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Anything But Bored: Front Of House Engineer Jim Ebdon Finds His Quarantine Groove

A veteran of three decades of touring talks about our situation at present as well as his mix approach and if one can really mix a show with no plugins in this digital world…
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FOH engineer Jim Ebdon in his home studio with a Solid Stage Logic Live L350 he’s beem working with in his downtime.

In other times, the idea of “flattening the curve” normally would have Jim Ebdon instinctively reaching for his EQ settings out on tour with any one of a number of A-list artists he’s known to work for. But the ongoing pandemic has given that concept an entirely new meaning, leaving the veteran audio engineer hunkered down in his home studio in Los Angeles and keeping his distance from anything social just like the rest of us.

Part of the British professional audio diaspora that migrated to the U.S. and now calls the City of Angels home, Ebdon has amassed quite a resume over the past 30 years. Currently waiting for official word on when he will resume his post at front of house with English singer/songwriter Sam Smith, he’s had stints as “the person behind the faders” for Maroon 5, Annie Lennox, Matchbox Twenty, Aerosmith, Sting, Prince, Bette Midler, Niall Horan, David Lee Roth, and many others.

Just before California and other states issued stay-at-home orders, Ebdon ventured to Solid State Logic’s Los Angeles offices on Wilshire Boulevard and was lucky enough to drive away with a loaner L350 console, which he’s currently running a gamut of tests and trials on in preparation for the day when life gets back to normal. I caught up with him via phone recently to find out where he thinks we may all be going, what one can do in the meantime, and if one can really can mix a show with no plugins in this digital world and still get compliments from those in the crowd.

Unmasked and comfortable in his home studio in Los Angeles while waiting out the pandemic, Ebdon is keeping busy from behind an SSL L350 until he can take his turn in the touring spotlight again.

Greg DeTogne: This has to be a strange sensation for a touring engineer like yourself. What’s it like being home for so long?

Jim Ebdon: Well, I’m keeping busy. I mixed a song for Michael McDonald recently here in my home studio that has gotten a lot of attention online. It’s a re-recording of the Marvin Gaye hit from 1970, “What’s Going On.” I toured with Michael last summer for a few weeks and multitracked a couple of shows. This new version of “What’s Going On” is from those recordings.

GD: You were touring with Michael McDonald? That had to be memorable, especially given the timing right now just before his induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame with the Doobie Brothers, who he’ll hopefully be touring with soon to mark the band’s 50th anniversary.

JE: He’s a fantastic artist, and his band is amazing. I was sent out to take over the Spice Girls tour in the UK, and then literally the next day after I completed that gig I went out with Mike. We did a lot of smaller theatres and clubs all around the country. I had a DiGiCo SD9 that had been rented for the tour, and there were no plugins, no outboard gear, nothing. All I was using were the onboard gates, compressors, and EQ, and it sounded phenomenal.

People kept coming up to me and asking, “What plugins are you using with his voice? It sounds amazing.” I’d answer, “None, just some EQ and a little console compression.”

They’d have none of it, replying “How can you mix a show with no plugins?” To which I’d say, “You just heard it mate, and said it was amazing. I just mixed the show with no plugins, so it can be done.”

When Ebdon hits the road again, he will go out with an additional 12 faders added to the two sets of fader tiles on the SSL L350 he plans to use. Outboard gear seen in the background above beyond the console in his home studio includes a pair of Bricasti M7 Stereo Reverb Processors, an SSL Fusion Stereo Analogue Colour Master Processor, and Radial Engineering Workhorse rack.

GD: What board did you mix McDonald’s live version of “What’s Going On” with in your studio?

JE: I mixed it on an SSL XL-Desk, which is their smallest analog console. It’s a useful little desk, completely analog. My origins lie in the studio. At 17, I set out to be a drummer but wound up landing a job as an intern at one of the top studios in the UK. I learned from some of the most talented engineers and producers in the business. Eventually the studio I was working in was sold off and I wound up mixing a couple of live shows for a band I was recording an album with, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the case of “What’s Going On” it was nice to come back to something completely analog like the XL-Desk. There is no digital memory in there whatsoever.

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GD: You’ve been seen and heard with SSL Live consoles frequently as of late, and have been famously quoted – by myself included – describing them as “an analog console with a save button.” Now that you’ve been in lockdown with and giving a lot of attention to an L350, what are your expectations for the board?

JE: Some say these Live consoles from SSL are a little hard to get your head around. I agree there’s a bit of a learning curve you have to go through, but once you figure them out they become second nature. Very simple and rock solid. With the L350 I just love being able to have an output bus upon an output bus going to another output bus and not experiencing any latency whatsoever. There are few consoles that can do that.

