Here's a great interview with Dave Natale regarding the sound of the Stones on the 50 & counting/14 on fire tour. It gives a great technical insight.
]50 & Counting: Sonic Truth For The Rolling Stones Latest Tour
Jul. 15, 2013, by Danny Abelson
If you’re like me, you find security and comfort in using plenty of gear in a large entertainment setting. Yet the seasoned professionals who make up the audio crew for the Rolling Stones recently demonstrated to me they understand the benefits of moderation, carefully questioning their decisions and using a healthy dose of restraint while practicing their craft in the most high-budget, high-profile setting imaginable.
Like the Stones crew provided by Clair Global, many of us are also in the business of delivering spectacle, so it’s perfectly understandable why restraint might not be the first thing that comes to our minds when standing at the console of a powerful system or driving a fast car.
Today we’re provided feature-rich digital tools offering limitless opportunities to “use something” with little apparent downside. We’ve been conditioned to apply a liberal dose of the newest mic or latest greatest device in search of delivering that illusive “best sounding show ever.” It’s become much easier to overlook the benefits of moderation.
I respectfully argue that in audio every decision comes with a price. I’m not necessarily referring to a financial cost; more specifically, an opportunity cost of what the positive or negative impact might be from a particular decision. The most experienced among us still carefully evaluate the costs and benefits when making an equipment choice or applying an audio treatment.
After 50 years the Rolling Stones need no introduction. This year’s tour, assembled to celebrate their remarkable longevity, is playing in the largest arenas across North America, the UK’s Glastonbury Festival, and two shows in London’s historic Hyde Park. The band is joined on every show by special guest and past bandmate, guitarist Mick Taylor.
Last night I heard the Stones in Boston’s TD Garden arena. Keith, Mick and the boys played with commanding purpose, delivering a cohesive performance at an energy level that would leave many bands one-third their age gasping for breath.
What impressed me most was that the audio team shunned the use of unnecessary tools or treatments, and despite having them patched did not use a single compressor or noise gate on an act as prestigious and hard-rocking as the Rolling Stones. Once again for clarity, not a single compressor or noise gate was engaged on any channel.
I realize this lack of treatment defies convention, but it’s obviously a considered choice by a crew determined to present the music in the most appropriate manner possible. The result is a remarkably natural and refreshing presentation. The show sounded fantastic, and most importantly, the sound was honorable to the music. No breathing compressors or clicking gates to get in the way. Leading-edge transients abound. To this observer the experience offers engineers of all skill levels an important reminder: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Classicist. Minimalist. Strict constructionist. These are the terms that popped into my head as I discussed the live sound approach for the Stones with veteran house mixer Dave Natale, journeyman system technician Jo Ravich, crew chief Thomas Huntington, and monitor mixer Robert Bull. In a world where the majority of us believe we must apply a liberal dose of control, rely on unnecessarily expensive gear for that special sound, or demand the latest greatest digital solution to get through the show, this team is mixing the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” using relatively little.
“I could do this band on a pair of Shure Vocal Masters and a 58 in some church basement, and guess what it would sound like? It would sound like the Rolling Stones,” notes house mix engineer Dave Natale. “This is possible because of the way this band is, their talents so strong, and the genre of music they play. Most of it is based on old blues.
“These guys started off without a lot of money, they were lucky if they had a guitar amp, and in fact in the old days they shared them. Maybe that’s why guitar amps have two inputs. You don’t need much to make them sound great. We could do a show today with two (Fender) Twins, an (Ampeg) B15, an upright piano, and a four-piece drum set. And you can bet that piano would already be in that church basement so with three roadies we could get most of it down there in one trip.”
He continues, “This is the Stones; it’s not Roger Waters or Elton John. Clive Franks (Elton John) used effects better than anyone I’ve ever heard in my life. That guy was so good, he used a ton of effects on Elton shows and you could hear every one of them even in a reverberant arena. But that was appropriate because of that music. Same with Trip (Khalif) on Roger Waters. You can’t do Roger Waters without outboard gear. That’s not possible because it won’t be Roger Waters. You need delays, you need reverb because that’s the nature of Pink Floyd.”
For the few who haven’t guessed, Natale is a dedicated analog devotee. “I don’t care about hardware. I just want an analog console, 100 percent analog, because it won’t do anything until I tell it to. I don’t want any logic in the desk, which is why I use a (Yamaha) PM4000. This allows me to spend most of my time mixing. If it takes water, as we’re often outdoors, then what type of desk do you think I can bring back to life quickest?” A 24-input Midas Venice 320 serves as a sidecar for choir mics.
“We often have guest performers on this tour, and I never know who the guest is until the afternoon of the show,” he continues. “We reserve one input for the guest’s guitar with a wired 57, and one input for their vocal with a wireless 58. The guest vocal is the only input I regularly use a compressor on. We’ve had Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Brad Paisley, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Gary Clark Jr., Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Jeff Beck, John Mayer, John Fogerty, and Tom Waits.”
This was probably the first show this writer has heard in decades that did not use compressors or gates in some manner, and it was a wonderful experience. Natale has a single dbx 900 rack under his console. dbx 903 modules are patched on the bass DI, Mick’s number 1 vocal, Mick’s number 2 vocal, Keith’s vocal, BV number 1, BV number 2, and the guest vocal channels. Three Aphex 612 gates are patched on the kick, rack, and floor tom channels.
