Slave to Sound
BY LARRY JAFFEE
[Originally appeared in Pro Sound News, Jan 2012]
Although the band officially called it a day in 1983, Roxy Music has been a perennial favourite on the road, reconvening for multiple reunion tours starting 2000 in its native UK, Europe and other parts of the world. In between those jaunts, leader Bryan Ferry has been embarking on his own solo theater tours, including a recent 10-date run that started in Miami and finished up at The Greek in Los Angeles, with Eighth Day Sound (Highland Heights, OH) supplying control and monitor gear.
“Bryan never stops being involved,” said FOH engineer Nick Warren, who first joined Ferry’s sound crew towards the end of his 2007 Dylanesque tour and has been with him and Roxy ever since then. During soundchecks, Ferry often likes to sit out front the entire time. “Not every day; but he’s always got an eye on the show,” Warren noted. “Bryan never lets it stagnate.”
That focus extends to keyboards, a key factor in the artist’s luxurious sound, as the singer plays on six songs when he’s not at center stage, crooning into an Audio-Technica AT4053 microphone. “Bryan’s attention to detail with keyboard sounds makes my job easier,” said Warren. That led to replacing Ferry’s grand piano in favor of Nord Scandinavian keyboards, “which have been a godsend. We used to have two hours of tuning every day. I can’t tell the difference sitting out here; in fact, I’d say the Nords even sound better.”
Ferry has given fans what they want in terms of the show, with songs like “The Main Thing” and “Kiss and Tell,” which was a hit in the U.S. Only two or three tracks from Ferry’s most recent album, Olympia, released in October 2010, have been in the sets. “There’s so much other stuff. This is a man with a back catalog; you can’t run out of tunes.”
Warren attributed the lush sound of Ferry’s recorded output—both solo and Roxy—to the work of longtime producer Rhett Davies, who consulted with the live team before hitting the road. In preparation for the solo tour, Davies gave Warren some pointers: “He’s a bit of a legend. He turns up off the golf course with a big cigar. He’s always positive, got good things to say, ‘the whole song sits around that.’ For mixing, these are really useful tips.”
Is it a big challenge to replicate the aural opulence in a live setting? “That’s [Ferry’s] thing,” commented monitor engineer Steve May, who has been part of Roxy/Ferry’s crew for 12 years. “It makes mixing it a pleasure, all the nuances and pieces, especially when you add samples of certain things from a really old track. It’s nice to be challenged; it’s not a gig that’s the same set every day.” Warren agreed that it’s challenging, “but as with anything, you need to get the band right.”
The European leg of the tour kicked off with two drummers: longtime Roxy/Ferry associate Andy Newmark and Ferry’s son Tara, who left after a few shows and was not replaced. When the American leg was planned, Ferry was still not happy with the drums, and it was Warren who suggested that original Roxy drummer Paul Thompson be brought back; he had also done solo Ferry solo tours previously. “You can set your watch by him—meticulous all night,” said Warren. “As soon as Paul came back, it settled down.”
The U.S. tour picked up local PAs at every stop, though Warren noted that they’d been “juggling d&b” audiotechnik systems throughout the European leg. For the band’s stop at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, the in-house QSC-powered JBL VerTec system was pressed into service. “When the band is right, it sounds like a CD, as long as it’s going through the right PA,” Warren observed.
Despite using a new system every day, Warren found that most venues on the Ferry/Roxy tours of the past year sounded similar—a feat he attributed to using line arrays, “which is a great thing, because that means we’re getting a good template to mix the show. I’ve got a graphic; sometimes I don’t even touch it from the night before. That says something about the quality of PAs these days: You can get pretty much a good result every time.”
Well, not quite every time. “You’ve got to go with the flow a little bit. The sound was awful last night. Where were we? The Wellmont in Montclair, New Jersey—it was a loud, angry room. No matter what you did, it wasn’t working.”
While he spent 10 years mixing The Prodigy live, Warren recently realized he’s coming around to a different view on volume levels: “It’s more dynamic when you mix quietly. It’s not quiet—there are some bits that take off, and you say, ‘Oh, my God.’ That’s the great thing about having a big old live band—that’s what happens.”
There are some other considerations, too, for running the show a bit less loudly, he noted. “Suddenly, the age group I’m mixing for is a lot older. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I see them coming in, and I say to myself, ‘You know what? It’s probably too loud for these fellas.’” Asked to clarify whether he was referring to the audience or the band, Warren laughed. “Both! If you add up the age of the band, we’re up to about 370!”
May concurred that the volume on stage can get loud at times, and affect the FOH mix. “It goes both ways; Warren’s got far more speakers than me,” noted May. Regarding monitors, “some of the band are on wedges and seven are on ears.” The backup singers—two on each side of the stage—are on personal monitor systems this tour because of the stage layout and their need to hear clicks on backing tracks.
May aims for “clarity” in his stage mix “so [the musicians] are able to hear what they’re playing. Bryan has everything—he requires a full front-of-the-house style mix.” May uses lots of solo cues for the guitars, keyboards and saxophone. In regard to any special mixes for the band members, May says “it’s all pretty stable. The only person I have to concentrate on is Bryan.”
The Yamaha PM5D in monitor world was selected partly because of cost, and it accommodates all the Ferry band needs. “I’m using all 24 channels; it’s pretty full on,” May says.
At the FOH position, Warren was mixing on an Avid Venue D-Show console, which he’s used for the past four years for Ferry/ Roxy gigs before that for other tours. “The digital desk helps an awful lot. It has a lot of tricks—nice reverbs, plug-ins—that add up to make it sound better. It’s a great sounding board.”
When it comes to plugins, Warren generally sticks with the onboard offerings, though he’s added a few items from Waves. “I’ve got Vocal Rider, which turns the vocal up when he’s on it, and down when he’s not on it. It avoids me doing that all night, because there are four wedges around the mic—when he walks away, you can imagine the kind of spill! I also bought a nice delay from Waves because Bryan likes some crazy delays on things.”
Every engineer has his own mixing style, but Warren observed that “a great song mixes itself; a shit song, you’ll be turning things up and down from start to finish [to no avail]. I’ve found on this tour, once the band gets the arrangement, it’s easy and a joy to mix. I never get bored.” What does Warren aim for each show? “Not to have a queue of people at the desk with an opinion. You want everyone to leave happy.”
Meanwhile, Ferry seems happy himself, showing no signs of slowing down. Warren noted, “[Ferry] likes to work, so I think we’re out to the middle of 2012,” which happens to be Roxy Music’s 40th anniversary, so don’t be surprised if the troops are rounded up.
VITALstats : Bryan Ferry
Eighth Day Sound
(Highland Heights, OH)
FOH Engineer: Nick Warren
Monitor Engineer: Steve May
Monitor Tech: Gary Sylvester
FOH Console: Avid Venue D-Show
Monitor Console: Yamaha PM5D
Monitor Speakers: d&b audiotechnik
Personal Monitors: Sennheiser G2; Ultimate Ears; Westone UM2
Monitor Amplifiers: d&b audiotechnik
FOH /Plug-Ins: TC Electronic Bundle; Waves Vocal Rider, others
Microphones: Audio-Technica 4053; Shure SM58, SM57, Beta52; Sennheiser e604, e901; AKG C 451 B, C 414