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Inside U2’s Underworld

by Clive Young. Beneath the stage of U2's 360 tour lies the Underworld, where monitor engineers Niall Slevin, Dave Skaff and Alastair McMillan ensure the band can hear itself over the 90,000-plus fans at every show.

Inside U2’s Underworld, flanked by DiGiCo SD7 consoles,
are Dave Skaff (left) and Niall Slevin.
by Clive Young.

Plenty of attention has been given to the amazing structure built above the stage on the U2 360 world tour, but beneath the band’s feet lies the Underworld, a maze-like string of instrument maintenance areas, changing rooms and workspaces. The busiest spot down below is the monitor mix position, where engineers Niall Slevin, Dave Skaff and Alastair McMillan ensure U2 can hear itself over the 90,000-plus fans at every show.

Monitor duties are split up among the engineers, with Slevin providing mixes for guitarist the Edge, McMillan doing the same for singer Bono, and Skaff tackling sound for drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton and offstage keyboardist Terry Lawless.

All the band members are wearing Future Sonics ear buds attached to Sennheiser G2 wireless systems, but below the deck, the gear uniformity ends. Slevin and McMillan both mix on DiGiCo SD7 desks, while Skaff is positioned behind a Digidesign D-Show Profile. All of the engineers mix watching the show via video screens, keeping an eye on their respective charges for visual cues.

Since the SD7 still a relatively new desk, the tour marked the first time McMillan, a seasoned FOH and studio engineer, had used one: “I wasn’t sure of this at first and I’m still acclimating to the change, but I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “It sounds good, that’s the main thing.”

Oddly enough, though, it works in concert with a second console. On the 2005-06 Vertigo tour, Bono found he was thrown off by the processing delay of the digital console used at that time. The work-around invented for that production–and maintained on the current tour–is that the vocal goes direct into a Midas Venice analog board. Meanwhile, a stereo submix of everything from the SD7 is sent to two channels of the Venice, where it and Bono’s mic are sent back to his wireless pack, reducing processing time on the vocal to nil.

Over at the Digidesign Profile, Skaff keeps things rolling for the rhythm section, much as he as since joining the band’s live crew in 1985 (“I don’t count when I drove gear in ’83”). In between the previous U2 world tour and this one, Skaff worked for Digidesign, but first began using a Profile on the Vertigo jaunt, noting, “When it finally came around that I had to make a switch, I really liked the platform, the sound of it.”

With that kind of background, it’s no surprise that he’s comfortable working with the multitude of plug-ins available for the desk: “For experimenting, it is really great because it’s like having a giant rack of gear available to you all the time. I use an awful lot of the McDSP stuff, Crane Song’s Phoenix and a lot of the Waves plug-ins as well. Phoenix is one of those one-knob, ‘I can’t believe what it does’ things. It’s just one knob that makes it better; whatever you put it on, it just brings it right out of the mix into whatever you’re listening to. Rob Scovill turned me on to it.”

While the band members all sport personal monitor systems, there’s still a handful of Clair 12AMII “stealth” wedges onstage with them. “Wedges have basically gone away,” admitted Skaff. “There’s a couple out there as a ‘just in case’–but several of the wedges are teleprompters that can screen song lyrics or translations; that kind of stuff. There’s only one active wedge out of the whole thing and the rest is sub lows–two for Larry and a block of four right next to Adam’s bass rig.”

As Skaff’s tenure might indicate, much of U2’s audio staff have been with the band for years, but this tour is marks McMillan’s first time on the road with the group. Mixing for one of rock’s more unpredictable frontmen might seem daunting, but the engineer has found that a studio-quality mix isn’t always the right fit for Bono: “He’s all about energy, so it’s probably not that ‘Hi-Fi.’ It’s not a nice-sounding mix; generally ‘nice-sounding’ doesn’t work for him. It’s not necessarily loud for the sake of it, but finding the energy, that’s what he gets off on. There’s a lot of effects on his vocal, a lot of reverb, probably more than a record mix, but you know, it works for him. And I use an awful lot of ambience as well–I haven’t discussed it with him, but I’ve just discovered that over a little while. The more audience reaction I can put in, the more he likes it!”



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