Photos: Steve Jennings
Pete Keppler has been living a life of yin and yang — balancing studio engineer with road warrior. As a young boy in Northampton, Mass., Keppler had been intrigued with sound and the inner workings of audio gear, taking apart his mom's stereo and trying to figure out how to make it sound better, which led to opening up a recording shop with a friend and eventually landing mixing gigs in top-notch New York City recording facilities.
“But from early on, I found myself doing live sound mixing for a lot of the bands I recorded, and I really grew to love live performance,” Keppler remembers. In addition to AFI, Keppler has toured as a front-of-house engineer for the past several years with David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails.
Keppler maintains a 32-input Pro Tools HD portable rig at home in New York City; his familiarity with Pro Tools came in handy for his recent mixing gig: this year's AFI tour, where he is working on Digidesign's VENUE live sound environment. “Nine Inch Nails was the first time I worked on VENUE,” Keppler says at FOH, where he spoke with Mix hours before the early September sold-out San Francisco show at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. “And with Nine Inch Nails, I'd used the HDx option on the console and multitracked every night's performance direct to Pro Tools. The setup for that is so easy — three cables! When [AFI] asked me to do this tour, I said, ‘Yes, but I really want to take out this console.’ They talked about doing recording at the stage and having [monitor engineer Mike “Porkchop” Souder] look after all of that, as well as everything else he has to look after. And I said, ‘If you want to take me and take the console, I can do the recording.’ I can't say enough good things about the VENUE. It took a couple of days to really get the feel of it — it feels a bit different from a lot of other consoles — but it sounds amazing. I wouldn't want to use anything else.”
Front-of-house engineer Pete Keppler is equally at home in front of the board in a studio or a live mixing gig.
Keppler is using the majority of the board's installed effect plug-ins, which helps in keeping a small FOH footprint, as the only outboard gear to be seen is the Rat Sound loudspeaker-management system and a CD player/recorder. “The stuff that is built into the VENUE itself — the dynamics and equalization — works really well for almost anything,” Keppler says. “The console is configured right now with eight onboard graphics, which I use to do final tailoring on the outputs; usually, I'll use it to make up the difference in the hall between an empty room at soundcheck and a full house at showtime.
“Another great thing about the VENUE is the ability to use plug-ins. I'm using ReVibe, which is Digidesign's latest reverb generator, on drums and vocals, and I splash it around on instruments from time to time. And then as far as the delays go, I'm using EchoFarm for almost everything because it's got different models of all these great old tape delays. I find — mostly through working in the studio — that I don't like delays that sound really clean; I like them to have a little bit of grit, a little bit of distortion. I still love analog consoles for live mixing because they can add a bit of that, too, but because of the amount of song-to-song changes in AFI's show, it's not practical.
Monitor engineer Mike "Porkchop" Souder mans a DiGiCo D5 Live digital console for the all-in-ears band.
“I'm using Digidesign's Pitch program to do a pseudo-[Eventide] H3000,” Keppler continues. “Then I've got two different doublers. One's just a single voice delay with a little bit of pitch modulation. The other one is Eventide Quadravox, which I barely understand, but it sounds cool. I'm using McDSP's Channel G and their multiband compressor, the MC-2000, for guitars and vocals and sub-group compression.”
Also taking advantage of the compactness and onboard effects offered in a digital console is Souder, who is manning a DiGiCo D5 Live. He previously worked on a Yamaha PM5D with Jimmy Eat World, but found the snapshots on the D5 more suitable to AFI's needs. “I switched from the 5D to the [DiGiCo] D1 — the smaller version — but I found that I don't have enough faders to catch cues, so I moved to the D5. It's essential to have digital with these guys — there's a lot of stuff going on, so I find I have to run scenes to catch the cues. Otherwise, it's just too much chasing around. I don't think I could run it in analog; I would miss something eventually. I only run scenes for the new songs, so it's probably around nine scenes. But I always end up going back to my main scene for everything else.”
Keppler also finds that the band's onstage dynamics are more “controllable” with a digital board: “It changes so much from a soundcheck to a show,” he says. “When they're onstage for the actual show, there's so much more energy coming from them and the audience that their performance really changes. I do spend some time scrambling, making sure that things are where they're supposed to be when they play the first song or two. I have to keep my eyes on the stage a lot, too. They're all over the place!”
Adding to this “eyes on the stage” mix requirement is the fact that lead vocalist Davey Havok twirls his Audix OM7 mic around, as well as cups it. “I would normally hand almost anybody a [Shure] 58 or Beta 58 to start with and see what it sounded like, unless they had something else they were particularly happy with,” Keppler says. “But he'll wrap his hands around the mic and leave very little space to sing into. He knows, he apologized in advance. The first day I mixed the band, one of the first things he said to me was, ‘I cup the mic. I'm really sorry, I just do it. I know it messes with your world and makes it sound worse, but it's an old habit.’ So before I came onboard, Ronnie Kimball [the previous FOH engineer] had found that this mic [the OM7] responded the best and had the least amount of frequency response change and still had a fair amount of gain before feedback. And Audix has been really cool with us. As you can see, most everything on the stage is white; so are the mics. Audix graciously allowed us to powder-coat the mics and then they took them back from us and did their silk-screening of their brand and model number and clear-coated them, and they look great. We use OM5s for the other vocals because, to me, the OM5 sounds very close to a 58.”
