Mixing The Cure
Live Music for the Hi-Tech Musician
One of the brightest stars on this year's bewilderingly busy international touring circuit has been the Wish tour by that most uncompromising of live acts, The Cure. It drew to a close after almost a year on the road at Dublin's Point Theatre on December 3.
The tour, which I managed to catch up with twice — once in the oppressive midsummer heat of Texas Stadium, Dallas and six months later at London's Olympia — saw the band in fine form. Unlike their last (supposedly final) tour, they were actually enjoying being on the road. Their penchant for playing 3-hour sets, or longer, if the mood takes them, is unchanged. The light show and set design, by top American lighting designer Roy Bennett, was stunningly imaginative and looked quite unlike any rock show I've ever seen.
But it's the sound of The Cure that we're interested in here, or rather its reproduction in those echoing arenas and stadia, and their front of house sound man, top freelance engineer Jon Lemon, was on hand to explain some of his techniques in conveying the lush, often complex layers of sound the band generate onstage.
The Wish tour was the second major international outing for the newest large-scale PA system to be developed in Britain. The Flashlight system, built by Turbosound in Sussex, is an extremely small but very efficient PA in which each cabinet projects sound through a very narrow angle of about 30 degrees, like a beam of light from a torch. It's also capable of throwing that sound a long way: in Dallas the rearmost seats were 450 feet from the PA, yet only a pair of small high frequency cabinets were needed as a 'delay' system to boost sound at the back.
Flashlight also illustrates how much effort it takes to design a PA for such massive venues (30-100,000) in the era of mass-produced digital quality audio. If you went to rock shows back in the mid 70s you'll know how much PA systems have improved — not that the same can always be said of engineers' ears.
The cabinets were designed by Tony Andrews and John Newsham, then heading Turbosound's R & D department, now in charge of their own acoustic consultancy Funktion One. To get closer to that elusive goal of sonic transparency, they painstakingly designed every component of both boxes (bass and mid/high) themselves — right down to the coating on the voice coil windings. Patented 'Turbo devices' — looking rather like rocket nose cones — were developed from special resins to focus and concentrate each beam of sound from 21" bass, 12" low mid and 6.5" high mid drivers. (A 1" compression driver takes over at 8kHz.) The result is remarkably clear sound which fills a huge stadium from two tiny-looking clusters of blue speakers. There are 24 pairs of mid/high and bass cabinets either side, with the mid/highs flown and the bass units ground-stacked.
The system can't do everything, however. In a very small space Flashlight's tight beam becomes a disadvantage; someone sitting down would hear a midrange unit but anyone standing next to them would cop an HF driver in the ears.
This technology certainly doesn't come cheap, especially when you add the essential matching hardware including active crossovers, BSS amplifiers and flying hardware. Britannia Row Productions of London, once Pink Floyd's private PA company and now one of Europe's top independent sound production companies, owns three similarly-sized rigs — an investment of a cool £1/4 million.
For a venue like Olympia, however, which like Earl's Court is actually nothing more than a temporary scaffolding 'arena' set up in the middle of a vast concrete exhibition hall, Flashlight offers a new way of tackling the dreadful acoustics. (Another strategy used for The Cure involves suspending enormous drapes of heavy cloth from the high roof to absorb some of the natural echo — not cheap either!) "With this system," explains Jon, "you can direct each box into a specific area of seating, which means that sound is not splashing around and causing unwanted reflections. It's a more controlled way of doing things."
A casual comment he makes about PA clarity will strike a chord with bands working in any size of venue from a pub to the Donington stage. "One of the most noticeable things to me is how, in a studio, where there's not much speaker wattage, you can get all your effects sounding very good." In the past, Jon reflects, much of the subtlety painstakingly achieved in a studio was lost as soon as you hit the stage and plugged into a big pile of scruffy black boxes. Pro-standard PA systems today have come a long way. "It's particularly noticeable with this system" he says. "The vocals and high registers sound so clean that you can hear all the effects just as they're supposed to sound in the studio."
What he does not say, but which I will having heard what amounts to his taming of Olympia, is that judicious output levels are crucial to getting good sound in any venue. If there's any secret art to this business, it lies in striking a balance between an 'exciting' level of sound and one which triggers every hostile slapback and howling resonance in the room. It's certainly a fine line. The Cure, you could say, were just loud enough — and no more.
Jon mixed the Wish tour using a pair of old (as in classic) Midas PRO40 consoles. "I still like them a lot," he says, "it's like having an old Neve on the road." The boards' full patchbays also help cope with an enormous quantity of outboard — for example three different kinds of compressors for different applications. "It's because there's a lot of guitars really, all with their different dedicated treatments, that there's such a lot of gear. The effects rack, too, is pretty well dedicated, so there's minimal program changing."
"And then," announces Jon with a broad grin, "there's my furniture!" The "furniture" in question is a rather special pair of flightcases, designed and built as a joint effort between Jon and Funktion One down in deepest Surrey.
Jon has suffered failing eyesight since he was 17; he now has only around 15-20% vision. Last year he turned to the Apple Macintosh world for a solution to the serious problem of reading technical manuals, mic lists and other tiny but essential printed information the rest of us take for granted. (Jon says he's so familiar with the Midas PRO40 desks that can mix more or less by touch alone.)
Together they came up with a pair of ingenious custom-built racks which contain a Mac IIci, an Apple One Scanner, a video camera and two 19" colour monitors. There's also an assortment of slide-out drawers which contain a StyleWriter printer, Apple extended keyboard and a drawer full of assorted specialist software. A page from any manual can be placed on the scanner, or under the camera, and blown up onto the screen. Optical character recognition allows text to be read into a word processor.
The first thing you notice is the huge 36-point type on the big screens. The next — quite eerie the first time you hear it — is the Voice Navigator hardware/software system which enables a synthesised voice to 'read aloud' whatever word the mouse pointer rests over on the screen. Some of the translations are amusing: 'Wastebasket' is rendered as 'Wast-ay-bass-ket." But of course it's there with a serious purpose in mind. Says Jon: "The whole set-up has literally transformed my life — it's wonderful." He adds that he's hoping to work with blind peoples' organisations to help develop the concept to aid people in other types of work.
The group are, apparently, pleasant to work with. This, as anyone who's ever mixed monitors knows, isn't always the case.
"They're probably one of the easier bands to work with," monitor engineer Bryan Olson confirms. "The stage sound is straightforward and not that loud; it doesn't have to be because not much comes backwards from the Flashlight PA." Bryan's company, Firehouse Productions, built the monitor wedges; he's also using Crown amps, BSS crossovers and a Ramsa S840 monitor console. For every Cure tour, he says, he builds a complete new monitor system.
There are no sidefills: "I try to avoid using them," he explains. "It's the whole thing about PA not coming back on stage; without sidefills the issue isn't clouded so you've got more control." Meanwhile, guitarist Porl Thompson's stage effects are derived from a rack plastered in Boss pedals which fairly resembles a music shop's display window.
It was obvious, too, that the backstage atmosphere was very good. Bryan says of the tour: "It's the best. Theirs always are!" Jon adds: "That can only come from on high, ie. the band and the tour manager (Robbie Williams). After all this time, Robert Smith wants a tour to be fun — and to be fun it has to be good!"
Feature by Mike Lethby
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