Front-of-house engineer David Williams talks to SOS about why mixing with a DSP audio interface is worthwhile, despite the dangers of using a laptop on stage.
"It's a really exciting time for live sound, and I think that is one of the reasons why I have continued doing it rather than recording,” says David Williams, live sound engineer for progressive punk act La Dispute and other bands such as Title Fight, Deer Tick and O'Brother. "It's now feasible to use good microphones, plug-ins that emulate 1176 compressors and Neve gear, and do all kinds of crazy things to sound that, until recently, you could only do in a studio.”
David's original dream was to become a studio engineer and producer and, after working as an intern at 301 Studio in Brisbane, Australia, he began investing his hard-earned cash in some professional recording equipment. At the same time, he was taking on a little live-sound work at small venues, but became frustrated with the limitations imposed by the gear he was using. It wasn't long before he decided to bite the bullet and start taking some of his studio gear into the live environment, and he hasn't looked back since.
The most significant piece of studio gear that David uses live is the Universal Audio Apollo Firewire audio interface, which is a 1U hardware host for UAD plug-ins, remotely controlled by a software mixer called Console.
David's Apollo is the eight-in, eight-out quad-core model fitted with four DSP chips, and he runs it at 96kHz for shows.
"The Apollo was something that I bought for the studio but decided to take on the road,” says David. "It started with a band called O'Brother, from Atlanta, Georgia. The guy who mixed their last record used a ton of different delays and reverbs, and as I was preparing for that tour, I was wondering how to do all the changes. A delay cue is a simple tap-tempo change, but I wasn't sure I'd have time to set up all the reverbs for different instruments and song sections. It's not such a problem using digital boards because I can usually pre-program a file and load it onto the board as a preset, but the O'Brother tour was pretty small, so for the majority of it we'd be in venues with analogue consoles and hardware effect units like the Yamaha SPX 900, 990 or TC Electronic M-One.
"I had my Apollo sitting on my desk and thought that it might solve the problem, because I could pre-program it with three different drum and vocal reverbs and a delay, and fire them up at venues instead of having to dial them in every day on different units.”
Before taking the Apollo out live, David did a lot of research to determine whether or not it would be reliable enough. Ultimately, it boiled down to three determining factors: "Firstly, you get a consistent high-quality sound every night,” he explains. "Then a really big thing for me is its low latency. You are only dealing with 2ms internal delay, which is similar to what most digital consoles give you from A-D converting to processing, to spitting it back out into the analogue world. The third thing that really sold it to me is that, although it connects to my computer via a Firewire cable, the only thing its Console application does is check for the plug-in licences when you boot up, and load the plug-in routing and channel settings for the session. After that, if you don't need to control or change anything, you can literally rip the Firewire cable out mid-show and audio is still going to pass.
"You can do a similar thing with Waves MultiRack Native, but once it hits the A-D converters it goes into a MacBook at FOH for processing. That's not a situation I like, because if your computer goes down, a big part of your show is gone. So with the Apollo I have a dedicated unit that is doing the audio processing, and that's no different to having a digital reverb with an on-board DSP chip.”
At first, David had his Apollo routed into the FOH desk's effects return path, so that if the Apollo hardware ceased to work, the audio signals from stage would still pass through the FOH desk. Nevertheless, eventually he was tempted to try it on the desk's inserts, as this allowed him to use the high-quality UAD plug-in processors instead of the venue's equipment.
"I was trained on SSL G- and K-series consoles and old Neve boards with 1084 EQs, and all of that had a big impact on the way I think about mixing,” explains David. "A compressor isn't just something to control dynamics, for example. They've all got their own tone, and an LA3A is different to a Pultec. That's always in the back of my mind, no matter what I'm mixing.
"301 Studio had a Neve board, and so a standard chain for recording electric guitar was: guitar amp into a Neve 1084 EQ and then into a Urei LA3A compressor, and that gives you a great guitar sound. So I know the sort of tones I'm going to get with the gear I strap over it. So when I had a day job I put a lot of the money I earned into buying UAD plug-ins and Waves plug-ins that modelled the vintage gear that I'd learned to use. And using the Apollo enables me to use Neve, 1176 and Pultec plug-ins over channel strips. I just run the board EQ flat on those channels and do the EQ'ing with a Neve-type EQ or something similar.
