One of the highlights of the 2017 Manchester International Festival was a series of intimate live performances by New Order, who reinvented their stage show by introducing an entirely new set list and a 12-piece synthesizer orchestra!
The massive success of New Order’s 1983 single ‘Blue Monday’ firmly established the band as one of the UK’s most innovative exponents of synthesizer rock and arguably kick-started the alternative dance genre. But for their shows at the 2017 Manchester International Festival, commonly abbreviated to MIF, they made the bold decision not to play ‘Blue Monday’, or indeed other signature tracks like ‘True Faith’, and instead focused on songs which were new to their live set, or at least very rarely performed. They did, however, celebrate and elaborate on their long-running relationship with synthesizers, by introducing an orchestra of keyboards played by 12 musicians sourced from the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM).
Ultimately, the project, which went under the rather obscure name of –(No,12k,Lg,17Mif), was as much about the visual spectacle as it was the music, so rather than having the RNCM musicians scattered about the stage, the band, with the help of artist Liam Gillick, created an impressive architectural structure to house and display them. Each member of the orchestra was positioned in a large cube-shaped room along with their respective instruments, and these rooms, which the production team came to refer to as cells and pods, were organised into a two-storey wall that covered the back of the stage behind the band. In addition, the face of each cell was fitted with its own venetian blind which opened and shut throughout the show to emphasize and punctuate the performance and act as a canvas for the impressive light show.
For the concerts, which took place at Manchester’s Old Granada Studios, the band comprised founding members Bernard Sumner (guitar and vocals), Stephen Morris (drums) and Gillian Gilbert (keyboards), plus relative newcomers Phil Cunningham on guitar and keyboard and Tom Chapman on bass. At front-of-house, working on a Digico SD7, engineer Shan Hira handled the band’s mix, but early on in pre-production he realised that a second pair of hands was needed to deal with the 12 orchestral feeds. Consequently, Paul Rattcliff was added to the team and given the task of specifically mixing the orchestra and providing them with suitable monitoring feeds and communication channels, this time using a Digico SD8 console.
A third engineer called Gerry Colclough, this time armed with a Digico SD7, was positioned stage left and he dealt with the band’s monitor mix, feeding it on to Shan and Paul.
“We had FOH as usual and monitors as usual, and then I’m doing a bit of both,” says Paul, explaining his role. “So I was taking the 12 synthesizers in stereo, so 24 lines, and doing a sub-mix for the other engineers.”
During the rehearsals, Paul found that the orchestral levels were rather uneven, causing him to have to do a little too much fader riding, so a decision was made to create a separate ‘bass end’ stem that would enable the team to tackle low frequencies without noticeably affecting the remaining orchestral sub-mix. “It was a stereo bass stem and then a stereo stem for the rest,” says Paul, “so if the low end was very different when we got into a sizeable room with a sizeable PA, that bass stem would give FOH or monitors slightly more control from song to song. So FOH and monitors received those four lines from me post fader. Then I was also doing in-ear monitor mixes for each of the orchestra players, and those were fed to them using Shure PSM600hw hard-wired packs. I had all the packs for the orchestra coming down Radial J48 DIs for a nice, clean sound.”
In terms of routing, a general-purpose monitor mix created by Gerry was sent to Paul’s ‘orchestral desk’ as a mono feed and this was forwarded by Paul, along with a bespoke click, to the keyboard players. Each player also received a return of their own output, but had the ability to balance the relative levels of the band and their own performance using a pan control set to Mix Mode on their Shure packs.
“They were getting a general band mix and they were getting themselves, and they used the panner to mix the two,” explains Paul. “So in Mix Mode, the panner becomes a level control.
“To try and make 12 people happy across all these different songs with such a range of dynamics would take a very long time, so we decided to keep it as a generic mix with the click and the balance option. Some of the players were doing synth bass lines, and to really lock into the rhythm they were almost having none of themselves, and just grooving off the beat with the click as a reference.”
