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

The sound design for an emerging Los Angeles-based indie-rock band on tour...

By Kevin Young May 9, 2014

James Mercer on a Shure SM58 microphone. (Photo credit: Evan MacKenzie)

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.

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About Kevin

Kevin Young
Kevin Young

Freelance Music and Tech Writer, Professional Musician and Composer
Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.


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