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3OH!3: The Story Behind Our Stage Sound

6/17/2013

 
 [Photo by Pamela Littke]
 
3OH!3 first hit the music scene with their self-titled debut album in 2007; however, they exploded into the mainstream the following year with Want, which included the smash hit  "Don't Trust Me"  and its follow-up,  "Starstrukk (Feat. Katy Perry)." Then came 2010’s Streets of Gold, which debuted in the Billboard Top Ten in its first week of release. Their long-anticipated fourth album, Omens, drops on June 18th. (Check out the album HERE.) Catch 3OH!3 live on the Vans Warped Tour next month—but before you go, be sure to read this web exclusive, in which Nathaniel Motte candidly details his live-production techniques.

I have never subscribed to the doctrine that musical secrets should be kept. Rather, I think that sharing information, tips, and tricks allows for the advancement of music as a whole, enabling us all to create novel sounds and songs. If I can contribute to that advancement in some small way during my career as a musician, I will be a very happy man.

I spend an immense amount of time designing and programming our live show. Writing and producing our songs is only half the work for me; the other half comes when we are gearing up for a tour and I take the time to figure out how we’re going to play our songs live.
 
Sean (Foreman) and I always have our live show in the back of our minds, and when we are creating music together, the live performance of that music is heavily considered. If we feel that a certain section of a song will have trouble carrying live, we’ll try to rework it and rewrite it until we feel it can stand on its own.
 
We started playing live shows in the traditional hip-hop format: a couple of microphones and a backing track. I would walk into a venue with an iPod and a 1/8”-to-stereo phono cable. Later, we started running our tracks off a Pioneer CD-J. As we grew and started playing more and more shows, we began incorporating live instrumentation, until we got where we are today. The task of playing heavily produced tracks live is a tough one. On one hand, you don’t want to lose any of the “punch” of the way your tracks sound on record, and you don’t want your songs to come across sounding thin and underachieved. On the other hand, there is no point in having live instrumentation if your live sound is exactly like your recorded sound. I am always trying to find that fine line between keeping our sound big and heavy and thick, and making our live show just that—live.
 
When I see bands that I like perform live, I like to hear differences from their records. I love it when bands remix their own songs and do things that you don’t hear in their recorded material. Varying sounds just a bit for the live realm–staying within the box of your sound, but changing it just enough to make something novel and interesting–that’s what I love doing. Bands like Nine Inch Nails and Innerpartysystem have done a great job of this, and have provided important frameworks for our own live setup. In the case of Innerpartysystem, they have provided direct counsel and support over the years we have known each other.
 
Over the years, and especially the past couple years, I have worked very closely with our front-of-house and monitor engineers to achieve what we feel is a balance of all these elements.

Here is the skinny on our live setup: We use Shure PSM 1000 wireless monitoring technology (P10T transmitter rack units with P10R beltpacks). We each have our own mixes in our in-ears; we use Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors, ranging from UE-18s to UE-11s.

We still run tracks live. I break these out into stems, which allows for more control at FOH for our engineer, and allows different treatment of the different audio tracks, something that is absolutely essential for a live setting. Although it may not seem evident to fans, we know that the physical layout of a certain room, the configuration of the P.A., the temperature of the air, the humidity, the amount of people in the crowd, and many other dynamic factors change the way in which sound behaves. Thus, we believe a song will sound better in a live room when its different elements have been treated (EQed, compressed, etc.) differently.
 
We have the following stereo (or sometimes mono, based on the input restrictions of venues) stems running from an Ableton Live session on a 17” Apple Macbook Pro laptop onstage:

Kicks

Snares and Claps

Percussion: All percussion and sound FX and transition elements, and all full songs run through here, so we keep it pretty EQ-neutral at FOH. If I include a piece of another song, for which I don’t have the stems in our live show, I put it in this stem. I figure all of the percussion elements in my studio tracks will be EQed accordingly for a live setting, and thus won’t have to be treated too much.

Low Melodic: All bass sounds and low-register elements

High Melodic: All higher-register melodic elements

Vocals: Backing vocals that we use in some songs to layer with our live vocals, to thicken the overall vocal sound.

