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Gert Sanner on mixing Deep Purple and raising digital awareness

German-born Gert Sanner has been FOH engineer for Deep Purple since 2005. At 20 years old he started out mixing theatre shows and then went on to work for SSE Audio Group, where he met Big Mick Hughes and toured with Metallica as system engineer...

German-born Gert Sanner has been FOH engineer for rock legends Deep Purple since 2005. At 20 years old he started out mixing theatre shows and then went on to work for SSE Audio Group, where he met Big Mick Hughes and toured with Metallica as system engineer. Through SSE, he went on to do the same job for Deep Purple; and soon after, the band offered him a chance to work FOH – which is where he’s been ever since. Paul Watson talked to him about his musical journey so far – and how he plans on raising digital awareness… So how did you come from doing shows like Oklahoma and West Side Story to this? GS: [laughs] I suppose you would call it going through the ranks. When I started on Oklahoma, my job was cabling up the orchestra and looking after the radio mics. I did like the theatre approach and Oklahoma was a very easy show as far as technical things were concerned; and that got a little more complicated when later on we came to do West Side Story; and then I managed to get myself on some rock and roll tours which in essence was a bit harder work, but for more money. Rock and roll is a lot more glamorous of course; I mean, lets face it, going on tour with a proper rock band compared to doing Rodgers and Hammerstein – well, it was a lot cooler. And you started out on monitors didn’t you? Yes, but I soon found I wasn’t really patient enough for that. On monitors, you have to deal with the musicians; some have better means than others to express what they actually mean – and as a monitor engineer you very strictly don’t do your mix, you do what the artists want; a monitor guy’s aim is to have a happy customer. So, I started looking out after PA Systems back in Germany. I was working for various companies over there. Then I was a system engineer for Metallica for a long time working with Big Mick Hughes – we’re very good friends and we go for curries once in a while. I still enjoy doing system jobs and I keep doing it because I think it compliments what the front-of-house job does, because as a system engineer I got to understand what modern speaker systems are able to do; and speakers are my weapons really. And you got the FOH job for Purple because you were working as a system engineer for them previously? Yes. The band’s previous engineer Doug Hall had to go back to Iron Maiden, so they asked me if I fancied a go at doing the job – and here I am now, still there – so I must be doing something right. [laughs] You say speakers are your weapons – what are your weapons of choice on tour? A d&b J-Series. It’s a really good PA and it’s very lightweight; the cabinets are only 60kg each – and in some of these theatres we need to cover a large vertical area, and you need at leas 10 boxes to do it; and if your boxes weigh over 100kg but your rigging point can only take a tonne, then you turn that into a problem as there are weight limits. How do you configure the system? The amount of cabinets varies from venue to venue – on the tops it can be anything from nine to 16. A normal configuration would be six per side and four in the middle; we use what we call a destructive centre sub array, which means we put that out of phase by time aligning it slightly to destroy the middle lump. When you have a L/R configuration, you get about 6-8dB more sub right in the middle about three feet in width; and that can be quite unpleasant, so we try to destroy that – it’s just to get the low end coverage more even. If the venue won’t accommodate that for whatever reason, we take away the middle and do two hangs of twelve and three subs each side. The band must be loud on stage – how do you deal with that? Yes, very loud – yet they don’t really like monitors [laughs]. I think it’s based on their history because when they first started, they hardly had any. If Steve [Morse] the guitarist wants to hear more bass – he’ll just walk over to the bass player! That’s their attitude to it really; we have a drum fill, a monitor on the keys, and a couple of sidefills – that’s it. No heirs and graces there then? You have some very interesting miking techniques though – especially when dealing with Ian Paice’s enormous – and expensive – drum kit… Yes I suppose I do. Ian’s kits are all handmade – and they’re rumoured to cost a lot of money – so I need to get it right! Miking the toms is interesting, because the mics are actually set inside the drums. They’re modified AKG D112s; a guy in the US completely takes them apart and puts fittings on them, modifying them for whatever drum type you desire. You call the guy up, let him know the kit and the drum sizes, then he sends you a batch that will do the job. The ambient noise is literally zero; and I never believed it could sound good before I worked with this band, but for some reason it works. It’s very time consuming to set up though; every time we change the drum kit – which is probably every six months – it takes about three weeks to get it sorted; and a lot of skins die along the way! [Laughs] Anything fancy on the rest of the kit? I have five cymbal channels, which a lot of people raise their eyebrows at. It’s hats, stage right, centre cymbal, stage left and the ride. They’re all compressed because he does some really cool quiet stuff on the cymbals – and then when he really beats it then they sit back a bit. I also position the mics underneath the cymbals. I use Shure Beta98s because they are hypercardioid – a very narrow pattern – and it’s the only way I can get any cymbals into the mix because of the stage volume. A stereo pattern works really well when they’re placed underneath; you get a nice L/R drum fill. On the kick I have a Shure Beta 52 and SM91, then Sennheiser 604s on the snare top and bottom, and a 98 on the hats. Then I use Audio-Technica 4050s and a Shure SM57 on the six guitar cabinets; Sennheiser 604s and 421s on the Leslie speaker; and a BSS DI on the bass. What about on Ian Gillan’s vocals? A Shure KSM9 wireless – and we use the UHF-R receivers. I like it on the hypercardioid setting, which I only recommend you use if you have a singer that knows how a microphone works – and he does. I tried to find something that collects less ambient noise; and this obviously was a very narrow pattern, so very accurate singing into it means it works better. If I wanted a nice sound I would get a big Neumann U87, but this is not practical for Deep Purple! You need to compromise – and the Shure provides a decent amount of headroom. Ian is actually singing in front of the PA some of the time – and that’s with a proper rock band playing behind you, which you can’t do with every mic. You were the first engineer to tour a Soundcraft Vi6 and you’ve been involved in a number of its ‘mixing with professionals’ workshops – can you tell me a bit about that? Yes. Basically I mix two songs live from a hard disk so that people can hear what we do; and then it’s basically a case of talking people through the desk and afterwards discussing things – it’s very much a Q&A thing. I like to raise digital awareness. I want to help people really understand gain structure of a Vi1 for example – and to take the guess work out of using some of the desk’s functions; tell people not to be afraid to use the board to its full capabilities. I have done these workshops in Potters Bar at the Soundcraft factory; a couple in Poland; one in Sweden; and one in Russia. What’s the daftest thing you’ve been asked? [laughs] There was this one guy who asked why the Vi6 distorts when the limiter hits -30dB; and the answer was fairly simple: “because your input was too loud”; he wasn’t too happy about the answer, so I had to move on! And you’re about to embark on another European tour? Yes, we go out on 25 October for a seven-week run through France, Belgium, Germany – and then France again. Production is providing me with a Vi6 from Germany, but my plan is to take a Vi1 out and have the two running side-by-side, and then swap them over on occasion. I want to give the Vi1 a good old grilling, throw it out of the truck and see how it keeps up with the other one. What about the layers – will it affect you in terms of dynamic mixing? Not really. It’s 16 per layer on the Vi1 and if I have enough VCAs then I am happy. The Vi1 actually has more faders than I would use at one time and the new custom layer functions make it really easy for me to access everything. For example, my five cymbals channels I just stick on a custom layer underneath; and if I need to get to them they are a one button press away. So you might well be the first to tour a Vi1 as well then? Maybe. I want to make sure that the Vi1 and Vi6 are fully compatible and that I can do the same show on either; and I am perfectly confident that it will work exactly the same – but I can’t guarantee it until I’ve done it! [Laughs]