It was also necessary to duplicate the outputs from each band member so that simultaneous independent signals could be sent to both Gerry’s monitoring desk and Shan’s FOH console. This was achieved on stage using a passive split system where each input was split in two and wired to each desk’s stage box.
Of course, the orchestra and band had to work to the same tempo, but the click tracks they used differed from one another. Controlling the orchestra was arranger Joe Duddell, so Paul sent him and the keyboard players one click, while Gerry produced another one with differing counts and drop ins/outs for the band.
“Most of the band were also on in-ear monitors,” adds Paul, “but the guitarist doesn’t like IEMs so he had wedges.”
One of the biggest problems with having the orchestral musicians in the cells was that it made it almost impossible for them to signal to the technical team when something wasn’t working properly. As a consequence, a communication system was developed using Shure 515SBGX push-to-talk mics.
“If there was a problem in a cell on the top row, for example,” says Paul, “relaying those issues became very difficult, especially as the shutters were randomly opening and closing. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the players, so we ended up putting in a switch mic system for each of the players, and their communications were going mainly to me and a keyboard tech (Simon Crompton) who was solely looking after all the cells. We also had to add extra coms and a wireless pack for him, because he was going up and down in the cells. His switch mic came to me and I sent it to the orchestra for two-way comms.
“And then we had lots of other shout mics for communication of technical issues coming over a couple of lines back into my desk, which I was distributing to whoever needed to hear them. So I had switch mics with tape on them saying ‘Orchestra’, ‘Conductor’, ‘Band’, ‘Tech’, and so on, and they were preset and ready. So the setup very quickly evolved in terms of channels and outputs.”
To prepare for the gigs, the orchestra and New Order began by rehearsing separately from one another. In particular, the orchestra spent four weekends playing along to backing tracks, with arranger Joe Duddell overseeing proceedings and Paul dealing with FOH.
Also on hand was the band’s MIDI technician, Danny Davies, who first began working with Bernard Sumner when he engineered and mixed his Bad Lieutenant project in 2008, and more recently did pre-production and engineering for New Order’s 2015 album Music Complete.
At first the team’s plan was to have the players manage their own program changes throughout the gigs, but this idea was quickly abandoned when it became clear that they couldn’t do that and concentrate on their score reading at the same time, so it was decided to have everything controlled from a central Cubase sequencer file feeding individual instances of Logic Pro X’s add-on program MainStage 3. Each musician was given their own Mac to run an instance of MainStage, together with either a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S61 or S88 controller keyboard and a Komplete Audio 6 USB audio interface. The relevant sound patches for each player were saved into their copy of MainStage and triggered remotely by the central Cubase file rather than by the musicians themselves.
Meanwhile, a score program called MusicReader was running on the laptops and open on the screens, and a separate Lilliput screen allowed the musicians to see a CCTV image of Joe, for when the blinds on their cells were shut.
“The problem for the orchestra players was they needed to have their scores open in MusicReader on the Mac and to minimise that, change the program and come back again took time,” explains Danny. “If they were in the middle of a track it was impossible for them to do that. Initially we had the program control changes assigned to the Rewind and Fast Forward buttons of the controller keyboards, but quickly realised that it wasn’t going to work because it’s still a whole layer of complexity.
“In the end we had it so Cubase handled the Program Changes for Mainstage in the background and simply assigned two of the buttons on the NI keyboard so that the players could shuttle the pages in MusicReader manually. So the Record button was ‘page back’ and Stop was ‘page forward’, although the score was laid out in the right sequence in terms of the set so really all they had to do was keep pressing Stop.”
Aside from triggering program changes, the central Cubase file also handled the playback of samples and provided SMPTE code for synchronising the show’s visual media.
“I was in charge of playback, which came from Cubase,” continues Danny. “Cubase was also sending program change information and SMPTE for FOH, which they used to control the shutters and lighting. So Cubase was the central hub and when that stopped everything stopped!