Our FOH engineer has the task of mixing these stems, and combining them with what is happening live, to attain our live sound. We try to adjust the gain structure in the Ableton session as much as we can, so the engineer doesn’t have to make the same adjustments every night during the same songs. (We do this by gaining song “clips” in Ableton up or down accordingly). I also run the following out of our Ableton session:

Click: Currently everyone onstage takes this except me. Our drummer, Jared Piccone, takes a lot of it.

Cue: A metronome that is only present for important “drops” or transitions. I take this, and not a click, because I don’t like having a constant metronome for the whole show, and would rather just have it when I need it at the beginning of songs, or parts when rhythmic elements are more subtle.

Sidechain Kick: A kick that we split out and send to two different places—to be explained later.

Master Stem: An audio track that is usually the combination of all the stems—this serves as a backup, should one or more of our stems go down during a show.

Radial Tone: We currently use two Radial SW8 auto-switcher units as backup devices. We essentially have two unique and independent Apple Macbook Pro computers running duplicate sessions, triggered at the same time. The Radial SW8 units switch the signal from computer A to computer B, if computer A has a malfunction.

We use MOTU 828mk3 interfaces for our live-show computers. We have found them to be reasonably stable and reliable. We send our outputs out of the MOTUs via optical outputs, and convert those to analog signals with Aphex 141 D to A converters, and from there, go directly to our Radial SW8 units.
 
Again, because we employ Radial SW8 auto-switcher units, we have two duplicate track-running systems (two computers, and thus two MOTU 828mk3 interfaces, duplicate Aphex D to A converters, etc.)
 
Our “fly” package is a bit different. When we are flying to and from shows (rather than taking a tour bus, and thus carrying our whole touring production), we have a slightly stripped-down “tracks” rack. We use two MOTU Ultralite-mk3 Hybrid interfaces, built into a flight case with a Radial SW8 switcher and a smaller, breakout/switcher unit that was custom-built for us. We are able to have similar output capacity with this setup, but we do have to run some of our stems in mono.

Now for our live elements: Jared plays a custom SJC drum kit with a kick, snare, hi-hat, rack tom, two floor toms, two crash cymbals, and a ride cymbal. He also has a Mainstage drum setup, triggered from an Alesis Control Pad USB control surface. (I will explain more about our Mainstage setups later.) With the live drum sample playing, we try to use sounds that are similar to some of the programmed hits in the recorded versions of the songs, but are also a bit different and unique.

On stage left, Jesse Cronan plays keyboards on a Mainstage rig, running a MOTU Ultralite-mk3 Hybrid interface. We send the outputs of the MOTU through a Radial ProD8 DI rack unit, all mounted into a carry-on-sized, wheeled rack unit. Mainstage, Apple Logic Pro’s live application, has been nothing short of revolutionary for our live show, and has opened a plethora of creative gates for me over the past few years. I produce our music in Logic, and with Mainstage I am able to directly transfer channel strips from our studio sessions to a live environment, thus letting us use those studio channels live, manipulating them onstage. This works especially well for sampling analog keyboards. I have a large amount of old and new keyboards in my studio that I use on our recordings. I can sample each key on the patch of a certain keyboard, cut up the recording and put those notes into Logic’s EXS24 sampler. I can then transfer that particular instance of EXS24 into my Mainstage session, and have a good re-creation of my studio keyboards onstage. Mainstage allows us so much flexibility when we tour; I can keep all of my keyboards at home, and instead operate all of our live keys through a laptop and MIDI keyboard controller. Some puritans might yell and hoot about this setup not being the “real thing” of touring with analog gear, but I challenge them to find a significant sound difference, and a more convenient, cost effective, and smart way of touring!
 
In addition to playing instances of EXS24 samplers in Mainstage, we also play soft synths like Native Instruments Massive and Reaktor, refx NEXUS 2, and Sylenth. Mainstage’s configuration lets us add effects to our channel strips directly from stage.
 
 Jesse also has a bass-rig setup on stage left. He plays a Gibson Thunderbird bass through an Aguilar AG500 head and an Aguilar 8x10 speaker cabinet. We usually DI his bass from a SansAmp DI, and DI the AG500 head, using the cabinet for stage volume.
 
