Having been conspicuous only by their general low profile since the tour to promote their second, eponymously-titled, album in 1997, the avant-garde Portishead have finally hit the road again to support their third major recording… appropriately titled Third.
The band’s experimental style of music is inevitably reflected in their innovative use of equipment and the current tour features an interesting mix of Yamaha equipment at front of house - a cutting-edge DME64N digital mix engine and PM5D mixing console interfacing seamlessly with a 20 year old DMP7, the eight channel digital mixer which was Yamaha’s very first entry into digital audio mixing.
In music technology terms, 20 years is positively vintage! So it speaks volumes for the quality and reliability of the DMP7 that it has found a home at the heart of the touring rig of this most progressive band.
Used to sub-mix Clive Deamer’s drums, the DMP7’s digital audio technology was ahead of its time, but inevitably can’t provide a 21st century sound - but this is the very attribute which is key to its appeal for Portishead.
“I was a little dubious about using the DMP7 to start with, but it really works,” says the band’s front of house engineer Rik Dowding.
“They don’t want a crystal clear sound for the drums, they want it slightly crunchy. A highly produced sound just doesn’t work for their material. So we have all the drum feeds coming into the PM5D normally, then they’re fed directly out to the DMP where they are mixed to a stereo pair and fed back to the console. So we only actually alter the left and right balance of the drum kit from FoH.”
Another key - indeed unique - feature of the Portishead touring rig is the separate vocal PA system for lead singer Beth Gibbons, which is routed through the PM5D in a very innovative way. Gibbons has a very quiet singing style and so, to ensure that her voice isn’t drowned by the power of the band, d&b Cue series are flown left and right with front fills, while the main band system uses d&b C4 cabinets.
“The music is a very powerful driving force, so getting Beth’s delicate vocal clearly over the band in a live situation is difficult,” says Rik. “Having the separate systems works really well, to be honest it was the only way to go.”
Designed in conjunction with well-known monitor engineer Eddie Mulrainey, this is the first time that Dowding has used a setup of two separate systems on tour, but he’s very pleased with how it’s working.
“On tour it’s harder work putting up two separate systems, but the outcome is definitely worth the effort and the band are very happy with it this way,” he says.
Independent mixing for the band and vocal systems is achieved in a highly innovative way, meaning that the PM5D’s A and B stereo faders can control the overall levels of the band and vocals independently.
“First of all, every song is on recall, all the effects, level, EQ and dynamics changes are recorded as scenes,” says system tech Rob Collett. “The band mix is routed through to the stereo master out , but Rik wanted a separate stereo fader for Beth’s vocals
“You can’t route separate mixes to the Master A and B fader on the PM5D, as one is just a copy of the other. So we have an AES card which is outputting a stereo submix of the band and a stereo vocal mix from the PM5D to the DME64N. The stereo vocal mix is then routed from the DME to the stereo effects return of the Master B fader on the PM5D, which effectively ‘blocks’ the band input signals, meaning the stereo band mix is now on Master A and the stereo vocals on Master B.
“Both stereo mixes are then routed to the separate PAs via the DME, making the system very intuitive to use.”
In practise, this allows Rik Dowding to do the multi-channel band mix, while Rob brings the vocal levels up and down as required. “It’s the only way we could run two masters totally independently, with totally different mixes on each,” Rob adds. “It’s total system control and it works very well.
“As well as its routing flexibility, the beauty of the DME that is its got everything you could possibly want. At the moment I’m using a six band parametric EQ on every output, a 31 band graphic and a delay, because that’s all I’m needing, but there is so much there.”
He continues: “In addition, it allows me to use a wireless tablet to EQ the system, walking round the venue without having to keep running back to the rack or get messages to someone at the rack to make the adjustments. There is a little latency in it but you get used to that very quickly.”
Portishead’s unusual combination of Yamaha’s oldest and latest digital audio technology evidently works very well, not least because the new and the old are able to communicate seamlessly with each other.
“Clive uses four different snare drums throughout the set, physically changing them over, and each is EQ’d differently,” says Rob. “But when you change the scene on the PM5D it changes the settings on the DMP7 via MIDI, so it’s seamless.
“The combination of the PM5D and DME64N is ideal for this. Once set up, it’s easy to use and it sounds good. What more could you need?”