Rolling Stones' Mobile Studio
Mick McKenna | Rolling Stones
Engineer Mick McKenna provides an insight into recording with the Rolling Stones Mobile.
The Rolling Stones mobile studio is one of the oldest mobile trucks around at the moment and, as such, has seen an extraordinary amount and variety of work. Mick McKenna has been the engineer with it now since 1973. Having practically rebuilt every inch of it to accommodate the changing demands of music and technology it has become almost an extended part of himself. Janet Angus reports.
Running a mobile truck is a special art in itself. It is totally different to working in a studio - the demands on the equipment and on the engineers can be enormous. Everything has to run very smoothly - you only get one chance at it and you certainly can't afford to make mistakes.
The original concept of the Stones mobile, was that when the band began tax exile they wanted to be able to go off to the South of France with all their gear in the truck and set to work on their album material. Since then it has become involved in every conceivable out-of-the-studio recording situation and Mick certainly has many a torrid tale to tell.
We decided to meet up one day last month at the mobile's Shepperton base to talk a bit about the actual mechanics and intricacies of running a studio such as this.
Having started off his career working in and around the industry for studios and equipment manufacturers, always with an eye on the mobile, Mick decided to ring up Ian Stewart one day and suggest that it would be a good idea if he was to come and work for the mobile. This he duly did.
"I started in 1973 and got thrown into the Stones tour of that year at Wembley - a minor deep end situation!"
"There are several things about running a mobile that are different to being in the studio. Firstly, you've got to get the equipment talked into being willing to travel. The thing has to be put together in such a way that it will travel. For instance, where you've got a mixer with lots of rigid PC boards tied to the frame - possibly an in-line mixer - you've got to be very careful that you don't get structural twists in the desk that will put everything completely out of line. You've got to make sure that everything is tied down very well."
"We have all our microphones and cables, that sort of thing, in flightcases so that when you get to a gig you can just take everything out of the truck very easily and make it a very efficient situation. If you're setting up a session, you just take the mics and the stands into the studio, place them round the musicians and that's that. In our situation you've got much more setting up to do. You come up with a mode of working that suits everyone and you haven't got to make vast changes to work at one particular gig. It's a straightforward way of working that will cover everything. Then you get into a routine."
"That involves, for instance, we've got three multiway cables. I've set them up in such a way that in each of these there are 24 lines; that's sub-divided into two lots of 10 and four 'spares'; so we work on blocks of 10. If you get to a situation where you're going to pick up a lot of line feeds from the PA in a split; you just run the multiways there, no problem. But if you get a situation where you've got to put your boxes all around the stage it means that you can dot the multiways about and you can have 10 going off to one little sub-box at the PA, 10 going off there; so you're not into vast amounts of single flexes. It's quite efficient."
"As far as setting up at the truck end goes, it means that you can patch: any 10 can be any 10. None of the cables are actually designated. You've got the multiway plugs at the truck end and you can say 'Well, I fancy having that from the top cable as numbers 1-10, because that's going to a particular box on stage, and you can have maybe the bottom drum: one of its group of 10s can be lines 11-20. As it turns up at the mixing desk you just suit it round for you."
"When you're splitting leads to the PA as well, the PA chap has got to have everything coming up the way he wants it to and we want it coming up the way we want it to and you just don't want to get into vast amounts of fiddling around."
Does that cause problems?
"It depends on the gig. I think the PA has priority in the respect that the show is there for the public, if we're talking about live gigs."
"One of the sensitive areas I found when I first started doing this was the PA in the respect that people were always concerned about seeing a mobile coming up and they were concerned about splits: whether we'd split feed to them or them to us. In fact, when I first started, we always did split to them because PAs weren't equipped with that sort of thing; so I designed and built some splitters for it and put a lot of thought into it. It's actually one of the most sensitive areas. Those splits have always got to work and they've got all sorts of back-up systems in them. I think we now have a reputation sufficiently good that people know that if we give them splits they are going to work. Obviously there is a chance of failure as in anything manmade, but I don't think there have been any serious problems."
