Audio Media February 2007
THE SOUND OF THE CROWD
Once they ruled the airwaves; today they’re still taking stages by storm. JONATHAN MILLER talks to the key tour personnel charged with bringing The Human League’s still-recognisable synth sound to the fare-paying faithful.
Think The Human League and some merciless souls might mock, but – asymmetrical haircuts and dodgy disco dancing apart – Britain’s first all-synth group are arguably responsible for some of pop’s finest musical
moments. 1981’s chart-topping perennial favourite, Don’t You Want Me sold over 1,430,000 copies in the UK alone, making it the 25th biggestselling single of all time. It later shifted another million copies to secure the coveted US number one spot during the following year, cementing their success as the first synth-pop act to make it big internationally, (beating fellow British synth-poppers Depeche Mode to the punch by several years).
The Human League also won Best Newcomers at the 1982 Brit Awards, despite being formed five years earlier by computer operators Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh and hospital porter Philip Oakey with the following – some might say pretentious – words: “Manifesto: in the summer of 1977 The Human League was formed due to the members finding no conventional channel for their immense talents. Background: none of The Human League has any orthodox musical training, but prefer to regard compositions as an extension of logic, inspiration, and luck. Conclusion: interested in combining the best of all worlds, the League would like to positively affect the future by paying close attention to the present, allying technology with humanity, and humour.”
That they did, but not before Ware and Marsh split to form synth-funksters Heaven 17 (with Ware later going on to forge a name for himself as a successful record producer), leaving Oakey to infamously recruit two disco-dancing schoolgirls to help fill the reduced ranks of his critically-acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful synthesizer group. The rest is history with Phil and the girls going on to become a regular fixture on Top Of The Pops, aided initially by the production talents of Martin Rushent. Indeed, when remastering the League’s Rushent produced classic chart-topping Dare for its ‘21st Anniversary Edition’ in 2002 at his Devonshire-based Super Audio Mastering facility, Simon Heyworth compassionately called this album seminal, “...because when it was originally released everyone was amazed at the clarity of the recording and separation of the instrumentation and simplicity of the musical arrangements. For its time it was a unique insight into the ‘new technologies’ for making records... Dare is a brilliant album, with beautiful sound.”
Truth be told, Dare has proved to be something of an albatross for The Human League, who have struggled to sustain consistent (recording) success since the Nineties -– despite the freedom afforded by owning their own well-stocked studio facility in Sheffield. Yet the trio of Oakey, Susan Anne Sulley, and Joanne Catherall have remained fiercely loyal to each other, to the group, and to their industrial hometown.
Soundtrack To A Generation
On record, at least, the League’s widely predicted new millennial bigtime comeback never happened; 2001’s Secrets – boasting an eyecatching cover cleverly borrowing from Dare, itself inspired by the iconic Vogue magazine –effectively crashed and burned with the untimely demise of Chrysalis offshoot Papillion, dashing any hopes the group might secretly have been harbouring of
matching the heady highs of its 1981 breakthrough – despite promising press reviews from the likes ofThe Guardian - “...simply brilliant,” The Sunday Times, Uncut, and Q.
No matter. The Human League has since proved to be a class stage act, recently completing their fifth pre-Christmas UK tour in as many years. Monitor Sound Engineer Bob Lopez, a venerable veteran of such annual outings, sees their situation like this: “In this day and age, to still be able to do that every year – and still have a following – is quite something.”
Indeed, it is – though rumour has it that the group has since retreated to their Sheffield studio with a view to recording their first new material in several years. Watch this space...
Meanwhile, some 2000 supporters spanning the age range packed out London’s Shepherds Bush Empire on December 1, 2006 to watch the mighty League – still ranked the UK’s 134th bestselling singles act – work their way through a set list featuring no fewer than 13 hits, including, of course, the biggest one of them all (Don’t You Want Me). And very enjoyable it was, too. But wait for it... there were guitars! Well, kind of...
Yet this was no nostalgia trip on a budget. From the moment the semi-transparent white drapes dropped midway through Love Action (I Believe In Love) to reveal an imaginative white stage set – powder-coated white master keyboards, stands, and racks all – resembling a scaled-down futuristic Greek amphitheatre bathed in sinister synchronised red lighting it became immediately apparent that this groundbreaking group knows how to put on a captivating show. So they should, being a year shy of their 30th anniversary, after all. Speaking of which, a shaven-headed, svelte, 52-year-old Oakey even donned a vintage Moog Liberation strap-on synth for the first encore, a rousing rendition of the 1979 pre-poppy, punkystyle Human League classic Empire State Human, replete with all the ballsy burbles and squelchy squeaks that an analogue anorak could wish for – a knowing nod to the past for those in the know, perhaps?