I’ve been experimenting right now because I can. Currently I’ve gone up to using six drum buses on a single track. I’m using different parallel compression and it sounds fabulous. Personally, I think having six drum buses is overkill; certainly I don’t absolutely need six drum buses. Normally I’ve been using three for the last couple years and that works fine. It’s just interesting to see what happens if you have six. The power at your fingertips is formidable with these desks; you can do an awful lot.

GD: What’s your workflow like with the L350?

JE: Really fast. There’s a second, smaller screen just to the right of the main screen called the Channel Control Tile. The simplest way to describe this screen is as an expanded set of hardware and touch screen controls for selected channels. It’s surrounded by rotary controls and buttons below for EQ, dynamics, panning, and insert effects. I use it as a second place beyond the main screen where I can access anything from any channel.
There are a lot of ways to set up this console. I tend to use the big screen for my EQ because it’s really fast there.

Ebdon describes the SSL L350 Channel Control Tile as “a second place where I can access anything from any channel.”

GD: With an SSL Live console you can use what they call Stem Groups to build the signal path. A Stem Group essentially combines the functions of a traditional subgroup with an input, aux, and matrix into a hybrid mix bus. What do you do with Stem Groups in terms of routing?

JE: To be honest with you, I never really mixed in groups a lot until recently. Everything went to the stereo bus and I mixed with VCAs, with maybe a couple of groups going out of the master bus. Now I’m typically using four stems for drums. One for shells, another for overhead cymbals, a parallel compression group of the shells, and then everything goes into a fourth stem that I can then adjust with global EQ and a global compressor across the whole kit.

For the instruments I create a bass stem, guitar stems, and keyboard stems. I have stems for lead and backing vocals, and more often than not an effects stem for the lead vocal. Any Pro Tools playback I might have will also be routed to an appropriate stem. For example, guitar playback to a guitar stem, any percussion playback to a drum stem, and so forth.

The SSL L350’s main 19-inch touch screen is where Ebdon tends to do most of his EQ.

This all works well. I really got into it when I was first working with Sam Smith. We were doing a lot of promo and people would want to record it. We had painstakingly done a lot of rehearsals and fine-tuned everything, so we started giving out our stem outputs and telling everyone to just put their faders in a row and they’d have a pretty good mix with all of our effects, everything. A lot of mobile trucks would take up to 12 stereo pairs, add some audience mics and be totally happy with what they were getting.

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GD: How do you lay out your fader tiles?

JE: When I go back out on the road with Sam I’ll have three fader tiles. On my left – probably on the first two layers – will be drums. On my right I’ll have all vocals and vocal effects, and in the middle will be a selection of VCAs, subgroups, and some important input channels. I’ll probably have some playback tracked – maybe four channels will be Pro Tools playback returns – and there will be a VCA of all playback, and then a VCA of drums, the band, keys, and vocals.

Ebdon is using SSL’s Stem Groups in new, creative ways to provide his mixes with more flexible routing options. “It’s very easy to route them,” he says, “and just as easy to put inserts on any of them.”

I tend to mix on the center fader tile. My 12 faders in the middle are often a blend of VCAs and a couple of key subgroups. The layers underneath the VCAs and inputs will have my auxs, stems, master buses, and my matrix. The very first fader on my right tile – the one closest to me – will be the vocal.

An interesting thing I sometimes do with subgroups is bring them back individually into a regular input fader. That way if I need to drive a compressor harder I can just crank that fader a little bit. I’ll subgroup kick and snares, for example, then send it to a single fader on that center tile. Sometimes it turns into a bit of a head-scratcher as I set things up, but at the end of the day I can get the whole band on those 12 faders.

One of the built-in effects on the SSL L350 is the Enhancer. According to Ebdon, it’s “fantastic spatially, you can find the frequencies that sound lovely in a room, add more of them, drive them harder — dial in exactly how much you want of anything.”

GD: I realize this could be pure conjecture at this point, but when do you think you will resume with your next tour?

JE: Ha Ha! Well, it would be nice start a new album and tour cycle with promo in September. Getting into TV studios first strikes me as a good way to get back on track. That would be a good way to lead up to the tour itself. In a perfect world, to be in rehearsals in December and back out on the road in January of next year. Consider, however, that we’re living in anything but a perfect world at the moment.

Whatever we do and whenever we do it, it’s going to be a different touring situation than the ones we planned three months ago. I think in general, tours are going to have to be able to adapt to many different venues, massive productions are going to have to scale down, and ticket prices should drop accordingly, because people are going to be struggling economically for a while. I think we all should prepare to experience a number of bottlenecks as well. It’s going to be a free-for-all once we get going again. Everyone will be trying to get out on the road all at once, so questions naturally arise whether there will be enough venues available, as well as enough gear.

It’s best to live in the positive. As long as enough time has passed and it’s safe, I really hope people will come out and gather together for a show again. When the time is right, we all need to make some music and get working again.

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