SIGUR ROS LIVE - AudioTechnology
When Sigur Rós went down to a three-piece they decided to really strip it back — no horns, no saws, no strings, just Jonsi’s bow.
Story: Mark Davie
And then there were three.
When Kjartan Sveinsson left Sigur Rós in 2013, it seemed implausible that the band could go on as a three-piece without some reinforcements. Early on in their international touring days, the band brought fellow Icelanders Amiina along as a string section-come-random sound generator. The saw solos were a true highlight. Then they added The Horny Brasstards (Brassgat í bala in Icelandic) for the Takk… tour. Even with all the extra help, the keyboardist always looked like the floater in the band — pumping organs, clocking glocks, playing any guitar parts that don’t require a bow — doing anything and everything to fill the space around the bass, drums, vocals and Jonsi’s bowed guitar.
The band since released their seventh album Kveikur, which was noticeably heavier than even their industrial-sounding debut Von and longtime final number, Untitled 8 (Popplagio). Still, it sounded like Sigur Rós, with delicate arrangements laid amongst a bed of noise.
Onstage at Margaret Court Arena for the band’s Splendour in the Grass sideshow, there were two setups — bass, guitar, drums across the front, and a three-station keyboard riser at the rear. I immediately figured the band had pared the string and horn sections back to a laptop rig, but FOH engineer Ingvar Jónnson set me straight, “No there’s no extra players. They go up there and play the start of the second act. They also have two downstage keyboard positions, one for the drummer and a synth between the bass and guitar positions. Before this they had about 12 people on stage with them. I think they wanted to go back to their roots and try to do it themselves as a three-piece band with some playback.” It’s enough to do a highlights package, explained Jónnson.
Years ago, watching the band live at Hamer Hall, there were so many open mics you could hear the creak of the stage as Jonsi shuffled in place between songs. At Margaret Court, it was a completely different arrangement, with half the mics. “It’s cleaner,” agreed Jónnson. “Last time, next to the keyboard they had vibes, glockenspiels, harmonium and all kinds of stuff. About 20 mics on low-level instruments.
“It wasn’t really a problem though, because they were only all used on a handful of songs. I also thought about it like mic bleed; it’s almost part of the song. It’s unnatural if you start heavily muting stuff and switching between an open and closed state. If you use the leak and just make it part of the music, it’s not too much of a problem. It’s like when you do pop with a symphony orchestra. You have the pop loud and then 80 mics on the stage. You somehow have to make it work because it would be ridiculous if you start opening and closing them.”
It also helps that Jónsi has a good set of pipes on him, despite mostly delivering a sweet falsetto. “The music is really dynamic and he flows with it,” explained Jónsson. “On the loud parts, he is really loud. Some parts he sings really low, but there’s usually not much going on at the same time, so I don’t have to really raise him.”
The current show has about 45 inputs coming off stage, with a few extra channels for playback click tracks at the monitor position. The console package was all Midas, and the crew use two 24-channel Midas DL431 stage box splitters to have separate gain stages for FOH and monitors. “I’m a Midas guy,” said Jónsson. “I like the sound of Midas. How they make the preamps is better than other brands.
“The show is really dynamic. I would say the softest part would probably be about 85dB, and the loudest part could be peaking around 103-105dB. Some songs might have a really soft piano and it’s not tasteful to try and make that loud! It would sound silly.
“I’m not pushing the low parts up, I just let them be low and then when they play harder you really get the impact of more level and more expression. In general it’s not really a loud show, but in parts it’s rock ’n’ roll level loud.”
Jónsson used to run a Waves package, but abandoned it for the internal Midas processing and a couple of TC Electronics M3000 outboard reverbs; one for vocals and the other for drums. Likewise, his scene recalls are mostly there to get him in the ballpark and change reverb presets via MIDI. “It’s programmed for each song, but it’s mostly reverb changes, delay times, and fader positions for the beginnings to give me a fair start,” he said. “I’m not recalling mid-song and we’re not running time-codes.”
