Chris Rabold has gone from selling T-shirts out of a van to mixing Bruno Mars' epic two-year 24K Magic tour.
Not too many years ago the CV of one of the world's leading front–of–house mix engineers would have read like a slice of rock history, sprinkled with the names of the giant bands of the day — the Foo Fighters, the AC/DCs and the Slipknots of this world. How things have changed! Now, because top sound engineers inevitably reflect the contemporary music industry, the artists they work for seem most often to be drawn from the ranks of the pop nomenklatura — artists who not only clock up millions of downloads but also lead the way in ticket sales for their live shows. And the nature of those shows tends to be very different from the demands of the gritty, sweaty, rock bands of the past, reflecting the emphasis on the glamour and showmanship of the artists involved.
Whether this has changed the nature of the job is a moot point. An FOH engineer is still hired to produce the best possible sound, and as the technology involved in live sound has continued to advance, so the skill set needed by the man behind the desk has grown. Chris Rabold is one of the engineers most called on in this field, having worked with pop superstars including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kenney Chesney and, most recently, Bruno Mars. Despite his two–years–plus 24K Magic world tour having finally wound up, Mars is still performing one-off shows and, on the occasion that Chris and I spoke, headlining at the Park Theater in Las Vegas.
Chris' vocation as a live sound engineer came about in a slightly unorthodox way. "I don't have a history as a musician in a band. As a teenager I was interested in concerts and concert audio and decided it's what I wanted to do. I just started hooking up with friends in bands and when I was 19 I started working with a band called Widespread Panic, at an absolute bottom, basic level — as low as you can get, packing coolers full of beer, selling T-shirts, that kind of thing. After about a year I left and went to Nashville to get serious about audio as my craft. I paid my dues for about five years in Nashville, going to Middle Tennessee State University for a four–year degree programme. It's a more studio and recording industry-based course. I went to school for that, got my theory there and then got my hands-on in the clubs and the bars as a stage hand, truck loader, all the things that you do when you're young. Basically I just did anything and everything I could, including working for free a lot, and working for very little — a lot! I just came up the ranks that way.
"Eventually I started working for regional bands and working in bigger venues. One big move was working for a large rehearsal facility in Nashville and then, five years into that journey, Widespread Panic called me and asked if I wanted to come back and work with them in a larger capacity. I started as their production manager and eventually became their front–of–house engineer. Things kind of took off from there and in fact I was with them for a little over a decade. I'm grateful to have spent that time with them as I was able to do a lot of experimentation. That was when I was in my 20s and early 30s — that formative time when you're super curious. You're good enough to be doing it but you're still curious about how you could be doing it better. I hope that never leaves me. That time is fertile ground for that sort of thinking and it was a great place to be as they were very open to me trying things."
It was also a time when live sound was making one of the biggest changes in its history: the move from analogue to digital mixing consoles. "Yeah, this was in the late '90s, early '00s, so again I'm going to use the word grateful because I'm grateful for the time I came up in the industry, because engineers like myself and my peers really were at the crossover of analogue and digital. Even in school they had been sort of stuck over what to be teaching us because it was so clear the way everything was headed and yet we were still very much in the analogue era. I'm so glad I learned the way I did, in the analogue world, especially when it comes to troubleshooting problems. Digital consoles were slowly coming around when I started but all my early tours and early work was done on analogue. In fact my first tour on digital was in 2005, using a DiGiCo D5.
"As I say, it was already pretty clear when I was studying that it was going that way, but I had learned how to cut tape in college while we were also learning the early versions of Pro Tools, which was called Sound Tools back then. We were learning MIDI but we were also learning on tape and I feel more well-rounded now, having learned both approaches."
Analogue or digital, Chris' studio–based training gave him what he feels was a good grounding in the basics, away from the distractions of the live environment. "There weren't as many programmes geared towards live sound back then — at least not in the geographical areas I was looking in — and to me, I look at mixing as mixing and I was happy to learn mixing at a theoretical level in the studio because that's the basics. It's once you get into live sound that you then throw in the gnarly variables like room acoustics, feedback, stage volume and those things that will really affect what we're doing, so having learned just how to mix music without those factors was great. It was useful to have learned all the technical things, so that when you throw them into the live world, when everything just goes haywire and your pristine mixing environment is no longer there, having learned without the chaos becomes very useful. At its core we're still doing the same things, we're just doing them in a chaotic environment."
The gig with Bruno Mars, which has occupied Chris for two years with only a short break, counts as a marathon effort. Joel Foreman, Bruno Mars's production manager, contacted him in late 2015 but prior commitments got in the way. However, by mid-2016 the offer came around again, just in time for the artist's next album cycle. Bruno Mars has a reputation for detailed planning — things don't happen by accident, and Chris was involved in that detailed planning long before the tour began.
"Especially with Bruno, things get worked out over and over and over again. There's a lot of rehearsal and a lot of planning — there's not a lot of days off! He wants to know what's happening, he wants feedback, he wants legitimate feedback, input and ideas into how things can be made better, but at the same time he knows what he wants and if he wants something he wants you to be able to do it."
