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A Busy Place: An Exclusive Look At Sound For The Current Radiohead Tour

The sound team details the audio approach for live shows that always offer surprises

By Steve Jennings June 4, 2012

(Photos by Steve Jennings)

With a full catalog, as well as songs from last year’s “The Kings of Limbs” and some brand-new material, you can’t ever know for sure what surprises are in store at a Radiohead show, because no two are exactly alike.

I caught up with the current concert tour during a U.S. West Coast stop – and in the only interview of the sound team granted to a North American audio publication – talked with longtime front-of-house engineer Jim Warren, as well as monitor engineer Michael Prowda and system tech Sherif el Barbari.

The sound company for the North American leg is Firehouse Productions. When the tour goes international later this summer, the Avid VENUE house and monitor consoles will come along, and Ad Lib Audio, based in Liverpool, will be providing L-Acoustics K1-based rigs for all of the European shows.

“The system in North America is headed by main left-right hangs of 14 L-Acoustics K1 modules, a horizontal array of four L-Acoustics ARCS boxes per side, with lip fill the purview of six DV-DOSC modules spaced across the front of the stage.Each main array is complemented by lines of eight K1-SB subwoofers. Side hangs include 10 more K1s and six KARA under-hangs,” explains el Barbari.

“Meanwhile on the ground, 24 SB28s subwoofers are arranged into three stacks of three boxes on each side, with three more double stacks in the center, all in a cardioid configuration. Near fill is handled by a horizontal array of four L-Acoustics ARCS boxes per side, with lip fill the purview of six DV-DOSC modules spaced across the front of the stage.”

Radiohead in action on the current tour. (click to enlarge)

Coverage is extended and bolstered throughout the rear portion of the coverage area via three arrays on delay, each with nine KUDO modules, flown behind front of house in loosely a left-center-right configuration. L-Acoustics LA8 amplified controllers provide the loudspeaker power and processing.

It’s all tied together with three Lake processors – one at front of house (8-in x 8-out Mesa EQ) and one to each side of the stage (each a 4-in x 12-out aux). Signal returns are on AES via a Riedel RockNet audio distribution network, along with analog on copper lines.

Tuning is a two-person job, particularly due to the impressive scale of this house system, a process headed by el Barbari. “They call him the ‘Egyptian Magician’ for very good reason,” Warren says of the system tech.

A Necessity

Warren, who has been mixing Radiohead live since the early 1990s, notes that he’s utilizing the same VENUE D-Show mixing package, augmented with two sidecar mixers, that he’s favored for some time. It’s a necessity, with close to 80 songs in play for every show.

Mix engineers Jim Warren (left) and Michael Prowda having some fun at front of house prior to a show. (click to enlarge)

“I tried to reduce to one sidecar on this tour, but just couldn’t do it in any sensible way without having things layered up to such an extent that it’s unmanageable,” he explains. “I keep things as simple as possible, but the channel count is so enormous and the number of songs is considerable…I also don’t think I’ve ever known this band to do the same set twice in a row – there’s enough to sort of boggle the mind at times.”

He adds, however, that using two sidecars allows him to keep certain channels, such as the vocals, available on the top mixing layer at all times for instant access. He’s also used a new addition in the form of Waves plug-ins to enhance those channels.

“Things like the Waves multiband compressor across the vocals are very useful,” he says. “On the vocals, these are used to tweak the EQ on the vocal, and remain static, independent of the snapshots for the entire show. It’s also made an appearance in a couple of new, interesting places, such as shaping the acoustic guitar sounds – on these channels, the settings change from song to song to modify the acoustic guitar sound for each one.

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