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Night flight to the oasis

Brand New Heavies

Engineer Jim Ebdon shares some secrets about getting a heavy live sound, and Andrew Levy explains the band’s approach to recording


Currently on tour with the Brand New Heavies, Jim Ebdon is the engineer that Wet Wet Wet, the Pet Shop Boys, Soul II Soul and Morrissey trust to get their live sound right. Chris Kempster talks to Jim about getting that perfect live sound, and to the band about recording the Heavies vibe...


It's a cold and wet Saturday afternoon in Docklands, and I'm driving around the kind of red brick warehouses that were the powerhouse of the industrial revolution, but now get turned into apartment complexes, or else used as filmsets for a dodgy British film.

The peace of this desolate landscape is suddenly broken by an explosion of thumping bass that would have any neighbours reaching for a draft of the Criminal Justice Bill. Drawn in the direction of the sound. I notice a tour truck for the first time, and stumble through the backdoor into an improvised auditorium...

Just back from tours of America and Japan, the Brand New Heavies are fine-tuning their act before they hit the road in the home country. I'm here to see their soundman Jim Ebdon, for whom this tour represents a contrast to the stadium-sized jobs he's been on in recent times. Making my way to his setup halfway down the hall, I'm surprised to see an old college mate, trumpeter Neil Yates, soundchecking on the sizeable stage. Each bandmember takes it in turns to strut their stuff before they launch into a six-hour practise session, during which time Jim pinpoints and corrects any potential problems. Almost immediately, there seems to be problem. The brass section is situated behind leadsinger N'Dea, and there's a lot of their sound leaking into her mic. The problem is compounded by the character of N'Dea's voice. Jim explains: "She's got a very high, middy voice which I compress a bit, to smooth it out. I often use a [Behringer] Composer."

After consultation with N'Dea, Jim opts for a perspex sheet arrangement in front of the horn section. This not only prevents their sound from leaking forwards, but also proves beneficial to the hornplayers, providing a good dose of their own sound back in their faces. When working live, it seems that improvisation is an essential trait, and the obvious pressure to produce the goods quickly is an aspect that gives Jim a buzz: "You've only got one chance to get it right. Recording is easy by comparison."

And Jim should know. He started his engineering career in time-honoured fashion as teaboy at Surrey Sound studios, before working his way up to house engineer. During his six years at Surrey Sound, he worked with Jeff Beck, The Police, Siouxsie and the Banshees amongst others, before the nomadic instinct of the live sound engineer lured him away. Spells as system engineer for SSE, Britannia Row (featured in November issue), Electrotec, and Claire Bros have made Jim one of the most sought-after engineers in the business, and culminated in his recognition at the 1993 Live Music awards as runner-up for 'Best Live Sound Engineer'. Returning to the kit, I found Jim's best desk was a Yamaha PM4.

"I think these boards are great. The Midas board has a better EQ, but this is so well laid out. There's 48 input channels and four stereo channels."

Three racks is all it takes: effects processing by AMS, Eventide and Yamaha; signal processing by Behringer, dbx and BSS.




"There's nothing fancy — they're not a fancy band. They're a band that powers up and just gets on with it."


Surveying the three massive flightcased racks, I'm curious to know what the workhorse units of the setup are.

"The main effects are the Eventide H3000, the AMS RMX16 reverb, Yamaha SPX990s. If I could have more Eventides I would, 'cos I think they sound very nice, with some good settings. It uses a left to right pitch shift, which is basically a stereo spread for the brass, really, and it makes the three-piece horn section sound like an eight-piece. The AMS reverb is still the best around for vocals.

I also notice a large complement of Behringer units in Jim's racks, and a glance at the Line List (see illustration) confirms that the Composer (compressor) is used on all horns and vocals. In addition, a Behringer Ultrafex is lying on top of the flightcases, suggesting recent arrival.

"I've only had it about ten days, and I haven't really had a chance to play with it yet. But it seems great in giving the vocals presence. It's probably as good as any I've heard, and it's easy to use."

The overall setup strikes me as being capable but not over-elaborate, and Jim concurs.

"There's nothing fancy — they're not a fancy band. They're a band that powers up and just gets on with it."



"You've only got one chance to get it right. Recording is easy by comparison."


On the subject of power, I asked about their FOH set-up.

"The actual rigging is SSE's ElectroVoice MT2 and MT4 — about 40,000 watts. It's very loud. We just take the right amount of speakers to cover the hall. Every speaker system is loud enough, but the question is whether it covers the venue in the right places. For the Cambridge Corn Exchange (the gig THE MIX attended), we would use six MT4 high cabinets, and six MT4 bass cabinets, but we actually use less than that for smaller venues. With this system, the harder you drive it, the better it sounds. The speakers are designed to be driven very hard, and they have a natural compression that sounds very nice. We're using a digital crossover system, so you know that the left and right of the PA are identical all the time. Half these crossover systems that are about are unreliable."

What about on-stage monitoring?

