Pete Keppler’s career has seen him mix shows for some of the biggest artists in the world. We asked him how it all happened...
While Pete Keppler has spent a fair share of his career behind the boards of various US studios, it’s as a front-of-house engineer that he’s really carved out his name. For the past five years, Pete has been trekking the globe with pop megastar Katy Perry, while his hugely impressive CV also boasts sizeable FOH stints with artists as varied as David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Eels and Steve Earle. Furthermore, Keppler has engineered tours with ZZ Top, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann, David Byrne & St Vincent, Rufus Wainwright and Patti Smith, many of whom he still goes out on the road with whenever he gets the chance.
Pete developed a fascination for all things audio at a very early age and, by the end of his teens, had already helped build his first commercial studio in his hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts.
“If you want to go all the way back to the beginning, I think I started tearing the family stereo apart when I was about nine!” laughs Keppler. “Then, in my mid-teens, I got a job at a hi-fi shop along with a very talented musician friend of mine named Jim Weeks. He and I had made some very crude recordings together using two cassette decks and a microphone and a speaker. They were layered recordings — not exactly multitrack — but we proceeded to play a few of those recordings for the owner of the hi-fi shop and he announced that he would love to put a recording studio in the basement of the shop. It seemed like a very novel idea, not like something that was actually going to happen... But, about a year later, he made good on his word and he came home to Massachusetts from New York one day with a half-inch eight-track reel-to reel recorder. We then begged and borrowed whatever we could and enlisted the help of a few good friends to put together a working studio.”
It was while working at MultiTrax (as Pete and Jim christened their new sponsored venture) that Keppler got his first taste of mixing live sound. The experience was something of a baptism of fire, and it marked the beginning of his FOH learning curve.
“About a year into the studio, one of the local bands that I’d recorded asked me if I’d ever mixed live sound,” explains Pete. “And I answered by lying and saying yes! I then proceeded to blast them with feedback for about the next week but they graciously kept me on. The first thing I really began to learn during that time was what frequencies were, and what graphic and parametric EQ was. This was the very early 1980s and live sound in the area around where I lived was very primitive. We were lucky if there was a third-octave EQ on the sound system, and stereo in live sound really did not exist at that point. It was all pretty crude. As well as frequencies, I suppose one of the other main things I first learned was mic selection and placement.”
In 1983, Pete started working at Sun Sound Audio — a local Northampton sound hire company — where he rose up through the ranks. “I worked in their shop for probably four or five months, checking in systems, checking out systems, and getting very good training in doing the really basic things,” says Keppler. “I learned about coiling cables and keeping things organised, as well as learning about power, which was a really beneficial thing. I started mixing in a local club and got much more familiar with equipment and much more adept at troubleshooting. Things were beginning to become much more second nature. Eventually, I started mixing monitors for Sun Sound.
My first road work was doing monitors for people like John Prine and Arlo Guthrie and other folk and rock artists. In about ’84 or ’85 I did my first real road trip, which was out to the West Coast where we did a few shows and drove back East. Everything progressed at a steady rate from there and, after about a year or so of doing a lot of monitor gigs, I started getting some front-of-house work. I must say that I am very, very thankful for the time I spent doing stuff on stage and doing monitors, because I think it’s really important that any engineer learns the signal path and where things emanate, from regardless of whether they’re going to be a monitor engineer, front-of-house guy or a broadcast engineer. It’s very important to see the stage and see how things are connected and miked and so forth. I had some great mentors at Sun Sound, to whom I am eternally grateful.”
The first major artists that Keppler did any significant live work with were Suzanne Vega and post-punk outfit Timbuk3. In 1988, Pete got a big break scoring a gig as FOH engineer for esteemed roots singer-songwriter Steve Earle, whom he continued touring with until 1990. For the majority of the ‘90s, however, Keppler predominantly concentrated on his studio engineering work, clocking up sessions at a plethora of facilities including Longview Farm in Massachusetts and The Hit Factory, Looking Glass Studios and Shelter Island Sound in New York City. During this period, Pete did manage to get out on the road for the odd bout of shows. He toured with Aimee Mann in 1996 before being offered a string of dates with Eels in 1997. That string of dates ended up morphing into a seven-year live-sound working relationship, in which mutual appreciation was definitely the order of the day.
