Profiling The System & Audio Team For The Latest Nine Inch Nails Concert Tour

One of the technological advances on display, besides a stage-width, triple layered interactive LED video screen, was L-Acoustics new K1 line array.

By Julian Mainprize for Live Sound on January 13, 2009

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has long been known for his penchant for cutting edge technology and pristine production values. While manifestations of this tendency have been apparent since the band’s early studio recordings, over the years they have noticeably transcended into NIN’s live shows, most recently for the “Lights In The Sky” concert tour.

One of the technological advances on display, besides a stage-width, triple layered interactive LED video screen, was L-Acoustics new K1 line array. The system has been touring with various acts since its maiden voyage earlier in 2008, on Radiohead’s summer tour, as part of a testing process that L-Acoustics is doing with Firehouse Productions (owned by Bryan Olson) out of New York to demo the rig under real world operating conditions.

The L-Acoustics K1 and Kudo rig being used for the NIN tour is comprised of 12 K1s (14 for larger venues and 10 for smaller) with an accompanying 8 K1SBs flown per side. In addition, 6 SB28s sit at each corner on the floor in front of the stage with an extra pair on each side of downstage center.

The SB28s have DV-Doscs seated on top for front fill. Although there was initially talk of a proper cluster for center fill, it was scrapped due to a lack of appropriately located truss. Firehouse Productions has also provided 18 Kudos loudspeakers for 9-a-side flown side-fill to pick up where the horizontal angle of the K1 array stops.

The K1/Kudo system is designed for stadium-type venues, with the existing Kudo as a flexible compliment to the main line array. One of the main goals behind the K1 design was to reduce the number of acoustic sources needed in the line array. In terms of raw horsepower, a single K1 box produces 3 dB (SPL) more than an L-Acoustics’ V-DOSC.

The K1 features an extra HF driver (three in all) and the mid-range drivers are now flush mounted and no longer fire into one another as part of the wave guide. The K1SB features two 15-inch drivers and was designed to be flown beside the K1 array. It has an increased LF throw capacity over the existing SB28 and has relegated the SB28’s role to reproducing strictly infra bass material.

Before the new rig went out on tour, L-Acoustics’ Florent Bernard came out to spend some time going over the K1/KUDO system with the NIN audio crew. It was made clear from the beginning that one of the things L-Acoustics wanted was to receive frequent updates from real-world users.

One of the crew members instrumental in implementing this is System Tech Jamie Pollock. “We’ve been experimenting and giving them the feedback they’re looking for. All the presets are locked right now so they want to know what they need to adjust,” noted Pollock, referring to the ‘plug-and-play’ philosophy of the LA8 amplifiers associated with the new system.

The results of the K1 design had Front-Of-House Engineer Pete Keppler raving from day one: “It has one again raised the bar. V-DOSC was pretty much the industry standard for a really amazing sounding PA system. This is just taking it up a notch.”

Some of the more practical design features of the K1/KUDO system have also been receiving accolades from the audio crew. The rigging improvements have also improved on what was is used to fly a V-DOSC array.

While V-DOSC rlies on cumbersome ratchet angle-straps, the K1 uses a pin system that allows all box angles to be set while the array is sitting flat. As the array lifts, the boxes lock into place. The NIN crew boasts they can get one side of the line array up in about 10 minutes.

With the rig flown, Pollock and Keppler do their daily system tweaking. Part the process includes playing back recorded concert audio and walking around the venue. They compare what they are hearing with a Smaart Live display and make the necessary adjustments with Dolby Lake processing.

Although the LA8 amplifiers used for the main rig do feature extensive DSP control via the LA network manager, Pollock prefers to use Dolby Lake for the job: “It has the whole tablet control that I’m used to using and the hippest interface out there right now.” Pollock does use the LA8 network manger to remotely control the basic functions of the amps located under the main stage.

Monitor Engineer Mike Prowda’s pre-show routine includes the increasingly difficult search for RF space for his in-ear system. He uses a palm pilot scanner to find what he needs. If he can’t find appropriate frequencies in the G2 presets, he resorts to Sennheiser’s SIFM inter-mod calculator software.

One issue Prowda discovered his scanner can’t help him with is the seemingly random interference caused by the giant on-stage LED video screens. The keyboard player’s mix has posed the biggest RF issue as he stands closest to the video wall and furthest from the main RF transmitting antenna.