With Havok running around so much onstage, it seems odd to choose a wired OM5, but because the vocal mic “takes flight quite often,” a wired mic is much more economical when it comes to replacing them.
Everything else onstage is wired, with the exception of the wireless guitars. Adam Carson's kit takes a non-Beta 91 and a Sennheiser 602 (“a wonderful, inexpensive, great-sounding mic for bass drum and floor tom,” Keppler says), 57 on snare, Beta 57 on bottom snare, 451 on hat and KSM32s on overheads. Jade Puget's dirty guitars take a 57, 421 and KSM32. “And there's also [Shure Beta] 98s on the clean guitar amp,” Keppler adds. “The 98s are great because they can clip onto the body of the amp and focus on the area of the cone that I want. Those have been working really well. On the dirty guitar amp, I pick and choose which mic seems to work on which song. I'm pretty old-school and this is also from the studio: If there's a different mic that will work and sound better, instead of grabbing an EQ, I'd rather change the mic. I like to do as little processing as possible, EQ-wise. I tune the [Rat Sound — provided JBL VerTec] P.A. with my voice and a standard 58, not a Beta, because I know the sound of my voice and the sound of that mic, and it seems to translate really well. I find that a lot of my strips are close to flat, especially in guitar land. There is a bass mic [Shure 98 for bassist Hunter], but I just take the SansAmp [PSA-100] and use that as a direct input. The 98s are an odd choice for a bass mic, but I think it was selected more because it's not obtrusive and won't get knocked over.”
Despite the plethora of mics onstage, stage volume is kept to a relative minimum, as the entire band is on in-ears. “I was the one who introduced the band to in-ears,” Souder relates. “I tried to bring them in without wedges to keep it as quiet as possible.” As for specific mixes, “Everybody's pretty standard,” the monitor engineer continues. “The guitar is pretty much the central block for everybody. Tonally, the drummer does not want any mids. As for levels, some bands fluctuate, but they just like their mix to be where they want it so they can perform well. I can't compress anything too much because they don't really know if they're being over-dynamic. I try to make things as natural as possible, but I have to ride gain, ride channels so they can hear themselves.”
Keppler is also happy with the wedge-less stage: “With the P.A. turned off, you can stand at front of house and have a conversation at normal volume while they're playing. So my mix is maybe at 102, 103 dB and it's nice. It means I can keep my hearing a little longer.” [Laughs] This is pretty incredible, considering the roar from the teenaged crowd when the band plays the first few chords from such radio hits as “Love Like Winter” and “Miss Murder” from their latest studio effort, Decemberunderground.
Fortunately for both engineers, the band feels free to express their needs regarding the mix, making their job that much more seamless. But more importantly, Keppler and Souder say that the relationship between FOH and monitor is key to creating a great sound onstage. “One of the most important aspects of front-of-house mixing is your monitor engineer,” Keppler enthuses. “And I don't think people understand — the general public at least — what a monitor engineer does. But without him, especially with an all-in-ears band, it doesn't matter what I do. If the band can't hear themselves properly, they can't play properly, and no amount of mixing can fix a poor performance.”
Sarah Benzuly is Mix's managing editor.
How got into live sound?
I took my mom's stereo apart and I couldn't put it back together. [Laughs]. Honestly, that's probably the beginning of it. We had this Fisher mono amplifier and an AR speaker and a turntable, and my brother liked to mess around with it, so I thought it would be cool and I followed in his footsteps. And I finally did figure out how to put it back together and make it sound better. And then my dreams of becoming a rock 'n' roll drummer dashed; I didn't really have the discipline to practice very much. Although one day I opened up a magazine—we're talking mid-'70s now—and there was a picture of a Yamaha PM1000. It was all light up really special and I looked at that and thought, "What does that do?" I want to know what that does. It took me a few more years and I finally decided, "Hey, this is worth a shot." And I got involved in a place in my hometown of Massachusetts, which was a stereo shop that built speakers. And one of the owners purchased some recording gear, and myself and one of my best friends started doing recordings, and then we opened our own place up-begged, borrowed the gear we needed and started running a recording studio. And then one of the bands that was recording there asked me to come out and do live sound with them. And that was the beginning of it. But I come from a very musical family.
In my early 20s, I was doing a balance of both live and studio and moved to Nashville for about two years and was working for Steve Earle for a few years: one record and a whole bunch of tours. And then came back to Massachusetts for about two years and moved to New York and went into full-on recording. I can't sit without just doing one without doing the other. If I'm in the studio for too long, I get crazy. But if I'm out on the road, I miss my kids.
On his mixing style for AFI:
I'd sooner say it's more different doing Nine Inch Nails than doing [David] Bowie or AFI. AFI is a real more "seat of pants." There is so much happening onstage. These guys run around like maniacs. And you have to kind of keep your guard up. Davie can get up right underneath the front-of-house cabinets and I have to be careful. But, also, it's never the same twice with them. So my mixing style for Bowie was I knew what was coming at what time and I didn't want it to sound like the record, but I love the fact that you can bring everything out in the mix and feature things here and there. With Nine Inch Nails, they want to sound as live as possible, so I went over the top with them: Guitar solos would just be screaming out of the P.A. With these guys, it's sort of a balance between those two. The thing with Nine Inch Nails, I really enjoyed stretching out and doing it that way and so I've taken a bit of that with me here and will feature something.
Also check out Keppler's recent mixing gigs: