Billie Eilish is basking in the glow of chart-topping albums, multiple Grammy awards, and an ongoing world tour that has filled arenas in the U.S. from Birmingham, AL to Los Angeles and found her headlining at Coachella at the age of 20, the youngest person ever to do so. Sound reinforcement for her show is provided by Clair Global in the form of an L-Acoustics rig supported by a crew including Drew Thornton (front of house), Salim Akram (monitors), Matthew McQuaid (system engineer/crew chief), and Hugo Gudino (monitor system engineer/RF tech).
Eilish may have followed a stratospheric and rapid trajectory from her origins as a Soundcloud teen to headliner of one of the world’s largest festivals, but along the way she has remained true to her art and craft, which is in turns dramatically stark yet heavily textured in dense layers of musicality and techno-exploration. At the heart of her sound is her soprano voice. Ethereal in terms of its atmospheric and dream-like qualities, it sounds virtually identical to her records live. That is no accident, but rather the sum of calculated efforts directed in no small part by her older brother, 24-year-old Finneas O’Connell, who has written and produced for Eilish as well as many other artists, and tours with her along with drummer Andrew Marshall.
Anything & Everything
“Working with Finneas is always fascinating,” FOH engineer Drew Thornton maintains. “On tour he plays anything and everything, and his production techniques never cease to amaze me. He is also a lot more engineering-forward then he likes to take credit for.”
A good deal of O’Connell’s production is done through Logic Pro, the music software that offers a number of tools for editing, mixing, and beat-making, as well as an overwhelming collection of instruments, effects, loops, and samples. On tour, a lot of his Logic Pro patches are translated via Apple’s MainStage software, making the latter a big part of the stage production.
“In our live sound world, you could think of MainStage as a companion app to Logic Pro,” Thornton explains. “It works in much the same way and has a similar user interface. Its focus, however, is clearly for live use, so rather than having the DAW features for recording and editing that are found in Logic Pro, it has an editable ‘workspace’ that allows you to draw out objects like buttons, knobs, and faders and assign them to volume or pan parameters, plus a lot more.
“MainStage comes bundled with a number of sampled instruments including pianos, guitars, drum kits and pads, plus effects. Over time, we’ve gotten to a point where many of Finneas’ onstage inputs travel through MainStage. His patches can alter multiple times between the beginning and end of a song. As a result, automation plays a keen role not only in what we do before his inputs hit the console, but afterwards too.”
As an example of the automation that Thornton speaks of, consider that O’Connell may, during the course of a single song, play a bass part, a guitar part, and synth part. With automation he can program his muting, play them all and not worry about accomplishing that task manually. Conversely, he can have multiple bass and guitar patches that are drastically different coming down the same input channels, which could also include effects like spreaders that provide what listeners expect to hear from the record.
“Tracks are part of this show,” Thornton adds, “but this is not a tracks-heavy performance by any means. Our sound is derived live to a large degree, even if it’s not from traditional sources. Look at our input list and you’ll see a stereo bass channel. That could be used for either an actual bass guitar, or a bass synth from Finneas’ mini-keyboard. Drummer Andrew Marshall may use standard drum kit components, or he may draw from his kick pads, a trio of Roland sample pads he alternates on throughout various songs, or kick and snare triggers. He has gigantic reverb kick sounds associated with particular songs heard on the records, and hat samples he’ll layer in with the snare. If need be, there may be a lot more than drum sounds coming from Andrew as well.”
Back in O’Connell’s world, beyond the stereo bass guitar inputs there is a MainStage keyboard that can create just about any kind of synth sound you may hear on Eilish’s records. There’s also a Nord, plus provisions for stereo guitar, acoustic guitar, automated drum pads, and his vocals.
“We’ve honed in on him and pretty much provided the ability to play any instrument he desires whenever he wants,” Thornton says. “As long as we have the freedom to automate on our end then we can do whatever the situation calls for. All of us on the crew have understood from the beginning what the true nature of our job is. It’s a big gig in a small package, and with automation it works a little easier for everyone.”
In The Box
Central to operations in the house and for monitors are consoles from Allen & Heath. Thornton takes charge of the house from behind a dLive S5000 control surface managing a DM64 MixRack with 64 inputs and 32 outputs. A pair of Allen & Heath DX32 Expanders add remote, modular I/O to the system, and are redundantly connected to the DX1/2 and DX3/4 ports on the DM64. Eight of Allen & Heath’s DX32 PRIME mic/line input modules complement all the above, each bringing eight XLR inputs, 32-bit converters, and premium preamp performance to a total of 64 inputs.
“Everything has a failure point,” Thornton says. “But to be honest this desk has totally surprised me in terms of how rock solid it is. I love the sound of it; that was the primary reason I chose it in the first place. There are a lot of options inside, and that’s an important thing too. You hear a lot these days about hybrid mixing solutions combining digital and analog gear. That’s an interesting concept to me, but at some point you reach an existential crisis point and have to ask yourself if it makes sense to bring something like that into your world, and more to the point, especially one like this.
“After all, this is not a band that went into a recording studio to capture their music, so it wouldn’t make sense to add it here. I’ve been inspired by people like Robert Scovill in terms of seeing how far I can push my mix simply from inside the box. He feels that plugins have gotten so good that if you are diligent about manual delay compensation and how you use your software you can make something truly fantastic. I love analog gear – always have – in some ways it makes things easier. But staying digital and in-the-box is a worthy challenge with its own rewards too.”
