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Tour Profile: Ed Sheeran

Solo Acoustic Singer-Songwriter Calls for Dynamic, Hands-On Live Mix

Ed Sheeran at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. Photo: Steve Jennings

To the general public, artists like Ed Sheeran can seem to appear out of nowhere. A hit song appears, or an opening spot on a big tour, and suddenly the media is talking. That’s the myth. The truth is, there are years of hard work behind any overnight sensation.

Sheeran learned guitar at a young age, his songwriting began in high school, and he was accepted at the National Youth Music Theatre as a teenager.  His first independent EP was released in 2005, to be followed by several others between 2009 and 2011. All that time he played hundreds and hundreds of club gigs, drawing the attention of such notables as Jamie Foxx and Elton John and an ever-growing fan base. He has won several Brit Awards, co-writing hits with One Direction and Taylor Swift in 2012, and opening for Swift on her sold-out 2013 tour. Sheeran’s second studio album, X, was recorded with producer Rick Rubin and includes the singles “Tenerife Sea” and “Sing,” featuring Pharrell Williams. The song “Don’t” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at Number 10, his highest U.S. charting single.

Mix caught up with singer-songwriter and multi instrumentalist at the SAP Center arena in San Jose, Calif., on the U.S. leg of his current tour before he heads back to England, then onto 13 dates in Australia in 2015.

Front-of-house engineer Chris Marsh at the DiGiCo SD7 Photo: Steve Jennings

Front-of-house engineer Chris Marsh started mixing Sheeran years back on a DiGiCo SD11, making use of the onboard FX and doubling up by mixing monitors from it as well. He then moved on to an SD10 and now mixes from an SD7, where he feels most at home. “Although fundamentally we are using only nine inputs, it is what we do with the nine inputs that requires the power of the SD7,” Marsh says. “I can see, change, effect and adjust everything, all of the time. On top of all this, there is 100-percent redundancy in the SD7, which gives me a lot of confidence.”

“Many people have rolled their eyes when they have seen my input list and told me that I must be the luckiest guy on the planet to mix a gig with so few channels, and at first I thought that, too,” Marsh continues. “However, it is one of the hardest challenges I have ever had. Everything has to be correct, there is nothing that can be hidden—everything happening is fundamental to the overall sound of the show. [You get] one sound wrong and the entire song sounds wrong.

“Ed’s show is very dynamic, and he never plays a song the same way twice; it cannot be heavily snapshotted or cued. I use a lot of dynamic compression, and this allows the guitar to breathe when he is playing quietly but then grabs the right frequencies when he slams the guitar. I also EQ the P.A. a little differently, to the way that you would if it were a band onstage. I need the ‘mid-high’ boxes to deal with an acoustic guitar and vocal only so it gets highpassed really high. Meanwhile the subs handle what we call the ‘boom boom,’ Ed’s percussive slapping of the guitar. I gate the subs, the same way as you would a kick drum for some songs, and leave them open and with a different EQ for some ballads where a more subtle low end is required.”

Sheeran sings into a Sennheiser 2000 Series microphone system with a customized capsule. Originally he used an 865 capsule because Sheeran cups it a lot. Mark Saunders from Sennheiser worked with the team on a custom capsule based on the 5235, but fitting on a 2000 Series stick. “I now have a high-end condenser capsule with great rejection that can handle a bit of abuse!” Marsh exclaims.

Marsh uses an Avalon 737 on Sheeran’s vocal. “I love this unit and have always used one on every artist I have worked with,” he says. “The EQ is subtle and the compression is so transparent.  I also use a pair of Bricasti M7s, which are the only unit that I have found that can give me that wonderful classic Lexicon sound.” He uses an Eventide Eclipse to “fatten” the vocal harmonies layered in some songs.

Guitar Tech Trevor Dawkins Photo: Steve Jennings

Sheeran plays Martin guitars, and he is not always easy on them. His main guitar for the stage is a custom Martin LX1, and maintenance is a large part of guitar tech Trevor Dawkins’ job. “We’re lucky to get 50 shows out of a new one before it needs to be retired!” Dawkins says, laughing.

Dawkins has been with Sheeran for two-and-a-half years, and in that time the two have come up with a unique looped pedal setup they call “The Chewie Monsta.”

“The system we opted for is the Mobius 2 VST plug-in hosted by Ableton Live, which had already been tried and tested by a number of other acts that we knew and seemed solid in live situations,” Dawkins explains. “I have an FC-300 with me, set up offstage by the laptops and play racks, which is the brains behind the looping system, controlling all the different record and play functions that Ed needs to put the live loops together. The FC-300 is in turn controlled from the stage by Ed using ‘The Chewie Monsta’.”

The pedal now allows him to record, overdub and play back on any one of four synchronized loops, each of which has its own output. “He can also now mute the loops individually, allowing him to alternate between different sections, such as a verse/chorus scenario, as well as an undo function allowing him to clear the last overdub should he need to,” Dawkins adds. “The sound quality of the system is absolutely perfect with no compression whatsoever, and you can overdub almost infinitely, being only limited by the amount of RAM installed in the laptops. We run an A/B system allowing for 100-percent redundancy, with the two sets of outputs from the RME Fireface interfaces being controlled by a Radial SW8 switch.”

The Meyer Sound P.A. rig at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. Photo: Steve Jennings

Major Tom out of the UK is supporting the tour, and wherever possible worldwide they either bring or spec a Meyer system. “The LEO and LYON systems from Meyer are by far the best out there,” Marsh says. “It is the only system where I have not struggled with definition and depth in the mix. Ed’s vocal effortlessly stands out and most importantly this mix is fully projected to every seat in the arena. It was not a decision I took lightly. I had the support of Ed’s management and some family and friends whom had all agreed that the shows with LEO had sounded better than any of the other shows we had done.

Sheeran uses four Meyer MJF212a monitor speakers and sidefills that comprise two Meyer HP700s and a JM1P per side. Marsh says they’ve tried to use in-ears. “It would really clean the sound up as Ed’s monitoring is pretty loud, but he is not keen on using them. He enjoys the interaction with the crowd and likes to be able to walk in and out of the focus of the speakers. It is a very raw and open sound onstage.”