Sum 41: Live at Festival Hall
Well gob on me Doc Martins if it ain’t a punk mini festival. And, what’s more, in sodding Festival Hall. Bleeding marvellous.
John Kerns: The man behind one of the loudest PAs we’ve ever heard: “running full-tilt boogie for at least one song during the soundcheck helps weed things out that might otherwise become problematic later.”
It’s not every day that AT covers a punk rock gig. Being a ‘mini festival’ co-headlined by Pennywise and Sum 41, with veteran party punks The Vandals and new-school upstarts Bowling For Soup filling the support role, I fully expected a rampant punk ethic of slap dash, ground-stacked boxes lashed together with a couple of ratchet straps and a hefty half-functioning, analogue desk with a rack of hotch-potch outboard gear. Not the case. The PA was hanging neatly from the roof, and running down the length of the venue was a suspiciously thin multicore attached to an even more suspect digital console! Is this the state of punk rock today? John Kerns, front-of-house engineer for Sum 41, had some explaining to do!
DEBUNKING THE PUNK MYTH
Mark Davie: I was going to ask how the punk attitude has impacted on the job of FOH engineer, but obviously it doesn’t – you’re using a brand new digital console!
John Kerns: Well I pushed for the digital console; it’s what I’ve been choosing to mix on for quite a while. And I think the Digidesign Profile is the best sounding of the digital consoles by far. Plus, I’ve never had one fall over on me – or on me. It’s great because the [Digidesign] Profile is quite small. I’ve toured around the world for a year with these guys and all I take with me these days is a USB key and five rack spaces worth of gear. I have three channel strips and a reverb, and that’s it, I’m set.
MD: What is it about the Profile that sounds better than the others? Is it because you can get the most out of it, or is it the circuitry?
JK: Just walking up to it you can see that it’s laid out better than the other digital consoles. But it also sounds fuller, and the high-end sounds cleaner and clearer.
MD: Does having a digital desk predispose you to using plug-ins on everything?
JK: The main vocal is run through a Buzz Audio recording channel that I have in a rack, and the two crunch guitars are taken care of by Chameleon preamp/EQs – everything else is a plug-in. I also have my Kurzweil KSP8 reverb that I carry around with me, which takes care of all my instrument and backing vocal reverbs.
MD: I would have thought punk and reverb don’t often mix.
JK: I’m using a gated reverb on the snare drum and toms. It has a big chamber, but I’ve got it gated to about 90ms. It’s very short and just chops off to add a little body and depth to the sound. A lot of Sum 41’s songs are so fast that a decay time any longer than that would turn the whole mix to mush. I’ve also got ambience on the vocals and over the guitar, as well as a chorus and a delay on the backing vocals and two or three long delay cues, all done on the Kurzweil.
MD: Being a guitar-heavy genre, do you do anything special with the guitars?
JK: Nothing crazy. I mic the cabinets in the same place everyday. Both players’ dirty cabinets use dynamic mics, [front man] Derek Whibley’s clean cabinet uses a dynamic, and I use an Audio-Technica AT4047 condenser on Tom Thacker’s Fender twin, which brings it out quite a bit. I also use a little bit of the Crane Song Phoenix plug-in sprinkled everywhere and I run the guitars pretty hot through the Chameleon preamp strips, with the master down, to add a little more grit. I add a little bit of low end and make some subtle cuts of one or two dB at 3 – 4k because I don’t want to shear off any heads when the volume gets up there.
MD: What does the Crane Song Phoenix offer the mix?
JK: It’s pretty subtle, but it adds slight warmth to things that isn’t really in an EQ, it’s much broader than an EQ band. There are a couple of quite aggressive settings on it, but I don’t really use it for squishing, I use it almost as a tone knob.
MD: Are you using any plug-ins across the mix bus?
JK: I’m just using an SSL-type mix bus compressor plug-in called Impact that comes with the console. It works well; it’s barely tickling it more than a dB or two, there’s nothing being mashed.
MD: Is this because the sound coming off stage is limited enough not to warrant a lot of compression at front of house?