Although Prowda’s addition of an extra antenna stage-right has improved the interference issue, it still exists. To help keep an eye on this and other potential RF problems, Prowda uses Sennheiser’s Net1 system to visually monitor all his radios.

One of the only pieces of outboard audio gear used on the entire “Lights In The Sky” tour is the Apex Dominator II. Prowda uses these for final brick wall limiting before his monitor mixes hit the RF transmitters. “It’s a true radio station device. They use them in radio stations to fully modulate. I’ve got the threshold cranked up on the things because I’m driving my board like you would master something. What’s coming from the board is tickling the Dominators. If I turned those Dominators off, all those radios would be in the red. It also kind of finishes the mix.”

The on-stage layout is pretty bereft of wedges, the only ones being for the keyboardist and drummer. What’s in the keyboardist’s wedge mirrors his in-ear mix is, and the drummer gets a pre-determined mix with just acoustic and electronic drums coming out of a wedge and a DVsub. There are also L-Acoustic DVsubs at each side of the stage firing in at the guitar and bass players, just to round out their in-ear mixes with what Prowda calls ‘a little thump.’

This is not the first tour that has witnessed the audio tandem of Keppler and Prowda. They worked together for several years with David Bowie before Trent Reznor came knocking. Reznor, a long-time Bowie fan, had heard the duo’s work at a Bowie show and was convinced these were the sound guys he wanted.

Although Prowda had previously worked indirectly with the band on the 1995 “Dissonance” NIN/Bowie tour, his tenure with NIN started in at the beginning of the With Teeth album in 2005. Keppler came on board in April of 2006.

For the current tour, Prowda was brought into the fold relatively early. For a tour that opened in late July 2008, he was already in rehearsals in L.A. in early May. By the time Keppler was on the scene, full production mode had started. Both audio engineers appreciated the long rehearsal period. For Prowda, “It was intense. In a lot of other situations audio is there but we’re kind of transparent. This gig is different.”

It gave Keppler the time to really focus on preparing his mix. “I’d sit myself in an isolated room with my Genelec loudspeakers and really listen to what was truly was coming off the stage as opposed to through a PA system that I’m not as familiar with.” The ability to save mix settings as snapshots during this time proved a godsend for both audio engineers.

The consoles being used at both FOH and monitor positions that give both engineers the flexibility of snapshot pre-sets are the small-footprint Digidesign Profiles. Despite its footprint, the console provides a potential of 96 inputs, 73 of which are being used on this tour.

Prowda has been using Digidesign consoles since the inception of his relationship with NIN when he took an early software version of the Venue on the road for the With Teeth tour. “I definitely needed some kind of technology where I could do snapshots. With the in-ear thing there’s less slop involved. You have to be more exact with the mixes for everybody. The way I was dealing with it before was that every song would be on an index card. I’m a real fan of this console right now. I don’t feel that anybody’s come up with anything I’ve seen that’s really been worth my attention.”

Keppler has over 50 snapshots of EQ, compression, basic effects and level settings stored in his FOH console. This helps get him through a show that he describes as having the potential to become “chaotic” on any given night. But snapshots are not the only benefit of the Profile console for Keppler: “It just sounds good. It’s got more life to it than some of the other digital consoles. I love it. I don’t know what I would do without it at this point.”

A large part of the “chaos” that Keppler describes as inherent in a NIN show comes in this case from the current tour’s Ghosts segment. Ghosts I-IV is a double CD of over 30 instrumental tracks released by Reznor in early 2008.

On tour, this segment, like the recording, features instrumentation that is largely acoustic and includes, amongst other things, a full size marimba, harmonium, glockenspiel, upright bass and various junkyard percussion instruments. This can be a mixing challenge for Keppler in an environment that requires the same SPLs as the rest of the show but is much more inherently conducive to excessive mic bleed.

Add to that the fact that the songs in the section change from night to night and the challenge intensifies. One problem in particular derives from the mic used on the marimba and its ideal sonic placement. The mic is a Royer SF24 stereo ribbon. This type of mic is a seemingly unlikely choice for a tour like this but during rehearsals, Prowda had ribbon mics on the brain after watching a DVD of The Band’s Last Waltz.

