Mixing Led Zeppelin then... and now
From '70s tours to FOH sound for the 2007 reunion concert
Published in PM June 2008
Technique : Mixing
The now-famous reunion show for hard rock's patron saints, Led Zeppelin, at the O2 Arena showed that while the song remains the same, the sound gets a lot better.
Nearly 20,000 people and media from 70 countries. More than a million fans vying for an Internet lottery for tickets. AEG's new O2 Arena in London was the centre of the music universe the night of 10th December 2007. Led Zeppelin were back — singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and guitarist Jimmy Page, with drummer Jason Bonham taking over for his late father, John. The opening act alone would have been worth the price of admission: former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and his Rhythm Kings served as the house band for guest artists including Keith Emerson, Chris Squire, Alan White, Paul Rodgers and Foreigner. Talk about pressure. "It was like doing a gig in a huge goldfish bowl with the entire world watching you." That's the observation of 'Big Mick' Hughes, co-FOH mixer on the show and the fellow all eyes would have been on had the sound glitched. "Really, the most memorable moment of the show for me was hearing them say, 'Thank you, goodnight,' knowing we'd got through it without a hitch."
It was a complex proposition and it had started months before the show. Roy Williams, Robert Plant's long-time FOH mixer and who was mixing his vocals on tour supporting his Grammy-winning duet outing with neo-bluegrass genius Alison Krauss, was in discussions to mix the Led Zeppelin reunion show, whose exact date had been a moving target for a variety of reasons.
The plan had been for Williams to co-mix the show with another FOH mixer who would mix everything but Plant's vocals. However, the proposed other FOH mixer advocated using two mixing consoles, with one dedicated to Plant, which in turn would feed into the second console with the rest of the band. Williams contacted Hughes, a friend and colleague for over 25 years, and Hughes agreed the plan seemed overly complicated and potentially problematic. "I suggested we do it on one console, the Midas XL8, which would give us many more options," he explains. "It allowed us to set the last bay of the console to the 'B' zone and then recall a group containing Robert's vocal and effects into the 'B' zone. Roy would have his own [discrete] section. This allowed me the remaining two bays and the VCA section to mix the band." That brought Hughes into the picture, and as Metallica's long-time FOH mixer, his credentials were impeccable, bolstered by the fact that Metallica and Jimmy Page shared the same management company.
Two PA suppliers were contracted. Major Tom Ltd provided a huge Meyer Sound PA based around Milo and Mica loudspeakers. The system was set up to conform to the O2's steeply raked seating design, which Hughes describes as reminding him of an American football stadium. "When you stand up in the upper deck, you feel like you're going to fall off a cliff," he laughs. But the design also had an effect on array positioning. "With sides so steep and tall, to make sure the sound reaches the highest seats, you have to bend the array more and add more boxes," he explains, "But you have to take care not to bend it too much; the gaps between the boxes can destroy the [sonic] integrity of the line array."
There were a total of 72 Milo curvilinear loudspeakers, flanking a stage that had a centre hang of a half-dozen Mica curvilinear loudspeakers flown above it. Adjacent to the Milos were 10 flown 700-HP subwoofers per side. Ground stacks were comprised of nine 700-HPs per side, and four Micas per side were used for outfill. The front fill used one Mica per side, along with eight UPA-1Ps strung across the stage lip. Three Galileo loudspeaker management systems handled 36 outputs in total, while Meyer Sound's Director of European Technical Support, Luke Jenks, was also on hand, tuning the system with a SIM 3 audio analyser. Britannia Row provided the Midas XL8 digital mixing system for the FOH position, which is set about 40m from the front of the stage. They also set up monitor engineer Dee Miller with a Midas Heritage 3000 console feeding a Turbosound monitor system with a dozen Flashlight cabinets for sidefills, as well as TFM350s and 450s.