JK: Most of the compression I use is for tone, as opposed to controlling anything. Sum 41’s set on this tour contains more of their faster material. Typically, they’re actually more a pop band with a lot of production going on in their records, and their normal set is quite cue-intensive with a couple of repeating delays that go all the way through songs in time, in two- and three-minute cycles, fading it in and fading it out. I won’t say there’s not a lot of finesse though, because there is, otherwise it can get out of control really easily.
MD: When a track is fast and full throttle I’d have thought compressors would make matters worse most of the time.
JK: Well I have the Buzz on Derek’s vocals. I set it there so I don’t have to worry about his vocal and can just get down to mixing.
A TALE OF FIVE CITIES
MD: On a touring mini festival with four engineers, who makes the big decisions about what gear shows up?
JK: When I find out I’m doing a tour I just start getting in touch with people. In Australia, the promoters usually have some say over your PA company, which isn’t the case anywhere else. For this tour the promoters actually picked the PA, so consequently we’re doing five cities with five different PAs, which isn’t ideal! We did, at least, manage to convince the promoters that I needed to bring the Profile out and take it everywhere with me. I also got hold of Phil Nelson who’s mixing Pennywise and together we came to an agreement on what we’d like to see. He was cool to go with the console, so we went from there.
MD: I’m guessing that means different system engineers come packaged with each PA as well?
JK: Well, there actually hasn’t been a system engineer on this tour. Basically, they’re putting it up, and that’s as far as the system engineer takes it. The other three mixing engineers involved in this tour aren’t quite as well versed on the Profile as I am, so I’ve been hanging out as much as possible, and helping with routing.
MD: So who tunes the PA then?
JK: We’re using a Johnston Audio PA here in Melbourne so one of the Johnston lads tuned it today, but in the other cities nobody has been there to tune the PA. So when my soundcheck has come around, I’ve just tuned it using the graphic within the console as an insert over the mix bus. Normally when I go out on a tour, I spend the time with Spectrafoo and a bunch of Metric Halo interfaces, sticking mics everywhere and timing it all out. But my band isn’t playing last on this tour, so I just wait my turn and spend a couple of minutes when it’s my time.
This band has always owned its own little Midas console that they insert and use to mix their own ‘ears’.
1. Mic stands around the drumkit were scarce, so some mics had to be handheld!
2. All the mic placements were well preordained with tape markings to minimise the variables during the tour. These amps were facing the back wall.
3. The ubiquitous Boss Chromatic Tuner riding atop Pennywise’s Mesa Boogie valve amp. All the bands’ amp were on stage at once.
4. John Kerns’ outboard ‘rig’ is a shadow of its former self: A Buzz Audio channel strip, two Chameleon Labs preamp/EQs and a Kurzweil KSP8 are all that remain…
5. A clean mic for a dirty amp! The Audio-Technica AT650 is positioned to provide the ‘clean’ input signal.
6. Sum 41 carry their own foldback system with them wherever they go. What’s more, they operate it themselves!
THE SUM OF ALL PARTS IS LOUD
Walking into Festival Hall earlier in the day to meet up with Kerns it sounded like the promoters had got excited and kicked off the gig four hours early. To my surprise an empty hall greets me, with three members of Sum 41 on stage, and frontman, Derek Whibley, pacing the hall followed by an entourage of videographers and techs… the only people in the building.
MD: The second I walked in today, my first reaction was; how do you manage the PA at that volume when there’s nobody in the venue? At a place like Festival Hall, things must change radically when the audience arrives.
JK: For years I always used to do soundcheck quieter, to save myself – and everybody else – but mostly so that the musicians could be happy on stage and not be aggravated by the PA. But over the years I’ve found that – fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it – running full-tilt boogie for at least one song during the soundcheck helps weed things out that might otherwise become problematic later.
You get a lot of reflections, and the sound does change when the punters arrive. But if I could show you the graphs on my console outputs, you’d see that a lot of that range from 1.6 to 3.5 and 4kHz is pulled down a few dB, which will end up going back in to some extent once some flesh gets in the building. This room is pretty typical of what you run into in most places, because whether you’re in a hockey arena, ice rink, or basketball stadium, you’ve got a hard reflective surface beaming at you. Saying that, walking around today, I’ve noticed it’s actually pretty consistent everywhere.