Thornton’s mix strategy pays close attention to a pair of factors. First and foremost, he has to keep Eilish’s vocals front-and-center above everything else, a sometimes-formidable task given that she is by nature a quiet singer with a voice famous for its whisper-like tones and textures. Second, he has to ensure that the proper amounts of energy are always on tap to properly reveal the iconic passages in her songs in a fashion fans expect.
Just as prior to the pandemic shutdown, for vocals Eilish continues to use a V7 supercardioid dynamic capsule from sE Electronics mounted on a Shure Axient Digital stick. “It’s been taking on all challengers and still emerging victorious,” Thornton says of the V7. “It has great off and on-axis coloration, rejection, and handling characteristics. As far as plugins are concerned, the only inputs that are processed through Waves on this show are her vocals. Finneas’ vocals were in Waves at one time too, but I migrated his channels to the desk, so now it’s just Billie’s vocals and minimal group processing. I constantly weigh the pros and cons of doing too little or too much on my vocal channels. I’m at a point right now where either I am crazy or everything is just right.”
At monitors, Salim Akram stands behind an Allen & Heath dLive S7000 control surface operating with the same DM64 MixRack/DX32 Expander I/O combination used in the house. The added real estate afforded by the S7000 control surface, he relates, is vital territory necessary in order to bring more faders to the equation to manage his 64 show inputs plus all the communication lines, triggers, and ambient mics that jump his final input tally up to 104.
“Simply having more faders speeds my workflow immensely,” he points out. “And along with the level of customization I can do on the A&H board I can dig through more layers quickly without having to press more buttons.”
The stage is a Spartan environment where all three band members use IEMs, in this case Shure PSM 1000 systems across the board with Eilish and O’Connell plugging in Roxanne earpieces from Jerry Harvey Audio while drummer Andrew Marshall uses A12t buds from 64 Audio. RF is Shure Axient Digital orchestrated with the aid of an Axient AXT600 Spectrum Manager.
Just as in the house, Akram faces the challenge of building his musicians’ mixes squarely in the face of crowds filled with rabid fans who have been deprived of live entertainment for up to two years and now routinely create screaming sound pressure levels of their own traveling north of 114 dB.
“It isn’t so much that Billie is a quiet singer,” Akram says, “it’s more of a matter of her voice in relation to our signal-to-noise ratio and concert environment. She has a lower register than I think a lot of people realize and there’s real power to her voice down between about 250 to 600 Hz. Of course, it’s right at those frequencies where the crowd noise wants to take over, so the real challenge for me is to distinguish her voice from everything else all around her. Mix-wise I have to create a space for her vocal to live in the music while also clearly distinguishing it from the crowd noise and room ambience. I have to take an approach where a lot of times less is more and the extraneous has to be eliminated.”
Up through the tour’s Coachella dates in April, RF challenges had remained manageable indoors in arenas, but with the move outside the tour’s system engineer for monitors and resident RF wrangler Hugo Gudino had to boost the number of ranges available.
“The largest RF footprint we left to date spanned 52 channels,” he notes. “That included around 30 for our main show, and the rest were for the opening act and non-show critical things like wireless talkbacks used by the stage manager and a Lectrosonics system used by our house SE when he tunes the PA. The biggest challenge our RF blueprint faces comes from the video elements on this tour. Their sheer number brings up our noise floor significantly.
“Most of our video noise dwells in the lower ranges, down around 470 to 520 MHz. The best way to deal with the situation is to keep anything critical away from those frequencies. Non-essential items can exist there fairly well – they still work – but to trust essential channels there would be foolish to say the least.”
Speaking from Coachella just prior to Eilish’s first of two appearances there, system engineer Matthew McQuaid held forth on the driving forces behind the tour’s L-Acoustics rig.
“The main hang is 14 K1 boxes with four K2s flown underneath,” he says, running down the elements of his inventory with the rapid recall of someone who has flown it a time or two before. “Behind that we have 12 flown KS28s per side flown in cardioid. Our side hang is a 16-deep, it’s eight K1s and eight K2s; our rear hang has 12 K2s. Ground subs are four KS28s per side, while A15 and A10 boxes serve as front fills. The amplifiers are all L-Acoustics LA12X models, and the system is being driven via redundant AVB drive with analog backup. An L-Acoustics P1 AVB processor and measurement platform serves as our ‘on-ramp’ to get signals into the AVB domain. The only pieces of gear I’m using that aren’t from L-Acoustics are a pair of Lake LM 44s that I’m basically using just for console switching.”
The crew took the foundation of the rig they were previously using and reimagined it for the current tour’s new set design. The possibility of putting anything under the deck was eliminated by the show’s diamond-shaped stage with cross-bracing, as well as the combined presence of lighting fixtures and risers. Creativity in terms of subwoofer deployment was required as a result.
“That’s why I ended up with 24 subs in the air and only eight on the ground,” McQuaid adds. “It was definitely a different approach and helped in some ways because we got really nice coverage and summing with the mains and better phase coherency throughout the audience area. Because the whole subwoofer system wasn’t on the ground, however, we lost some punchiness, causing us to do a little back-and-forth in our design to regain our balance.
“Overall, we’ve come to a real place of consistency with this rig and are able to insure good coverage in the mid/high and low-end. It’s my role, after all, to make sure the people in the back have exactly the same audio experience as the people in the front. To that end, we’ve met our goals quite nicely.”
PA techs Juan Beilin and Jack Murphy rounded-out the crew along with PA and comms tech Gui Burguez and stage tech Julia Hom. Britt Natale kept the home fires burning at Clair Operations along with account manager Justin Weaver. Following the show’s second date at Coachella on April 23, the tour is taking a break until June 3 when it picks back up in Belfast, Ireland.