After 16 years of mixing sound for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you'd think Dave Rat would be a little tired of the band. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Currently in the midst of a world tour in support of Stadium Arcadium, which debuted at Number One on the U.S. charts, bassist Michael Balzary (better known as Flea), lead singer Anthony Kiedis, guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith are always in fine live performance form. This is confirmed by Rat, founder of Southern California — based Rat Sound, during a conversation after a RHCP headline set at Lollapalooza 2006 in downtown Chicago's Grant Park.
“The Peppers are always just really fun to mix because their music is extremely diverse,” he notes. “They'll go from an extremely fast song — like ‘Me and My Friends’ — and do it over the top, and then switch to John singing a cappella, just him and his guitar, and then they'll go to a slow funk or maybe something pop/radio friendly.” Whichever tune the band is enthralling crowds with, Rat's role as front-of-house mixer is to represent the sound of the band's albums and stay focused as the group shifts its musical taste with each new release. “When we started out, it was more of a bass and drums, heavy '70s funk type of sound,” Rat says. “The vocals and harmonies have evolved to become a bigger part of their song structure, so I've made the vocals more prominent in the mix. Now, it's a much cleaner sound with an emphasis on clarity.”
Front-of-house engineer Dave Rat
As he's mixing, Rat is tuned into the P.A.'s volume structure. He comes on strong at the start to get the “wow factor” in play with the audience, and then spends the first half of the show gently scooting down the volume. At that point, he gradually brings it back up to the point where the last song and encore are a bit louder and more dynamic than where the P.A. settings originally began.
Along the way, another goal is to highlight the unique nature of each song. For example, if a song is quiet, he takes the P.A. to an extreme quiet mode, giving it a “hush feel” for the crowd. This approach presents the audience with a lot of interesting sonic dynamics without generating excessively crushing volume levels. “In a way, it's almost a ‘cartoony’ mix in comparison to a studio mix, with a lot of saturated color and sound,” Rat explains. “By saturated, I'm talking about enhancing and accenting certain frequency ranges to give each song a different and appropriate sonic signature.”
As with previous RHCP tours, Rat chose an L-Acoustics V-DOSC line array loudspeaker rig, but it's deployed in an unusual fashion, to say the least. The design stems from a rarity in the touring sound reinforcement world: a call from the band's management to go beyond a standard touring P.A. and do something unique.
Dave Rat developed this unique P.A. structure: dual L-Acoustics V-DOSC line arrays flown side by side.
“I thought about various possibilities,” Rat says. “The band changes the set list every night, and they don't even write it down until a half-hour before the show, so it's not like a Broadway show where there's a certain sequence of events that can be programmed into a console,” Rat says. “And with the band already providing plenty of spontaneity and variation, adding special effects just did not fit, which I don't prefer anyway. At the same time, I've felt that Quadraphonic is too limited and only applies to audience members lucky enough to be located within the quad coverage field. Plus, it pulls focus away from the stage. I wanted something that would benefit the highest percentage of the audience possible.”
The idea that evolved was based on knowledge he acquired while designing Rat Sound's MicroWedge stage monitors. During this process, he did quite a bit of research and was able to prove that loudspeakers have reduced clarity as the signal being provided to them increases in complexity.
“Just listen to a vocal mic through two speakers at high volume and then add in a 50Hz tone at high volume,” Rat explains. “It blurs the vocals. Then use two speakers with the vocal in one and the tone in the other. The vocal will stay clear. I believe the primary issue has to do with the speaker efficiency and linearity while the voice coil is centered in the gap. The speaker is less efficient when the voice coil is at its extremes because the 50Hz tone reduces the time that the voice coil is centered. Some monitor engineers run separate instrument and vocal wedges for this reason. What if I applied that setup on a grander scale, as in two P.A. systems?”
The resulting house loudspeaker design comprises dual V-DOSC line arrays flown next to each other on each side of the stage. Via the Midas XL3000 house console, any instrument or vocal can be sent to either the inner or outer loudspeaker arrays. Typically, side-by-side systems would introduce unacceptable comb filtering issues, but because each P.A. is reproducing different instruments, it's not a problem.
