and marshalling the array of signature hits, vocal samples, sweeps and sound effects mapped to the various keyboards and control surfaces in front of them — all extensively and meticulously labelled — all the while using their racks of filters and effects to twist any and all of the above into oblivion.
"Tom tends to do the lion's share of the mixing,” Matt explains, "and then Ed does the lion's share of the twiddling with envelopes and filter sweeps, mapping stuff to mod wheels and just messing about with it. There's always one of them who's darting around grabbing hold of things, but Ed does a lot of the hands-on stuff with the synths, while Tom's more kind of nailed to the desk, just keeping a lid on it.
"If you went to five shows in a row, they'd all be different, sonically and musically. Apart from anything, there are often mistakes. One of them might go to dub a delay onto a synth, put it on the main kick drum by mistake and then go, 'Hang on a minute, I quite like that!' and play around with it for five minutes. And then the next night, they'll do it again at the same point and just refine it a little bit. The show is an ever-changing thing, a lot of the time, for that very reason. Because there are so many parameters, you can't reproduce them exactly every night and you will end up with these little happy accidents.”
When asked whether he could ever imagine the band ditching the analogue hardware and touring with everything 'inside the box', Matt is adamant in his reply. "No, no way. If you've seen their studio… They've got the most amazing collection of equipment — think of a rare synth and it's in there — and the tactile nature of all that gear is a real key element of how they make their music. They've got three massive modular synths in the studio. I've seen Tom in there with a load of patch cords around his neck. I think he's probably there all day just waiting for something to happen, then going, 'Ah brilliant, that sounds great!' Which is probably infinitely more fun than faffing around in front of a computer, just pressing buttons.”
The long-serving Mackie desk is, however, nearing retirement, with a Toft Audio ATB32 console lined up to take its place, just as soon as the band have sufficient down-time to really get to grips with the new arrival. "Reliability is key when you're touring,” Matt says. "If you find a system that's reliable, especially when you're headlining stages like this, you're very reluctant to step away from it, unless you've got the rehearsal time to really iron it out and make sure it's bulletproof.”
Since hooking up with the Chemical Brothers in 1996, Matt Cox has seen their touring setup become steadily larger and more complex. "Every year the guys have turned up with a couple of new toys that they've obviously caned on the last album and said, 'Can we bolt this onto the setup?' So we scratch our heads and think, 'Where are we going to fit this one in?'”
The hardware mixer has always been central to the rig, but as more gear has been piled around it, Matt has had to contrive ever more involved means of keeping it all in sync. "Back then [in 1996] it was a 16-channel Mackie [mixer] with a couple of analogue keyboards and a [Roland SH]101, and an [Akai] MPC that was the kind of brain of the whole thing. That grew on the next tour to a few more samplers and a few more keyboards. After that, we started to use [Tascam] DA38 [digital multitrack tape] machines with a little bit of audio printed to them, plus timecode to run the MPC, so that kept the MIDI and audio in time with one another. And then from there it went to [Akai] DR16 hard-disk recorders for playback, again with some audio printed from the Logic file. That drove SMPTE, which drove an MPC, which drove the MIDI gear and held the MIDI and audio elements together.
"It's only this year that we've actually jumped to using laptops live. Tom programs in Logic anyway, so it makes a lot more sense and saves a lot of time — and during the tour he can go off and do an edit in the hotel room if he needs to. We stuck with hard-drive playback for a long time just because it was so reliable. Because the visual side is such a big part of the show, it's imperative that that timecode stream doesn't drop because the video is relying on it. It's only in the last few years, I think, that you can really say that laptops are reliable enough to use, and there's now enough kit to create A/B systems and failsafes so that if one laptop crashes, it's not a show-stopper.”
Whatever is driving the system, it is essential that the entire rig, from laptops to synths to effects, is perfectly in sync from the first beat to the last. "The MIDI clock is a massive part of the show because it runs the analogue sequencers on stage,” says Matt. "We've got a [Future Retro] 777 squelch box, which is a [Roland] TB303-style machine, that runs on clock. All of the effects in the rack are MIDI-clocked as well, so as we get tempo changes through the set, all the delays and filter sweeps and phases are tempo-locked to what's going on.”
It all starts with the Logic laptop, which generates the timecode signal used to coordinate the video and lighting — so crucial to the show as a whole — and syncs a mirrored back-up Logic laptop, as well as a third laptop running Ableton Live. The Logic arrangement also generates the MIDI clock signal sent to the on-stage setup.
"One of the real challenges is keeping everything in time for an hour and a half,” Matt explains. "It's not like you press play for a two-minute song and at the end of it you press stop. Once you've pressed go, that's it. It's got to stay in time for an hour and a half, otherwise the whole thing sounds like it's falling downstairs. Everything will wander. That's why we rely on the Sync-Lock boxes.”
