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Ken 'Pooch' Van Druten: FOH Mix Engineer

Justin Bieber • Iron Maiden • Jay‑Z • Whitney Houston • Linkin Park • Kiss By Tom Flint
Published April 2020

Ken 'Pooch' Van Druten

Pooch's career has seen him mix front-of-house for artists as diverse as Iron Maiden and Justin Bieber. But just how different are mixing for pop and metal?

Musically, Justin Bieber and Iron Maiden are worlds apart from one another, as are acts like Jay‑Z, Whitney Houston, Linkin Park and Kiss, but Ken 'Pooch' Van Druten has been FOH engineer for them all, somehow managing to please rock and metal audiences, as well as those whose tastes are unequivocally pop. No doubt some Iron Maiden fans would be shocked to learn that for many years, their favourite band's live sound has been delivered to them by the skilled hands of someone who is just as comfortable mixing Justin Bieber concerts, but Pooch has found that the tools needed for both styles are virtually the same, and the lessons he has learned from one genre are actually of benefit when working on the other.

"I've learned from both genres for sure," insists Pooch. "I learned managing low–end and sub information from doing pop acts and actually took that knowledge and applied it to rock acts. And rock guitar solos have helped me make keyboard solos for pop acts sound better. The tools that I've used in both genres have also helped me to operate in both places. Glossy pop vocal is all about getting expansion and compression just right so that the vocal sits in that pocket that entire time. I tend to let a rock vocal be a little bit more dynamic, but I tend to use the same plug-ins in both situations to get the final result. They are two completely different worlds, but I work similarly in both.

"I am super lucky because there are a lot of guys that get pigeonholed into a specific kind of music and if I only had the opportunity to do pop stuff I would start getting a little bored. What happened is that early on in my career I got opportunities to work with major artists in both genres. I went straight from doing a Whitney Houston tour to a Kiss tour, so in my resume there has always been this weird dichotomy of rock and pop, and because of that I get offered both types of gigs."

Iron Maiden on tour in 2019.Iron Maiden on tour in 2019.Photo: John McMurtrie

From Studio To Stage

At the start of Pooch's professional career, he worked as a studio engineer and producer, and it was only by chance that he found himself moving into live sound, which he has remained focused on ever since.

"I was working with a hair-metal band called Warrant when they had a bunch of hits in the late '80s and early '90s," recalls Pooch. "I was in the studio working on one of their demos when they said, 'We fired our FOH guy yesterday, how would you like to mix our live sound?'

"I'd played live as a musician but hadn't ever mixed anything live, not even in a club or at school, but I just went 'OK, cool!' Literally the next day I found myself at an arena mixing for 14,000 people. I immediately fell in love with it. It was the instant gratification you get when you push a guitar solo and 10,000 people scream for that solo. You are a part of that.

"At that time in studios it was all tape so there was a lot of punching in the same guitar parts. I'd literally be spending 18 hours a day for two days punching the same eight bars of a guitar, all inside a building with no windows! So I was getting tired of that. Also it was a time when rap was starting to become prominent and a lot of what I was working on in the studio didn't interest me. So those things combined to push me into live sound and I've never looked back.

"I stuck with Warrant for four years, but along with that I started working with similar artists of that era, like Vince Neil, Slaughter and FireHouse. I think the knowledge that I had from being a producer and recording engineer helped me to be the live sound engineer that I was and get to where those guys were liking what I was doing.

"Back then we were literally high-fiving if you could hear the vocal, going 'Man, that was the best show ever!' But nowadays speaker technology is so good, it's like mixing on nearfield monitors. It's all come full circle for me because being a live sound engineer today is akin to being a studio engineer in that regard."

Tool For The Job

One aspect of Pooch's job is choosing the best equipment possible for the type of show and size of venue. However, budget and transport constraints often mean that certain compromises have to be made.

"Just like all things in life, you shoot for the Ferrari but you end up driving somewhat of a lesser car in the end!" laughs Pooch. "I realise that I am very lucky to be working with artists that allow me to choose top-quality gear and are willing to pay for it, so I try to choose things that are appropriate for the band. But if I'm doing a club gig or something small like that, I scale things accordingly. I have some preferences for manufacturers and these days I use DiGiCo a lot. On a large–scale gig like Justin Bieber or Iron Maiden I'll use a DiGiCo SD7. In contrast, a few years ago I was doing a Prophets Of Rage gig, which is Rage Against The Machine but with different singers, and it was in clubs and theatres, so I used lesser DiGiCo consoles like SD9s and SD8s. So I stick with manufacturers that I prefer, but scale up and down according to the gig."