“E [Mark Oliver Everett, the singer-songwriter behind Eels] is one of my all-time favourite songwriters,” enthuses Keppler. “He and I got along very well. I was glad to work with an artist who seemed to like what I do and I certainly liked what he and the band were doing in terms of songwriting and playing. It was also a three-piece band at that time, and three-piece bands are still my favourite format for a band to this day. It’s just so impressive when three guys can fill up a stage with sound. I grew up on all my brother’s records and I loved Cream and Jimi Hendrix. That’s really the music that formed my ideas about music and sound in so many ways.” Earlier this year, Pete mixed Eels’ live album/DVD, Live At The Royal Albert Hall.
In 1999, Pete Keppler was mixing Eels at a gig in Dublin when one of his old studio pals happened to drop by for the show. Mark Plati, for whom Pete had engineered a number of studio sessions in the past, was by that time David Bowie’s go-to producer and musical director, and the chance meeting in Ireland led to a very welcome phone call a few months down the line. Bowie and Plati were looking to cut some rocked-up versions of some of David’s lesser-known mid-‘60s songs, and they wanted to track them as live as possible in the studio. Keppler got the nod to engineer the sessions at Sear Sound in New York and, although the resultant long player Toy was never officially released, for various reasons, Pete’s work on the record obviously impressed and the next year his phone rang again.
“In the spring of 2002, they were launching the first TriBeCa Film Festival in New York,” Pete explains. “The film and music festival spanned a couple of days and David Bowie was asked to play, but his engineer was unable to make that show. Once again, Mark Plati called me and said, ‘Look, David’s going to play six songs at the TriBeCa Film Festival. It’s going to be a quick set — do you think you’ll be up to the task of mixing front of house?’ I don’t think he even finished the sentence! I figured, ‘Great. I get a one off with David. That’ll be fun to do — I’d love to see him play live!’ That show was my first time really mixing on a digital console. I should definitely throw that in there! My first real show on a digital console was my first show with David Bowie. The console was a Yamaha PM1D. It was a large-format desk and it did not operate in a way that I was familiar with, but I went down the day before to soundcheck and get set up, and I began to ask the system tech to show me how it worked and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you just let me mix the show?’ I stopped him right there and said, ‘Just tell me how it works,’ which he was kind enough to do. The desk was surprisingly intuitive once I understood a few things.
“David had some friends in the audience and he asked them afterwards, ‘How did the show sound to you?’ and apparently they gave him good reports. So through that gig, I became David Bowie’s FOH engineer, which was just huge for me. I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without that gig and without Mark Plati. The level at which I was touring stepped up a big jump because I was now doing arenas and stadiums, whereas before that I was doing mostly theatres. It also meant I was now using line-array PA on a consistent basis. That was also quite an eye-opener, learning how line-array PA really works. I also began to learn a bit more about acoustics and the ‘interesting’ sonic properties of certain venues.”
Keppler would continue as FOH engineer for David Bowie until he stopped playing live in 2004 and, during their tours together, Pete loyally stuck by the Yamaha PM1D mixing console that he’d used at that very first TriBeCa show.
“I decided that the PM1D was going to be my console because I’d had such good luck on it,” says Pete. “Why would I give up what’s working? I also decided that it was time to get on board and start heading towards the digital age of live mixing anyway. The PM1D was a surprisingly bullet-proof console. My approach to working with David was similar to what I’d done with bands like Eels, but there were now so many more possibilities on a digital desk. The whole idea of having snapshots per song was very useful. I could basically hit the ‘next’ button and all my preset effects — every change — would be there for the next song. I might have wanted reverbs to sound slightly different in different songs, delay times might change, and I’d have different delays available for special echo effects and things like that. I really started digging into it all.
“I also began multitracking live shows, which at first was not the easiest thing to do. Large-format, road-ready Pro Tools rigs for live recording weren’t readily available back then, so we did all of the recording to Tascam DA98s. We strung six of them together and recorded every show. That was an experience, having to change six tapes during each performance because they didn’t quite hold a show’s worth of material! I guess I’d say the main changes that happened between Eels and David Bowie were that I went over to using a digital console, and that I really started to apply a lot more of my studio knowledge to the live show. I realised it was now very easy to create the routings and special effects that I had been using in the studio. I now had loads of channels at my disposal and lots of effects, and the ability to recall those effects in a split second. That was really fun. Being able to dig in and sort of meld the studio and live environments together was really a great experience and it still is.”
