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Andy Huffer: mixing for Royalty

HD Pro Audio's Andy Huffer talks to Paul Watson about his most recent project which saw him mix live sound, record, and mix for broadcast for the BBC's new reality show Goldie's Band: by Royal appointment, which was set in the Ballroom in Buckingham Palace...

Andy Huffer is head of sales at HD Pro Audio; and is also an experienced live sound engineer. His most recent project, however, was probably his most challenging to date. Imagine being asked to turn up at Buckingham Palace, rig a PA, mix and record music you’d never heard before, and then mix it for broadcast for a BBC TV series. Well, that’s what he did. Huffer reveals to Paul Watson the extraordinary experience he had working on Goldie’s Band: by Royal appointment…

Let’s start at the beginning…

My involvement with Goldie goes back a few years. I rewired his studio and talked to him about Pro Tools, and generally helped him out with few bits and pieces; he calls me when his computer crashes and things like that. I guess I am his ‘audio helper-outer’.

Which is how you got involved in this project?

Yeah, he wanted few safe pairs of hands, and he put me forward as his audio man.

The show is all about helping underprivileged kids find their way in music, right?

Yes. The idea stems from Goldie’s disadvantaged background and his involvement with the BBC’s classical music department; and the location is down to his friendship with Prince Harry; and all of a sudden it steamrollered from there. It was a real privilege to be involved in, because it was such a nice thing to do; there’s the altruistic nature of working with the disadvantaged young people and it’s nice to be involved with people doing something a bit different with music.

The show features various talented musicians from the far reaches of the UK who either have social disadvantages or psychological problems. The first set of rehearsals was in August 2010, and I was working on it a good month or so before that. The shortlist of kids was worked out a couple of weeks before the rehearsal, and earlier in the year the BBC put out adverts to various help groups asking to nominate people for the show. For example, one of them had been in prison and he got involved in ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ which Billy Bragg does. Various groups like that put people forward.

And Goldie heads up a celebrity panel of musicians and songwriters that mentor the kids? 

Yes, they whittled the musicians down to a final twelve for the show, and the mentors included Guy Chambers, Cerys Matthews, Ms Dynamite, Soweto Kinch and Steve Abbot. They’d all go off with groups of musicians and feed it back in on stage.

More like Fame Academy than X Factor then… 

Yeah, Goldie’s take on it is that the one thing it’s not is like X Factor. It’s not one of those shows where they say right ‘lose a few pounds, whiten your teeth, and then let’s sing a Madonna song’; it’s all about the songwriting, and coming up with something fresh and new. That’s their angle on it. So you mixed everything, recorded everything, specced a PA system…

It sounds like a one-man-show!

All through the magic of the Avid Venue Profile console. The BBC then put their safe pairs of hands in too. We worked with John Henry’s – who supplied PA and backline as well as their considerable live audio expertise – then anticipated all the possible worst case scenarios and prepared as best we could. We couldn’t go into it half-cocked, so from the word go we had the Avid console, with a big fat Pro Tools rig strapped onto it, and we were multitracking everything right from the first rehearsals, so we could go back and rework stuff. The tape was always rolling, with the view it was ultimately going to end up being mixed for TV. If you’re in an industry standard format from the word go it can be pretty seamless. It had to be a digital console because of the disparate nature of all the different music they were putting together; we needed a flexible platform for recording onto.

It must have been daunting in itself, working in the Ballroom at Buckingham Palace… 

[Laughs] Oh, certainly; and for everyone involved! It was such an unknown quantity and a lot to deal with. Effectively, we had three things happening at the same time: a gig with some rehearsals; the BBC filming, and then a reality show concept going on the whole way through; so knowing there was going to be this disjointed process just needed a flexible core, which was the console.

What about the mixing side of things – how did you go about that? And what was the rig you chose? 

The Profile was fully stuffed at 48 channels. We got a channel list together because everyone involved was a multi instrumentalist. Potentially a song with five vocalists could happen, so we had a really packed board. Some of the songs had bare bones and were then fleshed out and rearranged by the mentors, and others were fresh out of the workshops. We chose the EAW KF730 PA system which was configured L/R with frontfills; and we had a couple of SB1000s per side too. We also had some Clair Brothers wedges and a Profile at FOH and MON position. The console came into its own for the crucial October rehearsal period. When you’re trying to get a mix together of people creating music on the spot, it’s tough, but I had anticipated it. So when they all went off to lunch I’d be in there still playing the multitracks back through the desk and working on mixes. Normally, if you’re working with a band, four days rehearsal is your production rehearsals, and the band will have had months of getting the songs nailed down, whereas here we were writing, arranging, and learning as we went; and we still only had four days!

Did that create some camaraderie in the camp though? 

Oh too right, yeah. We all had to find a way of working together. Initially, trying to pull a mix together was a real challenge. At the same time, they were filming the reality side, and I was generating a rough stereo mix for the cameras too, which meant I couldn’t pull elements out of it because the sound would go to cop, so once they’d all finished I’d play the multitrack back through and mix it properly, so that next time they came in they could have something out of the PA that actually resembled the full mix! I also need something that’s an extension of the brain and fingertips to work on, which the Avid console is, and they were throwing requests at me like ‘what if we stuck a distortion on this Sitar?’ and things like that, so it had to be flexible and quick. And you also mixed this for broadcast – surely another massive challenge? Yes. The idea in my head all along was ‘do the gig, mix it, make a stereo mix as reference, then offer up the multitracks for another company to go and mix, and that’s your telly sorted’.

But, they came back and said ‘can you mix the TV show?’

So I said I’d give it a go; and I’d never mixed a TV show before! They wanted it to sound as live as possible, so again what I did was fire all those multitracks back through the desk and did a sort of a tweaked version of the live mix, chucked in a load of song markers and cue points which allowed me to fine tune it as much as possible, and did that as the final mix for them.

How did the mixes turn out? 

Everyone seemed happy – I don’t know what it will sound like when it goes through the BBC’s final transmission chain, but fingers crossed we’ll be OK. It was just a great thing to be involved in and a chance to use all this kit I have been shouting about.