For mixing, Pooch's weapon of choice is DiGiCo's flagship SD7 Quantum digital console.For mixing, Pooch's weapon of choice is DiGiCo's flagship SD7 Quantum digital console.

When it comes to choosing mics, Pooch likes to source them from a wide range of manufacturers, although when he was FOH engineer for Linkin Park, sE Electronics mics were used almost exclusively because of a deal the band had struck with the manufacturer.

"If I'm given carte blanche to choose microphones," he explains, "it's all different manufacturers. I don't believe that one manufacturer makes the best microphones for every instrument and source. I choose things that I like, but I also enjoy talking to other engineers to find out what they're using and trying new stuff, because there is always something better to discover.

"But Linkin Park made a deal with sE because the band had three complete board groups travelling all over the world, leapfrogging, so they needed three complete mic sets, and when you're talking about almost 100 inputs of stuff, three kits of mics is a lot of money. They were making deals to cut costs. I had no problem with that, because sE have great products, but that's why there were mostly sE products on that input list."

In contrast, the mics Pooch has chosen for Iron Maiden are from a number of different manufacturers, including Shure, Mojave, Telefunken and DPA. "My miking on this leg of the tour will be the same as it was last time, so Telefunken M80 on the top snare, Shure SM57 on the bottom, DPA 2011s on the hi–hats, DPA 4099s on the toms and Mojave MA-201 FET on the cymbals and the ride. Then I use a Shure Beta 91 and Beta 52 in the kick drum. It's a kick without a soundhole, so I use a Randal May rack rail-mounting system. It allows you to align the two capsules of the microphones inside the kick drum, and know that they are going to stay in place.

"The Mojave that I use on overheads and ride is my latest favourite large–diaphragm condenser microphone. Mojave is a division of Royer, so Royer make excellent ribbon microphones, and Mojave is their condenser line. I learned about them from an amazing engineer called Chris Rabold, who mixes Kenny Chesney and Bruno Mars. They are great-sounding condensers, especially for cymbals, and the MA-201fet is my favourite for that.

"I use overheads to capture a picture of the entire kit, so they aren't just cymbal microphones; they're also picking up the toms and the snare, emphasising the close microphones, but also giving an overall kit tone. The 201fets, more than any other mics that I've tried, just seem to capture the entire kit very well."

Conversely, for vocals and guitars, the microphones Pooch uses are undoubtedly very standard choices for a rock act, but he has good reason for selecting them. "Maiden are a legacy rock act," he explains, "so their guitar sound is literally a guitar with a cable plugged into a Marshall 4x12 on 'stun'. The traditional miking of that is a Shure SM57, and it turns out that it sounds the best! So it's SM7B on bass guitar, SM57s on all of the guitars and Beta 58s on the vocals."

In addition to the SM57 feeds, Pooch also uses speaker DIs for each instrument, mixing the two signals together by varying amounts according to the tone requirements of the musician.

"I use Palmer PDI09 direct boxes on the guitars," says Pooch. "I've used them for years. "They just sound really great alongside the microphones and that combination is pretty unstoppable.

"The stage-right guitarist, Dave Murray, has a tone to his cabinet that I can't quite capture in the DI. I don't know if his cabinet has some sort of resonance, but the DI doesn't sound as cool as the SM57 in front, so for him I lean hard on the SM57. But for Adrian Smith, I found that the other way was true, so leaning hard on the Palmer DI sounded a little better, using the microphone to add weight. I think it's because Adrian has more effects going on than Dave, so maybe the clarity of the DI makes that better. Janick is similar to Adrian, but his mix is almost 50/50 microphone and DI.

"Steve Harris has a bass tone that every fan knows, so it has to be right. That classic tone is what is coming from his cabinet. I listened to the DI in rehearsals and it was cool, but not as cool as the growl of his 4x12 cabinet, so I use mostly the SM7B.

Layer Cake

Pooch's live console of choice is DiGiCo's flagship SD7 Quantum, equipped with his favourite Waves plug-ins. Understandably there aren't dedicated hardware faders for every input, output or bus, so the user is expected to organise their I/O into banks and virtual layers, all of which are instantly accessible via recall. Pooch explains how he sets out his channels on the console.