He contacted Royer who responded by dropping off two ribbon mics they consider road-rugged: the stereo SF24 and R121. The R121 found a place on the kick drum during rehearsals and although Prowda and Keppler loved the sound, “We kind of chickened out because it’s not a cheap mic to re-ribbon.” Initially, the SF24 sat on a shelf for the same reason until Trent Reznor announced his inclusion of songs from the Ghosts album to the set list. When a 5 ½-octave marimba showed up the SF24 was “un-shelved.”

Although they considered using a transducer system, they tried more conventional live mics and even briefly dealt with a MIDI mallet pad and sampler, in the end the SF24 just sounded too good to pass up.

Other microphones on stage for the tour come from Shure, Sennheiser and Audio-Technica. Prowda noted that he likes the fact that Reznor uses a SM58 for vocals as it forces him to sing right into the mic, making it very in-ear monitor friendly.

For those who have not heard any NIN recordings, they are very effects driven and can rely on a lot of intricate mix automation and editing. Keppler maintains, however, that he was under no pressure from Reznor to adhere to the mixes on the studio recordings. Keppler nonetheless includes a fair number of effects plug-ins in his own arsenal.

Prowda also uses several plug-ins on his monitor board, but professes to be a lot less “plug-in happy” than he was when he first started using Digidesign consoles. Some of the effects Keppler and Prowda swear by include: Digidesign’s Smack!, SansAmp, Echo Farm and Reel Tape Suite, Sony’s Oxford Reverb, and TubeTech’s CL1 B compressor.

One of Kepleer’s show duties besides putting his stamp on the mix, involves eventually providing Reznor with a multi-track recording of each show. This means that each night two Digedesign TDM systems are running simultaneously: one for recording via Pro Tools and one for the PA mix. Some of Keppler’s tracking recently appeared on the NIN concert DVD release Beside You In Time.

When NIN hit the stage for their show in Hamilton, there was some brief but noticeable concern on the faces of Keppler and System Tech Jamie Pollock that was accompanied by considerable running around with a Dolby Lake controlling PC tablet. The initial problems they were encountering remain a mystery to all but the engineers themselves.

What was noticeable, however, was that once the two engineers settled in, a good sounding show became a gem. The clarity of the mix, and added richness in the low-end coming from the PA was impressive. Granted there was a seasoned expert at the FOH position, but what was emanating from the line array was proof that the world of live sound reinforcement will soon have a powerful new weapon at its disposal.

Nine Inch Nails “Lights In The Sky” Tour Equipment Rider

32 – L-Acoustics K1
16 – L-Acoustics K1-SB
16 – L-Acoustics SB28
18 – L-Acoustics KUDO
18 – L-Acoustics DV-DOSC
2 – Firehouse F-15 Wedges
3 – L-Acoustics DV-SUB
2 – Genelec 1031
2 – L-Acoustics 108P

12 – L-Acoustics LA-RAK with 36 LA8 Amplified Controllers
2 – Crown ITech 6000 Amplifiers
2 – Crown D-75a Amplifiers
2 – L-Acoustics LA48a Amplifiers
2 – Dolby Lake Processors
1 – XTA DP224 Processors
10 – Aphex Dominator II

2 – Digidesign Profile Mixing Surfaces
2 – Digidesign FOH Racks
4 – Digidesign Stage Racks

Wireless IEM, Microphones & Accessories
9 – Channels of Sennheiser G2 In-Ear Monitors
1 – Sennheiser Antenna Combiner
2 – Sennheiser A5000-CP Antenna
1 – Professional Wireless GX8 Antenna Combiner
1 – Professional Wireless Helical Antenna
1 – PSA1031T Thurlby Thandar palm pilot scanner
2 – Sennheiser E902
5 – Sennheiser E904
2 – Sennheiser E905
3 – Sennheiser E906
1 – Sennheiser 602
3 – Shure KSM137
5 – Shure KSM32
2 – Shure Beta52
5 – Shure Beta56
12 – Shure Beta58
1 – Shure Beta91
5 – Shure Beta98
4 – Shure SM57
2 – Shure SM58Switch
2 – Shure SM91
1 – Shure SM98
2 – AudioTechnica AT4041
1 – Royer SF24
12 – Countryman Type 85 DI
4 – Radial J-DI

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