TPi’s Kelly Murray goes to London’s Roundhouse to speak exclusively with Tour Manager and FOH Engineer, Ben Hammond, about his experience on the road with cult post-hardcore crew, At The Drive-In.
When the word ‘band reunion’ and ‘2016’ are typed into a search engine, you’re more than likely to be bombarded with articles referring to Guns N’ Roses’ long-awaited comeback. However, for those with a penchant for heavier rock music, the return of post-hardcore titans At the Drive-In is the true headline story of the year. It’s been a long 16 years since the band released any new material, with critically acclaimed album Relationship of Command becoming one of the most sought after cuts in the genre’s history. Imagining seeing them perform the record live seemed like pure fantasy to many, until this year, that is…
One Man, Two Hats
“I first met Paul Hinojos, the band’s bass player, when he was working as a session musician, and I was mixing The Blackout,” began Hammond. “I remember at the time him telling me that he worked with on the production team for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which suitably intimidated the rest of the crew! Fast forward over four years and I got a call from that tour’s TM saying to expect a call from Paul about an upcoming project. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the rest is history!”
Readers of TPi will typically know of Hammond for his sound engineering skills, but his tour management knowledge is something he fell into out of necessity. “When I first started touring it seemed to be that the two jobs got bundled together. I think for the most part, it’s the two jobs people want covering more than any other, so when there is limited budget or space on buses, the doubling up of roles is required. I’m not sure if it’s the best mix during the gig sometimes, due to me having a few thousand people between me and the band and not being there to get them onstage when I’m mixing at FOH! But, as long as you have a great crew, which we were certainly blessed with on this tour, then you can relax somewhat and know it’s going to be under control.”
Concentrating primarily on his FOH work, after a two-year album cycle with long-haired metal gods Saxon, he got a call from Raw Power Management, which offered him a slot with Young Guns as both FOH and TM, and led to a tour with Atreyu. Halfway through planning ATDI’s highly anticipated tour, the band also signed with Raw Power, meaning Hammond got to remain close with the same group of people he had known and worked with for years. He said: “I was very aware from the offset that the band had been touring at a high level, and would have very specific needs which I wanted to fulfill as well as possible. Because they were getting back together after a few years off, I wanted to make them feel as comfortable and as stress-free as possible in order to best aid their new routines and be firing on all cylinders.”
He furthered: “Looking after every member of the touring party is of paramount importance. You can’t look after the band and leave the crew to fend for themselves, or vice versa. Everyone from the singer to the driver are all away from home, and all dealing with the same emotions; we all miss loved ones, and are all here making our living with one common goal, which is to make sure that performance is as good as humanly possible.”
Hammond also explained that taking on this dual role means that you have a different bond with the rest of the crew. “As TM you never really stop working. You don’t form the relaxed ‘mate’ relationship that the rest of the crew forms. I think that getting your head down and making sure everything gets done quickly and smoothly gains trust and, for me, that’s the most important thing. Twin that with being a person who is easy to be around on the road, and the rest often takes care of itself.”
Using A Console As An Instrument
With a level of trust somewhat already in place due to the recommendation from Raw Power, the reality of being the TM played out seamlessly, with Hammond describing the band – who, let’s face it, would be fearless wrecking any stage – as “incredibly lovely people”. The approach to audio with not only a brand new client, but also for a band with some highly knowledgeable fans, was also a situation in which Hammond’s precise experience could come into play. He told TPi: “I take great pride in making sure that what the fans hear, is exactly what the band wants to get across to them. For me, this starts with getting a setlist of songs and listening to them almost religiously. It seems lately that my entire record collection is the next band I’m working for! Another important stage of the process is speaking to the band before the tour begins, right through to rehearsals, making sure that we are all on the same page at the same time. In this case, Cedric Bixler-Zavala [ATDI frontman] was very specific about hitting all the FX cues on the record. On top of this, ATDI have a lot of long improvisation sections in the set, which are very ambient… I was given free reign on these to make them as ambient and involving as possible. This actually turned into Cedric asking for wedges on stage that had my FOH vocal sound and FX in so he could ‘play’ off the FX. This extended into Cedric using his vocal microphone at one point in the set to mic the drums, which then Tony [Hajjar, Drummer] would play with the long tap delay I had on the vocal microphone. So I’m completely involved in the set improvisations which further backs up my sentiment that an engineer is playing a gig just as much as the band, using their console as an instrument.
“In the past the band has been known for raw aggression, but this time around it’s a much more mature show. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t for a second lack any of the aggression that their past shows had, but it’s a much more refined set. We have a big, tight drum sound, and the way Tony plays really lends itself to the big Bonham snare sound, especially in the slower songs. The whole band hangs on the snare, which comes way behind the beat to give that real groove feel. The mix itself is also dynamic and as ever changing as Omar [Rodríguez-López]’s incredible guitar playing, which soars its way to the top in a lot of sections. He has such a vast array of amazing sounds that it would simply be arrogant of me to do anything other than recreate this through the PA as honestly as possible.