"My SD7 is the latest Quantum model and it is pretty endless in terms of DSP, layers and options. In regard to layers, I try to keep it as simple as possible. I tend to operate with everything in its first layer for most of the show. That means that the first layer is not just drums or bass or guitar, it's a mish–mash of all kinds of inputs that I need to touch on a regular basis. So in my first layer you would see inputs, groups and even some matrix stuff, all combined in a bank. They are all things that I need to get at fast.

"I tend to ride the output of my console to create dynamics and I get to the speakers by going from the master bus to a matrix, and from that matrix there's left, right, sub, front fill, delays and vocal front fill. I have a front fill in the centre that is just vocal because you tend to lose the definition of the vocal in the front in the centre. This helps to bring some of the intelligibility to the front rows. I ride the output of the L-R matrix to create dynamics. With Linkin Park, for instance, the whole deal was making the chorus huge. So I'd make their verses small, and when it got to the downbeat of a chorus, I'd be nailing them with this huge dynamic volume at the chorus. I would do that by literally sucking the whole PA down by three, or sometimes 6dB during the verse, to the point where the crowd is almost leaning into it, and then on the downbeat of the chorus, I'd hit them at zero, and you'd see the crowd lean back from the impact.

For arena shows where the front-of-house system includes side– and front–fills, Pooch sends to those on his mixer's matrix outputs so that he can ride the output levels between verses and choruses.For arena shows where the front-of-house system includes side– and front–fills, Pooch sends to those on his mixer's matrix outputs so that he can ride the output levels between verses and choruses.

"Part of the reason that I love doing live sound is that we still get to do dynamics. Recording engineers don't often get to do that anymore because of this loudness war where everything is squashed to hell. So Justin Bieber, for example, the output of his stuff sounds very mastered and very compressed. There's almost no dynamics to it, which is fine because I can replicate that in the live sound, by using the output of the matrix, and riding that between verses and choruses. You can manufacture your own dynamics that add to what's happening and create emotion."

Discussing further his setup of layers on the console, Pooch says: "Underneath the top layer is a layer that I'd say most engineers have, which is a bank of drums, a bank of bass and guitars, a bank of keyboards and those kind of things. The only thing that I do that other engineers might not is make sure that I always have control over certain important sources, such as a lead or background vocal. Those vocal channels are copied to the same fader on every bank, so no matter which layer I'm on, I can reach to the same place for that vocal.

"Generally, during a show I am staying within the top layer, but there are times where something has gone awry. If one of the guitar inputs started crackling, for example, I would need to be paging through to where the guitars are, but I'd still have vocal cues to do while I was trying to figure out what was broken. They're not only delay cues, it's also riding the vocal, and I ride the vocal a lot! So I want to be able to reach that while I'm trying to fix the guitar or whatever."

Mixing Methods

No matter what the genre of music, when it comes to priorities, Ken's approach is always to attend to the vocal first and the instrumentation second, which is why he always places the vocals in the same location on every layer of the desk. Pooch explains why vocal is king.

"Early on in my career I spent a bunch of time quizzing non-musician friends of mine on what they liked when they came to my shows. Ninety-nine percent of the answers were things like 'I liked it when I could hear the vocal,' or 'I liked it when I could understand what the guy was saying between songs,' and none of the comments were, 'That guitar was so amazing,' or 'That was the best–sounding kick drum.' People don't come to hear the snare drum, as much as drummers want to believe that! Don't get me wrong, those things are important, and it is best when you get them right along with the vocal, but for the first few hours of trying to get a band's mix right, my focus is completely on vocals. I make sure everything else is in the mix then I forget about it so that all I am focused on is making the vocal the best that I can."

"Kids at a  Bieber concert also want to feel the drums, the bass guitar and so on, but they are truly there to see him, and so my focus is putting that vocal forward along with the impact.""Kids at a Bieber concert also want to feel the drums, the bass guitar and so on, but they are truly there to see him, and so my focus is putting that vocal forward along with the impact."Photo: Lou Stejkal (Creative Commons licence 20)Although the focus of Pooch's mix is always the voice, there are some minor but crucial differences between the way he approaches Justin Bieber and Iron Maiden mixes.