So what were some of the specific studio techniques that Pete adopted for David Bowie’s live shows? “One of the things I did a fair amount of was to mult channels, as I called it in the studio,” explains Keppler. “In other words, it’s taking one source and bringing it into two or maybe even more channels. You’ll have one instrument, maybe a snare drum or a bass drum, and you patch it into its normal channel and then patch it into an additional channel. You can do various things using that additional channel, like parallel compression, and I learned how to do that and make it work in a live situation. You can’t always apply all the same techniques that you would in the studio. You’re working with live microphones and lots of loudspeakers and stuff but I realised that, to a point, I could use a lot of these same techniques and get some very good results. Instead of using a couple of generic reverbs — a short one and a long one — across different songs, I found I could really tailor the sound and the type of reverb on every song, especially on David’s voice and on the drums.
“I also learned a lot about laying out the desk. On a digital console you can put virtually any fader anywhere you want, so I could decide how I grouped my channels together and what things I would put on different layers. That was all a new experience for me and I learned a lot about planning the most ergonomic workflow. I also learned that digital, in particular EQ and compression, really did not sound the same as the analogue devices that I was familiar with. I had to figure out how to work my way around that. I realised that over-using digital compression could be really detrimental. It became very apparent that you could easily squash the life out of the mix by using too much of it, so I had to learn how to back off and do things a bit differently. I began using a lot more parallel compression and keeping a fair amount of the uncompressed signal in the mix, as well as adding some of the compressed signal. Ultimately, now, if I was given the opportunity to work on either a digital or analogue desk, I would almost always pick digital, with the exception of one or two artists. Someone like Patti Smith has an amazing band that just does not require the ‘tricks’ because they have such a great balance, and the songs don’t rely on so much sonic production. I feel like I could mix her shows on the most basic gear available and they would still be great shows.”
One artist that came knocking in 2006, as a direct result of Pete Keppler’s extensive FOH work with David Bowie, was Trent Reznor and his industrial rock collective, Nine Inch Nails.
“Nine Inch Nails definitely happened because of working with David Bowie. Trent told me he’d seen two shows the previous year that he thought sounded great — Radiohead and David Bowie,” says Pete. “At that point in time, I was home with a new baby and also mixing monitors at the Conan O’Brien Show [in New York] so I could remain at home. Jim Warren, a truly amazing FOH engineer [Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, Arcade Fire] had been approached by Trent as well and thankfully was able to start the NIN tour. When Radiohead started rehearsing for their next tour, however, Jim had to leave and I was asked again by Mr Reznor, and this time I flew out to Wisconsin with Bryan Olsen [owner of Firehouse Productions, the audio company on the NIN tour] to watch the show. I knew immediately that mixing that show would be both challenging and very rewarding.”
Nine Inch Nails was a gig where Keppler learned a lot in terms of experimenting to get bigger, meatier sounds coming off the stage.
“I definitely broke some new ground for myself working with Trent,” explains Keppler. “I learned a lot about making things larger than life. I’d used some distortion and things like that with Eels, but with Trent I definitely took that a few steps further, distorting the drums and guitars and the vocals, and using psycho-acoustic processing. I was stereo-widening things and taking them outside of the stereo image. That was really exciting and Nine Inch Nails were probably one of the few artists that I’ve worked with where I was able to get my aggression out on the mixing console! Trent was an artist that I could interact with about mixing, and I would ask him about trying various techniques. I started using things like the S1 Stereo Imager and Shuffler plug-ins from Waves. We tried a bunch of different things and Trent was always like, ‘Go for it!’ Much of it was in my mixing style, like taking a guitar solo and making it almost ridiculously loud, but still ‘within’ the mix. I was finding different techniques of doing this and Waves really started to play a big part in how I was working to achieve all that. I ran a lot of different processing on Trent’s voice just to achieve different effects, but didn’t necessarily try to recreate the album sounds. That’s one thing I’ve always tried to keep away from, unless the artist specifically asks for it, or unless it’s a real major part of the song to begin with. I normally just go for whatever the energy and the environment seems to want for the live version of a song as opposed to recreating the studio version.”
Last year, Pete Keppler was made a Waves Audio Product Specialist, but his love of Waves plug-ins dates back to the late 1990s in the studio. As outlined above, it was during his time with Nine Inch Nails between 2006 and 2009 that Pete began really extensively using Waves products on the road.