“We had A and B rigs, so if there were any problems with A we could switch straight over to B, so Cubase was running on a couple of Mac Minis that were side-by-side in a 1U rack near me at stage right. Everything is doubled up in the rack. Cubase also provided anything extraneous that the band weren’t doing, like BVs and the odd synth line. Stephen Morris, the drummer, has a Jazzmutant Lemur which is like a control surface with an LCD touchscreen, and we had that set up so that each song could be triggered by him with it. That was right by his hi-hat. It was literally just a matter of pressing play, the program changes started and SMPTE went out.
“Stephen also had a Lilliput VGA screen fed from my Cubase rig so that he could check that the songs had actually cued, but if there were any problems I could see what was going on and switch to the B rig or even cue the song myself if his control surface hadn’t worked. We had shortcut commands for every song.
“The band actually weren’t on stage for the very first track because that was when the conductor Joe Duddell came on, so I started a couple of songs, then Stephen took over for the rest.”
During the preliminary rehearsals, the team found that the variation in levels of the orchestral instruments was too great, making it very hard for Paul to keep on top of his FOH mix. Not only were the instrument samples frequently changing from song to song, but they also sometimes switched within a song, and each time this happened the way the level output responded to key velocity changed too.
“The players’ velocities were all over the place,” recalls Danny. “A few of the players were not available on certain nights and swapped with someone else, and the different musician would either play it harder or softer than the other. We found that if we took it down a couple of dB for one session, the next time it was too quiet.
“We tried to avoid using a hard-line MIDI compressor because then you lose velocity sensitivity and we wanted a bit of that, especially as we were using a lot of Embertone violin samples and they sound terrible coming out all the same.
“So in the end we got it in the ball park. In any given song there were only a few key players doing lead lines and things like that so they could be ridden by Paul.”
“We did a lot of work during rehearsals to limit the velocity or dynamics that each player had,” adds Paul, “so we balanced the sounds at source which enabled me to run a unity gain structure on the Digico. So each time there was a different sound, we balanced the song and saved it as a specific patch.
“Some of the songs had a lot of different instrumentation changes happening across the 12 stereo inputs so I used a snapshot at the beginning of each song to give me a nice starting point. Sometimes the sound on a channel was changing from a piano to strings which required pushes and pulls, and sometimes the New Order guys asked me to pull the strings back in places to let a guitar solo or something like that come through. So I was constantly mixing.
“We were told what was the most important sound in the song in certain sections, or if there was a solo that was pivotal. So it was almost like how you’d mix in the studio.
“Shan and I had our desks next to each other so we were working together to allow space for things to sit in, so I was constantly moving faders to create different feelings in sections.
“I also used snapshots to do a little bit of EQ here and there. But I was using very little in the way of dynamics. FOH and monitors probably had some soft compression over their busses just to tone it down at certain times, but because my sole focus was just moving these faders and sub-mixing all the time, I tried to leave it alone as much as possible. All of the effects were fixed at source.”
Key to the success of the MIF setups was the ability of Apple’s MainStage 3.3 to act as a sample playback device, using Logic’s EXS24 sample player. Not only did it solve issues relating to overly RAM-hungry samples, but also took most of the hard work out of the sampling process, as Danny explains.
“Since the band re-formed in 2011 we’ve been using rackmount Roland Fantom XRs and a couple of Dave Smith Mophos, which we use to run MIDI gated stuff to get a nice analogue pulse sound in the songs ‘BLT’ and ‘Temptation’, but recently we’ve been porting everything to MainStage running on laptops.
“At first we tried using Kontakt, but we started moving stuff into the EXS sample player in MainStage because working that way is not so processor or RAM hungry. For instance, we found that the Embertone orchestral samples that we were using in Kontakt were massively processor hungry, which only works when you’re in a studio where you have a big Mac Pro to process it all.
“So we’d take something like the New York Grand piano from Komplete, for example, find a layer we liked, sample either side of it and go with that, because generally we didn’t need all the velocity layers.
