The past 12 months have seen the Manic Street Preachers stage their live comeback as Oasis' support at Maine Road, score a double Brit Awards success and win the Live! Tour of the Year award. Their spring tour, lit by Brian Leitch and mixed by Rob Allen, was a vibrant celebration of a heady year. Louise Stickland describes the visuals and Mike Lethby put his ear to the mix.
Libraries gave us power / Then work came and made us free / What price
now for a shallow piece of dignity? [A Design For Life — music James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore; lyrics Nicky Wire]. Images of contrasts...of consumer culture, aristocracy, rioting, nuclear families, indifference, social cleansing, vapid moralities, the haves and have-nots, power and impotence, wake up and see the living hypocrisy...that's the emotional, high-impact opening video sequence to the Manic Street Preachers' show. And all that before an eloquent syllable has been uttered from the lips of James Dean Bradfield.
There's a calculated risk, of course, in starting a show with such a high 'wow' factor - that the rest of it will keep pace. But no worry with the Manic Street Preachers. More solid and confident than ever, they zipped through their punky, acerbic sentiments, delivering each song intensity and energy. Apart from their talents as musicians and live performers, the Manics still have a manifesto as well as an act. Their politics and social awareness are genuine, heartfelt and presented with conviction. They have the sincerity and intelligence to carry it off without sounding pompous and like all sussed propagandists, they realise the importance of two things relevant to the 20th century.
Firstly, the potency of moving image in making a point; and secondly, the art of presenting enough to a young audience that wets their appetites without ramming it down their throats. And then, politics aside, the Manics are a brilliant band anyway.
This was an excellent example of the dual versatility of integrating video into a show - to bring clarity to ideas as well as utilising the medium as a bright and realistic source of environmental effects projection (such as flames and clouds), That, coupled with Bryan Leitch's thoughtful and dynamic use of Vari*Lites and wrapped in Rob Allen's warm, crystal-clear sound, turned the tour into an experience.
Everything Must Go: Visuals
Lighting designer Bryan Leitch has worked with the Manics for six and a half years, For each tour, he says, they made a conscious decision to destroy the visuals that had existed before and come up with a totally new look - 'freed from the memory, escape from our history...everything must go' [Everything Must Go].
At the outset of this tour, the band felt that video would be instrumental to their show and messages, giving Bryan the opportunity of visual collaboration with this medium. This excited him; unlike some IDs, he says, he doesn't feel threatened by video. Another pre-requisite of the stage set design was that it should look "clean and theatrical", with all metal draped off. Thus a large upstage projection screen and three white pillars each side brought a stark movie-style tonality to the proceedings.
Bryan ran the show from an Avolites Sapphire, looked after and diligently programmed by Ewan McRobb. His rig was all technology apart from four strings of ACLs - but even they had Rainbow colour changers. 32 VL5s, 18 VL6s, four Golden Scan HPEs and three CCT Profiles gave him plenty of variety and options. Much of the time, fixture movement was subtle and reserved, loving the flashy, chaotic moments even more unnerving glory. Colours ran the full spectrum from the richest primaries to the most sensitive pastels and the pillars provided an elegant gobo projection surface. The hack screen was also utilised for this, when free from video action.
A lot of care was taken to eliminate all but the most necessary down-lighting for songs containing video. During No Surface All Feeling, as flames licked away at the back screen, VL6s chased orange gobos up and down the pillars in slow motion. Very sexy!
Video, from PSL, was controlled by Jason Hogg from side of stage. The set-up comprised two Betacam SP video machines controlled via a Panasonic Composite mixer, Two Barco 8000 projectors, doubled up for brightness, were under-hung from the front of the box truss. The song Faster presented Julian with the challenge of having to learn the words intimately and punch the lyrics on to the screen via a PC - in turn linked to a Mediator which converted the computer graphics into a video signal for the Barco. As the song was sung slightly differently each night, this would have been a task impossible to achieve by pre-recording.
And so to the sound - best described as loud, assertive luxury. Loud it undoubtedly was, but Rob Allen exploits the space and dynamics in the band's music to create a mix that sums up that hoary phrase 'in your face', but with a clarity that gives Bradfield's vocal crisp definition and headroom over the band.
