Imagine being plucked from obscurity by a musical hero and hand-selected to be part of a tribute band celebrating the music of the iconic band Queen. That’s just what happened to nine veritably unknown singers and musicians from around the globe, chosen by Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, architects of the band’s sound, for The Queen Extravaganza summer tour band. Taylor, who took on the role of show producer and music director, wanted to create the ultimate Queen concert experience in an electrifying road show designed by a heavyweight production team headed by stage designer Mark Fisher, (known for memorable productions including “The Wall” for Pink Floyd and every Rolling Stones show since 1989) and Rob Sinclair (Adele, Peter Gabriel, Queen, Pet Shop Boys and Vampire Weekend). The tour celebrates Queen’s legacy and music, performed by some of the best new talent they could find.
Launched at the end of May, the tour travels to theatres in cities coast to coast across the United States and Canada through early July. At FOH is engineer James McCullagh, who manages the entire audio production from the helm of a DiGiCo SD10. Going into the tour, McCullagh was adamant about his console choice, having worked with DiGiCo SD desks on previous excursions with artists from Lucinda Williams to Journey.
“I knew that I wanted to use a DiGiCo,” McCullagh recalls. “I said right up front it was non-negotiable. I’m a big fan of DiGiCo and I like the sound of the consoles. I’m familiar with the layout and it works well for me. There are a few things that I have in my arsenal that I knew would be beneficial in working with this band and the DiGiCo console is one of them. DiGiCo’s layout and functionality proves to be so much easier for me to run a show, and on this one, we’ve got nine singers onstage, 12 different effects channels running at one particular time, maybe seven to eight functional cues per song… There’s a lot going on and I needed a console that could deal with the intricacies of making that happen. For me it was a no-brainer to use a DiGiCo to ensure I would be able to get that huge drum sound and layered mass of vocals that Queen are known for.
“The problem was we had a hard time finding an available SD10 for the start of the rehearsals in Canada because they were all out on hire,” he adds, “but eventually, Clair Brothers was able to locate one. What was interesting was that, for the first week and a half, I was using a competitor’s console and it was the first time that I’d actually ever had a chance to A/B a console—in the same scenario, in the same room, with the same band, with the same mics and the same PA, and under the same conditions. And the difference between the two consoles was like night and day! It was like somebody pulled a blanket off the mix. People who didn’t even know that I’d changed consoles came up to me going, ‘What did you do to the sound? It sounds so much better!’ I’ve used all the digital consoles out there and they all do the job, but I was never really aware of the actual sound difference. All of a sudden it was like there was air over the cymbals and the vocal that was gone on the other console. The low end was just like somebody opened up a floodgate of lows that just extended on the SD10. I think the DiGiCo console is the closest digital console that you’re going to get to an analog sound. They’ve really gotten the conversions right; they’re really good. The way the console sounds is excellent, and a whole lot more functional for me. That was quite a revelation.”
Going into rehearsals, the Queen Extravaganza touring band—comprised of four vocalists and five musicians—had never played together in the same room. They united in Toronto for a two-week band rehearsal (followed by a two-week production run-through in Montreal) to polish the plethora of material for their two-hour show: roughly 40 of the band’s biggest chart hits, finest heavy-duty rock based anthems, and early-period Queen numbers. Not surprisingly, the band’s input count came to 48 inputs, which included 16 channels of drum, two channels of bass, four channels of guitar (“part of getting Brian May’s guitar sound is miking the front and back of the Vox AC30 and we’ve got two guitarists on each end”), six channels of piano and keyboard, and nine channels of vocals as everyone in the band sings.
“I wanted to track and record all the rehearsals on separate tracks and being able to do that via MADI was one of the big advantages of using the DiGiCo,” said McCullagh. “I know that there are other consoles out there now that can do it as well but my first experience of doing that was with the DiGiCo via an RME MADI card into my MacBook Pro laptop and a separate hard drive. It’s very useful to be able to record and have anyone in the band, or the musical director, or Roger, come back and listen to a particular track.”
McCullagh made use of extensive grouping to organize all the vocals as well as snapshots on most of the songs for vocal routing and vocal balancing. “Obviously, each singer has their own channel, but sometimes the lead singer is the lead singer and sometimes he’s the backing singer,” he explains. “I created a stereo group and called it ‘backing vocals’ and sent all the backing vocals into that group and then I slammed that with a compressor. The Queen songs have very intricate harmonies and each vocalist sings at a different level. It was too much to have nine compressors going across nine channels over a loud rock band with drums and everything. It was easier for me to put one compressor over a group. That way, if someone sings slightly harder, or if I push a level a little bit too hard, that vocal won’t just jump out and sound awkward. It’s all squashed back into the mix and that helps to get that really tight, layered Queen harmony sound. I’m using the Waves LA2A plug-in, which is an awesome-sounding plug-in and very close to the real thing, and it does a real good job in smoothing out all the peaks and lows of the backing vocals. On each vocalist, I’m running an LA2A as well as a C6 multiband compressor, which helps take out any little areas where somebody’s voice might be a little resonant or deficient. With the dynamic range that Freddie Mercury had, each vocalist goes through a lot of changes and the C6 certainly helps to smooth it all out and make the voice sound completely natural.