"If it is a pop act and the artist's name is on the marquee, I tend to have the voice more forward than I would in a band situation. You still want impact because kids at a Bieber concert also want to feel the drums, the bass guitar and so on, but they are truly there to see him, and so my focus is putting that vocal forward along with the impact. With bands like Iron Maiden, there are people that come to the show who are fans of each band member. I have to make sure that every guy is heard, and has the right emphasis when they have a solo. It's a different mindset, but within those parameters the vocal is still the most important thing."

Understandably, Pooch relies on the SD7's snapshot recall to make significant mix changes for each song and to bring out key vocal and instrumental parts. Nevertheless, he stops short of inserting multiple snapshots within the songs themselves.

"I'm still a bit old school with snapshot technology," he insists. "I know some engineers who use 20 snapshots per song. I tend to not be that guy. I am the one who creates a snapshot only when it's needed, the rest of the time I'm mixing manually. At the start of each song, my snapshot sometimes has 300 parameter changes to get that song right, but for solos and that kind of stuff I'm pretty much riding it manually.

"Recall does allow me to be way more creative than I ever could in the past though. In all the years that I used to mix analogue there was no way that I could make that many changes in between songs. So it really allows me to end up with a record–quality mix with impact. We are at a place as live sound engineers where we can study the record of the artist and try to reproduce that in the live arena."

Back then we were literally high-fiving if you could hear the vocal, going 'Man, that was the best show ever!' But nowadays speaker technology is so good, it's like mixing on nearfield monitors.

Pre-production

For Pooch, creating record–quality mixes usually requires a certain amount of pre-production, during which time he often tries to emulate key effects that were used on each track's studio recording. Of course, it all has to fit in around the artist's rehearsal schedule. "I am well aware and thankful that I have the luxury of working with artists that give me time for rehearsals. I work with bands that sometimes do three or four weeks of rehearsals prior to a leg of the tour, which means that I am sitting in a smaller room with nearfield monitors and really focussing in on their stuff.

"Prior to the band arriving, I try to work with the backline technicians and have them play the parts as well as they can so I can get started. Then virtual playback technology makes it possible for me to keep working when the artist leaves. So an artist will play through the set and might be there for two hours, but having multitrack recorded all of that, I'll spend another eight hours after they are gone, really focusing in on specific things."

Working FOH on Jay‑Z concerts provided Pooch with a different set of challenges to those he has when mixing rock. Not only was there a greater level of sub information, but there was also the matter of balancing playback channels with live musicians. "Iron Maiden is 56 inputs, but for Jay‑Z you are talking about 120–plus inputs and eight musicians," he explains. "A lot of the time in those situations a musician is playing the same sound as what is in the playback, and I try to eliminate that from happening because you get all kinds of problems like masking and flamming. So if the playback has a drum sound and the drummer is triggering that same sound from a pad, I say to the drummer and the musical director, 'Let's either take it out of the playback, or you don't play it, but let's not have both.' So I spend more time in rehearsals discussing with the MD about the sources on a project like Jay‑Z than I do with Iron Maiden."

Speaking Out

Even when a mix is right, there's still the problem of getting it to sound the same in different venues, which is where the latest speaker control software comes into play. "My philosophy comes from my background as a recording engineer," says Pooch, "so my aim is to make the mix that is coming out of my console record quality and then adjust the speaker system to tackle what the venue is doing. Day to day, my console output is pretty similar, but if, for example, I listen to the room and there's too much sub information happening, I don't adjust my mix, I go to the speaker processor and do it there.

"Up until about eight years ago, we pretty much just put speakers up, pointed them at people and hoped it would work. We used to call it 'spray and pray', but nowadays it's so technical and I really lean hard on my system engineer, Mike Hackman, and his skill at deploying the speakers and tuning them properly. So the result you hear at an Iron Maiden show is the culmination of his good work and mine. So, I say, 'Here's my left and right, I think the mix is pretty good, make it sound the same everywhere,' and he does!

"Today's speaker systems use prediction software with models of the rooms that we're going to be working in, so we know what it will be like even before we hang stuff. If there's going to be a problem with the sub, for instance, Mike will adjust for that before hanging the speakers.

"Engineers are sharing information with each other too, so the prediction software is getting feedback from system engineers on different tours. That means that the predictions improve as engineers use venues over and over.

"All any engineer wants is for every seat in the house to be the same. I want the person who is paying the least amount of money up in the nosebleed to get the same show as the one paying the most for the front–row seat, and nowadays we are getting close to that."