However, none of these devices were engaged, not even the compressor on Mick’s vocal. I can testify that no indicators were moving during the show. While any red-blooded engineer would question how Natale is able to effectively manage gain levels, he appreciates that the opportunity cost of using inserts to manage those levels is lost leading-edge transient response. Instead, he chooses to stay very active during the show, relying on the consistency of the performers. His adjustments are in response to the many required cues as dictated by each song, while retaining a natural transience in his input channels that I found so refreshing.
I detected no “blanket” over the sound or processing getting in the way, only the occasional peak of a given voice or instrument. The occasional peak seemed like a reasonable price to pay considering how accurate everything sounded. I honestly believe that Charlie Watts’ drums were the most real sounding I have ever heard in an arena.
“I’m not at all into vintage gear because I do not believe we need special equipment to enhance what’s coming from the stage,” Natale states. “No boutique microphones; we’re all about choosing what is easily accessible, reliable, and known to sound good. We’re using Shure SM57s and 58s, Sennheiser 409s, Neumann KM 184s, and two AKG C 414s. If we need a replacement we can go to the music store down the street. In fact I joke about the fact that if you added up the total cost for wired microphones on this tour it might not exceed $5,000.” He also specifies Radial DIs exclusively.
“I’m not even using reverb. I’m relying on the million cubic feet of (natural) reverb right here in the arena,” he adds. “It’s really clean and sounds better than digital, but doesn’t hiss like analog. Outdoors is another story. In bone dry, uncontained free air I’ll obviously need something, at least on the slower songs.
“But only one reverb on one innocuous program that adds something you can almost not even hear. However, everything goes through the same program so it sounds like the whole band is playing in the same space. It’s not so much an effect as trying to create an environment we’re not in.”
With more than 40 years on tour and literally countless shows, it seems unfair to characterize Jo Ravich as simply the FOH systems tech. I think of him more as a distinguished master—he offers a degree of wisdom and perspective honed from years on the road that few of us will ever attain. He distills the risks of using gear unnecessarily in very simple terms: “Just because you can use 25 plug-ins doesn’t mean you should.”
Clair Global crew chief Thomas Huntington offers his perspective: “We try to change as little as possible from show to show, and how we set the PA up is fairly standard and consistent. How Dave and Jo approach using subs is brilliant. They don’t use any ground subs, because often what happens is you either turn them off or EQ out all of the low-frequency energy anyway, because we’re in a big boom chamber with no articulation. This is rock ‘n’ roll, it’s not thumpy modern drill your head stuff. We have a varied demographic, and some of our fans don’t care to hear all that extended low end.”
“Subs are for sissies anyway,” Natale chimes in. “No sexy lightweight amps either on this tour. We’re using Crown Macro-Tech because I’m interested in having fully charged capacitors at all times,” indicating his preference for a more traditional amplifier power supply topology. “I use old Lake Contour processors because I know them so well. One XTA GQ600 stereo third-octave EQ sits between the console outputs and the system processors.”
Robert Bull handles the monitor mixing duties for the tour. A Nashville veteran who for years has been Martina McBride’s monitor engineer, this is his first outing with the Stones.
As expected, he’s mixing a combination of in-ears and wedges. What’s not expected is that he handles the monitor effort for the entire band himself on one 48-channel Midas Heritage 4000. This was a task previously handled by two engineers, and when I observed him working during the show, he’s a very busy man.
Despite the magnitude of the show, Bull approaches it in a down-to-earth manner. “Everything is very analog and very simple, although it’s a really busy show with lots of cues. Mick, (bassist) Daryl Jones, and our two backup singers, Bernard and Lisa, are on ears. We have 52 wedges as well as flown side fills. Charlie uses a pair of 12AMs (wedges) stacked on two i5B subs. On ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ he uses headphones.”
Bull shares the team’s strict minimalist mantra, with no noise gates or compressors for the band’s monitors, only for guest artists. Effects are limited to two reverbs. I found his demeanor with respect to this tour both humbling and respectful. “To be brutally honest, it’s the most stressful thing I’ve ever done, but incredibly rewarding,” he says. “It’s fun to mix. These guys deserve the best, and sometimes the fact that I’m sitting in the monitor seat is overwhelming.”
He notes that the downstage mix is pretty much a blend. “Keith’s guitar is a bit louder stage left, Ronnie’s louder stage right. Mick has two wedges he can rely on if for some reason he’s uncomfortable with his ears. Stage levels are pretty loud. Keith’s guitar level dictates everything.”
I could go into greater depth on the house PA, but suffice it to say it’s comprised of large, very well-tuned Clair i5 line arrays. Coincidentally, on my return trip from the show, I ran into Clair Global CEO Troy Clair at the Denver airport. I told him how good the show had sounded to me, and stressed how amazed I was that Dave, Jo, Thomas, Robert and their associates were getting these results with a healthy dose of moderation using no dynamics control whatsoever. I came away thinking that he too appreciates that there is real virtue in restraint.
The approach might leave many younger engineers scratching their heads, aghast if saddled with these simple and economical equipment choices, wondering “how do they make this work?” I argue that the Rolling Stones crew do it by listening.