- by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Production Profile
The English trio Muse — comprised of Matthew Bellamy (lead vocals, lead guitar, keys), Christopher Wolstenholme (bass, vocals, keys, rhythm guitar) and drummer/percussionist/synthesist Dominic Howard, with the addition of keyboardist/percussionist Morgan Nicholls on their live performances — offer an engaging blend of electronica, metal, classical and space rock. So it’s little surprise that “no matter how many shows I mix for Muse, I never get bored!” declares the band’s front of house engineer Marc Carolan. “It’s a very involved mix, and you can jump genres quickly, sometimes within a song.”
It’s also well known that Muse captivates audiences with a dynamic performance that’s heavy on lights and video. But you can tell by listening that they are true musicians and what needs to happen first is sound. “The band all have a good degree of engineering knowledge, and by the time we get involved, they have each a clear idea on how they want things to sound,” says Carolan. “That said, they take our input on board and we all work together to make it work cohesively. They don’t fall into that ‘a little bit of knowledge’ trap.”
“We use the best technology that suits our needs,” adds monitor engineer Adam Taylor. And as with past Muse tours, in supplying that gear for this outing, Muse has once again turned to Skan PA Hire’s system and crew to every stop on the world tour, including the USA. Based in Newbury, Berkshire, U.K. (about 50 miles west of London), Skan PA Hire is adept at handling multiple large tours simultaneously and was the first choice to make this return engagement with Muse.
And this is a band that has a lot of global fans. The 2nd Law world tour (which supports Muse’s current album of the same title) kicked off last summer with a performance at the closing ceremony at the Summer Olympic Games in London and then continued through Europe up until December. On Jan. 21, 2013, Muse embarked on the North American leg of the tour, starting in San Diego and ending April 26 at Colisée Pepsi in Quebec. From there, the band heads to Europe, Japan and Brazil.
The Man at FOH
Carolan, a freelance engineer from Dundalk, Ireland, started mixing for the Dublin underground music scene in 1995. Along the way he worked with such Emerald Isle groups as JJ72, Mary Coughlan, and The Pogues. From there he moved on to international acts such as The Cure, Snow Patrol and Josh Groban. He met Muse when he was mixing JJ72 on a European tour opening for Muse. The trio took a shine to his talents, and he’s been mixing for them since 2001.
The P.A. is pretty much all d&b audiotechnik. There are J-Series mains with flown J-SUBs and d&b Q-Series boxes used for fills. Muse is also known for doing in-the-round arena shows with the audience encircling the band on all four sides. For those dates, a d&b audiotechnik V-Series system creates the 360° hangs.
Augmenting the flown subs is a ground-based cardioid subwoofer arc array created using a combination of d&b audiotechnik J-INFRA and J-SUB enclosures. The sub arc array technique takes advantage of time alignment and physical spacing to provide even LF coverage while avoiding any unwanted back lobes on stage.
Carolan’s FOH console of choice is a Midas XL4 with a Midas Pro 2C Sidecar. Outboard FX toys include Bricasti M7 reverbs, Line 6 Echo Pro (digitally modeled tape echo), an Eventide H3000 UltraHarmonizer and a Yamaha SPX2000. Other tweaks can be done via Empirical Labs Distressors and BSS DPR-901dynamic equalizers on vocals, and Tube-Tech LCA 2B tube compressors on guitars and bass. Drums get the dbx 160 treatment with Drawmer DS501 and XTA G2 gates as well as SPL Transient Designers.
From the analog Midas XL4 console, “the main Left/Right goes through a GML 8200 parametric EQ, then into a Tube-Tech SMC-2B stereo multiband mastering compressor,” Carolan explains. “We have been testing and experimenting with the Tube-Tech on the last leg, and it’s yielded some interesting results.”
The all-analog sub and fill sends, along with the processed left/right feeds, are converted to digital via an Apogee Rosetta 800 converter and then sent via AES to the Lake Contour units and on to the AES inputs on the amps. The entire rig is powered by d&b’s D12 amplifiers. The D12’s also offer onboard DSP with user-definable 4-band parametric EQ and delay capabilities for system tweaking, as well as remote load monitoring, operating status and protection features.
A Tough Job — Sometimes
Every group has its challenges. “Matt [Bellamy’s] vocal technique can be challenging, especially now that we have vocal positions in front of and below the arrays,” Carolan states. “As he can be off the mic, I generally use gain, then compression with the 901’s and the Distressor to help level the signal, but when the mic is in such proximity to the PA, the challenge is to get good feedback rejection without hacking the EQ to bits. I’ve ended up with a Lake detected to the various wing and spot mics. It’s been interesting to see how you can take out very narrow frequencies from that feed and still be left with quite a full sound. My approach with any challenge like this is that it’s my job to come up with the solution that allows the artists to perform how they want.”
Like all sound guys, the Muse crew members have their not-so-good days. The Staples Center In Los Angeles was “not the friendliest [for audio engineers] in the 360° configuration,” says Carolan. “I find it difficult with some venues that blast the air to the point that they’re creating different temperature zones in the venue, not to mention moving the air! I still have to remind people that unlike our photon-emitting colleagues in the visual departments, sound waves are [more affected by] air.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Carolan says the small promo shows create a different challenge, as with drummer Dom Howard, who bangs hard “so when you combine that with the necessity to keep the vocal mic quite open, makes for a difficult combo!”
