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‘It’s a complicated show’: FOH engineer Matt Butcher on Gorillaz’s most ambitious tour yet

In the second half of 2017, Damon Albarn’s animated ‘virtual’ collective Gorillaz took to the road in support of their fifth album Humanz, with rental house Entec supplying a d&b audiotechnik system to provide sound reinforcement.

When Blur burst on to the UK music scene with debut album Leisure back in 1991, few could have predicted the career front man and chief songwriter Damon Albarn was about to embark upon. From their early fusions of shoegaze, pop and indie rock, through the heady days of Britpop and their eventual move towards a heavier, alternative sound, a penchant for sonic experimentation was consistently in evidence. In the aftermath of Blur’s dissolution, his ambitions to push the boundaries of artistry and creativity beyond the confines of a four-piece rock outfit were laid evermore bare for all to see, when he joined forces with artist Jamie Hewlett to create the animated or ‘virtual’ band Gorillaz.

Aesthetically and aurally unlike anything he, or anyone else had done before, Gorillaz became one of the most iconic cultural phenomena in decades, reinventing the possibilities of music, art, identity and live performance in one fell swoop. And it is in the live realm that the Gorillaz experience really came into its own.

Initially, their live concerts saw band members perform behind large-scale projections of the animated characters. On their current outing, the band is performing in full view with a raft of special guests, including the likes of former Britpop adversary Noel Gallagher, De La Soul and Albarn’s Blur colleague Graham Coxon among many others.

Since Gorillaz first took to the road early in the Millennium, Entec Light & Sound has played a supporting role, and the ongoing Humanz tour has, the firm claims, reaped the benefit of recent investments in audio technology from key brands such as Digico, d&b audiotechnik and Shure, as well as the emergence of a new transatlantic partnership.

In the second half of 2017, Entec – a long-time d&b rental house – partnered with Colorado-based Brown Note Productions to give d&b’s next generation loudspeaker series its touring début. Designed for large-scale venues, GSL – part of the new SL-Series – made its first touring appearance with Gorillaz at Luxembourg’s 6,500-capacity Rockhal on November 1, where the two main hangs each combined 16 GSL8 enclosures with two GSL12s, while 18 SL-SUBs lined the front of the stage.

“We were very keen to start using it as soon as possible and it was immediately evident that it’s a really clever design,” said FOH engineer Matt Butcher, a mainstay within the Albarn camp since just prior to Blur’s 1994 Parklife tour, who has worked for the first time alongside system technician Perttu Korteniemi. “My first impression was that it is very quick to rig, using the compression mode for flying, and I was bowled over as soon as we turned it on because the amount of punch you get from the low end is startling. When we first started using it we were playing a bottom heavy programme without the subs on and putting a little 60Hz bump in the PA just to see how much low end we could get out of it, and it was pretty staggering. We then fired up the new SL-SUB, which is just on another level. I believe it’s almost a hybrid of the J-SUB and J-INFRA, but the new model goes lower and is incredibly powerful while retaining so much clarity.

“Generally speaking, with sub arrays you can lose that power alley effect down the middle, making it a little bumpy at FOH while it tails off when you move away, but I’m not finding this to be the case with GSL. I’m getting a remarkably smooth, fat and even cardioid dispersion of sub bass across the entire arena.

“Right from the start of our pre-production, we made the firm decision to do everything absolutely right and not compromise the audio quality, and the results speak for themselves. A few of us have known Damon for so long that we feel able to make a lot of suggestions for improvement and he respects our opinions. For instance, we were very meticulous about assembling the kick drum samples from the various Gorillaz records so that they can be triggered live and they are reproduced so well through this new d&b system. We’re achieving a very tight bottom end and great articulation on bass guitar and bass synths.”

Powered by d&b D80 digital amplifiers, one aspect of GSL that impressed both Butcher and monitor engineer Dave Guerin was the virtual absence of audio leakage behind the flown arrays.

“Our first few days with the system were remarkable,” Butcher said. “I walked around the back and the sound just disappeared. We ended up taking the level down by 2-3dB because we no longer had to rise above the ‘disinformation’ that we had become accustomed to. We suddenly appreciated how much level usually comes out of the back of a box. Because there’s no extraneous low end floating around on stage, everything sounds so much cleaner all the way down the line, so from my perspective at FOH it’s a perfect situation.”

