Miranda Sex Garden: Sampling The Nation's PA Systems | Miranda Sex Garden
Miranda Sex Garden are right now in the process of, as the hoary old chestnut goes, 'paying their dues'. In other words, slogging around the colleges and small clubs of the UK, painstakingly building an audience which they — and their record company Mute — hope will evolve into a large and steady fan base in years to come. Their recently completed tour was their first as headliners, timed to coincide with the release of their first album.
The band's format, like their coyly weird name, is set to attract attention. For those unfamiliar with this outfit, the MSG concept is based around three girls who sing in a madrigal, 3-part harmony style. However, lurking behind them in the black and crusty corner in a fog of grungey minor chords is a 3-piece thrash rock band — bass/guitar/drums trio. Just the thing to complement wafting madrigal harmonies, dontcha think?
I talked to Dave Westrop, house (and sometimes monitor) engineer on this latest tour. His experiences will make interesting reading for anyone embarking on that long and weary road to superstardom, for Dave — who is no stranger to megabucks PA rigs — found himself using whatever gear those low-rent venues had to offer. Some, as we shall see, was good, some bad, and some, well, frankly...
He takes up the story of the line-up. "The band create a very colourful, pagan style of music for the girls to weave their voices around. The girls are also playing as a 3-piece string section with two violins and an electric cutaway, solid body viola.
"Another integral part of their music is a keyboard which is mainly used on a standard classical pipe organ program; there is no sampling at all. Everything is acoustically-sourced — they don't believe in digital trickery."
Pre-MSG, Catherine Blake, Kelly McCusker and Donna McKevitt had worked as a pure classical madrigal trio and recorded an album in their own right; the thrash backing was a later addition. They were 'discovered' in Portobello Road and signed to Mute, home of Depeche Mode and Nick Cave. What, I wondered, is the band like to work with in live performance terms?
"It's a very interesting prospect, because of the different flavours of the band. One is electronic and comes from an indie background, another is the traditional vocals — so its already a bit of a culture clash — and from it all comes a new kind of style."
The girls were classically trained but, says Dave, "The band were un-classically trained! The band is trained as a band. From an engineering point of view, it's wonderful to work with people who can actually sing; they know what they're doing in terms of musical theory."
But they're clearly less fussed about following any particular musical fashion — this weird melange of ethereal voices and noisy band with its tom tom-driven rhythms reminded me, fleetingly, of Sonja Kristina's Curved Air, while Dave says he finds echoes of the Velvet Underground.
Dave: "They're very 'underground' in their outlook, because they're classically trained their musical upbringing has always been on the left of indie."
He opens the batting on the subject of budget 'house' systems: "Sometimes you get really good equipment, other times — more often than not — you get the bum end of the deal: a bass bin that's been thrashed to death on countless all-nighters with no movement in the coil, and it's just waiting to die!"
What do MSG demand for their live sound?
"They want something raunchy and indie, lots of jangly guitars, accentuated rhythm section, drums a-plenty, and ethereal voices mixed through it. They kept getting on at me about not putting the voices up too much above the mix; they're looking for an overall effect, which, texturally, works for them really well because, as I say we've got this 3-sided attack: the acoustic violins, the electric mayhem, and those sweet voices."
What does it mean on the desk?
"Well, the problematic part is always the strings [two violins and one viola]. The viola goes through a 50W Marshall guitar combo, so she's got all this sustain and reverb — all the effected stuff. At the same time, I take a direct injected line from the pickup on the desk. The violins are treated as their traditional acoustic nature dictates: with the bridge mounted microphones using Sennheiser MK10s or Crown pickups."
Dave emphasises the importance of using appropriate mics — the best you can afford — for vocals in particular.
"We insist on buying Beyer NCE-81 condensor mics for vocals, because I knew we were doing some dodgy gigs. I used that mic before on Marc Almond's backing singers, and it sounded beautifully crystal clear, yet it didn't pick up the band noise — great separation. I rarely had a vocal problem at all, simply because we had the right mics."
As for the remainder of the band, they basically "got what they were given," says Dave. "We only took the vocal mics and the violin bugs, and the backline. The guitar amp is rather special, an ancient and rather rare Vox, plus quite a few pedals for a raunchy, chorused, delayed and distorted sound. One of everything! The guitars were Fender copies, various.
The bass was a Fender Jazz, through a rented Hartke rig, while the kit was a Yamaha acoustic set, a little out of the ordinary since the predominant tom-tom rhythms dictated an unusual layout — "A jazz-looking kit," says Dave, "he does a lot of cross tom-tom rolls, and most of the hi-hat work is with his feet."
