Mixing a band like Goldfrapp is challenging enough — but when you add an orchestra, a 50–piece choir and a notoriously tricky venue, things really start to get interesting.
Not too many years ago, sound engineering at London’s Royal Albert Hall was a major challenge — possibly even a poisoned chalice for the man behind the FOH desk. Since the famously elliptical venue was opened in 1871 it has been the butt of jokes about its acoustic idiosyncrasies. The best of them was probably that the RAH was the only venue where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work performed twice. The Times actually drew attention to the soon–to–be notorious echo when it marred the delivery of the Prince Of Wales’ speech on its very opening day, and from then on, for all the venue’s magnificent Victorian swagger and the countless events of national and international importance it has housed, its acoustic problems have dogged its reputation, and ‘getting it fixed’ has been a work in progress.
To be fair, by common consent the problems of acoustic energy bouncing around the complex internal shape and off the huge ceiling have been greatly improved over the years. Work in 1969 (the installation of the famous fibreglass ‘mushrooms’), and the measurements and controls made possible by the advent of more portable and sophisticated measuring equipment in recent years, have tamed it to some extent — though it can still be a handful.
All of which could have made the job handed to Goldfrapp’s regular FOH engineer, Steven Carr, for the band’s 18th November 2014 special one–off concert, seem doubly intimidating when it was revealed that the already complex demands of the band were going to be amplified by the addition of the London Contemporary Orchestra and the 50-plus all–female Lips choir.
Like most FOH engineers though, Carr is a pretty unflappable type, which is probably just as well as Goldfrapp’s co–composer, performer and producer, Will Gregory, tends to sit by the console during performances, rather than performing with the band. At the RAH, Gregory actually did both, though most of his time was spent more or less at Carr’s shoulder.
Unlike many younger sound engineers, Steven Carr isn’t the product of one of the university courses that have proliferated since the 1980s. At 16, straight from school, he studied for a BTEC National Diploma in Music Technology at the City of Westminster College in Paddington Green, London. The course also included a City & Guilds Live Sound Engineering qualification. “At the end of the two years, most of the students were going to go on to university, but there’s never been a culture of university in my family, so it wasn’t really an option I knew much about,” he says. “I was 17 going on 18 and I didn’t know about all the fun you could have as a student! The thought of another three or four years education didn’t fill me with any enthusiasm, either.” Fortuitously, a few weeks after his course finished, the long–established Wimbledon–based sound firm RG Jones contacted the college looking for students to train. It was Carr’s chance and he took it.
This was in the late 1990s, when RG Jones were probably still better known for their studio, which was one of the few historic temples of recording to have survived the great cull that has more than decimated the London recording scene. Now the company were wisely diversifying into live sound. Carr got a thorough grounding, starting in the warehouse. “I thought I knew a bit about sound, but I soon realised I knew absolutely nothing,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was doing everything from cleaning cables to sweeping the floor to setting up small PA systems and testing them before they went out. Then a big job would come in and some top freelance sound engineers would be in our warehouse setting up systems. I’d be the assistant, learning by being told what to do. It was a very busy company and there were some very high–profile jobs for me to be involved with right from the start, even if I was there just to push the cases and run the long cables. But when you’re in that environment you pick up a lot very quickly. Within 18 months to two years I was going out doing little jobs on my own, and once they trusted me with that they let me get involved in the more musical side.”
Working his way through the ranks from the age of 18 to 23, he describes the experience as a whirlwind, including three months on the road with Chris Rea as the ‘mic–up guy’. “My job for that three months on the road was just to go in, plug in all the mics, plug in the monitor system and just be there in case something went wrong. But it’s amazing how much you learn on the road when you go out with a band. That was the next big pivotal step for me.”
At 25 he went freelance and began a career path that has led him into some fairly esoteric areas for a rock & roll ‘sound guy’ — and uniquely suiting him to his role with the marvellously eclectic Goldfrapp. For example, an opportunity came, via his mentor at RG Jones, Simon Honeywell, to mix a show called Classical Spectacular for Raymond Gubbay, the hugely successful popular classical promoter.
It was quite a gig for a new boy, calling for 120 channels, a fully miked orchestra with a 100–voice choir and a 50–piece military band. “It was Simon’s show to mix and he gave it to me. I mixed the show with him sitting next to me, looking over my shoulder pointing me in the right direction and it went very well.” One thing followed another and Carr ended up doing an entire season for Gubbay. “Once I’d proved myself with a 120-mic orchestra, a band with 25 channels didn’t seem very intimidating,” he says.