MD: It struck me as being mighty loud.
JK: Today we’re using a V-DOSC rig, and the scary thing is, I wasn’t even tickling the limits of the PA! It wears on you a little bit, but that’s as loud as it’s going to be, it’s not going to get any louder. Obviously you try and stay away from painful things, anything that’s going to hurt, but once you get 3000 screaming people in there, that sort of volume isn’t going to seem quite as abrupt as it was just walking in off the street. Though I’m lucky that we don’t play an hour show everyday.
PANNING ROUND THE CLOCK
MD: Are you working in full stereo in an environment like Festival Hall?
JK: Only on certain things – the overheads, for instance, are spread all the way. Toms are panned about three o’clock, centre and nine o’clock; guitars are about 10 and two o’clock. When we do larger shows, with side hangs, I tend to go wider and then flip flop the sides so everybody still gets a bit of left and right. I’d like to be able to pan harder to one side because it would clear things up in the middle for Derek’s vocal, but alas…
MD: That must be one of the hardest aspects of mixing here, particularly given that the venue is so wide.
JK: The sides have always been a slight issue at this venue, the Hordern Pavilion’s another one, because you can’t get the trim height and still have sight lines, so you can’t hang much PA over there. We’re lucky today, because they’ve partially curtained off the sides. If it were all open then the sides would be shy, and we’d probably have had to hang more PA to cover it.
MD: Are the side curtains making any difference to the sound?
JK: Not where I’m positioned, it might be in the seats over there. But that’s the good thing about having a line array; everything above 300 – 400 cycles is very directional. It only goes where you aim it… or bounces off the wall. If you had 24 [Clair Bros] S4s in here, it would just be woolly everywhere.
SUM & DIFFERENCE
With a growing list of credits including producer on Sum 41’s new album and Iggy’s latest release, as well as lending a hand to his wife, Avril Lavigne’s album, Whibley definitely is a different breed of punk. The sound-savvy frontman headhunted Kerns who’s worked on three Springsteen tours, No Doubt, and Lavigne’s tour. And it seems Whibley had already read Kerns’ mind before he arrived on the scene.
MD: I noticed all the guitar amps are facing the rear. Is that standard practise?
JK: I try to get every band that I work with to do it. I usually fail miserably. A lot of them want to hear their amps and their tone. But when everyone’s on in-ear monitors it’s a lot easier to convince them. This band was actually doing it before I even came onto the scene, so I didn’t have to sell anyone on anything. Derek actually produced the new Sum 41 record himself so he’s quite aware of what’s going on sound-wise.
MD: Are all the amps turned up blisteringly loud?
JK: No, they’re not terribly loud.
MD: So you’re not pointing them to the rear because they’re overwhelming the PA?
JK: It’s not overwhelming, because they don’t play that loud, but it certainly helps with time smear, especially down front. You have to time the front fill speakers and the PA, and you don’t want to have to time everything to the back line coming off the stage.
Sum 41 has also done away with the humble monitor engineer. Choosing to rely instead on their own ears to control their in-ears, the band cart their own monitor rig around the world and operate it themselves!
JK: This band has always owned its own little Midas console which they insert into the system and use to mix their own ‘ears’. There are no drum subs up on stage, no side fills, no foldback, nothing – just four sets of in-ears and that’s it. Needless to say it makes my life much easier. The band’s drum tech sets up the monitor rig and looks after it, making sure none of the RF is going crazy. But basically the band members will walk over and change anything they need to during the set. It’s the way they’ve always done it. The console is small enough and you can freight it anywhere. We take it to every show we ever do.
MD: It’s pretty amazing that they manage it all themselves.
JK: They figure it out during soundcheck and don’t worry about it too much during the show, unless something is drastically wrong, then they’ll just walk over between songs and do a quick change. Derek used to have an API channel strip on his vocal foldback channel as well, but it took a beating in freight, so we ditched it. They’ve still got some Drawmer gates that sit next to the rig in a little portable four-space rack. Self-service monitoring… it’s just the way they like it!