Life, Death & Iron Maiden

by Keith Clark
in Production Profile
Concert sound isn't usually a matter of life or death, but leave it to Iron Maiden to be the exception. The iconic metal band's recent "Matter Of Life Or Death" world tour proves that after more than 30 years, they haven't slowed down a tick and still demand a P.A. that permeates sold-out arenas with full-range output, while also upholding the first commandment of metal: Make it loud. "Life Or Death" kicked off stateside Iron Maiden-style, marking the first concert tour handled by the new U.S. operation of ML Executives. The long-time U.K.-based hire company, owned and directed by Gary Marks (see sidebar), dispatched ace line array technician Michael Hackman to oversee the house system during the tour's journey from the U.S. to Japan and then home to Europe, with concluding dates at Earl's Court in London.

A decidedly veteran system tech and mix engineer, Hackman has become expert in optimizing line arrays of many stripes since his first exposure in the mid-1990s led to a fascination with the genre. "Every line array brings a little something different to the table," he explained during a tour stop at Chicago's All-State Arena, gazing out at the EAW KF760 line arrays in place for that night's show. "Each has its own quirks, but the true difference maker is sonic quality, particularly on the top end. That's where you tend to hear the most variation, and then there's the warmth of the mids, especially with rock 'n' roll. Better sound still wins the day, and then you look at the speed of the rigging scheme."

Brantley Sound of Nashville supplied the loudspeakers, amplification and system processing for the U.S. leg, with Joe Calabrese and John Roberson of the company providing expert support. ("I can't say enough about the efforts of Brantley and these two guys. They really know their business," Hackman noted in an aside.) The rig stayed fairly consistent from show to show, with front left and right arrays usually comprised of 14 (or sometimes 13) EAW KF760s and two (or sometimes three) EAW KF761 near-field modules. These are flanked by side-fill arrays of six (or sometimes seven) KF760s with two (or sometimes three) KF761s. Geometric differences presented by each arena accounted for the slight array structure variations.

"The EAW line arrays have headroom to spare, with a particular advantage being that it can get -- and stay -- very loud without stress. That's particularly a good match with a band of this nature," Hackman said. "The arrays can also be made to sound not so 'hi-fi,' but rather more of an appropriate extension of heavy guitar-based metal rock, and this signature is fairly easy to attain."

Following up on his point about rigging, he added, "One of the things I love about the KF760 box is that it goes up very quickly. You just roll it in, hook it up and lift it in the air. Particularly on bigger shows, where we often have to wait for everything else to go in and then wait more for fly points, the faster it goes up, the better. I also like the fact that the hardware has a fixed point-beam, so if you've got the right trim height and correct angle point, the positioning of the arrays is automatically going to be correct."

The EAW SB1000 dual-18-inch-loaded cabinets produced plenty of sub-bass energy, and were generally floor-stacked threeover- three per side for the tour. It was to have been four subs high, but the late addition of four-over-four sets of EAW KF750 three-way touring loudspeakers atop each sub stack changed that plan.

"As an old-school band, Iron Maiden likes having P.A. ground stacks as well as the flown arrays to enhance the particular P.A. 'feel' they've grown used to. It gives them an added vibe onstage that's coming from the house, particularly when they walk out on the stage thrusts," Hackman explained, adding with a smile, "It also gives the band something else to climb on top of during their shows."

Levels typically average in the 105 dB (low) range at FOH, with Hackman always very diligent about clearing up all time alignment issues before handing the system over to FOH Engineer Doug Hall. His primary tool in this effort, besides his own ears, was EAW Smaart Live measurement and analysis software, and specifically its impulse function, which allows for quicker and more precise alignment of the subs, side hangs, ground stacks and main arrays. ("With the additional ground stacks, there's a bit more than usual to align with this system," he noted.) After alignment, he then deployed Smaart as a spectrum analyzer.

