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Informed Approach: Talking Shop With Front Of House Engineer Ryan O John

Principal product manager/designer for Avid and part of the development team for the VENUE | S6L mix system discusses intuitive workflows, DSP, and more.

I first crossed paths with front of house engineer Ryan O John about six years ago, when he was in town with the Phillip Phillips tour and I happened to be mixing at the venue next door. Since then, we’ve kept in touch as he travels the globe with artists such as Tove Lo, Paul McCartney, Justin Beiber, Jessie J, Robyn Thicke, Cody Simpson, Solange Knowles, and many others.

When he’s not manning the console for some of the biggest pop acts in the world, Ryan also works as a principal product manager and designer for Avid and was instrumental in the design, launch, and continued development of the VENUE | S6L mix system. He recently took time out of a busy touring schedule with Jessie J to chat with me about intuitive workflows, DSP, and more.

Michael Lawrence: This is not your first tour working with Jessie J. Has the experience and familiarity you gained the last time around helped inform your approach this time out?

Ryan O John: It certainly has helped. Her vocal is obviously number one on this gig. She goes from being loud and strong to whispering and light, so managing her dynamics without sounding compressed, and also avoiding insane bleed from the drums and such, can get quite complex. Fortunately, I’ve already had enough shows with her in the past to know what to expect, and also I know all of her parts, so I generally know when she’ll be loud and when she’ll be quiet.

ML: Compressing without sounding compressed always requires a bit of thought. I think I would begin by using some parallel compression – mixing the processed and unprocessed vocal together, to better retain the transients – and adding a few gentler stages of compression in series, so no one compressor is contributing more than a few dB of gain reduction. I’ve been using this process in the studio for years, but as digital consoles continue to advance, it’s gotten easier in the live realm. That’s where I’d start, anyway. What’s your approach to controlling Jessie’s vocal dynamics?

Ryan O John and his pal Sherlock working their magic on the keys.

RoJ: Pretty much exactly that, and some of the compression stages are post fader so I can ride her vocal up and down in the parts I know she’ll be loud or quiet, and the tonal change is managed pre-fader with dynamic EQ (DEQ).

ML: I once asked Dave Rat about DEQ and he said, “It’s a band-aid. It means there’s an issue somewhere else in the signal chain.” And I thought about that a lot, because I do think there is a temptation to slap a DEQ on everything when it’s not always the best tool for the job.

I realized that it’s quite common for many singers to have significant changes in the spectral content of their voices as they move through their dynamic or tonal range, and since the source itself is exhibiting variations in the frequency domain, it therefore makes sense to use a process that is also dynamic in the frequency domain to compensate for those issues. I find the best way to success is to get as far as possible with regular “static” EQ and then use a band or two of DEQ to just grab the trouble spots and pull them back in.

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RoJ: There really isn’t any alternate way to clean up proximity effect without a DEQ, or at least a multiband compressor, but even the multicomp can’t be as accurate as the DEQ. A de-esser is a dynamic EQ, and no one seems to have any complaints about using them.

ML: You’re carrying an Avid S6L-32D (mix system) on this tour. I’ve heard several engineers talk about the layout and routing flexibility of that console. Have you come up with any interesting routing or signal processing tricks?

RoJ: I’ve got custom layouts for every song, I’ve got it set so when my acoustic fader hits “-inf” it automatically loads the next layout without the acoustic. I’ve got the color switches under some channels set to turn on and off the insert FX for those channels. When the guitar fader goes above +3 dB, the midrange starts boosting by the number of dB that the fader is up past 3, and the mids in the keys group cut by the same amount. The shout speaker volume is automated based on the mains output. If the mains are loud, the shout volume goes up, if the mains are quiet, shout goes down…It’s simple stuff, but super useful.

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