WILD THINGS: HOW TAME IMPALA PLAYS CURRENTS LIVE
Go behind the scenes at Laneway Festival to find out how Tame Impala reproduces their records live.
Intro Photo: Daniel Boud
It hadn’t been the smoothest day on the Laneway Festival tour, and the sweltering heat at Sydney’s College of the Arts wasn’t helping. Out back of the main Park and Garden stages, production manager Haydn Johnston and the local Gigpiglet and JPJ crew were sweating it out waiting for the last wave of trucks to rock up. On those trucks, which had been delayed on their way out of Melbourne, was Tame Impala’s entire production.
When we found out the Laneway Festival stint would be Tame Impala’s last tour dates for the Currents album cycle — other than an appearance at Panorama Festival in New York — we thought it would be fascinating to see how Tame Impala translates their records to the stage. As it turns out, the answer is they try to mimic the record’s sound as closely as possible — just bigger and amplified — which requires more than your average rock band’s backline.
I’d arranged to meet up with Tame’s FOH engineer Adam Round before the show. When I spy Adam, he’s looking remarkably calm despite his gear still not having arrived at 5pm, and the band due to kick off at nine. Having interviewed frontman Kevin Parker twice before, I know how focused he is on getting sounds exactly ‘just so’. He even won both the ARIA Producer and Engineer of the Year Awards for Tame Impala’s last album Currents in 2015.
As the time ticks towards 6pm, I’m getting a little worried for Adam. After all, this is a tour that’s included festivals like Coachella, a string of Lollapalooza dates, Pukkelpop, Bestival, Electric Picnic, Lowlands, Rock in Roma, Bonnaroo, as well as iconic landmarks like Radio City Music Hall and Rocks. In other words, it’s bound to be an impressive show with an equally elaborate setup that’s surely going to require more than a couple of hours to hook up.
RACKED & READY
When Adam unpacks his rig I start to understand his calm. He rolls two identical rack cases up to the FOH tent, sets them side by side and lifts the lids. Inside are two perfectly racked DiGiCo SD11i consoles, a Lake LM44 processor, two Waves Server One DSP units, a UPS and drawers for days. Out of the drawers he pulls out an octopus array of arms and screen attachments and begins to assemble the extremities. A redundant set of stage rack inputs plug into the back, a pair of outputs go to the system, he pulls out neatly-bound red and blue XLR cables, plugs in two Shure SM58s as his shout and talkback mics and he’s all set to go. As a final touch, he adjusts the colour of his rack LEDs to a warmish purple and checks to see how things are coming along onstage.
It took all of a few minutes, leaving me plenty of time to marvel at how well-engineered this front of house setup is. I check the side of the case, and it’s not some external rental house-devised piece, the stencil says AP Engineering, Adam’s own Perth-based company.
As it turns out, Adam is a stickler for efficiency. Ever since joining the Tame Impala crew three years ago, he’s helped reinvent their entire backline rig. His philosophy is that you can do a gig with less personnel if they’re the right people and you supply them with the most efficient package.
Similar to Adam’s FOH rig, the onstage rigs have been rationalised into a handful of rack cases. “It started off modular, with everything in its own little case,” said Adam, who estimates they used to freight 70 Pelican cases from stage to stage. “You’d set up on an empty road case or table and it would take a few hours to plug it all in and run it all up.”
These days, Adam said that “out of the full set of inputs, 75-80% of it is already plugged in. All we need to do is plug two multi-pins into each side of the stage with a PowerCon.”
The benefits weren’t just in drastically reducing setup time, continued Adam, “It also improved the consistency and reliability show to show. It’s easier to load in and out, and saved the band a lot of money on freight. We don’t have to charter our own planes to make some of the crazy routing we have; it can just get on the next available plane.”
FIX THE PA, FIX THE MIX
The Tame show is a well-oiled machine thoroughly arranged and stress-tested in pre-production. The snapshot list for the Currents show is multiple pages long, with the snapshots for Let It Happen stretching over two pages alone. “We set it up on a pair of studio monitors so it sounds like the same show whether it’s live or broadcast,” explained Adam. “If it doesn’t sound good coming out of the PA, we fix the PA, rather than changing the mix so much. It’s an approach that works really well for this band.”
If Adam’s doing a standard tour date, he’ll run a virtual soundcheck and tune the PA before the band hops on stage. There’s no such luxury on a festival, after line check all he had time for was to run up his kick and vocal mics for a second to make sure audio was passing through the system. Because the show is so carefully mapped out, he spends the first 30 seconds of any festival exclusively manipulating the PA response on the Lake before laying a finger on a fader.
