The last time Oscar Söderlund was in the Kentish Town Forum, he was mixing the support act for a 2001 Motorhead gig. More than 12 years later, he has returned, but this time it’s with the breathy, acoustic-based twilight folk of Norway’s Ane Brun. “It’s a rock’n’roll PA [here] and so it’s a bit of a struggle,” he says during the soundcheck.
This two-month European tour, celebrating 10 years of Brun’s work, is traveling with mics, stage kit and an Allen & Heath iLive mixing system: “Everything except for the racks and stacks,” says Söderlund, who has worked with the songwriter since 2007. The system and the proscenium arch pose a challenge for him, because “with Ane, the sound is taken as far as possible”.
In the studio, he explains, her signature sound has become somewhat reliant on spring reverbs, tape echoes and other effects (“like Phil Spector”), particular on her 2011 album release It All Starts with One. Söderlund’s challenge is to create a similar kind of ambience in the live environment.
“It comes down to physics really, about getting a show as intense and loud as it can be, but using distance mics.” About making it “airy and dark and so that it has all the different elements”: no easy task with this shape of venue and this PA, he repeats. But he likes pitting himself against the room. “I love these kind of places. It’s frustrating when something is limiting you from doing the best you can… [but] we are going to get there, though.”
On stage there are two drummers, backing vocalist, two keyboard players (doubling on acoustic instruments), an upright bass player with pedal board and effects, a guitarist (again doubling on other instruments) and Ane. “It’s very dynamic, sometimes very soft and intimate and honest,” he says.
Söderlund uses a combination of strategic placement of Milab microphones particularly around the percussion, plus the addition of reverb and – especially – compression at different levels to create a “landscape”, a deeper texture, for certain songs; then, different stereo and mono settings to fill out the sound into something “a little more three-dimensional” in others.
“The iLive console, with its great reverb and compression, makes it possible for me to take It All Starts with One and present it with a live twist but pretty damn close to the recording, without close-miking and gating and so on.” His interest in iLive came via the experience of running a CD track through a T80 system, and the engineer observing that the fidelity was retained whether the level was high or low. “You pull the fader down a bit, you can still hear everything,” he says. Other desks, by comparison, sound too “pointy”.
His own business, Parashoot, now keeps an inventory of three T112s, two T72s and four iDR stageboxes (one iDR64, one 48 and two 16s). Söderlund praises the lightweight construction, the ease-of-use and the overall “sound” of the T112 system. “Everything is so good. It’s so light you can have it in a splitter van or in your bus trailer but you can still do pretty up-scale tours, which makes it so ideal.
“I’ve always said that they’ve made the best effect emulations in the business,” he offers. He has access to a Waves card, sure, but he still maintains “for on-board digital console effects, there is no question they are the best”. Expanding his stock with iDR boxes meant “I can get rid of all that shitty stage cable that breaks down on you. With the iDR boxes, [it ’s] perfect.
Now you can just have a maximum of 10m of cable for your drum overheads; put the box on the drum-riser, and have the shortest signal path possible. If that’s the key to my sound, that I’m trying to keep and stay digital as much as possible – then I don’t know. But I feel confident that it has a great deal to do with that.”
He remarks on the stability of the platform too (“It doesn’t crash on you. It’s not like you’re [ever] stuck with an Allen & Heath”) and also his liking of remote control via the MixPad app.
“I’ve done one summer tour as a support act and their main act didn’t have any FOH position. So I used the iPhone app, I had the console on stage and took my phone out into the audience and just controlled the DCAs. I think you have to be with the audience to see and feel their reaction so you can express that feeling a bit with your mix.”
Hang on: you mixed the gig… from your phone? “It was only a 30-minute show so I was pretty confident. I was muting the effects and mixing vocals. It’s got its limitations of course. I would say I did it, to an extent, to prove a point.”
He’s staying firmly ensconced behind the console tonight, though. What’s been his favourite moment on the tour so far? “The really nice reverb and the low end in the soft songs give you time to think about the sound.” Something that Forum audience in 2001 wouldn’t have done during Ace of Spades.