Synths R Us
Unusually, in an age where such supportive folk are more often than not hidden away offstage – or even under the stage (as was the case on U2’s Vertigo tour – see Audio Media, January 2006), centre stage stands David Beevers, the group’s programmer-cum-studio engineer of some 20 years standing, steering the trademark Human League synthesized backing from two ageing Apple iBook G3 laptops (running MOTU Digital Performer 4) atop two racks of identical hardware. Reliability is the order of the day here – hence the tried-and-tested rack-mounted Akai S3000 samplers, E-mu Orbit and Vintage Keys sample replay modules, plus Novation Supernova and Roland JV-1080 digital synths, as opposed to their increasingly ubiquitous software counterparts. “All they’re doing is just playing a few sequence lines – and always the bass drum,” proffers the always-amiable Beevers by way of an opening explanation, before adding: “It’s robust and it works. I had a couple of bad experiences, one of which was terrible – we had an hour show, and were offstage for 20 minutes, because both systems had gone; and I used to carry
both systems, and a RADAR, then I was on to an Apple iPod – ‘System D’! So I rebuilt everything. You can get automated audio-switching, which is based on relays, but it’s another layer of electronics, and if that goes down where are we? I built an interface box instead. Both systems are live, connected all the time, so if one goes down it’s just a case of starting the other one, and away we go.”
Sounds sensible; yet, contrary to popular belief – and in keeping with their aforementioned arty manifesto, The Human League has always been about performance. Back in the day, Ian Craig Marsh wasn’t averse to rhythmically riding an analogue Roland System 100 modular synth’s fader to create a track’s Model 104 Sequencer-driven bass and snare drum on the fly. No need today.
For the 2006 tour Oakey enlisted the services of talented multi-instrumentalists Neil Sutton (keyboards), Nick Burke (keyboards), and Rob Barton (percussion). Back to Beevers: “ The electronic drum kit is all based around [Roland] V-Drums. Rob’s a great drummer, and he comes to us because he’s got electronic drums experience as well – in fact, he can play bloody everything! Actually, him and Nick both play drums; they both do keyboards, guitars, bass – it’s only me that’s useless!”
Despite around 50 synths and expanders listed as being stationed in The Human League’s Sheffield studio in the mid-nineties, merely two customised
(white) Roland D-70 Super LA Synthesizers – inpurely keyboard controlling capacities, mind you – and AX1 strap-on remote MIDI controllers (with Kenton MIDI Stream) grace the Shepherds Bush stage this time around. Continues Beevers: “I actually handle all the keyboard splits and synths, and all the guys have got to know – in any given song – is that when they play a certain part of the keyboard the sound is there.”
Simplicity itself – to a seasoned programming pro like Beevers, who readily volunteers the following modus operandi for his increasingly regular League live work (including a relatively recent summer show at the legendary Hollywood Bowl, headlining to an audience of 14,000): “As I start programming the tracks I listen to old recorded material, trying to replicate old synths to the best of my ability. I work on an 02R in Sheffield, and the idea is that I try to get everything set to zero, because, even though we’ve got PM5Ds on monitors and front of house – Kev’s fantastic, and so is Bob, there’re always little tweaks that need doing.”
The Song Remains The Same
Here Beevers is partly praising FOH Sound Engineer Kevin Pruce, another (five-year) freelancing League old hand, who specified the 2006 tour’s rider with Wigwam Hire, including those aforementioned Yamaha PM5D digital consoles. “Small and programmable, because, being a synth band with different levels and sounds, I can have a scene for each song, which makes it easy to recall, and, hopefully, get it spot-on each time, rather than having to juggle faders, and all that nonsense,” he reasons, rightly enough.
Pruce is also attracted to the PM5D’s timesaving offline editing abilities, noting: “This is the third Human League tour on which I’ve had this particular console; the input list hasn’t particularly changed in that time – we’ve added a few little bits and pieces, so obviously I can draw upon last year’s [Synth City] tour and just amend it slightly. I have it on the laptop so I can do offline editing
and stuff. It’s a good tool to have.”
Any suggestion of mixing a ‘traditional’ synth act like The Human League differently to a typical guitar, bass, and drums combo on that trusty Yamaha PM5D doesn’t really wash with Pruce. “Obviously it throws up different issues,” he concedes. “You don’t have to worry about mic’ing a drum kit up – which mics you’re going to use, and all that nonsense, but, no, I don’t really approach
it any differently.”
