"A day in the life of...." (Part One)
Chris "Privet" Hedges interviewed at the National Exhibition Centre Birmingham 26th February 1998
Interview conducted by Martin Dean and Alan Hewitt
Following on from our recent feature on The Lamb... with the wonderful article on what it was like to be a member of the band's road crew for that tour, here is another look behind the scenes look at the making of the band's Calling All Stations tour with sound engineer; Chris Hedges...
TWR: OK Privet... first thing is... what exactly IS your job as "Front Of House Sound Engineer"?
CH: Basically, to take all the individual instruments and to provide.... to mix that into a stereo sound for all the people in the auditorium; the audience. That's about the size of it really. They make the music and I have to try and put it into an audible lump really.
TWR: Because during the show it seems to be a lot more involved and if you watch you seem to be fiddling around all the time...
CH: Yeah, you do tend to tweak things because depending on... for instance; how the snare drum is sounding that night you change the sound of it from song to song and different songs require different sounds and things like some of The Lamb... stuff, the older stuff you have to try and make that sound more dated although I don't know if that is the right word... You don't tend to use so much technology or reverb on the drums and you just let them sound more acoustic. Whereas on something like Calling All Stations where, even on the record, that is not... contrived... but that is a very modern drum sound so you want to try and get the differences between the two things . A lot of that we can do with technology really; with all the Midi programming you can do on the desk so that you can change the whole scene and the desk all lit up.
TWR: So that makes things a lot easier to do than in the past where you would have to ...
CH: Yeah, even five years ago. We used to do it manually but now having it is a bit of a double edged sword. It is nice to have it and to have the luxury of all the sort of computer toys but by the same token; because it is all digital; it is all in thin air somewhere and if I all crashes... it's ugly!
TWR: Obviously we know your past but for the benefit of our readers... how did you become a sound engineer?
CH: Well I used to do it with a band called Marillion years ago and I was friends with them and I was doing all kinds of things with them as a kind of hobby and I used to work for K Tel records in the mastering room so I was already in sound -ish already and it came to the point where they were getting so busy and the vibe of live gigs... I just love it so and from day one I have loved that. And so they (Marillion) started doing more and more gigs and it came to the point where it was a choice between carrying on working or giving up work and following them and so I said "Bollocks" and as they got a little bit bigger I started encountering PA companies and people like that and they would hear your mix and then you would end up getting work for sound companies and things like that. I did Live Aid... quite a bit of heavy rock... I did Black Sabbath for a while and it was good money but .... fucking awful for the soul! It was quite good fun only once but three months in a row and they're not fun anymore! (laughter).
Since then I have been lucky really ; there has been stuff with Mike & The Mechanics and Eric Clapton and now Genesis... and this is the sort of music I love... it's very musical and melodic and playe dby people who can REALLY play which flatters sound engineers really. People say that Marillion always sounded good but that was because they WERE good! And Genesis have always sounded good. I must have seen them twenty times before I stared working for them and you can't appreciate anything about music unless you realise how good they are.
TWR: Was it a difficult decision on this tour... because you have done everything with Marillion up until starting work with Genesis... was that a difficult move to...
CH: No, not at all really. The thing is with the Marillion chaps, they weren't doing enough work to keep a live sound engineer on. There was stuff to do in the studio and everything, but I really am a live bloke, you know... obviously I would go and work for them again tomorrow. There are people who do it to get the names on their CV's and I would rather do it because of the music and you have to listen to it and if you actually gain something out of it spiritually that is equally as good as any of the money. That's why I stayed with Marillion for years and years; they were as fuckin' unfashionable as they come but... who cares? To me I was listening to something I liked and it is much easier for me, personally to mix something I like. I mean, I have been doing boy bands this year and... I can do it...I won't say I hate it but it's just... decorating... just do it by the numbers .
TWR: Do you find that mixing for a live band that you actually get more feedback off the band themselves in regard of how they want the gig to sound?
CH: Yeah, some more than others. With Clapton, he sort of leaves it up to you and as long as it is good, he is happy and you just deal with the individual musicians with regard to their sounds . These guys; Tony and Mike in particular, are a bit more focussed in what they want. They want it to have complete integrity
To what the music is. The mixes that I try to recreate are as representative as possible in some of these rooms as the mixes that are on the record. Obviously on record you can have things like two keyboard sounds playing alongside each other say for instance in Domino; you can have two sounds playing alongside each other and they will be perfectly balanced. If you do it in a big old room like this place (the National Exhibition Centre) the one will be totally overpowering the other just because of the way the room is reacting . So, you often have to tend to accentuate lead lines and the important little bits that everybody knows and sometimes you have to accentuate little bits. And if you listened back to a tape of last night; it wouldn't sound like it did on the night in the room which is always a hard thing for a sound engineer because the band always ask for a tape of the gig and say "what the bloody hell is this?" (laughs).
TWR: So, they do actually listen to the tapes?
CH: Only the start actually. They have a worrying faith in me at the moment! (laughs)
TWR: Because I notice that you have had the microphones set up at ... well every show that we have seen... Is every show recorded?
