Jim Betteridge lets his hair down, and gets down with the Deaf-Defying ones.
VENUE: Wembley Arena
DATE: January 16,1986
PA: Malcolm Hill
The rank odour of stale sweat mixed nauseously with the incongruous bitter-sweet aroma of patchouli oil and rotting plimsols, floating like a cloud of death over a sea of dropped jaws and glazed expressions. For those about to rock — I think you need some more fibre in your diet... hello, is there anybody there?
I casually made my way up through the ranks of would-be Angus's, desperately trying to conceal an attitude of paternal concern, my freshly polished black shoes glistening conspicuously in the half-light. "Ah, so you're an AC/DC fan, are you?", I enquired of one particularly kiln-finished young man: no intelligible response. This was communication from the outside world, and a certain lack of preparedness was apparent. Without warning, and following the cue of his confederates, ceramic- features launched into a frenzied and rather laboured display of fanaticism, thrusting his arms high above his head to punctuate a rhythmical chant of, "Angus, Angus, Angus... etc". Suddenly, I felt as if I was standing in the North Stand at Arsenal, wearing a blue and white scarf; or maybe a war reporter in danger of discovery as a spy: 'The Killing Fields'? — kids'stuff.
Standing reassuringly down in the mid stalls stood the sleek form of a Hill Audio 32:8:2 flanked by a couple of racks of processors and amplification. You know where you are with a standard 19" rack mount. One of the features that make this desk relatively unusual is the use of an eight-band equaliser on every input channel, with a three-way frequency select switch on each band. This gives the sonic clarity of a switched-frequency system (not needing the extra circuitry required for 'Q' and sweep adjustments) plus very precise control. A happy arrangement. The desk's eight output groups were configured thus:
1/2 — Stereo vocals
3/4 — Stereo guitar
5 — Bass
6 — Bass drum and Snare
7/8 — Stereo toms
Of the six available auxiliary sends only three were in use:
Aux 1 — AMS RMX16 digital reverb system providing a general non-linear, short decay enhancement programme for the toms and snare.
Aux2 — Roland SDE 3000 DDL — mainly for repeat echoes on Sink the Pink and The Jack.
Aux3 — Eventide H949 Harmoniser — used on all the vocals with both the Delay Only (50ms) and the Main (1.01) pitch change (plus an additional 37.5ms delay) outputs, one either side of the stereo image plus the uneffected signal in middle.
The main stereo outputs of the desk hooked into a stereo Compex Limiter F706X-RS with a gentle 2:1 ratio and high compression threshold plus a final peak limit to preclude severe hearing damage in case of accidents — such as someone accidentally lobbing a mike into a mid-range horn or something; and from thence into a pair of White 1/6-octave equalisers for overall system correction with the help of a Klark Teknik DN60 spectrum analyser — and an even number of experienced Hill Audio ears.
One side of a second Compex Limiter was used for the bass while the other was on Brian Johnson's vocal, both with a 5:1 ratio affecting around 8dB of compression. I asked if that much compression on the vocal mike didn't cause problems with accentuating leakage from the guitars, drums and fold back, but I was told that it didn't seem to be too bad. Most of the kit was gated through Drawmers, including both top and bottom snare mikes, all four toms and the kick drum.
Hill Audio have been successfully doing AC/DC's PA for some years now, and they consider the band an excellent means of ultimately road testing any new piece of equipment — if it survives one of their tours it unequivocally gets the stamp of durability. They've come a long way since the first rehearsal with the band at Shepperton wherein after three hours all the bass drivers in the rig had been blown. At that time they were installing ATC long coil 12's, and ATC were using an adhesive that went soft at 150°C — thus the coils fell off the speakers under stress. They subsequently changed their adhesive to one which can stay solid up to 300°C, and things have been fine in that department since. Malcolm Hill has avoided 15" and 18" bass drivers in preference to the extra rigidity offered by 12" long coil speakers; three 12" units, he told me, offer approximately the same surface area as two 15s, plus the advantage of superior linearity to bass frequencies. There was certainly no lack of solid bottom end on this rig.
There were 14 M4 full-range cabinets per side at stage level and eight a side flown. Heavy Rock is always so saturated with valve overload and general raunch that I find it difficult to be finely critical of a system reinforcing it. The guitar sounds were excellent, and on that point we should have some regard for the wall of Marshall stacks across the back of the stage — 14 (4x12) for Angus and six for his brother and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young. The drums were fine though somewhat obscured by the rest of the song in the HM tradition, and the bass was fat and thumping. All more or less as it should be. There was no distortion audible that sounded like it shouldn't have been there, and with levels in excess of 110dB at the desk, it wasn't painful. That says a great deal about the fidelity of the system (and possibly about the fact that I'm slowly growing deaf?). The only musically weak point (concerning the PA) was that the vocals were constantly more or less inaudible. This was apparently due to the weight restrictions imposed on the lads for flying the PA. At other large venues they prefer to fly 36 M4s in a central cluster, as opposed to the total of 16, eight a side, at this gig, and this extra hardware provides the power and throw to project the vocals clearly.
What was unusual about this rig was that it included a delay system of six M4s flown just behind and above the mixer position, with a 113ms delay. With my 'All Areas' pass clipped securely over my heart, I once again set forth amongst the many-headed to monitor the sound from all areas. The delay tower was extremely successful in doing away with the infernal slap back that normally dominates the sound as you approach the rear wall on either side or in the middle. Definition was more or less as good at the back of the west terrace, behind the mixer, as it was at the mixer position itself. A definite victory. I'd like to listen to this rig in Wembley Arena with a more critical act to really hear the limits of its definition and clarity.
Air guitarists leered, trance-like, from all sides as Angus launched into yet another of his extremely impressive guitar solos, this time atop the shoulders of vocalist Brian Johnson, making full use of his Sony wireless guitar link to wander well out into the front stalls. Then he disappeared backstage to re-emerge on a catwalk running the width of the stage well above the heads of the rest of the band. Here's a man who can make spasms of the lower limbs a thing of beauty, this is primordial choreography at its most insistent. There can be no doubt that Angus is the heart of AC/DC. The band as a whole stands out above most other HM or Heavy Rock bands for the tight, musical structure and deliverance of its material. What it incites in its dedicated followers, though, is rather disconcerting.
A lighted cigarette butt soared gracefully over my head missing it by centimeters, to disappear ominously down the neck of the unfortunate bloke in front of me; his reaction showed a definite lack of grace on his part. As I stood amid a sea of mindless painfully self-conscious guitar hero mimicking and self-abusive neck flexing, the idea of a mentally subnormal proletariat became terrifyingly real to me; the mindless masses bred to be manipulated by those who understand their simple needs and processes. Dear Lord, could AC/DC actually be operating under a grant from Maggy?! I wish I could play guitar like Angus.
Feature by Jim Betteridge
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