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Billie Eilish Tour Rides the Waves

FOH engineer Drew Thornton shares how he applies plug-ins to Eilish’s live sound.

Knoxville, TN (August 5 2019)—Building on the success of her first album, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart earlier this year, 17-year-old Billie Eilish has been touring the world. Along for the ride is front-of-house engineer Drew Thornton who has been using a variety of gear and plug-ins to ensure consistency in the house mix at every stop.

“I have an Allen and Heath dLive S5000 with a DM64 stage box,” he recounted, “and the Waves V3 Audio Networking Card (M-DL-WAVES3) fitted local in the surface, with two Waves SoundGrid Extreme Servers set for redundancy. I then use two Apple Mac Minis—one running the Waves MultiRack live plug-in rack, and one designated for multitrack recording.”

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The teenager’s tour has been drawing audiences filled with her peers, which can make keeping the singer audible a challenge at points. “Billie happens to be a very breathy and quiet singer—with one of the loudest crowds I’ve ever heard in my life—which means that achieving a clear, bright, loud pop vocal sound can be quite challenging,” he said. “Having the Waves PSE (Primary Source Expander) plug-in saves me every single night by giving me a little bump of gain before feedback on her voice. I also use it on all vocals to eliminate as much stage bleed as possible. I use it along with the X-FDBK plug-in, which consistently helps me eliminate feedback, with deep, narrow cuts that remove the feedback without destroying my gain.”

“Another favorite of mine is the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ, which has great dynamic control and EQ for Billie’s vocals as well as for keys. It is a fantastic plug-in with hardly any DSP usage or latency, and it is great at controlling the dynamics of my vocal mics and Nord piano.”

“I also use the Renaissance DeEsser on all of Billie’s vocal mics—always the last link in the chain before it hits my vocal sub groups. I personally like to run it in broadband and split mode, in order to really focus the processing on the offending frequencies, leveling out any of the sibilance before the sub group. Lastly, I rely heavily on the Waves/Abbey Road Reel ADT plug-in for both electric guitars and vocals. Reel ADT allows me to thicken up my lead vocal in a musical way, by giving the vocal more direct width and power and allowing me to pull back the dry center vocal signal. It tends to draw in focus and round out the overall sound of the show, without making the vocal pokey—while still achieving that upfront pop vocal sound. It is especially great for vocalists who want a more ’dry-like’ sound in the live realm.”

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Not every plug-in he uses is for vocals, he noted: “Some of the other plug-ins I like to use are the PuigTec EQP-1A and API 2500 for some main bus processing—the first for some vibe and air, the latter for some mix glue. When it comes to piano compression, the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor is phenomenal for taming piano dynamics and giving the piano a nice and round sound without killing the natural dynamics. Another plug-in I reach for to add vibe is the Waves V-EQ4. It really does a good job of channeling the tonal features of a 1081, and it’s especially useful for adding mid-range or a high-end boost. It’s just a great and fun additive EQ.”

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“When you’re an FOH engineer,” Thornton sums up, “artists will often ask you whether a particular sound or process is doable in their live show. Having Waves plugins in my FOH rack has enabled me to say ‘Yes!’ to that question on many occasions. Waves has been such an important part of the record mixing process for such a long time; having those same tools in the live world is a huge advantage—not only to achieve what the artist wants, but also to find the sound I am looking for.”

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