"As far as making things all come up in the right place: normally what I'll do is try and keep the patch on stage as straightforward as possible. In other words, if we can work on an almost one to one basis: so the PA guy looks at his leads, where they were plugged into his mixing desk and he can trace them back very easily. For instance, if he had it set up: kick drum, snare drum, hi-hat, tom; then we try and keep it like that. Then if he found his kick drum lead and he was suddenly looking for the snare, he would know that it was probably the one next door or something like that. Obviously, once the lights are down, if there is a problem, you don't want the poor guy chasing about not knowing where anything is. Then if there is a bit of cross-patching to do - odd lines that I want differently on the truck - then I can do it on the jackfield, no problem."
"Obviously with all that splitting, if you're doing something without a PA then it's all there anyway and it doesn't matter. It's no big deal to work with or without a PA because that's the standard equipment that we use. If you're working without a PA it's just simpler."
"On the Dire Straits live album-film-video-broadcast thing we did of the tour in 1983, we did a few dates in Paris and then we did a couple over here in Britain. The PA guys were very good. It was concert sound and everyone got on really well, particularly in Paris where we did want to cross-patch a few things. So we made a cross-patch and, because we were sat there for five days and we'd done it once, we didn't need to change it. It's just that sometimes when you're on the road and you try and do a fancy patch every night - that can just get too silly. So it does depend a little bit on what you're doing and who you're working with at the time. Whether the mobile is going to really take the brunt of any complications or whether we all work very easily and share out the problems between us."
"On the whole these days the whole splitting situation is all getting much easier to do because people are much more aware of what's going on; equipment is better; people have sussed out all about earthing and that kind of thing so you don't get half the buzz problems that you used to many years ago."
"I've sat down before now - the place I'm thinking of particularly is a club in Luton - and re-earthed somebody's PA for them. When you put the mobile in the way of their microphone lines they sometimes get all sorts of problems. It actually turned out that, when it was normally set up, the entire PA was being earthed through a keyboard and so subsequently we broke that keyboard line, broke their earth. So we had to re-earth it for them properly and they said 'Oh thank you very much, have half a bitter'! and the gig went ahead."
"You do get into that kind of thing; 'Oh well it worked last night, you guys have come along... ' and there's always a good reason for it. It's usually something that's happened along the line - maybe in the PA, whatever - and we've changed the situation, so the problem is shown up. So you sit down, find out what it is and mobile guys should be very aware of that. If the people putting on the show say it was fine last night, the mobile can't turn round and say well my mobile's perfect, it's gotta be your PA. He's just got to say 'OK, there's a problem. Let's settle down and sort it out'."
"As far as I'm concerned there is no point in getting out of your tree about little problems - they've just got to be resolved."
"Actually doing gigs, the routine from one gig to another is actually very similar. There is usually a 4 o'clock soundcheck. It's usually late, and we amble up in the afternoon. You find the place to park the truck. If the artics are in there then you sort out the drivers - all very amicable — move the trucks and get everything into position. We go and check out the PA guys, get the snakes (multicore cables) in, get the audience mics up as soon as we can. I've got a tendency of tying my audience mics to lighting trusses so sometimes that's one of the first things that gets done (along with sorting out power). If you can catch a lighting truss while it's on the ground it saves a lot of severe vertigo!"
"Sort out the splitting with the PA. Look at what mics they're using. Again back in 1973/74 PAs were using - I suppose inferior mics is not really the right thing to say - but certainly PAs in the last few years have moved to using much more the sort of microphones that we use: standard Shures and AKGs, stuff like that. Invariably with some of the bigger bands you will find some very high quality microphones. You sort out what you're going to use and if there's a few things that you want to change, like mic positions, then fine; if they're happy to change. We might have better things and they'll go 'Great. Put those up' and it's better for them and it's better for us. If there are areas where I want special mics like maybe second guitar mics, or I want a totally different kick drum mic we'll just put it up."