A good sound is a good sound, regardless of how it is made. But what about those guitars that sees The Human League straying dangerously into rockier territory on occasion with numbers likeThe Lebanon? Don’t they ever throw up any surprises into an otherwise synth-heavy mix for Pruce? “No, they have a [Roland GM70] guitar synth that runs through a [Tech 21] SansAmp onstage and gives a guitar-like sound, and then there’s a bass guitar synth up there, which Nick plays on a Roland [GR33B Bass Controller] – some old analogue
thing, but they’re more visual techniques. You could, obviously, program that, but visually it’s much better, because it’s much more interesting to see someone doing it.”
Returning to the tour rider theme: “It’s always based on the venues, so the right tools for the tour, rather than what’s flavour of the month,” notes Pruce. “We’re playing a mixture of venues, so we’re carrying a d&b [audioteknik] C4-TOP system – the little boxes, which you can stack on the floor, so it’s much more versatile for these sorts of places. Line arrays are too fixed, and wouldn’t work in a lot of venues, so I’ve steered away from that and gone for the d&b system.”
That said, those flexible - sounding d&bs stayed tucked up tight on the truck at Shepherds Bush, leaving Pruce to wrestle with a more ‘mature’ house system: “EAW 850s, which have been in here for donkey’s years, but
it’s a fixed installation, so it seems silly to take it out – and a lot of work, too! It’s difficult to get it to sound even, but a lot of that is down to the nature of the building, because you’ve got balconies and different areas to contend with.
The further up you go, the less low end you get – obviously, you get a lot of low end punch on the floor, but you can’t replicate that through all the balconies.”
A different kettle of fish to last night’s show at Manchester’s larger Apollo, presumably? Pruce: “The main difference is obviously the PA, so I’ve tried to EQ this to match it – might be able to get close to it here at the mix position, but when I walk around it will be slightly different.”
A wireless tablet certainly helps in that regard, as Pruce confirms: “I’m using it purely as an EQ input device, so I run it into a Lake Contour [Digital Loudspeaker Processor] – the d&b system processing being done in the amplifiers, which means I can divide the system up into flyer, ground, in-fill, subs, and EQ and time align them all from here. Then I can walk up in the balconies and turn things on and off, which is helpful. Hopefully, the songs and the show sound the same.”
Quality vocals - or lack thereof - can, of course, make or break any song-based show, and The Human League’s is no exception to this, the number one unwritten rule of (live) pop. Back behind the FOH-positioned PM5D, Pruce lets loose with an array of outboard from the likes of Tube- Tech – MMC 1A Microphone Amplifier & Multiband Compressor, anyone? – and various Focusrites in pursuit of presenting Oakey’s distinctive baritone – backed by Catherall and Sulley (singing lead vocal on the sugar-sweet One Man In My Heart) - in the best possible light.
Responsibility for getting those vocals to the performers themselves – and, in turn, directly determining the performance – rests firmly on monitor man Lopez’s broad shoulders: “I run the upstage monitors and the side-fills, and have to be very careful of the girls’ ears as the side-fills come and go over different distances in different venues; so I just keep them on a VCA group, and drive them according to the venue’s size. Last night we were pretty loud in Manchester, so we had the volume up a little louder – possibly 4dB more all around, whereas today, here at Shepherds Bush, we’ve brought it down.”
Lopez continues: “For the vocals we’ve got the new Shure [UHFR Wireless Microphone] system – really easy to use, and so much better than the older system. With this one you’ve got the outputs on the microphone, which you can attenuate, and you’ve also got a gain control on the unit at the front – lovely.”
Interestingly, it transpires that lead vocalist Oakey was late in joining the IEM masses. “Philip’s got an in-ear system, which I started him on,” discloses Lopez. “He had a lot of problems when I first started with the band: because he was using floor monitor speakers, he was loosing his voice every two shows, and it came to a point where we were having to pull shows, because he couldn’t sing anymore.
“He didn’t initially want to go onto in-ears at all – totally against it, coming from an era of hearing stuff coming out of the floor. I had to wean him onto them, so that took a bit of doing over a period of a couple of weeks, but now he loves them! The main thing is he doesn’t loose his voice anymore, and we all get to carry on working!”
And judging from the success of their 11-date jaunt around the UK – immediately followed by several shows in Ireland, then flying visits to Belgium and Holland – before taking a well-earned Christmas break, so will The Human League.
Same time, same place next year? More than likely – possibly with another hit album in tow.