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Q&A with FOH Engineer Martin Walker: On the Road with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden

  • Q&A with FOH Engineer Martin Walker: On the Road with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden
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April 21, 2016

The only real variables [on tour] are the PA system and the venue itself. And if I can eliminate one of those by using the same family of PA system, that's one more step ahead. Of course, the best tour in the world would be to not tour at all, and stay in the same venue with the same system.”

Martin WalkerFOH Engineer, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden

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British metal legends Judas Priest have relied on the skills of FOH engineer and production manager Martin Walker for over 15 years of world tours. Having just wrapped the band’s latest run of shows with Meyer Sound’s LEO Family of line array loudspeakers, Walker is now circling the globe with Iron Maiden‘s “Book of Souls World Tour,” where again the LEO Family is his system of choice. In this Q&A, Walker discusses the challenges of mixing Judas Priest over the years in different settings with changing variables and restrictions, the power of linear sound, and his experience working with the LEO Family.

Q: What’s changed in the years you’ve been with Judas Priest?

Walker: I’ve been through the years when we didn’t always carry our own desk, so I had to fit in with whatever was provided. Now I’m able to carry whatever I want at FOH with me. A few years back we went through the analog to digital desk change, and now we’re at the point where we own a lot more front-end gear. We rent desks for the tour for monitors and FOH, and if it’s a full-production tour in Europe or America, we’ll also carry a full PA. But when it’s a festival or a fly-around tour, we pick up local racks and stacks.

So in some ways it’s changed enormously, but as for stepping up to the desk and dealing with it, it’s pretty much the same thing as 16 years ago.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in mixing Judas Priest?

Walker: The biggest challenge is always the room you’re working in. If I do have a bad night, it’s never the band or the PA, it’s just that we’re in a bad room, or at an outdoor festival where the rain and the wind are coming in at 45 degrees—all things I can do nothing about.

We have two lead guitarists who trade solos and do twin guitar solos, so I do need to make sure each one of those wiggly-wiggly notes is heard clearly. Also, Rob [Halford] has a lot of effects on his vocals, including some pitch change harmonizing for devilish voice sounds, as well as loads of vocal delay effects.

Q: After you get everything on stage and at FOH under control, how do you deal with the variables beyond that point, like the PA systems?

Walker: Over the years I’ve learned my favorite and least favorite systems, and I lean as heavily as possible toward my favorites. Some promoters will play ball with you and get you exactly what you want, others will not. Some shows are in territories where what you want is not readily available, so you learn to be flexible and deal with what you’re given.

But I’ve always had favorite systems, ones that seem to work well in any given situation and with any genre of music. I’ve found myself drawn to Meyer Sound as of late, particularly the LEO Family. For me, that’s where it’s at right now.

Q: When did you start leaning toward Meyer Sound?

Walker: It started about seven or eight years ago. I was working with Major Tom, who moved onto MILO systems, so by natural progression I ended up taking out MILO and really liked it—you need ample headroom with Judas Priest, and MILO gave me that. And then when LEO came out, it was a great leap forward. Now there were no more red lights, nobody looking over my shoulder to say I’m low on headroom. It gives me that great full, rich, hi-fi sound.

Judas Priest recently played much smaller venues around the UK with a LEOPARD system, which was just phenomenal. Before the first show, I looked at the tiny hang of small boxes and wondered if it was enough, then the band walked on and started playing, and I forgot all about the size of the box.

All the new technology packed into LEOPARD is great, but in the end you have to forget what’s inside it and just use your ears. Does it sound good? Is it distorting? Can I hear everything that’s going on? Okay, great. Now, is it loud as well? If yes, then you have a winner, as we did with LEOPARD. At the end of the day it’s full, crystal clear, and very loud.

Q: How large was the biggest hall on the last Judas Priest tour?

