By Maxx Brunet
This is part two of touring Europe with KEN mode. If you missed part one – check it out On Tour with KEN mode
Show 7: Lille, France
Today’s show was a first: I get to mix in the hull of a docked boat. The room is small, and the PA is almost non-existent. There is also a set of delay speakers midway through the room, although they don’t seem to be adding much (mix position is closer to these than the ones hung by the stage).
The house sound tech lets me know they don’t follow the France national dB limit law of 95dB, and that I’m free to do as I please. The minute I start my check, he runs over to tell me that it’s too loud. I am a bit confused by his comment, but try and run the guys at a quieter level. The set goes well, and we all load up on the delicious sweets left for us in the green room.
As an aside: I’ve come to think that the French aren’t used to loud shows, at least not North American loud. I can’t decide if this is good (it is probably better for everyone at a show to be exposed to lower sound levels, to preserve their hearing), or an over-protective state law. These European limits are making me feel like an overbearing North American, always pushing to get things my way, at least sound level wise! At the same time, tone is a very real issue, and it just isn’t possible to achieve the same sound through a Mesa head if it’s being run at 1 instead of 6. We will, unfortunately, experience the reality of this very soon.
Show 8: Sint, Belgium
We show up way too early for load-in, and spend an afternoon lounging around the van in a grocery store parking lot. This is the downside of touring: sometimes everyone is too tired to explore what’s around the venue, or the show is located in the outskirts, and you end up spending a day doing pretty mundane things like reading on a park bench and devouring Milka chocolate bars.
The show is in a youth community center, and the PA is a small powered Mackie rig. It’s always interesting to me how much you can do with a small board and good musicians: I usually gate my toms, but manage to EQ out the slight ring in them instead. I’m not saying I particularly enjoy working with consumer grade boards and no outboard gear, but you can make them work in your favour when that’s what life hands you! I definitely wished I showed up in venues with perfectly hung PA’s and my board of choice every day, but the reality of touring in small to mid-sized clubs is that you have to put up with their quirks! As more than one tech has told me: it’s these entry-level touring gigs that really allow you to cut your teeth, and perfect your craft.
The set goes well, and we head to the hotel for some rest.
Show 9: Metz, France
As you might have noticed, I’ve gotten lucky this tour with dB limits and being able to squeeze a bit more out of rooms than what is typically allowed. All this good luck came crashing down in Metz. The venue is in the basement of a bar, essentially a cave with very live acoustics). The promoter is also the venue sound tech, and as he runs some errands, I put together the very basic PA and patch in some of my mics. I am working with an 8 channel Soundcraft board today, so I know I won’t be patching my usual input list: even in smaller clubs, I usually like to mic all drums and amps, just to make sure I can bring up what I need in the mix. For today, I choose to mic the kick, the 2 vocals, and to DI the samples. As I want the vocals to sit above the guitars, the guys adjust levels. I check my lines, and the band kicks into a song. Less than 30 seconds later, the owner of the bar runs down: “this is too loud! This is much too loud!” We adjust volumes again, and still, the owner tells me: “you’re not even trying. We have bands play here all the time, even ska bands, and they’re much quieter”. I am very confused as to how a band with horns could be quiet in such a space, but I bite my tongue and try and problem solve.
At this point, it becomes pretty obvious there’s no way we can win in this space. As I mentioned, the cave-like room is very live, and just the sound of the (un-mic’d) snare is overpowering the vocals I have sending through the PA. Shane tapes up his drums with as much gaff as possible, places a towel on his snare, and stuffs basically an entire couch’s worth of pillows in his kick. Drumming is a very physical instrument, and it’s near impossible for someone who has been playing drums with force for over 15 years to suddenly not hit as hard. Still, Shane somehow forces himself to play quieter. Jesse and Skot lower the amp levels to an almost laughable level, and the boys completely re-write the set list as many of the louder songs depend on amp tone to sound good.
The room is full, and the set starts. I cringe behind the soundboard, but realize that the guys are pulling this off. The end is near, and all is going well, until I realize that a group of people is talking in front of the stage. The band is playing so quietly, I can actually hear their conversation! Suddenly, I hear Shane’s snare come back to its normal level. Instantly, the bass and guitar amps are also turned up. The promoter runs up to me, and asks me what is happening. I answer that I don’t know, because I honestly don’t! I do know that this song will be their last, so I tell him not to worry and that the set will be done in less than two minutes.
