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Ableton Live 12
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Some Like it Red Hot

This year’s Big Day Out was a return to form, and the Chili Peppers rocked the house, at least everywhere but the Gold Coast it seems. Dave Rat spills the beans on what went ‘wrong’ and sheds some light on his systematic analogue approach.

By

7 February 2013

Artist Photos: Marty Philbey

It’s drawing to the end of a long Big Day Out. The sun’s set, stage lights are taking effect, video screen is back online, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are getting ready to take the stage, and their FOH engineer Dave Rat has just rocked up, laid back and smiling, unperturbed by the responsibility of mixing the festival’s headline act for close on 100,000 people. His angel assistant and partner Kim hands out beers and pours wine for friends while Dave chats to a few punters and hoists a couple of Ratsound seminar junkies over the barrier so they can watch him in action. He doesn’t even touch the console before the band make it on stage. Yet he’s relaxed, calm and ready.

Rat loves sound. He’s been mixing the Chili Peppers for 20 years, has run his own production/rental company Ratsound for 30, invented speaker designs like the Microwedge, and also worked with other big name acts like Soundgarden and Blink 182. And he’s all about sharing his experience and knowledge with like-minded people, running seminars at every tour stop for local sound engineers. Even that morning he’d flown in off a 4am lobby call in Adelaide, went straight to the seminar, finished up around 4pm, then headed over to Big Day Out still looking as fresh and excited as ever. I ask him how he can be so relaxed, and he explained that it’s all in the setup.

ALL SEEING, ALL DANCING

Rat is the only engineer on the tour running an analogue board, a Midas Heritage 3000 — everyone else is on a mix of Avid Venue Profiles, Yamaha PM5Ds, and Digico SD7s. He has the Midas set up sideways, running down the length of the FOH tent with a couple of 6-foot tall racks of outboard gear at the stage end, and a couple of measurement mics hooked up to a range of metering equipment. He positions a small rug in front of the console and his own stool adorned with a Chili Peppers logo floats nearby, but neither see more than sporadic action during the night. 

If you’ve ever mixed a band in a big festival FOH tent, you’ll see the logic of not locking yourself behind the console. Typically, the desks are set up like a NASA command centre. The festival system tech sits at the very back, with the main processing gear and talkback stations connected to the stage. Next in line is the console for the opening acts, usually defacto standard Profiles, flanked by a lighting console. If the second tier headliner’s tour manager has thrown their weight around enough, there may be another console row in front with a slightly different flavour. And at the forefront is the headliner’s console. These tents are usually quite deep, and typically only the headline act’s engineer will actually be able to see the entire PA. And it’s not even guaranteed. So throughout the course of the show, you’ll see most engineers squeeze out from behind their console, head to the front of the tent and take a moment to digest the balance of the entire PA to see if it’s in line with what they’re hearing at the mix position. Rat’s setup allows him free rein of his environment. 

“I see my purpose as not to make perfect sound, but to connect the artist with the audience,” he explains. “Better sound helps that, but ultimately it’s the connection. So I want to pay attention to that connection rather than hover over the board. It’s like driving a race car. I can have all the interior lights on at night, paying attention to the controls, or turn all the lights off and pay attention to the road. The road is the band and audience connection.”

BIG DAY OUT WEST

Last year’s festival run were wild days for Ken West. He’d gone from being in a long-term partnership with Vivian Lees to flying solo as the remaining founder of Big Day Out, with a headliner who could only commit to half the dates. The vitriol flowed in the press, and West became a headline grabber, dropping bombs on the future of festivals in Australia, his ex-partner, and anyone that got in the way. But this year, West kept his head a little lower to prove that Big Day Out can still take on Australia’s other festivals.

One of the main, non-audio related improvements this year was the addition of Chow Town, a Lollapalooza-inspired dining destination. Rather than grabbing a quick German banger with sauerkraut, or a bucket of chips, you can buy lobster rolls and other top dishes from some of the best chefs in Melbourne. It was a great idea, not that expensive, and made grabbing food an experience not a chore.

AGAINST ME!

