With a CV that spans over 30 years in the industry, Sound Engineer Steve McGuire has an extensive client list. He describes the range of artists and clients that he has worked with as “eclectic”, including….
“AOR Rock with The Wallflowers, to R&B with Joss Stone, to Latin Pop with Paulina Rubio. Progressive Jazz with Billy Cobham, to Metal with Prong, to Girl Pop- Punk with the Go-Go’s, to “Boy Band” pop with Big Time Rush, to Motown with the Funk Brothers, not to mention 3 Presidents of the United States.” – Steve McGuire.
Most recently, Steve has been working with British rock band The Cult. We caught up with him at this year’s Pistoia Blues Festival, to gain some insight into life on the road with a band that Steve describes as a “Good Old Rock and Roll Band”.
LightSoundJournal: How did you start working with The Cult?
Steve McGuire: I started with the Cult when I received a call from their Manager, Tom Viterino, who asked me if I could come onboard as FOH mixer. I started with the band on the Guns N’ Roses Stadium shows, for which they were supporting. My first show with them was at the Georgia Dome, where the Atlanta Falcons football team plays, just last summer. I did the Guns N’ Roses run with the band, before doing a North American run in the fall. We then went on to Australia and New Zealand last November, before moving back to Continental Unites States in May of this year. We then started the European gigs at the beginning of the summer.
LightSoundJournal: Are you touring with half production for the tour?
Steve McGuire: In the US we carried FOH console, monitor console, wedges for Billy, microphones and a UAD Rack and Mac Mini with Pro Tools for recording. Last year, whilst in the US, I was using the Avid S6L for the run, and this year I am using an Avid Profile. I record wtih FWx every day, and today, for example, I used yesterday’s soundcheck to get me started for the mix. I use the UAD Apollo 16 as 16 hardwire inserts into the desk. For bass DI, I use a Neve 1081 EQ, with a Fairchild 670 compressor. So, in terms of signal path, we have DI into Stagebox, Stagebox to FOH Rack, analogue insert FOH rack Out, to UAD back In and then Out. For lead Vocal, I again use the Neve 1081 EQ, into the Teletronix LA-2A Gray, which gives a beautiful rock and roll sound.
LightSoundJournal: What specifics do you need within your Sound system in order for it to be able to produce your “sound”?
Steve McGuire: The sound system needs to be capable of producing 110dB full range at mix position. If I can get 110dB then that means I can mix well at 104/105dB. This is a LOUD band. To start with, I complete the same process that I’ve been doing every day for over 40 years. I put up my MacBook, load up Smaart, I put pink noise through the PA and I see what’s happening in the room. Before I change anything, I put through “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits, which I’ve been using for around 30 years for indoor shows. For outdoor shows I’ve actually been using David Bowie’s “Blackstar”. The reason for this is that I went on tour with Tony Visconti a couple of years ago and was using Holy Holy, so I know the comparisons to make in the sound qualities. It doesn’t matter how it “sounds” with pink noise or the music, what matter’s is that it sounds good with the band. The pink noise and the PA tuning songs are simply tools that I use to work out what the PA is doing, which means I can be really fast once I get the band going.
LightSoundJournal: A few minutes ago, I heard you asking for more punch, can you tell us what you’re looking for here?
Steve McGuire: It’s all about the mid-bass. In my opinion the frequencies between 100Hz and 180Hz were sounding a bit sloppy during sound check. But what I’ll do is wait until there are people in here and the sun comes down, because what usually happens then is that the mid-bass starts to come out when the temperature drops. Realistically, on a festival gig, there’s not really much you can about it. You can tweak a couple of things here and there, but for the most part you’ve got to rock and roll with what’s there, especially working with a band that doesn’t really do sound checks. So first song up, you’ve just got to see what you can do. Before I even turned on the PA today I had Pro Tools running into my headphones so that I could run through and check all of my gain structures, to get a proper starting point, and worked forward from there.
LightSoundJournal: So without this real world sound check, what’s your focus in the first few songs?
Steve McGuire: The show has been starting with Wildflower at the beginning, so so it starts out with Billy playing guitar. This means that my focus at the very beginning is centred on this. When the drums kick in, with the rest of the band, it’s a good medium tempo song, meaning there’s airspace in the arrangement allowing me to tweak the balance between instruments. Then, as soon as Ian starts singing, the focus moves on to his vocal, keeping the level of the kick and snare correct in the background.