Walker: The biggest was the 5,000-capacity O2 Academy Brixton in London, and LEOPARD covered the balcony and floor just fine. The weight you could hang was limited there, so with a heavier PA you would have a problem flying enough boxes and maybe not cover top to bottom. LEOPARD is so light that we could hang 16 per side, which meant we didn’t have to open the angles as much to cover our entire vertical, so we had the coupling you needed to put the dBs out there.

I used one 900‑LFC [low-frequency control element] per side at the top of the arrays to reach the back, and three 1100-LFCs per side, and I didn’t even hit any orange lights, much less red lights. Regardless, the kick drum was pounding at the back of the hall.

Q: How do you deal with local noise ordinances? Are there tricks to making the band seem louder than what shows on the dB meter?

Walker: The real question always is, “Am I feeling the gig?” There’s a certain level I need to get to in order to feel it, in order to get into it. But that’s not always over the noise limit that may apply in each country.

One of my tricks is to get the subs as loud as possible, so that you’re feeling the low end just as much as you’re hearing it—enough to make your chest move and your trousers flap. Once I’ve got that feel, what I put over the top of that doesn’t have to be that loud, as long as it balances properly. It gives that sense of apparent loudness.

Q: Can the noise limits sometimes alter the way you have to mix a show?

Walker: Yes, they can. The most restrictive regulations now are in France and Switzerland—I think Switzerland works around 100 dB A-weighted. That’s the limit, live real time. But sometimes the band is more than 100 dB coming off the stage.

At that point it really becomes a matter of sound reinforcement. I listen to what comes off the stage, ask myself what I can’t hear clearly, what is too far back in the mix, and then give that a boost. It might not be very long after vocals, hi-hat, and maybe some snare or kick when I say, “Now I can hear everything fine.”

Q: Are Meyer Sound systems helpful in that scenario, even when you don’t need all the headroom?

Walker: Meyer Sound’s linearity certainly helps when I have to blend in my stage sound with my PA sound and don’t want the PA coloring the sound. I don’t want to have to work to get the PA to sound like the stage.

Q: Is it helpful to have that consistency within the LEO Family?

Walker: Yes, it certainly makes life easier. For example, with a digital desk, you can recall a show with the push of a button. When I walk into a theatre, an arena, or a flat festival field, I can remember the last gig I did like this where I was happy, and load that into my digital desk. And if I remember it was a LEO system, it gives me a great starting point.

I have a great consistency with the band and carry the same desk, so the only real variables are the PA system and the venue itself. And if I can eliminate one of those by using the same family of PA system, that’s one more step ahead. Of course, the best tour in the world would be to not tour at all, and stay in the same venue with the same system. That’s what they do in Las Vegas, and those residency shows are some of the best you’ll see and hear.

Q: Switching from LEO and LYON to LEOPARD, were you confident you would still have that familiarity?

Walker: Yes, although I admit I was a bit nervous about it at first, as Judas Priest is a loud band with a big sound, and people have said you can’t get that big sound out of a small box. But that isn’t true anymore, and LEOPARD proves the point. After the first show with LEOPARD, I had no reservations. I knew it would be absolutely fine, even for the largest halls.

It’s only when you look at LEOPARD that you start to wonder if it’s enough for the job. But when you hear it, those doubts go out the window.

Q: While Judas Priest is taking a breather, you’re out with Iron Maiden. How long have worked with them?

Walker: This is my fourth tour with them, starting back in 2012. It’s a LEO Family rig for at least the US dates when we’re carrying full production, and we’re looking at doing the same for Europe. For other dates we will have to rely on local suppliers. LEO is on our rider as first choice, so it will be LEO wherever possible.

Q: Are there any differences in mixing Iron Maiden as compared to Judas Priest?

Walker: Yes and no. I apply the same principles to the mix. Each band presents different challenges, though I would have to say that Iron Maiden can be more difficult to balance. They have three guitars, vocals, and occasional keyboards all vying for the same frequency bands in the mix. It’s a situation where LEO’s clarity and headroom help out a great deal.

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