“Baguette… Spaghetti… Ham.”
Tim Wheeler, vocalist of Irish rock band Ash, is going through a list of different foodstuffs during a soundcheck at the Scala in the heart of London. It’s 5pm on Thursday 11 June, and three hours until stage time. “Canard à l’Orange. Why do people say 'duck à l’Orange' when they could just go full French?” Wheeler asks.
It is a philosophical question, but there’s no time to contemplate it as drummer Rick McMurray and sound engineer Alan 'Hagos' Haggarty wait backstage to talk about a new piece of equipment they’ve started to use for live mixing, the Allen & Heath Qu-Pac ultra-compact digital mixer. “It’s great, because it’s basically replacing three pieces of equipment: a Mackie desk, an HD24 recorder and a compressor for Tim’s vocals,” McMurray (pictured) explains.
McMurray uses the rack device to mix nine inputs and four backing tracks tracks to Wheeler’s and his own set of in-ears – bassist Mark Hamilton still prefers the good old wedges. “He likes to feel the air moving,” says McMurray. “I’m the opposite. I’ve gone just in-ears in combination with the Porter & Davies BC2 stool that provides the low end for me. It’s better than having a wedge blasting at me upfront.” [Editor’s note: The BC2 is a drummer’s aid which turns the bass drum signal into a ‘thump’ which can be felt through the stool.]
The Qu-Pac also runs backing tracks, which make up about 70 per cent of Ash’s entire set. It fits well with the band’s diverse output, recreating keyboards and the electronic parts live, as well as the strings that can be heard on Ash’s sixth studio album Kablammo!, recorded in the renowned Britannia Row studios. The Qu-Pac can be controlled using an iPad app, a feature McMurray plans to take advantage of in future. “At the moment [the Qu-Pac is] still mounted in our old rack. I hate the look of having this huge tower of stuff beside the drum kit,” he says.
While the band use most of the Qu-Pac’s inputs, there are a whole lot of outputs that are left unused. And each output has a graphic equaliser on it. “I’m really tempted to start running the wedges off it as well,” says Haggarty. “You could turn up at a festival and just plug it straight in, you probably wouldn’t even have to soundcheck anymore.” The Qu-Pac also supports 18-channel recording, so the band could record every show of the tour and release a live album at the end.
According to McMurray, the one let-down is the fact that you can’t input song titles, just numbers. “So Hagos has to shuffle numbers around when we shuffle the set-list around. But I understand they’re looking into it. There’ll hopefully be a software update soon,” he adds.
The digital mixer on stage is in contrast to what Haggarty faces front-of-house. The gig at Scala has the engineer working on an analogue desk for the first time in what seems like forever. “It’s interesting going back to analogue. I was always an analogue guy, but now, going back to it, I’m realising that the EQ on the digital desks is a lot more precise. Also there’s a [Soundcraft] MH3 and the bands don’t cross over as much as on a digital desk.”
The Turbosound rig in the venue wouldn’t be Haggarty’s first choice either. “I’m a line array convert. It is definitely the way forward,” he says. “I worked with a lot of the old point source stuff in biggish rooms, and it just spreads everywhere. The line array, which kind of focuses the sound in the area you want it, is much clearer. So you don’t have to go for the big American sound all the time, you know: big bass drum and big vocals. You can actually have your bass guitar in the mix.”
Adds McMurray: “Over the years it has turned into a common thing for engineers we work with to always focus on the vocals. People want to hear the words and sing along with the songs. We’re a guitar band but it’s still quite pop and very melodic. You need to get those melodies over the level of the on stage sound which is pretty hard.
“We used to be a lot worse. I remember at the first shows we did the sound engineers were actually taking Mark’s volume knob off the amp, to make it look like it was on eight when it was really on four.”
It’s time for McMurray and his Ash bandmates to meet a few fans before the gig. Onstage, Wheeler has switched from foods to geography, Canadian prairie provinces, specifically. “Alberta… Manitoba… Saskatchewan.” It’s going to be a great show.