“The clarity difference is awesome,” Rat enthuses. “We've gained not only the ability to put more speakers out front, but the height of each array can be shorter, so it's helped clear up sightlines. Big credits need to go to management, the production team and the band for supporting this direction, which has made a big difference in sound quality for the audience.” Setting up this complex system are five system techs, including longtime lead FOH tech Nick “The Fly” Brisbois and sound crew chief Lee Vaught working with Manny Barajas and Neal Shelton, and David Calandra serving as monitor technician.
“This helps with battling the live sound environment, which usually isn't all that great no matter where we're playing,” Rat continues. “There's invariably something going on. Inside, it's an echo roar created by the building structure; outside, there's wind and thermal factors. The mix is designed to work around these distractions and keep the audience focused on the music.”
KEEP IT SLIM
While Rat is putting in big effort to keep the band's sonic signature intact, he's not relying on a slew of outboard gear; rather, vocal effects are handled by a single Eventide H3500 Harmonizer and just a single Lexicon PCM60 in play to apply bits of tasteful reverb.
He's quick to add that developing a mix is simply a matter of interpretation, of understanding what the band wants to present and then reinforcing that as realistically as possible. Rat also says that he and the Peppers have developed a level of trust and understanding over the years, resulting in the band letting him do whatever he wants with the sound, the P.A. and the mix.
His interpretation begins with Audix OM7 dynamic microphones on all vocals, Rat's choice for several years. “The OM7 mic element is very close to the grille, so they tend to get quite loud, but with excellent gain before feedback,” he explains. “More importantly, they provide a real up-close-and-personal signature — very intimate. I don't want much sound from the room getting into the mics because the audience loses that proximity, that intimacy. And having the main P.A. feedback with an OM7 is hard to do.”
The H3000 has served as Rat's primary console for several years, and he's not compelled to change. He does admit, however, that the thought of a digital console did cross his mind due to the dual P.A., where he could envision being able to program series of scenes to automate input routing to specific arrays. “The problem is that not a single digital console manufacturer offers a manual crossfade between scenes, so it's just too limiting for my needs at this point,” Rat says. “I'm currently running about 24 subgroups, so going the analog route keeps me busy. But it's manageable and, at least for now, the right approach.”
The stage monitor system originally went out with a digital console but shifted over to a Midas XL4 analog board and a standard effects package to feed a mix of IEM and MicroWedges (of course!) onstage. In addition to the OM7s for vocals, mics onstage include Shure SM57 and Beyerdynamic M88 on guitar, with another SM57 on bass, along with two direct inputs. On the drum kit, there are Shure SM91 and Audix D6 on kick, Shure SM98 for snare and toms, Beyerdynamic M201 on ride and hi-hat cymbals, and AKG C 5600 for overhead.
This tour also features an upgraded recording rig, with a 32-channel Mac G5 — based Pro Tools system taking AES/EBU output from the Apogee AD-16s driven by Tonelux preamps. A 500-foot LightViper fiber-optic digital snake system allows the Digidesign 192 I/O units and Mac to live just about anywhere. It all fits in 15 rackspaces and three small Pelican cases, and takes just 15 minutes to set up.
As we finished up our conversation, Rat mentions that after more than two decades of live mixing, taking long tours is not his favorite thing to do. He makes rare exceptions to go out with certain artists, and the Peppers remain at the top of his list.
“The funny thing is that I never wanted to be a sound engineer,” he concludes. “I learned to mix sound to test my speaker system designs and to operate the sound systems that Rat Sound rents out. By some roundabout way, I ended up with one of the best gigs one could possibly have, and I'm really grateful for every minute of it.”
For an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes of a big concert tour, as well as more about the sound for this tour, check out Dave Rat's daily RHCP blog at www.ratsound.com/cblog.
Keith Clark is a freelance writer/editor specializing in professional audio.