More than two decades after the group formed, the Backstreet Boys are currently on the DNA world tour, where front of house engineer James McCullagh and monitor engineer Austin Schroeder are both utilizing Solid State Logic (SSL) L550 consoles.
“A lot of bands are saying it’s their best tour ever,” says McCullagh. “They sold out the European and North American runs — they’re very, very popular. When they got back together in 2013 they released a record under their own record label, and it did very well. They kind of stayed under the tabloid and mainstream media’s radar. The fans all knew about their comeback and they all supported it. When we started the Vegas residency though, it definitely caught the mainstream media’s attention.”
McCullagh had been following SSL closely for a while, and after gaining some hands-on experience on a console, was waiting for the right opportunity to use one in a live environment. Being from a recording background, McCullagh came to love SSL sound; however, he wouldn’t use an SSL console in a live environment until he was able to convince the wider team following the Backstreet Boys’ residency.
“Especially in the pop world — or on any big tour for that matter — money plays a huge part in your decision,” he explains. “You have to have a strong case to convince the people around you that you need to make that change. So taking a risk or a gamble is difficult. But when our Vegas residency was coming to a close, we realized that there really wasn’t that much of a risk. It was a new tour, with a new crew – all the music was going to be re-done, everything was going to start from scratch essentially.”
Following production rehearsals, McCullagh met with the Backstreet Boys and their musical director to discuss moving to SSL.
“They were pretty excited about it because their sound is that quintessential sound from the 90s, which has SSL all over it,” he recalls. “With their record and tour, DNA, they are trying to give that little bit of themselves – what makes them the Backstreet Boys, and sound is a huge part of that, so it just made sense to go back to the origin of their sound. Max Martin [record producer, songwriter, and singer] is part of their DNA and everything he does is on an SSL. Everything just worked out, it just made sense – it was not hard to convince anybody to change to the SSL console. The monitor engineer, Austin Schroeder, was also very excited and was one of the very first to agree that we should check out the L550.”
According to Schroeder, using the new consoles made it easy to create ‘a live band in the box’ for the tour:
“We chose to have our music director record the entire show in a studio, and receive all the audio files raw and unprocessed,” he says. “We then take these 120-plus tracks and bus them down to 64 channels at 96 kHz that get sent to the consoles via MADI from our playback operator. This gives us ultimate creative freedom on the mix, and the vibe of the finished product.”
McCullagh adds that the console’s ability to emulate the studio sound in a live environment played a massive part too.
“SSL have done an amazing job at recreating the legendary sound of their famed studio consoles. This makes life much easier because you don’t have to use all these extra pieces of gear to try and emulate a certain sound, it already sounds fantastic. They try to get it as close as they can, and it makes life much easier. There is so much less to go wrong because you don’t have all these additions by trying to simulate a certain sound. The SSL Fusion (all-analog 2U stereo outboard processor unit) is also designed for mixing in the box, providing that analogue sound. It has that little bit of extra mastering help to try and make it sound a little bit more like it was mixed on a console rather than in the box, and it certainly does that. All the little nuances add up to something quite large.”
For FOH duties, McCullagh was enthused with the overall console workflow and layout – even the tactile feel of the faders, buttons and knobs impressed: “I love that functionality and I love mixing on it – it’s a pleasure,” he enthuses. “I also really like that there are three solo buses as opposed to the usual AFL / PFL solo choice on most consoles. Each solo bus has its own mini matrix or input routing section where you can easily route just about anything you want to it.
“So what I like in my situation is, I am running a set of nearfield monitors from one of the solo buses, and headphones from another. The headphones are set up to listen to everything pre-fader, and the nearfields I have set up to listen to my main mix in two ways: I have the mix to the main stereo bus pre, or before it hits my outboard chain on the 2-bus, and then also after or post the outboard chain. The reason for this is so that I can actually hear what kind of a difference the outboard gear is making, but also make sure that the mix internally can also stand up on its own. This is all very easy to do and quick to switch between sources with the touch of a button.”
Schroeder is using a total of 137 mono and stereo input channels that consist of both full processed and dry channel paths, 20 stems of both dry and full processed paths, 18 auxes using both dry and full processed paths, eight VCAs, 16 matrix inputs, eight matrix outputs, two dedicated talkback channels, and two solo buses.
“I’m handling 10 monitor mixes, as well as a few comms buses,” he notes. “The 10 mixes consist of the five principals on stage, tech mixes, guest mixes and a side-fill mix.”
Schroeder believes he’s been able to accomplish a much more sophisticated routing scheme than he can typically do on a digital console: “The Solo and Talkback systems that have been developed by SSL offer some powerful features that no other console manufacturer has been able to pull off. We have a very complicated communication system, and I’m happy to say that I have ran into zero brick walls on what I’m able to accomplish with making this system work. We have nearly the entire crew of 50-plus people using comms and radios, all able to communicate with each other coming through the monitor console using different buses and matrices. It’s all been very successful so far.”
Ultimately, the team has been really happy with how supportive the SSL sales and technical support team have been during the whole process.