On stage right, our guitarist, Marshall Gallagher, plays primarily Gibson SG guitars through an Orange Rockerverb 50 amplifier that has been modified, and a Mesa Boogie 4x12” straight-baffle, slant-speaker cabinet. He uses an Eventide Space pedal for reverb and delay effects. We have yet to create a MIDI routing system for guitar effects and amping; that will hopefully come in the future.
 
I play on stage right through another Mainstage rig, which is a mirror image of our stage-left rig, with a MOTU Ultralite-mk3 Hybrid interface, with a few more outputs and tricks. I play unique instances of the EXS24 sampler on the keyboard, with other soft synths. I have also played guitar through Mainstage; we have used Logic Amp Designer and Native Instruments Guitar Rig for my tones. I have a MIDI mouse footswitch hooked up to the interface for changing scenes in Mainstage, letting me change scenes without having to touch our computer. We also change patches in Mainstage via scroll buttons on our MIDI controllers. (We use AKAI MPK61s.) Marshall also plays keyboard on this stage-right rig for some songs, and we split those outputs down two distinct audio channels.
 
Sean and I have vocal output lines running from our wireless main vocal mics into the stage-left and stage-right Mainstage rigs; We use those lines to achieve live vocal effects and processing in Mainstage.
 
We both use Shure UR4D wireless microphone systems: UHFR handheld microphones with KSM9X hypercardioid capsules, which allow for better sound isolation onstage. WE each have another channel of wireless vocal system backups (with unique backup UHFR handheld microphones); these are combined into two Radial HotShot ABi pedals, to allow for an easy switch to the backup unit, should the main unit fail.
 
We split the outputs of those Radial HotShot ABi pedals, sending one dry line to our onstage mixing console and along the split through to the FOH mixing console. The other line goes to our Mainstage rigs. Those microphone lines go into the MOTU interface XLR inputs, and are recognized as input audio in Mainstage. We can then effect our vocals live, from stage. I use this a lot for “radio-voice” effects (Bell-EQ effects) and vocal distortions. I also control vocal delays live from stage, using automated faders on our AKAI controllers, controlling sends to delay and reverb buses in Mainstage. I will often sing a line, and slide a fader on the last word or phrase, boosting the send to the delay bus, thus catching delay tails on certain words and phrases. Doing live vocal effecting has really opened up a lot of sonic possibilities for our show. Sean and I have 4 channels of vocals each at FOH:

Dry (Main) Vocal: The (mono) dry line, sent straight to both the monitor and FOH console.

Mainstage Main Vocal: The (mono) effected, main vocal from Mainstage.

Mainstage Effected Vocals: The (stereo) effects channels from Mainstage. Many of the effects coming from Mainstage are stereo delays and reverbs. I treat our live vocals much like I treat vocals in our studio. Most of my reverb and delay (and some of my distortion) effects are set up as bus sends (thus being “additive” effects). The output of those stereo effects buses is represented in these stereo channels. Thus our FOH engineer can have delay and reverb effects on separate channels.

One of our show computer outputs is a sidechain kick, which is split and sent to our two Mainstage rigs. The kick input into Mainstage is set as the sidechain trigger input for the Vengeance Sound Multiband Sidechain2 plugin in our Mainstage sessions. The kick is tempo-matched to each song; this way, we are able to sidechain our keyboard sounds, live.
 
Ableton has proved itself to be a marvelous program for track-running, live. Here are some tips that might be helpful:

Be careful of the state of firewire cables connected to your interfaces. We had had trouble with faulty cables. (They just went bad after a while, for no apparent reason.) The MOTU interfaces would become unrecognized by the computer, and would stop playback when this happened. Carry a lot of extra data cables and replace them often.

Tempo is crucial. Make sure that everything is locked-in, tempo-wise, when you are editing, building, or making changes to your sessions. There is nothing worse than being caught off-guard and finding yourself onstage with a click that is drifting from the tempo of the audio tracks running live. I have been keeping all of our song tempos true to their original tempo, with the exception of a couple remixes I have done for a live show. I find that I can hear time stretching, and it annoys me and really degrades the quality of the sound. Even a program like Ableton (which is so efficient and good at time-stretching) has its limits.