Scott Edwards has mixed that alt-rock/heavy rock sound in downtown LA and on-tour for a long time now. When he’s not doing house jobs at the El Rey. Henry Fonda or Nokia Club, he’s been out on tour with Coheed & Cambria, Sparta and the recent At The Drive In reunion. The last couple of years he’s been on tour with Against Me!, and was pulling a rock solid sound early on in the day at the main stage. Recently, Against Me! lead singer announced that he (now she) was transgender, taking on the name Laura Jane Grace. Being a hard rock band, I asked Scott if he’d noticed any vocal changes or if things were status quo. “It’s still the same vocals,” said Scott. “I don’t really want to speak for her, but I don’t think she wants her voice to change, because that’s the sound and it would be a whole different band if that happened.”

It’s a pretty simple mix with only 21 inputs, but Scott has spent a lot of time trying to find the right mics for the job. “There’s been a lot of trial and error with microphones,” he said. “I love the Heils, the PR30s are my guitar mics. And I also use the Palmer DIs with the speaker emulation between the amp and the cab. It gives me a good basic sound, and I see the mics as my lead — if I want to ride anything, I ride the mics up. The Heils are really flat, full and nice. I don’t need to add anything to them, they’re just present. There’s also 40dB of rejection out the back of them, so you don’t get a lot of drum noise or anything like that. I use another Heil for the bass cab, a PR40, combined with the direct signal.”

One usually important part of his sound that he didn’t get to bring across to Australia is a Yamaha sub kick. “I’ve been mounting it inside the kick drum with bungee cords and ring terminals and running a loom out,” he said. “You just bring it up and ‘boom’, there’s your kick. I run a plate mic too so I get that attack. It’s about 20 pounds to travel with, so it’s also an extra case I have to check. I can rig it into any kick drum, but when we fly I have to take the kick apart, and it’s about an hour process to put the whole thing in there. It does come with a stand, so I could put the whole thing in front, but a lot of drummers don’t like to see it, it looks a bit weird. Without it I just find I have to add a lot of EQ to other kick drum mics.”

MODERN ANALOGUE-Y

Everything Dave Rat does eschews the modern live sound mould, especially at festivals. It’s the luxury of having a band that recognises the importance of letting a sound engineer operate the way he wants to, and the budget to do it. While he has mixed on digital consoles before, it’s the layers that really bother him.

“I’ve mixed on digital, not by choice,” he says. “There are several reasons why people choose one or the other, usually it’s application based. If you have to patch a lot of things really fast, analogue may be a better way to go. Whereas, if you’ve got to do a bunch of different bands and store shows in the memory, then digital might be a better way to go. I don’t have a lot of scenes, or demand for digital in the way that I mix.

“If I had a lot of inputs, more than 60, and I’m muting scenes, or was mixing a band that had multiple sets on totally different instrument sections: If I was moving around pretty quick on a smaller budget and had to make concessions, then maybe. But as far as what I’m doing, the ability to see everything, and to hear something, reach over and change it instantly works for me. I don’t even have to look. I can reach over, feel where the knob is and change it while I’ve got eye contact with the band. I don’t use any board lights, and I don’t label, I just remember where everything is.”

Rat sees the Midas as less of a technical instrument to navigate with manuals and labels, but an instrument to play on. Rat knows the Midas H3000 in the same way that a guitarist can shape chords on a fretboard without looking at their hands. During the show, he looks at me while picking out channel assignments like a pop quiz. “Snare,” he says as he reaches for a fader, then sliding his hand along a few rows calls out, “Guitar.” It’s the same with EQ knobs, VCAs, sub groups — his hands flow across the console with the efficiency of a blind man reading braille.

He effuses that people who dedicate their lives like he does, in the pursuit of sound, are really chasing a fringe sense. As a population, most of us trust what we can see above all else, so for Rat, it’s about getting all of that visual input out of the way so he can better concentrate on hearing, not seeing.

My purpose is not to make perfect sound, but to connect the artist with the audience

TOWERS OF POWER

Audio-wise, the biggest difference for anyone that had been to Big Day Out any time in the last few years was the retirement of the three-array, single FOH tower strategy for the two main stages. Typically everyone mixing FOH on either of the main stages would be mixing from directly in front of the centre stack, forced to work more of an LCR configuration. This year, the addition of a huge video screen separated the two stages more than usual. It meant that each stage had its own left and right hang of 12 L-Acoustics V-DOSC and 3 d-VDOSC underhang a side supplied by JPJ Audio (though everywhere outside of Melbourne they used 14 L-Acoustics K1 a side).

So instead of the central tower of power, there were two FOH tents that operated central to their designated PA, giving the engineers more of a chance to mix with a true left/right configuration.