Four weeks of rehearsals preceded the show. The first couple were done on a sound stage at Black Island Studios in London, where Hughes had an XL8 brought in. That was followed by two weeks of the fully staged set assembled at Shepperton Studios, a film sound stage in Littleton Park Manor, a 17th century manor house in Surrey, where the huge projection screen was set up, lighting was rigged and a scaled-back version of the PA was installed. "It was an army of lighting, video and laser guys in there," Hughes recalls.
But beyond the gear, Hughes faced a philosophical issue: do you go old school and make it sound like 1979 or do you try to transform vintage Led Zeppelin through a state-of-the-art PA? Hughes polled the band, who provided little in the way of strategic specifics. "John Paul Jones wanted lots of low end — no surprise there — and that argued for a more modern sound," says Hughes. "Jimmy just wanted it to sound big. Robert has been touring for years, so he's very current, and Jason just wanted the drums to sound 'good'. On the other hand, everyone knows these songs and everyone has an opinion about how they should sound. I was pulled in a few directions."
Modernising the sound
Trying to modernise the sound, Hughes first put lots of gates on a horde of tightly placed microphones, but he quickly realised that that wasn't working. "It was getting too far away from what Led Zeppelin was, which was a four-piece band that just gets up and plays," he says. "It was time for a big rethink." The gates were tossed and Hughes went back to basics. He set up a matched pair of Earthworks SR25 cardioid microphones in an XY-axis configuration above the drum kit. "That sounded fantastic; it really let the kit breathe," he exclaims. "I added a little reverb to it from the console, spread it out across the stereo field and then heavily compressed them to put lots of stage ambience into the sound. We were getting closer to how Led Zeppelin recorded these songs in the first place."
The ambient overhead approach created a timing issue between the SR25s and the direct microphones on the toms and snare drum. "We had to put a delay on every channel that was also being picked up by the overheads," Hughes explains. To get a precise value for the delay, he turned to a Klark Teknik DN9696 high-resolution hard disk recorder in the FOH rack, using its software to zoom in on the waveform and identify the time discrepancy. The solution was a 4ms delay for the snare channels and floor toms, and a 3ms delay for the rack toms.
The kick drum, so huge on the original recordings, was faithfully reproduced by placing a Shure Beta 52 dynamic microphone in the front hole of the drum head, buttressed by an Earthworks SR25 with a KP1 kick pad on it, which optimises the microphone for the kick application. ("I think some people were afraid I was going to do the Metallica 'click' on the kick drum," says Hughes, slyly.)
JPJ's bass rig
John Paul Jones' bass rig was perhaps the most complex bit on the stage. He played through both an SWR stack and a Black Cat stack, alternating and blending them according to the song or the bass guitar he used. "The SWR was the heart of the bass sound; Black Cat has a harsher, brasher sound to it," says Hughes, describing the difference between the two bass rigs. "On some songs, John was using a bass guitar that split the output of the pickups between the two amps. It was quite unusual. I used a DI and a Beta 52 on the bass amps, and additionally put a Beta 52 on the Black Cat. Then a DI for the bass pedals."
Conversely, guitar and vocals were straightforward. Hughes placed three Audio-Technica AT2500 dual-capsule microphones in front of Page's rig, whose core was a 30W Orange head atop a 4 x 12 cabinet, and channeled into an Engel amplifier stack and some Marshall stacks. "Literally, all you do with Jimmy's sound is bring up the fader," says Hughes, marvelling at the thought. "His sound is just there. Just open his mic and add a touch of reverb." And Robert Plant? "Just a standard Shure SM58 through an Avalon compressor and a touch of reverb from a TC6000, and hope when he swings it, it doesn't come too close to the overheads."
After the intensive rehearsals, the actual soundcheck seemed anticlimactic. "We set the sound system up the day before the show and soundchecked. It was like the old days," says Hughes, "They just walked on stage and started playing. Very short and sweet." The day of the show was left free for the other acts that were playing the show to soundcheck.