"One thing I try to apply generally, although particularly in a video situation, is that the less mic stands and flexes you've got flying about the better. Obviously if you try to double mike a kick drum you wouldn't be able to see the poor little drummer!"
"Then with video you've got to organise a picture feed from them to us, time code (as you know we've got a Q-Lock synchroniser), so we interrogate the time code as it comes in - just check that it's alright. You sort out feeds to them, whether we're going to give them a mono or stereo feed so that they can have a luxurious time."
"That's all the pattern that you just go through for live shoots."
"We're going out in a few days to the Dylan/Santana thing, picking that up in Paris: that's heavy duty. There are a lot of people in Santana, it's a big thing. We're coming in half way through the tour, so we'll be there at 8 o'clock in the morning to check out all the problems. It's a 4 o'clock show - the last thing we want to do is try and turn up at midday thinking we've got enough time and actually get stuck in the traffic going to the gig. So you get there early, check it all out and then we may find that the later gigs on the tour we can organise in a more relaxed way."
"You get gigs in places like St Paul's Cathedral, Brompton Oratory, Worcester Abbey - where they want the sound of the hall or church. That involves all different kinds of things like microphones strung up in really high places and where you might not end up using a lot of mics."
We then proceeded to get into a long discussion about the relevance of using such things as the Calrec Soundfield microphones for this type of recording. Although Mick has used one a couple of times very successfully, it's not really something that he gets much opportunity to use.
"That's how I like miking audiences anyway, I'm a very 'coincident pair' man. A lot of drum kits I mike with a coincident pair over the top."
"Obviously you've got to look at each location differently. When you get into the odd venue that you haven't done before then you want to check those out."
"There are one or two places we can't do - somebody asked us to do the Barbican the other day, but we can't get in there. It's a new building and it is built so that you can only get a 12'6" truck in there. I'm not sure how tall fire engines are but I assume they are under 12'6". We stand at 13'1" so we can't do it. The place has also been built in such a way that even if you do get in, the cable run is quite outrageous - it's all in and out of the corridors".
"Other places you actually drive into - the Wembley Conference Centre is a drive in place and you shoot up a couple of lift shafts and get up to the stage that way. There's usually ways into places, but the Barbican is something that's actually defeated us."
"If somebody phones up and says 'I want you to do such and such, in such and such a place' I'll always try and check out whether it can be done first. If somebody wanted us to go and record at Stonehenge it would be no problem because we know that we could get there. If there was no power then a generator would turn up. But if somebody mentions a particular venue like the Barbican you'd go down there and check that you could get within all the right distances."
"Abroad is a slight 'busking it' situation. In Europe a lot of the gigs you do are big sports halls and stuff like that. There's usually so much space round them that it is never a problem. Certainly one would check it out with the promoter or something first."
"The point is that you are there to record a gig. So you just try and work everything out so that the thing is going to work well for everyone. It's pointless taking us out and finding we can't get into venues. You just get on with it. At the end of the day you want to see whatever you've been involved in done successfully and not costing people millions of pounds."
Travelling abroad is a complicated business at the best of times but when you are hoiking vast amounts of expensive recording equipment around with you as well there are many things to be taken into consideration.
"There are two ways of travelling abroad: you either go TIR - that's a container situation - it's a sealed thing. It is sealed in this country and then opened by customs probably at your destination in the foreign part. The other way is with an 88 Carnet: you declare to the customs in this country that you are taking away a list of bits and pieces. You pay a percentage as a bond, in this country, of the value of the items on that Carnet - that's just put in a bank somewhere. We have a Carnet of the whole truck. We always take pretty much the same stuff."
"In different countries you come up against different problems. In France and other parts of Europe you need a special permit to drive on Sundays because trucks are banned. You have to have a police document saying you can drive without getting a serious fine. With Rock'n'Roll that's quite regular because Rock'n'Roll trucks move. In Spain you always have to get a Spanish translation of the Carnet - they won't accept English. Once you've got a Carnet it's usually fairly straightforward."
"We're going to Greece soon and we need another Carnet there - not only our one of all the equipment, but we actually need one of the truck because the truck itself isn't actually on the Carnet."