LightSoundJournal: Tell us a little more about your approach to the mixer. You are using a digital mixer, but we’ve noticed that you seem to have an analogue approach to your mixing.
Steve McGuire: Absolutely. In fact the night before last we played at Z7 in Switzerland, and I mixed on a Midas H2000. What I noticed is that I really do operate digital desks as if they’re analogue desks, using the digital technology mainly for memory and recall and for the flexibility of signal routing. I work totally on the fly in terms of blending the levels and the tones of each instrument. There’s a couple of special things that I do on a couple of songs, for example spreading the lead guitar using a harmoniser and some reverb. Billy uses two amplifiers, two 4×12 cabs, which I mic with two Heil PR31s, one on-axis and one off-axis. The on-axis I have hard panned to Billy’s side of the stage, and then the off-axis I pan to the opposite side. The other guitar player has an Orange with one 4×12 cab, which I also mic with two microphones, again with the on-axis panned to his side of the stage and the off-axis panned to the opposite. On the digital desks, I delay the off-axis mics by 12ms, so there’s 12ms of spread giving a nice full sound. Then there’s a Vox AC30 up there, which I have panned to the middle and only engage for the leads. It’s cleaner than the marshals, and when you blend it, it seems to add clarity and punch to what’s being played. You get the attack of the AC30, with the marshall working around it.
LightSoundJournal: You mentioned some microphone techniques just now. Can you tell us some more about how you use phase in your technique?
Steve McGuire: For me, phase is far more important than EQ, Reverb, anything. If you have everything in phase then you find you have to EQ a lot less. If you have good phasing and proper proximity on the right instruments with the right mics, you can use high-pass and low-pass to cut a little here and there and you’re done, which sounds really natural. The way I figure out phase is to record using Pro Tools with FWx, and track their soundcheck. I then use a plugin in Pro Tools called Radix Auto-Align. This tells me exactly how many samples I need to adjust by within the desk. Then again, the other day when I was on the H2000 and it was all analogue, it is what it is, you’ve just have to use proper mic-ing technique, maybe throw the overheads out of phase just so that they interact with the lead vocal a little better, that kind of thing.
LightSoundJournal:: Talking about the delay, when you insert latency on the digital desk, what tricks do you use?
Steve McGuire: The fastest and easiest way to work it out on the Avid desk is to head to the input page, or the plugin page, and simply right-click in that area to see the combined processing time of all the plugins in that channel. What I do is to use the digital desk like an analogue desk, in that I route everything through groups before it goes out. All the groups get basically the same dynamic processor, with the UA LA3A across all my busses. That way, everything ends up with the same amount of latency. If there’s any deviation, like if i’m doing something crazy with the Bass DI, then I’m still using the UAD. So here for example, it’s analogue insert Out, into the Apollo 16, where it hits the Neve 1081, then the Fairchild 670, and then back In. That’s 112 samples of latency, meaning that I have to delay the bass mic 112 samples, so that it lines up with it when it hits the group.
LightSoundJournal: Finally, what are your best and worst elements of touring life?
Steve McGuire: The best thing about touring is the lifestyle, which really has to be approached with a certain state of mind. You’re meeting new people every day, exploring new places… but it’s very easy to look at this the other way, to tell yourself that you “hate getting on the bus, you hate the airports etc”. What helps me is thinking about my past. When I was 16 years old I worked in a commercial chlorine factory, making chemicals for swimming pools. I worked there for just one day, and it was horrible. Whenever i’m feeling frustrated with a PA, or annoyed that we don’t have enough time to prepare, or not getting on with the crew, or just feeling bad, I think back to that one day and compare. Suddenly you realise how great you have it. It’s a great life, and there’s tonnes of people out there that want to be doing what you’re doing. I’m incredibly grateful for getting to mix such a great rock and roll band. Ian gives me the same thing every night, complete professionalism with plenty of signal. Johnny is a killer drummer and Billy is a guitar god. Damon and Grant are rock-solid and have endless creativity. Everything is live with no pre-recorded backing or anything like that, it’s just good old school rock and roll, and there’s not that many bands that are doing that any more. Because of all this, I treasure every opportunity I have to mix with them.
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