“I actually started using Waves at Looking Glass [Studios, New York] in, I think, 1998 maybe,” says Pete. “There was a Pro Tools rig at the studio and I began using Waves plug-ins around that time. It was pretty early on but they just sounded better. When I came on board with Nine Inch Nails, Trent asked me if I wanted to use the console that Jim Warren had been working with, which was a Digidesign [now Avid] D-Show console. Trent said, ‘You can use whatever you want but we’ve got this desk and it’s the first one that Digidesign has put out on the road — do you want to give it a shot?’ I quickly realised that I could use all the plug-ins I’d already been using with Pro Tools in the studio, which included Waves. I could now use all these TDM plug-ins on the road. It brought the whole studio and live thing that much closer together. That was a pretty neat experience!”
In 2010, Pete Keppler was contacted by production manager Bill Leabody, who had worked for both David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails at various times.
“Bill called me and asked if I could mix a one-off for Katy Perry at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and the rest is history,” explains Keppler. “I did not expect that I’d be working for a pop artist for the next five years (and counting!), and it’s been quite an education, not just in the live mixing department, but in the business of pop music. I’ve also learned a lot about pop-music production and have brought some of that to the table as a live mixing engineer.”
Over the past five years, Pete has mixed front-of-house on Katy Perry’s two gargantuan world tours — the California Dreams Tour across 2011 and 2012, and the current Prismatic World Tour, which kicked off in May 2014 and finishes in South America in October 2015. Keppler specs all the FOH gear for Perry, and he couldn’t be more happy with the PA they’ve been trucking around the world.
“When I joined Katy’s camp, she had (and still has) a Clair Global account, and Clair have been absolutely fantastic,” says Pete. “After the California Dreams Tour in Europe on a smaller PA — the Clair i3 — we came back to the US and Clair had a new large-format PA that they were interested in showing me, the i5D. I got my hands on it and absolutely loved it, and so that’s what we’ve used on this tour as well. It’s a big, truly full-range box without the need for a sub. It’s got all the elements of audio in one cabinet. We did put a few subs on the floor just to fill in the front rows but the system itself is just huge-sounding. Clair are very, very keen on getting me whatever I need all over the world, and also putting some of the best people I’ve ever worked with out on the tour with us. They really make things very easy. Clair have a new PA just out now called the Cohesion 12, which I’ve had a chance to hear, and I can tell you it’s absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to take that on the next tour!”
On her Prismatic World Tour, Perry’s Clair Brothers system comprises 32 i5Ds, 32 i3s, 16 SB218s, six CP118s and four CP-218s.
The mixing console that Pete Keppler has used on the most recent tour with Katy Perry is the DiGiCo SD5, a slightly larger version of the SD10 he spec’d for two tours with David Byrne & St Vincent back in 2012 and 2013. “I loved the console the first time I used it,” explains Keppler. “One great thing that DiGiCo does is interface Waves directly on the console, which means I can have the graphic interface right in front of me on the screen. I’m not much of a multi-tasker so to have another computer running off to the side with my plug-ins on it just doesn’t work very well for me.”
So what are some of the main Waves plug-ins Pete uses with Katy Perry, and what does he use them for? “Well, the C6 [multiband compressor and dynamic EQ] is probably the most valuable tool in my toolbox,” enthuses Pete. “It does things that no other plug-in does and it has been my go-to device for vocals especially, pretty much since it first became available. I use it to smooth out occasional rough spots in a vocal. My theory is ‘keep as much of the signal as you can working’. Regular EQ is often a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and dynamic EQ removes the problem only when it’s really necessary. There’s another vocal plug-in that I use called MaxxVolume, which I really, really like. It’s the only noise gate that I’ve ever been able to successfully and safely use on a vocal, and it’s wonderful. It really cleans up the stage if you have a lot of BVs or things like open horn mics. Waves have a new reverb called H-Reverb [reviewed in this issue! — Ed.], which is spectacular — hands down the best software reverb I’ve ever heard! I don’t say these things lightly and it’s not because I work with Waves. I genuinely love their stuff, and I use it on everything I do. The Chris Lord-Alge and Jack Joseph Puig Signature Series, where they replicated some old vintage compressors and EQs, is fantastic. The CLA-76 [compressor limiter] is a fabulous emulation of an old 1176 compressor. I’ve used it on drums and acoustic guitar and on electric guitar both live and in the studio.
