David Bowie Gets Real with PM1D
As an integral part of the presentation process, his house sound engineer Pete Keppler is using a JBL VerTec PA system supplied by Liverpool based Adlib Audio, with Yamaha digital desks from Firehouse Productions in New York.
“I first mixed live for David when I engineered the Tribeca Film Festival, a live event that was organised to get people in New York going again after the tragedy of 9/11. The festival gear was predetermined and for the first time I was presented with a Yamaha PM1D – and yes, I did have a few reservations. Just one centre section for all the EQ etc, seemed at first limited, especially when you’re used to desks like the Midas with hundreds of separate controls.”
Eighteen months later Keppler is now a firm adherent of Yamaha’s flagship digital desk. “After that first show for the Tribeca event - well in fact considering I only had a very short sound check due to some wiring problems on stage – I knew by the end of the first song that I was very comfortable with the desk. It’s also bomb proof; I got an instant ‘solid’ feeling about the desk. It’s responsive in every area, the EQ especially; you barely have to move the knob to get an audible response. Now I find the central control aspect very easy to work. The desk is great, it’s very forgiving, if you’ve miss-plugged, or even pull something out when it’s running, the screen will tell you what you’ve done and let you know if there’s a problem. They’ve done tests where they’ve poured liquids all over the control surface, and since the audio processing happens elsewhere, the console will continue to run. It’s the most reliable digital desk around; you can’t pour water on an analogue desk and expect to get away with it.”
On the actual mixing side Keppler is equally enthusiastic, “From the outset I found the desk very intuitive. To start with I used no presets at all. When I actually started touring with David I hadn’t had any production rehearsals, and therefore had no chance to create scene presets, but mixing on-the-fly with the desk came very easily.”
Keppler utilises mostly on-board effects and dynamic facilities, but still has his favourite devices off board, “the effects on the desk are excellent, and they’re getting better all the time. David’s vocal reverbs are coming from two TC Electronics 3000’s, but the Yamaha effects are great for percussion. For example there is a snare effect from the “Low” album; in 1977 it was done with an Eventide 910 to make the snare sound drop off quite abruptly. I can recreate that in the desk really easily. I also do all the usual things, delays, and doubling on board; but I do use a BSS DPR901 MkII dynamic EQ on David’s voice, and a Tube Tech CL-1A limiter.”
For maximum fidelity in a live environment Keppler runs David’s vocal channel at Line level from the stage through a Focusrite Red 1. “If I had my choice I’d run all fifty-one inputs like that. Because the PM1D doesn’t colour the signal in any way you can really hear the benefit.” A critical observation, it’s apparent if you watch Bowie closely that he uses his mic technique to profoundly alter his vocal sound, and the audience gets to appreciate this fully because of how Keppler runs his vocals through the PM1D.
In conclusion Keppler returned to what is arguably the biggest reservation any engineer has about switching to the digital route for live sound mixing, “Reliability; if I had to identify one defining characteristic that makes me chose a PM1D over other touring boards it would be reliability.”