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Delivering The Exceptional: Inside The Concert Sound Design For Sam Smith On Tour

Behind the scenes with front of house engineer Jim Ebdon and his team as they support a soulful voice that's been filling arenas internationally.

By Greg DeTogne September 13, 2018

A view of the system and scene when the tour visited Madison Square Garden. (Credit: James Barber)

When you hear Sam Smith’s soulful voice, it comes as no surprise that his second album, The Thrill of It All, had sold more than 2.3 million copies as of July. And it’s the same voice that’s been packing arenas on this year’s ongoing concert tour.

“He’s at this wonderful place in his career,” says Jim Ebdon, the engineer at the tour’s front of house mix position. “It’s a pleasure to mix such a lovely, natural voice. In this highly digitized age where we have a plethora of plugins and whatnot, it’s easy to find yourself peering into a screen and looking at your mix. His is one of those singular voices that you actually find yourself listening to your mix instead of looking at your meters and processing. He’s exceptionally organic, as analog as one can be.”

Front of house engineer Jim Ebson at the SSL Live L200 console. (Credit: James Barber)

Ebdon has carved out his place in the pantheon of touring greats, working with the likes of Aerosmith, Maroon 5, Matchbox Twenty, Annie Lennox, and Sting. With London-based Capital Sound serving as the tour’s audio provider of record, those currently wrangling over bunk space with Ebdon on the road include Liam Halpin (systems engineer), and Saul Skoutarides (monitors), as well as a pair of band techs, a Pro Tools tech, and five other Capital Sound crew members.

Making The Translation

As preparation for his role on this tour, Ebdon spoke with Stephen Fitzmaurice, one of the producers working on The Thrill of It All in the studio. Fitzmaurice revealed to Ebdon that they initially recorded the tracks using an analog 16-track machine, then carefully brought them down into Pro Tools.

“I thought that was genius,” Ebdon, a one-time studio engineer himself. “They did it just like we would have 20 years ago. That inspired me. It wasn’t a heavily processed record, nothing more really than a great voice singing into a mic with some great instrumentation. There wasn’t a lot of programming at all. At this point I knew that’s what I wanted to create in a live setting.”

That said, it was in Ebdon’s words, “a no-brainer” to enlist an SSL Live Series L200 for the task, which, he adds, “sounds like an analog console and has a save button so that’s even better.”

A lot of interconnect as well as mix capability (led by a DiGiCo SD7) can be seen in the monitor position of Saul Skoutarides. (Credit: James Barber)

As the gear was being assembled for the tour during rehearsals in January at Lake Como in Italy, Ebdon and Skoutarides concluded that when it came to managing the number of inputs the show would require, it would be best to start with stage racks that had a high capacity so they could handle anything.

“We both ultimately wound up using 72 working inputs,” Ebdon notes. “Saul and I were of like mind in that we wanted to give them everything they wanted. We weren’t going to try to tame things down in any way.”

In keeping with his core mix philosophy of less is best in terms of processing, he constructed his blueprint using a relatively spare amount of Waves and Universal Audio (UA) plugins. While at Lake Como, he tried a couple of different compressor plugins on Smith’s voice, settling upon an emulation of a classic Outboard Tube-Tech CL 1B on the UA Live Rack platform, which he also applied to backing vocals in short order.

Keeping his processing planted within the UA camp, he chose Sonnox Oxford EQ to better manage a tricky spot in Smith’s voice. “When he gets loud,” Ebdon explains, “at 2K his voice will suck all of the energy out of his low-end. So basically I’m using the Sonnox Oxford EQ as a ‘shaper’ to bring this 2K range down to earth and keep him easy to listen to when he reaches high levels. His vocal has to be as big as it can be at all times without being piercing or bright. The latter can happen easily, especially with today’s generation of loudspeakers. As an added measure of control, I stay right on my console’s EQ channel all night, even when he’s just talking.”

While vocals are the most critical element of the show requiring Ebdon’s constant attention, the band mix, he notes, “is just like they do it themselves. All the inputs just sound fantastic. I basically just add a little Fairchild compression on the piano, Neve compressors on the guitar, Sonnox Oxford EQ on the bass, and little more. A few effects – reverb, flanging, and whatnot – fall under the guidance of my Waves plugins. The only other ‘outboard’ I have beyond that are a pair of Bricasti M7s, which are used primarily for reverb on Sam and the drums.”

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About Greg

Greg DeTogne
Greg DeTogne

Gregory is a writer and editor who has served the pro audio industry for the past 32 years.
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