“Anybody who thinks digital limiters don’t sound that great should open up one of those and take a listen. Plug-ins are not usually identical to their analogue counterparts but the modelling is getting better and better, and I found the CLA-76, in particular, to be quite impressive. There’s also a plug-in called Vitamin, which I use a lot. It’s a five-band ‘enhancer’ of sorts. In Katy’s show, I use it on the electric guitars as we don’t use any real amplifiers. Everything’s basically virtual on her show, generated out of guitar-amp modellers and software. I use Vitamin to liven things up a bit. It’s very interactive with the performer because it responds to their playing intensity and it basically enhances their dynamics and harmonics as opposed to compressing them. It’s a frequency expander but I don’t even know how to explain it. There’s distortion, there’s compression and there’s expansion. There’s all kinds of stuff going on there. I’ve no clue how it works but it sounds great! I still use some older plug-ins too, like the Renaissance Collection, because they got it right and they still sound great.”
“There isn’t much being miked on Katy’s stage anymore besides drums and vocals,” says Keppler, “but for those items we still pay careful attention to mic selection and placement. Katy’s on a Sennheiser 5200-series microphone with a 935 capsule and that’s been working well. I’m using a Universal Audio 6176 mic pre/compressor as an analogue front end on her and I quite like that. I was looking for a little bit more grit and warmth out of her voice, and the 6176 really fits the bill. It’s a tube mic pre and has a double gain stage on it so you can heat it up a little bit. It’s not exactly distortion but it’s definitely got a little edge on it, and it works really well with her voice.
“We use a combination of manufacturers’ mics on the drums. AKG have a wonderful new large-diaphragm mic called the D12VR. I use that on the bass drum and also on the one floor tom that Adam Marcello [drummer] plays, and [AKG] C451s on the hat and ride cymbal. Then we have DPA 4099s under all the crash cymbals, and we use a Telefunken M80 on the snare top. The M80 has become sort of my substitute for a [Shure] SM57 in a lot of instances. I’m still a big fan of the SM57 but the Telefunken is proving itself to be even better in certain situations.”
Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour has undoubtedly been one of the most colourful and ambitious live stage shows of the last few years. Mechanical horses, giant treadmills, cosmetic surgery mummies, padded cells, inflatable cars, rotating birthday cakes and neon dancers are just a few of the show’s elements that inevitably wow her screaming fans. These highly visual aspects of Katy’s performances are certainly not lost on Pete Keppler as he mixes every night.
“Katy’s wonderful to work with, and it’s a really fun show and those are the reasons I’m still here!”, he enthuses. “Everybody in the whole audience is having a great time for two-plus hours and — while I’ve always considered myself a rock & roll guy — the fun element is pretty contagious!”
Pete Keppler outlines his approach to building backing tracks when it comes to Katy Perry’s live shows: “All pop shows, and even a lot of rock & roll shows, use backing tracks these days. Katy sings everything live but there are bits of instrumentation and some backing vocals and special effects and stuff that are on track, because there’s more than the band can play on their own. On the first tour I did with her — the California Dreams Tour — the tracks that we used had already been built before I came on board. I worked with what I had but I vowed that if I was going to do another major tour with Katy, then I was going to build the backing tracks myself out of the multitracks from the original recordings. And I did that, starting in late 2013. I received all the session files from all her albums, and that was a real education for me. Some of these sessions were 200 or 300 tracks, and I started to understand some of the subtleties of pop music and that really kind of blew my mind. What we don’t realise is that the ‘catchiness’ of a well-crafted pop song has much to do with subtle, constant changes in the mix. That in mind, I began building the live stems for this current tour.
“The tracks I’d received on the previous tour had been essentially mastered and very compressed. They’d been treated like a record and — while they sound great on the radio — I didn’t feel they meshed well with the live band. I had the live band with all its dynamics and its real sounds and, although it was a great tour and a huge success for Katy, I felt that the tracks could be addressed and made better the next time around. What I did to the tracks this time was use a lot less processing. We initially left a lot of variability in the content of the stems themselves. In rehearsals we figured out what the live musicians were going to play, and we removed those elements from the tracks. Occasionally, we’d add them back in if somebody decided to change a part or something like that but we left everything very flexible. Sometimes, there might end up being a whole new arrangement of the song or we might need to up the tempo by a few bpm, or change the key of the song. The remaining stems would be condensed down to basically 16 outputs so we wouldn’t have a zillion tracks in the live mix. Kris Pooley, our musical director, came on board several months before rehearsals started and he and I did a lot of work together, as he did complete rearrangements and new productions for some of the songs. He’s a great MD. We worked together on what we wanted to stay on the tracks and what all the musicians were going to play. It’s the most involved I’ve ever been with the musical side of a production and it’s been a great education.”