Controlled Chaos: House & Monitor Sound For Pharrell Williams Live
Talking with the engineers behind the consoles for the energetic stage show of a world-class artist

August 28, 2014, by Paul Watson

pharrell williams
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Pharrell Williams is one of the biggest music stars on the planet. His resume speaks volumes, and his recent hits “Happy” and “Get Lucky” (with Daft Punk) seem almost ingrained on the brain (well, my brain, anyway). His stage show is energetic, his melodies are contagious, and his live sound is smooth, full of fidelity. I recently met the men behind the consoles that share Pharrell’s 24/7 work ethic and help make it all happen: Kyle Hamilton and Jeremy Peters.

Tell me about your core FOH setup, Kyle – you seem to have screens coming out of your ears…!

Kyle Hamilton: [laughs] I have a DiGiCo SD7, four Avalon 737s, and then from my laptop I am running Logic with my DiGiGrid MGB, and that’s it. But yes, I do have a few screens, as there is so much going on; and you never know who’s going to make an appearance, as Pharrell is producer of the stars, so anyone could join him up there at any time.

That’s why I choose an SD7 as my console, because everything is possible, but it’s definitely a controlled chaos situation! It’s quite a small band, but the way we run it is like a symphony of sound. If you don’t do it the way that Jeremy and I have strategically and formally laid it out… Well, it’s not gonna work!

I bought the latest Pharrell record, G I R L, and loved it. It’s an eclectic mix of all sorts of genres. Do you have to be a fan of the music to work with it?

KH: Definitely – you have to be attached. We grew up on his music, and his catalogue is so large, you have to study it. I mean, with any artist, you have to listen to the music, and do your homework, but I remember our first meeting with Pharrell, and he said, point blank, ‘people want to hear the record,’ so what that tells us is, we mix the record with a live feel.

Jeremy Peters (left) and Kyle Hamilton

So even if a band member might do a fill here and there, nothing deviates much from what you hear on the CD. There’s no doing your own thing or adding your own delays – if it’s not part of that song, you don’t do it, because he wants it true. When you watch him, and you see his neck start snapping, he’s in his groove. That’s what he does in the studio, and that’s what he does on stage. That’s when we know we’re doing it right!
Jeremy, you must have your work cut out also.

How does Pharrell like his in-ear mix?

Jeremy Peters: What we did on this gig was both fun and amazing – I use the DiGiGrid MGB also, and Kyle and I multitracked every song every day, so when the band leaves, we come back, and since he’s so serious about the record, we took the live elements and the non-live elements, and did an A-B test with the record, and made them perfect, so when Pharrell hears Kyle’s FOH mix, it’s the record – he’s also hearing those live nuances, which he’s OK with, but he’s getting the record. He feels like he’s in a studio, but with a live feel. He’s not one of those artists that wants more vocal here, less of that here, and so on; he wants to hear the whole mix, and rock out. He wants consistency, and he wants people to get it – this thing that he worked so hard to produce. He already made it right, so you don’t have to re-engineer it to make it right again.

Kyle, are you using the processing from inside the console at FOH?

KH: Yeah. If you think about it, everything that Pharrell’s done has been recorded and mixed using Waves, so I am already getting that true sound, so why re-invent the wheel? There’s no need to try and get a nice round drum sound and augment it, as it’s already there, so I just use some nice reverbs from the console. For the Auditorium Stravinsky here, I don’t want it too dry, so I add a little reverb, but only a little. There’s no need to over-process the music, because once again, you’re changing his vision – and it’s not about my vision, it’s about translating his vision to the stage.

JP: I use Waves a lot, but like Kyle says, you don’t have to process what’s already good, so I use it for effects: my reverbs on the background vocals, and on Pharrell’s vocal, too. I use the Waves kit to complement the sounds, give them a little bit extra here and there, but I never go overboard with it. Because I also work from an SD7, I have the luxury of quality dynamic processing and multiband compression, so I can take that from the desk, then use Waves for effects—it’s a great combination.

What’s the vocal chain for Pharrell?

KH: It’s a real simple chain, actually. I go through an Avalon 737, and straight into the desk, where I do my EQs and compression. Less is more, really, as that way, you’re keeping true to his sound. Any effects that we use on his voice, we’ve already done in Pro Tools and married to the desk, so we always guarantee a consistent show. Whether we do the smallest backyard boogie or the biggest stadium, we always have the same consistent audio sound.

If he does a little four-channel show for somebody’s birthday party, he wants the same sound as he’d have on a big stage. There’s no middle ground here! We’ve done those kind of shows, when our consoles have been an iPad interface with faders, our PA is on sticks, and we’re in a backyard… And his in-ears had to feel like an arena or a stadium. You have to plan ahead, because if you wait until the last minute, you fail.

In-ears are a crucial part of the operation at all levels, then… Which models do you use?

JP: We’re using JH Audio JH16s, which sound phenomenal, especially as we’re running at 96 kHz. My stage is pretty insane; every musician has a discrete sub of their own, and we always have a big side fill system, but we don’t turn it up very loud—it’s just for a feel, and for the dancers to hear; that allows them to hear everything perfectly and feel the music.

I can then keep the stage volume pretty low, so it doesn’t kill Kyle at FOH. The first time I put the JH16s in, I was amazed by the low end—I’d never heard low end out of an in-ear like that before. Jerry Harvey is definitely doing something very special!

Pharrell’s a pretty percussive person, right?

