Simplicity Rules: A Well-Considered Sonic Approach For Broken Bells
The sound design for an emerging Los Angeles-based indie-rock band on tour...

May 09, 2014, by Kevin Young

live sound

Technically, Broken Bells is a duo, a Los Angeles-based indie-rock band comprised of Brian Burton (also known as Danger Mouse) and The Shins lead singer/guitarist James Mercer who first conceived the idea of doing a project together after meeting at the Roskilde Festival in 2004.

On stage, however, the band is rounded out by multi-instrumentalists Jon Sortland (drums, keys, bass) and Dan Elkan (guitars, keys, bass), and all of players routinely take over other instruments or work one of four keyboard rigs.

So there’s a lot going on, but the group’s mix engineers have endeavored to keep the audio approach as straightforward as possible. I caught up with London-based Dave McDonald (front of house) and Chicago-based Steven Versaw (monitors) prior to a show on the recent tour at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall. McDonald told me that the old school theatre, now converted to a live venue, reminds him of the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, UK.

Broken Bells are currently on the road in support of their sophomore full-length album, After the Disco, with the tour slated to stretch well into October. Right now they’re playing a variety of theatres and clubs and aren’t carrying loudspeakers with the exception of wedges – and fewer of those as time goes on.

Dave McDonald at the Allen & Heath iLive-112 mix surface at front of house. (Photo credit: Jordan McLachlan)

“I’m trying to phase the wedges out,” McDonald notes, “because a clean stage is a wonderful thing for an engineer, so we’re in the last stage of the clear-out. Brian’s the only one using wedges at the moment, L-Acoustics 115XT HiQs, which are lovely.”

It’s the first time out with this band for both engineers. Burton had tried to get McDonald onboard for the previous tour but he was already out with Adele, while Versaw signed on after five years as monitor engineer and production manager with Wilco. Both desire simplicity as a general practice, and in particular given the nature of the current assignment.

Considerable Workout
McDonald chooses to mix on an Allen and Heath iLive-112 digital mixing surface – which he praises for its ease of use, compact footprint and accuracy – combined with an iDR10 MixRack.

Broken Bells in action on the latest tour. (Photo credit: Jordan McLachlan)

Right now, he’s working solely with the mix surface rather than employing a tablet or laptop, with the addition of a Dante card delivering up to 64 channels to a recording rig. He’s also giving the console’s effects a considerable workout in emulating the band’s recorded sound in the live realm.

“There’s so much going on with the vocals and so on. It’s very ‘Beatles-esque’ and psychedelic, but the iLive has all that I need onboard,” he told me as he fired up the console for that night’s show. “Sometimes when you add effects you’re struggling to hear them, and it’s not quite right. With the iLive, they’re very accurate,” adding that the Symphonic Chorus, ADT Doubler and EkoChorus plug-ins have proven particularly useful.

“When I went to rehearsal,” McDonald continues, “they brought a box of outboard gear and I opened it up and said ‘That’s nice.’ And then I closed the lid and put it back in the truck,” he laughs, “and that was that.”

The iLive iDR10 MixRack on stage playing a pivotal role in signal routing.

One of the potential complexities of the gig is the number of keyboard stations on stage and the fact that the players move from instrument to instrument, but Versaw takes that in stride. And, rather than isolate or turn the band’s amps away from them, he prefers to preserve the feel on stage by taking “an additive approach to the IEM mix.”

All keyboard sounds are triggered from an Ableton rig hosted by two Mac pros located at monitor world and patched directly into a splitter that goes to monitors and FOH.

“For the IEMs, I’ve created a general drum mix with kick and snare at 100 percent and rack and floor at about 40 percent,” Versaw adds. “That’s being sent to a group that I’m squashing a bit to provide a gritty, even sound. Then I pepper in my overheads by themselves to make it more live.

“When Brian plays the drums, it’s lighter than Jon, so I add in some non-compressed snare in the ears,” he says. “The group mix is sent to everyone as the drum mix, and then I can add in individual drums if necessary.”

Currently Versaw is mixing on an Avid VENUE Profile, chosen primarily because of his familiarity with its interface and workflow. “Both Dave’s iDR10 MixRack and my Avid Stage Rack are on stage. I have a splitter that feeds all inputs from stage to the Profile and sends to Dave’s iLive rack via a Cat-6 line. So he has a control surface out at FOH, and that’s it.”

Like McDonald, Versaw uses only onboard plug-ins. “Nothing external. When it comes down to it, I need EQ, compressors and a few gates. The rest of it is aesthetics,” he says. “I’m using reverb to add ambience to the backing vocals, and some delay – typically for James’ vocal – to recreate a slap back effect from the record, but that’s only for me and James.

“It’s a sweet and simple setup and it’s only going to get simpler,” he continues. “I actually plan to move over to an iLive because of its simplicity, and also so I can work more on my mixes and less on setting up. Simplicity rules.” He adds that he’s happy to switch platforms and technology when necessary to keep the system streamlined and his workflow fluid. “You use your ears and your intuition, and if something’s hard to use or you can’t figure it out really quick, then try something else.”

Blend Of Components
A primary goal is to have as little sound coming off stage as possible, with all band members on Ultimate Ears IEMs, primarily UE11s. The gear the tour is carrying is a blend of components supplied by Rat Sound Systems (Camarillo, CA) along with equipment drawn from Burton’s studio and The Shins touring rig, including Sennheiser EW 300 IEM G2 wireless monitoring systems and some of the microphones.

Monitor engineer Steven Versaw at his Avid VENUE Profile.

“When it comes to mics it’s very straight up,” McDonald says. “In rehearsals, when a guy starts playing his guitar I’ll stand in front of it for a few minutes and see what the guitar’s saying and what he’s saying, and then put a mic in front of it. If it doesn’t sound like that at FOH, we move the mic or change it. It’s simple – there’s no magic.”

Two Sennheiser e 902 dynamic cardioids are applied for kick out and floor tom, with a Sennheiser e 901 dynamic cardioid for kick in. Neumann KM 184s cardioids are deployed for hi-hat and overheads. “The e 902 on the floor tom provides depth,” Versaw says, “but apart from the Neumann microphones on overheads and hi-hat. it’s really traditional. We’ve got a Shure SM57 on snare top from The Shins’ locker and clip-on Sennheiser e 604s for snare under and rack toms.”

The stage also hosts several Radial passive DIs as well as SM57s on guitars – a Fender and Marshall combo located center stage for Mercer and stage left for Elkan, respectively. “With those mics, you can just light the fuse and run away,” Versaw adds. “And we went with SM58s for the vocals because James (Mercer) is accustomed to them.”

A partial view of the drum miking approach.

Less Is More
“I’m hauling a board, a brain and an engineer on this tour,” McDonald says as we were coming up on sound check time in Toronto. “I come from a world of where you would have the biggest board in the world and have as much outboard gear as possible, but what really matters at the end of the day is what’s coming out of the speakers.”

Speaking of which, the loudspeaker count began shrinking even before the tour kicked off. Stacks of side fills with subwoofers were originally specified but only made it through pre-production, although they actually served as the FOH system in a makeshift rehearsal studio in Portland.

“We had rehearsals in LA and then just before the tour kicked off, we brought in all the elements – Dave at FOH, as well as lighting and video systems – into a raw loft workspace and built our show,” Versaw adds. “Initially, I specified components to suit all occasions, but we’ve never brought the full rig in for a show.”

Simplicity, indeed.

Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.

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Simplicity Rules: A Well-Considered Sonic Approach For Broken Bells