Foo Fighters rock out live with Lectrosonics: "there’s just no fatigue"

Foo Fighters are one of the biggest bands in modern rock, which in turn translates to some spectacularly large arena shows. All of this pressure presents no fears to monitor engineer Ian Beveridge and RF technician Eiran Simpson, who keep the band’s ears happy with systems built around the Lectrosonics M2 Duet system, as Headliner discovers…

That’s not to say the pair have never experienced any technical hiccups during Foo Fighters’ live shows.

“Foo Fighters were playing Manchester Cricket Grounds, which is a huge venue, something like 60,000 capacity,” recalls Beveridge. “We were headlining, the previous band finished, and we were doing a set change. It was typical British weather – lots of rain – and all this water had pooled in the roof above the left wing of the stage. The roof collapsed and maybe 50 gallons of water hit the monitor console, which was a Yamaha PM5D at the time.

“The resulting digital noise was the loudest, most obnoxious thing I’ve ever heard — so bad that everyone’s fight-or-flight reflex kicked in. This was 10 minutes before the band was supposed to go on,” he shudders. “Dave Poynter, the monitor tech, was aware that the previous band had the same console, God love him. We borrowed their console, wired it up channel for channel, loaded a file into it and the band went onstage!”

Given the size of the venues the Foo Fighters play, range is a paramount concern, or rather would be if the M2 system wasn’t so tenacious. “With just the one antenna and M2C coupler covering the band, we did a pre-production show at Shoreline Amphitheatre in California,” says Beveridge. “The transmitters ran on just 10 milliwatts [output power]. Eiran could walk to the very back fence of the venue, and the system still worked perfectly. I prefer this because systems that rely on excessive output power tend to raise the noise floor.”

Simpson adds that thanks to the full-spectrum capability offered by the digital nature of the M2 system, he has one less headache: “Because they’re wideband, the transmitters and receivers are especially suited to high-RF environments and extensive touring. They cover the full legal range of possible frequencies around the world, which is important as demand for wireless range increases while available spectrum decreases.”

“Every band member has a tech, and every tech has a mix, fed from stereo subgroups on the monitor console,” Beveridge elaborates. “I get every tech to have a duplicate of their band member’s mix, which is Y-split from the same stereo pair but into a separate transmitter-receiver chain.

Chris Shiflett specifically commented on how they sounded amazing during production rehearsals.

“If the artist has any trouble, the tech can just hand over their belt pack. Plus, it’s just plain good that techs are hearing exactly what the artists hear. A lot of techs want to hear just their artist’s voice or instrument, just the guitar, whatever, then a tiny bit of the rest of the band. But if you’re hearing what the artist is hearing, it’s much easier to ascertain, for example, if someone has gone out of tune — and who that is.”

Since Lectrosonics is chiefly known for dialogue work in film and TV production, Beveridge and Simpson addressed the brand’s audio quality for mixing heavy rock music, especially the dense mix that Foo Fighters dish out.

“The Lectros sound better than anything else, and I’m not just talking about frequency response,” Beveridge stresses. “The big thing about mixing a band with three distorted guitars is, you need to position them spatially. If I pan two in the middle of any mix, unless they’re tonally completely different, it’s going to sound like one big guitar.

“The M2 system provides a wider stereo picture to work within than any other wireless I’ve ever used. Unlike other IEMs, there’s also no residual sound in the opposite earpiece when you’ve panned something hard to one side or the other. It also means that when you add a bit of reverb or harmonizer to a vocal, it sounds big. That is a godsend for a mixing engineer.”

With the M2 system, there’s a lowpass filter that cuts in to save the artist’s ears. “So, it’ll work perfectly unless there’s a real RF problem, at which point the listener’s pack will just go silent,” explains Beveridge.

In terms of range on stage, the team are only needing to use a minimal setup: “Right now, we just need one M2C combiner and one antenna to cover the band,” Beveridge continues. “I find that if we have clean channels, we only need to run the M2Ts at 10 milliwatts. I prefer this because outputting at higher power levels can raise the noise floor no matter what wireless gear you’re using.”

“To do so, you do need to pay attention to antenna placement, both to get a good line-of-sight with the band and to minimise reflections from things like the giant video wall, which can cause problems,” points out Simpson. “The antenna goes about three metres in the air. That said, we have experimented with higher power output and got surprisingly good results!

“Foo Fighters do at least a two-hour show every night,” he adds. “And when you wear in-ears for that long, after taking them out you usually need some time to re-adjust to natural sounds. But with the Lectro packs, there’s just no fatigue like that. You can take them out and immediately have a conversation. There’s just no sonic aggression there at all. I also agree with Ian about the stereo imaging. We have a busy in-ear mix so it’s nice to have such a big box to work within.”

If you’re hearing what the artist is hearing, it’s much easier to ascertain if someone has gone out of tune.

In an RF-saturated environment like the large stadiums Foo Fighters play, the Lectrosonics equipment needs to find and hold onto clean frequencies:

“Range is especially dependent on the cleanliness of the carrier frequency in a digital system,” nods Beveridge.

“Also, on a digital system, the actual carrier is wider,” adds Simpson. “If you look at it on a scanner, there’s not a distinct peak at the middle of the frequency band. It’s about 200 kHz wide, and Lectrosonics recommends at least 400 kHz of spacing between channels. But we’ve had a couple of nightmare gigs where there’s digital TV signal everywhere — Sao Paulo, Brazil is maybe the worst — and I’ve managed to get them working with as little as 325 kHz between them.

“I should also mention that because they’re wideband, the transmitters and receivers are especially suited to high-RF environments and extensive touring, because they cover the full legal range of possible frequencies around the world.”

The band agrees with their engineers’ assessment on Lectrosonics: “Chris Shiflett, the guitarist, specifically commented on how they sounded amazing during production rehearsals,” smiles Simpson. “Even to the point of saying he would never go back to what we were using before.”