Gifted with hindsight, you can see where this was leading. Goldfrapp, though lazily described as an ‘electro–pop’ band by critics, have always been more subtle, complicated and musically grown–up than that. From the duo’s first album, Felt Mountain, through a series of releases, each incarnation revealed a different style, so much so that it sometimes sounded like a different band. Using the combination of Alison Goldfrapp’s chameleon voice with Will Gregory’s sly musical literacy and eclectic tastes, the duo developed a body of work that was one of the most diverse of its era. Someone was needed who could help them reproduce that live — from lush John Barry–esque string arrangements to hard disco, to electronic experimental. He also had to be able to reproduce Gregory’s intense production. It’s certainly not a gig that someone schooled exclusively on the ‘three punks and a drum kit’ rock circuit would have relished, but it was right up Steven Carr’s street.
It was Simon Honeywell again who introduced Carr to Goldfrapp, for the Head First tour. “I bit his hand off. My first show was at the Oxygen festival in Ireland. I had a show file on an Avid Profile from Simon, the band walked out on stage, I faded it up and we were away. I had no soundcheck, no rehearsals or anything, and I was off. We had a great show. Will was there, he was happy with the sound and we went from there. We did a whole year together, doing festivals all over Europe, South America, Australia — my relationship with them grew from that.
“I felt very privileged to be working with Will and I think he found it quite refreshing to be working with someone who was so eager to learn from him. When you work in live sound, people are put under a lot of pressure and inevitably they can become quite precious about what they’re doing and with something like a mix, two heads aren’t always better than one. Two, three or four sets of ears can confuse the issue — things can take longer. Sometimes you need just one person, the right person, to make the decisions. But sometimes two sets of ears are better than one, especially when one of those sets of ears is one of the guys who co–wrote the music and produced the albums. With Will it quickly became clear to me that this was a guy who understood balance and textures of sound and someone who I could really learn a lot from. I just opened myself up to all his suggestions and ideas and I thought, ‘I’m just going to be straight up with him and tell him my ideas,’ and it worked well — really great right from the start.”
Which brings us to November 2014 and that Royal Albert Hall one–off extravaganza, which, on top of the difficult venue and an already acoustically demanding band, added the string section and the choir for good measure. How had he approached it? “You always love to see the Royal Albert Hall on the tour schedule because it’s such a prestigious venue and it’s such an amazing place to listen to music.”
There are still challenges at the RAH, however. “Every space has its own acoustic challenges and some are more challenging than others. But ultimately, if a room’s tricky, a room’s tricky. You have to approach each venue with the same attitude and accept that you need to allow yourself time in the afternoon to get into what the loudspeakers are doing in the space, making sure that you’re methodical and that you tune the PA as best you can, and not be too intimidated by the space. Understand the limitations.
“I enjoy working there, and for RG Jones, who provided the PA system for Goldfrapp. They’re very experienced doing shows there and have been since back in the ‘70s. There are a handful of hire companies in the country that are used to doing shows there and a few good solid designs that people know work, so sound companies and engineers aren’t anywhere near as intimidated as they once were.
“I wanted to use the MLA system there, which is the latest and greatest from Martin Audio, London, because I believe from listening to it and the competition that it gives the most truthful, most honest frequency response, evenly across the audience area. MLA stands for Multi–cellular Line Array and it’s really clever. The speaker array is controlled in a much more complex way than any other speaker system out there. The idea of using a column loudspeaker is to create an isophasic, phase-coherent wavefront so you get minimal comb-filtering between each element of the array. With the MLA, within each element of the array it has six different channels of amplifier and processing, controlling amplitude, delay time and EQ.
“To make that work, you have to very accurately measure the space you’re using with a laser device on a tripod, and then input that data. Using software you have to very accurately draw the stage and a cross section of the room. You input these dimensions, you tell the software how many loudspeakers you want in the array, at what height you want to put the array, which surfaces you want to cover and which you don’t and you also tell it how loud you want it at the front and back. This comes from Martin Audio having taken thousands and thousands of measurements of speakers, which meant they were able to create algorithms that can predict what will happen at different distances. Basically, you input all that data and then it number crunches for about five minutes, working out how all of the different amp channels need to be processed.”