Six XTA DP226 digital units handled system processing, with Hackman taking advantage of the XTA WLAN "Walkabout" to do remote equalization -- generally just applying a bit of helpful EQ to specific curves and so forth. Two DP226 inputs were dedicated to each main array, with separate band-pass outputs to the mids and highs of the KF761s. "This configuration gave us more control, such as taking a bit of EQ out of the mids of the KF760s without impacting the KF761s," he explained. "We worked the parametric portion of the XTAs for this, in order to get a balance, and then applied XTA graphic EQ across the main left and right hangs, as well as the out fills for general tweaking."

FOH Engineer Hall took over from there, with lead singer Bruce Dickinson's vocals -- courtesy of a Shure Beta 87C capsule on a wireless transmitter -- being his primary focal point. Hall wanted plenty of levels from this mic and thus ran a healthy dose of gain, so Hackman stayed always mindful of the positioning of the house system in relation to stage ramps and thrusts to help avoid the "dreaded squeal" of feedback.

For the U.S. tour leg, Brantley Sound provided a Crown CTS Series amplification package for the line arrays and subs while Crest Pro Series powered the ground stacks. The other legs of the tour utilized Lab.Gruppen amplifiers, which is ML Executives' usual choice in driving this system. The "loud and proud" theme continued onstage, with six EAW KF850 three-way cabinets allotted three per side for vocals and another six Turbosound TMS3 cabinets (again, three per side) for band fills. Another four TMS3 cabinets (two per side) provided a feed of the house mix by Hall from his 56-channel Midas Heritage 3000 console, allowing the band to hear what's being put into the room.

Just one of the band members went with PMs, and wedges abounded: start with 10 Turbosound dual-15-inch-loaded wedges for the band; add six more EAW SM200 monitors around the top of the set; blend in two more EML dual-15-inch wedges for Dickinson, and top it off with two HK Audio wedges and dual-18-inch drum subwoofer. Monitor engineer Steve "Gonzo" Smith rode hard over this wedge extravaganza with a simple, clean monitor signal path headed by a Midas XL3-40 channel console and XL3-32 channel stretch, with several Klark- Teknik graphic equalizers as the other primary component.

"Our overall mission has been keeping all of these output sources acting as a single cohesive unit," Hackman concluded, as the crowd began streaming in for the Chicago show. "It starts with quality equipment that does the job while behaving predictably, and then the addition of our experience. We've been doing some pretty large shows over the past three years with this basic house configuration, and it's served our clients quite well."

A Short History of ML Executives

The ML Group enjoys an interesting history, with ML Executives Limited formed in the early 1970s by members of The Who. The band's business plan called for owning everything a group would need to tour, including sound and lighting systems, followspots, trucks, buses, backline equipment and staging, as well as Shepperton Studios to rehearse and record. All equipment and machines were kept in pristine condition, and when the band wasn't touring, it was rented to other artists.

The situation also enabled The Who's touring personnel to stay continuously employed -- the sound engineers, lighting technicians, backline crew and bus and truck drivers would all work for ML Executives' clients. This expert personnel group would, in turn, be available when The Who started its next tour, and this was the way it worked, and worked very well, for two decades.

In 1990, the assets of ML Executives and the trading name of the company were sold to Gary Marks, who had already spent two decades mixing sound, managing productions and tour managing artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Motley Crüe, Judas Priest, Nazareth, Air Supply, The Cult, Donna Summer, Accept and Joan Armatrading, to name a few. Looking for a new challenge, and with the assistance of a dedicated team, Marks built ML Executives into one of the premier production companies in Europe.

Although still providing a broad spectrum of services, ML Executives excels in sound, with a current inventory including system components from several leading manufacturers. The ML Group also includes a corporate and special events company called ML Soundadvice, along with True Diversity, a digital console and radio microphone/IEM specialist division and a tour/production management division. The company's latest move is the opening of an ML Executives office in Miami to better serve the North American marketplace.