These ingenious devices from Australian outfit Innerclock Systems are designed to solve the problems that can be encountered when trying to use a software DAW and external analogue gear side by side. In place of a Firewire or USB MIDI interface, the Sync-Gen II LE system consists of a plug-in that generates an audio pulse, which is sent from the audio interface to the external Sync-Lock unit (looking a bit like a DI box), which in turn generates the MIDI clock. With the conventional audio material and the audio pulse sent side by side, the result is a stable, jitter-free, sample-accurate clock signal precisely in time with the audio coming out of Logic. From Matt's station at the side of the stage, where he keeps an eye on the three Macbook Pro laptops during the show, the MIDI clock signal goes to a Kenton LNDR MIDI line driver so it can be sent via Ethernet cable to the on-stage setup. There, it's routed via a MOTU MIDI patchbay to all relevant devices on stage.
The Sync-Gen system has another key advantage, as Matt explains: "The nature of MIDI clock is that, once you've pressed go, there's no way of re-triggering that signal. If you're generating clock from Logic and, say, one of the drum machines gets turned off by mistake, if you turn that back on you can't re-trigger it, because there's no kind of re-trigger message in the MIDI clock format.
"The good thing about the Sync-Lock box is that it allows you to do that. Basically, there are two audio signals being fed into the Sync-Lock. You have the plug-in that runs in the background and sends the audio pulse, and then you have a little audio file that you drop in your arrangement, which sends a 'go' command to the Sync-Lock box. I've got this little audio file pasted right the way through the arrangement, so if at any point during the set the clock goes pear-shaped, I can just unmute it to send the signal to the Sync-Lock to regenerate the clock.
"So that's become essential to running an hour-and-a-half gig, where it's got to work from top to bottom. It's a bit different to working with a conventional band, where the band can say, 'Sorry, we've messed that up, let's just start that song again from the beginning.' We haven't got that option.”
Preparation is everything, according to Matt Cox, and in the case of the Chemical Brothers, that starts long before the first tour date. "I go to Tom's studio way before the tour and we do a lot of transfers from Logic,” he explains. "Then we'll get in a room with the kit for quite a long time and just run it to iron out the problems. After that, it's taken to a big room with the full video and lighting rig for another week. Once we've done that and we're happy with everything, we hit the road.”
When I meet Matt Cox backstage at the Creamfields festival, it's 2pm and the first act are preparing to take to the main stage. The Chemical Brothers are, naturally, headlining and not due on until 9.30pm, but Matt and his colleagues have been here since 8am, assembling and soundchecking the band's mammoth live setup, which now sits off-stage on a riser under a purpose-built, waterproof covering nicknamed 'the greenhouse'. According to Matt, this kind of early start is unavoidable when top of the bill, but it's still preferable to the alternative.
"We've been closing or headlining shows for a while now,” he says, "which definitely makes life a bit easier. I'd rather that than be turning up at the 11th hour and throwing it all up. As well as all the gear on the audio side, there's so much lighting and video involved. Everything has to be set up, soundchecked and tested in one block, so you've either got to go in really early the day of the show, to be finished before the first band comes on, or do it the night before after the last band has finished.”
With everything ready and waiting in the wings, Matt can retire to the tour bus and relax until a few hours before showtime. Then it's back to work. "I'll come back two-and-a-half or three hours before the show, de-rig the greenhouse and turn everything back on again, just to let all the old gear bed in, just so the tunings don't go bonkers. That's something else we've had to deal with. If those synths are nice and warm in a corner, then you wheel them out on stage, you've got to be really careful. They're just so moody sometimes! I'll quickly check everything again just before Tom and Ed come on stage and make sure the tunings are all right, otherwise you can be a semitone or more out.”
For all of Matt's careful preparation, the final minutes before the show can still get pretty intense. "Sometimes we only get a 20-minute changeover following the previous band, and five to 10 minutes of that is taken up by them getting off stage,” he explains. "So you've literally got to wheel it out, plug in your looms and make sure everything is up and running. That can be quite pressurising sometimes, to test every single bit of kit up there, know that it's working and then say, 'Yeah, we're ready to go.' Because when it goes, it's got to go right.”
With the show done and dusted, it's time to pack up and move on, and that means dismantling the entire stage setup. "It would be great if all those keyboards just sat on those frames and you could just put a big lid over it and say, 'See you same time tomorrow!' Unfortunately it's not like that. It's broken down completely [between shows]. All of those keyboards need to be really well cased because they've got to travel, so everything goes in big trunks. We try to look after it all, because analogue stuff is notoriously moody. There's two of us that set the kit up. I do the programming side of it and Aaron [Cripps, the backline tech] looks after the maintenance side of it. On occasion there are components that need to be swapped out, so out comes the soldering iron.”
With just a few dates left in the Chemical Brothers' calendar, Matt Cox is looking ahead to his next tour of duty, as programmer-cum-MIDI and keyboard technician for alternative rockers Snow Patrol. After no more than a couple of days off, he's straight into rehearsals with the band, then on a plane to South America for festivals in Brazil and Argentina. There's no rest for the wicked, but Matt is in no hurry to return to a more sedentary, studio-bound life. "Coming in after an album's been finished and taking it from that point into the live world is where I'm at now,” he says. "I find it quite satisfying actually, because there's still an element of the studio side of things at the beginning of that process — programming, and being set up in a room with the band — but then you get to take it out on the road at the end of that. It's pretty cool.
