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