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10 Seconds in the Time Machine

Only published comments... May 20 2011, 12:00 AM by Brad Madix

Hey this is Brad again, wrapping up final rehearsals before heading out on Rush’s Time Machine tour. Today, I’d like to share a tip that helped me fine-tune parts of the band’s mix. Probably the most obvious use of Pro Tools in preproduction rehearsals is to adjust channels and plug-ins during playback. Of course, you’re going to fiddle with EQs and adjust plug-in parameters as Pro Tools chunks away off to the side. Isn’t that all that’s left to do?

 

Well, yes and no. The point of all of this is to hone your mix to be the best it can possibly be. Touching up the mix as you play it back… well that doesn’t require much explanation. You make it the way you want it to be.

 

I’d like to detail how one specific tool—Loop Playback—helped me dial in an aspect of Rush’s mix. No matter how good a player they are, the backline tech will never be able to play the instrument for you the way the artist does. Even if the backline tech is better than the artist (which happens sometimes), it’s still not the same as having the real thing. If you get the actual artist sitting down to play a part for you, it’s unlikely they will put up with playing it 40 times while you dial in that EQ or compressor.

 

Arguably, the most well-known Rush song ever recorded is “Tom Sawyer.” Towards the end of the song, there’s a set of huge drum fills that everyone in the audience knows by heart. Half of the audience is air-drumming along! This section lasts 10 seconds, and in that span of time, Neil hits nearly every drum in his formidable kit. Being able to loop that 10 seconds of playback and listen to each drum individually—as well as the section in its entirety—was a huge help for sharpening the mix.

 

For example, I tend to gate high toms lightly, but low toms and floor toms require deeper gates with tighter thresholds. Adjusting side-chain settings can also be critical in making sure the gates will open when the drum is hit but stay closed when the snare is hit or when the kick comes through the monitor subs a few feet away. If the gates open, the mic just picks up the head rumbling away or whatever noise is coming back from the PA. This can be quite unpleasant coming through 90 18-inch speakers! That this particular fill needs to ride up in the mix, a few dB exacerbates the issue.

 

So I turned to Pro Tools and Virtual Soundcheck in VENUE to save me. I played the band’s rehearsal-recorded song right up to that drum fill point (the end of the guitar solo) and marked it in the timeline. I scrolled to the tom tracks (eight of them) and picked out the first fill, which is a couple of seconds long. Dragging across the timeline to select this section, I right-clicked on the play button to set Pro Tools to loop this fill and turned back to the console.

 

While Pro Tools repeatedly played back this section, I soloed up the first tom Neil smacked and started twirling knobs. The first drum he hits is a high tom, so there wasn’t much for me to do on it. I listened back to it a couple-dozen times and set the gate so it opened every time, filtering out some low end from the side chain. Neil plays down the higher toms on this first fill, so I just soloed each drum along with him and gated each of the three top toms in much the same fashion. Lightly, easily triggered, filtered side-chain, low range setting.

 

 

 

 

Tom four is the first drum where I have a bit of an issue with bleed into the mic. The drum rings a bit when Neil plays, and it helps to get that ring out of the mix. I had to spend a little more time with that one, but the same principle applies. I had the luxury of hearing the man himself hit the drum repeatedly in the context of the song so that I could adjust the noise gate (and EQ, and compression, etc.).

 

The next fill incorporates three of the floor toms along with tom four. I selected it, looped it, and went through the same process. The floor toms required a little more work, and the context here wasn’t perfect since we were not in a hockey rink with a ton of PA. I did get to hear the influence of the drum subs on playback though. These toms require a little more aggressive gating than the higher ones, as they tend to just ring in the close mics as Neil plays.

 

Having adjusted all the tom gates, I played back the whole 10 seconds several times to listen in context. This process—hearing the actual musician play the actual kit repeatedly, in context, while soloing through it—was helpful beyond description.

 

-Brad

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About Brad Madix

I grew up playing keyboards and attended Berklee College of Music in the early eighties. I got a chance to tour with the Psychedelic Furs as the keyboard tech and worked my way up (or down?) to FOH guy. I've worked with Rush, Shakira, Jane's Addiction, Jessica Simpson, Rage Against the Machine, Shania Twain, Def Leppard, Marilyn Manson, Queensryche, and Bruce Hornsby.

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