The co-mix during the show — a first for both Hughes and Williams — went smoothly. There were, of course, the adjustments that take place on the first few songs of any show, as the FOH mixer transitions from an empty venue at soundcheck to a full one at show time. The only ruffle was a rolling bass wave that cascaded from the front of the stage, rebounding off the rear wall and colliding with the following wave right around the FOH location. "You could feel them cause a cancellation or summation for a split second," says Hughes. "Luke helped sort out the bass issue. It was really only an issue down the centre of the venue, and we rolled off a bit on the ground-stacked subs and that took care of it." Was it loud? "Oh yeah, they love it loud," says Hughes, noting that the monitors were exceptionally loud. "They don't use in-ear monitors; they're not the type to shove something in their ears. It was part of their sound 30 years ago and it still is."
In the end, what Hughes remembers most vividly from the event wasn't so much the mixing as the surreality of what surrounded it. "Walking around backstage was incredible," he says. "You're standing there and Paul McCartney and David Gilmour walk right in front of you." But while taking a smoke break in front of his hotel the night before the show, Hughes encountered an American chap who asked him if he was here for the concert. He didn't give away his role, but listened as the Californian boasted of having flown 6000 miles and paid £2500 for a VIP ticket. Hughes comments, "I thought, 'Led Zeppelin's music hasn't changed in 30 years, but everything else has.'" 0
Phil Dudderidge: on the road with Led Zeppelin — the first time around
Many in the pro audio industry know Phil Dudderidge as the founder of sound desk-maker Soundcraft and current CEO of Focusrite. But he had, as they say in Hollywood, a back-story.
In 1970, Dudderidge was a 21-year-old roadie/sound mixer with three years experience lugging gear and managing microphones for bands like Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Soft Machine. Given the rudimentary PA equipment most of the artists at the time had, Dudderidge says his primary qualification for the gigs was having a valid driver's license and owning a van. "None of these bands had much in the way of PA systems," he recalls, "Just something to amplify vocals, even in venues as large as the Albert Hall."
Dudderidge met Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin's manager at the time, through Charlie Watkins, owner of WEM, the leading UK PA provider in those days. He had barely heard of the band, but nonetheless volunteered to become their soundman. From March to May, 1970, Dudderidge was part of the tour that would come to set the standard for modern rock tour sound.
PM: When you joined the tour, already in progress, what was the PA system like?
PD: "When I arrived, mid-tour, at Montreaux to join the Led Zeppelin crew, I found a fairly standard rig for that level of band, similar to those owned by The Who and Pink Floyd, which I had seen at various gigs. The speakers were mostly 4 x 12-inch columns (10 per side), plus two stacks of two 2 x 15s with a small horn on top per side, all driven by 12 100W power amps. And just two WEM five-channel Audiomaster mixers [interesting history here: www.wemwatkins.co.uk/history.htm] providing 10 channels. I'd never had my hands on such a big rig! Mics were the usual assortment of Shure Unidynes and Unisphere's, the forerunners of the SM57 and SM58."
PM: How were the 10 channels allocated?
PD: "1. Robert Plant's vocal. 2. Jimmy's vocal (he rarely approached it, but it usefully covered his guitar stack; when he soloed, I could push the level up).
3. John Paul Jones' vocal.
4. Leslie top.
5. Leslie bottom.
Channels 6 to 10 on the drums: bass drum, snare/hi-hat, top toms, floor toms and an overhead, as I recall. No DI or mics on the Acoustic bass amp speakers; there were two and bass got into everything anyway."
PM: Where was the FOH position?
PD: "There was none! We had no snake, so I mixed from behind the stage-right PA stack and had to go into the audience to hear what it sounded like. Also, no stage monitors; I simply turned the inside 4 x 12 column on each side towards the stage."
PM: On-the-job training?