Supposing the software comes up against a reflective surface or a structural issue that it hasn’t been programmed to handle? “You can modify that but you can’t go in and modify each individual channel of processing, all you can do is modify the conditions that you input into the software. For example, you can change the volume difference between the front and the back of the room, or how you want it to avoid the ceiling, for example. Basically, what the PA delivers is a phase-coherent frequency response at the listener’s point — not where it leaves the loudspeaker — and that’s the main difference. It’s not worried about the phase coherence as it leaves the speaker array, because who’s listening to it there?
“We had 14 a side, left and right and also the MLA Compact, a smaller system, 12 a side as outhangs. We also had Martin Audio MLX subs underneath the front of the stage, which is the only place you can put them in the Royal Albert Hall, and we had various front and side fills dotted around, too.”
His choice of desk would come as a visual shock to anyone who had missed the recent few years of the digital revolution. By comparison with the ever–growing analogue (and early digitals, let it be said) the Avid Profile looks positively skimpy — an impression reinforced by an emaciated ‘toy rack’ nestled beside it, containing just a bare handful of boxes. The power of onboard software is such that only a few are needed, it seems, even given the demands of the show at hand.
“The Avid is definitely my favourite tool for live sound because without doubt it has for me the most ergonomic, most logical, most powerful automation functionality out of all the digital desks I’ve used. I’m not one of these guys where it has to be this desk or has to be that desk. If I rock up at a festival, I’ll use whatever desk is there and I particularly love analogue desks, but the Avid is my choice for touring a show and a sound production as intricate as Goldfrapp’s live production. I need a really powerful automation system and I need one that’s really easy to manage on the fly. If we’re in rehearsals and we’re making quick changes and quick decisions, I don’t want to paint myself into a corner. And sometimes with automation systems in desks, unless you’ve read the manual and really, really concentrate hard on the automation settings, you can make mistakes quite easily. On the Avid you don’t even need to think about it, it’s very logical.
“It also has great options for third–party plug–ins, too. I do use plug–ins but only where I really need them. I’m quite happy to use the EQ, compression and gate that you get on the channel of most digital desks, but if I want specific colour or something a little bit special I’ll turn to the plug–ins to give me that. I particularly like the Sony Oxford reverbs, and the Echo Farm delays. The Waves DeEsser is a really important tool for me, and the Eventide H3000 plug–in — nothing beats the outboard but if you’re travelling around with a band on planes, trains and automobiles you don’t want to be carting around a 2U rack.
“I do use two pieces of outboard for Goldfrapp — the Avalon 737 SP for EQ on Alison’s vocals, and I also use the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor. It’s a compressor essentially but it adds a certain colour that no plug–in can replicate — well, not that I’ve come across. I’m not precious; I’ll use whatever I’ve got to get the job done but the Distressor is probably the only piece of outboard that I wouldn’t leave home without.
“It’s so varied — that’s the key with Goldfrapp’s sound, they reinvent themselves every time and when you go to see the live show you’ll see a few songs from each record. So what we want to do is give the audience as faithful a reproduction of the song as we can, whilst obviously letting it have that live energy and so, yeah, it’s a massive challenge because with each song or group of songs from each album, you have to create with a fresh approach.
“With a band like Goldfrapp, where it’s very much a big sound production, everything is done in advance. We go into production rehearsals for a week or maybe two weeks before a tour starts and we rehearse and rehearse and build our show, our mix, so every song has its own scene on the desk and every scene has its own reverb and compression settings, its own EQ settings for every channel, for every effect send and return. By the end of production rehearsals we have a show file that is coherent and sounds great on the monitoring that we’re using in the rehearsal studio.
“The key for that show file, for that mix, to translate is that all of the microphones, all of the mic positions, all of the live instruments on stage, the settings, everything, have to be locked down and stay exactly the same. So we take all of the mics, all of the positions of them, all of the DIs — everything is taken with us and set up exactly the same every day, so we know the sound that is coming into our desk at source is as close as it possibly can be.
“Just like when you’re mixing a record in the studio, you want that record to translate onto many, many different sound systems, so it’s exactly the same with a live show. I treat my live mixes in exactly the same way. I want it to be able to translate across many different sound systems, so what we do is build the mix in production, we lock it down and then we go into our venues. The system engineer’s job is very important. He has to deliver the front–of–house engineer a system that is as flat as it can possibly be, so whatever changes the front-of-house engineer makes on the desk can be as faithfully reproduced as possible without the room affecting too much of his decision making.