Guerin explained further: “Even with the PA running at about 102dB at FOH, I’m hearing almost nothing from the PA itself at the side of the stage and for the first time ever, I can hear low end in my wedges. There is no recognisable spill from the sub array – only some reflections from the auditorium – and this is quite phenomenal.”

With GSL currently in short supply due to its relative infancy, Entec fielded d&b V-Series enclosures for the PA’s side hangs, with two V8s and a pair of V-SUBs (per side) reserved as sidefills.

The SD factor

Unsurprisingly, Gorillaz’ production values have become more complex since 2005’s Demon Days Live, involving many high quality collaborations with choirs and stellar guests. The extension of Albarn’s orchestral ambitions have led to additional textures and layers that, in turn, have provided greater challenges for the audio department. “It’s always rewarding to come up with the solutions that make it all work on stage,” said Butcher.

“It is a complicated show with so much going on at any one time. Our core line-up consists of drums, electronic percussion, guitar, bass, two keyboard players, six backing vocalists and Damon who plays piano, guitars and keytar. We also have the five-piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble with us as well as a five-piece string section, and that combination is a first for us tonight at the O2 [in London]. We’re effectively shoehorning them into the mix because we have pretty much reached the limits of what is possible with an SD7 but, for me, it’s the best control surface for a job of this scale.”

A Digico user since mixing on his first D5 in 2009, Butcher continued: “I moved to Midas for a while but I returned to Digico when they launched the SD-Rack, and I’ve remained with the brand ever since. The symmetry of the SD7’s layout – with left and right fader bays, and a master VCA bay in the middle – allows me to do three things simultaneously, and that is what makes it so practical. On the left, I have two layers of instruments with vocals and guests on the right. Dave’s fader layout is fairly similar for the same practical reasons; we double up eight radio mics into individual artist channels.”

Butcher admitted to being a “big fan” of the SD7’s internal dynamics. The plug-ins he uses include aural exciters on snares, ADT, compressors and four delays with one assigned to replicate a CB radio effect. “Alongside those, I’m running a Waves SoundGrid package on a laptop for things like live hard autotune effects on vocals for a De La Soul number and Saturnz Barz, the Popcaan track from Humanz. Waves also comes in handy for de-essers, multi-band effects and a gated fuzz box for snares.”.

In the wings

Guerin generates an average of 20 mono monitor mixes with 30 in stereo for in-ear feeds, sidefills and Albarn’s piano wedges. Backing vocals are mixed left and right, with Albarn’s vocal centred. Twelve d&b M4 wedges are distributed across the stage as well as a V-SUB that is added to the drum fill. Jerry Harvey JH16V2 Pro in-ear monitors are used for the majority of the performers in conjunction with Shure PSM 1000 hardware.

“It’s a surprisingly quiet stage despite the extensive amount of activity,” noted Guerin, “and that helps when you add the string section because you’re not battling against the inevitable background sound pouring down the string mics. You can get them in the sidefill mix without generating feedback.”

The RF side of the operation is dependent on Entec’s recent commitment to Shure’s new Axient Digital system, which handles around 50 channels of IEM and AD Series radio mics for vocals and backline, all of which are monitored from a Waves eMotion LV1 desk via a patch on the SD11i. “I was taken aback by how clean the Axient sound is,” commented Butcher, whose opinion was shared by Guerin. “Yes, it’s a real step up in quality,” he said.

“As we have so many people on in-ears, it wasn’t a problem to stretch to another seven packs for the BVs who, after previously being tethered to their mic stands, are now on radio mics and have the freedom to dance around. We were concerned that we wouldn’t have enough spectrum available for everything, but we went to Axient for the radio mic systems and for the guitars and bass, the latter having a much narrower bandwidth per channel and therefore freeing up more air space for the IEM systems. I’ve been extremely happy with the results.”

The Humanz tour marks yet another chapter in Entec’s history with Gorillaz. And according to the crew and production team, working with the rental firm has been an exceptional experience. “It’s great having [head of sound] Jonny Clark at Entec; we’re clearly all on the same side… he’s one of us,” Guerin said “I had a problem a couple of days ago and texted Jonny. He was immediately on the case and had someone with me that morning to solve the issue without the slightest fuss.”

Production manager Joel Stanley was in agreement, concluding: “Working with Entec has been really good and it’s a pleasure to be dealing with Jonny. No request has ever been too big. Whenever we have identified a piece of equipment that we desperately need, Entec has ensured that if they don’t have it in stock, they will purchase it without hesitation. They’ve been solid and I feel like we consistently have their complete attention.”