Tame Impala were headlining the Park Stage at Sydney’s Laneway stop. The stage fired up a hill, but it was also on an angle so the FOH tent position sat left of the centre line. It wasn’t ideal for two reasons: one, the engineer is getting more of the left array than the right; and two, the ground stacked subs didn’t project very well up the hill, falling off dramatically a few metres in front of the FOH tent. If you’ve mixed any festival within the city limits, these sorts of tradeoffs are commonplace to meet the stringent noise limits. In the case of Laneway, it was a paltry 90dBA at FOH, and within 100dBC.
“Because it was way off axis up the hill, there was a lot of honky midrange stuff and a bit of the top area had to come out. Not what you would normally do on an L-Acoustics K2 system,” said Adam.
Adam carries over his Lake settings from the night before, but deactivates them before the show. It gives him a clean slate to work with, with some familiar EQ starting points if he needs to shape things in a hurry.
“There are certain things I like to do to change the voicing of the PA a little,” said Adam. “A lot of the bandwidth of the mix sits in a similar register in the mid range, so I take a little bit out in that area to smooth things out at high volume. Then, depending on the system, a couple of small notches up high to darken it a bit. Today I’ve got a 90dB A limit, so a lot of that may stay in to make it appear louder.”
The Mesa curve on the Lake allows him to sculpt any system as required. All of this changes night to night, with Adam instantiating each cut and adjusting the symmetry and bandwidth of the curves to suit.
“The bottom filter is often at the crossover point where the top boxes meet the subs,” explained Adam. “Sometimes it also has a lump at 55Hz and I have to pull a couple of dB out to even it up. We’ve measured this system in many different environments and when the same thing repeats itself, you can pick it out. It’ll always be a little bit different, but it’s there for the most part.”
LIVE & ON RECORD
The first time I interviewed Kevin Parker about Lonerism [Issue 91] he constantly dismissed his engineering as amateurish, but I got the sense he always knew exactly what he was trying to achieve. Like when he talked about agonising over drum sounds for months and defying studio miking conventions. “Our sound guy always says, ‘It’s not a very good mic to use,” Parker said at the time about his choice of a Shure SM57 to record kick drum. “Are you sure you don’t want to try something else that’s meant for a kick drum?’ But I just love that ‘bop bop’ sound of the kick. I hate the kick drum sound that’s way too clicky.”
In Adam, Parker has found an ally. “If you did big click rock drums for Tame Impala, it would sound like a completely different band,” said Adam. “As much as it would be ‘better’ for signal-to-noise and bleed to not use as many compressors and distortion on drums, that is the sound of the band. We need to reproduce that as close as possible; it’s very important.”
That’s not to say it’s as easy as copying plug-in settings and hitting snapshot buttons, Adam has to employ his translation skills. “In a live scenario, putting four mics on a drum kit and trying to reach 102dB in a tiny club with that much compression and distortion is never going to work. We have to find ways to take that sonic palette he’s created and emulate it in a workable way for the live world.”
CLEANLINESS BEFORE DISTORTION
It all starts with the drums, which has its own processing rack in itself. While Parker has been generous over our last two interviews [Currents featured in Issue 110], there are still some secrets he likes to keep close to his chest. There are a few things going on in the racks that Adam wasn’t privy to pass on, but the gist of the drum rack is that a Sennheiser MD441 overhead kit mic hits a Metric Halo interface, for mic pres and DSP processing, and multiple stages of compression — a dbx 160 and TC Finaliser Plus. As well as a combined compressed feed of all the mics, there’s a version of the kit mic side-chained by the kick and snare, and Kevin can also manipulate delay loops of the kit feed from his pedal board.
At FOH, Adam also works with the close mics on the kit to reproduce that heavily compressed sound with a bit more control. Counterintuitively, Adam starts by getting the mic feeds as clean as possible: “I begin with the Waves SSL E-Channel strip plug-in for general shaping. The compressor is before the gate, so you can get it to track really nicely without it sounding too fake, especially if you don’t close the gate all the way. Getting those mics really clean — with less stage sound bleeding into them — lets me use more distortion by engaging the preamp on the Scheps 73, EMI TG12345, or J37 tape plug-ins, depending on what kind of distortion I want.”
Adam blends the sound he achieves using the close mics with the smashed wet mix of the mono overhead and close mics coming from the stage to create the entire drum sound. “I don’t really use the stereo overheads, they’re more for the band’s in-ear monitors,” he said.
The kit mics are all Sennheiser, except for the snare: E902 in the kick, E904s on the toms, a Shure SM57 on snare top and a right-angled 57 on snare side, which is “more like that old-school mic up, where you’ve got the one mic between the rack, snare and hats placed about half a foot away,” explains Adam. “Rather than it being all buzzy like the bottom snare, it’s more rattly and lo-fi. It’s a pretty common technique for indie producers in the studio, but if you can get it clean enough, you can use it live as well.”