PD: "I had constant instruction from Robert between songs: 'More presence, more treble.' There was no more to give; both were maxed on his channel. The Audiomaster offered three fixed bands of EQ and a rotary fader. Next to the jack inputs were trim controls. I used to have Robert's fader at max and would ride the trim because his mic level distorted the input stage of the mixer. The band were so loud on stage. Jimmy used two 100W Marshall stacks with Hiwatt heads. John Paul had his two Acoustic 361 bass amps and two big Leslies for the Hammond. And John Bonham was the loudest drummer to ever live!"
PM: When LZ came to the States for the first time, did the WEM PA come too?
PD: "Coming to America for the first time was an eye-opener. Peter Grant had asked me whether the WEM system would be big enough for US venues and I replied that I had no idea. Thankfully, at the first venue, the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, I arrived to find a huge rig supplied by Kelly Deyong Sound System, a local company. This was based on the Altec 'Voice of the Theatre' bass bins with compression driver horns, something I had never seen. Modern touring systems had yet to be invented. Back then, tour sound was regional rather than national, so we used vastly different systems from one night to the next. The three of us crew members would drive from city to city in a rental truck carrying the amps, guitars, drums, Hammond and Leslie, and the WEM PA, which was used for stage monitors."
PM: Aside from the technical aspects, what else do you remember about that US tour?
PD: "To sense the vibe watch Almost Famous, a movie that really captured the sense of touring the States in the early '70s. Consider that we stayed in Holiday Inns — except in LA, where we stayed at the Chateau Marmont when we played the Forum and the Continental Hyatt House (the Riot House) — and other motels and average hotels, but only when we had time. Usually, we had to set off after the show for the next city. Anything up to 600 miles. Anything further and we would fly by scheduled service, sending all the gear 'excess baggage'. Picture backing the Hertz truck up to the plane and tagging every piece as it was loaded!
It typically took three separate flights to get all the gear there. I recall the trip from Memphis to Phoenix. I took the first flight, and picked up the rental truck and the first batch of gear. One of the other guys came with the second batch. The last few items (including the Audiomasters) came unaccompanied. I had to return to the airport to pick this up as show time approached. Having set everything else up with my colleagues Sandy and Henry, I had to get these last items. On the way back from the airport to the venue, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, I hit a huge traffic jam — the audience trying to get to the venue. My only recourse was to drive the wrong way down the streets into the venue, headlights and hazards blazing, for maybe a mile. Thankfully, nobody challenged me. And those days we had no laminates or other ID — just my UK driver's license.
We had a couple of incidents on the road that were life threatening: crossing the Rockies from Portland to Denver in a blizzard on a two-lane highway, and spinning the truck 360 degrees and continuing without stopping. We so nearly went over the edge...
The final show was scheduled to be Las Vegas, the International Hotel (now the Convention Center Hilton). We drove all night from Phoenix after the show, taking the shortest route (highway). After trying to break the engine's speed governor by down-shifting at full speed, downhill, Sandy found he had destroyed the brakes and the steering had almost no movement. The engine had been lifted off its mountings and moved back in the engine bay — unbelievable, but true. We were speeding down this mountain pass, past a weigh station and finally coming to rest by friction with the roadside before the downhill continued. This at about 6.00am.
Having noticed a fleet of U-Haul trucks at a gas station some miles earlier, we were able to summon a replacement truck, roundly blaming U-Haul and Ford for the incident ('brake failure'). Finally arriving at Las Vegas, we were told that the gig had been cancelled due to ill health (John Bonham was in bad shape in Phoenix, having to be supported on his drum stool by Sandy for much of the gig). So, a big anticlimax for us, but we were at least able to go to bed for two days and nights!
I volunteered to drive the truck back to LA, where we spent a couple of days before flying home. This was the first time I had been on my own time for a month and it was liberating. The desert road (Route 15) gave me time to take stock. I was so exhausted by the experience, I made it known that I would not carry on with the band. I had completed the tour, which had become a challenge against physical and mental exhaustion, and that was enough. Although at the time it just seemed like very hard work, with hindsight, working with Led Zeppelin was a huge privilege."
Published in PM June 2008
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