Different But The Same
With that depth of planning and pre-tour rehearsal, and given Chris' training as a studio recording engineer, you might assume that his job is to reproduce as closely as possible the sound an audience is used to hearing from Bruno's records — but as Chris says, that isn't the case. "He's not trying to recreate the album but he is trying to create a new version with the same sort of production sensibility you would get in the studio. So it's not to recreate it, it's to create, but we go about it trying different arrangements and sounds and different mixes, and we bat it back and forth until it finally becomes this new version of what was the original. It's still the same sound but things will have changed."
So how about some of the other pop artists he has worked with? "There's an irony in that for me, as I started in the rock world with jam bands, the fact that I ended up this pop mixer is still pretty funny. But the thing you will find with most of the pop acts is that while we might be making new versions for a tour, there will be new arrangements and it can't be a wholly derivative work. But that pop star sold that pop song to 20 million people with one hook and that hook still needs to be the hook. So when I say it's a different arrangement it's got different ingredients surrounding the core, but the core is still going to stay the same. Particularly when it comes to the chorus or the hook, that's not going to change because that's what sold the song and we're talking about mass–marketed products here — we're not talking about free-form jazz. People pay big money for tickets these days and they want to hear the songs. We're really working with the window dressing."
Chris Rabold: "Our signal path is so much cleaner and more pure and there's not a lot of things to round the transients off like there were in-line in a traditional analogue signal path... Now everything is so dynamic that you're finding you're using compression in places that you never did before.
For the Bruno Mars tour, Chris is again working with a DiGiCo desk, an SD7, which feeds a state–of–the–art Clair Cohesion PA system. Though he is a frequent DiGiCo user, he has broader experience with other makers' consoles too. "There's a number of desks I'm interested in right now: Avid, Yamaha, SSL and DiGiCo — but DiGiCo is just so feature-laden, there's so many ins and so many outs and so many ways you can do things and move things around, it's just so incredibly flexible. That's why I tend to gravitate towards DiGiCo and I have for a lot of my projects — definitely all of the pop stuff. It's kind of become a situation where, while I might like to try something else, I know I can get results quickly on the DiGiCo."
Despite the flexibility of digital desks, there's plenty for Chris to miss about analogue. "Things are so dynamic now. Our signal path is so much cleaner and more pure and there's not a lot of things to round the transients off like there were in a traditional analogue signal path. Whatever the circuitry was in the past, it had a way of inherently rounding things off, so what you ended up with was a tighter sound. Now everything is so dynamic that you're finding you're using compression in places that you never did before. Drum inputs have transient levels that are so much greater now. Acoustic instruments too — anything that has a predominant transient is so much more pronounced now, which means it's easy to get your music and come up with a mix that's too dynamic in digital, where there's simply too much distance between the snare drum and the elements that are holding down the chordal or melodic information. Even if you carefully gain, you end up with what I call whack-a-mole. 'Where'd that come from and where's that coming from?' It's not player dynamics, it's just the mechanics of a digital signal path being so much cleaner."
The answer, you might suppose, would be to lean on compressors — but that's not always the cure, Chris says. "I hate it that I'm using them more and as I've got older I think what I'm doing now is trying to mimic analogue circuity, which means I've got more into saturation and distortion because I'm trying to round off the sound — to raise the RMS level in as musical way as possible, and that's not always done with compressors. Sometimes it's more towards saturation, and that's more where I'm heading these days."
But digital doesn't have to be pristine, as the vast number of software emulations of analogue hardware demonstrate — and one tool in particular has found its way into Chris's live rig. "I was hooked up with Universal Audio through a friend of mine who said they were looking to launch this Live Rack, and were looking for someone on the team who could give them some feedback." Since then the Live Racks have become a vital component in his arsenal.
"They do the emulations better than anyone else. That's when we start getting into recreating analogue circuitry, even before we get into needle–moving gain reduction. It's that signal path saturation and rounding off that they recreate so well in the digital world. At the same time they've got some really cool, cutting-edge stuff and some of their modern classics are leading edge. But it's those emulations of the classics that were just what I was looking for — classic compressors and the coolest classic vintage effects that are now available to us in a more reliable package. You can take out the original pieces of outboard equipment but you're going to be babysitting them all the time.
"Increasingly you're going to be seeing people who have been using a lot of the modern classic effects drifting toward using the Live Rack because the emulation is so spot on that you've got to give it a shot — it's that good and it's also the most reliable plug-in platform that I've used yet."
So is that finally it for Chris Rabold with outboard processors on tour? "It'll have to be a tour that mandates that I don't have any outboard equipment before I stop using any outboard equipment!" Chris laughs. "I still have a good smattering of outboard and I think it's going to be that way for a while. There is a piece by a company called Sonic Farm, the Creamliner, that I'm quite fond of, and even though UA does a phenomenal emulation of the API 2500, I still like having one at my hands — those are things that are going to be hard to get away from."
While, on the face of it, the spectacular, highly polished pop shows that Chris has become a specialist in might seem a far cry from his rock roots, as he says, the basic disciplines of mixing remain the same. And as the technologies of live and recorded sound continue to converge, having a thorough grounding in classic recording methods can only be a help, particularly when the artists you are working for are expected to deliver their hits in instantly recognisable form. The availability of studio-quality plug-in emulations of much-loved but increasingly fragile outboard equipment could hardly have come at a better time, too.