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Backstreet Boys take SSL L550 on world tour

FOH engineer James McCullagh came to love 'the quintessential SSL sound', but wouldn’t use an SSL console in a live environment until he was able to convince the wider team following the Backstreet Boys’ residency

Austin Schroeder

The five-piece ’90s band Backstreet Boys are currently on their DNA world tour, where FOH engineer, James McCullagh, and monitor engineer, Austin Schroeder, are using Solid State Logic (SSL) L550 consoles.

“A lot of bands are saying it’s their best tour ever,” said McCullagh. “They sold out the European and North American runs. When they got back together in 2013 they released a record under their own record label, and it did very well. They kind of stayed under the tabloid and mainstream media’s radar. The fans all knew about their comeback and they all supported it. When we started the Vegas residency though, it definitely caught the mainstream media’s attention.”

Being from a recording background, McCullagh came to love ‘the quintessential SSL sound’, but wouldn’t use an SSL console in a live environment until he was able to convince the wider team following the Backstreet Boys’ residency.

“Especially in the pop world – or on any big tour for that matter – money plays a huge part in your decision,” he explained. “You have to have a strong case to convince the people around you that you need to make that change. So taking a risk or a gamble is difficult. But when our Vegas residency was coming to a close, we realised that there really wasn’t that much of a risk. It was a new tour, with a new crew – all the music was going to be re-done, everything was going to start from scratch.”

“[The Backstreet Boys] were pretty excited about it because their sound is that quintessential sound from the 90s, which has SSL all over it,” he remembered. “With their record and tour, DNA, they are trying to give that little bit of themselves – what makes them the Backstreet Boys – and sound is a huge part of that, so it just made sense to go back to the origin of their sound. Max Martin [record producer, songwriter, and singer] is part of their DNA and everything he does is on an SSL. The monitor engineer, Austin Schroeder, was one of the first to agree that we should check out the L550.”

According to Schroeder, using the new consoles made it easy to create ‘a live band in the box’ for the tour: “We chose to have our music director record the entire show in a studio, and receive all the audio files raw and unprocessed,” he said. “We then take these 120+ tracks and buss them down to 64 channels at 96kHz that get sent to the consoles via MADI from our playback operator. This gives us ultimate creative freedom on the mix.”

McCullagh added that the console’s ability to emulate the studio sound in a live environment played a massive part too. “SSL have done an amazing job at recreating the legendary sound of their famed studio consoles. This makes life much easier because you don’t have to use all these extra pieces of gear to try and emulate a certain sound, it already sounds fantastic. The SSL Fusion (all-analogue 2U stereo outboard processor unit) is also designed for mixing in the box, providing that analogue sound.”

For FOH duties, McCullagh was enthused with the overall console workflow and layout. “I really like that there are three solo busses as opposed to the usual AFL / PFL solo choice on most consoles,” he said. “Each solo bus has its own mini matrix or input routing section where you can easily route just about anything you want to it.”

Schroeder enjoyed the console’s stem busses and talkback channel features. “I’ve been able to achieve some unusual routing that helps make my workflow much more efficient and quicker to use. Another feature that I’ve fallen in love with is the FX rack, and many of the plugins that are available. I’ve been able to get rid of all third-party plugins that I was in need of using, and have been able to achieve the same results and rich sound that I was getting from simply using the onboard SSL plugins. Last but not least, the ‘dry channels’ and ‘dry busses’ have enabled me to get to a very high channel count using a lot of ‘utility’ channels, without being limited on available DSP. Talkback is a very basic function, but having the option to setup my talkback mic(s) on a button with either a momentary or latch option, has been a game-changer for me.”

Schroeder also had to develop an entirely different workflow to pay an equal amount of attention to each of the five singers on stage. “One thing that has helped me accomplish this is using a lot of automation and spending time getting cues and changes happening via timecode,” he explained. “Often I’ll have to run into the quick change area during the show to check in on how one of the guys are doing, and not having to worry about changing snapshots while I’m doing this has been invaluable. They all have a very different preference for what they like to hear, and it’s been an interesting experience getting into each of their heads (psychologically) to figure out the right way to handle each individual personality. They also have very different sounding voices and traits to the way that they sing. James and I spend lots of time (still) discussing tricks and things that we can do to manage this.”

Schroeder is using a total of 137 mono and stereo input channels that consist of both full processed and dry channel paths, 20 stems of both dry and full processed paths, 18 auxes using both dry and full processed paths, eight VCAs, 16 matrix inputs, eight matrix outputs, two dedicated talkback channels, and two solo busses.

“I’m handling 10 monitor mixes, as well as a few comms busses,” he pointed out. “The 10 mixes consist of the five principals on stage, tech mixes, guest mixes and a side-fill mix.”

In conclusion, McCullagh said: “The tour is on-going, everyone is winning. The fans are happy and tickets are selling so fast. So many people want to come and see it.”