While he has compression on every channel, they’re often not very active. He also mostly just high passes and adds little bits of EQ. Likewise, the drum gates are only set to trigger at the level of the stage noise, everything else gets through. “They’re happy working on how they want to sound and I think it’s not my position to change that,” said Jónsson. “I’d rather try to capture the sound and feeling they’re creating and expand it to others without messing with it too much. Not adding my personal taste and flavour into it.” Really, said Jónsson, the Sigur Rós show is all about “reverb, reverb, reverb and then more reverb.”
DOUBLE KICK DRUMS
Orr Páll Dyrason’s drum kit has two kick drums. The smaller of the two is his main kick drum and “is more like a rock’n’roll kick,” said Jónsson. “I have a Shure Beta 52 and 91 inside.” He only has a Beta 52 on the big bass drum, because it’s used for an effect bass drum, and he wants to cut some of the boom to be able to get it to sound a little older.
From there he has a standard Shure SM57 on snare top and a Beta 98 gooseneck on the bottom. Jónsson likes to angle his top snare mic fairly shallow. “I like it close to the rim to try to get more of the whole snare, including the ring, when he hits it.” He has some Shure SM81s on hi-hat and under the ride, Sennheiser e904 dynamic mics on the toms and a pair of KSM42 large diaphragm condensers for overheads.
Daniel Johnson is Jonsi’s guitar tech and luthier. He mostly works with the Black Keys, being from Akron, Ohio. He’d been teching for Judas Priest, and made them some guitars, when he became friends with Dan Auerbach as the band was coming up. He made Jonsi’s main custom guitar almost 12 years ago, and recently put the finishing touches on a second. It was about time, considering the scars and marks lefts from where he runs the bow over the body, hits the strings with it, and drops the guitar at the end of every set. The guitar was designed with a neck that runs all the way through the middle of the body, purely to withstand that drop. It also has a gap between the bridge and tailpiece so Jonsi can draw the larger squeaks and high harmonics out with his bow. Johnson calls those squeaks ‘magical twinkles’, saying “bowing a guitar is not always perfect, it jumps octaves and an overtone squeaks here and there.”
Johnson said the sound behind all of Jonsi’s reverb and distortion is simply a classic rock tone. “The guitar has a real classic Seymour Duncan 59 humbucker,” said Johnson. “It’s not a hot wind, more open with a lower output.” At the other end of the chain the guitar is fed into the clean channel of two Marshall JCM2000 DSL heads wired to a pair of Marshall quad boxes. “If you turn off the reverb with no guitar pedals on, it’s just a very bright, twangy, classic rock sound,” said Johnson. “If you hit it with a pick it will sound kind of AC/DC-ish.”
In-between, Jonsi has a Suhr Isoboost full-range booster that runs into a pair of distortions; a Suhr Shiva Drive which has its own mid-range boost, into a TC Electronics Booster+ Line Driver & Distortion pedal. “It has a treble and bass control on it, and the bass is all the way up on it,” said Johnson. “That puts so much low end into the reverb that it starts this tumbling sound.” The signal is then buffered and sent to a stereo pair of TC Electronics M350 reverb units in his rack: “The reverb decay is so wet and long that the fundamental is really buried.”
The signal continues on in stereo from there, going through the heads and back out to the cabinets. “His cabinets have different types of speakers in them, old vintage 30s and 75W Celestions, the lower and higher wattage makes them sound a little different,” explained Johnson. They’re also miked by different mics; a Shure KM313 ribbon and Sennheiser e609 dynamic. One on each type of speaker, with the pairing flipped for the other cabinet, so each speaker type is miked by both amps. It’s all about the power of the sound. At first Ingvar put them up to try out different mic/speaker combinations for each song, then he just “ended up using them all,” he said. “It just gets a richer and fuller sound.”
The end result is in stereo, but it’s very subtle. “I can hear it because I have one amp in each of my in-ears,” said Johnson. “For me, it’s more to hear if one amp has an issue, whereas Jonsi listens to it that way because it sounds great.”
