Informed Approach: Talking Shop With Front Of House Engineer Ryan O John

Informed Approach: Talking Shop With Front Of House Engineer Ryan O John

Principal product manager/designer for Avid and part of the development team for the VENUE | S6L mix system discusses intuitive workflows, DSP, and more.

I first crossed paths with front of house engineer Ryan O John about six years ago, when he was in town with the Phillip Phillips tour and I happened to be mixing at the venue next door. Since then, we’ve kept in touch as he travels the globe with artists such as Tove Lo, Paul McCartney, Justin Beiber, Jessie J, Robyn Thicke, Cody Simpson, Solange Knowles, and many others.

When he’s not manning the console for some of the biggest pop acts in the world, Ryan also works as a principal product manager and designer for Avid and was instrumental in the design, launch, and continued development of the VENUE | S6L mix system. He recently took time out of a busy touring schedule with Jessie J to chat with me about intuitive workflows, DSP, and more.

Michael Lawrence: This is not your first tour working with Jessie J. Has the experience and familiarity you gained the last time around helped inform your approach this time out?

Ryan O John: It certainly has helped. Her vocal is obviously number one on this gig. She goes from being loud and strong to whispering and light, so managing her dynamics without sounding compressed, and also avoiding insane bleed from the drums and such, can get quite complex. Fortunately, I’ve already had enough shows with her in the past to know what to expect, and also I know all of her parts, so I generally know when she’ll be loud and when she’ll be quiet.

ML: Compressing without sounding compressed always requires a bit of thought. I think I would begin by using some parallel compression – mixing the processed and unprocessed vocal together, to better retain the transients – and adding a few gentler stages of compression in series, so no one compressor is contributing more than a few dB of gain reduction. I’ve been using this process in the studio for years, but as digital consoles continue to advance, it’s gotten easier in the live realm. That’s where I’d start, anyway. What’s your approach to controlling Jessie’s vocal dynamics?

Ryan O John and his pal Sherlock working their magic on the keys.

RoJ: Pretty much exactly that, and some of the compression stages are post fader so I can ride her vocal up and down in the parts I know she’ll be loud or quiet, and the tonal change is managed pre-fader with dynamic EQ (DEQ).

ML: I once asked Dave Rat about DEQ and he said, “It’s a band-aid. It means there’s an issue somewhere else in the signal chain.” And I thought about that a lot, because I do think there is a temptation to slap a DEQ on everything when it’s not always the best tool for the job.

I realized that it’s quite common for many singers to have significant changes in the spectral content of their voices as they move through their dynamic or tonal range, and since the source itself is exhibiting variations in the frequency domain, it therefore makes sense to use a process that is also dynamic in the frequency domain to compensate for those issues. I find the best way to success is to get as far as possible with regular “static” EQ and then use a band or two of DEQ to just grab the trouble spots and pull them back in.

RoJ: There really isn’t any alternate way to clean up proximity effect without a DEQ, or at least a multiband compressor, but even the multicomp can’t be as accurate as the DEQ. A de-esser is a dynamic EQ, and no one seems to have any complaints about using them.

ML: You’re carrying an Avid S6L-32D (mix system) on this tour. I’ve heard several engineers talk about the layout and routing flexibility of that console. Have you come up with any interesting routing or signal processing tricks?

RoJ: I’ve got custom layouts for every song, I’ve got it set so when my acoustic fader hits “-inf” it automatically loads the next layout without the acoustic. I’ve got the color switches under some channels set to turn on and off the insert FX for those channels. When the guitar fader goes above +3 dB, the midrange starts boosting by the number of dB that the fader is up past 3, and the mids in the keys group cut by the same amount. The shout speaker volume is automated based on the mains output. If the mains are loud, the shout volume goes up, if the mains are quiet, shout goes down…It’s simple stuff, but super useful.

ML: When I think about what is the “right” console for a job, one of the things I’m looking for is that the console “comes to me” rather than me having to go to the console. The less time I spend clicking around a console trying to load a scene or find a setting, the more time I can spend paying attention to the artist, which is really what I should be doing.

It sounds like the little bits of automation you’ve set up really allow you to do that, keeping the relevant faders in front of you at all times, and streamlining the process of helping individual channels cut through the mix when needed. I’m always a big fan of creative technology applications to support the artist’s goals.

When dealing with different rooms and different systems, I try to make sure all the system/room related adjustments are being made in the system processors, so the mix doesn’t need to be rebuilt every night. How do you approach an unfamiliar room? How much are you finding the mix change night to night?

RoJ: I do the same; there’s very little I change in the mix from room to room, and ultimately the changes I make are related to how the room affects the source rather than the room affecting my output. Meaning if there’s some slap back that makes my drums messier or bleed louder, I may address that, but I won’t re-EQ any individual channels due to the room resonating. I like to think of the console output as the CD that we tune the PA to, we never re-EQ that reference track, but we do make the system work with it.

ML: That’s a really great way of thinking about it. Are you the system tech for this tour as well?

RoJ: We’re not carrying PA yet, not until the China run, so the system tech is the local PA tech for each festival or show, and then I end up being secondary.

ML: You mixed FOH for Tove Lo, one of my favorite pop acts. There’s a lot happening on stage between two different drummers, real drums, electronic drums, sample pads, and a backing track. How did you find room for all of that in the mix?

RoJ: Tove Lo was an incredibly busy show, but the sounds for the sample pads were all so well chosen, and the players were incredible. It came down to picking certain aspects of each sound to accent, so sometimes you might choose to have the attack of a live snare cut through and use the decay of a drum sample. The easiest way to do this in real time is through sidechain compression, so the live snare may be triggering a compressor on the sample pad. Or, if you’re really on it, you can trigger just a multiband on the sample, so the upper midrange of the attack from the sample is pulled back, but maybe some of the lows and high end is left in, to give the live snare more oomph.

Fortunately, the track on Tove Lo was quite light, just shakers, tambourines, and some key parts that had crazy sidechaining in them that would have been impossible to recreate live without some seriously complex routing between live audio and the keyboard itself. (Trust me, we tried hard.)

One of the more complicated things with the two drummers was making each kit sound unique but still fill out a similar portion of the audio spectrum. The sounds from the stage were unique, one kick was a 20-inch, one was a 22-inch so the tone and note were quite different, giving them a similar punch. Making it so that the audience could feel them both the same required some manipulation plugins like Avid Pro Subharmonic allowed me to get the same amount of 40 Hz and 60 Hz out of both kicks, and both kicks were routed to a single kick group so that they could be compressed together, so that if ever they hit both at the same time, they would be reined in.

It was the same for the snares – all four inputs were routed to a group so that overall they have the same kind of punch, and a single compressor can pull them together. The keys were incredibly well arranged with great sounds, so I didn’t have to do much there, and her vocal was fantastic – I just littered it with vocal FX, and she also had control of some of her own FX via a TC (Electronic) pedal.

ML: Thanks for your time. I encourage everyone to catch up with Ryan at ryanojohn.com.

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