Save often. I think this is the mantra for working in any creative program, from Microsoft Word to Logic, but it is especially important for live sessions. I have an extensive backup system for both our Ableton sessions and our Mainstage sessions, and I back those up every single time I make a change to any of those sessions.

General Tips
MOTU interfaces seem to work well for us, for both our track-running computers, and our Mainstage rigs. The Ultralites we use for our Mainstage interfaces are small and very light, and have a lot of I/O. (We use two in our fly-date rack for track running.) Be careful, however, to always plug these in with their own power supplies (they can be bus powered); they are prone to crashing when powered off their firewire ports.
 
We use Apple laptops for all of our stage computers. Since we travel so much, and have to adapt from fly-date tours and bus tours, we need our computers to be mobile and portable. We have a carry-on-size Pelican case that can fit four of our laptops, so we have the same computers with us at every show we do. Some larger bands use desktop computers for their track-running machines, which may (at least theoretically) be a bit more stable than laptops. We didn’t want to deal with freighting costs of carrying those large machines and their cases, and our system has worked out very well. There are a couple elements in our laptops that help make them very stable in a rough touring environment: All of our laptops have solid-state hard drives, rather than serial drives. Solid-state drives don’t spin like serial drives do, and generate less internal heat. This can be really advantageous for touring, when venues and outdoor festivals are sometimes exceedingly hot and humid. Additionally, we make sure that our laptops are maxed out in terms of internal RAM (currently 8GB) and processing speed. We are theoretically able to run our Mainstage computers in 64-bit mode, using that extra RAM. We keep our computers as clean as possible—both virtually, in terms of software installations, and physically, cleaning and blowing air through them often. Additionally, we keep our sessions on the laptop internal hard drive, rather than running anything off an external drive. (We back everything up on an external drive.)
 
We run live tracks off of the optical outputs of the MOTU 828 interfaces, and convert them to an analog signal using Aphex 141 D/A converters, before sending them via DB-25 cables to our Radial SW8 units. Doing this allows us to use minimal cabling in our rack (DB-25 vs. 1/4”) and keeps things a bit cleaner and more secure. This also avoids a voltage difference between the interfaces and the Radial SW8 units, which can create an audible popping noise.
 
Carry a backup drive with all of your backup sessions, and really anything that could be important or helpful to your live show. My backup drive (a small 1TB drive) has everything from set list notes, to production and preproduction notes, to tempo information, to stage plots, to .dmg files for installation.
 
Always have a backup plan for everything. The nature of running tracks live opens your live show up for problems. As you continue to grow and include more tricks and inputs, chances for problems grow exponentially. Have a good plan for anything that can go wrong onstage.
 
I really like our AKAI MPK MIDI controllers; they have done very well flying with us, withstanding the damage that airlines seem to take great pleasure in inflicting. They are also extremely versatile for our purposes. I use the 16 pads and 4 banks to control an EXS24 instance loaded with drum samples, thus having an “MPC-like” instrument available at all times. I find this allows for a lot of improvisation at shows, and keeps it fun for me, and hopefully for the crowd. I run that line through a delay bus in Mainstage, and I have assigned the delay and feedback parameters of the plugin to faders on the MPK61.

Some things we’re excited to work on for our future live shows:
Guitar tones and manipulation. I love the idea of exploring more with Mainstage and Native Instrument’s “Guitar Rig” for live shows. The control and options that they present are impressive. Eventually it would also be interesting to MIDI control all of our outboard pedals and effects, perhaps remotely, offstage.

Track playback and live glitching. I have always been reticent to break the one-way flow of information from the computer that runs our tracks, live, but the potential for improvisation and live remixing is pretty interesting. Now, our show computers run one-way. A lot of electronic acts, from DJs to live bands, run MIDI information to their track computers, using two-way communication and manipulating tracks. Now that we have our Radial SW8 backup system in place, I would feel more comfortable exploring this concept.

Expanding our instrumentation. Obviously, it would be nice to be able to perform our whole record completely live. As we sometimes use upwards of 300 to 350 tracks in our studio recordings, that scenario is essentially impossible for us, but the possibility of continuing to make things a bit more “live” is an attractive one. Budget limitations being what they are, we’ll see how we evolve in the coming years.

 
 
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