To mark the 21st anniversary of their 1998 genre-defying masterpiece Mezzanine, Massive Attack recently hit the road with a spectacular audio-visual arena tour celebrating its release. Simon Duff headed to the O2 Arena London show to catch up with FOH mixer Rob Allan and take a look behind the scenes…
Robb Allan splits his time between FOH mixing for world class acts and designing consoles for Avid, with the S6L very much being his flagship project. His mix clients rank as some of the world's most sonically adventurous, ranging from Manic Street Preachers, Coldplay, Radiohead and, since 2005, Massive Attack.
In 2006, his work for Avid started initially as trade implementation on the D-Show, and eventually evolving into design and consultation on the Avid S6L. For the current Massive Attack run, CS Audio is providing two S6Ls, while at FOH control there is a S6L 24-D (24 faders) and at monitors a S6L 32-D (32 faders). Both are running at 96 kHz 40 bit floating. Paul Hatt, another long term Massive Attack associate, is mixing monitors, and also happens to own and run CS Audio, a mid-level touring outfit with a focus on control systems. His recent clients include Neil Finn, Orbital, Groove Armada, and Barbara Dixon.
The S6L has been developed as a next generation digital console and has seen success since its release in 2015, already outselling the Avid Profile. Allan wanted a new, detailed layout for the product but also to keep existing Profile users happy, and for unfamiliar engineers to be able to get the console up and running within 10 minutes.
“In 2013, I sat in a room with American audio guru Robert Scovill, and the large brains of Sheldon Radford and Al McKinna, surrounded by white boards, felt pens in hand, with a view to conceive a new console that would build on Profile and realise the next generation,” Allan explains. “The end result is the best sounding digital desk I have ever come across, and I think I've probably worked on most of them. It surprises me every single day – the stereo field is so wide and detailed.”
Hatt's first mix duties with the S6L came in December 2018, when he used it on monitor duties for Groove Armada, a regular client of his for many years. He says: “It's a great desk and simple to use. For Massive Attack, I am creating 14 stereo in-ear mixes for the band and crew, so I need to be able to access everything quickly and for things to be well laid out and simple to use. The two S6Ls are gain sharing and that has meant we only need two stage boxes, rather than the four we used on the last run. It cuts out a lot of copper cabling and any issues are quickly dealt with now.”
Massive Attack, led by Robert Del Naja a.k.a. 3D, who designed the show, is a band collective with a cutting edge approach to pushing sonic boundaries. For the current tour, they have upped the audio by re-sampling much of the original multitrack Mezzanine material, as well as original source samples. The band's on stage line up of up to 10 musicians consists of two drummers, bass and guitars with no amps used, synths, and various vocals. Essentially a silent stage, apart from real cymbals, is the order of the day. Vocals include Elizabeth Fraser and Horace Andy who both use Sennheiser 935 mics. Other stage mics include Shure beta 91 and AKG D 12 on kick drums, Beyer 201 on the snare and Beyer D58c for toms. Shure SM81 and DPA are also used, all provided by CS Audio. The show runs along similar lines of a theatre show, or art installation, with film content provided by Adam Curtis, a long term Massive Attack collaborator. It traces key political events from 1998, the year of Mezzanine's release, to the present.
Audio wise, the show has a large dynamic that ranges from hip-hop, EDM, punk, reggae, Americana, to highly detailed folk influenced ballads. From loud and powerful to quiet and delicate, it's a highly complex mix for both Allan and Hatt. Indeed, Allan describes the current mix as among the most demanding he has ever worked on. The show runs to a timecode sent from the stage, along with some stem playback such as orchestral parts and FX . The timecode fires S6L snapshots and automation with some songs, such as 'Group Four', using 16 snapshots.
'Teardrop' and 'Angel' both use two snapshots. This automation frees up Allan to mix the more 'moment'- based artistic mix points and high demand vocal detail. Allan records every S6L channel for each show to Pro Tools (128 channels, 96 k 24 bit via CAT 5). This allows for a full virtual soundcheck that can trigger all video and lighting, thus enabling a full production virtual check. Allan notes: ”Massive Attack are very skilled musicians and Robert has incredible ears. He pays huge attention to detail. He'll say things like, 'That hi hat was different yesterday”, and he will be right. At the same time, I am allowed room to improvise and be creative on my end."
He continues: "Massive Attack is a challenging environment. We talk in quite abstract language, but we both know what we are talking about and we discuss concepts all the time. Changes can and are made frequently, even close to show time.”
Stage split to both FOH and monitors is around 90 inputs. For Avid plugins, Allan uses a Waves Server at FOH. His vocal chain is made up of a Primary Source Expander, in effect a conscious gate, then into a 1176 compressor, then a De-essor. His Bass plugin is a Pro Multiband for bass channels. “I split the bands so that they cross over where the PA splits between the subs and the flown lows, then again at around 300Hz, and finally at 800,” he says. “The bottom end in Massive Attack is very important and needs to be strong and forceful yet under control. With the Pro Multiband inserted, I can gently control the way the bass is being sent to different parts of the PA, allowing it to be musical and deep without ever overloading any part of the system. There are also a couple of vintage synths delivering venue shaking sub tones at certain points in the set. I use the channel comp with a high ratio to keep those hounds on the leash.”
As for reverb, Allan uses Sonnox Oxford V3, ReVibe P37 APRIL 2019 11, and Waves again for delay. Hatt takes a copy of all FOH FX so the band can get those on in-ears. Final sends from the FOH to PA are Left, Right and a send to a Centre Cluster with no compression used on any outs, and a Meyer Sound Galileo is used to control all PA. System tech and designer for the run is Michael Gazdziak, who, along with Allan, opted that the PA of choice for Europe to be a d&b GSL KSL, with the London O2 show PA comprising 18 GSL per side, 18 subs on the floor, 12 KSL for out fills, and six KSL for the centre cluster, plus Y7Ps for in fills. All were driven by d&b D20 amps with each loudspeaker assigned its own D20.
On last year's Radiohead tour, the pair first used GSL on a large outdoor South American show. Allan was more than impressed with the PA's performance: “In Argentina, I used it in a field, and even at 100 metres from FOH I had a consistent sound coverage. Another major factor is the GSL directivity behaviour that creates the 'quiet stage' experience and the massively reduced environmental impact to the side and behind the arrays.
"I have massively enjoyed the audio quality of the S6L and GSL. It seems like the next generation in live touring. That combination will be used a lot I am sure.”
Going forward, Allan’s Avid work continues and he is looking at further console developments. “We are always working on a couple of software versions ahead and a couple of hardware things that are confidential at the moment,” he comments. “We are still working on this concept of the S platform so that every console works with every engine and I/O box. As we have built that platform we can move in any direction we want. That will involve more complex networking and I/O devices on networks, more desks sharing the same pre amps, and more integration with third parties, for example, for immersive audio we are involved with d&b's Soundscape and L-Acoustics' L-ISA, with a plugin for both.