“In addition, I’m running two TC4000’s and a TC Helicon VoiceLive on the vocals as well as an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer for the flange sounds. I sat down with Roger and we’ve very carefully gone over what they did in the studio and how he wanted to recreate it live. One thing I want to mention adamantly is that I’m not using any tricks or any doublers or harmonizers on any vocals to provide layering. All the layering is strictly from the singers. The massive sound is all them; there’s no artificial recreation or any of that. That’s important to say because we don’t want people to think that it’s all technology that’s making them sound like they do. These guys are sounding that way because they’re that good!”
For the extensive drum kit, McCullagh is running two parallel stereo busses. One is an unprocessed group feeding into another group, which is then compressed. “I’m running a Waves API 2500 plug-in across that, which is super-compressed with a lot of snap and a lot of pop-punch. I then blend those two busses to get the drum sound that I want, because obviously the drum sounds changed from the ‘70s to the ‘80s. In the ‘70s, it was more natural sounding and in the ‘80s, everything became very compressed and over-EQ’d. I didn’t want to be changing my drum sounds on snapshots or re-EQing my drums for every song, so I basically took various different balances of ungated and uncompressed, natural-sounding drum kits and very heavily EQ’d and compressed sounding drum kits, and blended the two together for my drum sound.”
McCullagh routes the toms to both drum busses and then to a third buss, which he calls “fat toms.” “I’ve got some Waves Renaissance Bass and VEq vintage EQs going on there and then I’ve pasted all the sub-harmonics of the toms and a little bit of cut so whenever there’s a big purposeful tom hit, I can fatten up the toms by riding in a little of the extra tom buss. Obviously, if I leave it on permanently when there are some really busy tom fills, then it’ll just sound like a bunch of low end and you don’t want that much low end on the toms. You want it to cut a bit more like a single tom hit, especially on songs like ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’ By doing that I can really push it up and get a really huge tom sound.”
For the rest of the band sound, McCullagh employs minimal onboard effects. “The guitars are pretty much run with a flat EQ,” he says. “There are two Vox AC30s turned up to stun with a mic in front of them and then I just put the fader up. The piano sounds—we have a grand piano and some keyboards—are pretty much just using a bit of EQ and not much compression or anything going on there. My main focus for this band is all about getting huge drum sounds, great guitar sounds, and a massive wall of vocals… that’s pretty much how Queen worked and that’s what I’ve gone for.”
One of the features McCullagh is enjoying the most at the moment is the SD10’s Macro Smart Keys, which helps with myriad cues he’s managing from song to song. “I’m using a bunch of them,” he says. “I might use a delay in one part of a song or a delay on just a guitar just in one part of a song and not the rest, and they enable me to turn a vocal delay on and off without having to do that in my snapshots. I use them for mute buttons, to pull up my snapshots, open my snapshots page, and open my notes page. I’ve created a buss features page, and I have them to turn on reverbs for guitars, and turn on delays for vocals and guitars. I have another button assigned to turn my pink noise on and off, and another to switch between the playback on the computer, the recorded tracks, or the actual mic onstage. So without having to go to a drop-down menu, I can just hit the button and switch. All of my tracks that are recorded are coming back up on the same channels on the console, so we can listen to it in real time and make changes, get compression levels, and dial in EQs. It’s very handy when you’re trying to get a tom EQ or a tom gate set. You can just dupe a section of the toms, press Play, and keep hitting the same tom over and over again and set your gates and EQ and then move on to the next. It’s a very handy process. Another cool thing is you can assign a color to a button and it’s got a dual function. For example, it can be green when it’s on and red when it’s off, which is really handy in the dark.”
With the tour now in full force, McCullagh says he’s not surprised rave reviews are flooding in, given the stellar level of music, lighting and video offered at a time when many show productions are scaling back. “I haven’t seen this level of production for a theatre show,” he marvels. “Not in this day and age when people are dealing with shrinking budgets because of financial constraints. But even with our tight budget, these guys have managed to make it feel like the stadium shows the way Queen used to do it. That’s the level of production that they’ve put together and they’ve done a fantastic job because, whether you’re a Queen fan or not, you’re going to walk out of the show saying, ‘Wow! That was amazing! I definitely got my money’s worth!’
“Another thing: In this era, where tons of bands are using Pro Tools rigs and playing to backing tracks, we don’t have any. Everything that you hear is 100% live. All the harmonies are from the guys singing. There is no miming, no tracks, no help. In fact, I haven’t worked with a band in a long time, except Lucinda Williams, who hasn’t used backing tracks. On this tour, there’s nothing, and I think that’s pretty impressive. The band and singers are awesome and they are going to blow people’s minds. But what do you expect when you’ve got Roger and Brian at the controls, handpicking them?”