Parallel Compression: Enhancing The Live Mix

One of Pooch's key techniques for enhancing a live mix involves the use of parallel compression, which he usually applies to the drum bus. "I've used it on specific vocals that needed impact but I mainly use it on drums," says Pooch. "Parallel compression does this: the squashed bus adds to the impact of the instrument, or the impact of the vocal. When you hit a snare drum, for example, the slow attack of the squashed bus allows the first part of the snare drum to pass through, but then it squashes the rest of it. If you listen to just my compressed bus it doesn't sound all that great. It's really pumping. All you are getting is the attack of each drum, but you aren't feeling any of the body, but when you combine that with a regular bus that doesn't have any of that, it gives it more impact overall and sounds better. The relationship of that pretty much stays the same, especially for drums, but I might vary it for a vocal.

"I worked for Alanis Morrisette, and she does some really super–wide–ranging mic technique. She would be singing really close for one sentence, then pull the mic away from her almost to the waist, and parallel compression helped to negate what she was doing. When the microphone was all the way away from her mouth, the parallel compression wasn't doing a whole lot except basically some expansion, but when it got close to her it improved the diction of her voice.

"Certainly now that the technology is super fast, I'll come up with an idea and try it quickly, and if it doesn't work then I am done with it, but I keep trying things to make it better. And that was one instance where I thought I'd see if parallel compression made it better, and it worked."

Ambient Works

These days, almost all of the processing Pooch needs to do is handled by plug-ins loaded into the SD7, but he still has a few hardware processors in his rack, including three Bricasti reverbs, which he feels cannot quite be matched by software yet.

"Every year a new, faster Intel chip is released so it's almost at the point where hardware reverbs are going to get replaced with plug-ins. Waves, Universal Audio and a bunch of other manufacturers are getting close. There's the H Reverb and the Abbey Road Plates, and Universal Audio is making models of the TC6000 and the Lexicon 480 that are pretty good. But the Bricasti that I use has six or eight dedicated i7 processors and its only purpose is to make reverb.

"The problem with reverb is it requires a lot of processing power to make a smooth tail, so designers use different technologies including tail looping to conserve DSP, but you can still hear it break up. I guess I am an audio purist! Does the guy with the 40oz beer really give a shit if the tail of the reverb sounds good or not? I don't know, but I think it makes a difference. There are other great reverbs out there, I just happen to like Bricasti."

Renaissance Man

Ken 'Pooch' Van Druten's genre-defying career is perhaps a result of his broad musical training, which began with classical piano lessons when he was just three years old. Mastering the instrument became an obsession that lasted until Pooch reached his early teens, at which point a desire for more female attention made him take up guitar, bass and drums. Nevertheless, his school teachers noted his aptitude for learning new instruments and asked him to help plug the gaps in the orchestra.

"I would be the guy that filled in for whatever instrument was missing," laughs Pooch. "It was actually really cool because I got to play all kinds of instruments including a lot of woodwinds. I eventually latched onto the flute and studied with the first chair of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. That was pretty intense. But along with that I was also playing in punk bands."

Although Pooch was excelling in music, it was at the expense of other subjects, prompting his parents to send him to a Fame–style performing arts boarding school called the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts. From there he landed a place at Berklee and trained as a recording engineer, gaining employment at Newbury Sound Studios in Boston while he studied.

"I basically begged the owner for a job, and at first I was collecting garbage cans and that kind of thing, but by the end of my four years at Berklee I was the studio's head engineer, so I worked my way up quickly and was given a lot of opportunities. Then I moved to Los Angeles and became assistant engineer at various studios in town, like Ocean Way and Ocean studios in Burbank and Record One Studios. There were some world-renowned engineers and producers that I worked with at that time. People like Bruce Swedien and Neal Avron. I got to be a fly on the wall and even to this day there are a lot of things that I do as a live sound engineer that I learned during that period.

"It was an incredible opportunity for me and now that I am 50, I feel that I need to pass that information on to the younger generation of sound engineers. Everything that I do as an engineer today I learned by watching other producers and engineers. I didn't make any of it up myself, I'm not smart enough! I didn't invent a way to mic a kick drum, for example, I watched a guy do it and that's what I do now. So I think that it's my job to pass that on to whoever wants to listen."

Published April 2020