"I like the instantness of the live thing as well. In the studio, you can spend a day just trying to get a kick drum right. Live, I like the fact that when there's a problem, you've got to solve it really quick. Everything just moves all the time. If something breaks in the studio, you'll be on the phone trying to get hold of a bloke to come and fix it. If it breaks here, you've got to do it yourself. So you end up picking up loads of little nuggets of information. I like being able to say, 'Oh right, I've just learned something new today.'”
Standing in the rain, in a muddy field surrounded by the trucks, temporary shelters and walkie-talkie-toting security personnel you'll find at any festival, it strikes me that the job of a touring tech is perhaps not a million miles away from Cox's former life as an army signaller. "There's loads of similarities — it's weird,” he laughs. "You've got your tour itinerary, which is like your orders. You get your stuff, put it on a bit of transport and trundle off to the middle of nowhere. You set it up, do what you've got to do for a day and then off you go again. When I first started touring, I thought, 'You know what? I could get into this.'”
For more about Matt Cox's work, visit his web site at http://web.me.com/mattcoxy/Site/Welcome.html.
As well as all their synths, effects and sequencing equipment, the Chemical Brothers also bring a full multitrack recording rig on tour with them, and many of the shows have also been filmed for possible future release. "That will obviously show off the visual side of things, as well as the audio side of things, to full effect,” says Matt Cox, "with crowd footage and lots of close-ups of the gear for all the gear perverts!”
Every date on the tour was recorded, using a mixture of direct outs from the on-stage rig and a variety of microphones. "We kept it down to 24 tracks to keep the setup simple, which is important during festivals where changeover times are short,” Matt explains. "We multitracked the mixing console from its 12 outputs — main left and right outputs, eight subgroups and stereo backup pair. We also recorded the SMPTE timecode track for reference, and direct outs from the on-stage console of the more important instruments that feature heavily, like Elektron Drum Machine and Future Retro 777.
"On the microphone front, we had two AKG shotgun mics on stage, positioned on the front of our stage setup on the left and right downstage edge, pointing into the pit. Again, having the mics mounted on the riser just made things easier during festival changeovers. We also had mics set up around the front-of-house [FOH] mixing position. There were two T.Bone EM9600 shotgun mics facing the stage, pointing off-axis to the PA across the crowd, two Sennheiser MKH 416s pointing left and right behind the FOH position to pick up crowd noise, and a Soundfield [surround] mic positioned above the FOH position on a tall boom.
"Two recordings were made simultaneously to Alesis ADAT HD24 machines, at FOH and at the monitor mix position to the side of the stage, by FOH engineer Shan Hira and monitor engineer Ian Barton, with the various on-stage and FOH lines being sent each way down our show multicore. The mics at FOH were being run through the desk preamps on the Midas XL4 console used for our show, while the mics on stage ran through three Focusrite Octopres. All recordings were done at 24-bit/44.1kHz and dumped to Mac in WAV format for backup post-show.”
Matt Cox has designed a robust failsafe system to cope with the main Logic laptop crashing, a potentially catastrophic event for both the audio and video sides of the show. "We've got mirrored systems: A and B laptops running the same Logic arrangement,” he explains. "The audio outputs from both laptops go into some Radial SW8 Auto Switchers in the back of the rack. Alongside the audio, you basically send a steady tone from your computer, which goes into a separate input in the switcher. If that tone stops — when the computer crashes, for example — the unit automatically switches over to the other set of inputs. And it's seamless — you wouldn't hear it.”
That takes care of the audio, but what about MIDI? It's at this point I notice the big red button on top of Matt's stage-side setup, labelled 'Mungo Sync 2'."It looks great, doesn't it?” he laughs. "It looks like you hit that and everything's going to go off! You feed MIDI clock through the Mungo and it remembers where the first beat of every bar is — there's a little light on the top that flashes on beat one of every bar. What it allows you to do is stop the MIDI clock signal so that you can reset a device, and then when you hit the button again, it restarts it at the next beat one. It's designed partly for people who DJ with two laptops, where you've got a master and a slave and you want to stop the slave, reload it with your new set and then resync it to the master. I'd use it if I had to flick from the A machine to the B machine, in which case I need a way of restarting the MIDI clock to drive everything on stage. The Mungo Sync is perfect for that.
"Then I've got a custom-built MIDI A/B switcher in the bottom of the rack,” he continues, indicating the large black panel at the bottom of his rack, equipped with a single large rotary switch. "It looks like it's out of an old Russian submarine or something! All my MIDI signals run through that. If there was a crash, the first thing I'd do is flick the MIDI switcher, restart the Mungo and we're off again. It should be that quick. We might miss a beat of MIDI clock but that's about it, fingers crossed.”
As the third Macbook Pro, running Ableton Live, is not essential to the running of the show, Matt says he can manage without a backup, particularly as all three Macs are equipped with solid-state drives. Matt says this not only means that they reboot in double-quick time, but are also better at dealing with the SPLs on stage. "It means we don't need to worry about the needles on conventional hard disks jumping, which is a problem we've had in the past,” he says.
Audio files to accompany the article.
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