"The much documented Stones Russian trip I suppose was the most complicated thing to set up because the Russians don't give a monkeys about Carnets. They're interested in their sort of documentation which is things like getting visas, and, because there isn't much East/West trade with Russia, the Carnet thing doesn't really exist, it's a worthless document."
"You've also got to keep well up in your mind problems like 'Will the ferries be running? Will there be any disputes and things?' Anything could happen and you build in appropriate days for leeway."
"Greece is a good example because we've allowed time to drive down through France, down through Italy and catch a ferry across to Athens. But we're now hearing that there's some sort of trade embargo happening at the Italian border - some little problem with France. If that became a problem we would have to drive all round through Yugoslavia and down through Greece. You've got to try and build in enough time. Unfortunately you can't do it at the client's expense because it has happened since you have quoted and it isn't their fault (although in this case he is French!) but it isn't particularly anyone's fault. We've been contracted to do the gig."
"There's other things like driving regulations which mean that the guys can only do four hour stints. So you need at least two drivers."
What sort of work is the mobile doing these days?
"Well, one of the most significant things I've seen over the last few years is the change in the market and the things we do. When we first started, the original concept was to do location albums abroad. Then people started coming up and wanting to do gigs and so on and so forth."
"We did a lot of stuff out in Switzerland with Deep Purple and Nazareth - those types of people on location albums. What's been happening, particularly in the last couple of years is, as people have started producing home studio type equipment, it has created a situation where the band has said 'Why the heck should we pay X thousand pounds to take a mobile away when we could build the stuff into our house?'. That still leaves the people who actually want to go abroad to do an album and have a holiday, or the people who want to go abroad for tax reasons. But there are a lot of studios abroad now that are quite recent innovations and a lot of people will go to those now. That's cut down our market in that area. As that door is closing, however, the video boom and increase in TV work is growing. So we are probably still doing live albums at the rate we were, the location thing has quietened down a bit, and video has opened up."
"I think a lot of bands do prefer - particularly computer bands as I choose to call them - the situation where they can sit at home with their Yamaha DX7s and drum machines etc. That can all be done in the front room. To use up a mobile in that kind of situation is really a bit of a waste of money."
Have you any thoughts on young bands trying their hand at live recording?
"One of the things I miss with young bands - experience is such an important thing - if you get out and actually play together then you become a band. There are a lot of people who just sit around with computer stuff and it's just like people getting up and doing an individual thing with a couple of mates on stage. If a band does get themselves together and they do plenty of rehearsal they can get a bit of a live show going. Then I think that would give them a good basis for anything else. It overcomes the problem in the studio when they put themselves in with a producer and they themselves don't really know where they want to go, because they're not really integrated enough - I'm not being critical, I just think that actually getting out and playing is very important. It is fine to go into a studio and produce a wonderful album."
"Again with drum machines and keyboards - I feel that they've taken away a lot of the soul from music; it does come away slightly from musicianship. With a guitar, people can play very differently, but if you're playing a preprogrammed computer it's going to make the same noises - it's not going to have any soul. But that's me showing my age I suppose. I'm not being critical because there are some wonderful things coming out and, in a way, if you're dealing with electronic instruments less studio hardware is needed."
"A lot of the home type equipment is right for smaller bands because the stuff they're dealing with - keyboards and drum machines - they're all much more sophisticated bits of equipment than guys were dealing with 15 or 10 years ago. It feels quite right for them to have a little multitrack in their house or wherever they're working."
"It is good because it gives the guys experience of working with stuff like that. It's not like when people first went into the studio years ago: 'Wow man, look at all those knobs and dials'. In those days musicians were pretty well ignorant of recording techniques. But these days they know what they want and they can work more efficiently in a studio when they do get there."
There is a tremendous emphasis on the little Portastudio at home idea of how you are going to bounce all your tracks together and what to do with the EQ and everything else and nobody really thinks any more about just getting their band in a gig or in a hall and just recording it. That way you can concentrate on playing and you'll play well and you'll get some sort of feel down on the tape.
