Mixing on the road with Softube Plug-ins
Stefan Hedengren, June 2011

Veteran live engineer John Kerns talks about his experience with Softube Venue plug-ins. Two decades of work with artists such as Bruce Springsteen, No Doubt and Shania Twain has honed his skills. A while ago he went from the analog world of mixing into the digital and especially likes the Avid Venue mixing consoles in which he runs Softube plug-ins.

Give us the story of your life - who are you, what's your background and what are you currently working on?
Well.. my name is John Kerns. As with most people in this industry, I grew up a music fan and that led to being in a band, which led to the band owning a p.a. system, which led to wanting to do records, which led to some years in studios, which led to starting to do live shows as well. At this time I found that I really, really enjoyed mixing live shows. The immediacy of it just couldn't be matched by the studio end of things to me as much anymore, so I began to concentrate on the 'live' sides of things.

The Tube Tech EQ is my go-to bass eq. Best thing ever on bass. Boost a little 60 and 1.5k and there ya go! Dialed!

As far as what's going on right now, I am currently out on a tour that happens every year in Australia called "The Big Day Out", on which I am the system engineer/tuner/designer for the 2 side by side main stages. Tristan Johnson helped heaps this year in the design as well. This year the 4 headliners (out of the 12 bands every day) are Tool, Rammstein, Iggy and the Stooges, and the John Butler Trio. The tour pulls between 35,000 and 50,000 a show depending on which city we are in... so it's a big one. But... no mixing on this tour for me. I've got my hands full as it is looking after a pretty large system and 4 console packages!

How is live mixing different from studio mixing?
Totally different. Everyday we are in the exact opposite of a controlled environment. In fact the surroundings change every single day. When you are touring outdoors it's usually not as different day to day as when you are inside.

What are some of the precautions one can take to better control this?
Well there isn't really much you can do. When you listen and tune the room you have to identify any frequencies that excite the room and try and minimize that. Most of the modern p.a.'s are accurate enough that you don't bounce sound off of roofs and such anymore which helps. Usually in a bouncy reverby room the first thing that happens is that your use of fx diminishes proportionally.

I use the A-Range for all of my guitar channels. Sounds great and if I need to drive it a bit more there is always the saturation knob.

To people who aren't too familiar with working with live acts, what are some of the typical problems you would encounter?
Well, you have to learn to deal with the days peculiarities. Sometimes the rooms are just not very good and you have to work with that. Imagine playing your favorite record through an 8 second reverb program! Some days are like that. We also have the volume issue to deal with. There are some very loud guitar players out there and some very loud stages in general. Most of the time you can't just turn it up so that the stage volume doesn't affect you. You have to learn to work with it or around it.

I've been lucky in that most of the bands that I work with are open for suggestion... the simple act of turning your guitar cabinets around the other direction can help heaps. The invention of accurate in ear monitoring systems has helped in the volume regard as well... although it can open up other cans of worms as well! Fatigue shows up at some point during a tour also.... and flying all the time really just wrecks your hearing.

You've worked with some huge bands and artists, such as Bruce Springsteen and No Doubt. Do you feel that need to take a very different approach with each band or is it more a matter of sticking with well tested chains?
Every band is different. Some want to sound like the record, some want to just sound like a live band. I obviously have some favorite tools and tricks that I like to use and do, but I'll use what ever really fits the band/material best.

So if you could pick one band or artist as your favorite to work with, who would it be, what were some of the issues you encountered working with them and how did you solve them?
My favorite would have to be No Doubt. Awesome people from management through band and to the crew... although I have had some fun runs with Sum 41 and Bruce Springsteen's solo tour for "The Ghost of Tom Joad" was awesome as well.

The biggest thing that I have to deal with in regards to No Doubt is the totally varied catalog that they have. They run from ska to almost hardcore punk, to plain old rock and some of the poppiest stuff ever... usually all in an hours time! That and the fact that all of them are running and jumping everywhere on the stage at all times. In front of cabinets, in front of p.a., on top of drum kits (when we only have 1.. some tours as many as 3). It's for sure not a 'set it and forget it' gig.

Could you please give us some details on your typical live setup today, including hardware and software?
My current 'default' set up at FOH is a Digidesign Profile console. I usually have a tried and trusted analog outboard compressor that I use for my main vocals, partially just so I have immediate access to it. (but it does sound awesome)! Within the Profile environment I use several different plug ins for a couple of reasons. 1st off, there are a lot of pieces of gear that I have used throughout the years that I love the sound of, and the other is trying to get some of that 'analog-ness' back into the audio.

I'm currently using plugs by Softube (Trident A-Range and Tonelux Tilt and Tilt Live). I cut my teeth on several different Trident large format consoles. And they are still my favorite), McDsp (a couple of different comps and multi band comps), TC (still my favorite digital reverbs as no one has come up with even a reasonable PCM-70 or RMX-16 plug yet)! And Crane Song Phoenix. My main p.a. of choice is the Lacoustics K1 system, but there are several other boxes out there that sound fantastic as well such as the Clair I-5 system and some of the d&b systems if you are in a smaller environment. Mic choices depend on the act as well... but I usually start with AT, Sennheiser, Telefunken and Avenson models.

So what do you typically use the Trident A-Range and Tilt for?
I have to admit I totally forgot about the Tube-Tech PE 1C "Pultec" Equalizer as well! I use the Trident A-Range for all of my guitar channels. Sounds great and if I need to drive it a bit more there is always the saturation knob... really effective. I use Tonelux Tilt and Tilt Live for my drum overheads - it makes it really easy to sort of dial in how much of the drum kit you want in your overheads and such. I use the Loudness curve on keyboards a bunch as well. It brings out the bottom and top, but leaves some room in the middle for other instruments. The Tube Tech EQ is my go-to bass eq. Best thing ever on bass. Boost a little 60 and 1.5k and there ya go! Dialed!

Freelance Writer