Over in Monitor World
Adam Taylor hails from the small town of Leigh, England, near Manchester. He started taking classes in audio engineering in 1993, and from there he worked with the pro audio company Manchester’s Concert Systems. Impressively his skills caught some discriminating ears because he’s still riding the tails of his “big break” — getting the Muse gig in 2001. He says he likes yielding the “captain’s table” to Carolan while he simply focuses on monitor mixing.
“It is a technologically advanced show, and this time around, I have gone digital after the last tour, when I used a Heritage 3K,” says Taylor. “There is a lot going on during the show, as we have several vocal mic positions around the stage all of which route to vocal fx units. These I switch from the monitor console, so it’s a job itself keeping up with that.”
The gear in monitor world has, as its cornerstone, a Midas PRO9 “running at full capacity.” Then there are two systems of Sennheiser G3 IEM to cover whatever/wherever they are in the world. “Both systems are wide range and contain 12 transmitters, six of each,” says Taylor. “Rig one is aw/gw, rig two is bw/cw. And I run eight belt packs on each frequency.” Part of the mix comes from the outboard choices — a Yamaha SPX2000; TC Electronic M350 dual engine FX; Summit DCL-200 compressor (inserted into the bass channel); Little Labs [IPB] phase alignment units for kick drum, snare and bass; and GML 8200 equalization used to tweak IEM mixes. “Most of my inserts are on board the PRO9, which work really well. The dynamic EQ rack insert is working really well over the mixes.”
Taylor’s monitoring mixing approach falls under the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) mantra: “Each player has a general mix of everything with their instrument on top. I use minimal FX: some reverb on snare/toms, delay and reverb on vocals — there’s nothing fancy about it.” And while he mostly keeps it “pretty dialed in” from gig to gig, he has to focus on the overall EQ on the IEM mixes from venue to venue.
And about those IEMs: “We are using Sennheiser G3 and a combination of generic Westone UM2’s and custom Ultimate Ears. We tried a few different products to start off with, but have settled with the [Ultimate Ears] UE-11 Pro. It really does sound amazing and the support we have had from Ultimate has been great. We have had to remodel several sets due to various reasons and the support has been brilliant through it all.”
There are plenty of challenges, including keeping up with the vocal mic changes. But Taylor says, “I have been doing this for so long now I know exactly what the band want and need so that side of things is relatively easy as long as I can give it to them.”
Taylor also agrees that some of the promo shows are challenging. “We have a minimal amount of gear that we need to do a gig, which is quite a lot, and fitting this into some really small venues was a challenge.”
After the North American portion of the world tour winds down in late April, there will be three months of stadium visits in Europe along with shows elsewhere around the world. “Muse is truly a big band worldwide,” Carolan says. “Previous tours have been over two years. We get everywhere!”
The 2nd Law World Tour
Sound Company: Skan PA Hire
FOH Engineer: Marc Carolan
System Tech: Eddie O’Brien
Monitor Engineer: Adam Taylor
Mains: d&b audiotechnik J-Series
Front fills/360° Hangs: d&b audiotechnik V-Series
Subs: d&b audiotechnik J-SUBs (flown); J-INFRAs & J-SUBs also used in ground-based cardioid sub arc
Side fills: d&b Audiotechnik Q-Series
Monitors: No wedges used
Analog/Digital Converter: Apogee Rosetta 800 (AES outputs)
House Processing: GML 8200 EQ; Tube-Tech SMC-2B multiband compressor
System Processing: Lake Contour; plus onboard DSP in D12 amplifiers
Amplifiers: d&b audiotechnik D12 amp racks (AES inputs)
Console: Midas XL4 with Midas PRO2C sidecar
Outboard Processing: Bricasti M7 reverbs; Line 6 Echo Pro; Eventide H3000 Ultra Harmonizer; Yamaha SPX 2000; Empirical Labs Distressors; UBK EL7 Fatso; Empirical Labs Fatso Jr.; BSS DPR-901’s; Tube-Tech LCA 2B’s; dbx 160a’s; dbx 166XL’s; Drawmer DS501’s; XTA G2’s; Midas XL42’s; dbx 120x Subharmonic Synthesizer; Waves MaxxBCL; Drawmer DS501 Powergate; Little Labs IBP Phase Tools; SPL Transient Designer 4’s.
Console: Midas PRO9
Outboard Processing: TC Electronic M350; TC Electronic D-Two; TC Electronic M2000; Yamaha SPX 2000; Avalon VT-737SP’s; Little Labs IPB’s; GML 8200 [IEM EQs]; Summit DCL 200; Tech 21 SansAmp PSA-1’s.
IEM Systems: Sennheiser G3
Earpieces: Sennheiser G3, Westone UM2, Ultimate Ears custom; Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro
Vocals: Neumann KK 104 capsules on Sennheiser 5000 wireless transmitters
Percussion: AKG C-414’s
Kick Drum: Shure Beta 91(inside); beyerdynamic M88 (at hole)
Snare Top: Shure SM57
Snare Bottom: Neumann KMS 105
Cymbals: Neumann KM 184’s
Toms: Shure Beta 98’s
Bass: beyerdynamic M88