“MainStage has a great auto-sample facility in it so you load the New York piano into Kontakt, specify the velocity layer you want, what key scale you want to sample, the duration and if you want them to loop. Then you literally press go and it samples all of them in automatically. So once you’ve decided what you need it’s incredibly straightforward. You don’t have to play anything.
“You can do the same thing for external MIDI stuff as well so we’ve been sampling from the Creamware Pro 12 ASB, a Prophet 5 copy. It sends a MIDI note out to get the instrument to play, you just feed it back in and it does it all automatically. And it’s loaded straight into the on-board ESX sampler.
“So 10 of the players were running the S61 keyboards and two were using the 88-note ones, plus there was the one that Gillian has. Again she had exactly the same setup, with a laptop running MainStage and the Komplete Audio 6 supplying the audio from the laptop, but with Gillian there was a bit of a hybrid situation. She likes the Native Instrument keyboards and now uses the S88 weighted one, but she has still been using the odd thing from the Fantom and Mopho.
“So, player 1 had a Concert, as they call them in MainStage, and his Concert had all the songs in it with all the program changes, and they were triggered by my playback rig. Each patch was assigned a program change number and those numbers were put into Cubase, so patches changed automatically when you hit play. And of course we were distributing to 13 MainStage programs, so there were lots of different changes going on. We had a lot of fun and games with it leading up to the gigs, but it all settled down in the end.
“The irony in these things is you make things simple for the person but the technology that is deployed to make it simple makes my job a lot more complicated if it goes wrong! But I must say, I worked alongside Stephen Morris very closely on a lot of the setup of the system, so he is the real ‘unsung’ tech head of the group!
“So it was MIDI channels 1 to 12 and we sent program changes out of Port D on a Midisport 4x4 on the main and backup Rigs, which filtered into a Kenton MIDI Merge Box then on into a Kenton LNDR MIDI-over-Ethernet extender. At the other end it went into a 19-inch 1U Canford Audio One-into-12 MIDI Distributor box, for the 12 MIDI leads going to each player.”
When it came to mixing the concerts, Paul and Shan had to find a way to bring the band and the orchestra together without overcrowding the mix or cancelling out each other’s efforts. In particular it was important for Paul to get the mix of the orchestra right before sending it on to Shan to add to his mix.
“New Order basically had their normal setup, which is drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, some pads and some extra backing,” explains Paul. “So for that bit it was Shan’s standard way of working — making sure the vocal was on top and then adding effects in. So Shan had about 40 channels, plus what I was sending him.
“He tried to leave his feeds from me flat to keep his gain structure and I was pushing and pulling levels rather than him pushing and pulling the overall mix. So, for example, if there was a really strong string part, I would control it to keep the gain structure nice for him. There was a hell of a lot of things fighting for space and deciding on where to leave a bit of space for something, or whether or not to emphasise the orchestra at some point, was a two-way process. But it worked quite well.
“The desks were literally butted up together so we were communicating a hell of a lot in the show. I had a screen with some large meters showing all my synth inputs, so if he felt like something was sticking out, he could look at the screen, see the metering and ask me to pull it back. He has mixed New Order for many years so he could reference the original stuff and say if we needed more or less of something.
“For me it was different from a typical FOH job because I was constantly mixing. When you are mixing a band, you tend to use a fair bit of compression and dynamics processing so you can stand back and listen with flat faders. You get the drums and bass locked in, then set the guitars and keyboards, and then you sit the vocals on top. Once you are happy you add your effects and delays and stuff like that.
“But all the effects for the orchestra were set at source so I was just focussing on the balance of the orchestra, within the context of the band. It was like a mini gig within a gig. And I made the decision to not process it very much, if at all.
“Each of us had our own stage rack in one central location for inputs and outputs, but because we had the Digico desks, all the processors were part of an optical loop, so we could access each other’s as well, and that made it really easy. In the old days if I was going to send four lines, it would be four cables into the other desk, but for these gigs I’d just choose optical send, the other engineers named their channel ‘Orchestral Mix’ and patched it in. We changed so many things during rehearsals but it was never a problem because we’d just add another optical feed.”