There were three mics on the snare, kick, two overheads and the three roms. "A pretty simple mic-up," adds Dave, "until you get to the violins." The drummer used drum fills with a general mix to supplement the band's wedges. Again, it was a case of "using what we were given. It's a bit of a baptism of fire for the band, I guess."
"The lower-key clubs seem reluctant to keep their gear upgraded, for whatever reason. But at university level you get new mics, the latest versions of things."
Presumably with MSG, Dave had to contend with pretty high monitor levels?
"Yeah... in fact, maybe 20% of the time I was mixing monitors from the front-of-house desk as well. A real nightmare. Because the girls sing 3-part harmonies they have to pitch against each other, so they need to hear each other at different levels, but above the band that's roaring away behind them."
Does the mix balance necessitate a lot in the way of gates and compressors?
"Well, one thing about the stage setup is that because the girls have to hear themselves, all of the backline faces backwards, towards the drummer. For that reason alone the kit has to be gated; but on the plus side, it means the backline isn't pouring down the vocal mics, which takes some of the pressure off me, too.
"As for compression — when I've got it, I'll use it. But the girls, being classically trained are very good so it's not that important. For vocals, you do need a good desk EQ and a really good reverb — a seriously good one."
How often did you get one?
Dave laughs. "We got a Lexicon once or twice! Given the choice, I'd actually use an AMS. The only other thing I'd love to spec as standard is a pair of insert-graphics for the acoustic violins, because those bugs can really howl. That way you can just notch out problem frequencies on each channel rather than taking them out of the whole system."
If you're mixing monitors from the house desk, ringing-out the room (using system EQ to reduce the level of specific feedback frequencies) must be horrendous?
"It's not something I look forward to! You do the room, then you go over to the monitors and you know that whatever you've got left in them has to be taken out!"
Do the band understand these restrictions?
Dave nods. "Yeah. They know that if something has to suffer it'll be their stage sound, because primarily they've got to convey what they're doing to the audience."
I asked Dave to spill the beans on some of the more 'difficult' venues and PA systems he'd come across. He observes that biting the hand that helps feed him is not necessarily a great career move. "I don't want to slag people off..." He explained, however, that a typical worse-case-scenario might be: "A gig with gear that's obviously been trashed throughout its life. It's not worth tearing your hair out — if it's really bad you won't get the sound you're used to. You could try using the band's live sound more — the backline and any direct acoustic sound, and maybe just put the vocals through the PA.
"In some places speakers were trying to move in their boxes, but there was so much gunge and old beer in them that they couldn't! The same with mixing desks. One place, we had an ancient blue TAC: above 1kHz, the channel EQ just gave up... nothing! Or elsewhere, a house guy would come in and say, 'channel nine doesn't work. Nor does this amp or that socket.' So you think, OK, I won't use those, then. Or the mics are six battered old 58s — for the kick and snare and everything else. What can you do? But then our own Beyer vocal mics would sound good through a £40 ghetto blaster — that helps a lot."
On house systems, our seats of learning got his vote: "Universities, overall, were better equipped than clubs, which I found strange. The lower-key clubs seem reluctant to keep their gear upgraded, for whatever reason. But at university level you get new mics, the latest versions of things. When I started we always dreaded doing universities [among Dave's first tours in the early '70s was college-circuit stalwarts Gong] — they were really shitty. They're a lot more together now. Even the food's edible!
"Our vocal mics were a really good litmus test of house engineers' attitudes. There are two reactions to them. One was: 'These mics sound a bit dodgy, you should use SM58s,' by which he meant it showed all the inadequacies of his PA or monitors and he wasn't going to admit it. The other was: 'These are good — how much are they?' Those were obviously the people with the happening gear so they could hear the benefits."
Dave says Soundcraft, with its affordable Spirit and Venue ranges, has become perhaps the most familiar name across the college/small club circuit — although TAC also figured strongly up north. "The Soundcrafts are good desks, and they're so cheap people are willing to revamp with them," says Dave, "and they're very user-friendly. EQ is the critical factor at that level — to help get vocals and instruments sounding good in a poor room — and I'd much rather meet one of those, however simple, than some ancient beast covered in impressive looking knobs, half of which either don't work at all or just go 'ggggrrkkkk' when you turn them."
In conclusion — and believe me, we'd hit an unstoppable vein of stupidly libellous anecdotes by this time — there was one venue's name that Dave was very happy to give an honourable mention to.
Take a bow (and cue fanfare sample), Warwick University, which with its Martin and Soundcraft gear, plus brand new Sennheiser mics, was adjudged 'best venue' on the Miranda Sex Garden '93 UK tour.
Feature by Mike Lethby
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