"The only time I don't use the Apollo at the moment is when a venue has an Avid Profile or SC48 board, because I can load my Waves TDM plug-ins into those from a USB stick. The Apollo's plug-ins only run on UA's proprietary DSP chips but I am able to use the same LA3A, Pultec and Neve processors directly on the Avid boards as Waves TDM plug-ins.
"My authorisations and the installer for my plug-ins are kept on the stick, but I also transfer the previous show file from my stick onto the board at the start of a show, and the new show back again at the end. It's great because when we do festivals where we don't have a soundcheck I have a file ready to go.”
When touring with bands like La Dispute, David travels light and always relies on the FOH mixing desk provided by the venue, but this means that he has to be able to make his Apollo compatible with many different I/O configurations. "If we are dealing with an analogue board, like a Midas XL4000 or Soundcraft Series 5, I'll just do the inserts as normal,” he explains. "The Apollo's I/O section is just eight-in, eight-out on TRS jacks, so I use a standard insert loom. Once you start getting into digital boards, it depends. A lot have XLR connections so I use adaptors to turn the TRS jacks into XLRs. Many of the boards don't have a standard insert jack so you have to decide whether or not to cut channels. The last couple of times I've used Midas Pro 2s I've cut it down to four inserts through the Apollo.
"But because there's no digital cabling it works for any analogue board, as well as any digital board that has enough XLR or TRS ins and outs to route through the Apollo and back into the board. So you can pretty much take it anywhere. If you look at a similar product like the Waves SoundGrid service, it relies on a LAN [local area network] connection, which won't work if you get to a venue that has an analogue board.”
Apart from the Apollo, the only other processor David usually takes with him is an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor, which he has been using for La Dispute's lead vocals for several years. The Distressor's front-panel metering provides David with the instant visual feedback and hands-on control he needs for the critical vocal channel, and prevents him from having to negotiate his way through layers of software.
His other gear includes power conditioners for the US, Europe and Australia, as well as spare leads, a backup drive and his MacBook Pro, but keeping the amount of gear to a minimum is one of David's main priorities. "The Apollo is so light I can take it anywhere,” he insists, "but before I had it with me I was taking a 6U rack filled with gear that weighed a ton and needed two people to lift above shoulder height. The last time I went to Europe I stuffed the Distressor in my hand luggage and that brought the weight down. I do take spare Firewire cables, power IEC cords — simple things like that — but the bands I am out with try to be pretty mobile, so I am not taking a spare Apollo or Distressor. If we need to rent another Apollo I can just load the file and authorisations from my computer. At the start of every soundcheck I load the previous night's file, and at the end of the night I'll store the latest file on my computer. And I keep a copy of the latest OS, installer and authorisation files on my backup hard drive too. If you are diligent with backups it doesn't become a problem.
"So at FOH I have my rack with Distressor and the Apollo, and I usually sit my Mac on top of the rack, or somewhere on the console, depending on how far away the rack is.”
Live engineers tend to use dynamic mics for rock band stage work, largely because they are relatively cheap, robust and don't need shockmounts, phantom power or dedicated power supplies. Nevertheless, in recent years more affordable capacitor and back-electret mics have become available, many of which are very reliable and capable of handling high SPLs without suffering damage. On stage David uses a number of capacitor mics, including two Neumann TLM102s and a pair of Rode NT5s. He admits this is unconventional, but his argument is a good one: "I want to be able to capture a performance as best I can, whether it is in the studio or on the road, and it's fulfilling to be able to bring out what's happening in front of me. We're not talking about Neumann U47s; the mics I have are TLM102s, which are pretty cheap. My two set me back $1100. I bought them for recording, but seeing as I'm doing more live sound now, they are either going to sit at home and not do a lot, or I can bring them out on the road.
