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Mixing Hip Hop Live: Run the Jewels

Feb 14, 2018

FOH engineer Tomas Wolfe keeps a smooth live mix for RTJ’s sold-out shows, even with mic cupping, heavy bass and other challenges faced at live hip hop shows. Find out how he does it running plugins inside his eMotion LV1 mixer.

Tomas Wolfe

Front-of-house mixing engineer and self-professed “console junkie” Tomas Wolfe (Run the Jewels, Børns, Danny Brown) is no rookie at running the boards. After breaking into live PA on the Sunset Strip and becoming one of L.A.’s finest live sound engineers, Tomas took his love for live sound to the road and hasn’t looked backed.

His affinity for touring and the challenges of live mixing in different venues grew even further throughout the years with artists like The Neighborhood, The Moglis, Everlast, and now El-P and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels. We caught up with Tomas during a stretch of sold-out North American and European dates and asked him to give up the goods on why he uses the eMotion LV1 live mixer for RTJ’s Run the World Tour.

Tomas, what’s your basic FOH setup for the Run the Jewels tour?

We are doing a lot of back-to-back fly dates with Run the Jewels, and we needed something that we could carry on to the plane – but without compromising the sound quality. When I first tried out the LV1, I was immediately impressed by its portability, and the sound quality was a huge selling point too. I could finally have with me the sound of the ‘big boy consoles,’ no matter what the travelling situation was. This is the best-sounding console I have ever used. It holds its weight against any other top-tier console.

Our LV1 mixer setup consists of a Waves Extreme Server for DSP and DiGiGrid IOX interfaces for I/O on stage, and the Icon Platform M and Icon Platform X that are specifically designed for the LV1 as the tactile fader controller. The great thing is that setup is really quick and easy with this rig. The small footprint also helps in festival situations, where space is at a premium. It’s easy to advance a Cat 6 cable to connect the interfaces on stage to the LV1 mixer at FOH so I don't have to run my own, and that helps save precious time at load outs.

Tomas with his LV1 setup

Tomas with his LV1 setup

Which plugins are your go-to’s live?

Many, from the L2 Ultramaximizer that goes many years back, down to the most recent ones. These days I have three newer plugs that I go to all the time: the F6 Dynamic EQ, the X-FDBK and the Primary Source Expander (PSE).

L2 in action at the Run the Jewels show

L2 in action at the Run the Jewels show

The F6 I use on every single channel. It’s an incredible plugin, the best dynamic EQ I have ever used, hands down. It really is the superhero, since it catches those bad frequencies that can really hurt my mix – all the more so in the hip hop world, where bad mic technique is the norm. It helps me make a vocal sound more natural when the artist is cupping the mic, by cutting out those low band frequencies that cause proximity effect, or when I need to expand those frequencies because they are too far from the mic.

The F6 plugin is on every track in Tomas’s mixes

The F6 plugin is on every track in Tomas’s mixes

Also, really piercing mid-range can be an issue, depending on how hard the [rappers] are hitting the mic. The ability to have the F6 just duck those out when singing really hard into the mic does wonders in smoothing out the sound.

With high frequencies, I usually start with ducking out the really sibilant stuff and as the show goes on, the saliva from the artist starts to make the mic sound dull – really! [laughs] – so instead of cutting the frequency, I reverse the range to expand on the surrounding frequencies, resulting in higher gain and I can get the vocal to stand out in the mix.

I also use the F6 on the DJ, and by keying the side chain input of the vocal group in the mid to high range, it scoops out a nice area for the vocals to sit.

What about other instruments? Bass, the low end?

Well, in Run the Jewels the bass is VERY prominent, and since there is a lot of 40 Hz in the tracks, the F6 helps me control it and clear up the muddiness. Then, I sidechain the vocal group to the F6 to duck out 4 kHz to create a pocket for the vocals to cut through, and I sidechain the kick to the F6 as well to get a good separation between the bass and the kick drum.

You mentioned X-FDBK and PSE – what are your tips on using those for damage control?

We use the X-FDBK to quickly identify feedback frequencies while rigging out monitors. It’s a godsend when in high-pressure and quick-changeover festival settings, where our monitor engineer can use it as an assistant so he doesn’t have to waste time running back and forth to the desk and back in front of the wedges.

PSE is one incredible plugin too. Actually, it’s the best gate I have ever used. A godsend for live vocals. It’s very simple to use and has a great visual lay out. I need my vocals loud and with the PSE, I can do so without bringing up the noise floor, resulting in a very clean sound. It also helps, in that I can get very high gain with reducing feedback, which cleans up all the stage noise and monitor bleed, leaving me with a nice clean vocal. The ducking feature is especially helpful when I have a singer in front of drum kit.

Really, without these plugins I wouldn’t have been able to do as good of a job in my live shows, period. And having them all run inside the LV1 mixer, all as part of one lightweight system, is the bonus in this situation.

Learn more about how to run plugins live inside the eMotion LV1 mixer.