I am told after the set that Shane was tired of hearing people talk, and tore the towel off his snare. The other two boys turned up their amps, to hear themselves above his drums. The crowd got to hear half a KEN mode song at a normal level, the promoter wasn’t too upset, and I learned that you can’t possibly have a loud noise rock band play in a cave, and expect it to be quiet.
Show 10: Poitiers, France
It’s starting to feel like every day is a complete 180, in terms of gear and rooms. After yesterday’s gig, it’s nice to walk into a well-outfitted venue! Tonight’s show is part of the Less Playboy, More Cowboy Festival, which is being held in a nice theatre and a few outdoor venues. Fortunately for me, we’re the first band on in the theatre, which has the nicest gear: I have a Midas Heritage at FOH, a nice effects rack, and a monitor engineer. I can’t stress how happy I am when there’s a separate monitor board – I’m quite used to running both FOH and monitors, but it just takes some of the edge of if I only have one thing to take care of.
As we’re early for load in again, we get an extensive sound check. I’m relatively happy with my mix start point, and head over to the green room for some delicious treats and a massage. Somehow, the festival organizers got local massage therapy students to come and give performers and crew massages before their set. I don’t know about you, but there’s just no way I can say no to a free massage.
The set is quite early, and as the band starts playing, I start making some adjustments to my initial mix. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making changes, as most rooms sound different empty than full. Still, sometimes I wonder if I fiddle too much with EQs, FX, etc. as the band is playing… I’d like to be at a place with my mixes where I’m just boosting or lowering certain channels as needed, depending on songs. Whenever I’m overly fidgety during the set, I’m reminded of a comment Dave Rat during his seminar in Ottawa a few years back: “when mixing, listen, think, adjust, don’t fiddle! Imagine a camera is watching you, and you’ll be made to justify every knob and fader change.” I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, but it can often be hard to stop obsessing over small details when you’ve started adjusting your mix! I think that sometimes I don’t spend enough time going through channels at sound check, which leads me to doubt my mix choices later… This is something I’m actively trying to work on. There’s usually no need to spend an hour EQ’ing a kick mic, but sometimes, a few more minutes on every channel would have probably done me some good, even if it was just added confidence in my mix. As I like to say, you mix, you learn.
The show goes well, and after loading out the gear in record time, we all head to the catering tent. I have a soft spot for cheese, and France is literally killing me with the cheese plates that are almost always found backstage. Add a few glasses of wine to that, and I have a great time wandering around the experimental art exhibitions located throughout the festival site. As I fall asleep, I think about how I could get used to all these perks of working in Europe!
Show 11: Clermont-Ferrand, France
This is it, the last show of this run. We are playing in the basement of a squatted building, on the outskirts of town. The PA is set up in a weird way, and the room sounds totally different depending on where you’re standing. The house sound tech doesn’t seem to be too concerned about me clipping the amps, but I’ve met the folks who live here, and I don’t want to be the jerk that blew up the PA in a community space! I make the boys adjust their amp levels, and am relatively ok with the sound check, even though it’s quieter than I’d like it to be.
After a homemade supper, it’s time for our set. The boys start playing, and I realize that once again, I’ve made them turn down too much at check. I ask the local tech to have Skot turn up his bass amp, as I’ve stupidly made the mistake to strike my bass mic after check, as I didn’t use it. I am kicking myself so hard for this, but figure it’s easier to have him turn up his amp than try and patch a mic in mid-set. I bring up the guitar (regardless of room size, I always mic the main guitar cab in order to send it through monitors, if applicable), and pretty soon after, there’s insane low-end feedback. I try and carve out some of the low end from the room graph, and it seems to leave, but then comes back. I can’t seem to “find” the feed – is it my guitar mic, or my vocal mic? Everything is set up so close to the system subs; it could be both. I pull back on the guitar low end, and that seems to get rid of the problem. The set ends, and I’m pretty embarrassed by the show. You can’t win every night, but it was the last night of my first European tour, and I wanted to end on a high note! Still, it seems like the crowd liked the show, which is ultimately the most important part.
After loading out, we all repack our bags and carry-ons for the morning flight, and the boys head off to bed. I stay up and discuss the differences between the North American and European music scenes with our hosts, before catching a bit of sleep myself.
Our first flight is delayed, which leads to some running through Charles de Gaulle airport to make our North American connection! Thankfully, we make it, and too many hours spent watching bad movies later, I’m back in Toronto. My first European tour is over, and I’ve learned a lot about working with dB limits, mixed on some new boards, and met some nice people. All in all, a great experience, and one I hope to get the chance to repeat soon!