CH: Yeah, I record them on to DAT and on to cassette and if they ask for a cassette they are there and any ... and the same with the DATs, they are just kept for library really so that they exist and also for me to monitor them and every so often... I record with the audience mics mixed in just for vibe really so that when you listen back to them they don't sound really stiff and if you have a bit of the room in there as well it is a bit more representative, just so I can hear what the desk is doing and what I am actually doing...
TWR: Obviously they have used some of your live recordings on things like the Mike & The Mechanics singles. Were they just straight off the DAT you had recorded or not?
CH: Yeah, the band didn't add anything to them... no to my knowledge anyway. Nick Davis; he put them up on Sound Tools or Sonic Solutions... one of those music programmes and basically what he may have done is just tweaked certain aspects of it because you can get real fine editing points and stuff and I think they tweaked them a little bit.
Most of the Board tapes I do wouldn't really be useable because the vocal tends to be louder and drier than it would be on an album because really people want to hear the words and so you have to with musical bands...like these and Mike & The Mechanics the vocal has to be out there sometimes at the expense of other things. When people are sat in their car listening, it is the words and the vocal melody that is subconsciously the front end of the song and you could lose a bass drum and nobody would hate you for it but if you lost a vocal you would have letters!
TWR: Oh yeah, certainly because listening last night the vocals were very clear which sometimes... in a venue like this can be very difficult not to lose the vocals...
CH: Yeah... it is a bit of a bugger this place and yet is quite a musical place though.. because the instruments... things like guitars, keyboards, vocals; bass guitar; they don't get too beaten up by it. Cymbals and bass drums do. The bass drum becomes a big wallowing thing and sounds like mud but the bass guitar is still quite tight so it is quite musical.
Also, this system; this Showco system is fantastic. For doing arenas it is a class above anything else I have ever used, which will get me no work at all in England (laughs).
TWR: What gear have you got set up here because I know there are quite a few people interested in the technical side of things who would like to know what gear you are using..?
CH: Well... the basic desk is a Midas XL4 with VCA automation and so it is completely Midi controlled but everything Midi controlled from a Toshiba computer with a programme written up by an American chap; Howard Page and basically all that does is send out Midi "scenes" and the main inputs are all on the XL4 and then I have a Yamaha Pro Mix 1 which has all the effects on which again is run through the small programmable console and all the effects including the really old stuff are Midi controlled to so I can change the levels of the returns of the different effects so you can change the whole scene of the effects just by pressing one button. Like as I said before, you could do it before but it was a bit more spade work and you would need two people to do this much and sometimes if it was a song that segued straight into another song you wouldn't have a chance; you would still be doing it in the first chorus. Compressors... yeah...normally I use valves... DBX Solid State and Summit Compressor Limiters, tube compressor limiters because they are much softer.
Other than that, there is not a lot of processing. The drums; I don't gate the bass drum and a lot of the songs... the drums aren't gated they just go through a completely ambient set up which is helped by the fact that the band are all on in-ear monitor systems.
TWR: Yeah, that must help, because I know the various consoles they have had are foot involved and mix monitor and Genesis are one of the few bands that I have seen that do that...
CH: Yeah, it has its up sides and its down sides, that thing. Because if things go wrong you can't pinpoint exactly where they are but the fact that they are in ears at all makes it fantastic for a front of house man, because the only real sound...if I turned the PA off you would hear nothing apart from the drum kit and maybe a little bit of guitar...
TWR: So , you get none of the fall back interfering with your sound?
CH: No, I can leave the drums un-gated and pretty much un-EQ'd it is a good sounding kit and he beats the crap out of it and you just let the thing speak for itself really.
TWR: Des it reduce feedback problems as well?
CH: Yeah... the vocal we have to work on every day really. You know a singer's voice is probably the most delicate instrument in rock and roll really and when Ray has had to do four gigs in a row and it has been a really shitty room and he has had to be barking and the next night he might be suffering a bit. We can always find the vocal but the only thing that changes is the attitude of the performance. If he isn't confident and if his voice is tired you know, then some nights his attitude changes. But we have a lot of compression on the vocal actually, that is the only channel that is heavily affected in its processing. I have a tube levelling on it and basic limiting across certain frequencies to try and keep the voice as it is on the album so that it is papery but you have got to have a bit of weight to it as well.
If you played the CD over the PA, the voice would be chewing your face off because it is so thin on the record and his voice naturally isn't like that, he has got a very rich voice. The thing about him is that he has got a real soul ; he loves 'em and he is proud to be up there singing the songs . Because the whole point is any band who can play well can be good but it is the vibe that makes bands great, isn't it? Well, it is for me anyway. I can stand here from one night to the next and tell how they are feeling and how Nir is feeling and how Ray is feeling and if Ray isn't into it., it's just 5% less but if he is into it and if Nir is into it and they are playing it with a bit of Blues then that adds an extra dimension really.
TWR: Are they really enjoying this?
CH: I think so, yeah. Mike and Tony to me... they just love making music, those boys . I expect that after doing it for so long that there must be a certain inconvenience of travelling round and I can't really speak for them and I haven't talked about any of this before but to me they both seem to be into it. They both turned up for rehearsals ready to go. Mike had all his sounds down and the first time they played In The Cage in rehearsal which they hadn't played for ages... when they first played it in rehearsals; Tony Banks walked up and played the solo straight through virtually faultlessly. And I would have put about fifty quid on him going in about three bars in before...bloody hell!
