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Back on the Road with Billie Eilish, Part 1

After a two-year pandemic pause—not to mention an Oscar win and a hit album—Billie Eilish and her sound team are back on the road, packing arenas around the world with audiences and audio.

FOH engineer Drew Thornton has mixed Eilish since 2018. Photo by Justin Weaver.
FOH engineer Drew Thornton has mixed Eilish since 2018. Photo by Justin Weaver.

Mix Top 20 of 2022This was Mix’s 14th most-read article of 2022!

As 2020 began, perhaps no tour was more anticipated than Billie Eilish’s first U.S. arena jaunt. The then-teen singer and her producer/co-writer/brother, Finneas, had grabbed music fans’ attention over the previous two years with their thought-driven pop; word spread quickly, and soon Eilish catapulted from bottom-of-the-lineup festival gigs to a Summer 2019 tour headlining sold-out 1,500-seat venues—and Chicago’s United Center, for good measure. With that success in her pocket, Eilish’s 2020 arena run was set to be one of the year’s biggest tours—until the pandemic brought the entire concert industry to a crashing halt.

When Covid-19 slammed the brakes on the world that spring, it forced people everywhere to pause and reflect, and the moment was no different for Eilish’s audio team. Like the singer, they’d had quite a ride, too. For FOH engineer Drew Thornton and monitor engineer Salim Akram, tackling audio for the artist since 2018 had catapulted their careers to new heights, making their earlier years of van tours with struggling punk acts a distant memory.


“Our tour manager, Brian Marquis, and I knew each other from the Boston hardcore scene,” said Akram, “and when my band, Bad Rabbits, did Warped Tour in 2014, he was running the Acoustic Basement tent, so we got friendly over that summer. In one of our parting conversations on Warped, I remember vividly, I said, ‘Hey, if you ever need a monitor guy, I’m looking to get back on the road.’ Four years later, he was looking for an engineer who would get the nuance of this gig—not some jaded road guy who would’ve approached it with a mentality like, ‘A 16-year-old pop act that tours with her family? Pass.’ A lot of this gig is personality versus the technical part. Don’t get me wrong; you definitely need to have the chops, and I’m sure there’s plenty of engineers who are comparable or run me under the table mixing-wise, but my attitude and energy played a huge factor in getting this gig.”

Once onboard, Akram quickly found that being the monitor engineer meant also being an advocate for the artist: “They had been doing festivals and had such awful experiences—just throw-and-go, performing at 2 in the afternoon, drummer running tracks and nobody on the stage side to help them out, just some guy mixing 50 bands that day who didn’t care. It was impossible for them to get consistency, so they hired me.”

Monitor engineer Salim Akram, checking IEM mixes in Monitorworld. Photo by Matty Vogel.
Monitor engineer Salim Akram, checking IEM mixes in Monitorworld. Photo by Matty Vogel.

Consistency became the name of the game—and it took a big leap forward when Thornton joined the team, bringing with him two compact Allen & Heath C1500 desks with DX168 expanders that became Eilish’s house and monitor consoles at festivals. “We were able to be self-contained without having an audio provider,” said Akram. “It made us so much more efficient; we could travel with our own mics, drums, looms and stage boxes, because everything was on Ethernet Cat5. I’d run three Ethernet lines across the stage, and every day we would get our whole 64-plus input show up, line-checked and waiting for artists in under 15 minutes on a 30-minute changeover.”

Finneas on Producing Billie Eilish’s Hit Album in his Bedroom

While Thornton brought both experience and technology to the team, it was only the latest in a long string of gigs for the journeyman engineer. He originally began engineering in the 2000s, making inroads into New York City’s recording scene until the 2008 recession closed the studio where he worked. An internship at Atlantic Records soon led to tackling live sound at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side.

“I started doing local acts and then touring in vans,” he recalled. “We were doing seven shows a day in clubs, so I ended up utilizing a lot of networking and leap-frogged up, trying to make my way through. I was actually on tour for an artist, Vérité, with Andrew Marshall, who’s now Billie’s drummer. We both went different ways after that, but he told me about Billie in February, 2018; I checked it out and thought, wow, this is something different, something special.” When Thornton got involved with Eilish’s festival run that summer, it was already his seventh tour of the year, but as the artist began her pop culture ascent, it soon became his main gig.


The ensuing whirlwind kept Eilish and her audio team ramping up at a breakneck pace for the next 18 months. As the artist’s star rose, so did the engineers’ as both found themselves unexpectedly nominated for Parnelli Awards (Akram humbly joked, “Nobody hears what I’m doing, so what’s the barometer for a monitor guy—not getting fired?”). The momentum going into 2020 seemed unstoppable, but then the pandemic shut down Eilish’s planned 54-date tour a mere three shows into the run. Faced with an abundance of time and an uncertain future, Akram and Thornton headed home determined to improve their engineering skills—not merely to up their game, but to stay in the game as well.

“I’ve always equated mixing with a muscle, and that’s what scared me the most when everything shut down, because you have this inherent confidence in muscle memory—and if you don’t work that muscle, you might lose that,” said Thornton. “I would never say the pandemic was a good thing, but one of the few upsides was that the immediate shutdown was the first time I ever had time to dissect my own methods, break some bad habits and try to get better at certain things. A lot of really talented engineers felt the need to contribute information to our industry [with podcasts and videos during lockdowns], which was fantastic—people like Pooch [Ken Van Druten] and Chris Rabold and Robert Scovill, all doing their own approaches to sharing information that they feel is very important. It was an incredibly inspiring time, even though it was heart-wrenching as well. I honestly told myself that for my own mental health, I was going to find a hobby, but I failed miserably at that and just dug in deeper on this.”

Programming, Mixing and Collaborating with Billie Eilish and FINNEAS

Armed with his self-owned fly pack for Eilish—a C1500, dLive MixRack and a Waves rig—Thornton went step-by-step through his show and dissected it, trying concepts learned from engineers’ podcasts and YouTube videos, experimenting, A/Bing the results and more. “It was all the tedious stuff you’d never have time to do,” he laughed. “Being able to sink my teeth into it was great.”

Eilish and the engineers also kept busy throughout the height of the pandemic with a string of TV appearances, award shows and online performances, eventually leading to a September 2021 run of festivals, but when her latest album, Happier Than Ever, was released in July that year, the songstress’ long-awaited run through the arenas of the world became inevitable.

Click through for Part 2, as the tour preps for its 2022 run, rethinking everything from the ground up.