"Absolutely the point I am making. Feel in a band is a very strong point I should make about live recording: I've met studio engineers who have worked in the mobile who are used to getting perfect tom sounds. Well, of course, you are going to get sound spill on stage. That's one of the arts of doing it, that you can compromise and you can keep spill down to a minimum. But he found that he couldn't get a perfect drum sound no matter how much he gated it; it couldn't be done, so he was very dissatisfied."
"I can compromise because if you can get the sound of the band; if what I am doing works in my mix at the time and they sound pretty much like they're supposed to, then I think we're getting there. If your sounds on your tape are pretty reasonable and they're workable - I have to go for workable sounds but make sure everything fits together. The point of that is that you can get the feel on tape without going for pristine neat little sounds; as long as you can get the band's feel on tape then I think you are there and that's really what recording is all about."
"Good audience miking is the other thing - if you don't get the kiddiewinks" (he's not that old, really!) "on tape, then there's not much point in us being there is there?"
"We've done quite a lot of Jazz and it's just down to total feel. You want nice warm sounds of course, but it's not the most scientific piece of recording in the world. If the band is having a good night it will sound good anyway."
"Something that you find is that the band will start off their set, and it's all a bit shakey - it's very difficult to get it to sound right. As they pull themselves together the sounds start to slot in. Sometimes it is very dissatisfying because you've done a soundcheck, then they come back and it is nothing like the soundcheck and, OK, as they get into the first number it all starts to gell in. You can get into a panic situation where you're starting to tweak everything on the desk and that isn't the right thing to do. You just have to be a little bit more reserved and see what's going on and judge what you are hearing."
"The other thing, talking about pristine sounds, is that I'm not an EQ man. EQ on the desk is fairly limited by today's 4 or 5 band EQ standards. I like to try and get a decent sound coming out of the mics without any equalisation. Obviously certain things need to be tweaked here and there, but I'm not one of these people who puts up a microphone and then screws it to get what I want. The sound is there."
"If it sounds good on stage then really you want to get that sound on to tape. One or two technical things might need sorting out in terms that there might be some low bass kicking around, so you've got to take some of that out; but in terms of completely changing sounds, that's not on at all!"
"Snare sounds live are always a problem because drummers love tight snares. Tight snares don't sound good as a rule, so that's just something that one has to live with..."
And the mobile is something that young Mr. McKenna has to live in. You wouldn't believe the amount of gear you can pack into a truck of this size, but with a lot of organisation and planning you end up with probably more than you would find in your average top market fixed location studio.
The mixing desk is a Helios 32/24 which, since its initial installation has been totally taken apart and rebuilt, partly to keep up with the changing technology and demands in that area, and also for sheer ergonomics. The multitracks are 3M M79s, as is the stereo machine. There are also two Revox A77s along with two Alpine AL85 3-head cassette machines. To facilitate the video aspect of their work there is a Q-Lock synchroniser and colour TV monitor. Sound monitoring is on Tannoys and Auratones. Outboard gear consists of Urei limiters as well as Pye and Audio & Design Limiter Compressors; there are Master Room and Lexicon reverbs and a Lexicon DDL; EQ is catered for by Pultec, Langeven and Orban. They have Kepex and Roger Meyer noise gates; and Eventide harmoniser, Bel Flanger and MXR phaser. These are the 'fixed' facilities which may be supplemented with various bits and pieces which we found in the workshop.
As for microphones, the mobile carries somewhere in the region of 100 pieces, which, having made Mick describe in enormous detail. I am now not going to relate, suffice it to say that they include Shure, AKG, Neumann, Beyer, Sennheiser, Countryman, Sony, and Nady!
The maintenance on all this gear alone is tremendous, quite apart from actually organising it in and out of different venues every day. So next time you listen to a live album or see a live gig on your TV screen, spare a thought for the poor guys who made it all possible, and actually managed to get the thing down on tape the way it happened.
Feature by Janet Angus
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