TWR: We have just sat and watched it.. especially Mike, on things like Domino and he is just going for it...
CH: yeah, I know, he's a Rock God, isn't he?! (laughs) . I do think that they do love making music and it was the same on the last Mechanics tour... I know you can't really compare the two things but in terms of how Mike has been in the whole time I have been working with him is his love of music is really what makes the difference between him and so many other people. He is not there to be a rock legend or for the money necessarily, I think he just likes making music; likes writing music and interacting with other players.
TWR: Talking about venues on this tour and obviously you have had experience of most of the major venues in the UK. If someone was to ask you; which venue would you say; "go to that one; that's the gig to see.." which would you recommend...?
CH: France! (Laughs) This place isn't too bad. I have never done Earls Court before, actually . Wembley Arena isn't too bad but most of our big venues.... The NYNEX isn't supposed to be too bad but I did that with another system and that was another boy band-y type thing . I suppose with most of our arenas and including this place I think that most of them will sound good. I maintain that with the right band and the right engineer and the right system you should be ball park really and you should be clear and at least be able to hear what's going on and I think if you get that over a room and this system we have found out and we have played some places where Ray was talking between songs and you can hardly make out what he is saying because the room is just THAT live and yet when the band start playing you can pick bits out of it, you know.
My favourite old venue used to be the Hammersmith Odeon ; I used to love that place. That room sounds beautiful. In a way I quite like all the theatres and we went round quite a few places both with the Marillos and The Mechanics and we played some of those little rooms and it was like sitting in your living room . You get more reaction really because you can see what the crowd is like . The Genesis crowd; they are all my age and older and so a lot of them are coming with their wives and so they don't want it too loud and there is a lot of... "fuck it: impress us" and I don't think they appreciate it any the less than they did fifteen years ago when they were leaping up and down and queuing up all night for tickets but I think hat is just the way that people are now so the sound requirements have changed for these people as well . I feel that I probably know half of this lot because they were probably at a lot of the gigs I used to go to; the Milton Keynes bowl and all that rushing about in the mud and they are just older now and they want it to be quality it's not a question of wanting it too loud and if you had it loud enough for the people at the back; all the people at the front would be dying and some of these people are between thirty and fifty and they don't want to be beaten up any more when they come to a gig.
TWR: What gives you the most satisfaction, being in a small room where you can see everybody is into it or knowing that you have made eleven thousand people happy?
CH: It's a combination of two things really sometimes there will be a really good vibe and sometimes like when they played Firth Of Fifth in France ... no in Italy at one of the shows in Italy and the crowd just went "Yeah!" and it was really vibey and the hall sounded great and you could just sense that the crowd were loving it all the way through and there were about five thousand of them. There are other times like in this place, which is not the greatest place by along chalkj but there werea couple of things yesterday where I went.. "Yeah, that's just right" you know There Must Be Some Other Way and everything just sat and the keyboards came in and it just looked swell and everything moved around and that actually... I used to get more out of it in the vibe area and now it is nice to have the vibe but with the degree of control as well. Having all this computer stuff as well and having the same point zero to start from every day is a good thing. Because before... ten years ago if you got really into it you could end up dialling stuff into the desk and then the next day you would go "What the bloody hell was I doing last night?" the fact was you might have been having a fantastic time and it was sounding great... I never take my hand off the vocal fader; just keep that sat in all the time.
Especially when you are not mixing as loud... I mean anybody can do loud ; you just need enough speakers but to make something SOUND loud I think it is a question of where you place the vocal in the mix and for instance... going into the chorus of There Must Be Some Other Way, for the sake of the song; you just ease the system up and pull the vocal back in so that the vocal is siting out in the verse and it is exactly the same volume but the whole band just feels louder because you have sat the vocal back in a bit but it hasn't got any louder so people aren't writing in their letters of complaint, you know "My Dolores went along to this concert and she found it pretty loud!" (laughs).
TWR: The tour lasts up until the beginning of April. What are the plans after that...?
CH: There are various things... rumour control is in full flow at the moment. At the moment the tour is due to finish on the sixth of April in... Helsinki I believe. But now there is talk of while we are up there possibly crossing the Baltic and doing a few of the Baltic states and St Petersburg and all these kind of places where they have never played before. As long as you have got your own catering with you ! That is an extra couple of weeks they are looking at tacking on at the end and I have heard a rumour that they are doing some festivals during the summer but that remains to be seen ... because they are Genesis it is going to have to be on their terms and not just do anything they will need to be headliners or at least special guests; because when you are special guests say for instance if you put Bryan Adams on in Munich and he is only getting fifteen thousand in a forty thousand seater; then you get special guests like Genesis and pay them a bucket of money and you see the production overheads are all met by Bryan Adams it's his show and he's the headliner and all the production costs are his and all we do is turn up with a monitor system and that's it.
Thanks to "Privet" for giving us so much of his time on what was obviously a busy day!