"All our wedges there are BMLs, which is a variation on the ElectroVoice DeltaMax. You can actually use those as a small PA, two each side and a bass cabinet. It's also a very good club system. We're using them just as monitors."

N'Dea and the Heavies funk out at the Cambridge Corn Exchange


In case you're wondering what relevance this might have to a Saturday night gig at your local, Jim has some good advice for getting the best out of small setups.

"The best tip I can give in a small venue for an in-house engineer is to turn the PA off and just listen to the sound that's coming from the stage, and how the room responds. Listen to just the band playing, with no PA or monitors on. Then enhance that sound, as usually in small venues there's not a big enough PA to get above the sound of the band. Once you've got the sound on your mixing desk, cut the PA again, and see how dramatically different it is.

"This way, the audience will hear the actual band and not the PA. The other thing is, you'll end up in a complete mess if you make the sound the opposite to its original source in a small place. It's just complementing it — you can have the bass drum punchy, and the snare drum cracking, and the vocals in your face, but they have to sound similar to the original."

Some sterling advice, then, for playing in smaller venues. It seems that a lot of what applies to mixing live sound in large places is equally applicable to humbler gigs. One thing's for sure, 'though. With top bands continuing to demand the best possible live sound they can get, engineers of the calibre of Jim Ebdon are going to be in high demand. And on the evidence of the Heavies gig at Cambridge, he's got some very busy times ahead...

Line list sheet shows which channel each instrument comes in on, and what microphones and signal/effects processors are used.


Original Flava album review — Monitor Mix p82

Heavyography

Singles
Got To Give Cooltempo
People Get Ready Acid Jazz
Never Stop Acid Jazz
Dream Come True Acid Jazz
Dream On Dreamer London
Midnight At The Oasis London

Albums
Brand New Heavies Acid Jazz
Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol 1 London
Brother Sister London
Original Flava
(reviewed in Monitor Mix, p82)
Acid Jazz


Rack for hire

For the Heavies' Cambridge date, Jim was using his own mobile setup to record the gig. Dwarfed by the Yamaha live desk and racks, Jim's personal setup consists of a rack containing three Tascam DA88s and a Behringer Composer, and a Mackie 32:8:2 desk. That's 24 tracks of digital audio, in an eminently portable package. The choice of the Tascam over ADAT was due to several factors.

"I had a demo of this and the Alesis, and it just seems like the transport is much more heavy-duty on this. Also there's no (service) backup with the Alesis. On this, I can record about two hours from start to finish — it's great. You do your basic tracks at home, say, then just mix it onto two tracks. You can take 16 tracks to record vocals, then pick the track you like and put it on one track. It's endless."

Jim was recording several dates of the Heavies tour, and that particular night the BBC were outside the venue with one of their 'megabuck' mobiles. Content with 24 tracks of analogue and eight of digital, the Beeb engineers had asked Jim for copies of his DA88 tapes. So much for confidence in themselves...

Jim's setup is available for hire, along with an engineer if required (but not Jim, unless you're loaded). Call Jim at SSE on (Contact Details).


Taping Levy

"We're involved in every stage of the recording process, from tracking to mastering", says Andrew Levy, purveyor of the fat and funky basslines for BNH.

It's obvious that the band take as much interest in the technical side of things, to ensure they get the right final sound. The Heavies' last album Brother Sister, engineered by Yoyo and produced by BNH, was recorded in a variety of studios, both here and in the States, so as to keep them fresh. 'Though they have the pick of the world's plushest studios, BNH often record in humbler surroundings.

"We're not trying to get a slick, over-produced sound, so we mostly record in cheaper studios where we can get the sound we want."

A listen to any Heavies record will reveal a sound that's refreshingly different to much of today's music, with real instruments well recorded, and a distinct emphasis on groove. It turns out that the sound they get on tape owes much to their early years playing smaller venues.

"We played a lot in clubs, where the drums would sound really tight and dry. You can hear what you're doing, without loads of reverb on everything."

In contrast to the meticulous programming and planning of a lot of bands, the Heavies develop new material while soundchecking, and just by jamming in the studio.

"When we're playing in the studio, we'll have a DAT running the whole time, so when something good happens we can listen to it and develop it further. Sometimes some of the stuff on DAT makes it to the album. There's a couple of tracks on Brother Sister like that."

Although you'd expect performers of the calibre of BNH to leave their recording activities to commercial studios, all the members of the band have their own setups at home:

"I've got an Akai S2800, a Mac with Opcode's Vision sequencer, and a Studiomaster 16:8:2 desk. I use a lot of drum loops, and lay bass along to it. We all write new stuff at home."

The band plan to go the whole hog and buy their own studio in the near future, in keeping with their policy of retaining control of their own recordings.


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Readership Survey & Competition 1995

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Jammie dodgers


The Mix - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

The Mix - Jan 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter, Chris Moore

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

In Session

Topic:

Live


Artist:

Brand New Heavies


Role:

Band/Group

Feature by Chris Kempster

Previous article in this issue:

> Readership Survey & Competit...

Next article in this issue:

> Jammie dodgers


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