While Paul looked after the orchestral mix and communications, one of Danny’s chief concerns was constantly updating the master Cubase file that the whole show was built around. Aware that any mistakes he made could bring the show to a halt, or possibly send it into chaos, he found that the state of the file was a constant worry.
“It’s all one massive file, so there’s song after song after song with all the tempo changes,” explains Danny. “All the tracks got locked down after an edit but I always had this nagging worry that I might have disturbed something every time I unlocked a track and made a movement or tweaked something within a track. Quite often we’d go into a show when a change hadn’t really been checked in the live setting, so I ended up double checking everything to make sure nothing got messed up along the way.
“Bernard loves to tweak stuff, so after a show you’d get a whole list of instructions for things that need tweaking. Nothing is set in stone. You get a feeling with bands like Take That that there is masses of pre-production then they’ll save the file and that’s the one they use for the next two years. That doesn’t happen with New Order; we’ll be on revision 60 by the end of a run, which keeps me on my toes.
“Since New Order reformed in 2011 the set has been adapted and tweaked, and before these gigs we’d got to a point where it was tried and tested and we knew how it was going to feel in a room and how an audience would react. The difference with this run is that we came in completely fresh. There was no growth and we were feeling our way with it. It was old material but New Order hadn’t done the vast majority of it live, so they rehearsed it especially for MIF, and it was a massive undertaking!”
When FOH engineer Shan Hira realised he needed a second pair of hands to mix the orchestra, his friend Paul Rattcliff seemed like the natural choice. As a Manchester resident, Paul was ideally located for the job, and his experience as a freelance sound engineer, mixing FOH and monitors for countless bands, meant he could hit the ground running. “I’ve toured for about 13 years but for the last three I’ve done more teaching of sound technology,” says Paul, who currently tutors at the BIMM in Manchester. “I normally teach throughout the year and at the end of the academic year I go out and do festivals, rather than full-time touring.”
Danny Davies has worked with New Order for many years, but his association with the band is rooted firmly in the studio. “My first foray into live sound was at quite a high level because when New Order reformed in 2011 to do a few shows, the MIDI engineer that they traditionally used was not available and I was dragged into it! I prefer the studio side but there’s a crossover, especially with New Order, who are such a tech-based band who tend to use all the latest kit.
“The first time we trailed the NI S61, laptop and Komplete Audio 6 setup was when Bernard did a Tibet House track at Carnegie Hall in New York. The event is organised by Philip Glass to raise money for Tibet. Iggy Pop did a track on Music Complete, and so he also did a few tracks with us at the gig. So Bernard ran a backing track from MainStage and I set it up, so he literally pressed play on the keyboard and it fired out a backing track, and that gave us the confidence to move into using it with the orchestra.”
New Order have always been innovative users of the latest technologies, but those technologies have gone through many changes since the band first formed, initially under the name Joy Division, back in the late 1970s. As a consequence, introducing songs into the set from their back catalogue was not entirely straightforward.
“We had to go through the very interesting process of going back through the old files to find the original sounds,” laughs Danny. “Even the band were scratching their heads as to what instruments were used at the time of some of the recordings, so trying to emulate sounds was quite a big part of the pre-production process.
“The very early songs were not so bad because the band were using Solinas, Omnis and things like that, so they knew what they’d used. But as it drifted into the late ‘80s and ‘90s, everything was tweaked. In those days most people just pulled up a patch but New Order came from that analogue tweaking-with-oscillators side of things, so you’d find things labelled ‘FM Bass From DX7’ and then you’d pull up that patch on a DX7 and it would sound nothing like the track, so sometimes we got into the realms of sound design to emulate the original sounds.
“But for the Music Complete tracks that appeared in the set, a lot of the time it was easy for me to make stems and port stuff into the show because I was involved in the recording of those songs. I could go back, pull up soft synths from that session and sample from there. It gave me a good overview of what’s going on sound-wise.”