“I like this configuration better,” said John Kerns, longtime BDO main stage system engineer. “It’s a little bit more tricky timing-wise. Essentially they want all those things running at the same time, so you’ve effectively got a left/right, then another left/right another 18m away. We’re doing a block of subs in front of each PA as well, so our ability to steer things is minimised a little bit because you’ll just steer it into another system next door to it. Overall, the imaging is better, and you’ve got a direct line of sight to your band, instead of looking around the corner to try and see what they’re up to. It’s interesting, because you can pan things, but you’ve still got another left right next door to it. So no one misses out.”

There weren’t any delay stacks this year, which caused the Chili Peppers a bit of consternation, but Kerns said he designed the system to throw 120m. Of course, when you factor in windy nights, anything’s up for grabs in the top end. 

The setup hasn’t changed much except for the addition of the second tent. Kerns: “I do my time thing and use Spectrafoo. Then I’ll listen to half a dozen songs, and Karl Sullivan (FOH tech) will walk around with me. Once I have the general curve in, I store that, and everyone goes from there. I have another DSP set up as an EQ in the other tent, so if anyone wants to grab something that isn’t in their console they’re more than welcome to. The Killers have their own separate rig based around a Digico SD7 over there, so they’re self-contained, and the Chili Peppers have their own self-contained rig as well.

“I stay on the Blue Stage, I’ve got a Midas XL88 and the main drive rack here. And Tim Millikan has another XL88 in the other tent. He routes between the myriad consoles he has over there and sends me left, right, sub. And I engage or disengage what I need to over here. We’ve got communication between the two of us and the stage, so it works pretty well.”

It’s a great crew at Big Day Out, most everyone’s been doing it for a long time. Kerns has been with the tour for over 10 years, and crew chief and monitors main man Tristan Johnson has been around the tour for at least eight or nine. Playing the part of Kerns’ alternate over in the other FOH tent was Tim Milikan, with Karl Sullivan floating inbetween.

COMPRESSOR DIAL UP

Prior to Rat’s arrival, his long-time system tech, Jim Lockyer, preps the gear and runs through the line check. But night to night, the majority of Rat’s setup stays the same. He uses his headphones as a reference. So, his EQ’ing of the individual channels is how he wants the relationship between any given microphone and its source to sound, regardless of the system EQ. Then he tunes his main graphic EQs to align what he’s hearing out of FOH to the reference in his headphones. So by and large, from gig to gig the EQ on each channel will remain static, with the only major alterations occurring in his stereo BSS FCS-960 graphic EQs.

He also typically doesn’t flatten the graphics before each show, preferring to use the previous night’s settings as a ballpark figure in the festival setting. The logic behind it seems to be that he trusts John Kerns, JPJ’s FOH system tech, to tune and time the system roughly the same for every festival, which should give Dave a pretty good starting point without potentially going flat and fighting major resonances straight off the bat.

It’s sometimes hard to follow Dave’s chains, because he doesn’t label them. But it does let you see the compressor gain reduction in action. He’s right, it is nice to be able to see how much every channel and sub group is being compressed without flipping through pages or menus.

For the most part, Dave uses Empirical Labs Distressors and Fatsos as his channel compressors, and BSS DPR-404s on his sub groups. He sets the compressor threshold to 0dB on most sub groups except for the vocal sub group, which he sets at +4dB. It means that the vocal will always want to sit on top of his mix.

He also doesn’t link the left and right compressors as a stereo pair, because he doesn’t want the listening circuit to react equally on each side. Say the guitar on the left jumps 10dB and into heavy compression, he doesn’t want the right side to be equally compressed and maintain the ratio of the loud to the soft sound. Rather, he wants the compressor on the left to rein in that spike in volume while leaving the right channel untouched.

He then also sets up two VCAs, one to control all his input channels, the other to control his sub groups. It means that he’s able to vary the compression of the entire show by balancing the two. If he wants a more compressed sound, he just has to raise the VCA with all the input channels assigned, bringing them more into compression, while reducing the level of the sub group outputs, like an overall makeup gain control. If he wants more dynamics, he just reverses that process. During the encore he demonstrates the technique, and sends the entire mix into more compression without raising the overall volume. A neat trick.