"I've got them on guitars at the moment, so the setup is one guitar amp on each side of the stage, and each of those guitar amps has a TLM102 and an SM57 on it. If we were in the studio I could go in and time-align the mics on each cab to be in phase, but you can't really do that live because mics move around, so I just hard-pan each one. So I've got stage right guitar TLM panned hard left and SM57 hard right, and the reverse of those on the other cab. They are not interfering with each other, and you get the full sound of having a double-miked cab. It also works well because you are blending two tones in each channel.”
Despite his capacitor mics being more sensitive than dynamics, David insists that he has not problems with feedback, and uses a simple trick to keep it that way. "I only put the SM57s in the monitors,” he explains. "If we were putting the TLM102s in the wedges there'd be more potential for issues, but just coming out of FOH it's fine. It's the same when I've got the overheads up, because they are condensers as well, but nothing that needs to be fed back on stage for the most part.”
One of the things David has started doing recently when working on Avid SC48 and Profile boards, is taking channel feeds into his Mac laptop and recording them as a Pro Tools session. However, rather than trying to capture live recordings for future release, his reason for gathering the material is so he can experiment with processors and effects in the comfort of his studio. "It is really easy to take a multitrack recording into Pro Tools using the Profile and SC48 boards,” David insists. "It's as simple as taking a Firewire cable from the board into your Mac with Pro Tools open, and using the channel direct outs. Before a tour I'll open the live show multitrack in Pro Tools and spend time tweaking the mixes on my computer. I can mix a few things and copy those settings, then either load them onto the Apollo or into a show file on another board. And if I am using the UA plug-ins on those tracks, I can use the same plug-ins and settings on the Apollo Console. I know what kind of vocal frequencies usually need taming on a de-esser, for example, and I'll put them in the Apollo as a good starting point. And I'll try different compressors and EQs to find ones that best match the tone of the input source. It gives me the opportunity to experiment and use those settings as a head-start before we go out on the road, and it's helpful being able to do that in peace and quiet rather than in a venue where you can't hear a lot of things.”
One thing David can never predict is how a room is going to respond to bass frequencies, but he has developed a way of quickly adapting the low end to suit the room, using a Pultech EQP-1A two-band EQ plug-in at the end of the kick drum and bass DI chains, and applying its boost and cut simultaneously and at the same frequency. Although the EQ's documentations states that the two will cancel each other out, their curves don't quite match and the result is a pleasing combination of boost and scoop in just the right place.
"Cutting and boosting 60Hz the same amount on kick brings out the meatier thud of the kick around that region,” explains David, "and cutting and boosting at 100Hz does the same thing for the bass, or vice versa if I have the kick set at 100Hz and bass at 60Hz. It just shifts the low-end tone a little and you can use this to your advantage to see what is working best in the room on a given night. I was pretty amazed at how it sounded. It's a bit like the Urei 1176 all-buttons-in trick.”
Even for relatively small acts like La Dispute, David uses 20 or more desk channels, so the eight inserts provided by his Apollo do not allow him to process everything. However, despite the obvious attraction of using high-quality studio plug-ins on more channels, expanding the setup by chaining a second Apollo is an option he is not currently considering.
"The analogue ins and outs are pretty fixed in that there are four XLR and eight TRS connectors, and you can switch between the mic and line input on the first four,” says David. "It has another eight lines of ADAT I/O, but you'd need extra A-D/D-A converters to use them, so the only other thing you can do is chain it to a second Apollo, which means another rack space and another thing in the chain that could go wrong.
"I've thought about it, but this setup needs to be really light to fly everywhere, and adding another unit defeats that purpose. Also, if we had a much higher track count I'd have to make a ton of changes on the fly with a mouse, which in a live situation is not ideal. Eight channels is manageable though. The thing I use the Console for most is switching effects settings, but the same plug-ins and channels are used every night, so it's just minor tweaks.
"But if I expand to 16 inserts then I'll need something a little more hands-on — instead of carrying an eight-channel snake, I'd be carrying a 16-channel snake, and when you are dealing with a 20-foot loom it becomes quite weighty and not so portable, so you either cut your losses and keep to eight or look at upgrading and bringing some production [crew] with you.