“The overall mix ended up being pretty clean with a lot of audible FX. It was still very powerful and punchy, which meant I could involve the audience much more and immerse them in sound. Using bottom end and softer frequencies (using multi band compression / dynamic EQ to keep the harsh mid range frequencies in check) I could give much more of an illusion of volume. I kept the shows pretty religiously at 102dBA, while injecting as much power and clarity as possible. I like to think of using tight focussed bottom end to ‘give the audience a hug’, meaning I like to involve the listener, rather then just have them watch a band from a distance. That’s the difference between a great show, and a life-changing experience.”
For FOH control Hammond took his new Allen & Heath dLive system on the road. The engineer has been using the desk for the last couple of years and told TPi that he “couldn’t resist” personally investing in one. He used the S5000 surface with and M-Dante card for tracking and a DM64 stage box. Due to the somewhat aggressive style of the band’s shows, he also opted to come out of the console via AES at 96k into a Cransong HEDD D/A converter. This gave more headroom as well providing Hammond with the valve drive and tape compression, providing the whole mix with an extra kick. “It’s a box I’ve sworn by since I first used one years ago,” explained Hammond. “The onboard FX on the dLive are pretty staggering too. I used a lot of my reverb pre sets that I have made over the years from using both iLive and dLive desks.”
He went on to express his admiration for the Dyn-EQ on the console for mixing vocals. “I’m a huge fan of adaptive processing on vocals to keep them up front at all times. A weird one on this was using the Leslie Sim on the desk over Cedric’s vocal in certain parts to give me a lo-fi, driven tremolo effect which actually worked out great. The four band compression on the dLive over the master was a first for me however, I’m not usually into compression on the master bus, but this just helped to keep the intensive mid range in check on this mix. Once calmed down here, the Cranesong just gave in that extra sparkle on the way to the PA.”
Hammond utilised the Roundhouse’s Britannia Row installed L-Acoustics K2 system. He noted: “This was the first time I have mixed here since the old V-DOSC was taken out. The coverage is much better, and the overall the intelligibility at FOH is a big improvement. I always found the Roundhouse to be pretty vague at FOH once the venue had filled up, but this has well and truly been fixed with the K2 rig.”
For the show, all the members of ATDI were on IEMs with the addition of the FX mix sent from FOH to a pair of wedges. Hajjar was also using two 18-inch subs and a Porter and Davies thumper stool. Hammond even took on the role as monitor engineer on this tour too. He explained: “The band requested that they wanted a small monitor board on stage so they could ride faders themselves, so I employed an Allen & Heath GLD-80 for this task and set up a very simple ‘press button, push fader’ show file, then went through the process of changing things with the entire band and stage crew. Despite my reservations on this, it actually worked very well. I would do a short check on stage with the band until they were happy, and then do a full check from FOH. They are a pretty easy band for IEM mixes, again coming from being extremely experienced and knowing exactly what they want to hear, and more importantly, how to communicate this sound to their paying audience.”
The microphone package included several models from Audio-Technica including AE2500’s for guitars, ATM29 on bass and AE4100’s on backing vocal duty. For the kick drum Hammond used an Audio-Technica BP40. The rest of the kit included ATM650’s on the snare, ATM450’s on hi-hats, ATM350’s on toms, AE5100 on the ride, and AT4050’s on overheads. For Bixler-Zavala’s vocals the production used a Telefunken M80 dynamic microphone.
Consoles at both FOH and monitor position along with microphones were supplied from Hammond’s own gear stock. Other audio rental requirements including the line system, IEMs, Cranesong, microphone stands, stage power and flightcases, all came from Eighth Day Sound. Hammond stated: “I was very well looked after by Stuart Wright at Eighth Day. I always have great experiences touring kit from those guys, and look forward to using them again in the future.”
A Badge Of Honour
With the London gig marking a huge return for the band, the fans and the national music press, the tour’s British date also marked a real sense of achievement for Hammond. He concluded: “As with every tour I definitely feel like I have learnt a tone from this experience,” he stated.
“Working with people like Paul Hinojos was great – to learn more on the accounting / logistical side of things because of his own production experience with RHCP – and as ever, working with new artists exposes engineers to all kinds of challenges. I think this forces you to think outside the box. Personally, no matter how long you have been touring, you never stop learning and I want to make sure I leave every tour being better at my jobs than I was going in.
This was a big badge of honour for me, to be at the helm of such an anticipated tour, and as a big Mars Volta fan [another influential band and ATDI musical project during hiatus], getting to mix that guitar sound and those vocals was pretty special for me.”
Photos: Jon Stone