“If the PA is set up well in a room that sounds pretty good, when we go in to a new venue we may only soundcheck for about half an hour. We’ll listen to a tune that we know well, we’ll make sure that the band are happy and don’t have any strangeness going on with their sound. You’re looking for changes in the environment rather than changes in the mix. Ultimately, if there is anything strange going on, the first thing we will look at is the system and we’ll EQ that. So if something is boomy in a venue, we won’t start turning down the bass guitar and the kick drum in the mix, we’ll EQ the system. What’s going on at 80Hz in the room? We know the mix is nice and flat so maybe we’ll look at the crossover points between the subs and the main PA — that kind of thing.
“In the Royal Albert Hall, a particularly challenging room, I found that I changed the level of the reverbs by probably 60 or 70 percent. Reverbs are just creating an artificial effect, so if you’re already in a space, you’re adding a space to a space. If that space has a lot of character like the Albert Hall, you’re never going to beat it — don’t fight it, let it do its thing. So on that show I brought a lot of the reverbs on Alison’s vocal back by quite a lot and let the hall do its job. And also on the strings.”
Speaking of strings, surely his experience in classical music must have helped in coping with the 25–piece string section — as well as the 50-piece choir. “Goldfrapp just as a band is 48 inputs, and then with the orchestra and the choir it probably ramped up to about 90 in total. We rehearsed the choir on the day — we didn’t get an opportunity to rehearse ‘Voice Thing’, the track the choir were performing on, in production rehearsals, which was a little cause for concern! We rehearsed it during the afternoon and in retrospect that was probably the best thing because nothing can prepare you for that — certainly not rehearsing in a dry room. The ambient noise in there is so strong that it would have been irrelevant. We got the choir in and spent an hour with them. I started to mic them with overhead mics, using evenly spaced stereo pairs of DPA 4022s, and I had four stereo pairs of those to cover 50 singers. Three of them were also on headworn microphones, to cover two lead parts and a bass part, so we had a little more control over those so that we could EQ and process to bring them out in the mix. The main thing with something like that when you’re ambient miking in a live environment is that feedback is a big issue, so you need to make sure you set your high passes sensibly, make sure you’re not doing any crazy EQ. You need to have trust in the choir, that they’re going to dynamically mix themselves. Get your gain structure and mic positioning right and let them do their thing.
“It’s funny how many people you meet in rock & roll who can be intimidated by an orchestra, and the general consensus seems too be that orchestras are scary and bands are a lot easier, but in many ways a really good orchestra mixes itself — it can be a lot more challenging to make a band sound good.”
So, what is it actually like, driving this great machine with 50 per cent of the band, the man who co–writes and produces, sitting at your shoulder? “Will obviously has a very keen interest in how the band sounds and the music comes across, so he does come and join me at front of house now and again and it’s great — it’s a pleasure to have him there. It’s great to have another set of ears, and no one knows the music and the songs as well as him. He’s very easy to work with and very encouraging. If he thinks it’s good he really encourages you and if he thinks there’s a problem he’s willing to get involved and help you find a solution. Thankfully, we don’t have many problems!”
So had the RAH gremlins raised their ugly heads? “I knew all along that some of my effects would have to be tailored on the fly to the hall, but I didn’t quite realise by how much, so there was a bit of that in the first couple of songs, where you’re kind of feeling your way and gauging what needs to be sacrificed to make the space. The acoustics you just have to accept. For that night, for that part of the show, it just sounds different and you have to embrace it. The thing with a long reverb time is that it can cloud the mix and you can lose definition, but if you know that you’ve done the best you can and the system is as good as it can be and the mix is right, you have to embrace it and not be put off by the room and the grandeur of the situation. Just do your thing. Focus on the songs. Focus on the melody lines. Just get into it. If you start being distracted by the boominess in that room that anyone who has mixed there will have experienced, it can be quite disconcerting. Your instinct is to start pulling the kick drum or the bass, but go with it, do your mix. On the night the most challenging thing for me is delivering for Alison and Will their vision. I just want it to be good for them.”
And it was. For this most diverse of bands, where electronic sounds give way to an a capella choir, lush string arrangements are piled in layers onto keyboards and, yes, there’s even rocking out with guitar solos, all fell into perfect place behind the seemingly fragile Alison Goldfrapp, whose intimate vocal style somehow managed to defy the physics and become intensely personal in this huge, resonant hall.
“There are certain moments in the set that require intense concentration,” says Carr. “Sometimes that turns into fascination because Alison’s performance is so strong that you forget where you are. But as long as everything is technically right, you just have to let the artist perform. It’s them. They’re the ones that make it sound good.”