KH: Totally percussive, and now we’ve finally got him to the stage where he is wearing both his in-ears all the time, aside from when he goes down to listen to the audience; and even with that, Jeremy already has the audience built into his in-ear mix, so he’s getting that vibe also.

Does it help your working relationship that you’re all around the same age?

KH: Of course, because even though I can’t play an instrument for the life of me, I know how it’s supposed to sound; and being the same age, we have a lot of the same musical taste, so I understand where he’s going. Saying that, when I’m not on the road, I’m listening to talk radio, to decompress a bit! [laughs]

Because Jeremy and I work with a lot of artists, we have so much music in our heads all the time, so when we don’t have to listen, it’s talk radio all the way! Working with Pharrell is so refreshing, because I can listen to everything he listens to, and it’ll be the same stuff I like. It’s literally the best working situation I could be in.

Is this the same for you, Jeremy?

JP: Yeah, pretty much. We study music so much, and even after you have it under your belt, you always hear something new that you can improve. Pharrell’s music is all timeless, as he’s done it so well; people always ask me, ‘are you tired of “Happy” yet?’ And I’m like, ‘no,’ because every time I listen to it I still go, ‘man!’ His music is uplifting; it always has a message.

It sounds like he’s amazing to work with, and really cares about his sound and his crew…

KH: He is genuinely an amazing person; and that’s right, no matter who you are on the crew—you could be a runner, someone on dimmers, a patch guy, whoever – when he sees you, he makes his way to say hello to you, and does exactly the same when he leaves. To him, everybody deserves that respect. Some artists are disconnected from the people who help them look good in front of all these hundreds of thousands of people, but he is not like that at all. He gives you eye contact, he speaks to you, and he is an amazing guy to work with.

JP: And he is probably one of the busiest people I’ve ever met in my life! But no matter how little time he has, or how fatigued he is, he treats people the same. You know how this music business is, there are times when he’s happier than others, but even then, he is still amazing.

KH: At 5 am, he’s cool… At 8 pm, he’s cool… At noon, he’s cool… You are never gonna catch him in a bad vibe; and once again, he is working harder than all of us. He probably gets negative sleep! [laughs]

JP: People probably think that because he is the biggest artist in the world right now, and because his songs are so big, that he’s not producing as much. No… Pharrell will leave a festival with 100,000 people and go straight to the studio at night and produce records.

Everyone is pulling on him; he’s doing movies, records, shows, and he’s about to be a judge on The Voice; he does not stop, and I don’t understand how he can do it. It seems impossible to work as much as he does, and none of this is by half; the records he produces are amazing—he’s not losing, he’s winning.

How did you guys get into the business of pro audio?

KH: For me, I always had a passion for music and grew up around it. My mum was a beautician, and she did record producers’ hair, so I was always there. I observed… And it called me! Basically right out of high school, I was instantly wanting to do this.

One of my mum’s clients was an engineer, and I shadowed him. Wherever he was, I was there. Fortunately for me, I had the best of both worlds, as I started off in the studio, and the engineer was also a live guy, so I understood both sides of it, almost simultaneously.

Then, when the studios started to decline, live took off – it was an easy transition. I do some studio work here and there, if I get a call, but the way today’s market it, live is where it is at; even the biggest studio console makers are going into the live genre, as people have to perform.

Record sales are on the decline, and live shows are on the upstroke. But there are a lot of engineers out there that are [pauses]... Suspect! [laughs] They sit at a top console like an SD7, and they’re completely lost; that’s because they haven’t found the time to do their homework, but I did that on many desks, and gave myself a solid foundation, which has helped me get where I am today.

JP: For me, I’ve always been around music. I grew up playing drums in church, and my dad had a studio with an organ and a bunch of keyboards. I was always going to gigs with him, hooking stuff up, tearing it down, and it just kind of made sense to me. I was told I had an ear for music, but I was shy and afraid; then I went to college, stopped playing, but was producing in the studio and doing the live thing on the side. I’ve done pro-audio, home theater, worked for small and big companies, toured as a system tech, FOH, monitor guy…

And as I went freelance, it all moved towards the stage, and I realized that working with artists made me comfortable. I learned it wasn’t about me, it’s all about the artist and the band on stage, and that’s when I started getting a lot of calls! [smiles] It’s been an amazing journey so far, that’s for sure…

Is there a moment that stands out for you guys, or does every day roll into one?

KH: I can’t say that any magical moment stands out, as every artist has one at some point in their career. I would say my career has been magical—my 21 years in the biz. Being able to work with artists at the top of their game, like Pharrell, and also those who are today’s opener and tomorrow’s headliner. That’s what I love. I remember doing shows in a mall, and now we’re rocking in a 100,000-seater stadium; and knowing you’ve grown together is really something.

JP: I’ve worked with so many artists in many genres, and it’s always the same: people are people. It’s all about relationships, and if you make them, you never lose them. Those are what make your life great.

Headliner is a recently launched UK-based publication that supports the creative community, focusing on live performances, recording sessions, theatre productions, and major broadcast events. The spotlight is on the technology, but with a lifestyle approach. Find out more here, and subscribe here.

Headliner editor Paul Watson has 10 years live touring experience with bands in the UK and the US, and ran an independent recording studio for five years close to London. He also serves as the editor for Europe for Live Sound International and ProSoundWeb.

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Controlled Chaos: House & Monitor Sound For Pharrell Williams Live