PHIL GORNELL: It’ll never be loud enough

Bring Me The Horizon’s FOH engineer/tour manager and Audio Pro International Rising Star Phil Gornell has joined API‘s list of contributors.

Gornell – currently on the Vans Warped Tour with the UK metal band – begins by describing how meeting his audience’s expectations while staying in the noise police’s good books is a recurring challenge…

A few weeks back there was a one-hour Zane Lowe special on BBC Radio 1 about ‘The Loudness Wars’, and I was lucky enough to be interviewed for it.

He spoke to a bunch of bands and DJs, but only briefly focused on the live sound aspect of it, and despite it being so great that our world is being talked about and debated on prime time national radio, I just wanted it to go way deeper. After the show, I had a few tweets and messages, but most notably a call from my Dad. He was really interested and wanted to know how it affected me in the live sound world.

Any touring live engineers out there must be really excited right now, because its summer, and that means one thing – festival season. This time of year is when us FOH guys need to be at the top of our game, but also when we grow and learn the most.

I mix a band which is usually on the main stage at the major festivals at about 4pm. It’s a tough slot for anyone. You have an excitingly large PA, a daunting crowd tens of thousands strong in number, and you have some of the world’s biggest bands on soon after you, hand-in-hand with some of the best mix engineers. To make things even better, noise police are staring over your shoulder because you’re the last guy he has the balls to ask to turn it down.

Surprisingly enough, for me, these situations are when I produce my best mixes. I have to think. I have to listen. I can’t just get it rocking in my headphones and turn it up. I have to put myself in the ears of the shirtless drunk guys fist pumping in front of me. I need to be on the front row, next to the screaming girls that have been there since 10am. My band has to sound better than the band on before, and ideally better than the band on afterwards. I need to win over the people that don’t know the band, and are just there for the ride. And I need to do all this at 98dB.

And this is where the whole loudness issue comes into play. I need to create some ‘perceived’ loudness. Transients have to smash through the PA but remain controlled. If my bass isn’t tight, constant and full, then I’ll never keep the crowd’s attention for 45 minutes. And this next one, I’m sure every engineer has experienced at some point – if the vocals aren’t loud enough, someone in the crowd will have no issues in telling me to "turn em up".

I’ll get the balance wrong from time to time – the bass will mask the kick too much, but I can’t turn the kick up because I’ll go over 98dB; the guitars will hide the crack of the snare, but I can’t turn the snare up as ill get a firm stare from the noise police, so I have to turn other things down, or carve some more space with EQ, and that’s when loudness really becomes a war. It’s a war with myself, I have to turn it down to get it perceivably louder.

The past couple of years I’ve actually spent most of my time in the studio, not out on tour. It’s really helped me understand dynamics and creating space in my mix to maximise what’s coming out of the speakers. Skills which translate fluently into the live sound domain.

I wish there was a conclusion to all of this, or even a point to what I’m writing, but there isn’t. However, it’s a debate which is really popular at the moment in our world, so lets talk about it.

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