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Big Mick Hughes and the art of pig-wrestling

Big Mick Hughes needs no introduction; he has a wealth of live sound experience, most famously of course, a 25+ year stint on the road with metal giants Metallica. But it hasn’t always been a walk in the park...

Big Mick Hughes needs no introduction; he has a wealth of live sound experience, most famously of course, a 25+ year stint on the road with metal giants Metallica. But it hasn’t always been a walk in the park: “you’ve got to wrestle the pig!” he says – oh, and dodge the odd bullet or two in South America… Paul Watson chewed the fat with him at Sonisphere Festival in Sofia…
 PW: So, it was November 1984… MH: Yes. Pete Russell and I took Bob Doyle’s Cerwin Vega PA out around Europe for the November/December Metallica tour. At the end of that, the band said ‘we get on really well, do you want to be our engineer?’ I hadn’t really done much of that – I was always a ‘turn up with the service company’ kind of guy and in those days people didn’t have their own engineers, so I said “yes” and we started touring America in January. Simple as that? Yep – I just held on! It was a sharp learning curve as well because you’ve got to keep the gig; you’ve got to be able to deliver. We all learned together; the band was only 19 at the time and we formulated a lot of stuff together in the early days. Such as? Kick drum sounds – you couldn’t hear them; they were bass drums and they didn’t really work. It needed to be a kick sound; we were the first people to do that – to go for the big attack; and we just went on from there. How do you mic the kit? I use a flat plate Shure Beta91 condenser and an AKG D60 in the kick; and the snare drum has three mics assigned to it: a condenser and an Audio-Technica (AT) Side Fire on top, and an Earthworks SR25 on the bottom, which is very crisp sounding; I use the SR25 on the hi-hat as well. I use AT35s on the four toms and six AT35s on the overheads which are positioned underneath on an extended gooseneck. Why so many mics on the overheads? That’s something I have been doing for about 20 years now because it’s quite a noisy stage; and it’s good for getting the overheads audible to start off with and to actually have control over each one. You can keep the gains down because essentially you’re close miking the overheads. If the gooseneck isn’t extended, it puts the mic too near to the cymbal and the cymbal acts as a parabola – and you don’t get any stick noise; it gives it a bit of a gong kind of sound. If you extend the goosenecks putting the mic capsule nearer towards the edge of the cymbal then you can actually get a bit of stick noise which gives it a nice attack; and of course it keeps the gain down, so you eliminate background noise. So how did you come up with that miking technique? The idea came from a unit that Zildjan marketed 20 years ago called the ZMC1; a little box that clipped under the middle of each cymbal with a microphone inside. You plugged them into a 1U 19” rack mount unit and could control each one individually with a volume knob, then take a stereo or mono feed out. They all sounded a bit ‘gong-like’; I liked the plot, but the mic was in the wrong place and it needed to be higher quality. And what about the rest of the kit? We have really loud tom toms, so you have to gate them. You’re trying to set the threshold on the gate to stop it bouncing open, and if you go the other way and keep tweaking the threshold down, then OK it’ll stop bouncing, but when he plays it, it doesn’t open at all – so I needed a solution for that. I had a DDrum2 machine and it came with these little seducer pickups that you used to stick on the heads. The DDrum didn’t work out because it sounded too false, but I thought ‘I wonder if one of these pickups would open a noise gate?’ And it did! You could roar as much noise as you wanted at this thing and it never opened – it only worked on a vibration – so I thought ‘I wonder if it would work over a long piece of cable?’ and that worked too; It was a light bulb moment! And what about miking the guitars? Any more tricks? Yes actually! Often the mics on the guitar cabinets would get kicked about, so I thought ‘why don’t we seal a 4×12 in a flight case and put the mics in there?’ So I had these huge flight cases made up with a 4×12 in and we’d put mics inside; so for the guitar sounds, there isn’t a live mic on stage – they’re all in sealed flight cases at the back. How does that affect the audio? It’s very clean – like a DI box, yet it’s still a speaker and a microphone. Yet it’s still very loud on stage? [Laughs] Well… yeah! They still have a few cabs pointing out. I assume these guys are on wedges then, not IEMs? Both! [Laughs] when Paul Owen, the old monitor guy, introduced IEMs, we thought they might get rid of the wedges, we had them as well; it is Metallica after all! James [Hetfield, vocalist and guitarist] said the best thing: ‘how am I gonna get sustain on my guitar, do I hold it to my ear?’ And what are the mics in the cabinets? AT 2500s; they’re the dual capsule dynamic and condenser. I used to use a mish mosh of mics, but when you start employing several mics on one sound source it’s a bit of a phase world; some days you’d nail the magic position and you’d go “fucking brilliant!” and of course other days you’d go “oh it’s a bit transparent today”, so when AT brought out the 2500 kick drum mic I immediately put it on guitar – to their dismay! I got given the very first one when I was in Japan – and I did try it in the kick drum, but on guitar it was fantastic! And the bass? Two DIs: one straight off the radio receiver which is clean guitar and one off the amp. We had a problem though; we discovered that there was a 3ms latency through the bass amp. Using Pro Tools, we could see the waveform; we could see it was late on the screen so we got a D2 delay and put it in line with the channel of the DI and delayed it 3ms. That’s when I was using XL4, but we still do it even with the XL8 because it makes it sound better in the monitors, because that’s still an XL4 console; and it sorts it out for anyone recording the shows. So you’re a fan of looking into the audio? Yes, exactly – I don’t ever assume ‘that’s the sound’; I want to know why that’s the sound. Throughout my time with this band I have always looked to find out what the problems are and weed them out. No wonder you’re still in a job… [Laughs] Yeah. Moving onto the Midas XL8 – what is it about this desk that does it for you? I think I’m just loyal at the end of the day. I used to use AMEK TAC desks and I used the AMEK SR9000 for many years – and that was a beast! Then eventually the XL4 came along, so I went to that; I used one for about 14 years. However, eventually they began falling to bits slowly, so I needed to move on. If I was going to change, it had to be something that was a step-up – and the XL8 was. I configure this like I used to configure an XL4 to be honest – It’s just a blue XL4 in disguise! So you mix hands-on then? Yes – I have to have my fingers on the faders; I’m sure there’s a lot of shows that are fantastic for snapshots and stuff like that, but not Metallica. It’s a variable – you’ve got to wrestle the pig you know? [laughs] I hate the thought of going ‘OK, solo coming…click! Solo finished… click!’ I wouldn’t be excited by it. It’s all about audio at the end of the day, but you’ve got to capture an attitude – and I’m always trying to push the boundaries a bit. Do you use any outboard anymore? I still have a Korg SRV3000 – it’s the only machine that will do the harmoniser effect for a song called Master of Puppets. $100 off eBay that was! Then I have my DBX 120X for the floor toms; and a BBE882 for exciting the tom toms. What mic does James [Hetfield, lead singer] use? We used to use AT AE5400s, which sounded fantastic, but after years of using them, he wanted a different look, so we’re using Shure ES55s,which look dead cool, but I EQ the fuck out of them to make them sound any good! The vocal is always on top of the mix and I want enough high end in there to capture the singer’s diction; I want all the clicks and pops. What’s your most stressful memory in live sound? Doing Led Zeppelin at The O2; everyone had an opinion of what they should sound like. I got pulled ragged from one person to the other; you just have to wing it, and all I wanted was for it to be the best for the band. OK – and the most manic? Fuck me, there’s been a few of them! I’d say Puerto Rico; first time we went there we couldn’t do the show and we had to leg it – and when the punters sussed we were legging it, they got a bit arsey and somebody took a shot at us; the bullet hit the barricades, so we got the fuck out of there a bit sharpish! Finally, what do you think about all the smaller footprint consoles? There’s plenty of good ones out there, but there’s no way I could use one because I’d look stupid sitting behind it – I have to have something with some meat behind it – and the XL8 is more Big Mick’s size!