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Ian Bond on mixing King Crimson’s three-drummer frontline

How many drummers does it take to put the reconstituted KC into ‘go’ mode?

King Crimson founder and guitarist Robert Fripp’s apparent retreat from music several years ago to concentrate his energies on a long-running legal dispute meant that the prospect of another Crimson tour seemed highly unlikely. But with the case approaching resolution last year, Fripp felt able to set the wheels in motion on a new incarnation of the celebrated progressive group that reversed the traditional backline/frontline equation, casting no fewer than three drummers as the undoubted stars of the show.

Longtime Crimson sound engineer Ian Bond had about four weeks of rehearsals ahead of last autumn’s US tour to obtain the best possible mix for the highly complex parts played by returning drummers Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison and newcomer Bill Rieflin. “Getting good sound off the drums itself is easy, as all three of them can tune and play brilliantly,” he says. “But getting that across and not killing everyone in the process is a different story!”

Despite the line-up numbering a total of seven players, Bond (pictured right) recalls that Fripp’s original brief for the concerts was for “a jazz quartet feel similar to that which existed when the band started. This meant that there had to be an emphasis on ensuring the mix wasn’t overpowering. Hence I did a lot of panning so that, as much as possible, the audience member looking at the stage would feel as though the sound was coming from the sources, not the PA. The three drummers shared out the parts so well it worked very effectively.”

Backline fills were placed either side of Rieflin’s kit with a mix of just the backline to sit correctly with the drums. The microphone configuration was different for each drummer, but the overall spec included Shure Beta 91As for kick drums, Neumann KM 184s on hi-hats, Electro-Voice ND468s and Audix MicroDs on toms and Shure KSM32s for overheads.

Although the rehearsal period was unusually extensive, Bond admits that his ideas had to change somewhat when the band hit the road and was confronted by some less-than-ideal in-house PAs. “I am a d&b man, and, courtesy of Canadian production company Apex, we took some d&bs to provide quad elements and all monitoring,” he notes. “The rear sound elements were mainly limited to effects returns and some weird vocal effects; I had to be very careful because you have three drummers who are never doing evens, so the last thing you want is to put something 100ms out of time into the building! For the main PA we did try to use in-house systems, but these, frankly, worked better in some places than in others – so we did have to hire in equipment at several venues.”

A long-time Midas console user, Bond mixed both FOH (with an input count totalling 86) and monitors from a PRO9 hired from none other than Leonard Cohen. “I love the fact that it sounds like an analogue Midas,” says Bond. “Apart from a couple of Lake processors to drive the various house systems, I didn’t use any outboard gear at all.”

Thunderously intricate new versions of Crimson classics such as One More Red Nightmare and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic made the tour one of the best received in the band’s history. A selection of highlights can be found on the newly released album Live at the Orpheum, while there are hopes for further concerts later this year.

In the meantime, Bond will be touring with another long-term client, Steven Wilson, and mixing sound from his own Midas PRO2C. “Like Crimson, working with Steven is refreshingly straightforward,” he says. “He knows what he wants and he gets on with it. There is no faffing around!”