"The Apollo is useful in the niche situation that I am working in, where I'm dealing with bands that are after a very particular live sound, but at a level where you can hear the difference between a Neve EQ and an on-board one. But we are not at a level where it is feasible to carry production with us. At the moment we are able to use really high-quality plug-ins and it only takes a single rack space, so for the situation that I'm in it is perfect really.”
David was a drummer in a series of rock and indie bands in and around his home town of Brisbane before attending the SAE Institute, first in the same town, and then its headquarters in Byron Bay. While he was at SAE, David met Paul Pilsneniks, who was the head engineer of Byron Bay's 301 Studios, and that association led to David working for Paul as an intern and learning "a whole bag of recording tricks.” At that stage David found studio production far more fulfilling that the live-sound mixing he had begun doing at small venues, chiefly because he felt that there was more scope to be creative in the studio.
"In a small venue,” explains David, "you get a lot of stage volume and you're really just playing damage control, whereas even when I was recording in really simple rehearsal spaces I was able to use gear to shape the tones of things I'd recorded. I only started doing live sound to improve my skills, but I got into it as the venues got bigger and I had better gear to play with. So now when I am mixing over a huge PA in big rooms it allows me to fulfil the creative side of what I'm doing.
"In 2009 a band called La Dispute, from Michigan, USA, came to Australia for the first time. I ended up doing FOH and tour-managing for them, and here we are three years later! La Dispute are a fantastic band with a no-bullshit attitude. It's simply drums, bass, two guitars and vocal, but their music is a little left-of-field for a punk band. They love keeping the dynamics in their music and they're not really a typical verse/chorus type band. A lot of their songs are four to seven minutes and they take you through a movement in each song. Their singer is an incredible storyteller, so throughout a songs there's this ebb and flow and a lot of drama, which is great to mix each night because it keeps you on your toes.”
David Williams's Apollo enables him to use plug-ins on eight desk inserts, and although he claims this is a generous number in a live setting, it covers fewer than half the channels he uses for a typical La Dispute gig. As a politician would say, he has to make some tough choices, and does so by dividing the eight among the mic channels he considers most important: "Kick, snare, toms, cymbals, bass guitar, two electric guitars and vocal are the important ones,” insists David, "but I've still got to tweak the second kick mic, a couple of different snare mics, toms, a bass mic, and the other guitar mics every night at the venue.
"I've got two kick mics but the one that I use predominantly is my Shure Beta 52, so I use the first channel for my Beta 52 outside kick mic. Then I have the top snare mic because I use it more than the bottom, and I use the bass DI line a lot more than the mic. Then I have the Neumann TLMs from the guitar amps because my big FOH image is coming from those rather than the SM57s.
"One decision I had to make was between the rack and floor toms, and the overhead mics. Our drummer is quite dynamic, so he'll go from playing soft snare parts that have lots of ghost notes, a soft roll, or the cymbals quietly, to a new part where he's hitting the snare drum, ride or crashes pretty hard, so I decided to grab the overheads and compress them so that we are not getting a bunch of cymbals sticking out when he's hitting harder. That also allows me to pick up more of the dynamic snare rolls without needing to worry so much about what's being gated and left out from my main snare channel.
"The UA Console also has two auxiliary channels, which I'm using for vocal and drum effects. I run a couple of reverbs through those, and they get sent out of the monitor line outs. Those outputs are designed to be your main left and right outs, but I've found a way to piggyback those channels and only run the effects out of them. They just return to a stereo channel on the desk.”
It turns out that David also owns the 16-channel version of the Apollo, but has not yet taken it out live because it lacks preamps and only provides access to its channels via a D-Sub connector. "I have considered using the Apollo 16 live but haven't bitten the bullet yet,” he admits. "It would be a great way to do what I am doing with a larger channel count, but there are a couple of catches. The first is that you're controlling more channels in the point-and-click domain, and the second is that if a D-Sub connector goes down it is much harder to repair on the road and there are more possibilities for faults.”