Since the Manics had played support dates with Oasis in 1996, it was decided to return to Britannia Row to maintain 'sound continuity'. FOH engineer Rob Allen has worked with the Manics for six years (he says he originally got the gig when working as house engineer in a club and was the first person ever to tell them to turn up onstage) - and the trend of working loud onstage has remained
with the band.
A Fashlight/ Floodlight combination was augmented with Floods for infills and balconies although, Allen points out, no gig on the tour was the same as the venues varied greatly.
"I've four different sets of EQ and control, so can be running eight mono mixes or any combination of stereo and mono mixes, all controlled by Turbosound controllers and three Klark Technik graphics." The Albert Hall show used a single large central cluster, mixed In mono, plus side hangs, in-fills, "and as much sub as we can fit in."
The FOH desk was an Amek Recall by Langley console, supplemented by outboard processors for lead vocal and acoustic guitar. "I love the sound of valve compressors, so I'm using dbx 160s and a Summit tube compressor, and Neve 9098 EQs in line on the main vocals. The routing is: it comes into a Neve's mic preamp and EQ then a touch of Summit compression and finally to the line in on the channels. But James Dean Bradfield has an amazingly strong voice, so I just kind of keep out of the way really."
"And of course it's very loud on stage; I've got six guitar amps running and it's all wedges and sidefills for monitoring. But fortunately the sounds coming off stage are really, really good. It's not like I have to fight against them; I just have to incorporate them, really. And I have been - though not so much on this tour - experimenting with delaying the PA to the backline, so the PA was time-aligned to the backline.
"I can't make my mind up I like it or not; I do sometimes, but I'm not doing it today. "Ian. the monitor engineer, is fantastic, so there's no messy sounds coming off Stage: it all sounds nice. In the past I've struggled with Other monitor engineers where there's been woof-y noises or rumbly stuff coming off the stage; here it's not a problem, "
Allen On Automation
Rob Allen explains how he's exploring the Recall's automation facilities, "I'm using it initially to provide glorified mute groups and effects controls, I've quite a lot of effects cues, and quite often I need to simultaneously mute something, turn on a send somewhere else and change an effects unit; which obviously I can't do. But with the Langley I can hit one button and all of these things happen virtually instantaneously.
"So that's my idea of automation right now: to make the cues really crisp, so I'm not gradually bringing in effects, they're all hitting hard on the cues. For the few moments where
the effects are really powerfully involved, it's important that they don't build up but come crashing in - there's a song called No Surface All Feeling, mere my instruction from James is to make the guitar outro sound so horrible and nasty that all the audience turns round to see what on earth I'm doing with it. It involves putting as much of the mix as I can get into an Eventide 3000 on a really nasty flange program, and just kind of messing up the whole mix. Also, at that point, I'm putting a delay onto the guitar. taking it off the vocal plus another cue; the Langley makes it much easier So rather than trying to hit all these effects buttons at the same time, it's great to be able to hit one cue button and it all happens.
"It is handy to have the dynamics available on every channel because you can gate backing vocals or noisy guitar channels. There's six old guitar amps on James's side of the stage and they all buzz and rattle a bit, so it's handy to he able to gate them so they're only open when they're actually being driven."
As to Manic microphones. Allen Opts for a Shure/Sennheiser combination: Beta 52 for the kick drum, sounds absolutely stunning; 57s on the snare; 414s for the hat, ride and overheads: Sennheiser clip-ons for the toms; 58s for the vocal mics (we were trying out Beta 58A, comparing them with the normal 58s: they sounded good, but I'm kind of sold on straight-ahead 58s).
The only thing is, we have to change them twice on the set because James sings so loud and close up and he fills them with sweat. Normal SM5Js on the guitars"
He touched on the difference between the 5B and the 58As: "We had a brief go at them today. The 58A seemed to have a little bit more gain, and a little more 500Hz in particular. That scared us off a little bit because James has a lot of 600Hz and 800Hz in his voice...but I would have thought that with maybe say, a woman singer with a bud rock band, they would be great with that extra
His remit is to stay close to the album sound: "I sit and talk through the songs with James. and he was very involved with The production Of the album and the live sound. He'd go: 'We got This effect in the studio by pulling a wet tablecloth over the drums...' [laughs] so we had to sit and work out a compromise, like I'd say we can't do this but we can get close to it by doing this."
A very fine job for a fine live band.