ROUND THE WORLD WITH GALILEO
Jónsson has been with Sigur Rós on and off since the band released their second album Ágætis Byrjun in 1999, which was also their first major international hit. Besides mixing FOH, Jónsson works as a systems engineer for one of the two main pro audio rental companies in Iceland, Exton.
At Exton, they have a ton of Meyer Sound inventory, so Jónsson tours with a Galileo processing unit, which he places over the top of the house processor simply because he’s used to it. He explained the outcome he’s looking for is pretty straightforward. “I’m basically just trying to get the system as flat as I can,” he said. “It usually doesn’t take me very long if the system is properly set up.”
He also heavily relies on Smaart. “I can’t do anything without it, it saves me so much time,” said Jónsson. “I’ve been using it since version three. I use it mainly before the show when we’re optimising the system. During the set, I equally look up the frequency response and the impulse response to see any problems. If there’s some resonance in the room or instrument, or some notes are standing out you can see it there.”
d&b ARRAY PROCESSING
JPJ Audio system techs, Jesse Mahoney and Christie Daly, have had a busy run of sideshows this Splendour season. They’ve both been jumping between all the major venues, including Festival Hall, where they’ve had an L-Acoustics K1 system to handle bands like Queens of the Stone Age. By the time I get to them, they’ve done about 15 shows straight between them. At Margaret Court Arena, the PA has been a d&b J-Line system, but the rig has been far from set and forget.
To make extra room for some last minute ticket sales at the LCD Soundsystem gig the night before, the stage was shrunk by eight feet, which had to go back in for Sigur Rós. “We’ve had to put the PA up and down three times, which requires realigning the system,” said Daly. “There’s been very busy mornings, followed by okay afternoons. Pulling down the PA is about 80% of a load out, we just don’t have to take it out of the room.”
The J Line feels as close to perfect for the arena, because there’s a limit to how much weight can be flown from each point, precluding the use of heavier systems like K1. “The J Line is fantastic because it’s a lot of PA in a really light box,” said Mahoney, saying the K2 is also a good fit. “We’ve been told it can handle about a tonne per hang, which is the point loading from the roof. We’ve got 12 d&b J line in each front hang. That, plus the one tonne motors is 900kg.”
The PA is also hung a little wider than they would prefer, because they aren’t allowed to hang bridles, “but it’s not enough to cause any problems,” said Mahoney. Overall though, he said Margaret Court Arena is “fantastic, it’s been designed to be very acoustically even. It rings a bit in the low end, but not unpleasantly. I don’t like to add much EQ before handing over a system, they come out of the factory very flat, so if you’re hanging them correctly, you shouldn’t have to do much.”
JPJ has also moved one step forward in terms of coverage by adopting d&b’s array processing technology. It’s a couple of years old now, but with each box requiring its own cable and amp channel on the new D80 amplifier, it’s been more resource intensive to apply in the field. JPJ had used it for one-off shows like Coldplay, but wanted to use it for the Splendour side show run, “because all the clients coming through are all world-touring bands and as a company, we wanted to give them the best we could possibly provide,” said Mahoney.
“You plug the design of the venue and system into the 3D software. The system makes calculations based on your array prediction, and then processes each individual box in the hang to provide very even coverage from the front to the very back. It’s the goal of all sound systems, but the way this technology does it is particularly good. If you walk from the very top seats to the very front, it sounds exactly the same. In a conventionally processed system you’ll always notice a drop off as you walk away from the system. Line arrays have been very good for making up for that, but even so you get a natural drop off of the sound. With array processing, that goes away, and it’s freaky how good it works. Once you start using it, you don’t want to go back. You can punch it in and out for FOH and it’s like night and day. The J Line is a really good system, whatever you do to it, but using array processing makes it go from sounding like it’s coming from speakers side of stage like a normal concert, to sounding like it’s coming from two feet in front of you face. It’s worth it. We’ve got over 100 J Line boxes in touring stock, and we should have enough amps to fully array process every system by the end of the year.”