FOH/Monitor Engineer Brandon Blackwell (Camila Cabello, Big Sean, PartyNextDoor) discusses his current live setup, keeping turnt-up sound under control and meeting the challenges of the road head-on for A$AP Rocky’s Injured Generation tour.
Brandon, you’ve been out on the road with A$AP Rocky before. What’s new this time around for the Injured Generation tour?
The production has changed a decent amount since the last time I mixed for A$AP Rocky, which was in 2015. During that time we were using a couple of DJ rigs for our playback source. But for the Injured Generation tour, we went to a 10-channel Ableton playback setup with stems, which has given me the control I always wanted, as there’s usually a lot going on in Rocky’s tracks.
In terms of production, on the previous tour we had a minimum of six performers on stage at one time. For this run, it is just Rocky on stage with hype-man A$AP Twelvy on the side of the stage.
As for my mixing setup this run, I spec’d a Digico SD12 and added the new Stadius 32bit input cards, which sounds phenomenal! To go with the console package, I added an Extreme Server running plugins on an external computer via MultiRack—which has been super helpful because it frees up the master screen of my console. Everything is synced from the audio console to the host computer, which makes life so much easier; especially because I rely heavily on snapshot scenes. Lastly, I decided that I wanted to dabble with some outboard gear so I added 2 Avalon VT-737 Channel Strips and 1 Rupert Neve Portico II MBP. These analog pieces add some warmth and harmonic distortion that sound really good to my ear.
What are some of the thoughts going through your head at FOH 5 minutes before showtime?
I’m always on pins and needles right before the show. I tend to have this routine after we line-check our inputs and then I kind of step back from the console to just collect my thoughts and focus in on what I have to do for the show. Once I hear the cue for house lights and music, all I am waiting for is to hear his vocal. That is the start of my race! After that, I can sit back and get comfortable. I sometimes walk away from the console and go into the crowd to make sure everyone is hearing close to what I’m hearing at FOH. That’s when I’m at my happiest because you can just see the joy on peoples’ faces. I am so blessed to have the opportunity to be even a tiny part of their happiness.
A$AP’s energy on stage goes from rapping to singing to sometimes screaming! How do you keep the vocals under control during the show?
All of our show vocals run through basically the same chain, while Rocky’s are a little different with the added outboard gear. For Rocky, the channel first goes to Insert-A which is MultiRack, where I first have R-Channel. Here I am doing EQ, high-passing and light gating. I love the way the gate sounds; it’s so natural that you can’t really hear it open or close. I use this especially when Rocky is on the B-Stage in front of the PA. It gives me a little more gain before feedback.
After the R-Channel is the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ with the visual RTA, which takes care of all the dynamic vocal changes. Rocky can go from talking to the crowd into rapping a song, singing a ballad and then screaming at the top of his lungs! All of those dynamic changes, plus sometimes cupping the microphone, would lead me to chase EQ all night long. Having F6 lets me shape his voice for all of those variables.
I use the a lot. One of the last places you will find it is on my ‘All Music’ sub-group. This is where I sidechain my ‘All Vocal’ sub-group and use the external source to carve space within the music. My thought process on mixing vocals is that you shouldn’t just use amplitude to put them on top of the music, but create the space for them with subtractive dynamic eq. In my opinion, the key to a massive wall of sound is using every frequency that we can hear.
Lastly, there are a few other plugins being used for very specific technical tasks and taste. On my record bus, I have the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor and the L3 Multimaximizer. The SSL Comp has always been my go-to on outputs including IEMs, so I added it to my record bus to get it punchy and warm. I am not doing much reduction because the L3 follows it to get the mix louder! On my d&b E8 near-field monitors, I have the Q10 Equalizer for correction and to flatten them out.
The song ‘A$AP Forever’ has a distinct slap-back delay/echo on A$AP Rocky’s vocals, how are you achieving this effect live?
I tend to throw a decent amount of delays. One delay to match the record, and another to have a little fun and keep the crowd on their toes. I am also using H-Delay, and it’s been my go-to. I can have multiples of them set up for 1/4 and 1/8 notes and just tap the host tempo and all of my delays are in time.
On the same song, A$AP Rocky performs on large industrial barrel drums, how do you mix those in?
For this transition, we actually go from our playback rig supplying the audio to another computer that just has the 2-track. We then have the barrel drums which have triggers attached, triggering a drum sample. Since I don’t have control over the blend of the sample and record, we mixed it down in the computer and then I use the F6 to carve out more space for the drums. The best part is at the end when he bangs on the drums really quickly, I just watch the crowd gasp for air because of the low-end frequencies. It’s definitely a sight to see.
How might you work in a live setting with an artist that doesn’t speak audio terminology, or know exactly what they want in their monitors?
This is always a tricky situation that I have been in plenty of times, but I love dealing with it because each time is different. You almost have to simplify it down to easy suggestions and questions. Once you start adding all the extra techy terminology you can just see their eyes glaze over. I tend to start by asking; do you want your mix to sound like the record? That is a perfect reference for them since the record is their baby, and they should know what it sounds like. Then I ask, do you want reverb, which most of the time is yes. After that, I pretty much mix it how I want until they ask for more or less of something. Most times it is a full FOH mix in the ears, with the vocal and background vocals ahead of the music. At the end of the day it is their show, so for FOH and monitors, the artist should get what they want.
For those that are just getting started with their career in live production, what advice would you give as far as networking and building relationships city-to-city/gig-to-gig?
I think in today’s world networking is super easy, but you have to do it properly. With social media, you are literally one or two connections away from knowing someone, so you have to treat everyone you meet with respect. For myself, I go out of my way to say thank you to everyone that was involved with our show. If you stay busy enough, you will most likely run into that person again and you never know how they could help you in the future. That is one of the major keys to my success.
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