PSNPresents: a quick chat with Massive Attack’s Robb Allan4 March 2015
Live sound supremo Robb Allan will be joining us on the panel at PSNPresents next week. We grabbed 15 minutes on the phone with him before he heads to London from his home in Barcelona…
Robb, what have you been up to?
“My day job is working for Avid, working in the product management team, on design, R&D and workflow for the consoles, the last of which was the S3L. I also do the training and ‘customer facing’ stuff, like main stage demos, for the rest of the world.
“The big thing myself and colleague Chris Lambrechts have been doing recently is the S3L Training Tour around Europe: five desks, two people per desk, two sessions of three hours per day, generally six sessions in a week. So, since we launched last September, we’ve taken it to 1,500 people! Each time, three hours on how the desk works, how you attach it to Pro Tools, how to do virtual soundchecks and so on. It’s one thing to see a picture on the internet, it’s another to get your hands on a desk and work on it.
“We’ve been in something like 35 cities, from Dubai/Qatar to Norway, Finland, Estonia… In Germany, I don’t know how many cities we’ve done there!
“The other thing I’ve been doing is touring with Massive Attack and putting my money where my mouth is. Having been involved in the design and development of the S3L, I wanted to show it to its fullest potential out in the world. When Massive Attack asked me to do the tour, I said, yes, but I want to bring this desk. And they were crazy keen on it.”
When was the tour?
“It started last May, a few months after we got up and running with the S3L. But it was one of the bigger tours to take the desk out. I had some interesting conversations at FOH at festivals, with a desk that I – literally – carried to the mix position under my arm. Then putting it on a keyboard stand. [People said:] ‘What are you, the piano player? Do you know Misty?’ That sort of thing.” [Laughs]
You were the Manic Street Preachers sound engineer for 17 years.
“Yeah, from the beginning, from when it was me and four of them in a minibus playing to 20 people in a pub. They were my boys!”
What did that experience teach you?
“One, that PAs have become really good now. Wherever we go, the d&b and L-Acoustics systems are amazing. Back in the day, the Manics would turn up somewhere in Europe and it would be just shocking.
“Two, that I really don’t want to spend my life touring! I jumped off the road and took the gig with Avid. I love touring, and I loved the tour with Massive Attack, but by the end of that I’d had enough of buses and travelling and being away from my family. But! Massive Attack’s the best band in the world to mix as far as I can see…”
Why is that?
“Just in terms of the music. It just gets inside you, it speaks to your id. The feeling at Massive Attack gigs is weird, it’s like dance music, but political and spiritual too. People get lost in it –and I do too.
“And [the band] are open to me being creative. You don’t do the same every night, unlike Coldplay, where you have to be bang on every time. [Allan mixed the South American Coldplay tour in 2005.] With Massive Attack, they are happy for the mix to go in different directions depending on the crowd; they have an improvisational element to what they do, and they are happy for me to do that too, which is very cool.”
“The whole gig is driven by LTC (linear timecode) from the band on the stage. That comes up the multicore into a channel on the S3L. A direct out of that LTC channel goes to a Rosendahl MIF4 timecode sync unit/generator, and is also recorded to Pro Tools. Other departments (lasers, lighting, video) are daisychained from the MIF to their own MIF units, which convert the signal to MTC (MIDI timecode) and drives light sequences, video and so on. The MIF converts and sends MTC to my desk to trigger snapshots via a Roland UM-1 (USB MIDI interface).
“In virtual mode, the LTC recorded as audio on the Pro Tools session is played back through a channel on the desk. A direct out to the MIF is then daisychained exactly as above. So, it makes no difference to production whether LTC is live or recorded as its always sync’ed to show files in all departments.”
In other words, the ‘virtual soundcheck’ can be more of a ‘virtual production check’?
“Yes. And [Massive Attacks protagonist] 3D will sit FOH with me and go through every cue to see that it’s properly rehearsed. He’s amazing and never misses anything!”
Ahead of PSNPresents next week, what tip would you pass on to aspiring engineers right now?
“The thing I always say – whatever job you’re doing, whatever level you’re at, you need to do it to the best of your ability with the best of humour, because that’s how you get your next job. You never get the next gig by having a bad attitude.”
PSNPresents, inspired by The Pre-Roll section of last year’s Pro Sound Awards, is centred around a sequence of on-stage interviews and panels with leading lights from the pro-audio spectrum. Focusrite and Avid are the principal event sponsors (see Focusrite confirmed as PSNPresents sponsor and Avid lends support to FREE PSNPresents), and Focusrite will be giving every attendee the chance to win a RedNet 6 MADI bridge (see WIN a Focusrite RedNet 6 worth £1600 at PSNPresents)! The event is free but you need to register to attend.
PSNPresents will take place at the Ham Yard Hotel, London, on Thursday 12 March from 6.45pm with a 7.30pm start. Register for your free ticket below!