With all that compression and distortion, Adam says the sound is running pretty close to the edge. “You can get it to about 108dBA before it starts to fall apart. It’s fairly uncomfortable at those volumes anyway, so we try not to get that loud.” It’s why he ran up just Kevin’s vocal and the kick drum during sound check. “If you can get those two things to stay solid, it won’t take off.”
If you did big click rock drums for Tame Impala, it would sound like a completely different band. As much as it would be ‘better’ for signal-to-noise and bleed to not use as many compressors and distortion on drums, that is the sound of the band
STAGED DELAY CONTROL
As well as controlling his guitar tone and drum loops from his pedal board, Kevin also manipulates his own vocal slap delay and longer tap delays onstage with a Boss DD-20 Giga Delay. “There’s quite a complex vocal chain to get enough signal from the Telefunken M80 mic into the Giga Delay,” said Adam. “There is a line booster and impedance transformer, after a mic preamp and split, to give the pedal the right impedance and level without it being noisy. At FOH, the chain starts with a channel strip high passing it at a higher frequency than usual. Kevin likes it at about 250-400Hz so it’s very high-passed.
“I do a general shaping EQ after that, then it goes into a Waves CLA-2A for a bit of general compression, then a multi-band compressor that’s carving out a few little notches, shaping the bottom end, and acting as a de-esser all in one. Then I also treat it with a plate reverb.”
The vocal mic was originally either a Sennheiser 441 or 421, said Adam, but they moved to the Telefunken M80 because he “could never get the mix loud enough with the amount of processing they want to do. After trialling a lot of different microphones, it worked the best for his vocal with huge gain before feedback.”
The entire band is on in-ears, but Adam has also been taking steps to bring the stage level down in other ways. For starters, there’s no bass amp onstage. “The bass is DI’d and the signal is duplicated,” he explained. “We use Waves GTR3 amp simulator on one, and I keep the second line clean and open. We use the open line for fizzy distortions and bass synths, while having the amp simulator helps keep the stage volume as quiet as possible. It’s processed with the Waves J37 tape emulator and C6 multi-band compressor plug-ins as well as GTR3. The amp simulator helps keep the bass out of the drum mics on stage so we can process the drums as close to the record’s sound as possible without the snare drum buzzing through the overhead. As soon as you put that much distortion on something, vibrations get in the way, which is why we also generally use cardioid sub configurations.”
Adam has also been inching Parker’s Vox AC30 guitar amp further away from the drums for similar reasons. “I’d like it to be offstage,” said Adam. “We’ll get there.” The amp is miked up with a Sennheiser e906, and a clean DI signal goes straight into the rack which gives “the sort of fizz you get when you plug a fuzz pedal straight into a console,” explained Adam. “They’re used separately, never together, for different parts of the songs.”
MASTERING THE NOISE LIMIT
Once Adam has the PA sounding the way he wants, and discovers how much mid range is lost or gained in the venue, he’ll balance the guitar and keyboard levels accordingly. After that, he does the final balancing of the band on the control groups and uses a lot of snapshots.
Far from being inactive, the pages of snapshots for Let It Happen require Adam to get his movements synced with the band down to the second. For example, he has to filter the acoustic drums out of a section as it transitions to a filtered Roland SPD patch. It happens over a bar, and he has to hit the next snapshot every quarter note to bring the filter point down in time.
After compression, distortion and filtering, modulation is the other huge part of Tame Impala’s sound. It’s such a major factor that Adam even has a Waves Metaflanger on his master bus that’s used on most songs. “It’s always on, and I use the touch and turn control on the DiGiCo to wind it in the mix,” he explained. “It’s high passed so the flanger doesn’t go below 1kHz, to keep the bottom end nice and tight.” He also activates Waves Mondomod on his master as the noise closes out the set. “I use it to pan around all the noise and speed up the rate of that movement,” he explained. He also uses the Waves Vitamin sonic enhancer to “tickle the overall mix and make it more exciting,” said Adam. “It’s got a little width on the upper mids and highs.”
There are a lot of different stages of compression, and every group in the mix has a C6 multi-band compressor strapped across it. However, last in his master chain is the Waves L3 Limiter. “It’s generally working most of the time, with a maximum of 5dB gain reduction,” said Adam. “By removing the heaviest transients in the louder bits, off the drums especially, it allows you to stay at the festival sound limit, rather than the transient putting you way over. So you can be the loudest guy at the festival, without breaking the rules… until they start doing loudness readings, that is!”
The show was duly impressive, despite the noise restrictions. It’s fascinating to hear a FOH engineer put such a sonic imprint on the show, yet have it represent the interests of the artist so specifically. Sure, so much of it is worked out in pre-production and processed in the racks Adam built, but that’s all part of his job; to keep Tame Impala sounding the way Kevin Parker envisions, regardless of where you hear them… and that includes flanging the entire mix.