Dave Rat’s rack; including a dbx RTA and plenty of Dorrough metering, outboard graphics over his mix, with a bit of parametric EQ for taste. Individual channels go mostly through ELI Distressors, while his sub groups are all dynamically controlled by BSS compressors with thresholds set to 0dB for everything except the vocals, which are at +4dB
Dave Rat’s Midas Heritage 3000 and rack set up longways down the tent [above]. Against Me!’s Lorna Jane has still got it [top right]. Two thirds of Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner’s rig, including a tasty Space Echo [bottom right]

YEAH YEAH YEAHS

Other than a couple of pickup shows over the years, Matt Littlejohn had only mixed Yeah Yeah Yeahs four times before the Big Day Out in Melbourne. He usually does FOH for TV On The Radio. And overall, the sonic picture is a very true one; and when the lineup retreats to the original three-piece (vocals, guitar, drums) for some of their earlier work, he doesn’t add any more low end than what’s there. I asked him why he rigorously sticks to that sonic fascimile: “Because that’s not what’s happening on the stage,” he replied. “My job is to reinforce the sound, not create an illusion of what’s not there. The other thing is, Brian (Chase, drummer) doesn’t play a kick with a hole in it. He has a very particular way of tuning all his drums and has a sound that he likes. So it’s my job to reproduce that sound. I like it aesthetically, so we see eye to eye. I never feel like it’s my job to come in and change the sound of anything.

“I also don’t use that many effects on Karen (O)’s vocal unless they ask for it — I like to have it out there. The bigger delays on the new songs are run from stage, David Pajo [Slint, Tortoise – Ed] is live dub mixing it, with a very King Tubby vibe to it. The energy is coming from them.

Guitarist Nick Zinner has three amps on stage, all miked up, but they’re also all valve Fender amplifiers, so I asked Matt if they were all used simultaneously, or if one was clean and another distorted? “His guitar tone is the combination of the three amps,” explained Matt. “Never once is one amp doing something drastically different from the other, it’s more about the tones, putting more mids in one for instance.”

Mostly it’s a similar balance, but if things change it allows Matt to pick and choose the tone to suit. “For instance, as windy as it was today I was a little more drastic,” he said of the overcast Melbourne leg. “I double bus all three guitar amps and use parallel compression. Today I was compressing them a little bit tighter so it was a little more focused. With the wind, all the high end clarity is washing all over the place.”

He also mixes a pure interpretation of the drums. “I always think that too much drum reverb sounds cheesy,” he said. “That’s just me. I’m really into the natural force of the band man, that band rules! I just want to stay out of the way. The big things that I work on are those dramatic drops, the push forwards and pull backs.”

GOT THE METER RUNNING

Pride of place at the top of Dave’s rack is his measurement gear. On one side he’s got a pair of large Dorrough meters so he can simultaneously look at his average and peak levels, while on the other he has an RTA connected to a measurement mic that he uses to help EQ the system. With the exception of one broken bar he aims to get the graph on a nice descending pattern from low to high. “I use a lot of metering, I really want to know what’s going on with the system,” said Dave. “Metering’s one of the things that got lost in digital consoles. They use cheap little meters. I love the big Dorrough meters.”

SEEING RED

Before the Chili Peppers even made it to Melbourne, Dave had copped a fair bit of flak from an underpowered mix at the Gold Coast Big Day Out. Here’s his explanation: “The Killers mix the system pretty hot,” he began. “I’m trying to go for more hi-fi and clarity in my mix, whereas they’re going more for a brash, ballsy mix. When I did Sydney I mixed pretty hot straight after them. In the Gold Coast I went for a real pristine sound I was really happy with. There aren’t any delay clusters running, and I couldn’t get back there, so I didn’t know it wasn’t hitting the volume. Well, either it wasn’t hitting the volume back there, or their ears were beat up from the Killers mix. I mix 6dB lower, so their expectations are that I was going to come in hot. In Adelaide I just went back to hot again, and haven’t heard anything negative. I was very happy with the sound I was getting up on the Gold Coast. Had I had delay clusters and that sound propagated to the back we would have been in the pocket. It didn’t, it only went so far, so I’m going to have to mix hotter than what I want to mix upfront in order to get to the back of house.”

In Melbourne he mixed everything hotter, but still a couple of dB lower than The Killers. All in all, it was hugely entertaining, and loud, without ripping your head off.

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READ ONLINE NOW
Online
Issue 93

REVIEWED

Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.